LYNN NEARY, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary. Time now for sports.
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NEARY: And then there were four. Tomorrow is the Sunday before the Sunday before the Super Bowl. And that means New England takes on Denver and San Francisco goes up against Seattle to see who's headed to the big game. NPR's Tom Goldman, who's caught in the middle of that San Fran-Seattle crossfire, joins us on the line from Portland. Good morning, Tom.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: I'm ducking here. Hiya, Lynn.
NEARY: Now, I have to say, from all my wisdom and knowledge about football, that the match-ups this weekend...
GOLDMAN: Which is a lot.
NEARY: ...yeah, it's a lot - aren't much of a surprise, are they?
GOLDMAN: You know, they're not. And that's a surprise in itself. This season was as topsy-turvy as any. A team could look unbeatable one week and extremely beatable the next. But here we are with the four teams that were absolutely expected to be here. Sports Illustrated is a fine magazine but often dead wrong on predictions, like many sports experts are. But in September's NFL preseason issue, SI picked Seattle versus San Francisco for the NFC championship; New England versus Denver for the AFC. They nailed it. It's disappointing to people who like upsets and upstarts, but for those who like good games with great teams, tomorrow will be a treat.
NEARY: All right. Let's start with what's considered the big one. This is the Broncos versus the Patriots, or should we say Manning versus Brady?
GOLDMAN: Why not? Everyone else is saying it. I heard one commentator liken a Brady-Manning match-up to when Muhammad Ali would fight Joe Frazier and America would stop and watch. A little hyperbole there, if for no other reason that Tom Brady and Peyton Manning won't get close to laying gloves on each other the entire afternoon until the post-game handshake when Manning usually looks bummed out. He's lost to Brady and the Patriots 10 of the 14 times they've played. Who will win this 15th match-up? The erudite people of football outsiders says Denver's defense, because of some prominent injuries, is vulnerable to the pass, meaning Tom Brady could be in for a big day, even though New England's running game has been dominant of late. And despite Manning's record-smashing year of passing, look for Denver to try to run the ball a fair amount. It should be a close game. Those soothsayers from SI said New England 30, Denver 27 in that preseason issue. Sounds about right - unless it's not.
NEARY: But that's not the only big quarterback match-up this weekend, right?
GOLDMAN: Right, right. That's right. Colin Kaepernick of the 49ers against Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks. And, Lynn, those guys could be Brady-Manning in 10 years, although they are very different from the old guys, in that Kaepernick and Wilson are very mobile and can be as dangerous running the ball as they are passing. But, Lynn, enough quarterback talk already, OK? It's important to remember football, more than any team game, is a team game. All the parts have to be working together for good things to happen. Brady and Manning are mere mortals if they're not protected by guys we don't talk about, like, say, offensive lineman Marcus Cannon of the Pats and Denver's Orlando Franklin.
NEARY: Well, speaking of those other players, the Seahawks are going to be missing an important one tomorrow - Percy Harvin.
GOLDMAN: Yeah, that's right. A great wide receiver. He's out recovering from a concussion. He got blasted in the head last weekend by a New Orleans defensive back who was fined $21,000 for a helmet-to-helmet hit. Harvin was obviously woozy after that. He went into locker room, reportedly was check out for a concussion, came back into the game and then apparently hit his head on the turf and that was diagnosed as a concussion.
Now, there were concerns about whether he should have been back in the game after that first hit. A huge no-no in today's concussion-aware NFL to send a player back in if he's got symptoms. But the doctors reportedly gave him the go-ahead. During this postseason, you did have a player for Green Bay knowingly go back in the game after suffering a possible concussion, and he hadn't been cleared by doctors.
NEARY: Well, the concussion issue on display not only on the field but also there's some news from the courtroom in the NFL concussion lawsuit, right?
GOLDMAN: That's right. The big settlement between the NFL and thousands of retired players hit a snag when the judge rejected it because she didn't see how the money in the deal would cover all the potential plaintiffs who were claiming football caused their brain damage. It could be resolved by the judge getting more documentation showing the numbers are good, or the settlement could blow up. Along with the on-field issues we just mentioned, it shows how this concussion issue is a big old battleship that's very hard to turn around, despite the best PR efforts by the league that it's getting on top of the issue.
NEARY: NPR's Tom Goldman. Thanks so much.
GOLDMAN: You're welcome, Lynn.
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