Super Bowl spots at stake in playoff showdowns
Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos calls a play during the AFC Divisional Playoff Game against the San Diego Chargers in Denver, Colorado, on January 12, 2014 - by Doug Pensinger
New England will visit the Broncos in the American Conference final while the Seahawks and their notoriously noisy home crowd will entertain San Francisco in the National Conference final.
The playoff semi-final showdowns will decide the opponents in Super Bowl 48 on February 2 in suburban New York, with Brady seeking a fourth Super Bowl crown and Manning hoping for a second.
Brady leads Manning 10-4 in the all-time rivalry of star quarterbacks, with wins in two of their three playoff meetings.
Brady pulled off the greatest comeback of his career in the regular season when Denver took a 24-0 half-time lead at New England only to have the Patriots rally for a 34-31 overtime win.
But Manning, cut by Indianapolis after neck surgery and signed by Denver in early 2012, has not lost a rematch game since 2007, going 5-0 since then in second chances against teams that beat him earlier in a campaign.
"We're excited about the opportunity," Manning said. "We have certainly come a long way. We've overcome a lot of obstacles to put ourselves in this position. It's certainly very exciting."
The Broncos set an NFL one-season scoring record with Manning setting new NFL passing yardage and passing touchdowns marks. One of his favorite targets is Wes Welker, an ex-Patriots receiver.
"They are great quarterbacks. There aren't too many differences," Welker said in comparing the star passers. "They do a great job of keeping guys accountable with their leadership skills and everything else, the way they go about their business and the way they study (opponents)."
Brady missed Wednesday's practice due to illness but was back at work Thursday.
"I got back out there and got a lot of work in," Brady said. "Everything is important at this point. It's a matter of us focusing on all the aspects of the game. Execution is very important and we have to be our very best to advance."
Manning expects Brady to be at full power Sunday for New England's first road playoff game since 2007, one that figures to be high scoring.
"Our defense is in for a tough challenge," said Manning. "We have to do our part offensively. The thing that jumps out about Tom is his consistency. He's a better player each year than he was the year before."
Patriots coach Bill Belichick can match Tom Landry for the most playoff coaching wins in NFL history by taking his 20th on Sunday.
"It's going to be a challenge but we're looking forward to it," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "Manning is a great quarterback but we have got to prepare for the entire team.
He's as good as we're going to face. We'll be out there defending not only him but the 10 guys that are out there with him. They are pretty good too."
The Patriots have not won a Super Bowl since 2005, losing to the New York Giants in 2008 and 2012. The Broncos have not reached the championship spectacle since back-to-back wins in 1998 and 1999.
Seattle's only Super Bowl appearance was a 2006 loss to Pittsburgh while the 49ers seek a return to the big game after losing last year to Baltimore in their first Super Bowl since beating San Diego in 1995 for their fifth crown in 14 seasons.
The Seahawks led the NFL in denying opponents points and yardage and beat San Francisco 29-3 earlier this season in Seattle, where they have won the past two meetings with the 49ers by a combined 71-16.
"We haven't done anything yet," said Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. "We have to stay focused and play the best we can."
The 49ers have experience with the Seattle crowds, whose record noise levels make hearing coded play signals difficult for opponents.
But the Seahawks are 16-1 at home over two years and have won six home playoff games in a row.
"We're ready to go," 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick said. "We're a different team than the last time we played up there."