It's hard to imagine a much juicier set of conference championship games in the 2014 NFL playoffs to decide who will advance to Super Bowl XLVIII at East Rutherford, New Jersey's MetLife Stadium.
The top two seeds in the AFC happen to be quarterbacked by two of the best pure pocket passers in history and will do battle again when Tom Brady's New England Patriots hit the road to take on the Denver Broncos and Peyton Manning.
Not to be upstaged by that epic QB clash, though, are the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers. This will be the third time the NFC West adversaries meet this season, and both sport amazing defenses and rushing attacks, led by a new wave of athletic signal-callers.
But as much hype as quarterbacks will get moving forward, neither Brady nor Seahawks QB Russell Wilson threw touchdown passes in their most recent wins, as ESPN's Adam Schefter observed:
Neither winning quarterback Saturday, neither Tom Brady nor Russell Wilson, threw a touchdown pass.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) January 12, 2014
Manning and San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick combined for three, so perhaps all the field generals are saving something special for this week.
As much excitement as the divisional round offered, the conference title games feature four of the most consistently elite teams from the regular season and should create a magnificent precursor to the grand finale.
Let's take a look at when and where to catch these games on TV, along with a preview and early prediction for how each game will play out.
|AFC Championship||Date and Time||TV|
|New England Patriots (2) vs. Denver Broncos (1)||Sunday, Jan. 19 (3 p.m. EST)||CBS|
|NFC Championship||Date and Time||TV|
|San Francisco 49ers (5) vs. Seattle Seahawks (1)||Sunday, Jan. 19 (6:30 p.m. EST)||Fox|
AFC Championship: New England Patriots (2) vs. Denver Broncos (1)
So not to nitpick Manning after his amazing, record-setting season of 55 touchdown passes and 5,437 yards, but he didn't do much to dispel the notion of his playoff struggles in Sunday's victory over the San Diego Chargers.
The 37-year-old did complete better than 69 percent of his 36 passes but for only 6.39 yards per attempt—Manning's second-lowest total of the season.
Brady has not had to throw the ball much at all as of late. In fact, he's throwing it at an unprecedentedly low rate in the past three games, per Tom E. Curran of CSNNE.com:
In the past three games, Tom Brady has attempted 75 passes. He's never had a three-game stretch with fewer attempts.— Tom E. Curran (@tomecurran) January 12, 2014
Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount ran for four touchdowns in the team's 43-22 rout of the Indianapolis Colts in Foxboro and has been on a tear as of late.
With how decimated New England is on defense absent the likes of Vince Wilfork and Jerrod Mayo on the front seven, it's no surprise Brady would say winning at Denver would be the most satisfying win ever, per ESPNBoston.com's Field Yates:
Tom Brady to @WEEI on AFC championship game: "It would be as satisfying a victory as we have ever had to go to Denver and win this game."— Field Yates (@FieldYates) January 13, 2014
The last time these teams met was Nov. 24, when the Patriots spotted the Broncos a 24-0 lead before roaring back and winning 34-31 in overtime. That was with the services of Patriots star tight end Rob Gronkowski, though.
Denver also didn't have its own breakout pass-catching tight end in Julius Thomas for the contest at Gillette Stadium.
In that game, Broncos RB Knowshon Moreno ran wild for 224 yards and a touchdown. It's important that both Brady and Manning perform well in the clutch for their teams to win, but this game may come down to who can run the ball better.
Despite being underdogs, history says that Brady and Co. have the upper hand, according to ESPN Stats & Info and personality Steve Levy:
Tom Brady is 10-4 all-time when starting at QB against a team starting Peyton Manning at QB— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 13, 2014
this will be only the 4th time Tom Brady has been a playoff underdog by 5+ points. He won the previous 3 games— Steve Levy (@espnSteveLevy) January 13, 2014
Since Brady has a lesser supporting cast of receivers, an inferior defense and is in enemy territory, the pressure is squarely on Manning to live up to the record season he posted and guide Denver to the Super Bowl.
At this point, all signs point to the Patriots pulling the upset at Mile High and going to their sixth Super Bowl in the Brady and Bill Belichick era.
Prediction: Patriots 30, Broncos 27
NFC Championship: San Francisco 49ers (5) vs. Seattle Seahawks (1)
Which Super Bowl XLVIII matchup would you prefer?
The physicality on display between these two clubs over the past two regular seasons has been astonishing to watch, but the intensity should only ramp up at CenturyLink Field with a Super Bowl bid on the line.
Both NFC West powerhouses have to be chomping at the bit to hit the gridiron. San Francisco running back Frank Gore certainly has faith that the Niners have what it takes to beat the nearly unbeatable Seahawks, per CSNBayArea.com's Matt Maiocco.
"We have to go to Seattle. We know it’s going to be a dog fight. But we are built for this," said Gore.
Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin was appeased when the Niners knocked off the Carolina Panthers in the divisional round:
Wouldn't want it any other way...— Doug Baldwin Jr (@DougBaldwinJr) January 12, 2014
This will be the third matchup of the season, with Seattle winning in Week 2 at home 29-3 and San Francisco getting revenge on its home turf 19-17 in Week 14. None of that matters much, because game plans are sure to change substantially as each side attempts to figure out how to get an all-important edge.
Marshawn Lynch doesn't have quite as much wear and tear as Gore does and should be a bit fresher for this one, giving Seattle a slight edge on the ground. Pete Damilatis of Pro Football Focus highlighted just how much pain Lynch brought to the New Orleans Saints in the divisional round:
Marshawn Lynch forced 13 missed tackles rushing vs NO, the most we've ever recorded in a game in the @PFF era (since '08).— Pete Damilatis (@PFF_Pete) January 12, 2014
And there's no doubt the Seahawks secondary plays at a consistently higher level than the Niners' does, but San Francisco does have two legitimate receivers in Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree.
Both of those formidable targets can win the one-on-one battles that Seattle's consistent man coverage set up.
Before he knew the opponent for the impending game, Seahawks star safety Earl Thomas commented on his gratefulness to advance to this point and also was glad the team lost to Arizona at home, per Seahawks.com's Clare Farnsworth:
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.
I’m kind of glad it happened. Because you have tough learning lessons, even though you don’t want it to happen. But we learned from that experience and applied it to this experience and it paid off for us.
That loss to the Cardinals came in Week 16—Wilson's first defeat at home as a starter—but it may have helped alleviate some pressure of holding court throughout the playoffs in Seattle.
Wilson is a bit better at going through his progressions than Kaepernick and can make a little bit more happen when the play breaks down.
Even though he doesn't have the weapons Kaepernick does, the Seahawks' swarming defense that led the league with 39 takeaways will wreak enough havoc.
The home crowd will rattle San Francisco enough to drop the Niners to 1-2 in their three consecutive championship game appearances and send the Seahawks on the way to compete for a Lombardi Trophy.
Prediction: Seahawks 24, 49ers 20