Legacies, rivalries and pure, unadulterated hatred. Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick. If the NFL were constructing a best-case scenario for how its 2013 season would end during the preseason, it would involve these four teams.
And what Roger Goodell wants he gets, I guess. There is no outlier this year, no Baltimore Ravens hanging out to play spoiler. The four teams given the best odds to win the Super Bowl during the preseason have advanced to the conference championship games and it's hard to argue there could have been any better combination.
A Peyton Manning-helmed team has faced a Tom Brady-helmed team 14 times. The game has been decided by more than 10 points in just four of those contests. Six of the last seven of those contests have been one-score affairs, including New England's overtime victory earlier this season.
On the other side, the Seahawks and 49ers are division rivals in the most classic sense. There is no love lost, none gained between these two sides and never has a game between the two NFC West foes meant more. San Francisco is looking to return to the Super Bowl for the second straight season, while Seattle's home-field reputation is on the line.
To put it another way. Dis gon b gud.
With that in mind, let's check in with a preview of both contests 24 hours out.
New England Patriots at Denver Broncos
When: Sunday, Jan. 19 at 3 p.m. ET
Where: Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver
Stream: CBS Sports
This is the one we've all been waiting for. Or at least the one all of our great aunts, who have affinities for Papa John's spokespeople and quarterbacks moonlighting as models, have been waiting for. If the NFL somehow realigned during the playoffs, Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning would be the Super Bowl the league hoped for every year. It's the most public of public contests between arguably the two most famous football players on the planet.
Because of that, we receive a whole heaping pile of stupid. National sports networks—not naming any names—have given us every overwrought angle on the Manning-Brady storyline that we would kindly like to ignore it.
Except what else am I supposed to watch, MTV? And how dare you tell me to not watch my seventh iteration today of famous sports-news program that shall not be named? Blasphemy!
If you can get over the inanity of it all, though, there is plenty of mineable content here.
This is a game that will help define Peyton Manning's legacy one way or another—like it or not. This is a game where Tom Brady and Bill Belichick can go down as the greatest winners in league history—like it or not. Despite the noted desire to throw a whole heaping pile of snarky snark on proceedings, this matchup is special.
As for the actual football part of proceedings, that shouldn't be all that shabby, either.
Denver and New England come into this game better resembling a MASH unit than football team. Von Miller. Rob Gronkowski. Vince Wilfork. Chris Harris. Jerod Mayo. Ryan Clady. All out with injuries, and those are only some of the regular contributors. These teams barely resemble the ones they expected to take into the playoffs in September and each of those absences could play a major factor in the outcome on Sunday.
The proliferation of injured Patriots defenders is only going to exacerbate the effectiveness of the most explosive offense in NFL history. You know the records by now, so no need for a rehash, but one has a hard time seeing New England competing if it can't score somewhere in the mid-30s.
Manning's vaunted passing attack is one of the few areas mostly unaffected by injuries, with Wes Welker's return last week giving him a full array of pass-catching talent. Welker, Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas and Eric Decker give Manning four very solid options on each play, and it goes without saying that Manning is perhaps the best ever at finding holes pre-snap and hitting the right guy.
Aqib Talib had an excellent season and will probably be suctioned to cover wide receiver Thomas all game, but New England's remaining secondary is either totally suspect (looking at you, Kyle Arrington) or mostly in that replacement-level range.
The Patriots had the No. 14 DVOA against the pass for the season, but they dropped to 24th in the second half of the season, per Football Outsiders' premium database.
And that's not mentioning any of New England's struggles stopping the run post-Wilfork. Dont'a Hightower has done a solid enough job working as a Mayo facsimile in recent weeks, but this was a roster built around the assumption it'd have one of the best handful of defensive tackles in the league anchoring the middle. Belichick has tried different alignments, but Montee Ball and Knowshon Moreno shouldn't face much resistance.
Then again, neither should LeGarrette Blount. The bruising back, cast off to New England for flotsam during the offseason, has combined for 355 yards and six touchdowns over the past two weeks, taking over for Brady as the focal point of the offense. Indianapolis tried everything short of bringing Little League bats out on the field, and Blount just kept churning through arm tackles.
Denver was stellar against the run for most of the season. Jack Del Rio's unit finished ninth in run defense DVOA and wasn't discernibly worse in the first or second half of the season. The Chargers managed just 65 yards on 18 carries last week, the fourth time in five games Denver has allowed fewer than 100 yards on the ground.
The Patriots' chances come down to Brady and his shaky corp of receivers. Period. The absences of Harris and Rahim Moore make an already suspect secondary an active minus, and Brady had a ton of success in the teams' first matchup. Gronkowski was on the field, granted, but Brady should be able to exploit Denver underneath.
If not, we might as well give the Narrative Bowl to Manning now.
San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks
When: Sunday, Jan. 19 at 6:30 p.m. ET
Where: CenturyLink Field in Seattle
Stream: Fox Sports Go
Let us make something clear: This is the best rivalry in football. Throw a shoe at anyone who says otherwise. No, really. I would like you to start a group texting chain with all of your friends, ask them what they think the best rivalry in the NFL currently is and then throw a shoe at anyone who doesn't say Seattle-San Francisco.
If you have to drive cross-country, don't worry. I'll wait. Back? OK, cool. Thank you for your service to this cause.
The Seahawks and 49ers are not only arguably the two best teams in football right now and heated division rivals, but their coaches even dislike each other. Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll have bad blood dating back to their Pac-12 days, highlighted by the now-infamous "what's your deal?" moment following Harbaugh's Stanford upsetting Carroll's USC.
Being the football coaches they are, though, both parties deny any sort of rivalry or disdain for one another.
“Animosity? No. Erroneous. Erroneous. It’s football. It’s competition. It’s winning,” Harbaugh said, per Michael David Smith of Pro Football Talk. “Football. Competition. Winning. That’s the sport. That’s what we’ve had, great competition.”
Carroll has expressed a similar sentiment, saying he has "great respect" for Harbaugh as a football coach this week, per John Boyle of HeraldNet.
Now whether you believe that for a second (I do not) or not is irrelevant. The Carroll-Harbaugh storyline is just one of many that may help define this rivalry now and well into the future. Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson are two of the league's best young quarterbacks. Both teams boast their own, unique defensive identities that have helped turn a former laughingstock division into an absolute gauntlet.
It's best to start this matchup talking about the two quarterbacks, because their postseasons couldn't have been any different thus far.
Kaepernick, again, has used the month of January as a pulpit to tease fans with what he could become. After giving the Packers a right backhand for the third time in a calendar year during the Wild Card Round, Kaepernick came out and did exactly what he needed to against a stellar Panthers defense.
His 196 yards on 15-of-28 isn't going to set the world on fire but it's what he didn't do that was more important: turn the ball over. Where Cam Newton threw two interceptions that proved critical, Kaepernick took care of the ball against the league's hottest defense and accounted for both of San Francisco's touchdowns. With Anquan Boldin taking his youth serum for the second straight postseason, the holes in the 49ers' two-way force are shrinking.
Wilson, on the other hand, is now sitting at more than a month of underwhelming play. He's thrown for fewer than 200 yards in four of his last five games dating back to the Seahawks' loss in San Francisco on Dec. 8. In exactly zero of those games did Wilson have a QBR over 50. To put that in clearer terms, Wilson has essentially been Christian Ponder since before Christmas.
Marshawn Lynch bailed out Wilson last week, but is there anyone on the planet who would take Seattle on a neutral field at this point? Well, of course there is. That was a stupid question. You can find someone who finds more artistic merit in Ke$ha's music than Kanye West's.
The point is, I'm skeptical.
Luckily for Seattle, this game isn't being played on a neutral field. It's being played at a place where the Seahawks have outscored the 49ers 71-16 and forced seven turnovers the past two seasons. In their Week 2 drubbing of San Francisco, the Seahawks forced Kaepernick to throw three interceptions and lose a fumble. His two games at CenturyLink Field have ranked among the worst of his career.
If there is any actual merit to this whole 12th Man thing, we'll see it on Sunday. The 49ers, at this point in time, are the superior team. A repeat of Week 2 or even a decent representation would cement that Seattle actually has the best home-field advantage in football.
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