By Jason Keidel
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For the first time since 1998, all four teams in the conference championship games have at least 12 wins, making this a most regal final four.We would be 7-1 in the NFL playoffs if we didn’t get all existential, picking San Diego as a team of destiny last week. Just turned out they beat the Bengals, who would have lost to Duke that day. So we’ll parlay this 6-2 to 8-2 with these scintillating playoff selections.
Denver vs New England
Only in the MTV, ADD age do we question Peyton Manning’s football bona fides. It seems if you haven’t won a Super Bowl in the last 12 month you’ve either lost your skill or will or you’re not ready to win one. I’ve even heard people question Aaron Rodgers’ future because he broke his collar bone in one game and lost to the vastly superior 49ers (by 3 points!) in another.The only good part about our need to crown a new QB every week is that we no longer have to hear about Tom Brady or Bill Belichick being the greatest coach or QB ever, thanks to Peyton’s kid kin, who beat the unbeatable Patriots twice in the Super Bowl. Unfortunately, the elder Manning hasn’t been so prosperous.
How many stats do you want? In 14 meetings, Brady is 10-4 against Manning. Or, as Manning’s detractors prefer to pose it, Peyton is 4-10, including 1-2 in the playoffs.
Manning has a career record of 167-73, but 7-12 overall against the Patriots. He’s averaged about 11 interceptions per season since 2003, but has thrown 25 against New England alone. His career passer rating is 97.2. Against the Patriots it’s 89.6. He completes 66 percent of his passes overall, but 62 percent against New England.
Manning is 10-11 for his career in the playoffs. With one more loss, he passes Brett Favre for most in history. But does anyone consider Favre a loser while he moonwalks into the Hall of Fame?
Favre has a Super Bowl win and three league MVP awards. Manning has a Super Bowl ring and five MVP awards. (We all realize he’s getting his fifth in a few weeks.) Yet Manning is considered a choke artist, while Favre is a gunslinger. If you’re going to be alarmed by any statistic, it’s Manning’s microscopic comebacks in the playoffs..
Game-winning drives in the playoffs?
Good news is both came against New England.
The weather should be oddly pleasant for Denver in January, thus squashing all the talk about his rickety arm and reconstructed neck. This game must mean more to Manning than Brady. But does that matter? Is it true that Manning just can’t morph into Montana in the big games? Then again, who can?
New England hasn’t been a playoff underdog since 2006, at Indianapolis. Guess who the QB was for the Colts? Manning broke myriad hexes that day, overcoming a colossal deficit to finally beat Brady, lead his team to a Super Bowl, and then win a Super Bowl.
It’s impossible to bleed any answers from their meeting this season, a 34-31 overtime victory for the Patriots. Denver dominated the first half; New England owned the second half.
LeGarrette Blount has been a godsend for the Patriots. Now Brady doesn’t have to risk dead-arm every game with 50 passes to have a chance. And while no one is speed-dialing the Patriots’ front office for their defensive players, they do have Professor Belichick prowling the sidelines in his hobo chic hoodie and sweatpants. If anyone can befuddle manning, it’s his ancient adversary, the only coach who can say that he had the iconic QB’s number.
Manning just played with the record books this year, tossing 55 TDs and 5,477 yards, thanks in part to the pyrotechnic players he has around him. He has a phalanx of receivers who are almost always open. He’s got two talented running backs behind him. And he’s playing in the thin air of Mile High stadium (or whatever current, corporate flag bears the name).
Peyton Manning is not a choke artist. But former GM Bill Polian had a wonderful characterization of the transcendent talent, whom Polian astutely drafted over Ryan Leaf way back when. Polian told Manning to stop playing with his teeth clenched. It’s the difference between wins and losses in the playoff crucible, where one punt, pass, or kick often makes the difference.
Manning might loosen his gums, but not long enough to win this game. Brady is just better in these spots. It’s the other Manning he can’t beat.
PREDICTION: Patriots, 34-30.
Seattle vs San Francisco
Maybe not the most watched, revered, or romanticized game. But this contest will be swathed in talent, temerity and brutality. Don’t be shocked if the players drink blood instead of Gatorade.Beyond the obvious stakes and coin-flip equality between these two wildly gifted squads, this match is made even more gripping by the unavoidable truth that Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll loathe each other.Long before they sparked this NFL rivalry on the West Coast, they battled for California supremacy when they coached Stanford and USC. Carroll was running the collegiate football world west of the Mississippi. Then Harbaugh took his underdog Cardinal to USC and slapped the Trojans, spawning this delicious blood feud. The rancor is so rigorous that they couldn’t even hide it with coach-speak this week.They tried to coat their mutual contempt with coaching platitudes about competition and not really knowing each other and how the media made this up.
Sure. And Al Gore and George W Bush became steadfast buddies after the hanging chads were reconciled. If you thought last week was bad, when the violent and vulgar game between Carolina San Francisco made the FOX control room pound the mute button every ten seconds, wait until these two teams flex their tats and tongues on national TV.
Colin Kaepernick is 16-4 against every team not named the Seahawks. He is 1-2 against Seattle, with a 27.3 QBR. The Seahawks have thumped the 49ers in Seattle by an average score of 35-8.
Even when they played in San Francisco, a game the 49ers needed exponentially more, the game went down to the final seconds, ending 19-17 on a last-second FG by Phil Dawson.
San Francisco’s turnover differential in Seattle is -5, and has averaged just 260 yards of offense.
Most people would get arrested for the violence sure to be perpetrated on Sunday. The win will go to the team that can harness it best, and not run their lips, throw their fists in front of a referee. No doubt each team will be watched carefully, particularly after the vulgar, verbal sparring between the Panthers and 49ers last weekend.
Russell Wilson, whose arm and charm has made him a media and gridiron darling. He ends each interview with a campy yet refreshing affectation, “Go Hawks.” But the young, promising QB has thrown over 200 yards just once in his last five games.
Percy Harvin, acquired for the playoffs, returned for the playoffs, then got blasted twice by the Saints’ secondary, rendering him quite concussed and just scratched for Sunday’s game.
For all their ability, Seattle has a dearth of decent talent at the skill positions. Since he entered the NFL in 2009, Harvin has averaged the second-most total yards per game (Darren Sproles is first).
Without his electric legs the Seahawks will rely partly on Wilson’s improvisational magic and largely on Marshawn Lynch – which would be enough if they weren’t running into San Francisco’s hungry and herculean front seven.
Seattle’s 12th man has become biblically daunting. But San Francisco’s 11 men are more than enough. Brian Billick said that San Francisco is on a clear, predictable progression. Two years ago, they reached the NFC title game and lost. Last year they reached the Super Bowl and lost. You can guess the next step.
PREDICTION: 49ers, 20-16
Follow Jason on Twitter — @JasonKeidel.