Who's Hot, Who's Not Heading into Super Bowl XLVIII?
We've got our Super Bowl teams, with the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks heading to Metlife Stadium to decide who will be our 2013 NFL champion.
It feels nitpicky to complain about either of these teams, considering they are going to the Super Bowl, but both teams have had some underperforming players and units in the playoffs.
Of course, we also saw some of the best football we've seen all season. As there are some players and units who were ice cold even on a winning team, there are definitely guys who came out of these games red-hot.
Let's take a look at who came out of the conference championships hot, and who came out cold.
HOT: Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos
There is nobody else to start this list with.
While the next two weeks will continue the "can Peyton win in the postseason/cold/weather/outside" narrative, we can simply look at his 400 passing yards and two touchdowns as a perfect button on an outstanding season.
Manning knows how special it is to make the Super Bowl, as he told the assembled media, via ESPN.com.
"Being in my 16th season, going to my third Super Bowl, I know how hard it is to get there," Manning said.
Many will dismiss Manning’s year if he loses in the Super Bowl, while others will say he cemented his legacy if he wins.
As Bleacher Report lead writer Chris Hansen explained, Manning has proved his doubters wrong already.
Manning threw for 400 yards and two touchdowns against the Patriots after throwing for 230 yards and two touchdowns last week. Even though it wasn’t cold, Manning already answered those critics by throwing for 397 yards and four touchdowns in 18-degree weather in Week 14 against the talented secondary of the Tennessee Titans.
Manning talked to Peter King about how much he and offensive coordinator Adam Gase are in sync (via MMQB.com), but the real impact of that story should be how much Manning works. It's what makes him one of the greatest of all time.
That preparation paid off this weekend in a drubbing of the New England Patriots.
NOT: Wes Welker, Denver Broncos
Somebody had to be left out at some point, and this week was Wes Welker’s turn.
He did make the most of his chances by catching four of those balls for 38 yards.
Welker just didn’t have many chances, even against a shaky New England Patriots secondary.
He may see more chances during the Super Bowl, since he’s the only Denver receiver with experience in a game this big.
But he was underwhelming this week.
HOT: Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor, Seattle Seahawks
This was going to just be a love letter to Richard Sherman’s tremendous postgame rant with Fox sideline reporter Erin Andrews, but more than one player did well Sunday.
Sherman actually had a so-so game, though he did have the most important play of the night as he tipped an errant Colin Kaepernick pass to linebacker Malcolm Smith, sealing the game.
Meanwhile, safety Kam Chancellor was all over the field, both in coverage and run defense. Chancellor needed to have a big game, and he stepped up big time.
Earl Thomas told King, “Receivers always know where Kam is. He’s our enforcer.”
King also notes that the collisions between Chancellor and tight end Julius Thomas could be insane.
Both Sherman and Chancellor were factors in a big fourth quarter against the San Francisco 49ers and will be tested often in the Super Bowl by Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning.
NOT: Golden Tate, Seattle Seahawks
The entire Seattle Seahawks passing offense looked off against the San Francisco 49ers, but the one guy people expected to be a big factor couldn’t get the job done.
Golden Tate has had two weak games in a row. He’s had five catches for 44 yards in his last two games combined, but overall he hasn't been targeted enough to put together good numbers.
While some of that is quarterback Russell Wilson (more on that in a minute), some of that is Tate’s inability to gain separation against the opposing corners.
The Denver secondary is banged up, so this is his chance to turn things around.
Seattle will need him to, even with as good a defense as it has. Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning should put up points even on this defense.
If that happens, Tate is going to have to help his quarterback out.
HOT: Marshawn Lynch, Seattle Seahawks
It’s hard to fault anything Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch did on Sunday, including a fumble, which was largely due to poor ball placemen on an exchange by quarterback Russell Wilson.
Lynch struggled early but got on track with a key 40-yard touchdown run early in the third quarter, which tied the game and showcased his speed, strength and an incredible cutback. As always, he did a lot of damage after contact, at one point topping 77 yards after contact, according to the Fox broadcast team.
By accumulating 109 yards on the ground, Lynch became the first player to reach triple-digit rushing yards against the San Francisco 49ers this season.
The Seattle offense isn’t all that impressive, so you can bet that Lynch will continue to be a critical piece in any Seahawks victory.
NOT: Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks
Part of the reason the Seattle Seahawks struggled against the San Francisco 49ers was because their quarterback looked shaky.
While Russell Wilson made some nice throws, there were moments when he looked overwhelmed by the immensity of the game. That’s not to say he was terrible; he just occasionally looked discombobulated.
The two fumbles are a perfect example of this, especially the one involving Marshawn Lynch.
On the play, the two botched the exchange, but truthfully Wilson had the ball too high. A quarterback is supposed to slam the ball into his running back’s gut, and that’s where Lynch had his hands to receive it.
Wilson put it high, so Lynch had to adjust but couldn’t. In the end, it didn’t hurt the team, since San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick threw an interception a few plays later.
The Seattle Seahawks have minimized Wilson in their games during the playoffs. If the Denver Broncos start putting some points on the board, that’s going to have to change, and Wilson will have to rise to the occasion rather than shrink.
HOT: Demaryius Thomas, Denver Broncos
When a defense has to choose among Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Eric Decker, it's in trouble. One of the three is going to have a big day.
This week it was Thomas, who totaled 134 yards on seven catches, including a touchdown.
On a day when his quarterback got a huge amount of (well-deserved) praise, enough was said about how often Thomas made key catches to extend a drive or put the Broncos in position to do so.
Now he faces the Seattle Seahawks secondary, starring Richard Sherman, the self-proclaimed best corner in the league.
Thomas will need to get his game on point if he’s going to overcome Seattle's coverage in two weeks.
NOT: Shaun Phillips, Denver Broncos
After having two key sacks against the San Diego Chargers, defensive end Shaun Phillips was held in check.
While the rest of the defense played great, Phillips couldn’t get to New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and wasn’t much of a factor in run defense, either. This is the sort of thing that happens with a sack artist like Phillips.
It’s feast or famine. Sunday was famine, though luckily for Denver it didn’t make a huge difference in the end.
The Seattle Seahawks offensive line is banged up and inconsistent, so he should have a chance to bounce back during the Super Bowl.
HOT: The Denver Broncos Defense
The entire Denver Broncos defense rose to the occasion on Sunday, as New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was under pressure all game long.
While the unit only notched two sacks (and three quarterback hits total), Brady had very little time to make his reads and didn’t have too many clean pockets.
On top of that, the Denver defense absolutely stymied the Patriots running backs. Coming off a six-touchdown rushing performance, New England running backs were unable to get into the end zone once (Brady had the sole rushing touchdown).
The Broncos defense has been pretty maligned this year, but the last two weeks, it has played well. The defense will face a tough test in Marshawn Lynch when it heads to New York for the Super Bowl, but it looks poised to pass it.
NOT: Seattle Seahawks Offensive Line
For a large portion of Sunday’s game, the Seattle Seahawk offensive line was absolutely manhandled by the San Francisco 49ers.
The Niners totaled four sacks and 10 quarterback hits on Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. While some of that was Wilson scrambling, a lot of it was a line that was just too banged up to play well.
On top of that, running back Marshawn Lynch was constantly hit on or behind the line of scrimmage. It’s a good thing he is ridiculously productive after contact.
While the Denver Broncos don’t have a terribly fierce pass rush, they have been playing well over the last few games.
The Seahawks need to find a way to improve their line play over the next two weeks.
Andrew Garda is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association. He is also a member of the fantasy football staff at FootballGuys.com and the NFL writer at CheeseheadTV.com. You can follow him at @andrew_garda on Twitter.