Familiar foes. Rivalry showdowns. And a few former Tampa Bay Buccaneers to talk about.
Talk about a couple of juicy title-game tussles.
It’s Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady — Round 15 — in the AFC championship game next Sunday, while the San Francisco 49ers square off against the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC title bout.
Yep, here we go again. With a Super Bowl trip on the line.
“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.”
Manning helped lead Denver past the San Diego Chargers 24-17 on Sunday, setting up another meeting with Brady and New England. The Patriots, behind ex-Buc LeGarrette Blount’s four rushing touchdowns, beat Indianapolis 43-22 on Saturday night.
The Broncos (14-3) opened as 6½-point favorites for the game at Denver.
“That’s two of the greats,” Denver wide receiver Eric Decker said. “It’s going to be talked about a lot throughout the week.”
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 each have a win against the other in the AFC championship game: Brady in the 2003 playoffs and Manning in the 2006 postseason with Indianapolis.
And the winner went on to win the Super Bowl each time.
But, it’s not necessarily the same old story this time around. Both the Broncos and Patriots have been winning with balanced offenses, relying not only on the strong arms of their record-breaking quarterbacks but also on their running games.
Manning completed 25 of 36 for 230 yards and two TDs, but the Broncos controlled the clock on the ground. 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.
At Foxborough, Mass., Blount, with 166 yards on 24 rushes, carried the Patriots (13-4) to their third straight AFC title game.
Blount, acquired from Tampa Bay on draft weekend last year in exchange for Olympic sprinter Jeff Demps and a seventh-round pick, has been stellar in recent weeks, with 189 rushing yards and two touchdowns in the regular-season finale against Buffalo. His four rushing touchdowns Saturday set a franchise record.
That his first three touchdowns came from 2 yards was not lost on Bucs followers, who watched Blount in 2011-12. The Bucs drafted Doug Martin to be a feature back in 2012, but not before the 250-pound Blount had some big runs — but he also struggled in short-yardage situations.
Blount said some coaching changed that.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick “said the only thing I wasn’t doing right was running with a lower pad level,” Blount said. “So, I changed that and I started breaking more tackles, started getting a lot of extra yardage after contact. I wish they would have told me a long time ago. Who knows what could have happened.”
Blount will be joined in the conference final by another former Tampa Bay teammate, cornerback Aqib Talib, who has resurrected his career in New England after off-field troubles led to him being traded during the 2012 season.
The Seahawks (14-3) opened as three-point favorites for the NFC game at Seattle against 49ers (14-4), who defeated the Carolina Panthers 23-10 on Sunday.
On Saturday, Marshawn Lynch ran for a franchise playoff-record 140 yards and two touchdowns and Seattle’s defense 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.
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,” 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick said. “It’s going to be a knockdown, drag-out game.”
The previous few games between the NFC West rivals have been full of contempt, with shoving, pushing and arguing spicing things up. Even the coaches don’t care for each other.
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh have been rivals dating to their days as opponents in the old Pac-10. 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?”
That’s carried over to the NFL — and it might get ramped up again during the week.
“We’re healthy, we’re a great team and we’re willing to do whatever it takes to get that ring,” 49ers running back Frank Gore said. “We’re playing great ball.”
Good thing, since 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.
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. The Saints’ top receiver, tight end Jimmy Graham, was held to only one catch.
“Because he’s overrated,” another former Buc, Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett, told Seattle’s KCPQ-TV. “If he doesn’t get a chance to get the ball, that’s all he can really do — he doesn’t help in the blocking game — so I think he’s overrated.”