Football's final four have been decided after this weekend's divisional round matchups, which eliminated four more contenders from the playoff picture.
On Sunday, the San Francisco 49ers punched their ticket to Seattle for the NFC Championship with a 23-10 road win against the Carolina Panthers. Meanwhile, the Denver Broncos held off a comeback attempt by the San Diego Chargers to win 24-17 and advance to next week's AFC title game, when they will host the New England Patriots.
In all, the second round of the playoffs didn't feature much nail-biting action, but it sets us up with two high-profile conference championship games oozing with storylines. Here's the TV viewing information for championship Sunday, followed by previews of the two big matchups on tap.
|AFC||New England Patriots||Denver Broncos||Jan. 19||3 p.m.||CBS|
|NFC||San Francisco 49ers||Seattle Seahawks||Jan. 19||6:30 p.m.||FOX|
AFC: (2) New England Patriots at (1) Denver Broncos
This year's AFC Championship will give us the latest reprisal in the Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady rivalry, which will mark the 15th meeting between the two future Hall of Famers. Sunday's matinee will also serve as the third time that Brady and Manning have met in the AFC Championship.
Who Will Win?
The Patriots used four touchdowns from LeGarrette Blount to blow out the Indianapolis Colts, 44-23, on Saturday to advance to the title game. Coupled with the dangerous arm of Brady, the development of New England's run game makes it a formidable foe for Denver.
The Broncos staked themselves a 17-0 lead against the Chargers, but the Denver secondary looked shaky without starting cornerback Chris Harris Jr., who was declared out in the second half due to leg injuries. Harris' situation will be important to monitor heading into Sunday's contest, as the Chargers were able to successfully attack backup Quentin Jammer during their late comeback attempt, which fell seven points short.
New England and Denver clashed in Foxboro earlier this year, where the Patriots erased a 24-0 halftime deficit to claim a 34-31 overtime victory. While Manning broke several of Brady's records during his historic regular season, the quarterback endured his worst game of the year against the Patriots in Week 12, going 19-of-36 for 150 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
Still, we will be witnessing two of football's most clutch performers trying to out-duel one another.
Most pass yards in NFL playoff history: Tom Brady 6147 Peyton Manning 5909— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) January 13, 2014
Secondary play will be paramount in this clash of quality quarterbacks in a matchup that should come down to the wire. For now, Brady holds a 10-4 lead in head-to-head battles against Manning, and the Patriots are looking like the hotter team, but you can throw that all out the window on Sunday.
NFC: (5) San Francisco 49ers at (1) Seattle Seahawks
You can't ask for a much better matchup in the NFC Championship than this clash of bitter divisional foes.
Who Will Win?
The 49ers and Seahawks have developed arguably the NFL's best rivalry over the past couple of seasons, with respective head coaches Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll playing central roles. The two adversaries have a rich history of competition that dates back to their days in the Pac-10 (What's your deal?), and now they get to renew it on the biggest stage possible for their NFC clubs.
While it marks the first trip to the NFC title game for Carroll as Seattle's head coach, Harbaugh has become the only NFL coach since the merger in 1970 to guide his team to three straight conference championships to begin his career.
The Seahawks followed a familiar formula in their 23-15 win over the visiting New Orleans Saints in the divisional round, feeding Marshawn Lynch (28 carries, 140 yds, 2 TDs) and getting another strong effort from their stingy defense.
The 12th man also did its part by creating an earthquake on a Lynch touchdown, according to the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network. So that's at least two earthquakes caused by Lynch, when you also include the ground-shaking touchdown run he had against the Saints in 2011.
Seattle is a tough place to play, and no one knows that better than the 49ers, who have lost their past two contests there by a combined score of 71-16, including a 29-3 loss in Week 2. Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson is 16-1 lifetime at home, but the 49ers have won eight straight and are coming off of impressive road victories at Green Bay and Carolina.
It will be interesting to see how San Francisco handles the noise in what's sure to be a wild atmosphere in the NFC Championship. Both of these teams are evenly matched, and it's always a physical battle. Now that the stakes are so high, we should be in for a hard-hitting matchup—one for the ages.