Any given Sunday is kind of an over used phrase when talking about NFL games but it rang true in the wild card round when the 6th seed in each conference advanced. In the divisional round though, the teams that were supposed to win actually did win and are now moving on to the conference finals. Today we preview both of Sunday’s games.
AFC Championship - Patriots @ Broncos 3pm EST
Peyton Manning and Tom Brady will face each other for the 15th time this Sunday in the AFC championship game. Brady has won ten games against Peyton while,only losing four. This includes a 2-1 record for Brady against Peyton in the postseason. This is also the third time the pair have met in the AFC title game. They split the first two.
I think the Patriots have a slight edge here despite traveling to Denver. The Patriots offense showed that they are built for cold weather games last week when they scored six touchdowns on the ground and ran the ball 46 times. Knowing that the Super Bowl is a cold weather game this makes perfect sense. Bill Belichick is a master at getting the most out of the players he has and this season has been no different. The Patriots have morphed into a power running team at just the right time. Despite the NFL being a passing league, the teams that ran the ball effectively last week are the ones that advanced to the championship round. No one ran the ball better than the Patriots in the divisional round. The running back trio of LeGarrette Blount, Stevan Ridley, and Shane Vereen ran the ball 43 times for 253 yards averaging a whopping 5.5 yards per carry. I don’t think they will be that effective against the Broncos but it isn’t like Denver has an elite run defense. The Patriots should be able to move the ball on the ground effectively again on Sunday. I don’t think Brady goes another playoff game without a touchdown pass so look for a slightly more balanced attack but still with an emphasis on the run game.
The Broncos would perhaps prefer a shootout however as they clearly have the more explosive passing game. Earlier in the season the Patriots defeated them 34-31 in overtime, but the Broncos were missing Julius Thomas from that game and the Patriots had Rob Gronkowski who obviously will not be playing this time around. In a high scoring game the Broncos have a clear edge with all of that firepower in the passing game. Peyton set passing records in 2013 with one of the best set of weapons in the league. Teams can’t really double team any one of Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, Eric Decker, or Julius Thomas because whoever they leave open has game-breaking ability. Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball are an effective duo in the Broncos backfield but I really think the only shot the Broncos have is to air it out like they have done most of the season.
Prediction: Patriots over the Broncos 24-21.
NFC Championship - 49ers @ Seahawks 6:30pm EST
Brady vs Manning is one of the premiere matchup for the current generation of quarterbacks but Wilson vs Kaepernick has a good chance at being the premiere matchup of the future. They will also play each other more times than Brady and Manning have since they are division rivals in the NFC west.
In week 2 the Seahawks blew out the Niners in Seattle 29-3. Their defense dominated Colin Kaepernick, holding him to just 127 yards passing, no touchdowns, and three interceptions. In the comfort of CenturyLink field the Seahawks are an amazing 16-1 over their last 17 games. with their only loss coming against the Arizona Cardinals late this season. The 12th man will be there in full force making things difficult for on the field communication between Kaepernick and his offense. On the other side of the ball, Russell Wilson is going to need to play better than he has in recent weeks to beat the Niners this time around. Last week against the Saints he managed just 109 yards and no touchdowns. The 49ers defense is quite a bit better than the Saints’ so Wilson is really going to have to step up his game on Sunday. Marshawn Lynch was the lone bright spot for the Seahawks offense last week and will likely be leaned on even more against San Francisco. Lynch is built for these kind of games and should be effective. If the Seahawks advance to the Super Bowl it is likely they are carried there on the back of Marshawn Lynch and the strength of their defense.
Colin Kaepernick has been an up and down quarterback for most of the 2013 season but has stepped up his game in the playoffs and is playing the best football of his career. One key part of that is the return of wide receiver Michael Crabtree who did not play in the week 2 blowout in Seattle due to his achilles’ injury. Crabtree, while clearly not 100%, is making a huge difference in what the 49ers have been able to do offensively. In Boldin and Crabtree, Kaepernick has likely the best 2 pairs of hands in the NFL. Crabtree has also taken some of the coverage away from tight end Vernon Davis who had the only receiving touchdown in the 49ers win over the Panthers in the divisional round. If Colin Kaepernick’s recent commercial is any indication, he should be just fine dealing with the noise from Seattle’s 12th man. Experience is everything and after getting waxed in week 2, Kaepernick now knows what to expect going into the game. Of all the teams left in the playoffs I think San Francisco has the fewest weaknesses. The key to this game for them is how well Kaepernick deals with the hostile crowd and the Seahawks’ stout defense.
Prediction: 49ers over the Seahawks 17-16