The 2014 NFL Conference Championships: Get Ready for the Best
What’s better than watching Joe Flacco in the Super Bowl? Anything. Anything. Seriously, I’d take a Colt McCoy-Blaine Gabbert Super Bowl over another one with Flacco, because at least their names are interesting.
So imagine my joy – nay, glee – when we were gifted these Championship Games. Not only will Flacco not be returning to the Super Bowl, but we instead have Tom Brady playing Peyton Manning, and Colin Kaepernick playing Russell Wilson for the final two spots in the big game. All is right with the world.
New England Patriots at Denver Broncos
The Broncos top ranked passing attack vs the Patriots 18th ranked pass defense. New England’s 10th ranked passing attack vs Denver’s 27th ranked pass defense. If only it were that simple. The real story of this match-up, of course, is Tom Brady vs Peyton Manning. Never on the field at the same time, the two are nevertheless pitted against one another in the competition for this generations’ best quarterback. It can only be one of them, fan logic dictates. There has to be a best and second best.
Who’s the better player? Well, whose answer do you trust? Their former and current centers have opinions and favorite memories. Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman asked eight NFL personnel men who they’d rather have right now – their answer was Brady, 7-1. Take it back five years, and they split down the middle, 4-4. Overall though, the consensus among those eight personnel men is that Brady has done “more with less” throughout his career. Jamarcus Russell selections be damned – these men have clout, and their opinions matter. No question.
And yet JJ Zachariason of numberFire provides an intriguing statistical breakdown of both players and the help they’ve received from their defenses throughout their NFL careers. Using a metric called Passing NEP, which evaluates how many points a quarterback adds to his team’s “bottom line” through the air, Zachariason determines that Manning has seven of the 10 best passing seasons between the two, and is clearly the more efficient passer.
But wait, you say, Tom Brady’s had more success in the playoffs, and that’s what matters.
True, but Zachariason provides insight into that, too. See, since becoming the starter in New England, “Brady’s been on teams that have averaged an Adjusted Defensive NEP total of -19.43.” To put that in context, the average Patriots defense would’ve placed eighth in total defense in 2012. Not so, for Manning. As Zachariason quips, “Number 18’s defenses could’ve starred in The Replacements, averaging a 22.01 score across his career.” Bottom line, Brady’s defenses afforded him almost a three point advantage over Manning’s defenses. Obviously that’s huge in the NFL, where it seems multiple games are won by a field goal or less every weekend.
In a similar quest to truly single out Brady and Manning’s respective impacts on their football teams, ESPN’s Greg Garber sought out NFL aficionados, coaches, general managers, analysts, league officials, and former teammates to ask them who would be better if Manning and Brady switched careers – that is, Manning played in New England under Belichick and Brady played in Indianapolis and then Denver. The ridiculous number of variables aside, it’s an interesting question. Predictably, many answered on the condition of anonymity, not wanting to anger Brady or Manning, and their answers split right down the middle.
One guessed Manning would have five rings with the Pats and Brady zero. Another thought they’d each have two. Dick Vermeil wondered if you might have seen a couple 19-0 seasons, but wouldn’t specify which team he was talking about. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess he meant Manning with Belichick and the Patriots – duh. Ozzie Newsome seemed certain nothing would be different. “They are who they are,” he stated. In the end, Newsome’s response might be the best answer to this debate – Brady and Manning are who they are. There’s a lot we can measure and make a statistic, but we’re not quite at the point where we can tell how one player – even a quarterback – affects how his running backs run, how his receivers run routs, how his defense plays, or how his special teams play on any given night.
Now, be warned. I’m a convicted Peyton Manning apologist.
But as fervently as I’ll argue that Peyton Manning is the best ever, I’m a negative nancy when it comes to each round of the playoffs. I don’t believe that his 10-11 postseason record is indicative of how he handles the pressure of playoff football, but I can’t shake the feeling that something will go wrong, that he’ll lose. It’s torture, but it does mean victories like last Sunday’s Divisional Game are extra thrilling. Do I think that’ll happen this Sunday against New England? No. My gut says Blount’s bruising running style combined with a couple well-timed Brady passes will prove too much for Denver’s inferior defense, and Manning won’t be able to get enough balls to his receivers once the Pats shut down his run game.
My prediction? Patriots win, 27-24.
San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks
If Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are the old guard, Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson represent the new guard. They’re not the only two, by any means – Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, and Robert Griffin III would certainly have something to say about that – but to this point, they’ve had the most success in the postseason.
Who’s the better player? A case can be made for Kaepernick, and a case can be made for Wilson. Kaepernick’s had an overall passer rating of 91.6 in 2013 and has thrown for 21 TD passes and eight INTs. His numbers improve if you look at them since Michael Crabtree’s return, Kaepernick posting a 100 passer rating and a 12:2 TD/INT ratio in the past seven games. Still, he’s more likely to wow you with his feet than his arm, a weakness Joe Montana pointed out on Thursday. Wilson’s much the same. He has 26 TD passes and nine INTs on the season, earning a 101.2 passer rating in the process. But since a blowout win over the Saints in Week 13, his passer rating over the past five games has been down 31.1 points.
The conversation for this game isn’t so focused on Kaepernick vs Wilson. To be sure, they’re both vital for their respective team’s chances, but they don’t have the Brady-Manning narrative – yet. Both Kaepernick and Wilson can sling it from time to time, but their biggest contribution this Sunday may well come from their legs, eluding defenders to keep plays alive and rushing for drive-saving first downs. Don’t forget: the two combined to rush for 1,063 yards this season (for comparison, Brady and Manning rushed for -13 yards). That, coupled with the fact that they’re both on much stronger teams, and suddenly there’s a lot more to talk about in regards to the rest of the players taking the field Sunday. Put another way: people are as likely, if not more likely, to debate which team has the better defense as they are to debate which has the better quarterback.
Truly, this game is about running and run defense. San Francisco and Seattle were the only two teams in the NFL to run the ball over 50 percent of the time this season. Seattle had three players from its Legion of Boom earn Pro Bowl honors this season, with Sherman, Chancellor, and Thomas getting the nod for All-Pro as well. You better believe they’ll show up on Sunday. The 49ers, for their part, have what some call the best linebacking core ever assembled, with seven-time Pro Bowler Patrick Willis, 2013 All-Pro Navarro Bowman, sack-king Aldon Smith, and 2013 All-Pro Ahmad Brooks roaming the field.
Who will win? Gosh, ask me Monday morning? The 49ers roll into Seattle with a head full of steam, Kaepernick playing his best ball of the season the past few weeks. But Seattle has home field advantage – the venerable 12th man – and that can’t be underestimated, regardless of Wilson’s recent struggles. On a neutral field, I’d give it to San Francisco, but in Seattle…
It’s going to be a close one. I’ll say 20-17, Seahawks.