DENVER — For those of you disappointed by the lack of thrilling finishes in the NFL over the weekend — and who wouldn’t be after the exhilarating wild-card games? — take heart. The four impressive wins in Round 2 set the stage for what is almost guaranteed to be one of the best Final Four scenarios in recent memory.
Broncos vs. Patriots and 49ers vs. Seahawks are so rich in drama, story lines and compelling rivalries that it’s a virtual lock that Sunday’s AFC and NFC Championship Games will be terrific. Which also means we’re guaranteed an equally spectacular matchup for Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife Stadium on Feb. 2.
Tom Brady or Peyton Manning in the Super Bowl. And one of the best young quarterbacks in today’s game — Colin Kaepernick or Russell Wilson — will be there, too. We will see either a changing of the guard at quarterback, or a Hall of Fame passer still at the top of his game deep into his 30s.
The best four teams are still standing, which probably best explains the anticlimactic finishes over the weekend. None of the four challengers — the Saints, Colts, Panthers and Chargers — was in the same class as the Seahawks, Patriots, 49ers or Broncos. Only the Chargers made a game of it late, but Manning shut the door on any comeback by hitting tight end Julius Thomas for a first down on third-and-17 late in the fourth quarter to keep the ball out of Philip Rivers’ hands.
The Saints got to within eight points of the Seahawks in the waning seconds, but a desperation play backfired when receiver Marques Colston’s attempted lateral was ruled a forward pass and eliminated any possibility of a Hail Mary from Drew Brees on the final play.
So now we have the matchups that undoubtedly will provide great theater in a sport that routinely gives us so many compelling rivalries. But maybe none quite as delectable as these two.
It’ll be Kaepernick vs. Wilson, young, cutting-edge quarterbacks who have in many ways transformed their position. They can throw and they can run, and they do both so well that they’ve been to the playoffs two years running. Super Bowl championships almost always are reserved for pocket passers — Roger Staubach and Steve Young could scramble out of danger, but they made their living inside the pocket. But Kaepernick or Wilson, who have been terrific at the read-option trend that has grown increasingly more important, may be about to change the conversation.
It’s also Pete Carroll vs. Jim Harbaugh, coaches whose enmity goes back to Nov. 14, 2009, when Harbaugh’s Stanford Cardinal beat Carroll’s USC Trojans, 55-21. After Harbaugh ran up the score, the two met at midfield for a postgame handshake, and Carroll, seemingly agitated by Harbaugh’s tactics, was greeted by Harbaugh’s now-famous “What’s your deal?” line.
Harbaugh’s contempt for Carroll hasn’t gone away. If anything, it has grown with both in the same division. Harbaugh’s 49ers were humiliated by the Seahawks in Week 2 but won the rematch at Candlestick Park. And now the winner gets a shot at the Super Bowl, an opportunity for Harbaugh to win it all one year after losing to his brother, John, and for Carroll to get his first NFL championship.
And how much better does it get than a showdown between Manning and Brady? They have met 14 times throughout their illustrious careers and split two meetings in the AFC title game.
This is the signature quarterback rivalry of perhaps any era in NFL history. This renewal figures to be every bit as compelling as the 14 that came before it, including Brady’s sensational comeback win in Foxborough in November.
This is as good as it gets in the NFL, with every expectation that 49ers-Seahawks and Patriots-Broncos offer the best championship weekend we’ve seen in years.