Sorry, East Coast. Out of the way, New York — for now. Before you return to hogging all the attention, you’re required to turn your eyes west this weekend.
We’re the epicenter of the NFL, of the sports world, for a change. Denver will host perhaps the final playoff clash of legendary quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday. And here in Seattle, we’re bracing for what should be one of the most intense and ferocious showdowns in recent memory when the Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers play in the NFC Championship Game.
For all the commotion about a New York-area, awful-weather Super Bowl, these games may provide better theater. It’s only fitting. All season, the best football in the NFL has been played on this side of the United States, with the Seahawks, 49ers and Broncos ranking consistently among the league’s top five teams. And for a different twist, the Seahawks and 49ers play a classic, physical, defensive-minded style not often associated with West Coast football at any level.
This is the fun coast, the high-scoring coast, and though it’s often unfair, the softer coast. The long-held perception of West Coast football is so strong that even great, balanced teams, such as Bill Walsh’s 49ers, were known more for their offense than defense. On the college level, even when Pete Carroll’s USC teams were playing menacing defense, the conversation was more about the Trojans’ Heisman Trophy quarterbacks, or their oversized receivers, or the crazy speed of running back Reggie Bush.
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The West Coast remains the land of offensive innovation. But if you still think West Coast teams prefer scoring points and running pretty plays above all, you’re greatly mistaken. The Seahawks and 49ers are as hard-nosed as it gets. Over the past two seasons, they’ve been among the league’s best running teams. Over the past three seasons, they’ve been the two most impressive defenses.
Denver is the stereotypical West Coast team: Scary offense, high scoring, questionable defense. But with Manning commanding their offense in record-setting fashion and throwing for 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns, there’s no doubt that, though imbalanced, the Broncos are a legitimate title contender. To get to the Super Bowl, though, Manning must get past his greatest nemesis — Brady, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots.
This is a seminal moment for one of the league’s greatest all-time players. For all Manning has done, throwing for just shy of 65,000 yards and 500 touchdowns, his accomplishments have only created an incredible burden. He’s expected to win multiple Super Bowls, and so far, he only has one. And for many, that one championship wasn’t even that impressive because he didn’t put up his usual video-game numbers during that run.
Manning is equally beloved and scrutinized, and how he performs and whether he wins Sunday will become a huge part of his legacy.
These aren’t conference championship games . These are unofficial Super Bowls. And these games are huge for West Coast football.
Just two years ago, Denver won the AFC West with an 8-8 record. Just three years ago, the Seahawks won the NFC West with a 7-9 record. Both teams went on to win their first-round playoff games, but the lasting memory is that those divisions were awful.
This season, five of the 12 playoff teams came from those two divisions. The AFC West had three representatives. The NFC West had two, and Arizona didn’t make the playoffs despite a 10-6 record.
Carroll was asked Monday if the 49ers are built to come to CenturyLink Field and beat the Seahawks. He turned the question into praise for the NFC West.
“I think our whole division has demonstrated that,” Carroll said. “The 49ers are a terrific football team, and there are a lot of teams that are worthy. We’ve had some tough matches, and they certainly are.”
The NFC West had a combined record of 42-22 this season. Twelve of those losses were NFC West teams beating up on each other. Against the rest of the NFL, the division had a sterling 30-10 record.
“I think our division really made a statement this year about how good we were,” Carroll said.
The entire West Coast made a statement. From the NFL to the Pac-12, where Stanford continued to mangle foes and Oregon finished in the top 10 again and the entire conference challenged the SEC for top-dog status, the message is being received.
Weather permitting, the New York/New Jersey Super Bowl novelty will either avert a disaster or succumb to it.
On Sunday, the championship games are almost certain to be spectacular.
They’re the right matchups, with the right drama. And for certain, they’re being held in the right places: On the west side, where the football keeps getting better and better.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @JerryBrewer