Super Bowl XLVIII is just around the corner, but first the conference championship games must be decided.
The NFL’s version of the “Final Four” promises to be exciting as ever, with some of the best teams, players and storylines stuffed into two incredible games on one amazing Sunday afternoon.
Let’s take a closer look at both of these contests and highlight the teams most likely to advance to the 2014 Super Bowl.
AFC Championship: New England Patriots (2) at Denver Broncos (1)
When: Sunday, Jan. 19 at 3 p.m. ET
Where: Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver, Colo.
Betting Line: Broncos -5.5 (via ScoresAndOdds.com)
As you’ve probably heard by now, this AFC Championship battle will include quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning meeting for a 15th time. Brady has a 10-4 edge over his rival, including a 2-1 playoff lead. The only place these two are even is in AFC Championship meetings, where they have split 1-1 with the Super Bowl on the line.
Brady also has an edge in most total playoff passing yards, according to Fox Sports:
Most pass yards in NFL playoff history: Tom Brady 6147 Peyton Manning 5909— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) January 13, 2014
While the involvement of the future Hall of Famers is certainly a major story, there are plenty of other intriguing subplots surrounding this contest as well.
One of those is how can the Broncos slow down LeGarrette Blount? The Patriots running back wasn’t anything special for much of the regular season, but he burst out in the finale and kept his momentum going into the playoffs, through the divisional round victory over the Indianapolis Colts.
Blount scored four touchdowns and generated 166 yards rushing on 24 carries last week, a performance that eclipsed his two-score, 189-yard effort on the same amount of touches against the Buffalo Bills in Week 17.
He’s going to be tough to stop if he gets going, which is something Denver didn’t have to account for last time it played New England. That game was a wild one, with the Broncos mounting a 24-0 lead at the half before squandering it away and eventually losing, 34-31, in overtime.
Brady deserves much of the credit for guiding his squad to the victory, connecting on three touchdowns passes and throwing for 344 yards with no turnovers.
The Pats signal-caller did that damage while Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. was in the lineup. Now that the defensive back is out for the playoffs with a torn ACL, it will up to the aging Champ Bailey and Quentin Jammer to fill in.
Which team will win?
Jammer played especially poorly after Harris exited in the divisional round, something New England head coach Bill Belichick will have certainly noticed.
Expect the Pats to use their run-heavy offense to eat up the clock, keep Manning off the field and have Brady make plays when he needs to most. It might not be as convincing of a win, but New England will get it done on the road and advance to the Super Bowl.
Prediction: Patriots 28, Broncos 24
NFC Championship: San Francisco 49ers (5) at Seattle Seahawks (1)
When: Sunday, Jan. 19 at 6:30 p.m. ET
Where: CenturyLink Field, Seattle, Wash.
Betting Line: Seahawks -3.5 (via ScoresAndOdds.com)
Could you think of a better NFC Championship matchup this year? These are the two best teams that just happen to play in the same division—arguably the top one in football—and they have an intense rivalry with one another.
There is certainly no love lost between the Seahawks and Niners, with both teams vying for control of the conference over the past two years. San Francisco earned the edge last year and parlayed that into a Super Bowl appearance, but Seattle has the upper hand going into this one with home-field advantage on its side.
Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll spoke with 710 ESPN Seattle about the matchup, as per ESPN’s Terry Blount:
I think it's the matchup that everybody wanted like to see. We don't mind it one bit and they don't mind it, either. It'll be a great one.
These are the two teams everyone was talking about early in the year, so it's interesting how accurate all the [predictors] were. There's not a better matchup you could find right now in the NFC. We're thrilled about it.
Carroll should be optimistic about his team’s shot at advancing to the big game, as it has completely owned the 49ers—and the rest of the league—at CenturyLink Field.
While the Seahawks did drop one at home this season to the Arizona Cardinals, they beat all other comers. Last year, this group didn’t falter in a single game held in the Pacific Northwest.
San Francisco has been especially futile when playing recent games in Seattle, as it has been outscored by 55 points, 71-16, over the last two contests.
Give a ton of credit to the Seahawks defense, which ranks atop the league with just 14.4 points per game allowed in 2013, for making key stops and pressuring young quarterback Colin Kaepernick into making poor decisions.
Seattle signal-caller Russell Wilson should be much more comfortable in this one than his positional counterpart on the other sideline, as the second-year man out of Wisconsin has gone 16-1 at home during his career.
Don’t be surprised if he pushes that to 17-1 and brings his team to the Super Bowl after a hard-fought war with the Niners on Sunday.
Prediction: Seahawks 24, 49ers 17