Now that the divisional round of the NFL playoffs is officially in the books, we have taken a step closer to the ultimate prize—Super Bowl XLVIII.
There will be a West Coast flavor to the big game, at least in the NFC, as the winner of the clash between division rivals Seattle and San Francisco will move on to play for the title. As great as the 49ers have been under Jim Harbaugh (three straight NFC Championship Game appearances), trips to CenturyLink Field have been nightmarish for them the past two years.
On the AFC side, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady will get to square off once again with a spot at the Super Bowl on the line. The Denver Broncos will host the New England Patriots, but it’s safe to say much of the pregame attention will be directed toward the two star quarterbacks.
Let’s dig into some predictions for which teams we will see in Super Bowl XLVIII.
You’ve heard it all by now. Manning is one of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of the NFL and is a regular-season juggernaut, but when the bright lights of the playoffs shine down, the questions come flying in.
Sure, Manning only has one ring compared to multiple rings for contemporaries Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and even his own brother Eli, but he has a golden opportunity to rewrite his personal narrative against the Patriots in the AFC title game.
And that’s exactly what he will do.
As resilient as the Patriots have been all season in the face of a constant barrage of injuries, they still feature an incredibly vulnerable defense. Bill Belichick’s squad finished 18th against the pass and 30th against the rush this season and will have a hard time containing the Broncos' litany of weapons in Denver.
That doesn’t mean New England won’t be able to score points against the Broncos’ leaky secondary as well. Brady will certainly find holes against the league's 27th-best pass defense all game long, but he doesn’t have the type of game-breaking skill players to work with that Manning has.
Yes, New England knocked off the Broncos during the regular season in a tale-of-two-halves type of game (Denver led 24-0 at halftime, but the Pats won 34-31), but a Rob Gronkowski-less Patriots team won’t be able to keep up with Denver’s scoring. Remember, Gronkowski featured prominently in the regular-season game with 90 yards and a touchdown.
Prediction: Denver 41, New England 34
Stop me if you’ve heard this before—the Seahawks and 49ers will face off in a monumentally important game.
These showdowns may not get the year-round coverage that the rivalries between the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers or the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens do (call it East Coast bias if you want), but this rivalry is rapidly becoming the NFL’s best.
Let Chris Burke of Sports Illustrated set the stage:
The best division in football now has the last two teams standing in the NFC playoffs. ... And here we are: with the two heated rivals set for what might be a battle for the ages next Sunday in Seattle. The 49ers had to claw their way into the playoffs a little harder than did the top-seeded Seahawks. Now that they’re here, they look capable of finishing the job they started last season before falling just short against the Ravens.
As with any game in Seattle, the crowd noise and weather elements will come into play. The 49ers were manhandled 29-3 in Week 2 during their trip to Seattle, which was only slightly better than last year’s 42-13 embarrassment when Colin Kaepernick and company ventured North to the Emerald City.
Let’s get one thing straight for the 49ers: They won’t win this game throwing the ball.
Richard Sherman leads the best secondary in the league that doesn’t let anyone move the ball through the air, let alone the 30th-ranked passing team in the NFL. If the 49ers are going to pull the upset, it will have to be on the back of the underrated workhorse Frank Gore.
Look for the Seahawks to force an early turnover or two (much like they did against the New Orleans Saints in the divisional round) and grab a quick lead behind Marshawn Lynch and excellent field position. That will force the 49ers to play catch-up, which Sherman and company simply won’t allow.
Prediction: Seattle 21, San Francisco 10
So there you have it.
The Seahawks and the Broncos, who just so happen to be the No. 1 seeds in their respective conferences, will face off in Super Bowl XLVIII. Buckle up.
Follow and interact with Bleacher Report writer Scott Polacek on Twitter @ScottPolacek.