NFL: Championship weekend filled with biggest and brightest
The Super Bowl needs a ratings boost like a racecar could use more horsepower.
No program in television history has lured more viewers. No single sporting event is capable of commercially generating more hype.
This time, the NFL's annual national holiday has some competition for the attention, drama and intrigue. The challenge has come from within: the league's semifinals.
The conference championship games set for Sunday have all but guaranteed a popular pairing for the title game in New Jersey on Feb. 2, but the peak of this postseason could actually be reached this weekend.
"It's hard to find a better set of four. Really, any combination you come up with for the Super Bowl is going to be a great matchup," said CBS Sports announcer Jim Nantz.
In the AFC, the Tom Brady-Peyton Manning rematch in the New England-Denver game is an epic qualifier for the Super Bowl.
The NFC, though, features fierce division rivals, two of the best under-27 quarterbacks around, and a prickly relationship between head coaches with the San Francisco-Seattle game. The Seahawks are so good at home, and CenturyLink Field is so loud, that the stadium is a story in itself.
Then there's the fact both contests Sunday will be played outside, raising the possibility of unpredictable weather to help prepare the winners for, well, unpredictable weather.
The decision to subject the Super Bowl to potential cold, wind and snow for the first time in history put the league in position for criticism if the title tilt were to be influenced by, say, a fumbled wet ball or a gust-guided missed field goal.
With two of these remaining teams on stage, however, the weather will be hard-pressed to make the headlines. The NFL, this carefully cultivated cultural magnet and money-making machine, has managed to top itself yet again with these conference championship matchups.
Sure, Brady and Manning have squared off for a spot in the Super Bowl twice before. Three straight Dallas-San Francisco games in the 1990s were memorable. But recalling a better set of matchups than this? Good luck. These four teams combined for a 50-14 record in the regular season.
"If you're a football fan, it can't get any better than this week," Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson said. "You think about the NFC championship game, us versus the 49ers, and you think about the AFC side and the Patriots versus the Broncos, that's as good as it gets."
Brady already beat Manning this season when the Patriots overcame a 24-0 halftime deficit to defeat the Broncos 34-31 in overtime. This will be the 15th time they'll play against each other, and Brady has already won 10.
"This is tantamount to Ali-Frazier one more time. This is Palmer-Nicklaus. This is Bird-Magic," Nantz said. "I'm not trying to create some sort of synthetic drama here, but this is what it is. This is as big as it gets. We're going to savor it, because you don't know how many more times we'll get it again."
If the Patriots win, they'll tie Dallas and Pittsburgh for the most Super Bowl appearances with eight. Brady, who has already won three – but none since the 2004 season – would also set a record with his sixth trip as a starting quarterback.
Manning has made two, winning one. Despite leading the Broncos to the most points in NFL regular-season history in his second season back from the neck injury that ended his tenure in Indianapolis, the chatter that he hasn't won enough in the playoffs has persisted. Brady is immune, with a record 18 postseason victories in 25 starts.
Don't forget about the coaches in this drama, either.
Bill Belichick would match Tom Landry's all-time mark with 20 postseason wins, and Don Shula's record of six Super Bowl appearances if the Patriots triumph. Then there's Belichick's offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, no stranger to Denver. He had two tumultuous years as head coach of the Broncos, and is not remembered fondly by the orange-and-blue clad fans.
The coaches are more central to the narrative on the other side.
Pete Carroll famously and angrily asked Jim Harbaugh, "What's your deal?" in 2009 after Stanford ran up the score in a win over Southern California, which Carroll left for the Seahawks the following season.
Harbaugh departed the college ranks the year after to take over the 49ers, and their teams have been fighting over the NFC West since.
Leading run-first, defense-fueled teams, millennials Wilson and Colin Kaepernick are from a different mold than Brady and Manning of Generation X. But they're more than capable of taking the baton.
The all-time series is tied at 15. This will be their first meeting in the playoffs, but likely not the last.
"I think it's the best rivalry in football right now," Fox analyst Troy Aikman said.
With a pretty good one in the AFC game, too.