Four teams remain, three games have yet to be played and only one will emerge as the king of the mountain when the 2014 NFL playoffs come to an end at Super Bowl XLVIII.
All four teams have endured brutal schedules throughout the long season to get to this point. That said, aches, pains, bumps and bruises will be shrugged off when the action begins on Jan. 19 in the championship round.
The New England Patriots (No. 2) will be in Colorado to take on the Denver Broncos (No. 1) in the AFC Championship Game to get the action started at 3 p.m. ET.
Later in the evening, the San Francisco 49ers (No. 5) will take on their NFC West archrival Seattle Seahawks (No. 1) in the NFC Championship Game, which is slated to kick off at 6:30 p.m. ET.
These two matchups will determine which teams will head to New Jersey to play for the Lombardi Trophy.
Here's a look at the playoff schedule for the remainder of the postseason:
|AFC Championship||New England Patriots vs. Denver Broncos||Jan. 19||3 p.m.||CBS|
|NFC Championship||San Francisco 49ers vs. Seattle Seahawks||Jan. 19||6:30 p.m.||FOX|
|Super Bowl||AFC and NFC Champions||Feb. 2||6:30 p.m.||FOX|
AFC Championship Game Not All About Brady and Manning
This will be the 15th time Peyton Manning and Tom Brady have faced one another in their legendary careers, and it'll be the fourth time they've squared off in the playoffs. Brady has a significant edge in career head-to-heads, posting a 10-4 record, including 2-1 in the postseason.
However, this upcoming game will likely hinge on whether or not the Patriots can run the ball, rather than on Brady's right arm.
New England's receiving corps has been decimated all year long with a multitude of injuries. Brady simply doesn't have any reliable weapons in the passing game other than Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola—both of whom are slot specialists.
This has caused offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to lean heavily on his running attack the past few games, during which time LeGarrette Blount has emerged as the team's top playmaker. The Patriots have totaled 643 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns during this stretch, and Blount has accounted for eight of those scores.
Andrew Mason of DenverBroncos.com highlighted the challenge facing the Broncos:
With Blount, New England excels at taking advantage of a spread-out defense to send him up the middle. Nineteen of Blount's 24 carries against the Colts last Saturday were between the guard spots, which puts the onus on the defensive tackles to win their duels at the line of scrimmage.
This is where the Broncos could dearly miss Kevin Vickerson, who suffered his season-ending hip injury against the Patriots in Week 12. They will need a solid performance from rookie Sylvester Williams to supplement the play of Terrance Knighton, who is likely to draw extra attention from the Patriots' interior blockers.
If the Patriots can pound the rock and keep Manning and his potent offense off the field, then the home team will be in danger of losing this game.
NFC Championship Game Will Be Brutal
"A battle. A brutal battle. It will be sparks, flames, you name it," 49ers tight end Vernon Davis said to NFL Media's Jeff Darlington after Sunday's win, via Chris Wesseling of NFL.com. "It's going to be tough, and we know that. We have to go back to Santa Clara, look at film and correct some of the things that we need to correct from our last match."
The 49ers will find plenty to correct, because there wasn't much this team did right the past two times it has traveled to CenturyLink Field, losing by a combined score of 71-16.
Seattle is darn-near unbeatable at home, having posted a record of 16-1 (including the divisional-round win over New Orleans) the past two years at "The Link." However, San Francisco has been on a torrid eight-game winning streak since Week 12, as shown by Bleacher Report's Dylan DeSimone:
Meanwhile, Seattle hasn't exactly been tearing up the league down the home stretch, losing to the 49ers in Week 14 and then to the Arizona Cardinals (at home) in Week 16. During this stretch, Russell Wilson has apparently regressed, as detailed by Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman:
Russell Wilson hasn't looked like himself for a solid month. There are two main theories. First, he's secretly injured. Second, extensive film study has revealed weaknesses in his game that can be seriously exploited. I don't buy the first, but I'm starting to believe the second.
Since the Dec. 2 game against New Orleans in which he had over 300 yards passing and three touchdowns, Wilson has thrown for over 200 yards just once in five games. He had 108 yards passing against Arizona on Dec. 22 and 103 yards passing against the Saints in the playoff win. Something is clearly wrong.
On the other side, Wilson's counterpart Colin Kaepernick has been playing his best ball of the season.
San Francisco's offense has been significantly better since Michael Crabtree's return in early December. Along with Anquan Boldin, Vernon Davis and Frank Gore, the 49ers have an offensive attack that can make hay against Seattle's vaunted defense.
While San Francisco's recent history in Seattle certainly won't give 49ers fans confidence, the team's stellar play in the latter half of the season should.
Follow me on Twitter @JesseReed78