Only two games remain on the NFL's 2014 playoff schedule before Super Bowl XLVIII, and the league couldn't have dreamed up two more compelling matchups for its championship round.
The New England Patriots (No. 2) will face the Denver Broncos (No. 1) in the AFC Championship Game to get things kicked off on Jan. 19 at 3 p.m. ET. Following that contest, the San Francisco 49ers (No. 5) will battle the Seattle Seahawks (No. 1) at CenturyLink Field, with the game slated to begin at 6:30 p.m. ET.
Before the season began, most analysts considered these final four teams to be the best suited to reach this point, and all four have obliged with tremendous campaigns and big playoff wins.
Here's a look at how they got to this point, courtesy of FanSided, followed by a look at when and where you can catch the final playoff games of this season:
|AFC Championship||New England Patriots vs. Denver Broncos||Jan. 19||3 p.m.||CBS|
|NFC Championship||San Francisco 49ers vs. Seattle Seahawks||Jan. 19||6:30 p.m.||FOX|
|Super Bowl||AFC and NFC Champions||Feb. 2||6:30 p.m.||FOX|
Brady vs. Manning, Version 15.0
It's safe to say Tom Brady and Peyton Manning know what to expect in this upcoming contest, having battled one another 14 previous times—three of which occurred in the playoffs. Brady has an overwhelming 10-4 edge in those contests, and he won two of the three postseason contests.
However, Manning has won half his games against Brady and Bill Belichick the past eight times they've met, and his Broncos enter the game favored to win by just under a touchdown (5.5 points, per Covers.com).
After putting together one of the most impressive seasons in NFL history on the offensive side of the ball, it's not surprising that Denver is favored to win over an injury-plagued Patriots squad that has overachieved all year long.
That said, Manning isn't taking anything for granted.
"Coach Belichick is the best coach that I've ever competed against. I think it's safe to say he'll go down as the greatest NFL coach of all time," Manning recently told reporters, via Andy Hart of Patriots.com. "So, the teams that he has coached that I've competed against have always been well-coached, always been prepared, always played hard for 60 minutes."
Who you got?
The Broncos lost in overtime, 34-31, to this same Patriots team at Foxborough in Week 12. Brady outplayed Manning by a long shot in that game, though it's noteworthy that Julius Thomas was out for that contest.
It's going to be another closely contested battle between these two quarterbacks this time around. The winner will head to the Super Bowl once again to further cement his legacy as one of the greatest players of all time.
A Heated NFC West Rivalry Reaches Boiling Point
Both teams have been talking all week about the fierce rivalry, but perhaps Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman said it best, as noted by Paul Schwartz of the New York Post:
Richard Sherman on the 49ers: "There's no love lost and no love found. I don't know if there's going to be handshakes after this one."— Paul Schwartz (@NYPost_Schwartz) January 15, 2014
The NFC West rivals are similarly built, featuring dominant defenses, punishing running games and burgeoning young stars at the quarterback position. They split the season series 1-1, with both teams winning at home.
San Francisco hasn't fared well at CenturyLink Field the past two years, losing both games by a combined score of 71-16 and—not surprisingly—losing the turnover battle 7-2. Colin Kaepernick has been particularly atrocious in Seattle, and he turned the ball over four times in Week 2 to hand the Seahawks the game.
But this team is playing its best football of the season at just the right time, and Kaepernick has picked up his game in a significant way during San Francisco's eight-game winning streak.
Meanwhile, Russell Wilson has really struggled down the home stretch, as shown by ESPN Stats & Info:
Since the last Seahawks-49ers matchup on Dec. 8, Kaepernick and Russell Wilson have gone in opposite directions pic.twitter.com/Cd7WYSYo3h— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 17, 2014
While the "12th man" has proved nearly impossible to overcome (Seattle is 16-1 at home since 2012, including last weekend's playoff game), the 49ers have an excellent chance to reach the Super Bowl for the second year in a row, according to B/R's Matt Miller:
I'm taking the upset, and you should, too. The 49ers were destroyed in Seattle, but they're a different team now. Michael Crabtree is healthy, Colin Kaepernick is running the ball and the defense is a matchup nightmare for a Seattle offense that's struggled as of late. If the 49ers can score early, they'll win this game.
That's a big "if," however. The last two times the 49ers played in Seattle, they struggled to get on the board early. This game will be a slobberknocker between two teams that can't stand one another, and it's anyone's guess who'll come away with the victory.
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