Championship Sunday promises everything but the element of surprise. There will be a defensive duel and a Hall of Fame quarterback duel, there will be perfect passes and hard hits galore, but there will not be any surprises. There may be upsets, but those will not be very upsetting. Brady and Manning have explored every avenue of suspense in their previous 14 meetings; they will provide the usual duels, but nothing short of a song-'n'-dance routine will shock us. The 49ers proved they could handle the Seahawks last month, so we head to Seattle expecting a 12-round decision that could go either way.
The only potential surprise is how much is at stake: The Seahawks and 49ers are battling for the right to define the NFL's next generation, while the Patriots and Broncos seek meaning and closure for the last one. The games may hold no surprises, but Game Riffs still has a few tricks up its sleeve!
49ers at Seahawks
Sunday, 6:30 p.m.
Line: Seahawks by 3½
Wouldn't it be cool if the NFL reseeded the final four, ignored conferences, and mixed-and-matched Sunday's games a little bit? Denver could host the 49ers, Seattle the Patriots. Instead of two clashes of familiar foes with similar philosophies, there would be a potential referendum on 2000s tactics versus 2010s tactics. Two legendary field marshals with their functionary support staffs versus Gen-Y silicon-economy next-think organizations with quarterbacks engineered for the viral/crowdsource/trending/tablet app era: winners take all.
Patriots fans may hate that idea -- give us ol' whipping boy Peyton, not that noisy crowd and a defense that gets almost as many calls as we do! But imagine the coronation-canonization Brady would receive if he beat the Seahawks defense in Seattle, as opposed to another variation on the same old same-old Brady heroics. Why, some Patriots fans would break three commandments before Brady even hoisted the Lamar Hunt Trophy, in their hearts at least. Plus, there would be a chance at a Brady-Peyton Super Bowl, which would cause a polar magnetic shift.
Speaking of commandments, the careful separation of established Elite™ quarterbacks into the other game and scrambling-and-defense up-and-comers into this game violates the first Commandment of the football wisdom catechism: Thou Shalt Have a Franchise Quarterback to Reach the Super Bowl. That commandment has taken more of a beating than the ninth and tenth real ones in recent years (try watching a luxury car commercial without coveting at least five people or things). Colin Kaepernick violated it last year, as did Joe Flacco, unless we perform the neat trick of applying "franchise quarterback" labels retroactively, which we do, but shouldn't. Kaepernick and Russell Wilson are fine young quarterbacks, they are multi-talented and developing, but both still have holes in their game and much to learn.
Stating that obvious point seems sacrilegious. Bright young stars are, practically by definition, inexperienced. But doing anything short of imbuing them with magic properties feels controversial. Kaepernick and Wilson may violate the First Commandment, but they offer a new testament to the meaning and value of the quarterback beatitudes:
Blessed are the poor in contract. Their teams can afford a better supporting cast.
Blessed are the mid-round draft picks, for they shall inherit reduced expectations.
Blessed are the scramblers, for they shall inhabit highlight reels.
Blessed are the Pacific Coast quarterbacks, for their media spotlight is not as broiling.
Blessed are the too-short and the too-skinny, for their obstacles are not as insurmountable as they seem. Also, the too-skinny can bulk up until they look like Justice League heroes.
Blessed are those who execute ball-control offenses, for no one will criticize their statistics.
Blessed are the lesser-known prospects, for national opinion mongers will discover their ethnicity too late to label them as "athletes playing quarterback."
Blessed are they whose defenses hold opponents under 20 points per game, whose running backs generate yardage after contact, and whose teams are so well managed that midseason injuries rarely result in disaster, for all they have to do is complete a few passes, run for a first down or two, and not turn the ball over, and they can reach the same plateau as Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.
As Kaepernick and Wilson prepare for the Super Bowl, they offer beleaguered franchises hope that they too can build championship-caliber teams with long-term potential while violating the First Commandment. Don't have the first pick in the draft at the exact moment the quarterback of a generation comes along? Cannot win a Tom Brady sixth-round lottery ticket no matter how many you buy? Just do what the Seahawks and 49ers did!
One small problem: what the Seahawks and 49ers did may have been harder than finding a franchise quarterback. All a team must do to imitate the 49ers and Seahawks' success is:
Become exceptional at drafting in the middle-to-late rounds. Discovering undrafted Pro Bowl talent on Canadian rosters or in other strange places also helps.
Adopt and commit to creative new offensive and defensive schemes, then scout, draft, and acquire the exact players to fit those schemes, with minimal scout-to-coach miscommunication or wasted organizational motion. Allow some time for this to take effect, making sure no one gets fired by an itchy owner.
Manage the salary cap so well, and trade so cannily, that you can put yourself in a "rich-get-richer" situation after your first success, adding Anquan Boldin or Cliff Avril with little difficulty.
Do whatever it takes to resurrect broken-down power backs. No one knows what that takes, but do it.
Make incredibly bold decisions about quarterback prospects who do not initially appear to be ready for their assignments. It took a mixture of foresight and a willingness to gamble to replace Alex Smith and Matt Flynn last year.
And so on. If such things were easy, everyone would do them. Attempts to repeat the 49ers-Seahawks model will be simplified by the league's medium-picture imaginations into a simple, unsuccessful formula: draft Jordan Lynch in the third round, some 6-foot-3 cornerbacks in the seventh round, find some 230-pound running back in free agency, act like Captain Lou Albano on the sidelines, and wait for the rings and Pepsi commercials!
Most of what the Seahawks and 49ers have done right has been done in meeting rooms, film grinding sessions, minicamps and back-country scouting trips. Some of it was borrowed, spiritually if not procedurally, from Bill Belichick and the Patriots. Thirteen years ago, Belichick the economist was exploiting market inefficiencies, finding low-cost defenders who did not fit the round holes of late-1990s strategy and acquiring castoff power backs to grind out yardage while his quarterback rose to superstar status. Tom Brady was the first violator of the First Commandment long before he became a Defender of the Faith, and his Frank Gore and Marshawn Lynch were named Corey Dillon and Antowain Smith. If a generational changing of the guard is in store for February 2nd -- and we are guaranteed a storyline that can be spun that way - we may meet a new boss destined to become the same as the old boss.
So who is most worthy to challenge the legends of the AFC? The Seahawks are the superior team, but the 49ers defensive front seven, when matched against the rickety Seahawks offensive line, is a great equalizer. Home field advantage remains a huge deal, but Wilson's recent slump is problematic: like Kaepernick in midseason, he looks downfield and distrusts what he sees, in part because he does not see Sidney Rice (inactive since October) or Percy Harvin (may play Sunday, probably won't, probably shouldn't), two of his most promising targets.
Recent Seahawks-Niners matchups offer two scenarios. The Seahawks could engineer one of their slow-motion avalanche blowouts, like the ones they produced in their last two home meetings with the Niners. That appears unlikely because of recent events, including last week's Saints game: the Seahawks had a chance to grind the Saints into powder but could not because their offense is too inconsistent and red-zone inefficient.
The second scenario is the low-scoring game decided by a field goal, like the 49ers 19-17 win a few weeks ago. That's the game most of us expect, but the result is less certain than the style. When two teams are as similar in quality and qualities as the 49ers and Seahawks, both literal and probabilistic noise become factors. This game could be decided by a crowd-induced 49ers false start, or some squandered timeouts that cripple a two-minute drill. It could also come down a turnover (though that can be said of many games), or something no fan wants to see: a borderline roughness penalty, called or uncalled.
In the end, there is no good reason to bet against the Seahawks at home, nor is there any good reason to be surprised if the 49ers nip them. We know what these teams can do against each other, and eagerly await learning what they will do in three weeks to the established NFL hierarchy.
Prediction: Seahawks 24, 49ers 21.
Patriots at Broncos
Sunday, 3:00 p..m.
Line: Broncos by 4½
The Patriots are not a dynasty like the 1970s Steelers. The Patriots are not a dynasty like the 1960s-70s Cowboys. The Patriots are a dynasty like the 1970s Steelers and 1960s-70s Cowboys put together.
From the Steel Curtain Steelers, they adopted their jackhammer run of rapid-succession Super Bowls. They acquired the ability to evolve from a defense-first trench brawler into a high-flying aerial show whose biggest stars were a quarterback and two receivers: one acrobatic and one efficient. Finally, they inherited some strains of the Steelers' football-as-morality vibe, the blue-collar rust belt gumption of the Steel Curtain reimagined as kind of philosophical purity test for 21st century Northeast suburbanites.
From America's Team (term applied historically and therefore un-ironically), the Patriots acquired the ability to sustain success across multiple personnel cycles. At their core, the 1970s Steelers were one draft class that rose and fell. The Cowboys changed everything beneath Tom Landry and kept reaching championships, just as the Patriots can go from Bruschi to Mayo to Jamie Collins, Law to Samuel to Talib, Branch to Moss to Welker to Gronk and back to Branch, so long as Belichick and Brady remain constant. The Patriots inherited the Cowboys' forward-thinking organizational procedures that allow such roster turnover. They also inherited the publicity, popularity, and glamor, with all of the resentment that comes with it.
The Patriots, in other words, are America's Curtain.
No wonder the Patriots are so successful, so undeniable, so simultaneously lovable and loathsome. Start by combining the laziest mythmaking and image spinning of the old Steelers and Cowboys. They are grizzled factory workers... with sexy disco dancing cheerleaders! They get things done in the grime and muck... and with shiny computers and shotgun offenses! They do things the old-fashioned right way... and the creative, star-spangled, newfangled right way! Now take that combined Cowboys-Steelers image and use the modern mass-media to Matrix-jack it into your brain for your entire adult life.
That's the Patriots, or at least our perception of them. The 1970s Steelers and Cowboys were both loved and disliked for entirely different reasons. The Patriots are both loved and disliked for both reasons. They provide something for everyone, homer and hater, booster and troll, fair-weather football fan and junkie. Sports-as-moral-saga types can spin them either way; some have spun them both ways in the last seven months. You can like Brady because he's pretty, hate him because he's pretty, love him because he's gritty, or hate him because you think he pretends to be gritty. They are all the ingredients necessary for high football drama. Just add opponent.
And when the opponent is Peyton Manning, that's an added bonus.
Having done this 14 times before, we come to expect Brady and Manning's teammates to evaporate beneath the epic rivalry heat lamp. This time, however, their teammates really have evaporated. The problem is most noticeable in Denver, where the Broncos have resurrected a geezer patrol of Champ Bailey, Quentin Jammer, and Michael Huff in their secondary in the wake of injuries to Chris Harris and others. The Broncos secondary has a 2000s AFC vibe that fits the quarterback duel, and Shaun Phillips is also on hand for the AFC West playoff reunion, but this is an old, bad defense that bears little resemblance to the spry Von Miller model (not great, but skilled in the sack-and-turnover game) the Broncos deployed in midseason.
The Patriots have their own injury problems, but America's Curtain has coping mechanisms. The Patriots defensive youngsters bear little resemblance to Jerod Mayo or Vince Wilfork, but Belichick fit the newcomers into the machine the way he has for 13 seasons, albeit with accelerated urgency. The 2012 draft brought a Chandler Jones, Donta Hightower, and Alfonzo Dennard pipeline that may be coalescing into the next great nucleus at just the right time. The Patriots defense is not as great as Belichick would like nor as bad as the Broncos' defense right now. It can generate enough stops to tilt this familiar rivalry in a familiar way.
All of those old-timers in the secondary remind us that the Broncos are a short-term spackle job with several last-ride veterans to escort the team through its Manning-sized-and-shaped championship window. Just three seasons ago, their franchise decision maker was a power-crazed young pharaoh who fought with assistants, squandered draft picks, and ran veterans out of town for failing to toe his ever-thickening line.
That crazed young pharaoh has been brought to heel by Caesar Belichick, and Josh McDaniels' contributions to the Patriots cause have come in mysterious ways. There are a few fruits of the 2008-10 draft on the Broncos roster (like the receivers), but there is no core of young veterans, nor an established organizational system that predates John Fox's arrival. Peyton Manning is the quarterback of a rebuilding team that is only a powerhouse because of his presence. Brady is the foreman of a factory that is still unveiling the next model year. The Patriots relied on Brady more than ever before in 2013, but they did not rely on him as much as the Broncos relied on Manning.
A Patriots victory, powered more by their assembly line approach to talent development than any head-to-head jousting, will spur the usual wearisome discussion of Manning's "legacy." When did "he only won one championship" because a legitimate criticism? Who sets the bar for "minimum championships to qualify as an all-time great" these days? All legacies are questioned, but few individuals leave legacies, and I will take Manning's over every single one of his now-and-future questioners' a thousand times over. The Brady-Manning rivalry and era has been too great to approach so simplistically.
But perhaps a Patriots victory will inspire something more noble: a sense of acceptance and perspective about what sports greatness means to the 21st century fan. What were the old Steelers and Cowboys, really, but two interpretations of the American Dream? They were energy and ingenuity, brimstone mornings and fireworks evenings, coal dust in the lungs and rhinestones on the chaps, our work ethic and boisterousness at war with each other through a turbulent decade.
The America's Curtain Patriots (the team in our hearts and heads, not necessarily on the field) are all of these things weaved together but uncomfortable with the contradictions. Playboys, mad scientists, Nixonian schemers, fresh-faced rookies, boy geniuses on short leashes, rehabilitated hard cases, unconscionable felons, Horatio Alger characters come to life, fierce brawlers following orders from brainy economists, champions, cheaters, guys who had it easy, guys who paid far too dearly, Mona Tebows and Mad Hatters: the 2001-14 Patriots are the good and bad in all of us, but they come together and succeed, time and again. With one more win, we may finally understand why we love and hate what we see so much. Behind America's Curtain, we find an American mirror.
Then in two weeks, some NFC West team smashes it, and a new generation will start the cycle over again.
Prediction: Patriots 35, Broncos 34.