Following a Wild Card Round in which three lower seeds defeated home teams to advance to the divisional round, the NFL playoffs gained its sanity back with three of the top two seeds moving on to the NFC and AFC Championship Games.
What NFL fans are left with just so happens to be two of the most intriguing matchups possible.
Tom Brady and the New England Patriots will travel to take on Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. Two of the best quarterbacks in the history of the NFL will once again do battle for the right to make the Super Bowl in the AFC Championship.
On the other side, Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks will attempt to serve as a friendly host for Colin Kaepernick and the NFC West rival San Francisco 49ers. Ironically enough, neither have been under center for longer than two seasons with their current teams but have top-five defenses this season.
With the stage set for the championship round, here is the viewing information, odds and keys to making the Super Bowl for each team still in football's ultimate tournament.
|Round||Date (Time)||Visitor (Seed)||Home (Seed)||Broadcast/Stream Info|
|AFC Championship||Jan. 19 (3:00 p.m. EST)||New England Patriots (2)||Denver Broncos (1)||CBS|
|NFC Championship||Jan. 19 (6:30 p.m. EST)||San Francisco 49ers (5)||Seattle Seahawks (1)||Fox|
|Super Bowl XLVIII||Feb. 2 (6:30 p.m. EST)||TBA||TBA||Fox|
|New England Patriots||5-1|
|San Francisco 49ers||5-1|
With an offense that features Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch, the Seahawks defense has been the most consistent force throughout the season.
And with another big game in the NFC Championship Game against an offense that features weapons at every position, Earl Thomas III told Clare Farnsworth of the Seahawks' official website that games like this are what set good defenses apart from legendary ones:
I’m just excited for the opportunity. I don’t have any expectations. I never have put any limits on this defense or myself. You just let stuff happen, and that’s how you become legendary. We make it hard (on teams that come in here). But we can be beat if we’re not on it, like we normally are. We learned that in the Arizona game.
With several playmakers who are constantly on every part of the field including Richard Sherman and Thomas, the Seahawks are one of the most interesting defenses in the playoffs because they worked from the outside in to find success.
The secondary is clearly the class of this defense, but the young linebackers and formidable front seven make for a tough rushing defense as well. If the Seahawks want to win their first Super Bowl in team history, they will need the defense to continue being the best in the NFL.
San Francisco 49ers
There's no secret that Colin Kaepernick has been the catalyst for the 49ers' second playoff run in as many years with the second-year quarterback.
During his postseason career, Kaepernick is already playing in his second NFC Championship Game and likely won't seem phased by any stage. The young quarterback has been so good in the playoffs that he's already approaching a record held by another former 49ers quarterback, according to ESPN Stats and Info:
Colin Kaepernick is now halfway to the NFL record for most rushing TD by a QB in postseason career (Steve Young, 8)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 12, 2014
But before they can get there, Kaepernick will need to outduel Wilson and the Seahawks offense to make it to his second Super Bowl in as many years.
The biggest reason for that look of relief on Manning's face? That would be the fact that he made it to the AFC Championship again. But his prize for a great playoff performance is a rematch with a familiar postseason foe in the Patriots.
Manning's success against the Patriots is the biggest key for the Broncos simply because of the signal-caller's success against Brady. As ESPN Stats and Info points out, the touchdown-interception ratio between the two leans in Brady's favor:
Tom Brady has 26 TD and 12 INT in the 14 previous games going up against Peyton Manning's team. Manning has 29 TD & 20 INT in those games— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 13, 2014
With a defense that proved it can still stop good quarterbacks on the big stage against Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers, the battle for the Super Bowl berth will come down to the two team's offenses.
Though the Broncos do have two serviceable running backs in Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball, their offense is still heavily reliant on Manning's arm. His success will still determine whether or not the Broncos get to and ultimately win the Super Bowl.
New England Patriots
Which Team Will Win the Super Bowl?
While every story this week about the AFC Championship will likely focus on the two quarterbacks, and rightfully so, the difference makers for the Patriots lately have been found a little further in the backfield than Brady.
New England possesses a stable of backs that includes LeGarrette Blount, Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen—each of which serve a different need for its offense.
Vereen is the pass-catching back. Ridley is the speedy runner with the ability to shed tacklers. Then there's Blount who, quite frankly, is living up to his name as a blunt force out of the backfield.
Blount posted the best performance of his professional career against the Indianapolis Colts in the divisional round with 166 rushing yards and four touchdowns. The fourth-year running back told Shalise Manza Young of The Boston Globe that he never worries about who's going to step up on offense with Brady behind center:
At the same time, if the run game that we have going isn’t working, we always have ‘12’ [Brady] back there, and he’s done amazing things. Whenever we need him to step up, that’s what he’s going to do.
While Ridley and Vereen have been the feature backs in different games this season, Blount looks like the best tailback down the stretch.
But in order for the Patriots to crack the Broncos defense that shut down the running game of the Chargers, they will need every running back to perform well to earn a Super Bowl berth.