If Hollywood wrote a script for the NFL season, the final four teams in the playoffs would probably be the same. On one side, it's a battle of legendary quarterbacks who are seeking another championship. On the other, the sport's best current rivalry takes center stage for the third time this season.
In the AFC, the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos rely on the arms of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning along with emerging rushing attacks to rack up a lot of points. Of course, all eyes remain on the quarterbacks as they prepare for their 15th meeting.
The NFC finale features the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers, NFC West rivals that lean on their defenses to frustrate opponents and force mistakes. In many ways, they are mirror images of each other, which leaves little margin for error in their matchups.
With two outstanding conference championships on tap, let's check out the updated Super Bowl odds and predict which two teams will end up facing off at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey.
Super Bowl Matchup and Championship Odds
|1||Seattle Seahawks vs. Denver Broncos||+130|
|2||San Francisco 49ers vs. Denver Broncos||+250|
|3||Seattle Seahawks vs. New England Patriots||+350|
|4||San Francisco 49ers vs. New England Patriots||+500|
|3||San Francisco 49ers||+275|
|4||New England Patriots||+425|
AFC Prediction: Denver Broncos
LeGarrette Blount powered the Patriots to victory over the Indianapolis Colts last week and will once again be the most important player on the field for New England. The underdogs must establish the ground game to have a chance of pulling off the upset.
The Broncos want this game to become a shootout. That was always going to be the case, but it became even more crucial for Denver to force the tempo when Chris Harris went down with an ACL injury, ending his season.
If the game develops into a shootout, Manning and his myriad weapons should have little trouble making up for the loss of Harris. As ESPN Stats and Info points out, the Denver offense is the best in the league, and it's not even remotely close:
Alas, if the Patriots are able to get Blount, along with Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen, rolling again, it will completely change the complexion of the game.
Which team will win the AFC title?
That's a recipe for a lot of extended drives. Brady can attack the Broncos secondary aggressively with play-action calls, and probably more importantly, he can find a lot of open targets to move the chains on third down. The more time Manning stands on the sideline, the better the Pats' chances are.
All told, the sticking point for New England is its defense—which ranked 26th in yards allowed during the regular season—trying to slow down an offense with so many weapons. Unless Blount and Co. are dominant on the ground to secure a huge possession edge, the Broncos will be in good shape.
Denver should have learned from its mistakes after letting a lead slip away against the Pats in the regular season. It won't make the same errors twice as it punches a ticket to the Super Bowl.
Broncos 35, Patriots 31
NFC Prediction: San Francisco 49ers
Games between the Seahawks and 49ers are special. While the division rivalry aspect helps, the intrigue is more due to the fact that in today's pass-happy NFL, these two teams don't shy away from a hard-hitting, low-scoring clash.
When two teams with that style collide multiple times in a season, animosity develops. Mike Triplett of ESPN passed along comments from 49ers defensive star Patrick Willis, who explained the mentality in these games:
San Francisco linebacker Patrick Willis compared the rivalry to a "heavyweight fight" this past summer, saying, "We're not throwing little jabs that barely hurt. We're trying to knock each other out."
And Willis reiterated this week that "there's no question there's a lot of hostility between us."
The two sides split their regular-season meetings, with each team taking care of business at home. That doesn't come as a surprise, of course, given how similar the two sides are with top-five defenses and ground games.
Both the Seahawks and 49ers are going to play smashmouth football, and they don't care if the opponent sees it coming. Marshawn Lynch and Frank Gore are perfect backs for that style of play.
Which team will win the NFC title?
On defense, the 49ers are led by the linebacker duo of NaVorro Bowman and Willis, while Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas are the game-changers for Seattle.
So it's clear: The Seahawks and 49ers are capable of matching each other every step of the way. The question becomes: What's going to be the difference that ultimately allows one team to reach the Super Bowl and send its rival home in the process?
The answer is likely the efficiency on third down and in the red zone by the young quarterbacks. Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick can each make plays through the air or with their legs, but whichever one performs better in those key situations will lead his team to victory.
It's a matchup almost as even as the game itself, but the edge goes to Kaepernick, whose quarterback rating was nearly 10 points higher than Wilson's during the regular season.
49ers 16, Seahawks 13