In the NFC all bets are off with the Seahawks because this rookie-quarterback thing in the NFL is uncharted territory. Never before had three rookie quarterbacks started in a postseason—never mind on the same day, as happened on Sunday. But Wilson has been defying conventional wisdom all season, so if the Seahawks stay hot and continue to pass-rush the way they have down the stretch, they'll contend. For top seed Atlanta, Ryan fits the pedigree part, but he's never won a playoff game. And the Falcons' only sack threat, John Abraham, was carted off the field in the regular-season finale with a sprained left ankle, which could limit his effectiveness when he returns this weekend. Plus there's the pressure that comes from being a very good regular-season team and a very bad playoff team: Under coach Mike Smith, Atlanta is 0--3 in the postseason.
That leaves the 49ers and the Packers, who will meet in San Francisco on Saturday night. The temptation with the Niners is to say Kaepernick is not ready for this stage. But he was ready when he faced—and outdueled—Brees at the Superdome and Brady in Foxborough, so why wouldn't he be ready to play anyone anywhere now? The Niners' defense, clearly, will be good enough.
The Packers had to win in Philadelphia, Atlanta and Chicago two years ago to make the Super Bowl, so the trip to the Bay shouldn't be a bother. And how good did Aaron Rodgers look last Saturday night, especially on the run? To make it to the Super Bowl, Rodgers is going to have to do precisely what he did against Minnesota in the Packers' 24--10 wild-card win: roll out and throw accurately. Right now no quarterback in football, including all the fuzzy-cheeked precocious ones, throws an accurate dart outside the pocket the way Rodgers does.
When the Packers gathered in Green Bay last July, coach Mike McCarthy thought long and hard about what he wanted to say to set the stage for the season. He's not a fire-and-brimstone guy. He's a pragmatist. And after Green Bay's 37--20 home loss to the Giants in the divisional playoff round last year, he soul-searched and found ... not a lot wrong. He knew he still had a good team, a team that had to play better defensively, but a good team nonetheless. And so this is what he told his players in July, inside Lambeau Field: There are two types of championship teams. One's the kind that goes on a run at the end of the season, gets hot and takes it into the playoffs and wins. The other starts out winning and stays hot the whole season. But either way you've got to play great at the end. There's no prize for being great just in the regular season.
Four quarterbacks know that, painfully. Brady's Patriots have lost in the postseason six times since their last Super Bowl win. Three times Ryan's hopes have been dashed in January. And Manning and Rodgers ... they've had January nightmares in the very recent past. But watching Rodgers put up 113 points over the last three weeks, with those receivers, sells me, as does a defense that will be better with Matthews and safety Charles Woodson (who missed the final nine games of the regular season with a broken collarbone) making plays. Watching Manning put up 30 or more in nine of the last 11 games shows me he's ready for one last duel at 10 paces with Brady in a championship game. And he's ready to win it.
I picked Green Bay 33, Denver 30 in August. Rodgers and Manning have shown me there's no reason to change it now.