BOSTON Talk about a couple of juicy title-game tussles.
It’s Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady – Round 15 – in the AFC championship game next Sunday, while the San Francisco 49ers square off against the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC title bout.
Yep, here we go again. With a Super Bowl trip on the line.
“It’s the Broncos versus the Patriots and certainly Tom and I have played against each other a lot,” Manning said, “but when you get to the AFC championship, it’s about two good teams that have been through a lot to get there.”
Manning helped lead Denver past the San Diego Chargers 24-17 on Sunday, setting up another meeting with Brady and New England, which beat Indianapolis 43-22 on Saturday night. The Broncos (14-3) opened as 6.5-point favorites for the game at Denver.
“That’s two of the greats,” Denver wide receiver Eric Decker said. “It’s going to be talked about a lot throughout the week.”
Manning and Brady have squared off 14 times throughout their careers, with the Patriots quarterback holding a 10-4 edge in the head-to-head matchup, including a 34-31 overtime victory in November. They each have a win against the other in the AFC championship game: Brady in the 2003 playoffs and Manning in the 2006 postseason with Indianapolis.
And the winner went on to win the Super Bowl each time.
But, it’s not necessarily the same old story this time around. Both the Broncos and Patriots have been winning with balanced offenses, relying not only on the strong arms of their record-breaking quarterbacks but also on their running games.
Manning was 25 of 36 for 230 yards and two TDs, but the Broncos controlled the clock on the ground. After gaining just 18 yards against San Diego last month, the Broncos ran for 133 yards, including 82 by Knowshon Moreno, whose 3-yard TD run put them ahead 24-7 with 8:12 left.
The Chargers rallied to get within a score late, but Manning completed a pair of key third-down passes in the final minutes to prevent San Diego from getting a final chance.
“They’re a great team, they had a big win (Saturday) night,” Manning said of the Patriots. “We’re going to enjoy this one tonight, start to work on them tomorrow and I know it’ll be a heck of a game.”
At Foxborough, Mass., LeGarrette Blount carried the Patriots (13-4) to their third straight AFC title game with four touchdown runs against the Colts. Stevan Ridley added two rushing scores, giving New England six TDs – and none by Brady.
“The way our defense is getting the ball for us and, really, what we’ve done the last three or four weeks (with) the running game has just been awesome,” Brady said. “Hopefully, we can do it next week, too.”
In the NFC, the 49ers and Seahawks are all set to play in the latest chapter in one of the NFL’s budding – and bitter – rivalries.
The Seahawks (14-3) opened as 3-point favorites for the game at Seattle against 49ers (14-4), who defeated the Carolina Panthers 23-10 on Sunday.
On Saturday, Marshawn Lynch ran for a franchise playoff-record 140 yards and two touchdowns and Seattle’s defense flustered Drew Brees and New Orleans in a 23-15 victory. The top-seeded Seahawks advanced to the NFC title game for the second time, and first since the 2005 playoffs.
“We haven’t done anything yet,” quarterback Russell Wilson said. “That’s our goal. We have 60 minutes of football left.”
San Francisco, which lost last year to Baltimore, is looking for a return trip to the Super Bowl. And lots of hard hits and plenty of jawing might be expected in this latest matchup with the Seahawks.
“I think we’re the two teams everyone was looking at from the beginning,” 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick said. “It’s going to be a knockdown, drag-out game.”
Count on it.
The previous few games between the NFC West rivals have been full of contempt, with shoving, pushing and arguing spicing things up. Even the coaches don’t care for each other.
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh have been rivals dating to their days as opponents in the old Pac-10. In 2009, after Harbaugh’s Stanford team ran up the score on Carroll’s Southern California squad in a 55-21 rout, the two met at midfield and an annoyed Carroll barked, “What’s your deal?”
That’s carried over to the NFL – and it might get ramped up again during the week.
“We’re healthy, we’re a great team and we’re willing to do whatever it takes to get that ring,” 49ers running back Frank Gore said. “We’re playing great ball.”
Good thing, since the 49ers have committed seven turnovers and been outscored 71-16 in their past two trips to Seattle, including a 29-3 Week 2 loss in September.
“We’re a different team than we were the first time we played them up there,” Kaepernick insisted.
The 49ers will get a chance to prove that next weekend.
At Seattle, Steven Hauschka kicked three field goals in blustery conditions, and Lynch capped the victory with a 31-yard scoring run with 2:40 left that Carroll celebrated by jumping into offensive line coach Tom Cable’s arms.
“It feels awesome,” fullback Michael Robinson said, “but this doesn’t mean anything if we don’t win next week.”