First, a note to the complainers that the NFL's Final Four is too Manning-ish or too Brady-ish or too predictable-from-August-ish:
This is a dream scenario. Four teams, both pairs huge rivalries, two sets of great quarterbacks — two old going head to head, and two young — that we never are treated to.
Yeah, there was something missing from this past weekend's action, and maybe the two No. 1 seeds failed to put away their No. 6-seeded competition in a way that was befitting of a possible future champion.
Perhaps the bloom is (way) off the New England rose right now, as it was a dozen years into the Atlanta Braves' run of yearly almost championships, even though we should be praising this Patriots cub and its incredible resilience. And maybe the San Francisco 49ers and Jim Harbaugh are too weird and too unlikeable for the mainstream, although I certainly don't get that.
It figures that NFL fans, who have become accustomed to being surprised with who gets this far, might not be tickled for Sunday's conference championship games. I get that. But good lord, don't you see how blessed we are?
This stuff is central-casting, made-for-TV gold. These are the four best teams in the league right now. The 49ers proved that by beating the Carolina Panthers on their own turf. The Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos eventually put away their pesky annoyances of opponents, and we could see that they combined to dominate about 85 percent of their games this weekend, even if the scoreboard told a different story.
This coming weekend deserves a Harbaugh-esque siren call: Who, really, has it better than us here?
Now, onto some deeper topics in this weekend's games ...
Ah, yes, the quarterbacks
Let us not overdose you with too much of this. But it must be discussed.
Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning. For the 15th time.
And the next-generation rivalry: Colin Kaepernick vs. Russell Wilson.
Whereas Brady and Manning were seen as cut from the same cloth — almost like Magic-Bird, if you're colorblind — Kaepernick and Wilson seem to have different personalities.
Kaepernick is reticent around fans — even though they adore him, especially among the women — and media but flamboyant and provocative on the field (and on his Instagram account). Wilson is a media darling who is completely comfortable talking publicly, and his play is more of a hummingbird-like grace.
Kaepernick has the stronger arm and might be the faster and more powerful runner. Wilson is a whirling dervish who is more likely to throw it over a defender's head rather than past it.
They are studies in contrast, but also in comparison. They might look and sound different in the way they work, but both have an undeniable charisma and talent that has turned the NFL on its ear the past two seasons.
So it's only fitting that as Brady and Manning prepare for the twilights of their career — and who knows how much longer they have left? — that Wilson and Kaepernick meet here in this weekend in the first truly huge game in what is sure to be one of the NFL's signature quarterback rivalries for the next decade.
Aaron Rodgers is greatness personified, but he's in a class of his own, with no true foil right now; Andrew Luck might be a lone gunman, too, for several years, no real rival — it's not Robert Griffin III, even though they are scheduled to meet next season — to reflect off of.
Wilson and Kaepernick will be measured against each other, head to head, for the foreseeable future. Wilson has the slight 2-1 edge in their three meetings, but Kaepernick almost stole a Super Bowl last year. Sunday's game in Seattle will be a massive early signpost in what should be their fantastic story.
The lesser-knowns shall be known
So just as this weekend is about the four quarterbacks and Marshawn Lynch, Anquan Boldin, Richard Sherman, Frank Gore, the Broncos' receivers, Bill Belichick and a million other retread names, it's also a great introduction of some new faces. As you watch this weekend's games, here are some people you might want to consider who have been vital to their team's success but who might not get the praise they deserve.
Broncos — It's a team of many well-knowns, and we'll spare you the "Hey, Montee Ball is someone you should watch!" rigmarole, because (a) fantasy players know all about him, and (b) the dude scored somewhere close to a thousand touchdowns in college at a Big Ten school. Instead, we'll choose to extol the virtues of defensive tackles Terrance Knighton, Malik Jackson and Sylvester Williams. Yes, Williams was a first-round pick, but he also has been the least-productive of the three — although he's coming on of late. Really, it has been the shockingly good play of Knighton (neé Pot Roast) and Jackson that has stood out of late. Against a suspect Patriots interior offensive line, these guys could flourish again.
Patriots — The other day on my biweekly spot on Montreal's TSN 690 with Mitch Melnick and Rod Francis, they presented me with a hypothetical challenge: If you walked into a Target store (they have those in Canada?) and asked the averaged guy to name five current Patriots, spotting them Brady and Belichick, the hypothetical guy might be in real trouble. They are the perfect study for this exercise, and for that we present them rookie linebacker Jamie Collins, who might have — seriously — had one of the most dominant and versatile performances against the Colts in a game this season by a linebacker, especially for a guy who became a defensive regular about a month ago. He dropped in coverage, he blitzed, he stopped the run, and it resulted in a six-tackle, one-sack, one-interception game that showed how talented Collins is and how major contributors seem to grow out of the fungus in the Gillette Stadium shower stalls. It's amazing.
49ers — Right tackle Anthony Davis occasionally will put his rather large foot in his rather large mouth, as he has recently when asked about his former Rutgers coach Greg Schiano (he called him a not-nice name) and about the Green Bay area (when he called it a not-nice descriptor), But Davis also can maul dudes. And for Harbaugh, isn't that just fine for him? Davis was beat on an inside move for a tackle for loss Sunday by Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson on the first play of the game. Johnson then was mostly silent the rest of the game, at least when Davis was blocking him. He has pass blocked exceptionally well of late and hasn't allowed a sack since November. Davis played poorly in the first matchup in Seattle but has a chance to redeem himself as he's come into his own. He'll see lots of Red Bryant, Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett, which should lead to some fantastic head-up battles.
Seahawks — If there's one member of the "Legion of Boom" secondary who has yet to reach mass overkill, it's Jeremy Lane. That's partly because Lane quietly just goes about his business while the rest of the group gets the headlines, but it's also because Lane had almost exclusively been a special-teamer this season before the suspensions of Brandon Browner and Walter Thurmond and some injuries in the secondary. But in the second half of the season Lane has stepped up and played some excellent ball on defense as a right corner and a slot corner, and people are just now coming around to recognize how fantastic an all-around player he is. First off, Lane was not just a special-teamer before, but rather one of the league's best punt and kickoff coverers (especially on punts), and he's quickly learning how to use his long arms and good speed to become a key defender in the best secondary in the NFL.
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