NFL Conference Championships 2013: Every Team's Biggest Key to Victory

Russell S. Baxter@@BaxFootballGuruContributor IJanuary 15, 2014

NFL Conference Championships 2013: Every Team's Biggest Key to Victory

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    San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick and Seattle's Russell Wilson will meet for the third time this season on Sunday.
    San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick and Seattle's Russell Wilson will meet for the third time this season on Sunday.Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

    Does it get any better than this?

    The NFL’s final four of 2013 features teams that have all won at least 12 regular-season games.

    That means for the first time since the 13-3 New Orleans Saints captured Super Bowl XLIV following the 2009 season that the NFL champion will have won more than 10 games.

    In 2010, the 10-6 Green Bay Packers won Super Bowl XLV. That was followed by the 9-7 New York Giants in 2011 (XLVI) and last season’s 10-6 Baltimore Ravens, winners of Super Bowl XLVII.

    So it’s a prestigious foursome, with a combined 50-14 record, that is looking to punch its ticket to MetLife Stadium on February 2. Here we will take a look at each club’s key to a victory this Sunday. All win-loss records include playoffs.

    Let the games begin.

New England Patriots (13-4)

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    Defeated Colts, 43-22, in AFC Divisional Round

    Key to Victory: Be Blount

    It shouldn’t be a surprise that the New England Patriots are running the football with great success as of late.

    They’ve actually been doing it very well for the last two seasons. One season ago, Bill Belichick’s team was ranked first in the league in total offense, including seventh in rushing.

    In 2013, the Pats rank seventh in the league in total yards gained and ninth in the league when it comes to running the ball.

    So this notion that this is a newly discovered ways of means for the New England offense is a bit deceiving.

    Of course, it’s who’s doing the means these days that’s more surprising. And he’s been more than just a factor on offense.

    In the team’s first 15 games of the season, running back LeGarrette Blount had totaled 583 yards rushing and 349 yards on kickoff returns. The former Tampa Bay Buccaneers workhorse scored only two touchdowns over that span.

    But in the Patriots’ last two outings, the regular-season finale versus the Buffalo Bills and last week’s 43-22 playoff win over the Indianapolis Colts, Blount has rushed for a combined 355 yards and six scores and added 182 yards on just four kickoff returns.

    While Denver’s rushing defense ranks in the top 10 in the league, and only five teams in the NFL have allowed more passing yards per contest, this may be a classic case of dancing with the girl that brought you.

Denver Broncos (14-3)

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    Defeated Chargers, 24-17, in AFC Divisional Round

    Key to Victory: Keep Away

    In 17 total games played this season, the Denver Broncos were limited to fewer than 30 points four times. And this season’s clash with the New England Patriots wasn’t one of them.

    Yes, quarterback Peyton Manning and Co. squandered a 24-0 halftime lead en route to a 34-31 Sunday night overtime loss at Foxborough in Week 12. In that game, the team rolled up a season-high 280 yards rushing on a season-high 48 attempts in the loss to the New England Patriots.

    Bill Belichick’s club finished 26th in the league in total defense, and only two clubs in the league gave up more rushing yards per game. It seems like sound reasoning to attack the Patriots on the ground once again.

    Another reason to lean on the running game is to protect a defense that ranked 27th in the NFL in passing yards allowed. And the Denver secondary suffered a big blow last week when starting cornerback Chris Harris went down.

    “It's another disappointment for us,” said linebacker Paris Lenon to Mike Klis of The Denver Post. “Somebody else that we've been battling with that has been a huge part of this team and this defense that is down.”

    So will the run-oriented Patriots try to attack the Broncos secondary with Harris out? There’s one guaranteed way for the Broncos to prevent that.

    That’s because in the storied 94-year history of the NFL, no player has ever completed a pass from the sidelines…at least one that counted.

San Francisco 49ers (14-4)

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    Defeated Packers, 23-20, in NFC Wild Card Round

    Defeated Panthers, 23-10, in NFC Divisional Round

    Key to Victory: Black Out

    With a berth in Super Bowl XLVIII, it seems to be an odd week to talk about ticket sales in the NFL.

    For those who haven’t heard, the Seattle Seahawks are putting certain restrictions on who can buy tickets for this week’s NFC Championship Game. And San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh gets it.

    Of course, the way the Niners have played in their last two visits to CenturyLink Field, they might not want to attend Sunday’s game either.

    As has been well documented, the 49ers have made two visits to Seattle the last two seasons and left losers by a combined 71-16 score.

    So it is pretty simple for the defending NFC champions, who are looking for the franchise’s seventh Super Bowl appearance. The team has to ignore the recent past and concentrate on the present. That means doing what it has done in each of its last eight games. Win.

    One of those victories was a 19-17 triumph over the Seahawks in San Francisco. The Niners managed only one touchdown in the game but gashed Seattle’s defense for 163 yards on the ground on 33 attempts.

    During the team’s current winning streak, the 49ers are averaging 135.5 yards per game on the ground. And in seven of those games, Harbaugh’s club has totaled at least 30 rushing plays.

    It’s easier said than done when it comes to ignoring the 12th man in Seattle. But it’s amazing how quiet that guy could get if the 49ers give him an old-fashioned dose of ball control.

Seattle Seahawks (14-3)

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    Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    Defeated Saints, 23-15, in NFC Divisional Round

    Key to Victory: Stand Pat

    As mentioned earlier in the piece, the Seattle Seahawks have certainly done a terrific job when it comes to frustrating San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

    But head coach Pete Carroll has really done a number on Jim Harbaugh and the Niners offense the last three seasons since the duo began facing each other in the NFL in 2011.

    Granted, the 49ers have won four of those meetings. But with the exception of the very first in 2011, San Francisco has failed to score at least 20 points in each of its last five encounters with Seattle.

    When the teams met in Week 1 of 2011, Harbaugh’s debut as the Niners’ head coach, San Francisco pulled away late for a 33-17 win when wide receiver Ted Ginn (now with the Carolina Panthers) returned both a punt and kickoff for touchdowns.

    All told, in six meetings versus Carroll’s Seahawks, Harbaugh’s club has managed five offensive touchdowns while settling for 17 field goals. In those encounters, San Francisco has scored exactly 100 points, an average 16.7 per contest.

    It’s hard to see the Seattle Seahawks having to change much of anything of what they’ve been doing in putting the clamps on the Niners’ attack.