NFL playoffs: Conference championship games are a football fan’s dream

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As much of a fan of the NFL as anyone connected to the sport, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson is well aware of the appeal of the two conference championship games looming on Sunday.

People want to watch quarterbacks, and between the New England Patriots visiting the Denver Broncos and Wilson and the Seahawks hosting Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers, there’s definitely an old-school/new-school vibe to the two games.

“I like to think about the ‘new generation’ of quarterbacks, and then you have Tom Brady and Peyton Manning on the other side in the AFC playing each other,” Wilson told reporters earlier this week. “That’s a pretty interesting thing to think about, in terms of the read option and of all that is here today.”

The quarterbacks’ playing styles differ, but the goal is the same. A victory on Sunday will lead to Super Bowl XLVIII, which will be held in East Rutherford, N.J. on Feb. 2.

Each game will be a rematch of exciting encounters earlier this season. As divisional opponents, San Francisco and Seattle faced off twice, with the Seahawks winning 29-3 at home in Week 2 and the 49ers gaining the upper hand with a 19-17 victory in Week 14. Denver and New England faced off in Week 12, with the Patriots emerging with a 34-31 overtime victory despite the Broncos leading 24-0 at halftime.

“I think you look back at the game, but at the same time, it’s a new game,” said Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker. “The style is different, the way we go about things [will be different], the weather will be different – a lot of those different things. You take a lot from it, but at the same time, you don’t dive into it too much or over-analyze it or anything else. You just try to get ready the best you can and understand the game is not going to be totally the same, but you still do your homework from the last one.”

Brady and Manning have faced off 14 times, with Brady and the Patriots winning two of the three times their teams have met in the playoffs – including two AFC championship games. When Manning threw 55 touchdown passes this year to set a single-season record, he topped Brady, who held the previous record with 50 touchdown passes in 2007.

Asked earlier this week to rank the best quarterbacks he’s played against, Manning hedged, noting he’s faced Dan Marino, Troy Aikman, Brett Favre, Steve Young, Aaron Rodgers, his brother Eli Manning and, of course, Brady.

“I feel like he’s been a better player each year than he was the year before, and that, to me, speaks to his work ethic in the offseason, his refusal to be complacent or satisfied,” Manning said. “He always feels like he can step his game up one level higher, which [in] some of the seasons he’s had, you say, ‘How can you get better than that?’ But I think he has done that.”

The Patriots, who won the AFC East for the 11th time in the past 13 seasons, are seeking their eighth trip to the Super Bowl and their sixth with Brady. They’ve been a slightly different team than in past seasons; their running game, typically an afterthought, ranked ninth in the league this year, and running back LeGarrette Blount’s 166 rushing yards and four touchdowns in a victory over the Indianapolis Colts last Saturday epitomized the shift in strategy.

Denver, meanwhile, is looking for its first Super Bowl appearance since the days of John Elway, who led the Broncos to consecutive titles under former Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan in 1997 and 1998. Manning, who joined the team prior to last season after 11 with the Indianapolis Colts, has played a major role in the team’s turnaround.

Peyton Manning is a very smart quarterback,” said Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones. “His knowledge of the game – when you play someone like that, everyone has to be sound, everyone has to be in position and everyone has to do their job.”

In Seattle, where the Seahawks are eyeing their second Super Bowl appearance and the storied 49ers their seventh, the focus won’t be as much on the quarterbacks as it is on two teams that  simply do not like each other. The vitriol between Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh has carried from their days competing against each other with Southern California and Stanford, and was punctuated by a terse post-game handshake in 2009 when Carroll alleged Harbaugh ran up the score in a game between the two universities.

Harbaugh downplayed the emotion earlier this week, insisting that there was no animosity between the two and that any suggestions otherwise were “erroneous.”

The players, though, don’t seem so convinced.

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