Both conference championships are on the line this weekend, as the Super Bowl is just a matter of weeks away.
It's no surprise to anyone that the San Francisco 49ers, New England Patriots, Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos have made it this far. Each team has overcome different stretches of adversity, but each team also has more than enough talent to feel frustrated if it's not still playing in February.
It's clear which matchup is the most appealing in each game.
Much like when the Indianapolis Colts and Patriots faced off in the past, the only thing anyone is talking about right now is the clash between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Manning and Brady will be big storylines, but neither quarterback will directly face off against the other and neither side is too reliant on the position.
No single matchup will decide this encounter, but there is one that is set to be much bigger than previously anticipated.
Last weekend, New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman had a huge game. He only had six receptions for 84 yards, but he made a number of important plays on a day when his team's passing attack was very limited.
Edelman figured to be important this weekend because he had nine receptions for 110 yards and two touchdowns when these two teams met in the regular season. With the news that Broncos cornerback Chris Harris is out for the season with a torn ACL, Edelman's importance has swollen even further.
While the Broncos are figuring out how to handle Edelman, the Seahawks have a similar issue on their offensive line.
Against the New Orleans Saints last week, Michael Bowie was handed his first career start at left guard. Bowie was drafted as a tackle in the seventh round of the 2013 NFL draft. He had featured on the line during the season, but he hadn't started at left guard before.
Bowie had his issues against the Saints, with Cameron Jordan in particular highlighting his flaws. Now he faces the toughest of tests.
Bowie will primarily face off against 49ers defensive end Justin Smith. Smith is a superstar player who is in the twilight of his career. He has enjoyed another excellent season, and he will be desperate to win in Seattle after so many losses there in recent times.
However, Smith will also have extra motivation going against Bowie.
Just 12 months ago, Smith was unable to get the better of another rookie offensive tackle who had only recently become a starting left guard. That was Kelechi Osemele of the Baltimore Ravens. Osemele controlled Smith in the Super Bowl, but the veteran defensive end was notably limited after previously tearing his triceps.
Smith is 100 percent healthy now, so Bowie is facing a huge task.
Julian Edelman Versus the Broncos Secondary
It's unclear how the Broncos will approach Edelman.
Future Hall of Famer Champ Bailey is back on the field after missing most of the season due to injury. Bailey initially played in the slot last week when the Broncos faced the San Diego Chargers. He is talented enough to play all over the field, and he could easily follow Edelman.
However, Bailey may not be the best fit to cover Edelman, and he may not be completely trustworthy considering his lack of playing time this season.
Outside of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who also may not be a great matchup on Edelman, the Broncos don't really have another option to follow the diminutive receiver. They may not follow him at all. Instead, the Broncos may just focus on playing their own game and allowing a variety of players to cover Edelman.
It seems most likely that the Broncos won't assign someone to follow Edelman. Even though the Patriots don't have many recognizable names on their wide receiver depth chart, they do have enough talent to consistently move the chains and create big plays.
Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins, Austin Collie and Danny Amendola all have enough talent to take advantage of any space that is afforded them. The Broncos can't simply put them in space against a lesser defensive back.
Therefore, Edelman is the priority, but not the complete focus of the defense. This means the Broncos will need to stop him without deviating too far from how they typically run their defense.
Last week, Edelman had multiple big plays.
On this play, he initially lines up at the bottom of the screen. He is running a shallow crossing route against off coverage. The Colts drop into a zone at the snap, while the other two receivers on the field stretch the coverage by running down the opposing seam.
A Colts linebacker blows his assignment. As he drops into coverage, he keeps his eyes on the receiver running down the seam and gets tight to his body. This blocks him off from Edelman running underneath. Brady finds Edelman at this point.
Edelman has enough speed to turn the corner as the linebacker is in a disadvantageous position. The left outside linebacker who had initially dropped into the flat recovers to knock Edelman down, but not before he has added 10 yards with his acceleration.
Although he is not very tall, Edelman is an excellent athlete.
That athleticism has allowed him to contribute in a variety of ways in multiple roles for the Patriots, including as a punt returner.
For his second long gain against the Colts, he showed off his ability to make defenders miss in space.
The Patriots motion Edelman behind the line of scrimmage just before the snap. He settles down in the slot as the play begins. Cornerback Vontae Davis follows him, but six yards of separation have been created because he had to run around the linebackers to follow Edelman.
Edelman runs a smart slant route, and Brady immediately finds him running into space. The receiver gets away from Davis with ease before safety Antoine Bethea meets him in space.
Bethea is unable to stop Edelman, but he does slow him down enough for the rest of the defense to catch up. Edelman uses his peripheral vision to find a blocker coming from his right side. He skips behind that blocker before accelerating down the field for another seven or eight yards.
Containing Edelman will go a long way toward making the Patriots offense one-dimensional.
If the Broncos can take Brady and his weapons out of the game completely, they can focus on stopping LeGarrette Blount, Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen. Against an offense with Peyton Manning, being one-dimensional is not a viable route to victory.
Michael Bowie Versus Justin Smith
If the Seahawks have one weakness, it's their offensive line.
The impact of the line hasn't been fully felt this season because of the quality of the offense as a whole. Quarterback Russell Wilson is very elusive behind the line of scrimmage, but he also has the ability to diagnose defensive plays before the snap. This allows him to get rid of the ball before the pass rush can get to him.
Running back Marshawn Lynch proved last week that he can be as good as any back in the league when playing behind a subpar offensive line. Lynch ran 28 times for 140 yards and two touchdowns against the Saints. He routinely evaded tacklers with his quickness and power, but he also showed off excellent vision to find holes even after the blocking had collapsed.
New starting left guard Michael Bowie wasn't the sole reason for the Seahawks' struggles.
Bowie was inconsistent and appeared to be somewhat limited physically. That's no real surprise because he entered the league as a seventh-round pick of the 2013 draft and he played offensive tackle in college.
He was able to move well in space. He regularly got to the second level of the defense and fit into the team's zone-blocking plays to the outside.
However, Bowie appears to lack the required quickness and strength to succeed at this level. More than once he couldn't locate a defender in space, appeared to turn too slowly. He was routinely overpowered by Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan.
Unfortunately for the Seahawks, Bowie's ability to get to different areas of the field won't be very valuable against the 49ers. Even worse, his inability to handle powerful defensive linemen will be a major issue.
Although he is in the twilight of his career, 49ers defensive end Justin Smith is still one of the most intimidating players in the NFL.
Smith is technically sound and quicker than most interior offensive or defensive linemen. He plays the game with perfect discipline and is very quick to diagnose what the offense is trying to do to him.
However, his strongest trait is clearly his brute force.
Sometimes you can over-analyze players or matchups. In this particular instance, Smith simply can't be left alone with Bowie. He is too powerful at the point of contact for Bowie to handle him.
There are many examples of Bowie's shortcomings from last week's game.
This play is an excellent example of Bowie failing to fend off a defender's power. Jordan wasn't always lined up across from him, but on this play he is lined up on Bowie's outside shoulder. This is a tough assignment for the Seahawks left guard, because the play call is going to ask Bowie to get square with him at the snap.
Bowie's technique lets him down here. He is immediately beaten by Jordan because he runs too high. Jordan is able to get underneath his shoulder pads. Bowie can't recover because he can't establish a base with his feet as he moves sideways.
Jordan marches Bowie back down the field towards Lynch. Once the duo meet, Lynch is able to brush off Jordan's attempted arm tackle before redirecting his feet to attack the line of scrimmage. Although Lynch is able to get back to the line, he can only gain one yard because of the initial disruption.
This is the kind of play that Justin Smith has routinely made throughout his career. Not only is he a relentless pursuer of the quarterback, he is also a very disruptive run defender.
Having Lynch in the backfield should allow the Seahawks to be productive running the ball regardless of Bowie's failings. However, if he is unable to be effective as a pass protector, then the Seahawks could have major issues.
The 49ers' greatest weakness is their secondary. It's not really a major area of concern, but there is more potential for points attacking them through the air than trying to run through the front seven. Bowie will need to use his hands well to battle Smith when he rushes the passer, but he must always be aware of Aldon Smith coming on stunts.
Bowie showed good awareness on a critical play last week.
It's 3rd-and-long. Therefore, Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is showing a blitz. The Saints line up five defenders to the right of the center, with just Jordan alone on the other side. It's unclear if this is to specifically target Bowie's inexperience or just because the Seahawks have a tight end and running back to the left of their offense.
Bowie doesn't have anyone to block initially, but he also doesn't force an assignment by double-teaming with the center or left tackle. Instead, he simply holds his position and waits for any delayed blitz. There isn't a delayed blitz, but there is a defender stunting from the outside.
This could simply be good coaching from the staff or patience from Bowie. It could also be that he understood there were too many defenders to his side of the center for him to double-team anyone.
He eventually moves to help his left tackle, but crucially he doesn't fully commit to the double-team. Instead, he just shifts his shoulder toward the defensive lineman while keeping his feet directed down the field and his eyes up for any potential stunt or delayed blitz.
It ultimately doesn't affect the play because Wilson is getting rid of the ball from a deep position, but Bowie picks up the blitz perfectly. He springs out of his stance and meets the blitzer in space.
This blitz left Bowie uncovered initially. The 49ers are more likely to cover Bowie with Justin Smith before bringing Aldon Smith around from the outside. This is typically a tougher assignment for the offensive line because Bowie can be drawn out of position by the presence and movement of Justin Smith.
Critically, the Seahawks can slow down the 49ers' defensive line with creative play-calling. This is something they did very well against the Saints, but it's unclear if they can be as effective against a better defense.
Despite playing only a handful of snaps this season, Harvin has shown how he can dramatically impact a defense. His threat as a receiver on screen passes or quick underneath throws gives the Seahawks an outlet that takes the pressure off of their offensive line.
With Harvin's ability to turn short passes into big gains, this kind of approach wouldn't limit the offense.
As much as the Seahawks can help Bowie, the simple fact is that he will need to perform well individually against Justin Smith. Bowie isn't facing the same player Kelechi Osemele contained last season.
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