The 2014 NFL playoffs returned to a much more predictable state in the NFC and AFC divisional rounds. After three teams won on the road in the Wild Card Round, three of the four teams with first-round byes advanced to the AFC and NFC Championship Games.
In the AFC side of the divisional round, both the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos maintained their status atop the conference to advance to the AFC Championship. The win for both teams pits two of the best quarterbacks in NFL history against one another for the second time this year.
In the NFC, the Seattle Seahawks made it look easy against the New Orleans Saints despite a late charge from the No. 6 seed. As for the second matchup, the Carolina Panthers fell to the San Francisco 49ers, setting up a clash of the two NFC West rivals in their third game this season.
FanSided's Twitter account gives fans a bracket of the playoffs heading into the NFC and AFC Championships:
With both the AFC and NFC Championship Games taking place on Sunday afternoon, here is a look at the schedule for both contests and predictions for the Super Bowl semifinal.
|2014 NFL Championships Schedule|
|Round||Date (Time)||Visitor (Seed)||Home (Seed)||Broadcast/Stream Info|
|AFC Championship||Jan. 19 (3 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|
AFC Championship: New England Patriots at Denver Broncos, Jan. 19, 3 p.m. ET
Tom Brady versus Peyton Manning. That will be the main storyline all week between these two teams, but the real story will be which defense actually shows up in the AFC Championship Game.
Going off the first game between the two this season, it was a tale of two halves for the defenses. The Broncos held the Patriots scoreless in the first half but faltered in the second half. After allowing 31 points in the third and fourth quarter, Denver lost the game in overtime by a field goal.
Following yet another close call in the divisional round after allowing 17 points in the fourth quarter against the Chargers, defensive end Shaun Phillips spoke about the team's need to close out games, according to Theresa Smith of The Boston Globe:
We have to do a better job of closing the door on teams. We didn’t do it against the Patriots either, but now we meet again. The two best teams in the AFC. Tom Brady is my second-favorite quarterback after Peyton Manning.
As for the Patriots, after allowing 24 points in the first half, they were able to hold Manning and the Broncos offense to just seven points in the second half and overtime. But while the Broncos defense certainly hasn't been great this year, it has played well over the last three games, as NFL AM points out:
The key for the Patriots and Broncos in this game is simple: get the running game going and stop the run on defense. Whichever team does this best will earn a berth to the Super Bowl.
For New England, a trio of backs in LeGarrette Blount, Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen has been one of the biggest reasons for its recent success. Blount finished with 166 rushing yards and combined with Ridley for six touchdowns against the Colts in the divisional round.
In the Broncos' backfield, Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball have been productive in an offense run by Manning. Moreno rushed for 224 yards and a touchdown in the last meeting but has failed to rush for more than 100 yards since that game.
With the Patriots having the more complete offense coming into the game, they will expose a Broncos defense that has played well but still isn't good enough to remain consistent.
Prediction: Patriots 31, Broncos 24
NFC Championship: San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks, Jan. 19, 6:30 p.m. ET
In a matchup that is the complete opposite of the AFC Championship Game, the NFC side offers two young quarterbacks at the helm with top-five defenses all season.
But as USA Today puts it, this game is another chapter in the newest rivalry that will eventually replace the Brady-Manning rivalry:
The Seahawks made it to the playoffs thanks to Russell Wilson, but the defense and running game are once again carrying them to the NFC Championship Game.
Marshawn Lynch went into Beast Mode against the Saints and finished with 140 rushing yards and two touchdowns. On the defensive side of the ball, the secondary crashed Drew Brees' party by holding him to a 55.8 completion percentage and just one touchdown in the divisional round.
For the 49ers, much of their success has been linked to the success of Kaepernick. The second-year quarterback is already closing in on 49ers postseason records but passed another notable quarterback in this year's postseason, according to Numbers Never Lie:
While Wilson didn't throw for a touchdown in his last game, the two have still combined for a 6-2 record in the playoffs overall. As ESPN notes, both signal-callers have been good in the playoffs in their first two seasons:
In a game where both quarterbacks can be explosive at any time, the Seahawks defense will be the difference-maker. Kaepernick has been one of the best postseason quarterbacks in the last two seasons, but going against a defense that has proved it can bottle him up, the 49ers will struggle to find holes in the stout Seattle defenders.
Wilson might not have one of his best games against the 49ers like he did in their first meeting, but he won't need to with Lynch coming out of the backfield. Expect Beast Mode to be successful and carry the Hawks to their second Super Bowl berth.
Prediction: Seahawks 20, 49ers 16