And then there were two. The AFC and the NFC have their champions—the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks—and just one game remains before crowning the ultimate victor.
In many ways, it is the outcome most would have expected, the number one ranked team in each conference, the most rounded teams in the league, will meet in New York to fight for the biggest prize in pro football.
The AFC championship game was largely a whitewash, the 26-16 final score belying the absolute domination Denver showed for most of the game. Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning did what he had done all season, completed 32-of-43 passes for 400 yards, and three touchdowns, leading his team to a sure victory. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, on the other hand, was unsuccessful doing what he had become famous for—leading his team to come-from-behind victories—and without that spark, the loss always seemed assured.
The Broncos lead 13-3 at the half, but came out in the second half knowing that Brady, Belichick and the Patriots were 4-2 in games where they were behind by double digits at the half, and didn’t ease off the brakes.
Brady’s second half comebacks have become something of legend during this season. An 80 yard touchdown drive for the Broncos to open the second half, and chew up more than 7 minutes off the clock in doing so, however, all but sealed the deal.
The Broncos were helped by injuries on the Patriots defense. Without Aquib Talib, who was injured early in the game, Manning had a much easier job completing passes and racking up yards than he otherwise might, and no-one on the Patriots defense seemed comfortable or confident in their abilities to stop the Broncos dominant offense.
From then on, with a 20-3 lead, the Broncos defense were confident to sit back, and allow the Patriots to beat themselves. In the second half, the Broncos defense understood their goal. Slow down Brady, keep the clock moving, and don’t give up big plays, and that is exactly what they did. Though the Patriots would post another 13 points in the final quarter, including touchdowns for Brady both through the air and on the ground, by then it was too little, too late. The Broncos had already added six of their own, and it was victory formation for Denver.
In the NFC, however, things were not so straightforward for the Seattle Seahawks.
The game was always expected to be a hard-fought battle, won and lost in the trenches, dominated by defence, and that is exactly what it became.
In the first half of the game, defense dominated. The 49ers managed to achieve a slim 10-3 lead, but everyone knew a single touchdown lead in a game like that wouldn’t be enough. Colin Kaepernick had rushed for 98 yards, including a career long 58-yard run in the second quarter. However, aside from this, neither team had otherwise done very much offensively.
Coming out of the half, the game was poised on a knife-edge, and no-one could tell how it was going to tip.
A 40 yard touchdown by Marshawn Lynch tied the game, but the 49ers fought back, courtesy of an Anquan Boldin touchdown pass.
As the game progressed to its inevitable, nail-biting conclusion, everyone sensed the same thing, that one way or another, Kaepernick would be the difference maker.
Kaepernick is a ticking time bomb and I have no idea which side is going to sustain the damage.
— Matt Hinton (@MattRHinton) January 20, 2014
In the end, Kaepernick self destructed, and the 49ers took the damage. The Seahawks posted 13 unanswered points, and three Kaepernick interceptions in the fourth quarter sealed the deal.
His final pass of the game was strangely reminiscent of his final pass of the Super Bowl game nearly 12 months ago. Like then, he targeted Michael Crabtree in the end zone, like then, Crabtree was unable to haul it in. But this time, as if to add insult to injury, the pass was tipped by Richard Sherman, and intercepted by linebacker Malcolm Smith.
In the end, the score was probably the right one. Seattle have made their way to the top of the NFC on the strength of their defense, and it was fitting that a spectacular defensive play, by the man who would style himself as the best corner in football, decided the game.