NFL Conference Championships: Highlighting This Weekend's Biggest Mismatches

BJ Kissel@bkissel7Contributor IJanuary 16, 2014

FOXBORO, MA - NOVEMBER 24: Cornerback Quentin Jammer #23 of the Denver Broncos walks off the field after losing to the New England Patriots 34-31 in overtime in a game at Gillette Stadium on November 24, 2013 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

At the end of the day, the NFL got what it wanted as the two best teams in the AFC and the two best teams in the NFC match up with a spot in the Super Bowl on the line.

The Denver Broncos host the New England Patriots Sunday afternoon in the AFC title game, while the Seattle Seahawks host the San Francisco 49ers for the NFC Championship Sunday night.

Heading into the 2013 season, these were four of the teams that were in everyone's discussion as having legitimate shots at a Super Bowl championship.

People may have disagreed on the order of these top four, and may have thrown in another team here or there, but these teams being in this position doesn't surprise anyone. 

But now that we've got the matchups many expected, what should we expect in these games?

First of all, both of these games are rematches from earlier in the season. 

Obviously the 49ers and Seahawks are familiar with one another from playing twice a year in the NFC West, but the Patriots and Broncos hooked up earlier this season with the Patriots winning 34-31 in overtime. 

As the players get ready to take the field on Sunday, let's take a look at the biggest mismatches in each of these games. 


Tom Brady vs. Chris Harris' replacement

When Harris, a cornerback, went down with a torn ACL in the Broncos' divisional-round game against the San Diego Chargers, things got a little tougher for the Broncos secondary. 

Harris was considered a top-10 cornerback this season according to Pro Football Focus' rankings (subscription required).  

Anytime you lose a player of Harris' caliber, it's going to hurt your defense, but even more so when you're talking about a cornerback the week before you play Tom Brady and the Patriots. 

According to Mike Klis of the Denver Post, the Broncos have some options on how to approach Harris' injury from a personnel standpoint: "The Broncos could consider moving Champ Bailey from nickel to the outside corner and insert rookie Kayvon Webster into the nickel."

Harris had moved to the outside permanently after Bailey returned from battling his own injuries. 

Brady is going to test whoever ends up taking that spot early and often—whether it's Webster, Bailey or someone else.

That matchup becomes a definitive win for the Patriots on paper however they might want to attack, and so the chess match begins early between Brady and Broncos coach John Fox. 

The Patriots test opposing cornerbacks and their eye discipline oftentimes during games with play-action passes. 

Here's an example below of the kind of play the Patriots have had success with this season on play action. 

NFL Rewind - BJ Kissel

Brady will eventually hit receiver Julian Edelman on the dig route (red) coming across the middle. But as you can see in the second picture, all eyes were on Brady and the backfield after he took the snap and appeared to be handing the ball off to the running back.

Once Brady stepped back and had time to survey the field, the pressure immediately went back on the cornerbacks, who had to stay with their guys for a long time on this particular play.

Brady hangs in the pocket, which is something Brady is accustomed to doing, and completes the pass to Julian Edelman for an eight-yard gain. 

The recent success of LeGarrette Blount running the ball for the Patriots will only make them that much tougher to defend on these play-action passes.

Now it's not faking the run just for the sake of it; they're a legitimate running football team.

Blount's last five games for Patriots
Cleveland Browns8425.30
Miami Dolphins11474.30
Baltimore Ravens16764.82
Buffalo Bills241897.92
Indianapolis Colts "Playoff game241666.94

Something to watch for in this game is how the Patriots attack either Webster or Quentin Jammer, and whether or not Brady uses play-action to test their eye discipline on the outside.

If they're caught looking in the backfield and not feeling their receiver's route, guys tend to be wide open, and Brady will find them.

Seahawks secondary second to none

Richard Sherman is arguably the best cornerback in the NFL. When combined with arguably the best safety in the NFL, Earl Thomas, you simply have the best secondary duo in the NFL.

That creates a mismatch for anyone, including the San Francisco 49ers.

That's to take nothing away from 49ers receivers Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree, because they're great players. But the abilities of Thomas and Sherman with what the Seahawks like to do on the back end of that defense is a perfect combination.

And it's not as if the rest of the Seahawks defensive backs are struggling either. 

There isn't one defensive back on the Seahawks roster who has a negative Pro Football Focus (subscription required) cumulative score on the season who's played more than 52 snaps. 

That's amazing.

In these two plays below, we'll get a look at how each of these defensive players, Sherman and Thomas, uses his skill set within Seattle's defensive scheme to create havoc on an offense.

It's something the 49ers have seen before. 

NFL Rewind - BJ Kissel

In this first play, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick will try to test Sherman on the outside with tight end Vernon Davis split out to the right, isolated on Sherman. 

NFL Rewind - BJ Kissel

The 49ers got the one-on-one look they wanted with Davis on Sherman, and Davis ran a go-route up the near sideline. Sherman did a great job of staying on the inside hip of Davis and knowing he had the sideline to work with as well.

Once the ball got into his catch radius, Sherman "high-pointed" the ball, meaning he went up and got the ball at the highest point possible and was able to come down with it.

Oftentimes, cornerbacks or receivers will wait for the ball to get to them, and it allows an opposing player more time to make a play by knocking the ball away.

Sherman shows us his athletic ability on this play.

Anyone who watched the NFC Divisional Round got to see a heavy dose of what Thomas can do in the open field. 

Against the New Orleans Saints, Thomas was absolutely everywhere for the Seahawks defense. 

NFL Rewind - BJ Kissel

In this play midway through the fourth quarter, Thomas simply broke from his center field position at free safety to display elite closing speed and break up the pass from Drew Brees to tight end Jimmy Graham across the middle. 

Graham seemed to have found a hole in the zone when Brees made his read and delivered that football, but the speed Thomas showed to get there and break up the pass displays not only the physical tools but also the recognition to get there and break up that pass. 

That's an elite safety making an elite-type play.

Game of matchups

The NFL is a game about matchups, simple as that. 

It's personnel groups versus formations and everything in between. All four head coaches know what's on the line in their respective games, and they're putting together game plans this week based on what they feel are their best matchups to succeed. 

There's no reason to think the Patriots won't go right after whoever is taking over for Harris early in this game. They'll need to get a feel for how Jammer or Webster might be playing. 

Kaepernick hasn't exactly lit it up through the air against the Seahawks defense in the past. Don't expect that to change this weekend.

If Kaepernick is going to make plays in this game, it's going to be with his legs. 

The two biggest challenges in these games are the Broncos secondary rising up and overcoming the injury to Harris, and Kaepernick making plays with his arm against the Seahawks secondary. 

These are both tall, unlikely orders, but that's why they play the games, and it's why we watch. 

Let's see if either team can overcome its mismatch and earn the right to play for a Super Bowl championship.  


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