YOU CAN TAKE JUNIOR POINT GUARD T.J. MCCONNELL OUT OF PITTSBURGH, BUT YOU CAN'T TAKE THE CHIP-ON-THE-SHOULDER TOUGHNESS OUT OF A TRUE YINZER. AND HE'S THE SPARK ARIZONA NEEDED TO BECOME THE COUNTRY'S NO. 1 TEAM
Tip Thrill With 30 seconds remaining and the 49ers driving for a winning score in the NFC championship game on Sunday, Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman deflected a 15-yard pass intended for wide receiver Michael Crabtree in the end zone. Linebacker Malcolm Smith (53) then made a diving grab of the batted ball to seal the 23--17 victory in Seattle and a berth in Super Bowl XLVIII (page 38). Caught up in the moment, an emotional Sherman went on to taunt Crabtree and give the choke sign to San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick before impersonating a WWE villain in his postgame interview.
PHOTOPHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
Bronc's Cheer The Mile High crowd rose to its feet when Demaryius Thomas elevated to snag a three-yard touchdown pass from Peyton Manning midway through the third quarter, putting Denver up 20--3 over the Patriots on Sunday in the AFC championship game. New England scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns but never got closer than 10 points, as the Broncos quashed a late two-point conversion attempt and won 26--16. Thomas finished with seven catches for 134 yards.
PHOTOPHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN LEYBA THE DENVER POST/GETTY IMAGES
Clueless In Seattle When Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman and Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning walked off the field together after Seattle's 40--10 preseason victory on Aug. 17 at CenturyLink Field, they had no way of knowing that—like Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan—they were destined for a life-altering rendezvous in New York (O.K., New Jersey). On Feb. 2, though, Super Bowl XLVIII will have a fairy tale ending for only one of them.