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Brady-Manning, 49ers-Seahawks rivalries renewed in title games

In an exquisitely concise text message requiring a mere three words and three exclamation points, Pete Carroll captured the essence of a phenomenal NFL Final Four that millions of football fans have been hoping might happen for the past 12 months.

With an AFC Championship Game featuring the two greatest players of their era followed by an NFC title clash between bitter divisional rivals that also happen to be football's most complete and physically punishing teams, next Sunday has the potential to be epic -- and it can't get here soon enough.

That's even true for the 62-year-old hip-hop head in charge of the Seattle Seahawks, whose first conference-title clash as a head coach will come against his old nemesis, San Francisco 49ers counterpart Jim Harbaugh, in the Seismic Sound Factory known as CenturyLink Field. Carroll's not shying away from the rubber match so many of us saw coming between these NFC West foes, as his text certainly confirmed.

Let it rip!!!

Thanks to a divisional-round weekend in which the four favored teams took care of business, that's exactly what a majority of the football-watching world is thinking -- and seven days of hype is unlikely to curb that enthusiasm.

Nor should it. With the Denver Broncos holding on for a 24-17 victory over the San Diego Chargers on Sunday afternoon, a day after the New England Patriots rolled past the Indianapolis Colts by a 43-22 score, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady will meet in the postseason for the fourth time, adding yet another plot twist to what is perhaps history's most compelling quarterbacking rivalry.

The last time these two faced off in a conference title game seven years ago, Manning, then with the Colts, keyed an epic comeback that preceded his first and only Super Bowl triumph. Now, he'll try to do the same for a Broncos team whose stacked offense was constructed in his image -- by John Elway, the Hall of Fame quarterback who guided Denver to its only two championships.

On NFL Network
"NFL Replay" will re-air the two 49ers- Seahawks matchups from the 2013 regular season:

The Seahawks' 29-3 win over the 49ers from Week 2 will air on Tuesday, Jan. 14 at 3 p.m. ET. and at 10:30 p.m. ET.

The 49ers' 19-17 win over the Seahawks from Week 14 will air on Tuesday, Jan. 14 at 4:30 p.m. ET. and Wednesday, Jan. 15 at 12 a.m. ET.

» Can't wait? Watch it now on Game Rewind
» NFL Network schedule

Brady, who won three Super Bowls in his first four seasons as a starter but has since suffered a pair of narrow defeats in the Ultimate Game, is two victories away from finally matching Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana as the only quarterbacks to capture four rings. And though the Pats have endured a steady stream of talent erosion -- from the free-agent defection of Brady's favorite target, Wes Welker, to the Broncos; to the off-the-field fall of tight end Aaron Hernandez; to a slew of season-ending injuries -- Brady has figured out a way to make it work.

In late November, Brady ran his career record against Manning to 10-4 in dramatic fashion, keying a 24-point comeback that set up an overtime triumph. That game, in Foxborough, Mass., came down to a late Denver mistake, when a punt caromed off a Broncos blocker and the Pats recovered in field-goal range.

Sunday's rematch in Denver -- however the oblong ball bounces -- will go a long way toward framing the respective legacies of Manning, who's headed for a record fifth MVP trophy but has been maligned for a relative lack of postseason success, and Brady, who'll make his eighth AFC Championship Game appearance in 13 seasons but is coming off a pretty lousy one a year ago.

In other words: Thank you, Football Gods. Again.

And then, somewhat incredibly, comes the Main Event: Niners vs. Seahawks III, a.k.a. the Battle in Seattle, a heavyweight bout that will have all the subtlety of a Mike McCready solo or a Steve Ballmer tantrum.

When I said going into the season that these were the two best teams in football, and that a third meeting between them was inevitable, I knew there was plenty of potential for that narrative to get screwed up.

Both teams, however, have proven to be resilient. The 49ers, after an early beatdown at CenturyLink and a pair of two-game losing streaks that were the first of Harbaugh's three-year tenure, rallied to win their final six regular-season contests, including a massive, 19-17 triumph over the Seahawks at Candlestick Park in early December. The return of receiver Michael Crabtree, who'd missed the majority of the season following an offseason Achilles tendon tear, coincided with the improved play of quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who most definitely has rediscovered his swagger in the postseason.

On Sunday in Charlotte, Kaepernick mocked the Superman touchdown celebration of Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton while leading the Niners to a 23-10 victory. After the game, he told Fox's Pam Oliver: "We're a different team than the last time we played (the Seahawks) up there. We have a lot of key playmakers back."

The Seahawks, meanwhile, looked energized in Saturday's 23-15 triumph over the New Orleans Saints by the somewhat unexpected return of their most dynamic playmaker, Percy Harvin, before the receiver left the game after suffering a second-quarter concussion. Yet Carroll's team has proven that it can win consistently without being prolific, as second-year pro Russell Wilson threw for a mere 103 yards on nine completions in the victory.

Carroll's team relies largely on its potent defense and rugged ground game, which is keyed by relentless halfback Marshawn Lynch. Still, Wilson, if he can seize the moment and prevail on Sunday, will have a chance to elevate his star to crossover status, much the way Kaepernick did one year ago in finishing 5 yards short of securing a Super Bowl ring.

There is a lot to like about the storylines surrounding these two championship games -- and, conveniently, plenty of fuel for the haters, as well.

Whether it's the brash Harbaugh's postgame proclamation that beating the Panthers made him feel like "a strong, mighty man," or wideout Anquan Boldin's earlier headbutting of Carolina safety Mike Mitchell, the 49ers clearly aren't worried about winning popularity contests.

Nor are the Seahawks, whose most voluble player, All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman, has made a cottage industry of messing with Harbaugh, his old college coach.

For all of their sublime qualities, Manning and Brady are tenacious and loquacious competitors who get bashed by opposing fans as fervently as any quarterbacks on earth. And don't even get me started on Patriots coach Bill Belichick, whose postgame blowoff of Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton (he of the Spygate reference earlier in the week) took its place in the annals of his hoodie-covered saltiness -- though, in fairness, he did smile seven times during postgame news conferences in 2013.

Think of Belichick, and all the stars of Championship Sunday, as Tony Soprano-type figures.

You may not love me, but you will respect me ...

And with all due respect to the 28 teams no longer competing for a Lombardi Trophy, this is the Final Four most football fans have been craving -- and, after 264 games' worth of drama, the two best conceivable championship-game showdowns are actually going to happen.

Sit back. Enjoy. And whisper words of wisdom: Let It Rip!!!

And you can also ponder a quartet of queries pertaining to our noble championship-game participants, in order of perceived potency ...

1) Seattle Seahawks: Should I be elated -- or offended -- that Jimmy Graham didn't rip off my hat, too?

FedEx Air & Ground Players of Year
Peyton Manning set new NFL single-season records for passing yards (5,477) and touchdowns (55). Was it the best performance for a quarterback in 2013?
VOTE NOW

2) San Francisco 49ers: If Harbaugh's fake-punt call with 23 seconds remaining in Sunday's game had resulted in a gratuitous Niners touchdown, would Ron Rivera have been flagged for "roughing the coach"?

3) Denver Broncos: If my man Adam Duritz ever gets laryngitis and needs someone to sing this tune onstage, would Manning be his logical stand-in?

4) New England Patriots: When Belichick rode Greg Schiano castoff LeGarrette Blount to a four-touchdown effort in Saturday's victory, was the former Bucs coach involuntarily mouthing "Yes, Bill" at his television?

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.

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