What was the most anticipated Championship Sunday in recent memory did not disappoint, and the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks are headed to Super Bowl XLVIII in two weeks at MetLife Stadium.
The Broncos were able to dismantle the Patriots on the strength of Peyton Manning's right arm. The New England defense had no answer for Manning, who sliced and diced it to the tune of 400 yards through the air in a masterful performance.
The late game was rife with drama and suspense, and the Seahawks put away the 49ers in the closing seconds. Seattle's defense had a fourth quarter for the ages, forcing three turnovers by 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick on its way to the NFC title.
The stage is now set for an epic Super Bowl, with the league's No. 1 offense (Denver) taking on the No. 1 defense (Seattle).
But before we get the hype started for that, it's time to review the winners and losers from the 2014 NFL conference championship games.
If the Denver Broncos had lost the AFC Championship Game to the Patriots, quarterback Peyton Manning's epic season would have been for naught.
An NFL-record 55 touchdown passes wouldn't have mattered. Leading the most prolific offense in NFL history would have been rendered irrelevant.
Right, wrong or indifferent, Manning needed to beat Tom Brady and Bill Belichick to validate his achievements and simultaneously earn the opportunity to win his second Lombardi Trophy.
On Sunday, he did just that, and in spectacular fashion, completing 32 of 43 passes for 400 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions. Manning outplayed Brady, outfoxed Belichick and moved his team within one win of a Super Bowl championship.
Manning was outstanding throughout. He directed an offense that compiled 507 total yards. He led six consecutive scoring drives. He completed passes to eight different receivers. It was truly a virtuoso performance from the soon-to-be five-time NFL MVP.
After the game, Belichick lavished Manning with praise, telling Pete Prisco of CBSSports.com: "As always, he did an excellent job of reading the defense and he got us into some situations that were less than ideal with his astute play calling and recognition."
Now, Manning has the opportunity to solidify his legacy as perhaps the greatest quarterback of all time with a win in Super Bowl XLVIII. That makes him a huge winner from Championship Sunday.
The New England Patriots needed their star quarterback, Tom Brady, to play a near-perfect game in order to take out the more talented Denver Broncos and win the AFC title.
That didn't happen. Brady's stats (24-of-38 for 277 yards, one touchdown pass and one rushing touchdown) are misleading. He misfired on a number of key throws, and Peyton Manning thoroughly outplayed him.
Two plays stick out as critical misses by Brady. He overthrew Julian Edelman in the first quarter with the Patriots trailing 3-0, and it's likely that a completion would have led to at least a tying field goal. And in the second quarter, he badly missed on a throw to Austin Collie, who had broken free down the right sideline.
The incomplete pass to Edelman was a killer, and Brady knew it, telling Mike Reiss of ESPN.com, "I wish I would have made that. I just overthrew him.”
It continued a disturbing, season-long trend of Brady missing on the deep ball. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he completed less than 40 percent of his passes over 20 yards. There's no doubt that Brady's targets in the passing game weren't as accomplished as in years past, but he still wasn't his normal, celestial self.
Forget about the disparity in offensive talent. Even though Manning's weapons are far superior, Brady didn't play his best when it mattered the most, and Manning did. That's a big reason for the Patriots' season ending in the Mile High City.
In the wake of Denver's AFC Championship Game triumph, Peyton Manning will receive the vast majority of the plaudits. And while that's certainly appropriate, we'd be remiss if we didn't give a massive amount of credit to the Broncos offensive line, which was superb throughout.
If you combined the number of hits and sacks Manning took and then multiplied that number by 500, do you know what it would be?
Zero. The number would be zero.
Denver's offensive line dominated, paving the way for an offense that racked up over 500 total yards and possessed the ball for almost 36 minutes. With superb protection, Manning led scoring drives of 73, 93, 63, 80 and 60 yards, a testament to how tremendous the hogs up front were.
So take a bow, Chris Clark (left tackle), Zane Beadles (left guard), Manny Ramirez (center), Louis Vasquez (right guard) and Orlando Franklin (right tackle). You were instrumental in helping the Broncos win the AFC title.
For more than a decade, it seemed as if New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick possessed some manner of voodoo over Peyton Manning. While Manning would eviscerate the rest of the league, Belichick's defenses would often bewilder and end up defeating him, leaving him grasping for answers.
On Sunday, the script flipped. Belichick had no answer for Manning.
Manning's offense destroyed Belichick's defense to the tune of 507 total yards, the most allowed by the Patriots all season. Manning threw for over 400 yards and completed nearly 75 percent of his passes in soul-sucking fashion. It was a splendid performance by the soon-to-be league MVP, and one that left Belichick stunned and helpless.
Yes, the Patriots defense suffered a number of key injuries throughout the season and even lost star cornerback Aqib Talib early in the AFC Championship Game. But when many (including yours truly) regard you as one of the best coaches of all time, you're expected to find a way to get the job done, and Belichick didn't do that.
This time, his defensive brilliance didn't show up against Manning. If it were a game of chess, Manning would have hit checkmate with one of his first few moves. The battle between the longtime adversaries was that one-sided.
Don't get it twisted: Belichick deserves a ton of credit for navigating an undermanned Patriots team to within one game of the Super Bowl. There's no question that this was one of his greatest coaching performances in what's been a Hall of Fame career.
But on Sunday, he didn't get the job done. He was most certainly a loser on Championship Sunday.
In the week leading up to Sunday's AFC Championship Game, Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio probably saw Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in his nightmares.
After all, coming into the game, Brady was 7-0 against defenses led by Del Rio, as noted by Patrick Saunders of The Denver Post. In Week 12, with Del Rio serving as interim coach as John Fox recovered from heart surgery, Brady led the Patriots back from a 24-point halftime deficit to secure a 34-31 victory in overtime. It seemed as if Del Rio would never have an answer for Brady.
Well, on Sunday, Del Rio's defense finally got the job done, and in remarkable fashion. The Broncos held Brady to 277 yards through the air and one touchdown pass and harassed him throughout the game. Brady fell to two sacks and never seemed to settle into one of his trademark rhythms.
In addition, the Broncos defense was stellar against the run, allowing only 64 yards, a far cry from the 234 yards the Patriots amassed against the Colts in the divisional round.
It took until the fourth quarter for the Patriots offense to get going, and it turned out to be too little, too late. After New England scored a touchdown to cut the lead to 26-16, the Broncos stopped the two-point conversion attempt, effectively sealing the victory.
For Del Rio, the victory was sweet. He finally directed a defense that took down Brady.
That makes him a huge winner from Championship Sunday.
When coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider joined the Seattle Seahawks prior to the 2010 season, they inherited a 5-11 team with more holes than a moldy piece of Swiss cheese.
Four years later, they're Super Bowl bound behind the deepest and most flexible roster in the NFL. It's been a stunning turnaround in the Pacific Northwest, spearheaded by the dynamic duo of Carroll and Schneider.
Sunday's NFC Championship Game victory over division rival San Francisco was a testament to the job they've done.
Quarterbacking the team is Russell Wilson, a third-round pick in the 2012 draft. Seattle acquired running back Marshawn Lynch, who has epitomized the team's toughness, in a 2010 trade with the Buffalo Bills for a conditional draft pick. The three key members of the "Legion of Boom" secondary—cornerback Richard Sherman (fifth round, 2011) and safeties Earl Thomas (first round, 2010) and Kam Chancellor (fifth round, 2010)—were all draft picks. Ends Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, who each sacked 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick on Sunday, were low-budget signings last offseason. Receiver Doug Baldwin, who caught six balls for 106 yards and added another 109 on kick returns, was an undrafted free agent.
In just four years, Carroll has dispelled the notion that he's nothing more than a "rah-rah" college coach. He's fantastic at his job and clearly a winner. It didn't hurt that he knocked off old rival Jim Harbaugh in the process.
As for Schneider, he's proved to be one of the best general managers in the game. He's helped construct a roster that's talented and makes a ton of sense financially.
Four years ago, the Seahawks were a rudderless ship. Now, they're one win away from the first Super Bowl title in franchise history.
That makes Carroll and Schneider huge winners from Championship Sunday.
Even though the fourth quarter had been an unmitigated disaster, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick had a chance to win the game and send his team to the Super Bowl. But in a bit of irony sure to make 49ers fans sick all offseason long, the NFC Championship Game ended just as Super Bowl XLVII did: with a would-be touchdown pass to receiver Michael Crabtree failing to be converted.
This time, the pass was intercepted, but the result remained the same. The 49ers lost, and the turnover was Kaepernick's third of the fourth quarter. Despite his 130 rushing yards and a few dazzling throws, he didn't play well enough to get San Francisco over the hump and into its second consecutive Super Bowl.
There's no denying Kaepernick's immense talents, but he clearly has improving to do. Earlier in the final stanza, he tossed an interception that would have made Andy Dalton blush, a hideous throw that Seattle safety Kam Chancellor easily picked off. He failed to feel the pass rush on a number of occasions and relied too much on his natural ability.
In the team's playoff victories in Green Bay and Carolina, Kaepernick got away with a number of questionable throws, none greater than the dropped interception by Packers safety Micah Hyde on what turned out to be the game-winning drive. On Sunday in Seattle, his luck ran out.
To Kaepernick's credit, he took responsibility for his awful fourth quarter after the game, telling the news media (via Dan Hanzus of NFL.com), "I didn't play good enough to win. I turned the ball over three times. I cost us this game."
Kaepernick and the 49ers will be back. For all of his success, it's important to remember that this was his first full year as the team's starting quarterback. He'll continue to get better, which is a scary prospect for the rest of the league.
But on Sunday, he lost the game for his team. If he had taken better care of the football, there's little doubt that the 49ers would have won the NFC title.
In the week leading up to the NFC Championship Game, the media made much of the playing status of Seattle Seahawks receiver Percy Harvin, who suffered a concussion in the divisional-round victory over New Orleans. And when the team declared Harvin "out" on Saturday, many assumed it would be a fatal blow to Seattle's offense.
Ultimately, the Seahawks didn't need Harvin to beat San Francisco. They had the next-best thing: receiver Doug Baldwin.
Baldwin had a monster game, hauling in six passes for 106 yards and returning three kickoffs for 109 yards. Not only were his statistics impressive, but his big plays also came at critical moments in the game.
With the Seahawks trailing 10-0 in the second quarter, Baldwin caught a 51-yard strike from quarterback Russell Wilson that set up a field goal to draw within 10-3. And after the 49ers scored a touchdown in the third quarter to claim a 17-10 lead, Baldwin returned the ensuing kickoff 69 yards to set up another field goal by Steven Hauschka.
Without the efforts of Baldwin, it's difficult to imagine the Seahawks emerging victorious. He's a major winner from Championship Sunday.
Last week, I wrote that San Francisco 49ers running back Frank Gore would be one of the most important players in the NFC Championship Game. It was surely no coincidence that the 49ers lost to Seattle in Week 2 when Gore rushed nine times for 16 yards and won in Week 14 when Gore carried the ball 17 times for 110 yards.
And if those statistics are true, then it could've been expected that the 49ers would lose the NFC Championship Game if Gore managed only 11 carries for 14 yards.
It's true that the Seahawks possessed the best defense in the NFL this season and could go down as the best overall unit since the 2000 Baltimore Ravens. But for a player of Gore's caliber, rushing 11 times for 14 yards in a game of that magnitude is not acceptable.
Blame the offensive line if you'd like; it certainly could have done a better job opening up holes for him. But the bottom line is that Gore came up small when it mattered the most, and it's one of the main reasons why the 49ers' season ended a game shy of the Super Bowl.
Yes, Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman went ballistic on 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree in his postgame interview with Fox's Erin Andrews. And while the merits of that decision can certainly be debated, there is no arguing Sherman's status as the best cornerback in the NFL.
Sherman has brought an undeniable swagger to the Seahawks' "Legion of Boom" secondary and has backed up all his talk with exemplary play on the field.
He made the play that ultimately sent Seattle to the Super Bowl, timing his leap perfectly and deflecting a would-be touchdown pass intended for Michael Crabtree into the arms of teammate Malcolm Smith. Colin Kaepernick went at Sherman with the game on the line, and the bombastic defender came up aces, as he normally does.
Sherman has earned the right to talk. He's led a historically great pass defense and was named first-team All-Pro. And when the chips were down, he made the biggest play to send his team to the Super Bowl.
Criticize his postgame antics if you'd like, but don't question his ability as a player. Sherman is the best cornerback in the league and likely earned himself a lot of advertising money by airing out Crabtree in an interview that likely made Bart Scott blush.