The 2014 NFL playoffs are reaching an endpoint, but there are still three great games left on tap before the conclusion of the campaign.
The postseason has been nothing short of incredible, with plenty of upsets, intrigue and subplots to follow. Now that we’ve reached the “Final Four,” it’s time to take a closer look at each conference championship game.
Keep reading for all the scheduling information you’ll need to catch every minute of the games, plus a peak at the weather, betting line and more. After that, check out a short preview for each game and a prediction on the outcome.
|2014 NFL Playoff Schedule - Conference Championships|
|AFC||New England Patriots||Denver Broncos||Jan. 19||3 p.m.||CBS|
|NFC||San Francisco 49ers||Seattle Seahawks||Jan. 19||6:30 p.m.||Fox|
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.
Weather: 59 degrees, sunny, west winds at 9 mph (via Weather.com)
Betting Line: Broncos -5.5 (via ScoresAndOdds.com)
Key Matchup: Tom Brady, QB, Patriots vs. Broncos Secondary
The Patriots will need Brady to play extremely well if they are going to advance to their sixth Super Bowl with him under center. He’s beaten this opponent before, engineering an epic comeback from 24 points down at half time to win, 34-31, in overtime back in Week 12, but the location has changed and both teams are different.
Brady certainly knows the stakes, having dueled with superstar signal-caller Peyton Manning on 14 prior occasions.
While the Pats quarterback has won 10 of those matchups, they have mostly all been tough games that could have gone either way. He owns a 2-1 playoff record over Manning, but the two future Hall of Famers are split in their AFC Championship meetings, with each winning one apiece.
Brady was gifted an advantage in this matchup on Sunday after Broncos starting cornerback Chris Harris went down for the rest of the season with a torn ACL. He was replaced by Quentin Jammer in the divisional round against the San Diego Chargers, and Jammer was exploited repeatedly by Philip Rivers and his receivers.
Expect head coach Bill Belichick to take advantage of this and draw up numerous plays designed to target the unproductive veteran defensive back. If successful, the Pats should have an advantage on the scoreboard at the end of regulation.
X-Factor: LeGarrette Blount, RB, Patriots
Blount has gone absolutely bonkers over the past two games and is developing into the feature back that the Pats need to win a Super Bowl.
In the season finale against the Buffalo Bills, this veteran rusher broke out for 189 yards and two scores on 24 touches. He improved upon that in the divisional-round blowout of the Indianapolis Colts, gashing the defense for 166 yards and four scores on the same number of carries.
The Broncos rush defense was strong in 2013, ranking No. 8 in the league with only 101.6 yards per game conceded on the ground, but the team will have to alter its game plan and drop more guys into coverage in order to make up for the loss of Harris. If it does that, Blount should be in line for a big day statistically.
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.
Weather: 49 degrees, partly cloudy, north/northeast winds at 4 mph (via Weather.com)
Betting Line: Seahawks -3.5 (via ScoresAndOdds.com)
Key Matchup: Colin Kaepernick, QB, 49ers vs. Seahawks Defense
The Seahawks have been one of the best teams at home over the past two seasons, dropping just a single game—including playoffs—in that span. They have made no exceptions for the NFC West rival 49ers, a team that simply cannot find a way to win, or even keep things close, when traveling to the Pacific Northwest.
Kaepernick is a large reason for the Niners' recent string of failures at CenturyLink Field. He’s 0-2 in his first two starts at the stadium, with the Seahawks mounting a 55-point (71-16) margin of victory. That includes Kaepernick’s Week 2 dud when he completed just 13 of his 28 passes for 127 yards and three interceptions. The 49ers would go on to lose that game 29-3.
It won't get any easier in the NFC Championship Game, especially with a raucous home crowd hoping to will the Seahawks back to the Super Bowl for the first time since 2006. Remember, this crowd caused actual seismic activity during a Marshawn Lynch touchdown run against the New Orleans Saints last week.
While Kaep currently holds an unblemished road playoff record (3-0, with his only postseason loss coming in last year’s Super Bowl), he’s going to have to figure out this top-ranked defense in a hurry before he suffers his first road defeat.
X-Factor: Golden Tate, WR, Seahawks
The Seahawks are primarily a rushing team (as evidenced by their 136.4 yards per game on the ground in 2013, the fourth-best mark in the league), but they’ll need to get some production from their receivers if they are to best the Niners on Sunday.
Head coach Pete Carroll spoke about Harvin’s unfortunate injury, as per Michael David Smith of Pro Football Talk:
He [Harvin] will not make it through the doctors’ protocol and will not be able to go,” Carroll said. “It’s super disappointing for Percy — he wants to play. You can see it, he played his tail off when he had his chance, it’s just unfortunate circumstances.
Now, the responsibility of making big plays off Russell Wilson throws will fall squarely on Golden Tate.
Tate was targeted five times in the divisional-round contest against the Saints, but he hauled in just one pass for 13 yards. He cannot disappear like that again, especially not against a defense that excels at stopping the run. San Francisco held opponents to just 95.9 yards per game on the ground in 2013, ranking No. 4 the NFL in that category.
The fourth-year man out of Notre Dame wasn’t much better at home in Week 2 against the Niners, catching just one pass on two targets for 19 yards. He improved slightly in the team’s Week 14 loss at Candlestick Park, hauling in six receptions for 65 yards. However, those numbers won’t cut it, especially if San Francisco is locking down the Seattle rushing game.
Expect Tate’s performance to have a major impact on whether or not the Seahawks advance.
Prediction: Seahawks 24, 49ers 14