Although recent NFL postseasons have seen numerous upsets and surprise champions, the 2014 iteration has provided a return to chalk. Many saw the Seahawks, 49ers, Broncos and Patriots as the league's four best teams, and those four have weeded out the underdogs.
However, that does not mean surprises are not in store for the conference championships. Both games pit teams that are not only evenly matched but remarkably similar. Consequently, something must give in each contest, for none of the four teams can expect to impose their preferred style on the opposition.
It seems likely we are in store for some surprises after a straightforward divisional round. Here, then, are bold predictions for each conference championship game.
Neither the Patriots nor Broncos Will Rush for 150 Yards
Though Tom Brady and Peyton Manning will receive top billing, the reality is that both their teams are much more balanced than their track record would suggest.
The Patriots have had more run plays in each of their past three games, and the Broncos have eclipsed the 100-yard mark on the ground in seven of their past eight contests. One factor that makes these offenses so good is that both quarterbacks have the freedom and aptitude to audible constantly, and the running backs have been beneficiaries of lighter boxes as teams try to stop the pass:
LeGarrette Blount is the first player in NFL postseason history with at least 150 rush yards and 4 rush TD in a game.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 12, 2014
Broncos running a bunch of packaged plays here. That last one was a off-tackle handoff with a built-in hitch on the opposite side.— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) January 12, 2014
Against a pair of relatively porous run defenses, one would think that trend would continue. However, both Denver and New England emphasized eliminating the opposing ground game in the divisional round and held the Chargers and Colts to 65 and 69 rushing yards, respectively.
It is quite clear both offenses will try to establish their running backs early, but if the defenses create too many unfavorable down-and-distance situations, they will have little choice but to rely on their passing games. San Diego and Indianapolis both got away from their running games in fear of creating 3rd-and-long situations, and it seems likely that both defenses will try to make the opposition one-dimensional.
That one dimension is still extremely dangerous, of course, which should make both teams inclined to turn to their veteran quarterbacks. LeGarrette Blount and Knowshon Moreno will receive plenty of hype as the game's true deciding factors, but look for the defenses to eliminate them and put the pressure on Brady and Manning to carry their teams to the Super Bowl.
The 49ers and Seahawks Will Combine for Under 400 Passing Yards
The NFC Championship is a truly a throwback contest. The Niners and Seahawks were the only teams in the NFL to run the ball over 50 percent of the time, and both were among the top 10 pass defenses in the league in every category.
Thus, it seems highly unlikely that Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson will have much luck with their arms on Sunday. The two have four 300-yard passing performances between them and none over the last month. Their strengths derive from the ability to create plays outside the pocket that break down coverages, but facing airtight secondaries and mobile linebackers, that figures to have less of an impact.
Moreover, in four meetings over the last two years, these two teams have combined for over 400 yards passing just once, when they cleared the hurdle by a single yard, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com. Both teams realize the futility of trying to pass consistently against the other secondary and will probably look to Marshawn Lynch and Frank Gore to create shorter down-and-distance situations that allow for easier completions underneath.
The old adage that "running the ball and stopping the run" will lead to playoff success is largely outdated in today's NFL, but it really does apply to the NFC's combatants. Neither quarterback is going to beat the other team with his arm, so don't expect many fireworks through the air.