It does appear that Super Bowl XLVIII will feature the two best teams in the NFL. For just the second time since 1993 both the AFC’s and NFC’s No. 1 seeds have advanced to the championship game. The Saints and Colts – with Peyton Manning at quarterback – also turned the trick in 2009.
This time though, Denver and Seattle each needed a little bit of help.
For the Denver Broncos, the AFC Championship game really was all about Manning, and it left you wondering if the Broncos are in fact a team of destiny this year.
Manning was brilliant from the opening whistle and finished the day with 400 yards passing and two touchdowns, and the Denver defense completely throttled the New England ground game, holding the Patriots to 64 yards on 16 carries.
But early in the second quarter with the Broncos leading just 3-0, Patriots Pro Bowl cornerback Aqib Talib suffered a knee injury on a block from Wes Welker that probably should have been an offensive pass interference call and wasn’t, and Talib was lost for the day.
From that point on Manning had his way with the New England secondary, and Demaryius Thomas finished the day with seven catches for 134 yards and a touchdown.
Thomas was shut down by Talib for most of the evening in the Pats' come-from-behind victory in November, and Thomas suggested Talib may have been the difference in the game.
However, suggesting that is the reason the Broncos are going to the Super Bowl would be short-changing Manning and the Denver defense, particularly 350-pound defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, who led the charge with four tackles, two for loss and one sack.
Manning missed just 11 of his 43 pass attempts, averaged 9.3 yards an attempt, and had a 118.4 passer rating. Denver was 7 of 13 on third down and put up 507 yards of total offense in a game that wasn’t as close as the score might suggest.
On the other hand, the Seahawks and 49ers game came down to the final minute, and while Seattle clinched its trip to New York on a great play from All Pro cornerback, Richard Sherman with 25 seconds left, it’s quite possible they wouldn’t be making the trip without an unusual amount of help from the officials.
The NFC title game was so even each team had 308 yards of total offense, and the Seahawks needed a horrible personal foul call on Donte Whitner on a perfectly clean shoulder pad-to-shoulder pad hit to set up their first field goal. A blown roughing the kicker call allowed the Seahawks to keep possession of the ball and score the touchdown that put them ahead, 20-17.
Still, the Seahawks had to make the plays to take advantage of those breaks, and they came from some unexpected sources.
Six catches for 106 yards and a 69-yard kickoff return from Doug Baldwin, and a 35-yard touchdown catch from Jermaine Kearse were the difference in the game for Seattle.
One blemish on the Seahawks' second NFC title was the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Sherman after his game-saving play in the end zone and then a classless outburst on national TV explaining it. But as he said while he was embarrassing himself and his team, he is the best cornerback in football right now.
Championship Sunday was a good day of football that didn’t quite live up to its billing, but the Seahawks and 49ers did give us high drama, and the outcomes have given us a dream Super Bowl.
The week in New York will culminate with the NFL’s No. 1 offense of the Broncos taking on the league’s No. 1 defense of the Seahawks.
It sounds like fun. Now if the weather will just cooperate. ...
• Hub Arkush covers the NFL for Shaw Media and HubArkush.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.