Whatever decibel levels are reached Sunday at Eardrum Rupture Field — 138.7 is the current high in Seattle, with 145 the equivalent of an air-raid siren and 150 that of a jet takeoff — just realize the din is a fitting raucous cacophony for a special day. Don’t be surprised if we see two epic conference title games, epic being among the most misused words in sports but perfectly applicable in these cases.
What more could you want than Peyton Manning and Tom Brady? Only they could keep the rivalry fresh and fascinating in their 15th meeting, 12 more than John Elway ever had with Dan Marino and 15 more than Michael Jordan had with — um, who, exactly? — in a sadly arch-rival-less career. If we occasionally need reminders amid scandals and b.s. about why we still watch sports, here you are, jaded souls, the 21st-century answer to Russell and Chamberlain, Nicklaus and Palmer, Magic and Bird, Ali and Frazier, Picasso and Michelangelo. For the uninitiated, the latter dudes were not bloody warriors but artists of the highest order, and it was impressive that Wes Welker, who catches passing from Manning after six years of catching Brady’s, referenced them the other day.
“It’s like comparing Picasso and Michelangelo,” Welker said. “It’s hard to compare the two.”
So, which is Picasso and which is Michelangelo? “I couldn’t even tell you. Somebody threw those names at me one time and I thought it sounded pretty good,” admitted Mr. Old Spice, the guy who enjoys his locker-room shower and deodorant so much in a TV commercial that he misses the second half of a game.
We’ve written and talked all week about the mammoth pressure on Manning, Brady’s rare position as an underdog, Bill Belichick’s brilliant scissors-and-glue job and why I’d definitely hate Jim Harbaugh if I were Pete Carroll. That said, it’s possible that crowd noise could be the day’s biggest star. When Seahawks owner Paul Allen — yes, the Paul Allen who pirated Silicon Valley with Bill Gates and Steve Jobs — sat down to help design a new stadium, he demanded a noise chamber. The architect produced the loudest outdoor venue in sports, compact and intimate, purposed via large parabolas to contain sound instead of letting it escape. The result has been decibel explosions, Guinness records, even a few minor earthquakes when the home team scored a big touchdown. A cathedral of noise, Sports Illustrated calls it.
No team in American sports has a more intimidating home advantage. The Seahawks have lost once in 17 games at CenturyLink Field the last two seasons, and they will win Sunday because 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, usually an unruffled badass in hostile environments, has yet to figure out Seattle. The 49ers have been skunked by a collective 71-16, with seven turnovers and four sacks, in their last two visits. Do you think they’re about to completely morph this time, just because the inventive Harbaugh has been teaching lip-reading and sign language to his offense in recent days?
“You’ve got to be able to communicate without being able to hear very well,” Harbaugh said. “You can simulate that somewhat in practice. Signals, hand signals, verbal signals, body language, reading lips, different ways. We’ve been in some of those environments.”
Kaepernick says it’s a matter of speaking up in the huddle and repeating the play call, over and over. “We do have to protect the football. That’s something we haven’t done very well up there,” he said. “I think going into this game, we have to make sure we do that so we can come out with a win. It’s a different game. It’s a whole separate entity. It’s a little bit louder in Seattle.”
A little bit louder? I’m going deaf just writing about it. This will be a close, low-scoring game because Seattle has its own offensive issues, difficult to cure against a menacing 49ers defense. But the Seahawks will win thanks to the noise, a Beast Mode running game (Marshawn Lynch) and an invaluable kicker (Steven Hauschka) who will trigger his own earthquake after his late, game-deciding field goal. “There are times i take my headset off just to hear it and feel it. it’s rousing,” Carroll said of the stadium sound. “More than just the noise, it’s energy they bring and you feel. I’m sure our players feel it and they other team probably feels it to some extent as well. So we are happy and lucky to be a part of it.”
It’s tempting to take the Patriots because they are playing with no pressure, knowing most teams would have imploded after the Aaron Hernandez murder arrest and too many injuries and calamities to count. But Manning will seize the opportunity to quiet his loud January critics with a huge day in sunny, pleasant conditions. Wes Welker will catch one of his touchdown passes, and afterward, he’ll conclude that Manning is Picasso because it’s easier to prounouce and spell than Michelangelo.