Well, well. We meet again.
Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady in the AFC championship game. The San Francisco 49ers vs. the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC title bout.
It’ll be a Sunday of rivalry showdowns next weekend, with familiar foes a win away from the Super Bowl.
Manning helped lead the Denver Broncos past the San Diego Chargers 24-17 on Sunday, setting up another meeting with Brady and the New England Patriots.
The Broncos opened as 6 1/2-point favourites for the game at Denver.
“It’s the Broncos versus the Patriots and certainly Tom and I have played against each other a lot,” Manning said, “but when you get to the AFC championship, it’s about two good teams that have been through a lot to get there.”
In the NFC, the 49ers and Seahawks are all set to play for the NFC championship in the latest chapter in one of the NFL’s budding — and bitter — rivalries.
The Seahawks (14-3) opened as 3-point favourites for the game at Seattle.
The Broncos (14-3) controlled the game against the Chargers (10-8) for 3 1/2 quarters before Philip Rivers capitalized on an injury to cornerback Chris Harris Jr. to stage a comeback reminiscent of Baltimore’s shocking win at Denver exactly a year earlier.
But this time, Manning rescued the Broncos from the brink of another crushing collapse and sent them into the title game for the first time in eight seasons.
Manning and Brady have squared off 14 times throughout their careers, with the Patriots quarterback holding a 10-4 edge in the head-to-head matchup — including a 34-31 overtime victory in November.
“They’re a great team, they had a big win last night,” Manning said. “We’re going to enjoy this one tonight, start to work on them tomorrow and I know it’ll be a heck of a game.”
Manning was 25 of 36 for 230 yards and two TDs, but the Broncos controlled the clock by largely sticking to the ground game.
After gaining just 18 yards against San Diego last month, the Broncos ran for 133 yards, including 82 by Knowshon Moreno, whose 3-yard TD run put them ahead 24-7 with 8:12 left.
The Chargers rallied to get within a score late, but Manning completed a pair of key third-down passes in the final minutes to prevent San Diego from getting a final chance.
At Foxborough, Mass., LeGarrette Blount carried the Patriots (13-4) to their third straight AFC title game with four touchdown runs in a 43-22 victory over the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday night.
“It’s just a great achievement,” Brady said.
“People have counted us out at times this year, but I think we’ve got a locker room full of believers.”
It’s easy to see why after they forced Andrew Luck into throwing four interceptions and ran for six scores against the Colts.
“We just had to keep our foot on the gas pedal,” Blount said, “and make sure that they didn’t to us what they did to Kansas City.”
Last weekend, the Colts (12-6) pulled off a stunning 45-44 victory over the Chiefs in which they overcame a 38-10 third-quarter deficit in the wild-card game for the second-biggest comeback victory in NFL playoff history.
This time, there was no such come-from-behind performance for Luck and the Colts.
At Charlotte, N.C., Colin Kaepernick threw a touchdown pass and ran for another score and the 49ers defeated the Carolina Panthers 23-10 on Sunday.
San Francisco, which lost last year to Baltimore, is looking for a return trip to the Super Bowl. And lots of hard hits and plenty of jawing might be expected in this latest matchup with the Seahawks.
“I think we’re the two teams everyone was looking at from the beginning,” Kaepernick said. “It’s going to be a knockdown, drag-out game.”
The 49ers have committed seven turnovers and been outscored 71-16 in their past two trips to Seattle, including a 29-3 Week 2 loss in September.
“We’re a different team than we were the first time we played them up there,” Kaepernick insisted.
The 49ers (14-4) will get a chance to prove that next weekend after Kaepernick completed 15 of 28 passes for 196 yards Sunday, avenging his worst statistical performance of the season two months ago against the Panthers. He was held to 91 yards passing and 16 yards rushing in the first meeting with Carolina, a 10-9 loss at Candlestick Park.
On Saturday, Marshawn Lynch ran for a franchise playoff-record 140 yards and two touchdowns and Seattle’s defence flustered Drew Brees and New Orleans in a 23-15 victory. The top-seeded Seahawks advanced to the NFC title game for the second time, and first since the 2005 playoffs.
“We haven’t done anything yet,” quarterback Russell Wilson said. “That’s our goal. We have 60 minutes of football left.”
Against a familiar foe.
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh have been rivals dating to their days as opponents in the old Pac-10 conference.
In 2009, after Harbaugh’s Stanford team ran up the score on Carroll’s Southern California squad in a 55-21 rout, the two met at midfield and an annoyed Carroll barked, “What’s your deal?”
They’ve carried that over to the NFL — and it might get ramped up again during the week with a Super Bowl appearance on the line.
“We’re healthy, we’re a great team and we’re willing to do whatever it takes to get that ring,” Gore said. “We’re playing great ball.”
The 49ers held Cam Newton in check, intercepting him twice and sacking him five times while stopping the Panthers (12-5) twice on the 1-yard line in the first half.
At Seattle, Steven Hauschka kicked three field goals in blustery conditions, and Lynch capped the victory with a 31-yard scoring run with 2:40 left that Carroll celebrated by jumping into offensive line coach Tom Cable’s arms.
“It feels awesome,” fullback Michael Robinson said, “but this doesn’t mean anything if we don’t win next week.”