With conference championships upon us, it's time for a last-minute prediction to see which teams will earn a trip to Super Bowl XLVIII, which kicks off at MetLife Stadium on Feb. 2, 2014.
Getting the action started on Jan. 19 is the AFC Championship Game between the New England Patriots (No. 2) and Denver Broncos (No. 1). The game is scheduled to kick off at 3 p.m. ET at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, and it's being broadcast nationally on CBS.
Later in the evening, the NFC Championship Game between the San Francisco 49ers (No. 5) and Seattle Seahawks (No. 1) will take place at CenturyLink Field beginning at 6:30 p.m. ET. You can catch this game on Fox.
Both championship matchups should provide fans with plenty of compelling action. Here's a final look at what you can expect, followed by predictions and a quick look ahead to Super Bowl XLVIII.
AFC Championship Game
The Patriots beat the Broncos at Foxborough earlier this season in overtime, but both teams look a lot different this time around. It will be the 15th career matchup between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, with Brady taking the series to the tune of 10-4 overall and 2-1 in the postseason.
Brady comes into the contest with a rag-tag group of receivers that he's miraculously found ways to win with all season long. He's also had plenty of help from his running game, led lately by LeGarrette Blount. In the past three games, New England has rushed for 643 yards and 10 touchdowns.
The Patriots will need to be sharp on both sides of the ball to have any chance against Manning's Broncos, however. Offense alone won't cut it, because Denver's attack is capable of putting up points in bunches.
With Wes Welker, Julius Thomas, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, Manning has four dynamic playmakers to spread defenses out with on passing plays. But there's more to this offense, as described SI.com's Chris Burke and Doug Farrar:
[Knowshon] Moreno topped the 1,000-yard mark this season, and Denver rushed for 133 yards in its win last weekend. That backfield tandem may not be the go-to option for a pass-heavy offense, but Moreno and Ball are capable of keeping the Patriots defense honest … or burning it if it’s not.
It's Denver's balanced offense that will tip the scales in favor of the Broncos at home.
Which team will win?
New England's defense has been decimated by injuries all year long—especially up front. Without Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly and Brandon Spikes, the Broncos will be able to open up running lanes and pound the ball—much like they did in Week 12 (280 rushing yards and one touchdown).
The Broncos were up 24-0 at halftime in that game, but four second-half turnovers allowed Brady to complete an epic comeback. That's not going to happen this time around, however. Denver will win this game at home in what's sure to be a closely contested battle.
Final Score: Broncos win, 31-30.
NFC Championship Game
Seattle and San Francisco split the season series 1-1, with both teams winning at home.
Likely, you've heard the narrative that Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers have struggled badly at CenturyLink Field the past two games in Seattle. While it's impossible to discount the truth of this (San Francisco lost by a combined score of 71-16, Kaepernick had five turnovers and one touchdown), nobody should expect a similar result this time around.
The 49ers come into the contest on an eight-game winning streak, having won five on the road and two of those in the playoffs against Green Bay and Carolina. Furthermore, Kaepernick has won all three road playoff games in his young career, which is something Steve Young and Joe Montana never did, as ESPN Stats & Info pointed out:
Colin Kaepernick is a perfect 3-0 on the road in the playoffs. Steve Young and Joe Montana were a combined 1-7!— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) January 15, 2014
“Big stage never seems to bother him,” Jim Harbaugh said of his young quarterback, via Taylor Price of 49ers.com. “He has that special ability that the great ones have to elevate their game in those situations.”
On the other side, Russell Wilson hasn't looked like himself of late. He's really struggled with efficiency and decision-making the past five games in particular, while Kaepernick has been playing the best ball of the season:
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
Who you got?
As good as Seattle's secondary is (and it's really good), San Francisco's offense is finally equipped to handle the challenge.
With Michael Crabtree back, Anquan Boldin on the other side, Vernon Davis running in the middle of the field and Frank Gore pounding the rock between the tackles, the 49ers are ready to conquer their demons at "The Link."
Final Score: 49ers win, 23-21.
Super Bowl XLVIII: San Francisco vs. Denver
The 49ers will reach the Super Bowl for the second year in a row, while on the other side Manning will reach the pinnacle of his sport for what could be his final time. While many on the West Coast will certainly be rooting for San Francisco, you have to believe most of the nation will be pulling for the future Hall of Fame quarterback to win his second championship.
Weather could come into play for the Super Bowl, as well. If it's really cold and/or snowing, then you'd have to believe San Francisco would have an edge, having already shown the ability to win in brutal conditions at Lambeau Field.
Denver's 2013-14 campaign has been brilliant, but in the end, the 49ers have a stronger all-around team. Harbaugh's crew will get done this year what it failed to do in 2013, beating the Broncos to win Super Bowl XLVIII and bring back a sixth title to the City by the Bay.
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