Brady, Manning know path to championship

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The playoffs have a way of bringing out the pedigree in NFL quarterbacks. Simply take a look at the fingers of Tom Brady and Eli Manning to recognize it.

New England quarterback Tom Brady (left) and New York's Eli Manning have both been champions in their career. Their title game opponents, Baltimore's Joe Flacco and San Francisco's Alex Smith, are both seeking their first trip to the Super Bowl.  FILE/ASSOCIATED PRESS
FILE/ASSOCIATED PRESS
New England quarterback Tom Brady (left) and New York's Eli Manning have both been champions in their career. Their title game opponents, Baltimore's Joe Flacco and San Francisco's Alex Smith, are both seeking their first trip to the Super Bowl.

Brady has three Super Bowl rings, with another taken away by Manning and the Giants in 2008. Both have their teams on course for a reprise of that memorable title game.

Standing in their way are two inconsistent QBs seeking to fill out their own championship résumés: Joe Flacco, of Baltimore, and Alex Smith, of San Francisco.

Based on their histories and the way they have performed this season, Brady and Manning overmatch Flacco and Smith. When things have gotten tight for New England or New York, the quarterback often has provided the winning edge.

“The team revolves around him,” Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez said of Brady. “When he comes to play, which he mostly does every game, then we’re going to be on fire, and when he’s ready, we’re all ready.”

Ditto for Manning. Even when the Giants hit a four-game slide that jeopardized making the playoffs, he stood out.

“He’s just been great,” said receiver Victor Cruz, who had a breakout season with Manning throwing to him. “He understands the defense, he understands what we can see on every single down and every single coverage and he’s just making the right reads and really hitting people when the time is right.”

The time certainly is right. For a decade, it’s been Brady time once New Year’s Day hits. In early 2008, it also was Manning time.

It is again.

Brady was as good as ever in Saturday’s romp past outmanned Denver. His six touchdown passes tied Steve Young and Daryle Lamonica for the NFL record. His five in one half were the most ever.

Something of a surprise first-round draft choice in 2008 out of Delaware, Flacco’s helped the Ravens make the playoffs in all four of his NFL seasons. In great part, he has been along for the ride as opposed to driving the vehicle the way Brady does.

He also doesn’t have nearly the talent to throw to, with the exception of running back Ray Rice, who led the NFL with 2,068 total yards. His offensive line is spotty.

For Baltimore to reach its first Super Bowl since 2001, some of Brady has to rub off on Flacco.

Smith finally has become comfortable in San Francisco thanks to new coach Jim Harbaugh’s guidance and confidence in the seven-year veteran. The 49ers are efficient on offense with a strong running game behind Frank Gore, and a tight end, Vernon Davis, who displayed all his skills in a sensational playoff debut against New Orleans.

If he’s capable of a similar performance against the Giants, it would enhance San Francisco’s chances immeasurably.

“He deserves all this,” Gore said of Smith’s revival. “He’s had some tough times. But I always believed he could play at this level.”

SUNDAY’S GAMES

AFC CHAMPIONSHIP

• Baltimore at New England (CBS-Ch. 12)

NFC CHAMPIONSHIP

• New York Giants at San Francisco (Fox-Ch. 54)

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