NFL Conference Championships: What to Watch for in Sunday's Games

Ryan RiddleCorrespondent IJanuary 18, 2014

NFL Conference Championships: What to Watch for in Sunday's Games

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    You better get your popcorn ready and find a comfortable seat, because this Sunday is set to be a historic day of playoff football. We could very well witness the final postseason showdown between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.

    The old-school quarterbacks will set the stage in the AFC Championship Game at 3 p.m. ET, then the new wave of dual-threat passers, Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson, will look to make their mark in the NFC Championship Game at 6:30 p.m. ET.

    Let's break down what should determine who advances to the big dance in New York.

The Last of the Throw-hicans

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    The AFC Championship Game will mark the fourth time that Tom Brady and Peyton Manning square off in the postseason.

    Which of these two legends will separate themselves as the greatest of our time? As noted by B/R's Christopher Hansen, this matchup may prove decisive in that regard. 

    Manning has presumably cemented his name into another MVP trophy for what will be an NFL-record fifth time. Brady, on the other hand, is just one win away from becoming the first quarterback in NFL history to play in six Super Bowls. 

    Come Sunday, the legacy of one Hall of Fame quarterback will take a major step forward, while the other will have to answer to an endless sea of doubters.

    In their 14 previous matchups, the outcome of the game was determined by seven or fewer points on eight occasions. No matter which way this games shakes out, the viewing public can expect a contest for the ages when two of the best quarterbacks in NFL history set out to prove who reigns supreme.

Survival of the 'Hittest'

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    If there ever was a heavyweight battle between two NFL teams, the NFC Championship Game would be it.

    Hatred fuels the rivalry between the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks. Talent, pride and similar playing styles have tainted the perceptions of both players and fans alike. These days, dissension runs thick along the West Coast—a region generally known for its docile nature.

    Both the Seahawks and 49ers embody toughness, physicality and aggressiveness. When two boxers stand toe-to-toe and deliver countless haymakers, the fight often ends with one of the two being knocked out.

    Both teams will attempt to intimidate the other, hoping to bend the will of their opponent. After enough disregard of personal safety, one of these teams will eventually concede.

    It’s incredibly hard to execute your assignment when the pain from relentless punishment begins to take its toll. Keep an eye out for which team ends up delivering the punishment and which is on the receiving end, as this element, perhaps more than any other, should determine who advances to the Super Bowl.

The Swiss Army Knife

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    Rookie linebacker and second-round pick Jamie Collins was selected by Bill Belichick specifically because of his athleticism and unworldly versatility. Few men of his size can cover both tight ends and receivers. 

    He played less than half of the defensive snaps for the New England Patriots this year, but injuries and necessity are bringing this man's talent to the forefront of an otherwise shaky front seven.

    During his time at Southern Miss, Collins played nearly every position imaginable on defense. As he began to put on weight, he slowly evolved from safety to linebacker before trying his hand at pretty much anything.

    Back in April, I ranked him as the 14th most physically gifted prospect in the draft. He can pass rush, cover man-to-man, tackle, take on blocks and happens to love the game of football.

    As noted by B/R's Erik Frenz, Collins made his impact felt during the divisional round against the Indianapolis Colts. Expect him to be a key difference-maker for the second week in a row as New England looks to slow down Manning and his seemingly endless arsenal of Pro Bowlers.

I Got 12th-Man Problems, but the Pitch Ain't 1

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    Going on the road in the NFL is always a tough challenge, especially during the playoffs. The 49ers face a tall task as they head into Seattle for the NFC Championship Game.

    In their eight regular-season home games, the Seahawks allowed an average of just 13.75 points per game. The Arizona Cardinals, who beat Seattle 17-10 in Week 16, are the only road team in the past two seasons to emerge victorious from CenturyLink Field.

    Crowd noise in Seattle is optimized by the field's design, which contains the noise from every angle. The crowd is also extremely close to the action at every level of elevation, which, coupled with passionate fans, makes CenturyLink Field the loudest stadium in the NFL.

    To make matters more hectic for the 49ers this Sunday, the Seahawks restricted ticket availability to residents in Washington and surrounding states only. Notably excluded from that list: California.

    In that type of hostile environment, Kaepernick may have to wear some noise-cancellation headphones under his helmet. We can already rule out altering the snap count and audibles. This will allow the Seahawks' defensive front to tee off on the 49ers with reckless abandon.

    Crowd noise aside, San Francisco has been on the road for a month now, which could wear on a team this late in the season. Sunday will be its fifth road game in six weeks.

    In order for the 49ers to thrive in such exhausting conditions, they’re going to have to dig deep and find a way to push through the effect that travel and a season’s worth of football has on the mind and body.

NFL Mega-Brains Collide

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    Aside from the marquee Brady vs. Manning matchup, another battle may prove more decisive in the final outcome of the AFC Championship Game.

    For years, Bill Belichick and Peyton Manning have traded blows—each trying to out-position the other for a decided advantage. Sunday’s matchup between the Patriots and the Broncos is slated to be perhaps the most complex and layered chess match in NFL history.

    This epic battle between the two biggest brains in football is sure to span all 60 minutes and will mostly exist undetected by the average fan during the live broadcast.

    But believe me, at the end of every series, both sidelines will be scrambling ferociously to make adjustments and stay one step ahead of the competition. When not in the game, Peyton’s time will be spent almost exclusively studying photos of the various defensive looks the Patriots throw at him. Meanwhile, Belichick and his defense will continuously scramble to decipher verbal code and the pre-snap checks Manning makes throughout the game. 

    Any attempts to blitz Peyton must be carefully disguised and timed to near perfection or else he will sniff it out and make New England pay. However, if the Pats are able to successfully catch him off guard, it’s very likely they will disrupt the Denver offense significantly.

    Risk is an unavoidable element in attacking this talent-laden Broncos offense. The defensive philosophy Eric Mangini preached to us in New York, which he obviously learned from his days in New England, was to figure out ways to get pressure up the middle and get in Peyton’s face. You didn’t even have to sack him to be successful. The goal was simply to get him off his spot, forcing Manning to move in the pocket.

    I forget the exact stats I encountered when I was in New York preparing to play Manning, but his numbers drop dramatically anytime he’s forced to move either left or right in the pocket. Allowing him to step up, however, was essentially the kiss of death.

    The trick, then, is to figure out how to get that pressure without letting Manning know it's coming. And pressure up the middle is far more disruptive for the Broncos QB than from the flanks.

    With that said, considering the talent surrounding him, the odds are heavily stacked in Manning’s favor. Belichick will ultimately be forced into a game of poker with Manning by going “all in” every time he plays a hand.  

Handy-Kaeped

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    In the two games Colin Kaepernick played against the Seahawks in 2013, the defense held him to under 200 yards passing both times. He threw only one touchdown pass in eight quarters of action, compared to five turnovers in that same timespan.

    Furthermore, during the regular season, Kaepernick had an overall passer rating of 91.6, but that rating plummeted to 41.7 when playing against Seattle. He has clearly struggled to find holes in the Seahawks' talented and well-coached secondary.

    Getting the better of Seattle’s secondary is a challenge for even the NFL's best quarterbacks. If the running game falls short for the 49ers, they’ll be forced to put the game in the youthful hands of Kaepernick.

    The concern here is that Kaepernick just isn’t ready to be a top-tier pocket passer at this stage in his career. He misses far too many big plays down the field simply because he doesn’t see things quickly enough.

    At the NFL level, the window of opportunity for finding an open receiver is so incredibly short that elite QBs must be able to anticipate the open guy with regularity. Kaep does this at times, but needs to improve in frequency if he’s to take that next step as a true passing quarterback.  

    Since Michael Crabtree’s return seven games ago, the passing attack has improved considerably. It’s clear Kaepernick trusts Crabtree and relies heavily on him to make his reads easier.

    This reliance, though helpful, does further expose the young QB's weakness with progressing through his reads. Without Crabtree, Kaepernick had a passer rating of 86.6, per Pro-Football-Reference; with him, his regular-season passer rating rose to 101.4.

    When asked about past performances against Seattle, Kaepernick had this to say, according to Janie McCauley of the Associated Press (via WCPO Cincinnati): "Well, those games really don't matter at this point. We're trying to win this game to get to where we want to be."

    Seattle’s three Pro Bowlers in the secondary, Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas, are primed to give Kaepernick fits all day long. He will need to play some of the best football of his young career to advance to his second straight Super Bowl.

     

    Ryan Riddle is a former NFL player and currently writes for B/R.

    Follow him on Twitter.