The NFL sets up a Sunday to remember

San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh reacts to a a call at the end of the first half against the Carolina Panthers during the first half of a divisional playoff NFL football game, Sunday, Jan. 12, 2014, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh reacts to a a call at the end of the first half against the Carolina Panthers during the first half of a divisional playoff NFL football game, Sunday, Jan. 12, 2014, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Peyton Manning and Tom Brady one more time with the Super Bowl on the line would have been good enough all by itself.
But in the embarrassment of riches that is the NFL this season, we get more. Much more.
Two young superstar quarterbacks in the making squaring off in Seattle. Wes Welker against the team that wanted him no longer, and Anquan Boldin taking his new team on another championship run. A sideshow with Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh that might be worth the price of admission by itself.
And a Super Bowl that will be a winner even if it’s played on a sheet of ice.
If this was the NBA, David Stern would have been accused of having the fix in. But it’s just more of the same for the NFL, where the story lines and matchups are so good that it’s almost a foregone conclusion next Sunday’s TV ratings will blow past anything seen before for conference title games that are always big.
About the only thing missing is a scrappy team of underdogs fighting for a berth in the Super Bowl, but there’s no reason to quibble. Not with the brawny quartet of teams that all went into the weekend as favorites and all survived to play another day.
The bookies in Vegas are laying odds — as they have all season long — that the Seattle Seahawks will play the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. But even they wouldn’t be terribly surprised if it was New England against the San Francisco 49ers or any combination in between.
“It’s a lot like playground basketball,” Harbaugh said. “Winners stay and play, losers go home. And we want to keep playing.”
That the 49ers are still playing is little surprise, even if they had to beat a team on the road they had lost to at home during the season. But beat the Carolina Panthers they did, winning their second straight playoff game away from home and seeming to take great delight in doing so.
If any team is a reflection of their coach it’s the 49ers, who will play a third straight NFC title game under Harbaugh. Colin Kaepernick even got into the act, mocking Cam Newton’s Superman pose after scoring a third-quarter touchdown, then adding his own signature bicep kiss to top things off.
“Just a little shoutout,” Kaepernick said.
Forget that the 49ers were outclassed their last two trips to Seattle, losing by a combined margin of 71-16. It’s doubtful they’ll be intimidated by the rain or a raucous crowd that sends tremors through the earth (Saturday’s foot stomping win over New Orleans was recorded as a small earthquake) in a game that figures to be both bruising and bitterly contested.
John Fox won’t be intimidated either, despite having to go up against Bill Belichick and memories of a tough November loss to the Patriots to get to the title game. Fox seems the odd man out against the outsized coaching personalities left in the playoffs, but don’t forget that he’s the only coach who has won a playoff game with Tim Tebow under center.
Now he’s got Manning, who made up for the Broncos’ early exit last postseason against Baltimore with a couple of clutch third-down throws late in the fourth quarter just as Denver seemed to be once again in full meltdown mode. Manning also had the quote of the game when asked if it was weighing on his mind that he is nearing the end of his career and may not have many playoff chances left.
“What weighed on my mind is how soon I can get a Bud Light in my mouth after this win. Priority No. 1,” a visibly relieved Manning said. “That was an intense game.”
The game was barely over when Manning was asked for the first of what will be at least 562 times this week about his matchup with Brady, who has won 10 of the 14 games they’ve played against each other. Manning gave his usual our team against theirs answer, but this time he wasn’t just blowing smoke. Not after the Patriots scored 42 points to whip Indianapolis without Brady throwing even one touchdown pass as the Patriots took their all too familiar place in the AFC title game, and not when the Broncos are doing some running of their own.
Still, it figures to be all Manning against Brady, even if the best story of the postseason may be the one no one outside of the Boston area wants to hear. If there was ever a coach you love to hate it’s Belichick, but the ever grumpy guy under the hoodie has done a remarkable job in a year most expected New England to struggle.
With Welker gone and no tight ends left for Brady to throw to, Belichick was forced to reinvent the team on the fly. He did so by turning them into a run first team behind big LeGarrette Blount, who scored four touchdowns against the Colts and could be the breakout star of these playoffs.
The Super Bowl that will be played in three weeks at the Meadowlands has been the talk of football all season, and with good reason. It’s the first cold weather game to be played outdoors, and it could either be a spectacle or a debacle.
Two teams will get there eventually. But not before the NFL gives us one final Sunday to enjoy a pair of games so good they could be the ones we really remember.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at or
AFC Championship Game
Broncos vs. Patriots
DATE: Sunday, Jan. 19
TIME: 3 p.m. ET
NFC Championship Game
Seahawks vs. 49ers
DATE: Sunday, Jan. 19
TIME: 6:30 p.m. ET
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