There is so much at stake for all four teams and their quarterbacks and their coaches this weekend that is almost feels like Roger Goodell was somehow able to produce the matchups for the AFC and NFC Championship Games. But we know that’s not possible. It’s impossible. A commissioner of a league can’t determine which teams reach their sport’s final four. You probably wouldn’t have gotten the best of payouts if you had done a futures wager on the matchups this weekend, but it was predictable way before the first week of the season, way before Eli Manning threw an interception on his first pass attempt of the season in that first week. (What? You thought I would forget about Eli Manning in my picks even though he hasn’t played in a meaningful game since Nov. 24?)
So here we are in the last second-to-last football Sunday of the season with 256 picks down and three to go.
New England +5.5 over DENVER
It feels weird that this will be the early game on Sunday, but when you have a West Coast team hosting one of the two games, this is what happens. Peyton Manning-Tom Brady won’t feel the same or as important as it should at 3 p.m.rather than in darkness with one of the two Super Bowl teams already known and a legacy-changing game on tap. But the best part about this game taking place is that it will actually take place and we won’t have to watch anymore storylines get squeezed out of it the way NBC kept reaching for new ideas for post-Michael Scott episodes of The Office.
Four years ago on the Friday before Super Bowl XLIV, I wrote the following:
This Sunday should be about Peyton Manning joining an elite group of quarterbacks and adding to his case as the best to ever play the game. It should be about Bill Polian justifying the benching of his starters so we don’t have to hear about how it backfired all offseason. It should be about the Colts taking over for the Patriots as the team and face of the NFL.
Instead of any of those things happening, the Colts lost, lost me my Colts -5 pick, gave Jeremy Shockey a Super Bowl ring and made everyone forget that Peyton Manning had gotten over the Super Bowl hump three years prior the way that people around here forget that A-Rod single-handedly won the Yankees the 2009 World Series. Now Peyton is being given another chance to get back to the Super Bowl and get that elusive second ring that many believe would put him on top of all all-time quarterback debates.
There is so much at stake for the legacies of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady that it’s hard to decide who has more to win or lose with a win or loss (though it won’t matter for anyone if the Seahawks or 49ers win the Super Bowl). When I try to sort out the history involved with this matchup and if either of the two go on to win at MetLife in two weeks, I feel like I’m filling out a W-4, except in this case I can’t call my mom to ask if I should be putting a “0,” “1,” or “2” in the designated space.
Peyton Manning is playing in his third AFC Championship Game (all against the Patriots) and needs to win this week and again in two weeks if he really wants to be in or lead the Best Quarterback Ever conversation, which I’m pretty sure is the only thing he cares about in his life. If he wins this weekend, he will be one win away from returning to the Super Bowl after two seasons removed from potential career-ending neck injuries, and he will be one win away from winning his second Super Bowl that Pierre Garcon dropped for him four years ago.
Tom Brady is playing in his eighth AFC Championship Game in 12 years and is still searching for Super Bowl No. 4 thanks to Eli Manning. But if he wins on Sunday, it will be his sixth AFC title and he will have been the starting quarterback for the Patriots in the Super Bowl at age 24 and also at age 36, which seems like the most amazing and ridiculous TB12 fact.
Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady has been about the Best Regular-Season Quarterback Ever vs. The Winningest Postseason Quarterback Ever, which has seemed appropriate for a guy that seems to be all about personal stats and records and another guy who only cares about the final score. One of them has to win on Sunday and then one of them will be one win away from becoming The Best Ever. Five points seems like too many to give with these two.
San Francisco +3.5 over SEATTLE
The No. 4 and No. 8 teams from My Super Bowl XLVIII Dilemma. On a neutral field, I would have to think the line for this game would be 0 or at most it would be Seattle -0.5 since they are being given that extra half point for being home in a Championship Game despite playing an evenly-matched divisional rival. The line is right where it should be and right where the 49ers should want it to be.
In the Colin Kaepernick era, the 49ers have played in Seattle twice and have lost both games. They lost 29-3 in Week 2 this year and they lost 42-13 in Week 16 last year. The difference in the 2013 game was Kaepernick’s three interceptions, the 49ers’ five turnovers (to the Seahawks’ one) and Marshawn Lynch’s 98 rushing yards along with his two rushing touchdowns and one receiving touchdown. The difference in the 2012 game was Russell Wilson’s four touchdown passes and Lynch’s 111 rushing yards along with a rushing and receiving touchdown. The 49ers have turned into a different team for their trips to CenturyLink Field, but this postseason, the 49ers have turned into a different altogether.
In my Wild-Card Weekend Picks, I said:
Usually every team has at least one letdown game during the year (and in the case of the 2007 Patriots, it comes in the Super Bowl … yes, I had to) and for the 49ers, you would have to say it came in their 27-7 Week 3 loss to the Colts since their 29-3 Week 2 loss to the Seahawks happened in Seattle. But since Week 3, the 49ers have been as good and consistent as any team in the league.
Since then, the 49ers have played their most complete football of the year, once on the road against one of the few elite quarterbacks in the game in a brutal place for road teams to play and again on the road against the best front seven in the game against a 2-seed coming off a week of rest.
The Seahawks were able to hold off the Saints (who might be the worst road team in the NFL, and certainly have the biggest contrast in play between the Superdome and the road) last week, but didn’t look great doing so after having embarrassed the Saints in Seattle in Week 13.
Everyone seems to be riding the Seahawks here because they’re home and because of the 12th Man and because of the way they handled the 49ers in Seattle this year and last. And everyone seems to be penciling in the Seahawks for New York City the way they were prior to their Week 16 home loss to the Cardinals. But the 49ers aren’t the Cardinals. They’re better. And right now they’re better than they have been all year.
Last week: 2-2-0
Regular Season: 117-136-10