In the end, the formbook nailed it. The Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks, top seeds in the AFC and the NFC, have duly won their conference championships, setting up Super Bowl XLVIII on 2 February as a strategists’ dream: the National Football League’s best defense against its most potent offense.
For Seattle, defeated in their lone Super Bowl appearance eight years ago, it will be another chance to win the biggest prize. For Denver, participants already six times and winners on the last two occasions, in 1998 and 1999, the novelty will be smaller. As for Peyton Manning, it will be an opportunity to quell the doubters, once and for all.
Manning has already had a regular season for the ages, shattering NFL records for touchdown passes and yards thrown – and this after missing the entire 2011 season on account of a string of surgeries to correct spine problems that seemed to spell the end of his career. But steering the Broncos to a 26-16 win on Sunday over the New England Patriots and Tom Brady may have been the sweetest moment of all.
The only shadow on Manning’s claim to be the pre-eminent quarterback of his generation has been a supposed failure to deliver in the post-season when it mattered most – as evidenced by a sole Super Bowl Ring compared to Brady’s three. But this time – with 400 yards thrown, a 74 per cent completion rate and two touchdown passes, after drives that devoured seven minutes apiece – he delivered with a vengeance.
“You have to savour the moment,” the 37-year-old said afterwards. “It’s hard to win [the Super Bowl], but I’m telling you it’s hard to get there.” In fact, the scoreline flattered New England. By the time Brady made an impression it was too late, midway into the fourth quarter when the Broncos already held a 23-3 lead.
The Seahawks’ victory over the San Francisco 49ers came, as expected, after a grinding, drag-down confrontation between two stifling defenses. It also proved again how Seattle are all but unbeatable on home turf, in the cauldron of CenturyLink Field. But this time things were far closer than the 29-3 drubbing the Seahawks handed out in the regular season.
San Francisco were ahead through the first three quarters, only to fall behind to a Seattle touchdown and field goal. But on the game’s very last drive, trailing 23-17, Colin Kaepernick moved the football to Seattle’s 18-yard line. Alas his throw, aimed at star receiver Michael Crabtree, was thwarted by a leaping interception by the Seahawks corner Richard Sherman.
“I was making sure everyone knew Crabtree was a mediocre receiver,” said Sherman with the swaggering self-belief that marks this Seahawks side. “When you try the best corner in the game with a mediocre receiver, that’s what happens.” Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers coach, saw it differently. “If that goes an inch or two higher, Crabtree catches it for a touchdown and we win.” By such tiny margins are berths in the Super Bowl decided.