The 2013 NFL season and 2014 playoffs have been extremely entertaining thus far, but things figure to be kicked up to another level on Jan. 19 when the league's four best teams vie for two spots in the Super Bowl. The Denver Broncos, New England Patriots, Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers are all stacked with talent, and that will be quite apparent on Sunday.
It's difficult to think of more evenly matched contests than the Broncos vs. Patriots and Seahawks vs. 49ers, and that should lead to two fantastic conference title games. Add in all of the Pro Bowl-caliber players that will be involved, and it's basically a football fan's dream.
Here are three players in particular who figure to step up in a major way on Sunday as they aim to help their teams reach Super Bowl XLVIII.
If it wasn't already apparent entering the 2013 season that Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning is one of the greatest signal-callers ever, then it certainly is now. Manning set the single-season record for passing yardage and passing touchdowns, yet many still question his legacy.
Manning has won the NFL MVP Award four times with a fifth on the horizon, and he has even won a Super Bowl along with a Super Bowl MVP Award. Even so, the prevailing thought seems to be that Manning has to win another Super Bowl, or at least make it to one, in order to cement his status.
As the conductor of the most potent offense in NFL history, Manning has a legitimate chance at making it to the big game. In order to do so, however, he will have to get past the New England Patriots and longtime rival Tom Brady.
Manning's counterpart has a 10-4 record against him, which prompts many to rate him ahead of Manning. With that said, Brady's supporting cast is decimated by injuries, and there is no question that Manning is playing on the better all-around team. In addition to that, the Broncos are at home, and Manning has been dominant at Sports Authority Field, according to NFL on ESPN, despite concerns about his ability to excel outdoors.
Manning is fully aware that winning another Super Bowl would put him in a different stratosphere of NFL quarterbacks alongside the likes of Brady, Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw and Broncos vice president of football operations John Elway. Even if the Broncos were to lose the Super Bowl, beating Brady in the playoffs again would be huge for Manning's credibility. Many seem to have pegged the Pats as a team of destiny, but Manning will elevate his game and ensure that it goes unfulfilled.
Whenever the 49ers and Seahawks lock horns, it is always a hard-hitting, smash-mouth affair. Both defenses tend to shine in those types of games, but it also happens to be right up Niners running back Frank Gore's alley.
Gore has defied the odds by continuing to produce beyond the age of 30, and even though it isn't always pretty, he usually gets the job done. According to Ralph Vacchiano of the New York Daily News, Gore knows what he and the Niners are in for.
Gore finished the regular season with a respectable 1,128 yards and nine touchdowns, but he truly made his presence felt in San Francisco's win over Seattle. Gore was shut down when the 49ers lost 29-3 to the Seahawks early in the season; however, he bounced back in a big way during the Niners' 19-17 triumph. Gore gained 110 yards on 17 carries in that game, and he was huge in terms of churning out yardage, moving the chains and burning clock on San Francisco's game-winning drive.
The Seahawks have a dominant all-around defense, but they can be beat on the ground from time to time. They allowed nearly 102 rushing yards per game during the regular season, which was still good for No. 7 in the league, but it doesn't rival their excellence against the pass.
With quarterback Colin Kaepernick potentially struggling to throw against Seattle's incredible secondary, look for head coach Jim Harbaugh to lean on his workhorse at running back in what will be their biggest game of the season thus far.
The Seahawks usually like to set the tone with their defense, and it usually comes courtesy of the defensive backfield. Seattle gave up a league-low 172 passing yards per game during the regular season as it made life miserable for opposing quarterbacks and wide receivers. All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman gets much of the credit for that due to his elite play and boisterous attitude, but it can be argued that safety Earl Thomas is actually the key to the Seahawks' success. Thomas is asked to do it all out on the field, and he manages to do precisely that at the highest possible level.
Both the Seahawks and 49ers are going to play with a great deal of physicality in the NFC Championship Game, and Thomas is fully aware of that. According to Terry Blount of ESPN.com, Thomas and the Seattle defense intend to "bully" the Niners in an effort to advance to the Super Bowl.
I think we can bully whoever we want to bully. It's about us. It's about a mindset. When you have a mindset of you're not going to let anything get in your way, you're determined. You just step over and keep going.
The Seahawks have seemingly lived by that mantra all season long, which is why they went 13-3 and were in each and every game. Since Kaepernick is prone to making some mistakes at times, Thomas could potentially have a big day in terms of interceptions and passes defended. At the same time, he takes a great deal of pride in his ability to tackle. That will come in handy since every tackle will matter in this game, and having the sure-handed Thomas will make things much easier for Seattle.
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