WASHINGTON — At long last, Championship Sunday is set. This weekend it will feature something surprisingly unfamiliar: Top seeds. For the first time since 2004, the top two seeds in each conference have advanced to the NFL’s Final Four.
Yet it almost has a “business as usual” feel to it because of a familiar staple: Manning vs. Brady.
The weeklong pomp and circumstance will center on the AFC Championship Game in Denver, where Peyton Manning and Tom Brady will face each other as opposing quarterbacks for the 17th time, and it’ll be an NFL-record 5th time they’ll meet in the playoffs — the 4th time they’ll do so with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.
But that’s so yesterday.
There’s no reason why the NFC should be the proverbial undercard. The 15-1 Carolina Panthers and the 13-3 Arizona Cardinals — two squads that were dominant much of the regular season and represent two of the most complete teams the NFL has to offer — are rightfully playing the prime-time Sunday night game, and have just as much juice attached to their game.
The Panthers and Cardinals are the league’s top two scoring teams (respectively) and were the only teams to average more than 30 points per game in the regular season. Both have ball hawking defenses that ranked in the top seven in scoring and have quarterbacks capable of coming up in the clutch (though Carson Palmer’s finger injury has to worry Arizona fans). Cam Newton has been the best player in the league all year.
But that’s going to be the back burner to Manning-Brady XVII. Even though Peyton is a shell of his former self (last Sunday he was taking dives against a so-so Steeler defense and his streak of 13 straight postseason games with a TD was snapped). Even though Brady has historically struggled in Denver.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s amazing that Brady will start his NFL-record 10th Conference Championship Game and can continue to smoke his hero in the record books. Making that more compelling is the fact that in the nine previous AFC title games, Brady is only 1-2 against Manning and 5-1 against all other QBs. I find it fascinating that at home this season, Peyton has thrown just 1 TD, 8 INTs and completed just 57.5 percent of his passes for an average of 197 yards per game. That’s right. One touchdown.
But Brady is 38 years old and Manning is 39. This is likely the last time we’ll see them face each other and it won’t be much of a duel (at least not head-to-head statistically). Cam vs. Carson is the MVP vs. the league’s second-rated passer, and will mark the first time in the Super Bowl Era that Heisman Trophy-winning QBs will face off in a playoff game.
Championship Sunday has been infused with some new blood. And we should spend this week embracing it and giving it its due.
Chances are, this won’t be the last time we’ll see this matchup in January.
And this won’t be the last time you see an NFL recap.