Three of them -- Seattle, Green Bay and New England -- have the comfort of being directed by Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks; this Championship Sunday will mark just the second time in NFL history that the final four has been so decorated.
In the 1983 playoffs, Seattle's Dave Krieg was the odd man out in the quartet of Jim Plunkett (Los Angeles Raiders), Joe Theismann (Washington Redskins) and Joe Montana (San Francisco 49ers). This year, it is Andrew Luck who is ringless -- though, somewhat ironically, the Indianapolis Colts wound up with the highest-ranked offense of the group, with the best young quarterback in the league further elevating his game in the playoffs. The Colts were ranked third in total offense, and all four teams finished in the top 11.
When the Coltstoppled Denver in the Divisional Round last weekend, it was more than just the upset of a team that had been built so intently to make a Super Bowl push that, when it failed, the Broncos parted ways with coach John Fox. It was also the beginning of a transition from one generation of premier passers to another. It will be up to Tom Brady, Peyton Manning's contemporary and career-long rival, to slow that passage to Luck this weekend.
The difference this weekend, then, as it memorably was last year, might be defense. Only the Seahawks have a top-10 defense -- theirs was No. 1 in the league again, just as it was in 2013. The Colts, Patriots and Packers were 11th, 13th and 15th, respectively. And while the Packers, Patriots and Seahawks all rank in the top four in turnover differential, the Colts were tied for 22nd in that critical category -- owing in large part to Luck's 16 interceptions.
Beyond these season-long trends, there is much to anticipate about these conference championship games, because both are rematches of lopsided victories (for the Seahawks and Patriots). That will test the ability of the coaches to adjust game plans -- Will the Packers' Mike McCarthy allow Aaron Rodgers to throw at Richard Sherman this time around? Are the Colts any better at stopping the run now than they were just two months ago? -- with so much more at stake.
This is a matchup of the league's top scoring offense (the Packers averaged 30.4 points per game) and its best scoring defense (Seattle allowed just 15.9 points per game). Of course, it didn't look like it would necessarily turn out that way back when Green Bay opened the regular season in Seattle. In that game, the Seahawks beat the Packers 36-16, outscoring them 33-9 in the last three quarters. Rodgers was sacked three times, intercepted once and limited to 189 passing yards and one touchdown. And, of course, he was also limited, to some degree, by the game plan, as the Packers chose not to test Mr. Sherman.
The biggest X-factor of the rematch will again be whether Rodgers is limited -- this time, by his own calf injury.
After flailing in Seattle, the Packers' offense was relentless. When all was said and done, they averaged 6.2 yards per play (best in the NFL), scored on 46.7 percent of their drives (also No. 1) and accumulated the third-best ranking in the league on third down. But Rodgers' mobility was clearly compromised against the Cowboys in the Divisional Round; he had just two pass attempts from outside the pocket, and just four rushes for minus-4 yards (three of which were kneeldowns). But he was nearly flawless in the second half of that game, completing 15 of 20 passes for 226 yards and two touchdowns while maintaining his effectiveness even on his deepest passes.
That was a signature performance. But with Rodgers operating at less than peak health, and with just one week to recover from Sunday's game, this matchup -- against a defense that can generate pressure with its front four -- figures to be difficult. After an early-season lull, the Seahawks have won seven games in a row, including last week's playoff win over Carolina. In that span, their defense has allowed eight points per game. Looking back to the fourth quarter of their last loss, to Kansas City in Week 11, Seahawks opponents have had 77 possessions -- and the defense has allowed just six touchdowns.
These teams are much different -- each has four new starters -- and better from what they were when they played in Week 1. But the setting is the same and, perhaps, so might the limitations be for Rodgers.
The Patriots barreled over the Coltsin Week 11, utilizing a power running attack to the tune of 246 rushing yards en route to a 42-20 win. The Colts simply could not get off the field, allowing the Patriots to convert nine of 11 third-down chances. That was the worst performance against the run by the Colts this season -- by more than 100 yards. Jonas Gray is just one example of the Patriots' shape-shifting this season. You remember him, right? He posted 201 yards and four scores in that game, then proceeded to see action in just four more contests, with one, two, 11 and six carries over that span. And what about last week's decision not to call a run in the entire second half? Want to know how much Bill Belichick's adjustments influence opposing teams' game preparation? Colts coach Chuck Pagano called the league office this week to get clarity on the unusual, four-offensive-linemen formation the Patriots used to befuddle the Ravenslast week.
It's hard to tell how the Patriots will choose to attack the Colts, although it's a safe bet that the running game will be involved again. Perhaps this time it will be LeGarrette Blount, who last year steamrolled the Colts in the playoffs for 166 yards and four touchdowns. One thing to watch: Rookie center Bryan Stork suffered a knee injury last week, and that could cause some shuffling on the line, which might make running more difficult.
Of greater concern might be that Andrew Luck has struggled to decipher Belichick's defense in each of his three seasons, posting an 0-3 record against the Pats. Luck has thrown eight interceptions and been sacked 10 times in those games. The young QB has played much better in these playoffs than he has in his previous two seasons, and much better in the playoffs than he did the final month of this regular season, when he seemed to wear down.
That's good, because Luck carries an enormous burden. The Colts rushed just 37.6 percent of the time, the sixth-lowest mark in the NFL, leaning instead on Luck's big-play ability. The quarterback was 37-of-93 on passes that traveled at least 20 yards in the air, with 11 touchdowns and four interceptions. Perhaps even more than Brady's Patriots, the Colts will need their signal-caller to be at his very best if they want to advance.