After a Wild Card Round that included three road teams pulling off upsets 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.
Tom Brady taking on Peyton Manning has easily overshadowed the actual matchup between the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots. Two of the best quarterbacks in the history of the NFL will once again face off in the AFC Championship for the right to make the Super Bowl—with the series between the two quarterbacks tied at 1-1 in the penultimate game.
On the other side, Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks will host Colin Kaepernick and the NFC West rival San Francisco 49ers. While the other matchup features two of the most experienced signal-callers in the NFL, this one has two quarterbacks who are a combined 6-2 in the postseason.
With the stage set for both the NFC and AFC Championship Games, here are the odds for each remaining team and what got them to this point.
|New England Patriots||5-1|
|San Francisco 49ers||5-1|
With Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson on offense, the Seahawks offense appears to be in good hands. But the defense has been the real reason for Seattle getting to this point. And to make matters worse for the 49ers, Seattle's defense allowed only 13.75 points at home during the regular season.
Putting it simply, the Seahawks have one of the most balanced teams in the playoffs and are going into the game against the 49ers with confidence, as Earl Thomas III told Clare Farnsworth of the Seahawks' official website:
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.
Thanks to a defense that features some of the best talents in the NFL like Richard Sherman and Thomas III, they will need the defense to continue being the best in the league to continue their run toward the Super Bowl.
Peyton Manning is clearly the best quarterback in the NFL this season. But in order for the Broncos to make it to the Super Bowl and continue on with any hopes of lifting the Lombardi Trophy, they will need the running game to remain competitive against top competition.
The San Diego Chargers had a game plan against the Broncos that worked in the regular season: Keep the ball out of Manning's hands. The only problem in the playoffs was that the Broncos did it better by controlling the clock for 35:27 of the game.
In the final scoring drive of the game for Denver, running back Knowshon Moreno scored what would ultimately be the game-clinching touchdown, as ESPN notes:
TOUCHDOWN BRONCOS!! Knowshon Moreno in for the 3 yard score. DEN 24 SD 7 (8:12 left, 4th quarter)— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) January 13, 2014
With the Broncos facing one of the best quarterbacks in postseason history this weekend, they will likely try to mimic that performance. That means Moreno will once again carry a large amount of the load.
Against a Patriots defense that allowed him to rush for 224 yards and a touchdown on the ground, Moreno could continue to have success. But for the Broncos to win the Super Bowl, Moreno will have to rush against either the Seahawks or 49ers, both of which have top-10 defenses.
New England Patriots
What the Patriots have done late in the season is turn from a pass-first team with Brady at the helm to a team that runs the ball with authority. That change in offensive philosophy has led them to the AFC Championship and could carry them to the Super Bowl.
Stevan Ridley finished with two touchdowns in the divisional round against the Indianapolis Colts, but LeGarrette Blount stole the show with his record-breaking performance, according to ESPN Stats and Info:
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
Apart from that performance, Blount also has two straight performances with over 150 yards rushing and has totaled eight touchdowns over the last three games. Much like the success that Moreno could enjoy in the AFC Championship against the Patriots, Blount could look to make a much bigger statement than he was able to do with just two carries in their first meeting.
But if the Patriots want to take down either the 49ers or Seahawks in the Super Bowl, they will need a complete offensive performance from Brady, Blount and the rest of the stable of running backs.
San Francisco 49ers
Much like the Seahawks, the 49ers possess one of the most complete defensive corps in the NFL. But after leaving with a sour taste in their mouths the first time they traveled to Seattle in Week 2 of the regular season, the 49ers will need Kaepernick to continue his great run of playoff performances against a team that he's struggled against in the past.
As ESPN Stats and Info tweets, the second-year quarterback has put up some of his worst performances against his NFC West rival:
Kaepernick has struggled against Seattle in his career. He is 1-2 as a starter vs SEA, compared to 20-5 vs all others pic.twitter.com/e9rINCkkwq— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 13, 2014
But in the playoffs, Kaepernick has once again been a multi-talented quarterback who earned the starting position away from Alex Smith late last season. With 98 rushing yards in his first game against the Green Bay Packers and another game with over 200 total yards and a rushing touchdown against the Carolina Panthers, it appears Kaepernick has returned to form.
With the 49ers' hopes of making and ultimately winning the Super Bowl on the line, the success of Kaepernick could either make or break this team. Going against the same defense that has haunted him during his short career, it should be interesting to see how Kaepernick performs in the NFC Championship Game.