What’s the best day of the sports year?
Romanticists, particularly those of a baseball bent, might say Opening Day. No question there’s something special about the beginning of a season, which long has been a bigger deal with baseball than any other sport.
But the more likely reality is that the best time of the year is not the opening, but the closing -- when the championships are determined. The Super Bowl, the World Series and the Stanley Cup final are great. But two is better than one. Which is why although I enjoy those great and historic championships, the two games leading up to them often are the more enthralling.
It once was said that the Saturday before the NCAA basketball championship -- the national semi-final -- was the best sports day of the year. Two for one. The same thinking could be applied to the NFL, and that’s most certainly true this year. Two potentially fabulous games await the viewing public, beginning mid-afternoon and carrying on for some seven hours.
If this were a normal year, the NFC title game between San Francisco and Seattle -- yes, two teams that don’t like each other -- would been garnering most of the attention around the country because it’s a terrific matchup. But on this day it’s a distinct No. 2.
The AFC title game between the Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots, at 3 p.m. on CBS, has the look of a matchup for the ages. It could end up a stinker, but it has all the ingredients necessary for a memorable game.
Start with the Patriots -- the dominant franchise of this young century. They are seeking their sixth trip to the Super Bowl and their fourth championship since 2001. What’s more, it all could be done with the same coach -- the detested Bill Belichick -- and the same quarterback -- the grudgingly admired Tom Brady.
If that weren’t enough, on the other side of the field is Peyton Manning, a quarterback of similar stature to Brady, but with two fewer Super Bowl championships. Manning has been a phenomenon since joining the Broncos last year at age 36, after missing a full season with serious neck issues. He threw for 4,559 yards last season and for 5,477 this season with 55 touchdown passes. Both of the 2013 numbers are NFL records. Manning broke Brady’s touchdown record of 50, set in 2007.
Both teams have been hurt badly by injuries, which makes their presence in this game all the more remarkable. But the Patriots storyline is the most compelling. They’ve lost vital players by injury and by arrest since last season but have barely missed a beat. With the five top receivers from last season unavailable, Belichick has altered his team’s game plan and gone more to the run.
As is so often the case, Belichick has grabbed players off the NFL scrapheap and turned them into important contributors. LeGarrette Blount emerged from nowhere to rush for 189 and 166 yards in the past two games. He scored four touchdowns in a playoff win over Indianapolis last week. Julian Edelman caught 37 passes for 359 yards in 2009, and 32 more over the next three years. This season he caught 105 passes for 1,056 yards.
Although the Broncos appear to have an advantage on paper and are the favorite, the teams are trending in slightly different directions.
Denver led the NFL in scoring with 606 points, a whopping 176 more than the runnerup. But the Broncos offense slowed in the second half of the season, averaging 10 points less a game at 32, which is still very good. The Patriots, after a slow offensive start, averaged 33 points in their final eight games. The case could be made that it’s the Patriots, not the Broncos that have the better offense.
Then there’s this: on Nov. 24, playing at home, the Patriots fell behind the Broncos, 24-0, at halftime. They then rallied to win in overtime, 34-31. Manning was held to 150 passing yards -- 192 yards below his average.
Does Belichick have Manning’s number? Not likely, but maybe. It’s just one of many fascinating story lines on what could well be the best sports day of 2014.