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    NFL conference title games may be among best

    The AFC game features the showdown everyone wanted to see since the preseason — Peyton Manningand Tom Brady duking it out for the 15th and perhaps final time.
    Steven Senne/associated press
    The AFC game features the showdown everyone wanted to see since the preseason — Peyton Manningand Tom Brady duking it out for the 15th and perhaps final time.

    Twenty-eight fan bases don’t have anything at stake this weekend when the Patriots face the Broncos and the 49ers clash with the Seahawks in the conference championship games.

    But if you’re just a fan of the NFL in general, it’s hard not to be excited about Sunday’s slate of games, which might offer the best combination of star power and elite play in the Super Bowl era.

    The AFC game features the showdown everyone wanted to see since the preseason — No. 1 Denver vs. No. 2 New England; Peyton Manning and Tom Brady duking it out for the 15th and perhaps final time; and Wes Welker taking on his former team after a messy divorce just 10 months ago.


    And the NFC game features the teams with the conference’s best records — bitter division rivals whose coaches can’t stand each other from their days as college rivals; with two young, exciting, dynamic quarterbacks; and with nasty, hard-hitting, trash-talking defenses that harken back to the league’s glory days.

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    And since the introduction of the 16-game schedule in 1978, this weekend’s slate is just the third time that all four teams won at least 12 games in the regular season.

    If this isn’t the best conference championship weekend in NFL history, it’s pretty darn close.

    “It’s the way it should be,” said former league MVP quarterback Rich Gannon. “Even in September and October, you got the sense that these were probably the best four or five teams in the league.”

    “It’s who you signed up to see — the graybeards vs. the new kids on the block. This is going to be awesome.”


    In recent years, conference championship weekend has often included a surprise team (such as the 9-7 Giants in 2011) or a quarterback who didn’t quite belong (Mark Sanchez in 2010, Rex Grossman in 2006). Since the turn of the century, the only playoff field that had star power close to this year’s was in 2007, with Eli Manning, Brett Favre, Philip Rivers, and Brady of the 16-0 Patriots.

    The final fours in 1990 and 1998 were the only other times that all four teams had 12-plus wins, but quarterbacks such as Chris Chandler, Jay Schroeder, and Vinny Testaverde didn’t quite have the star power.

    The best conference championship fields may have been in the early 1990s. The 1992 games featured four future Hall of Fame quarterbacks — 11-5 Buffalo (Jim Kelly) vs. 11-5 Miami (Dan Marino), and 13-3 Dallas (Troy Aikman) vs. 14-2 San Francisco (Steve Young).

    And the 1993 games similarly had four future Hall of game quarterbacks — 11-5 Kansas City (Joe Montana) vs. 12-4 Buffalo (Kelly), and 10-6 San Francisco (Young) vs. 12-4 Dallas (Aikman) — although Montana was clearly on the downside of his career.

    And the conference championship games in the 1980s had some mediocre names at quarterback — Richard Todd, David Woodley, Dieter Brock, Wade Wilson, and Steve Fuller among them.


    The NFC game this year offers two of the league’s most violent defenses and a first look at what could be a long rivalry between Seattle’s Russell Wilson and San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick. Wilson holds a 2-1 edge against Kaepernick, but Kaepernick is the one who led his team to the Super Bowl in his first season as a starter, and he has the 49ers riding an eight-game winning streak.

    But the main event, obviously, is the 15th edition of Brady vs. Manning (or Manning vs. Bill Belichick, if you prefer to look at it that way) and the fourth time the quarterbacks have met in the playoffs, with Brady holding a 2-1 edge.

    Their rivalry couldn’t have been written better by Hollywood, with Brady facing Manning in his first-ever start in 2001, and still battling each other 12 seasons later, still at the top of their games.

    “To play on the same Sunday as them is a great honor,” Kaepernick said Friday.

    Brady and Manning are scheduled to meet again next year in the regular season, but who knows if they will ever meet again with the stakes so high?

    “The fact really is three words: longevity, consistency, and success. Both of these guys have kind of been going in parallel lives to one another,” said former Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason, who took his team to the Super Bowl in the 1988 season. “Maybe with the exception of Joe Montana, what you’re watching here are two guys that will go down as two of the greatest quarterbacks of all time.”

    This game is also a chance for Brady to cement his position ahead of Manning. But it arguably means more for Manning, who is 4-10 in his career against Brady, 1-1 in Super Bowls, and overall has a pedestrian 10-11 playoff record.

    Of course, Manning will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. And he has the season yardage and touchdown records (for now) and an impressive résumé of other accomplishments. But he probably needs one more championship to put himself on the short list of greatest quarterbacks of all time.

    Manning’s supporters don’t want to hear that this game means more for him, of course.

    “It really frustrates me to hear people talk about his legacy, and he won’t be considered a certain [level] of quarterback,” said Jeff Saturday, Manning’s former center with the Colts. “It’s almost comical to me. When people talk about legacy and those kinds of things, this is going to be a five-time MVP quarterback. To say it would affect his legacy in any way I think is silly and short-sighted.”


    Carter hit had lasting effects for Manning

    Speaking of Peyton Manning, there’s a member of the Patriots who has played an integral part in his career, and we’re not talking about Tom Brady or Bill Belichick.

    Manning was supposed to retire as a Colt after building that franchise up from nothing for 14 years. But 13-year defensive end Andre Carter started a chain of events back in 2006 that ultimately led to Manning leaving Indianapolis.

    Carter, a member of the Redskins that year, was involved in the hit in which Manning first suffered the neck injury that has plagued him. Carter beat his man around the corner and hit Manning low, while teammate Phillip Daniels simultaneously hit Manning high, twisting him like a pretzel and ripping his helmet off.

    Former Colts coach Tony Dungy points to that hit as the moment that everything changed for Manning. He didn’t miss a snap, but did ask to hand the ball off on the next play, and the Colts settled for a field goal. By 2011, Manning was forced to undergo fusion surgery to correct a herniated disk, and it led to a series of significant events — Manning taking a season off, the Colts declining to pick up his $28 million option bonus, Manning signing with the Broncos, and him leading them to Sunday’s showdown with the Patriots.

    Carter said that, of course, he felt bad about injuring Manning.

    “One guy coming high and one coming low — it was just the right place at the right time,” Carter said Friday as he prepared for his first conference championship game. “I remember it took him awhile to get his composure back, but Peyton Manning still scored and the game goes on.”

    Carter said he’s always been impressed with Manning’s toughness — he threw for 244 yards and three touchdowns in the second half of that game in 2006.

    “The tough ones are the ones that come back through getting hit and find a way to make plays. And look at him, he’s still here today,” Carter said. “He’s a tough guy coming back from the neck injury when nobody thought he’d come back, and he’s playing better football than he did before the injury.”


    Patriots’ special teams were especially good

    Longtime Dallas Morning News football writer Rick Gosselin is famous in part for his in-depth special teams rankings — grading each team on 22 criteria and awarding a point system from 1 to 32 — and this year’s rankings, released last week, had the Patriots at No. 1.

    The Patriots only led the league in one category — field goals (38, tied with Baltimore) — but were solid across the board. Stephen Gostkowski was second with 65 touchbacks, hit 38 of 41 field goals (with three game-winners), and the kickoff unit allowed 20.8 yards per return, sixth best.

    Rookie punter Ryan Allen and punt returner Julian Edelman were also solid, and long snapper Danny Aiken was perfect until his flub in last Saturday’s playoff win over the Colts.

    The Patriots were 11th in kickoff-return average (24.0) and punt-return average (11.0), 16th in net punting average (39.8), and seventh in punt return yards allowed (221).

    And while they didn’t score any touchdowns or block any kicks in the return game, they didn’t allow any, either (the longest kickoff return was 50 yards, longest punt return 24).

    This was the third time Bill Belichick’s teams have finished No. 1 in the rankings — his 1994 Browns and 2010 Patriots also did it. Scott O’Brien was the special teams coach all three times.

    “Yeah, No. 1, I think you have to give a lot of credit to Scott and Joe [Judge], the coaches, and Matt Slater, our special teams captain, and all the guys that have contributed,” said Belichick, himself a former special teams coach. “It’s a team effort. I don’t think that ranking represents anything that one person did. Obviously, the two coaches and the specialists and the core players had a lot to do with it. I think it’s more of a credit to the entire team and the effort that they put into it over the course of the year.”

    Of course, Belichick also downplayed the achievement heading into Sunday’s game.

    “It doesn’t really mean anything now because we’re in a one-game season and all that,” he said. “None of that stuff in the regular season means anything — none of those stats, none of those records, anything. So, keeping it in perspective, it’s a meaningless stat for this game.”

    Open competition

    Many agents and older players are less than thrilled with the job that Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith did in negotiating the collective bargaining agreement during the 2011 offseason, and while Smith won reelection in 2012 for another three-year term, he may finally face some stiff opposition in 2015.

    Former 11-year defensive tackle Sean Gilbert has been an outspoken critic of Smith and wrote a book entitled, “The $29 Million “Tip,” a reference to Roger Goodell’s reported salary and an inference that the NFL took advantage of the union in the last negotiations.

    Not only does Gilbert’s book outline his plan to run for executive director, but Pro Football Talk reported last week that copies of the book were distributed to every player on every team, inscribed with a hand-written message: “Football’s a game, the NFL’s a business.”

    Let the debate begin

    Get ready for three months of debate about Texas A&M quarterback and former Heisman winner Johnny Manziel, who left school two years early to enter this year’s NFL draft. Not only will his pro potential be a source of much contention — he combined for 9,989 total yards and 93 touchdowns in two college seasons, but didn’t play much from the pocket and is only 6 feet 1 inch — but his off-field immaturity and penchant for partying will be hotly debated, as well.

    Which made the press release received on Tuesday all the more interesting. It was announced that not only has Manziel chosen an agent (Erik Burkhardt of Select Sports Group, who has Danny Amendola among his clients), but also a team of people to handle his off-field affairs, including a Boston connection.

    Manziel’s marketing agent and business manager is a partnership between Maverick Carter, who works with LeBron James, and Fenway Sports Management, owned by Boston Globe and Red Sox owner John Henry.

    Manziel also hired two professionals from Sanderson Strategies Group to coordinate his public strategy, communications, and media relations.

    Manziel certainly isn’t wrong for looking out for his business interests and polishing his public image. But expect to hear plenty of brushback from the NFL community about Manziel being potentially too concerned with selling himself and not enough with football.

    Extra points

    Aaron Hernandez and the NFLPA filed a grievance against the Patriots to compel them to pay the remaining $3.25 million of his signing bonus and $2.96 million in base salary and bonuses on the contract extension he signed in August 2012. But those grievances will become moot if Hernandez is charged in the 2012 double murder in Boston’s South End — a warrant released last week indicated that police are investigating him as the potential shooter. In fact, language in the CBA would potentially allow the Patriots to recoup the entire $12.5 million signing bonus and likely obtain salary cap relief for a gross breach of duties by Hernandez . . . Belichick provided a non-answer on Friday when asked if he is worried about his players partaking in legal marijuana while in Colorado this weekend, saying, “I think we know what the NFL policy is on that.” Well, actually, most players on the Patriots would be free to toke up and not worry about the NFL’s drug testing. Per the CBA, players who have never failed a test and aren’t in the league’s drug program are tested for recreational drugs just once a year, sometime between late April and August. As long as a player can pass a test during that window, he can get high without fear of consequence during the season . . . Washington cornerback DeAngelo Hall, a 10-year veteran and impending free agent, made news last week by saying that the Redskins should change their name, telling Fox Sports, “They probably should, but they won’t for a while, at least.” The mild quote was newsworthy because Hall became the first current player to speak out against the team name. In other news, don’t expect Hall to re-sign with Washington this offseason.

    Ben Volin can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.