There have been several conference final Sundays in the NFL with foursomes that boasted glitzier records, but has there ever been one that matched this year’s field for past accomplishment, pedigree and glamor? Not in at least the past three decades or so there hasn’t.
Three of the starting quarterbacks and three of the head coaches who will be still at work this weekend have won Super Bowl rings, with Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson earning all that jewelry along with head coaches Bill Belichick, Mike McCarthy and Pete Carroll. And then there are the Colts with the ascendant Andrew Luck, who has made the playoffs in each of his three NFL seasons and keeps taking one giant further step every time he reaches the postseason.
You could easily make the case that Rodgers and Luck are the two most valuable players in the league in terms of how much they mean to their respective teams -- almost everything -- but they both face daunting tasks on Championship Sunday, playing on the road against the No. 1 seeds in their conference. Rodgers and Luck carry their teams almost every week during the year, but this will require going above and beyond in order to upset the Seahawks (13-4) and Patriots (13-4), given Seattle and New England have already registered three-score wins over the Packers and Colts this season.
If nothing else, the four conference finalists are eminently qualified to play on this stage and should put on quite the show. The Colts (13-5) have astonishingly missed the playoffs just twice from 1999 on. With the exception of 2002 and '08, the Patriots have been in the postseason every year since '01. The Packers (13-4) are making their sixth straight playoff appearance and seventh in eight years, and the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks have been three straight years and four times in Carroll’s five-year tenure. If you like teams that have been there and done that, Sunday’s NFC-AFC double-header is everything you could hope for.
Just three more games to go in this 2014 NFL season, but the matchups look set to deliver the goods. The best of the best are about to collide.
• Last week: 3-1; Season: 176-87 (.669).
• Best pick in Divisional round: Green Bay 31, Dallas 27 (Actual score: Packers 26-21).
• Worst pick in Divisional round: Denver 34, Indianapolis 31 (Actual score: Colts 24-13).
Pity the poor Packers. First they drew the short straw and caught the Seahawks in Seattle for the Week 1 Thursday night season-opener, when the defending Super Bowl champions get to throw their own party and unfurl their championship banner. And now they’re returning to the always raucous CenturyLink Field with the hometown team on a hellacious roll that has spawned a seven-game winning streak. Green Bay kind of missed the whole Super Bowl hangover portion of the Seahawks season. But I’m sure they read about it. It was in all the papers. That said, these are different teams 19 weeks later, and I’d be shocked if the game isn’t much closer than that 36-16 Seattle blowout win that got everything started back in early September.
Green Bay, of course, wanted this game in Lambeau Field, but that killer of a Week 15 loss at Buffalo put an end to those plans. The Packers re-invented themselves to a degree on defense in the second half of the season, and the Seahawks re-kindled their aggressive, play-making mojo after trading Percy Harvin and then finding themselves 6-4 in mid-November. This much is clear: These are the best two teams in the NFC, and they have been for months now.
As much as it sounds simplistic to boil it down to the quarterback matchup, it might be that easy to project. Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson have a lot in common, from their absolutely correct belief that they fell way, way too far on their respective draft days, to their ability to improvise and create plays, both inside and outside of the pocket. But if Rodgers is still as limited with that left calf injury as he was last week against Dallas, the advantage has to swing to Wilson, whose ability to give a defense fits with both his arm and legs keeps improving the more experience he gains.
Wilson has a ridiculous 109.6 passer rating in his six career playoff starts (5-1), with nine touchdowns and one interception in those games. That’s the highest rating for any passer with 150 or more pass attempts in the postseason. But second on that list is Rodgers, with a 105.3 rating that has helped him win three of his five road playoff starts. Seattle looks poised to become the first repeat NFC champion since the 1996-'97 Packers managed that trick, but rematches can sometimes be tricky in the postseason, and Green Bay should pose the toughest challenge the Seahawks have faced in weeks.
I’m guessing Tom Brady doesn’t even know who Mike Lodish is, but if the Patriots hold serve at Gillette Stadium Sunday night, Brady will become just the second player in NFL history with six Super Bowl appearances, joining the former Broncos and Bills defensive lineman. (Colts' K Adam Vinatieri will also tie that mark if Indianapolis prevails.) Brady has a bit loftier motivation, however, because for 10 years now he and Belichick have been trying to tie Terry Bradshaw and Chuck Noll as the only quarterback-coach tandem to win four rings. The ex-Steelers did it in the six-season span of 1974-'79, but from 2001-'14 works too, if you can swing it.
The No. 4-seeded Colts feel like the party crashers in this year’s conference finals, but that’s only because this is Luck’s team now, and this will be his first crack at playing for the right to go to the Super Bowl. Only three active Colts remain from Indy’s last Super Bowl team of 2009, with receiver Reggie Wayne joined by kicker Adam Vinatieri and punter Pat McAfee. Linebacker Robert Mathis and defensive end Fili Moala were both on that '09 team, but are on IR this season.
The last two times the Colts have faced New England, they’ve been shredded on the ground, most recently for 201 rushing yards and four touchdowns by Jonas Gray (in Week 11), and 166 rushing yards and four touchdowns by LeGarrette Blount (in the 2013 divisional round). I expect Indy’s rush defense to be much improved this time around, but that doesn’t mean the Patriots can’t flip the script and still beat the Colts by sticking almost exclusively to the air, as they did in last week’s squeaker over Baltimore (13 carries for 14 yards).
The Patriots don’t usually struggle with over-confidence, but the Colts might be able to catch New England starting slowly again, perhaps relieved that the pesky Ravens have been dispatched, while Peyton Manning and the Broncos never even made it back to Foxboro. After all, New England has owned Indy of late, winning five consecutive games against the Colts, all by at least 20 points. Luck is 0-3 versus the Pats, with six touchdowns, eight interceptions, and a 67.7 passer rating in games that finished with an average score of 47-23. Will that dismal history repeat itself on Sunday? I’d be surprised if Indy lets that happen.