Predictions for 2014 AFC, NFC Championship Games
The divisional round of the NFL playoffs is most definitely the best weekend on the sports calendar, but there is zero question that Championship Sunday is the single best day of the entire year.
On this day, there are just four teams battling for the right to go to the Super Bowl. And this year features the best Championship Sunday in NFL history, which makes it one of the most anticipated days in the history of sports. That is not hyperbole.
The AFC Championship Game couldn't possibly be more rife with drama. It features an intense quarterback rivalry with Tom Brady and the New England Patriots taking on Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. It could be the last time these two aging gunslingers go head-to-head with this much on the line.
The NFC Championship Game is also tremendous, as it will consist of arguably the two best teams in football: the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks. These NFC West foes constitute what is currently the NFL's best rivalry, and both teams are smart, well-coached, hard-hitting and physical. It's going to be a pleasure to watch them lock horns for the third time this season.
This is it. Everything is on the line. A Super Bowl XLVIII berth awaits.
Denver Will Beat New England, 34-31
The two best teams in the AFC during the regular season were the New England Patriots and the Denver Broncos, and they will battle for the conference championship on Sunday afternoon in the Mile High City. Oh yeah, the game also features the 15th all-time battle between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning—but hey, who's counting?
The Patriots are coming off an absolute whitewashing of the Colts in their divisional matchup last Saturday night, a game in which the team ran for 234 yards and an outrageous six rushing touchdowns. On Sunday, the Broncos jumped out to a big lead and held on late to vanquish the Chargers, setting up this dream matchup for all of the AFC's marbles.
The two teams met in Week 12, and as has often been the case in the Brady/Manning rivalry, the Patriots came out on top, overcoming a 24-point halftime deficit to win in overtime, 34-31. The victory moved Brady's record to 10-4 in head-to-head battles with Manning, and it seemed to reinforce the notion that Patriots coach Bill Belichick possesses some manner of voodoo over the Broncos signal-caller.
But on Sunday, the voodoo will be torn asunder. Manning and the Broncos will emerge victorious.
While the Patriots ran the ball with authority against Indianapolis, repeating the feat in Denver will be another matter entirely. The Broncos finished the regular season with the NFL's seventh-ranked rush defense and allowed only 65 yards on the ground last week in their win over San Diego. Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount might have had a game for the ages against the Colts (166 rushing yards, four touchdowns), but a repeat of those numbers is unlikely.
That means it'll be up to Brady to carry the day for New England.
And while Brady is certainly capable of putting points on the scoreboard, his offensive weaponry pales in comparison to Manning's. Manning is coming off a season in which he threw an NFL-record 55 touchdown passes and orchestrated the most prolific offense in NFL history. It'd be foolish to suggest that Denver won't score points in bunches.
But the Patriots will score as well, especially considering Denver will be without cornerback Chris Harris, who tore his ACL last weekend. Expect Brady to have a huge game through the air and put the pressure on Manning to match him throw-for-throw.
Manning will be up for the task. His receivers are simply too good, with Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker joining tight end Julius Thomas to comprise a fearsome foursome of pass-catchers. Plus, the Broncos sliced and diced New England on the ground in Week 12, rushing for 280 yards. The Broncos should be able to run the football successfully with Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball.
The team that wins the game will likely be the team that has the ball last. That will be Manning and the Broncos, who will emerge victorious and advance to Super Bowl XLVIII.
Julian Edelman Will Catch 10 Passes for over 100 Yards
In six years with the New England Patriots, current Denver Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker caught a staggering 672 passes and was unquestionably both the top target and security blanket for quarterback Tom Brady.
When the Patriots didn't re-sign him this past offseason and he inked a deal with Denver, New England brought in former Rams wideout Danny Amendola, and it was widely assumed that he'd take over the Welker role in the offense.
Amendola had a decent year, hauling in 54 catches, but it was a player already on the Patriots roster who would fill Welker's void: receiver Julian Edelman, who caught 105 passes this season and another six in last weekend's divisional-round victory over Indianapolis.
On Sunday, Edelman will not only catch 10 passes and go over 100 yards receiving, but he'll outperform both Welker and Amendola in the process.
With the Broncos secondary being thin after losing cornerback Chris Harris to a torn ACL, Edelman should wreak havoc in the slot and help move the chains on third down. Former NFL player and current analyst Fred Smerlas said of Edelman this week, via Kevin Paul Dupont of The Boston Globe:
He has everything you want in terms of an on-board computer. You know, the brain, the ability to read and react instantly. When you watch him, he has the ability to make a move two or three steps down and act on them instantaneously with someone coming at him at 30 miles an hour. That’s a gift that 99.999 percent of the guys in the league don’t have. There is greatness in all of us. But fear is the barometer. He has no fear.
Edelman has been outstanding this season, and that exemplary play will continue on Sunday.
Shaun Phillips Will Force a Tom Brady Fumble
The Denver Broncos lost linebacker Von Miller, their best pass-rusher, in Week 16 to a torn ACL, and many thought that the team's ability to bring down the opposing quarterback would be significantly hindered. But fellow linebacker Shaun Phillips, who led the team with 10 sacks in the regular season, stepped up to the plate last week and sacked Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers twice.
Despite the fact that the Patriots ran the ball so well last week against Indianapolis, it's difficult to envision a scenario where quarterback Tom Brady isn't asked to throw the ball over 30 times. That means the onus will be on the Broncos pass-rushers to get in Brady's face and make him uncomfortable in the pocket.
Phillips needs to have a big game for that to happen.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick is very aware of Phillips, a veteran linebacker who has amassed 83 career sacks (including the postseason), as noted by Tom E. Curran of CSN New England:
He’s had a great career. Shaun has been excellent, in the [3-4] defense out in San Diego most of the time he played outside linebacker and then defensive end in their sub defenses. Physical player on the edge, good pass rusher. Again, a very instinctive guy; does a good job of recognizing things, taking advantage of offensive mistakes or getting the anticipation of plays that are coming based on his experience and his understanding.
One matchup to look out for will be Patriots right tackle Marcus Cannon against Phillips. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Cannon finished the season with a negative grade (-2.4), and he's the man who will likely need to halt Phillips on his path toward Brady.
Don't expect Cannon to find much success.
In Week 12, Miller sacked Brady twice and returned a fumble for a touchdown. While Phillips won't have a performance of that magnitude, he will sack Brady and force a fumble that will be recovered by Denver, helping the Broncos to win and claim the AFC title.
Peyton Manning Will Lead a Game-Winning Drive
Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning had a regular season for the ages, serving as the maestro of the team's offensive symphony. The unit was a juggernaut, scoring an NFL-record 606 points.
But none of that will be worth a damn if the Broncos don't win on Sunday and advance to the Super Bowl. Such is the life of Manning, a quarterback who will ultimately be judged not by his statistics but by the number of rings on his fingers.
No player will be under more pressure on Championship Sunday.
Don't believe me? Check out this piece from B/R's lead AFC West writer Chris Hansen, or what B/R lead writer Mike Freeman penned earlier this week, when he polled eight NFL personnel men as to which quarterback they would choose: Tom Brady of the Patriots or Manning. Seven chose Brady, and only one chose Manning—after a season where Manning threw a record-breaking 55 touchdown passes.
So it goes without saying that Manning must play well on Sunday and must lead his team to victory.
I believe he'll do both.
Much like in 2006, when Manning's Colts defeated Brady's Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, the New England defense won't be able to hold Manning down the entire game. His weaponry is too vast and explosive, and he's in complete command of the offense. The game will likely come down to which quarterback possesses the ball last. On Sunday, that honor will go to Manning.
With the game tied and under two minutes remaining on the clock, Manning will march the Broncos down the field in what will become the team's most famous drive since John Elway went 98 yards against Cleveland in 1986. Kicker Matt Prater will then convert a game-winning field goal as time expires to send Denver to the Super Bowl.
San Francisco Will Beat Seattle, 19-16
With apologies to fans of the Patriots and Broncos, the two best teams in the NFL won't be meeting in the Super Bowl. Instead, they'll play on Sunday evening in Seattle for the NFC title, as the San Francisco 49ers take on Seattle Seahawks in what's become the NFL's most heated and physical rivalry.
And yeah, it's most certainly the best rivalry in the NFL, as B/R lead writer Ty Schalter wrote earlier this week. The teams are mirror images of each other: tough, hard-nosed outfits that play great defense, run the football and have the luxury of a quarterback who can make game-changing plays. The fact that they absolutely hate each other helps, too.
This will be the third meeting between the 49ers and Seahawks this season. In Week 2, the Seahawks dominated, winning 29-3, which made the overall score total of their last two games at CenturyLink Field 71-16 in favor of the home team. But in Week 14, the 49ers triumphed at Candlestick Park in a 19-17 thriller. On Sunday, they'll face off in the rubber match for the right to go to the Super Bowl.
Forget about the Seahawks having the league's best home-field advantage. Forget about the 12th Man. Forget about 71-16.
The 49ers are going to go into Seattle and beat the Seahawks and advance to their second consecutive Super Bowl.
San Francisco has the look and feel of a team of destiny, and it's playing its best football of the season when it matters most. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick has escalated his game to dizzying heights, and the run game and defense are humming on all cylinders. Plus, the team has Jim Harbaugh, who is the only coach to lead a team to the conference championship game in his first three seasons on the sideline.
It's not going to be a blowout, as the Seahawks are too good a team for that particular outcome to occur. They are terrific in their own right, with an outstanding quarterback in Russell Wilson, a beast in running back Marshawn Lynch and an attacking, swarming defense led by coach Pete Carroll.
But in the end, the 49ers are the better team, and they'll prove it on Sunday. It's going to be a low-scoring game, and it will ultimately come down to which defense can make the critical stop.
The 49ers will continue their epic roll, claiming a close victory over the Seahawks to set up a Super Bowl XXIV rematch against the Denver Broncos in two weeks at Super Bowl XLVIII.
Frank Gore Will Make a Game-Changing Run
In the San Francisco 49ers' Week 14 win over the Seahawks, running back Frank Gore had the play of the game, scampering for 51 yards on a 4th-and-1 on the final drive, which set up a Phil Dawson field goal as time expired.
That run was part of a 110-yard day from Gore on the ground, and it's no surprise the 49ers beat Seattle when he had success running the football. In Week 2, when the Seahawks crushed the 49ers, Gore only rushed for 16 yards on nine carries. There's no question he'll need to play well if the 49ers are to advance to their second consecutive Super Bowl.
And he will. Gore will make another game-changing run and eclipse the 100-yard mark in a 49ers victory.
San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh is in awe of Gore, telling Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com:
My admiration is as high as my admiration can be. But then every time I think he's 10 out of 10 in that regard he finds another wrung on the ladder. I think he is a mystical man. I think he sees things that we don't, I don't, we don't see.
On Sunday, the mystical man won't have success at first as he rushes into the heart of the Seahawks defense. But over the course of four quarters, he'll begin to wear them down, and by the final stanza, he'll be ready to explode.
As the game winds down, Gore will make a game-changing run, similar to his 51-yard burst in Week 14, setting up a Phil Dawson field goal that will ultimately provide the game's winning margin.
Kickers Will Be Busy
In the 2013 regular season, the San Francisco 49ers had the fifth-ranked defense in the NFL, and the Seattle Seahawks were No. 1 in that category. So it goes without saying that Sunday's NFC Championship Game will be a low-scoring, hard-hitting affair.
That means that the kickers—San Francisco's Phil Dawson and Seattle's Steve Hauschka—had better leave themselves extra time to warm up, because they're both going to be busy during the game.
Seattle blew out San Francisco in Week 2, 29-3, but the game the teams played in Week 14, won by San Francisco 19-17, serves as a better indicator of what to expect this Sunday. The 49ers were hitting their stride in Week 14, and in that contest, Dawson booted four field goals, while Hauschka nailed one.
On Sunday, they'll combine for seven, as Dawson will knock in another four, and Hauschka will launch three through the uprights.
The defenses are both too good to allow a number of touchdowns. In fact, each team will only reach the opposing end zone one time, leaving the game up to whichever kicker has the bigger output.
That will be the veteran Dawson, who will improve on his 38-of-42 mark on the campaign to help the 49ers reach the Super Bowl.
Colin Kaepernick Will Outplay Russell Wilson
The quarterback matchup in the NFC Championship Game is in stark contrast to the AFC iteration. While the Patriots and Broncos feature two surefire, first-ballot Hall of Famers, the San Francisco 49ers (Colin Kaepernick) and Seattle Seahawks (Russell Wilson) have two up-and-coming young guns who are clearly on a path toward greatness.
Wilson has gotten the better of Kaepernick thus far, holding a 2-1 record against him. Both wins came at CenturyLink Field, which is where Sunday's NFC Championship tilt will be contested. That would appear to give Wilson the advantage.
But in the end, it'll be Kaepernick who makes more big plays and leads his team to the Super Bowl.
It's important to note that the hoopla surrounding Wilson's recent run of poor form has been overblown. Yes, he only threw for 103 yards last week against New Orleans, but the game plan didn't call for him to air it out 40 times. When the lights are brightest and it matters the most, Wilson plays his best, and he's proven that throughout his young career. Expect him to sparkle on Sunday.
The problem is that Kaepernick will also dazzle. He's played tremendous football over the course of the 49ers' eight-game winning streak, buoyed by the return of wide receiver Michael Crabtree. Over the last eight games, he's tossed 12 touchdown passes against only two interceptions. He has also the poise and wherewithal to handle both the Seattle defense and crowd.
He doesn’t waver. Even when you guys say bad things about him, he’s still confident about getting his job done. He comes out here, he works his butt off every day; one of the first guys here, last to leave. He doesn’t change. If it’s a bad play, if it’s a big play, he doesn’t change. He’s always next play: ‘Let’s make it happen.’
That kind of mindset and attitude will lend itself perfectly to the hostile environment that awaits the 49ers at CenturyLink Field.
Kaepernick will out-duel Wilson, and he'll start in his second consecutive Super Bowl.