I’ve said it before (two years ago this week, in fact), and I’ll say it again:
For my money, the best football day is conference championship Sunday—two games instead of one, each with huge stakes, without all the distracting pageantry of the Super Bowl.
It was true at the time, but I’d say it’s especially true this year. The football gods have gifted fans with the two best matchups in the NFL on the same day, with a trip to the Meadowlands and Super Bowl glory on the line.
Even if you're a casual football fan who only ever watches the Super Bowl, this is one additional day you should park yourself in front of the television and enjoy. Whom should you watch? What's at stake? And why might it rain candy in Seattle? We've got all the answers in this primer for Sunday's conference championship games.
AFC Championship Game: New England Patriots (13-4) at Denver Broncos (14-3), 3PM ET, CBS
The Line: Broncos by 5.5 points.
The Big Story: Manning-Brady XV. Denver's Peyton Manning and New England's Tom Brady—two of the five greatest quarterbacks of all time, still in their primes after more than a decade in the league—will meet for the 15th time in their illustrious careers and the fourth time in the playoffs.
Both QBs are Hall of Fame locks at this point, and a win in this game would advance either player's case in the Greatest QB of All Time discussion. Manning put up single-season records for touchdown passes (55!) and passing yards (5,477) while leading the Broncos to the highest single-season point total in NFL history (606). But the elder Manning brother is just 4-10 against Brady in his career, including a heartbreaking loss in Week 12…
Rematch Factor: … and that loss back in November doubled as the NFL's game of the year. After Manning powered the Broncos to a 24-0 halftime lead, Brady and the Pats stormed back with 31 unanswered second-half points in front of a rabid home crowd. Denver scored a late TD to force overtime, but a fumbled punt late in OT sealed the Broncos' fate. It was the largest comeback win in Pats' history.
Player to Watch: Manning or Brady would be too obvious, so let's go with Wes Welker. My father has taken to calling the Broncos' pesky wide receiver "The Vantz," and it's an apt description. Welker has a knack for worming his way open and getting the necessary yards on Big Plays—third downs and goal-to-go situations (like his second-quarter touchdown against the Chargers last weekend). And Welker has an intimate understanding of the Patriot Way after being Tom Brady's security blanket for the past half-decade (672 receptions in six seasons with New England). The Pats held Welker to just 31 yards on four catches in the Week 12 matchup, but look for The Vantz to have a big game Sunday.
Coaching Mojo: Advantage, Pats. What else can you say when one of the best coaches of all time has his greatest season ever? Bill Belichick has overcome the loss of numerous key players (Rob Gronkowski, Vince Wilfork, Jerrod Mayo, and alleged murderer Aaron Hernandez) and basically re-invented New England's offense on the fly. What other coach could get a franchise-record playoff performance from LeGarrette Blount (166 rushing yards, 4 TDs)—who, at this time last year, was on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers scrap heap? Denver's John Fox has a track record of success, but Belichick is Belichick.
Fun Commercial-Break Fact: Peyton Manning's incessant use of the phrase "Omaha!" in his snap counts in the divisional round got a shout-out from the marketing Twitter account of Omaha, Neb.