The National Football League conference championship has come down to the four final teams. Here is a look at the weekend’s matchups with predictions on who advances to the Super Bowl on February 2.
New England Patriots vs. Denver Broncos
The rivalry between Peyton Manning and Tom Brady that dominated the NFL during Manning’s tenure with the Indianapolis Colts is back with its newest chapter. With Manning now on the Broncos, and Brady still at the top of his game with the Patriots, this AFC matchup will focus on two legendary and hall of fame shoe-in QB’s. Manning, 37, and Brady, 36, are still the chiefs at their position. Manning just turned in what one could argue was the best season of his career: he finished with a passer rating of 115.1 (his best was in 2004 with a 121.1). In that season he threw 49 touchdowns; this season he threw 55 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions, which was one more than his career low. Breaking the 4,000 passing yard plateau is a yearly occurrence for Manning — falling short of the feat only once since his rookie season. However, for the first time in Manning’s career, he eclipsed the 5,000 passing yard mark with 5,477 total. Only five quarterbacks have thrown for over 5,000 yards in a season in the history of the NFL, and now Manning’s mark leads them all — having eclipsed Drew Brees’ 2011 record by just one yard. Needless to say, Manning will have his way against a middle-of-the-pack Patriots passing defense. On top of that, Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball could have their way on the ground against a league-worst Patriots rushing defense. Moreno rushed for over 1,000 yards this season with 10 touchdowns; Ball ran for 559 yards with four touchdowns.
As is the key for any team trying to beat the 2013 Broncos, the Patriots will need to simply outscore them. If any team can do it, the Patriots just might be that team. The Broncos were 27th in the league in passing yards allowed, which is surely noted by Brady who will be attacking in the air early and often. The Patriots’ platoon running back duo of Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount, who combined for 1,545 rushing yards (Ridley rushed for just one more yard than Blount) and a combined 14 touchdowns (seven each), is extremely underrated and have come on even stronger of late in the playoffs. The 218 yards and six touchdowns in the Patriots 43-22 win over the Colts last Sunday was unexpected from the duo, and shouldn’t be relied on against the Broncos this Sunday — but it shows what they’re capable of if too much attention is paid to Brady and not enough to the Patriots’ running game. The Broncos are a usually able to stop the running game, but the focus here will likely be put on containing Brady in the air. They may be just as susceptible to Blount and Ridley running amok on the ground as the Colts were.
This should be a high-scoring affair, with both QB’s going jab for jab like they did in their last AFC conference championship face off in January of 2007. That year, Manning and the Colts overcame Brady and the Patriots 38-34 and then went on to become the Super Bowl MVP when they beat the Chicago Bears 29-17.
Manning comes out on top again, avenging their Week 12 overtime loss in New England, beating Brady and the Patriots 35-31 in Denver.
San Francisco 49ers vs. Seattle Seahawks
This matchup is the antithesis of the AFC showdown between the Broncos and Patriots. The two QB’s in this game, Colin Kaepernick (49ers) and Russell Wilson (Seahawks), are 26 and 25, respectively. Neither has ever won a Super Bowl (though in their rookie seasons last year, both led their clubs to the playoffs with Kaepernick leading his side to the Super Bowl) or an MVP award. Their styles of play couldn’t be any more different from that of Manning and Brady, who will go down as two of the best passing QB’s to ever play the game. Wilson and Kaepernick, while talented and athletic, are not known for their passing ability. Their running games and versatility at the position, however, far exceeds that of their elders. And most importantly, they play on teams that focus their efforts principally on defense.
The San Francisco 49ers have grown comfortable to playing football on the road. They’ve won their last three games on the road in very hostile territories, and will have to continue that trend for two more games in 2014 if they’re to win it all, a feat they fell one game shy of a year ago. In all, the 49ers have won eight straight games including the postseason. And they’ve been winning due in large part to their consistency: they’ve won three straight games having scored 23 points in each. Over their eight-game winning streak, Kaepernick has allowed his defense to win the game every time — he has thrown for 12 touchdowns and has only been picked off twice in that span. If the 49ers are to come out on top in this one, Kaepernick cannot give the Seahawks’ offense extra possessions as a result of 49ers turnovers. Furthermore, Kaepernick will have to get both his and Frank Gore’s running game going from the opening drive. The Seahawks rarely allow teams to find success in the air (they are number one in opponents’ passing yards per game), but they’re only marginally weaker at stopping the rushing game (seventh best in the league in opponents rushing yards per game). So the ground game is the lesser of the two evils here for the 49ers.
The Seattle Seahawks allowed the fewest points in the NFL this season. In the playoffs, they shut down one of the game’s most lethal quarterbacks in Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints. This season, including the playoffs, the Seahawks have given up more than 20 points in a game just five times, and two of those were in overtime. As has been a common storyline through the playoffs, the Seahawks have the most intimidating home in all of sports in CenturyLink field. Russell Wilson, much like Kaepernick, has perfected the limiting-mistakes-and-allowing-the-defense-to-win-the-game skill. Point in case: last week against the Saints, Wilson threw for only 103 yards over just 18 attempts; he didn’t record a touchdown or an interception either. Enter Marshawn Lynch. Lynch carried the ball more than any running back not named LeSean McCoy this season, and tallied the sixth most yards gained. Lynch seems to play best in big games (140 yards and 2 TD’s last week). He will be deployed against a difficult 49ers rush defense in tandem with Wilson’s ability to scramble and pick up yards on the ground of his own.
This game will come down to which team makes fewer mistakes. In Week 2 of the regular season, the 49ers were embarrassed in Seattle losing 29-3. In Week 14, they avenged their poor early season performance by beating the Seahawks in San Francisco 19-17. The second of the two regular season matches is the more likely scoring display. The 49ers have the zest to quiet a rowdy fan base early in the game, and that could prove to be the key factor in this one.
The 49ers outlast the Seahawks in overtime by a score of 16-13.