For Russell Wilson's Seattle Seahawks to become the first team in a decade to win consecutive Super Bowls, they'll have to beat the most recent group to do it, Tom Brady's New England Patriots.
In an enticing matchup pitting the defending champions against the dominant NFL franchise of the 2000s, the NFC's Seahawks (14-4) will face the AFC's Patriots (14-4) in the title game at Glendale, Arizona, in two weeks.
New England reached its eighth Super Bowl, equaling the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers for most in league history. It's the sixth time quarterback Brady and coach Bill Belichick made it in the past 14 years; they won trophies after the 2001, 2003 and 2004 seasons.
But they lost in their past two appearances, after the 2007 and 2011 seasons, both times against Eli Manning and the New York Giants.
Some Las Vegas sports books had the Seahawks - heading to the franchise's third Super Bowl - as 1-point favorites, while others made the game a pick 'em.
A year ago, Seattle beat Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos 43-8 in the big game. In nearly a half-century of Super Bowls - this will be the 49th - there's never been so long a stretch without a repeat champion.
But with coach Pete Carroll, Belichick's predecessor with the Patriots, and general manager John Schneider in charge, Seattle has the makings of a dynasty, thanks to cool-as-can-be Wilson, cornerback Richard Sherman and the first defense since the 1985-86 Chicago Bears to give up the fewest points and fewest yards two seasons in a row.
Among the on-field story lines that will be discussed and dissected from now until Feb. 1:
- how Seattle's defense will try to control Brady, impossible-to-tackle tight end Rob Gronkowski and the rest of New England's versatile offense;
- whether Sherman, who has an interception in both of Seattle's playoff games this season, is OK after injuring his left elbow late Sunday;
- whether Wilson and his unheralded receivers, shut down for most of Sunday, will be able to bounce back against noted defensive mind Belichick and New England's own shutdown cornerback, Darrelle Revis, and former Seahawks defensive back Brandon Browner;
- what wrinkles might Belichick and Carroll and their staffs dream up.
Wilson set aside four interceptions and a 16-point deficit to lead the Seahawks past the Green Bay Packers 28-22 in overtime in the NFC championship game Sunday, Seattle's eighth straight victory. No team had ever won a conference title game after trailing by more than 15 points until Wilson helped produce two touchdowns in a 44-second span late in the fourth quarter, then threw a 35-yard TD pass to Jermaine Kearse on the first drive of OT.
There were all sorts of key moments in the topsy-turvy game, including punter Jon Ryan's touchdown pass on a fake field goal for Seattle's first points, and a successful onside kick for the Seahawks after Green Bay's Brandon Bostick failed to hold onto the football.
"Everybody thought we were out of this game," said Wilson, a third-year quarterback who also was drafted by a Major League Baseball team. "You just trust the experience. You trust the guys you have around you."
A week ago, the Patriots became the first team to erase two holes of at least 14 points in a postseason game, but they needed no such comeback Sunday night, completely outclassing the Indianapolis Colts 45-7 for the AFC title. Brady threw a trio of TD passes - including one to left tackle Nate Solder, in the latest bit of trickery from Belichick - and burly running back LeGarrette Blount gained 148 yards on 30 carries and scored three times.
Brady and Belichick are the first QB and first coach with six Super Bowl berths; Belichick's 21 postseason victories are the most for a coach.
"It's hard to compare, year to year. I think every situation's different. We've had a lot of good teams in the past," the 37-year-old Brady said. "This one is going to have to win a very important game to kind of leave our legacy."