Bill Belichick looks to lead the New England Patriots to a record-tying eighth Super Bowl appearance.
Are you ready?
The NFL’s 94th season doesn't have many games left. Three to be exact, and two of them are this Sunday, as we will soon find out who will be squaring off in Super Bowl XLVIII.
The New England Patriots and Denver Broncos will kick it off first at Sports Authority Field at Mile High in the AFC Championship Game at 3 p.m. ET on CBS. Then it’s the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field for the NFC title at 6:30 p.m. ET on Fox.
So here’s a look at what you need to know when it comes to all four teams and both matchups this weekend.
It’s worth noting that the teams’ championship records include not only today’s conference game format, but those league title contests from 1933-69 for both the NFL and AFL.
We could be in for one great Sunday of football.
Postseason Record: 25-17
Championship Game Record: 7-3
It’s become almost an annual ritual for the New England Patriots.
For the third consecutive season and the eighth time in 13 years dating back to 2001, Bill Belichick’s team is one game away from the Super Bowl. They are the first AFC team to play in three straight conference title tilts since the Buffalo Bills won four consecutive AFC championships from 1990-93.
The Patriots have prevailed in five of their last seven attempts. They defeated the Steelers in Pittsburgh in the 2001 and 2004 AFC title games, as well as defeating the Indianapolis Colts (2003), San Diego Chargers (2007) and the Baltimore Ravens (2011) en route to Super Bowls.
Belichick and company have also recently lost conference championship games as well, falling to the Colts at Indianapolis in ’06 (38-34) and to the Ravens at Foxborough last January (28-13).
Prior to their current reign, the franchise fell to the Chargers in the 1963 AFL title game, but defeated both the Miami Dolphins (1985) and Jacksonville Jaguars (1996) on their way to Super Bowls XX and XXXI, respectively.
Postseason Record: 19-17
Championship Game Record: 6-2
For a franchise that has made six Super Bowl appearances, it has actually been a while since the Denver Broncos not only appeared in the big game, but actually won one.
It was eight years ago (2005) that the Broncos got this far, and it resulted in a 34-17 home loss to the eventual Super Bowl champions, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Denver’s head coach was Mike Shanahan and its starting quarterback was Jake Plummer.
The team’s first appearance in the AFC Championship Game was 1977, when outside linebacker Tom Jackson, safety Billy Thompson and the “Orange Crush” defense led the Broncos to a win over the Oakland Raiders and a berth in Super Bowl XII.
From 1986-98, Denver reached the conference title game six times in 13 years, all with quarterback John Elway, and won five of those contests. The Broncos defeated the Cleveland Browns three times in four years (1986, ’87 and ’89) and a few years later edged the Pittsburgh Steelers (24-21) and New York Jets (23-10) in the 1997 and ’98 AFC title games.
Elway and Co. fell to the Buffalo Bills in the 1991 AFC Championship Game, 10-7, at Orchard Park.
Postseason Record: 31-20
Championship Game Record: 6-8
Talk about being busy?
This Sunday will see the playing of the 44th NFC Championship Game dating back to the merger in 1970. The San Francisco 49ers will have been in more than one-third of those contests, including the last three years.
While the team has had its share of success and failure in these games, the bottom line is that they’re usually around to play in them.
The Niners are looking for their second straight and seventh Super Bowl appearance. Last season, they followed 2011's 20-17 overtime loss to the New York Giants in the NFC title game by defeating the Atlanta Falcons, 28-24, to reach Super Bowl XLVII.
As for their other five wins in this round, head coach Bill Walsh and quarterback Joe Montana led the team to four victories in the 1980s, defeating the Dallas Cowboys in 1981 (28-27) and the Chicago Bears in 1984 (23-0) and 1988 (28-3). Montana and new head coach George Seifert led the team to a 30-3 win over the Los Angeles Rams in 1989. Five years later, Seifert and quarterback Steve Young got past the Cowboys, 38-28, on the way to Super Bowl XXIX.
Ah, the losses. Four of the eight setbacks came at the hands of the Cowboys in 1970, ’71, ’92 and ’93 and two more to the Giants (1990 and 2011). The 49ers also lost the 1983 NFC title game to the Washington Redskins and the ’97 contest to the Green Bay Packers.
Postseason Record: 10-12
Championship Game Record: 1-1
It is short story time, folks. But perhaps you will find it interesting.
The Seattle Seahawks are in their third conference title game, but their first since 2005, when they rolled the visiting Carolina Panthers, 34-14.
Of course, the Seahawks began their tenure in the NFL in 1976 in the NFC West before being shifted to the AFC West in 1977. In 1983 under head coach Chuck Knox, the franchise reached the playoffs for the first time and made it all the way to the AFC Championship Game. The club fell to the Los Angeles Raiders, 30-14, at the Coliseum that afternoon.
Of course, the Raiders have been back in Oakland since 1995 and the Seahawks returned to the NFC West in 2002.
I told you it would be short…and interesting.
Postseason W-L Record as Starter: 18-7
Postseason TD Pass-INT: 42-22
It’s hard to find fault with what New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has done during the playoffs throughout his magnificent career. No player has thrown for more yards in postseason history (6,147) and only Joe Montana (45) and Brett Favre (44) have thrown more touchdown passes than Brady (42) in the second season.
In last week’s 43-22 win over the Indianapolis Colts in the divisional round, Brady did not throw a touchdown pass as the team ran for 234 yards and six scores. That win raised his record in his last 15 playoff games to 8-7. In those contests, he’s thrown for 28 scores while being picked off 19 times.
Let’s not forget that Brady won his first 10 playoff outings, which included wins in Super Bowl XXXVI, XXXVIII and XXXIX. The veteran signal-caller threw 14 touchdown passes and just three interceptions in those 10 victories.
Postseason W-L Record as Starter: 10-11
Postseason TD Pass-INT: 34-22
Sometimes there’s more time spent talking about what Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning hasn’t done rather than what he has accomplished throughout his career.
However, it is certainly understandable at times. Last week, the prolific passer snapped a three-game losing streak in the playoffs with a 24-17 victory over the San Diego Chargers. Remember, Manning also lost the first three postseason games of his NFL career while he was with the Indianapolis Colts.
So it’s safe to say that the veteran quarterback has had his ups and downs in the playoffs. It’s worth noting that he has started 21 postseason games and, despite throwing for 34 scores, has been picked off 22 times.
Of course, we also never saw a regular season like Manning just enjoyed in 2013. He put up an NFL-record 5,477 yards and 55 touchdown passes. But those numbers won’t mean much on Sunday night if he doesn’t become the third quarterback to take two different teams to the Super Bowl.
Postseason W-L Record as Starter: 4-1
Postseason TD Pass-INT: 6-3
The San Francisco 49ers are back in the NFC Championship Game for the third straight year. For the second consecutive season, quarterback Colin Kaepernick is at the helm.
The third-year pro has now won four of his five playoff starts, with a loss to the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII the lone blemish. His confidence seems to be growing.
“I’m not just going to let you say anything you want to me,” said Kaepernick to Michael J. Fensom of The Star-Ledger. “If you are going to say something to me, I am going to respond.”
Kaepernick has responded to date. While his passing numbers aren’t awe-inspiring (58.0 completion percentage), he has thrown twice as many touchdown passes as interceptions. Kaepernick has also rushed for an impressive 377 yards and four scores in just five playoff games.
Of course, his woes against the Seattle Seahawks are also well-documented. In three starts versus Pete Carroll’ s club, Kaepernick has hit on just 47-of-93 throws for 546 yards. He’s been sacked six times and committed one half-dozen turnovers (five interceptions) while throwing just two touchdown passes.
Postseason W-L Record as Starter: 2-1
Postseason TD Pass-INT: 3-1
Seattle’s Russell Wilson has the least postseason experience of any of the remaining quarterbacks.
However, it is also worth noting that the second-year quarterback has actually started more career games (35) than Sunday’s counterpart, San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick (28).
In two seasons, Wilson has been remarkably consistent. One year after throwing 26 touchdown passes and committing only 13 turnovers as a rookie, the former third-round draft choice threw for 26 scores and coughed up the ball just 14 times in 2013.
His 24-8 regular-season record as a starter since 2012 is not only amazing, those two dozen victories are the most by a starting quarterback in his first two seasons dating back to 1966 and the start of the Super Bowl era.
In three playoff outings, Wilson has completed 60 percent of his passes (48-of-80) for 675 yards, three scores and one interception.
Points Scored: 444 (3rd)
Points Allowed: 338 (10th)
Turnover Differential: +9 (8th)
Bill Belichick’s team picked a good time to rediscover its ability to score points. Including last week’s 43-22 victory over the visiting Indianapolis Colts, the Patriots have won three straight games by a combined 118-49 score.
Over that span, New England has rushed for a combined 643 yards and 10 scores while Tom Brady and the passing game have accounted for just as many touchdowns (two) as the Pats defense.
Only two teams in the NFL gave up more rushing yards than Belichick’s club this past season. All told, the Patriots were ranked 26th in the NFL in total yards allowed. Including last Saturday night's victory over the Colts, New England has allowed at least 20 points in eight of its last nine outings and in a total of 12 of the team’s 17 contests in 2013.
Points Scored: 606 (1st)
Points Allowed: 399 (22nd)
Turnover Differential: Even (T-14th)
John Fox’s team set NFL records with 606 points and 71 touchdowns scored. The team that gave them the most issues defensively during the season was the San Diego Chargers, who they eliminated last Sunday at Denver.
Quarterback Peyton Manning not only threw a record 55 touchdown passes in 2013, but if you include last week’s 24-17 win over the Bolts, the prolific signal-caller has thrown for at least two scores in 16 of 17 outings.
The Broncos allowed 399 points during the regular season, 110 more than the team gave up (289) the previous year. Fox’s club broke even in 2013 when it came to giveaway/takeaway margin.
But Denver’s 26 turnovers included 16 lost fumbles, the most in the NFL this season. And the Broncos were the only one of the four winning teams last week to commit a turnover.
Points Scored: 406 (11th)
Points Allowed: 272 (3rd)
Turnover Differential: +12 (T-4th)
The 49ers have been a very good first-quarter and first-half team throughout most of the season, and that has carried into the playoffs. In 2013, Jim Harbaugh’s squad outscored its opponents 97-31 in the first 15 minutes and a combined 218-117 in the first half.
In the postseason wins over the Green Bay Packers and Carolina Panthers, San Francisco scored 13 points in the first half of each of those contests and finished with 23 points in each victory.
During Harbaugh’s first two seasons at the 49ers’ helm, the team never lost two straight games. In 2013, that actually happened on two occasions, and just prior to the team’s current eight-game winning streak, the club dropped consecutive games to the Carolina Panthers (10-9) and New Orleans Saints (23-20).
When the Niners have fallen, their offense has been a no-show. In 14 total wins this season, Harbaugh’s club has averaged 29.5 points per game. In their four losses in 2013, San Francisco has totaled 39 points.
Points Scored: 417 (T-8th)
Points Allowed: 231 (1st)
Turnover Differential: +20 (1st)
Even when they haven’t played well this season, the Seahawks have found a way to win games more times than not. They allowed the fewest points in the league for the second straight year and 14 fewer (231) than they gave up in 2012 (245).
That plus-20 in the turnover department is largely due to the fact that Pete Carroll’s team totaled a league-high 39 takeaways, including an NFL best 28 interceptions this season.
Pass protection has been an issue throughout the season due to various reasons, most notably injuries to starting tackles Russell Okung and Breno Giacomini, which caused them to miss eight and seven games, respectively.
Including last week’s win over the Saints, quarterback Russell Wilson has been sacked three or more times in four consecutive contests and a total of 47 times in 17 outings this season. A season ago, the Seattle signal-caller was sacked 40 times in 18 overall games.
- The Seattle Seahawks are not only the lone remaining franchise in the playoffs not to win a Super Bowl title, Pete Carroll is all alone when it comes to taking a team to the Super Bowl. The San Francisco 49ers (5-1), New England Patriots (3-4) and Denver Broncos (2-4) have all made at least one half-dozen Super Bowl appearances and won at least two titles. The Seahawks' lone Super Bowl appearance resulted in a 21-10 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers eight years ago (XL).
- The Seahawks (13-3), Broncos (13-3), Patriots (12-4) and 49ers (12-4) combined for a 50-14 record in 2013, the most combined victories by the NFL’s final four teams since 2007. It marks the first time since 1998 that all four clubs won at least a dozen games during the regular season. That year, the Minnesota Vikings (15-1), Atlanta Falcons (14-2), Broncos (14-2) and New York Jets (12-4) combined for a 55-9 mark and a .859 winning percentage, the most victories and best winning percentage of the Super Bowl era.
- Dating back to 1990 and today’s current playoff format, home teams are just 27-19 in the conference championship game round, including just 2-4 the last three seasons. The last three teams to host the NFC title game (Chicago Bears in 2010, 49ers in 2011 and Atlanta Falcons in 2012) all lost. Last season, both home teams (Patriots and Falcons) lost their conference championship games at home in the same year for the first time since 1997.
- While there’s no prediction being made here, the chances appear excellent that either the 49ers or Seahawks will score 23 points in a winning effort. San Francisco edged the Green Bay Packers, 23-20, in the Wild Card Round and posted a 23-10 victory over the Carolina Panthers in last week’s divisional round. Last Saturday, the Seahawks held on for a 23-15 win over the New Orleans Saints in the divisional playoffs.
- What’s in a streak? Including playoffs, Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers have posted eight straight victories while the Patriots, Broncos and Seahawks have combined to win eight games in a row. Keep in mind that Denver opened the season 6-0 and New England and Seattle got off to 4-0 starts. Meanwhile, the Niners dropped two of their first three games, including lopsided losses to the Seahawks (29-3) and Indianapolis Colts (27-7). Perhaps it is how you finish after all?