Peyton Manning (above R) and the Denver Broncos and Richard Sherman's Seattle Seahawks (above L) were the NFL's best all season, so it's fitting that they'll meet in the Super Bowl.
Nobody scored as many points or gained as many yards as the Broncos.
Nobody allowed as few points or gave up as few yards as the Seahawks.
And nobody won as many games as those clubs, either.
What a way to finish the season. When the AFC champion Broncos (15-3) play the NFC champion Seahawks (15-3) on Feb. 2 at what could be a chilly MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., it will be the first Super Bowl since 1991 pitting the league's highest-scoring team in the regular season against the team that was scored on the least, according to STATS.
It's also only the second time in the last 20 Super Bowls that the No. 1 seed in each conference reached the NFL championship game.
"It will be a great matchup," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said.
Manning's comeback heads to NYC after win over NE
A Super Bowl quarterback? Nobody had ever overcome those kind of odds.
On Sunday, he wrote the next chapter in one of football's most remarkable comeback stories, outplaying Tom Brady to lead the Broncos to the Super Bowl for the first time since John Elway took the snaps in Denver some 15 years ago.
Manning crafted yet another impeccable masterpiece, throwing for 400 yards in a 26-16 victory over Brady and the New England Patriots.
"Being in my 16th season, going to my third Super Bowl, I know how hard it is to get there," Manning said.
He'll try to become the first starting quarterback to lead two different teams to titles.
On his way out of Indy, Manning's comeback attempt began a while after his fourth neck surgery, when he tried to play catch with an old college buddy, Todd Helton, who then played for the Colorado Rockies.
The first pass left Manning's hand and fluttered to the ground. Helton thought Manning was joking.
Fast forward three years and there he was, on a splendid, 63-degree day in Denver, winging it to the receiving corps Elway put together when he returned to the Broncos as a front-office executive.
One of those receivers, Demaryius Thomas, caught seven passes for 134 yards and a touchdown to cap off one of Manning's two 7-minute-plus touchdown drives.
"To keep Tom Brady on the sideline is a good thing," Manning said. "That's something you try to do when you're playing the Patriots."
After kneeling down to seal the victory, Manning stuffed the ball into his helmet, then ran to the 30-yard line to shake hands with Brady. A bit later in the locker room, he celebrated with his father, Archie, and brothers Cooper and Eli.
Asked what pregame advice he gave his younger brother, Cooper said: "Go ahead and pretend you're a 10-year-old playing in the front yard. That's what it looked like" today.
Indeed, Manning did whatever he wanted. And though he threw for 400 yards, it was more dink-and-dunk than a fireworks show in this, the 15th installment between the NFL's two best quarterbacks of a generation. (Manning is 5-10, but now 2-1 in AFC title games).
Manning set up four field goals by Matt Prater and put his stamp on this one with the long, meticulous touchdown drives.
He geared down the no-huddle, hurry-up offense that helped him set records for touchdown passes and yardage this season and made the Broncos the highest-scoring team in history.
The Broncos held the ball for 35:44. They were 7 for 13 on third-down conversions.
Manning capped the second long drive with a 3-yard pass to Thomas, who got inside the overmatched Alfonzo Dennard and left his feet to make the catch. It gave Denver a 20-3 lead midway through the third quarter.
From there, it was catch-up time for Brady and the Pats (13-5), and they were not built for that - at least not this year.
"We got in a hole there," Brady said. "It was just too much to dig our way out."
A team that averaged more than 200 yards on the ground the last three games didn't have much quick-strike capability. Brady, who threw for most of his 277 yards in comeback mode, actually led the Patriots to a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns. But they were a pair of time-consuming, 80-yard drives. The second cut the deficit to 26-16 with 3:07 left, but the Broncos stopped Shane Vereen on the 2-point conversion and the celebration was on in Denver.
"Losing is never easy," Patriots defensive lineman Rob Ninkovich said. "But when you have somebody as talented as (Manning), who puts in as much work and effort, and has done it for so long, it's a little bit easier to swallow."
The trip to New York will come 15 years after Elway rode off into the sunset with his second straight Super Bowl victory.
It's been tough since then in Denver. Coaching changes. Bad defenses. A quarterback carousel.
Finally, Elway came back and, upon his return, slammed the door on the Tim Tebow experiment and signed Manning to a contract, knowing there were risks involved in bringing to town a 30-something quarterback coming off multiple operations to resurrect his career.
Even without Von Miller on the field, Elway put enough pieces in place around Manning to move within a game of the championship.
Thomas. Wes Welker (four catches, 38 yards). Eric Decker (5-73). Tight end Julius Thomas (8-85).
"It's been a terrific group," Elway said as he hoisted the AFC championship trophy. "They worked their tail off all year."
Now, Manning gets two weeks to prepare for the Seahawks - an old AFC West rival, who will now be faced with slowing down a quarterback who led his team to a record 606 points in the regular season, then another 50 in the playoffs.
"He's been remarkable," said Broncos coach John Fox, off to his second Super Bowl as a head coach. "It's unprecedented what he did."
Seahawks rally, beat 49ers 23-17 for NFC title
Pete Carroll knows all about successfully chasing championships. Yet this pursuit is particularly sweet.
"It's quite a magical moment," Carroll said Sunday after his Seattle Seahawks won the NFC title. "You can't really grasp the moment. Did we really do this?"
Yep. The Seahawks and their 12th Man are headed for the Big Apple and the Super Bowl.
"Every ounce of your energy, every moment spent watching film has been worth it, because we made it," said All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman. His game-saving deflection in the end zone with 22 seconds left was caught by teammate Malcolm Smith to clinch the 23-17 win over division rival San Francisco on Sunday night. "It's fantastic."
A fantastic matchup, too.
Seattle will meet Denver (15-3) for the NFL title in two weeks in the New Jersey Meadowlands. It's the first trip to the big game for the Seahawks (15-3) since they lost to Pittsburgh after the 2005 season.
The conference champs had the best records in the league this year, the second time the top seeds have gotten to the Super Bowl in 20 seasons. It also is a classic confrontation of Denver's record-setting offense led by Peyton Manning against the NFL's stingiest defense. Denver opened as a 1-point favorite over Seattle on the Glantz-Culver Line.
"We wouldn't have it any other way," said Sherman, who went on a rant about how 49ers wideout Michael Crabtree is a `sorry receiver.' "They're an unbelievable, record-setting offense with a Hall of Fame quarterback. That's as tough a game as you can get in the Super Bowl. The No. 1 defense against the No. 1 offense. It doesn't happen like this too often."
That top-ranked defense forced three fourth-quarter turnovers, and Russell Wilson threw a 35-yard touchdown pass to Jermaine Kearse on fourth down for the winning points.
Moments after Sherman tipped Colin Kaepernick's pass to Smith for the interception, the NFL leader in picks did a CenturyLink Leap into the stands behind the end zone, saluting the Seahawks' raucous fans. With 12th Man flags waving everywhere - receiver Golden Tate paraded around the field with one - and "New York, New York" blaring over the loudspeakers, CenturyLink Field rocked like never before.
"This is really special," said Carroll, who won two national championships at Southern California and has turned around the Seahawks in four seasons in charge. "It would really be a mistake to not remember the connection and the relationship between this football team and the 12th Man and these fans. It's unbelievable."
San Francisco (14-5) led 17-13 when Wilson, given a free play as Aldon Smith jumped offside, hurled the ball to Kearse, who made a leaping catch in the end zone.
"He's tremendous catching the football," Wilson said. "He's got great hands, and he's got that desire, you know? So that showed up tonight."
Steven Hauschka then kicked his third field goal following Kam Chancellor's pick, and Smith intercepted in the end zone on the 49ers' final possession.
"This feels even sweeter, with the amazing support we have had from the 12th Man," team owner Paul Allen said, comparing this Super Bowl trip to the previous one.
Until Seattle's top-ranked defense forced a fumble and had two interceptions in the final period, the game was marked by big offensive plays in the second half. That was somewhat shocking considering the strength of both teams' defenses.
And those plays came rapidly.
Marshawn Lynch, in full "Beast Mode," ran over a teammate and then outsped the 49ers to the corner of the end zone for a 40-yard TD, making it 10-10.
Kaepernick then was responsible for consecutive 22-yard gains, hitting Crabtree, then rushing to the Seattle 28. His fumble on the next play was recovered by center Jonathan Goodwin, who even lumbered for 2 yards.
Anquan Boldin outleapt All-Pro safety Earl Thomas on the next play for a 26-yard touchdown.
Then, Doug Baldwin, who played for 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh at Stanford, stepped up - and through San Francisco's coverage - on a scintillating 69-yard kickoff return that made the stadium shake for the first time all day.
That set up Hauschka's 40-yard field goal. And a frantic finish.
Seattle took its first lead on Wilson's throw to Kearse with 13:44 left, and CenturyLink rocked again.
The place went silent soon after when Niners All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman sustained an ugly left knee injury midway and was carted off. Bowman, who was having a huge game, had forced a fumble at the San Francisco 1, but Lynch recovered.
"I never heard him yell like that, or even stay down for a moment," teammate Patrick Willis said of Bowman.
The Seahawks had gotten their first turnover moments earlier when Cliff Avril stripped Kaepernick and Michael Bennett recovered. But Lynch and Wilson botched a handoff on fourth down on the play after Bowman's injury.
It took only two plays for Chancellor to haul in Kaepernick's underthrow to Boldin, and Hauschka's 47-yarder ended the scoring.
But not the excitement.
Kaepernick, who rushed for 130 yards, got San Francisco to the Seattle 18 with his arm. But his pass for Crabtree was brilliantly tipped by Sherman to Smith.
"We knew it would come down to us in the back end to win this thing," Sherman said.
The final play was similar to last year's Super Bowl ending, when Kaepernick missed Crabtree in the end zone from the 5 and Baltimore survived.
"I had a 1-on-1 matchup with Crab," Kaepernick said. "I'll take that every time, against anyone."
Kaepernick rushed for 98 yards in the first half and 130 overall. His 58-yard run set up Anthony Dixon's 1-yard leap for a TD.
San Francisco also got an early 25-yard field goal by Phil Dawson after Wilson fumbled on Seattle's first snap.
Wilson came up with a huge improvisation of his own moments after Kaepernick's long jaunt. Wilson avoided the rush with some nifty scrambling before spotting Baldwin behind the defense for a 51-yard pickup.
It resulted in Hauschka's 32-yard field goal, making it 10-3. Baldwin finished with six receptions for 106 yards.
The fourth quarter was all Seattle against the more-experienced 49ers, who were in their third straight conference championship.
But Seattle heads to the first outdoor Super Bowl in a cold weather city.
"We are ready," Bennett said. "Whatever happens, we just want to be there and we don't care about the weather. We just want to go out there and win."