The Patriots and 49ers were in the same position while the Broncos and Seahawks both bowed out in the Divisional Round a season ago. I cannot tell you with 100% certainty which teams will be playing in the Super Bowl but I can say this: both games today will be the most exciting games of this NFL season. This is not true solely because of the implications involved but the sheer talent on each roster and how well each team matches up with the other on a position by position basis.
AFC Championship Game (Patriots @ Broncos – 3:30 PM)
Alas, the Manning vs Brady matchup for a trip to the Super Bowl. Fans didn’t think they would ever witness this again after Manning’s decline in Indianapolis and the aging of both quarterbacks. Yet, these men look at age as a form of greater experience. Manning had the best statistical season for a quarterback in NFL history with the most passing touchdowns (55), a record that was formerly held by Brady, and most passing yardage (5,477). Despite both defenses trying different formations to limit the opposing quarterbacks, offense will inevitably dominate all four quarters of this game.
The Denver Broncos set a record this season with most points scored (603). This is obviously partially attributed to the probable MVP this season, Peyton Manning. The other factor that contributes to Denver’s whopping statistic is the trio of first tier wide receivers in Wes Welker, Demaryius Thomas, and Eric Decker. All three have surpassed the 10 TD benchmark and Thomas and Decker have more than 1,250 yards receiving. Wes Welker could have certainly done so as well if he was not limited to 13 games and concussions in a couple more of those games. The emergence of TE Julius Thomas with 12 TDs, 788 yards, and 65 receptions has added another weapon to this already versatile offense. This high octane offense will certainly be on full display against the Patriots defense, which has allowed the 7th most total yards this season (373.1 per game).
Tom Brady has not had quite the season that Manning had, but Brady made the most of his offense. A 12-4 record and a #2 seed in the AFC are impressive considering that he lost four of his top five targets from last season. And the one he didn’t lose, TE Rob Gronkowski was hampered by injuries the entire season, appearing in just seven games. Brady has effectively molded young talents such as Julian Edelman, Aaron Dobson, and Kenbrell Thompkins into a decent receiving corps. The Broncos hope is that their secondary can shut down New England’s receivers and force turnovers. Yet, that will be difficult with Denver’s best cornerback Chris Harris out for the season with a torn ACL. An aged Champ Bailey and an inconsistent Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie both need to step up and play their tightest coverage when the ball is in Brady’s hands.
Both team’s rushing games have improved drastically from a season ago. Denver’s Knowshon Moreno had a career season totaling highs in rushing yards (1,038), receiving yards (548), rushing touchdowns (10) and receptions (60). This will definitely aid in Denver’s chances as the Patriots rank 3rd worst in the league in least rushing yards allowed (2,145). His services will be used immensely in the redzone because he is a strong back who can run both inside and outside. In a Week 12 lost to the Patriots, Moreno lit the Pats defense up with 224 rushing yards. Moreno will aid this offense tremendously with even 100 rushing yards because he adds an element of variation. Hopefully, the offense will not need to rely solely on Manning’s arm to drive down the field.
The Patriots are expecting an encore performance from their running backs. Last week against the Colts, their backs tallied 6 touchdowns and 234 rushing yards. Brady didn’t even throw a single touchdown in that game and they still managed to score 43 points. Their ground game was good but not great in the regular season. It happened to just come alive in this playoffs. Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels hopes that it will remain hot going into today’s game because the Broncos possess a strong presence against the run ranking 7th in rush defense. If RBs LeGarrette Blount, Stevan Ridley, and Shane Vereen can’t start hot against the Broncos D, then its going to be a long day for the Patriots’ offense. The burden of accumulating yards for the entire offense will fall on Tom Brady. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing though because everyone knows that Brady is his best when pressure is at its highest.
Brady has accumulated the most completions (566), passing yardage (6,147), and most wins (18) in NFL playoff history. This is the 15th Manning-Brady matchup with 10 of the previous 14 going to Brady. The most recent matchup saw the Broncos squander a 24-0 lead in Week 12. Of the 14 matchups, 3 were in the playoffs with Brady winning 2 of them. History certainly favors Brady in this matchup, but we can’t always look to the past for the future. Manning and his offense will be too much for New England’s defense. The Denver crowd will get to see their Broncos earn a trip to the Super Bowl in New York.
Prediction: Denver 28, New England 24
NFC Championship Game (49ers @ Seahawks – 6:30 PM)
The 49ers and Seahawks have become familiar with each other as both are in the competitive NFC West. This year, they split the season series one a piece, both teams winning at home. In the last two wins in Seattle, the Seahawks have outscored the 49ers 71-16. The city of Seattle plays the biggest factor in this game. CenturyLink field is notorious for its “12th man.” Not only are the fans loud but the acoustic design of the stadium amplifies the noise to an even greater extent. The fans in Seattle set a crowd noise record with 137.6 decibels in a December victory over the New Orleans Saints this season. This NFC Championship game will be just as loud if not louder. Typically, the fan base in Seattle is as noisy on 1st and 10s as fans are in other stadiums during 3rd or 4th downs. Opposing players struggle to communicate their plays through their helmets, inevitably creating much confusion on the field. These factors are responsible for QB Russell Wilson having a 15-1 record at home in his short two year career with the Seahawks. Although San Francisco has away records of 6-2 in the regular season and 2-0 in the playoffs, no stadium is like Seattle’s.
Both NFC West teams boast impressive ground games. The 49ers rank 3rd (2,201 yards) in the NFL in rushing while the Seahawks rank 4th (2,188 yards). Both Russell Wilson (539 yards) and Colin Kaepernick (524 yards) account for approximately 25% of their team’s rushing stats. But these mobile quarterbacks will probably be limited by the stifling defenses on both sides. Much of the rushing will be determined by each team’s star running back and offensive lines. Once again, these defenses are known for their ability to stop the run and its evidenced by their regular season performances. The 49ers rank 4th (1,535) in the league in fewest rushing yards allowed and the Seahawks rank tied for 7th (1,626). Although this game has two pro-bowl caliber running backs, neither Frank Gore nor Marshawn Lynch will have fantastic enough games to make a significant impact and potentially sway the game in one teams favor.
The quarterback battle has to ultimately be the most speculated of all positions. Both quarterbacks in this game are young mobile talents whose performance in this game will likely play the most significant factor in the outcome. Recently, QB Colin Kaepernick’s game has been mediocre against Seattle. In the past two meetings, he has completed less than half of his passes and thrown four interceptions. In order for San Francisco to stand a chance in this competitive game, he needs to post solid yardage numbers and a better completion percentage. Although his recent statistics do not look impressive, regular season-Kaepernick is an entirely different player from playoff-Kaepernick. Kaepernick holds a 4-1 record as a starter in the playoffs with his only playoff loss coming in last season’s Super Bowl. Thus, he has never lost a road playoff game in his career and he hopes that this streak will remain intact after Sunday night’s showdown.
QB Russell Wilson, on the other hand, has not been nearly impressive in the playoffs. He has never appeared in the NFC Championship game unlike his quarterback counterpart, Colin Kaepernick. Wilson has additionally poorly performed as of late. Of the four remaining quarterbacks, Wilson holds the worst statistical numbers in the last five weeks, averaging only 157.6 passing yards per game and completing 56.52% of his passes. If Russell Wilson can manage to start the game strong, then he can effectively use the element of surprise with the running game later on, which will open up the entire offense.
This game will go down to the wire with a potential late 4th quarter drive making the difference. Both defenses have to play like their normal selves in order to give their respective offenses opportunities of winning. However, Seattle’s home field advantage is unparalleled to any other stadium and will be too much for the 49ers to overcome.
Prediction: Seattle 20, San Francisco 17