The 2014 Super Bowl is just around the corner, but first the AFC and NFC Championship Games must be played to determine the participants.
With the NFL’s version of the Final Four featuring arguably the best teams and tons of big-name talent, it’s going to be tough to determine which sides advance and which go home disappointed.
However, I’ll give it my best effort by breaking down each game and predicting a winner. In the end, I'll reveal my projected Super Bowl XLVIII matchup.
AFC Championship Game: New England Patriots (2) at Denver Broncos (1)
When: Sunday, January 19 at 3 p.m. ET
Where: Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver, CO
All eyes will be on the quarterbacks in this one. New England’s Tom Brady and Denver’s Peyton Manning are meeting for the 15th—and possibly final—time in their long, decorated careers.
This will be the third matchup with the Super Bowl on the line, as the future Hall of Famers traded victories in their two previous AFC Championship meetings.
However, Brady has historically owned Manning. His Pats have won 10 of the occasions that they faced Manning’s Broncos and Colts, which includes a 2-1 playoff advantage.
New England also holds an edge stemming from a showdown this season, as it came back from a 24-point deficit to edge Denver in overtime, 34-31, in Foxborough. While the location will change for this upcoming tilt, the result should be the same.
The Pats are firing on all cylinders, getting a huge boost from their running game in the last two games. LeGarrette Blount has established himself as a bona fide weapon, generating 48 rushes for 355 yards and six scores in his last two outings—the season finale against the Buffalo Bills and last week's meeting with Indianapolis in the divisional round.
Which team will win this matchup?
Denver’s rushing defense has been stout, conceding just 101.6 yards per game in 2013, but it won’t be able to focus all of its efforts on shutting down the Pats’ ground game. Brady will carve up the secondary, much as he did in Week 12 when he roasted the Broncos for 344 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions.
The Pats may be an underdog with the oddsmakers, but this group is built to win on the road in January. They’ll have no issues leaving Denver with a win and punching a ticket to the sixth Super Bowl in the Brady-Bill Belichick era.
Prediction: Patriots 28, Broncos 24
NFC Championship Game: San Francisco 49ers (5) at Seattle Seahawks (1)
When: Sunday, Jan. 19 at 6:30 p.m. ET
Where: CenturyLink Field, Seattle, WA
The Seahawks and 49ers are bitter rivals, obviously stemming from their biannual regular-season meetings in the NFC West.
However, these two foes have been battling for supremacy in the conference over the past few seasons, and it’s been an absolute dogfight trying to determine which side is superior.
Seattle head coach Pete Carroll spoke about the excitement surrounding this showdown during an appearance on 710 ESPN Seattle, per Terry Blount of ESPN.com:
I think it's the matchup that everybody wanted like to see. We don't mind it one bit and they don't mind it, either. It'll be a great one…These are the two teams everyone was talking about early in the year, so it's interesting how accurate all the [predictors] were. There's not a better matchup you could find right now in the NFC. We're thrilled about it.
It’s not much of an argument as to which side is superior when the matchup takes place in the Pacific Northwest. The Seahawks have owned their rival in CenturyLink Field, outscoring the Niners by 55 points over the last two matchups.
Don’t fault San Francisco for its shortcomings there, as every visitor has struggled to deal with the 12th Man. The Seahawks have gone 16-1 over the last two years when playing at home, largely due to their dominant defense.
Which team will win this game?
Seattle leads the league in scoring defense, giving up just 14.4 points per game. The rushing defense only conceded 1,626 yards in 2013, the seventh-best mark in the NFL.
Given that the Niners rely on Frank Gore and Colin Kaepernick to create on the ground—they average 137.6 yards per game on the ground, good for third best in the league—it’s going to be tough for them to get anything going on Sunday.
The Seahawks are a favorite for good reason and should be preparing for a trip to New Jersey at the end of the NFC Championship Game.
Prediction: Seahawks 21, 49ers 14
Super Bowl XLVIII Matchup: New England Patriots vs. Seattle Seahawks