NFL Playoff Schedule 2015: Conference Championship Game Time, Matchups Bracket

Andrew Gould@AndrewGould4Featured ColumnistJanuary 13, 2015

SEATTLE - SEPTEMBER 04:  Quaterback Russell Wilson #3 of the Seattle Seahawks escapes the tackle attempt of safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix #21 of the Green Bay Packers at CenturyLink Field on September 4, 2014 in Seattle, Washington.  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Only one more victory blocks the NFL's four remaining contenders from a trip to Arizona for Super Bowl XLIX.

For the second straight week, three of the four home favorites survived, while one AFC underdog deviated from the plan. In a cruel twist of fate, Peyton Manning aged years in a day to his old team's benefit, sending the Indianapolis Colts to the AFC Championship.

There, Andrew Luck will take Manning's place in a storied rivalry with Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, who twice stormed back from 14-point deficits to overcome the Baltimore Ravens.

In the NFC, the top two seeds will spar for a Super Bowl bid. The Seattle Seahawks took care of business against the Carolina Panthers, and the Green Bay Packers sweated out a close call that again involved the Dallas Cowboys and a noteworthy officiating decision.

Football fans are in store for a thrilling Sunday featuring several familiar faces vying for the NFL's throne.

AFC: Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots

Tasked with facing Baltimore's No. 4 rushing defense, the Patriots simply decided not to run.

It seems simple, but few teams will readily abandon the ground game completely, as commentators will shout till they're red about the importance of establishing a rushing attack. Luckily for New England, Bill Belichick didn't care.

Brady handed the ball off seven times for an ineffective 14 yards, so the Patriots aired it out 51 times—including Julian Edelman's 51-yard touchdown pass to Danny Amendola—for 408 yards, an average of 8.2 yards per attempt.

The splits grew even more extreme during the second half, per ESPN Stats & Info.

The lesson here is not that Belichick decided all his running backs stink and rushing is for suckers. Instead, it's that nobody adapts better than Belichick, as the Colts discovered two months ago. During their Week 11 meeting, Brady amassed 30 throws, while Jonas Gray came fresh off the practice squad to compile 201 yards on 37 carries.

Per the Providence Journal's Mark Daniels, Belichick isn't overly concerned about balancing the scales.

With Manning having averaged 4.6 yards per attempt compared to C.J. Anderson's 4.4 yards per rush, Denver would have stood a better chance of winning by following New England's blueprint to besting Indianapolis. During two postseason victories, the Colts have surrendered 4.8 yards per carry and 4.5 yards per pass.

New England will take notice. Whether Gray returns to duty, LeGarrette Blount gets a heavy workload or Belichick pulls a fan from the stands to take some backfield reps, the Patriots will return to the run to exploit the Colts' biggest weakness.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - NOVEMBER 16:  Jonas Gray #35 of the New England Patriots scores a touchdown against the Indianapolis Colts during the fourth quarter of the game at Lucas Oil Stadium on November 16, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Joe Robbins/
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

After upsetting Denver, safety Mike Adams relished in proving everyone wrong. "Did you bet against us?" Adams asked Zak Keefer of The Indianapolis Star. "I know everybody else did. Everybody bet against us, and that's fine. "They're mad in Vegas. Everybody's upset!"

Well, he's going to love this. In terms of point differential and Football Outsiders' weighted DVOA, New England is a superior squad to Denver. Also, there's no trace of Tom Brady playing hurt or slowing down, so the Patriots will earn a spot in their sixth Super Bowl during the Brady and Belichick era.

Prediction: Patriots 27, Colts 20

 

NFC: Green Bay Packers at Seattle Seahawks

History foreshadows a rough day for Aaron Rodgers and back-to-back NFC titles for Seattle.

When Green Bay opened up the season at Seattle, Rodgers went 23-of-33 for 189 yards, a touchdown and a pick during a 36-16 loss. The Seahawks registered 6.0 yards per play to the Packers' 4.5.

Even in 2012's infamous "Fail Mary" game decided by replacement referees, Rodgers finished with a sluggish 5.7 yards per attempt. Cedric Benson was also his running back with Greg Jennings and James Jones as his top receivers, but Seattle's key defensive cogs proved dastardly adversaries.

That was with a healthy Rodgers, not the one hobbling with a strained left calf. The probable MVP was obviously limited in his mobility against the Cowboys, but he returned from halftime looking like vintage Rodgers.

During the second half, he posted 226 passing yards and two touchdowns to sneak past Dallas, but salvaging a win against the No. 26 passing defense doesn't assure success against the league's best pass-prevention unit.

But don't spend the week wondering if Matt Flynn will get called into action. Per the Packers' Twitter page, Rodgers is prepared to play out the postseason.

Considering his struggles against Seattle at full strength, it's likely he only plays 60. The Seahawks are playing on another level, with their 17 points surrendered to the Panthers representing their worst outing since Week 11.

Over those last seven games, they allowed an average of eight points per contest. They won't hold the Packers to single digits, but they won't have to win a 13-10 game at CenturyLink Field.

During Seattle's in-season victory, Marshawn Lynch shredded Green Bay for 110 rushing yards and two scores. That hardly proved a mere early hiccup for the NFC North champions, who ranked No. 23 in rushing defense with 119.9 yards allowed per game.

SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 04: Running back Marshawn Lynch #24 of the Seattle Seahawks scores a touchdown during the second quarter of the game against the Green Bay Packers at CenturyLink Field on September 4, 2014 in Seattle, Washington.  (Photo by Otto Gr
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Lynch had a relatively quiet day during the divisional round, but that's because Russell Wilson didn't need any help. The quarterback compiled 268 passing yards and three touchdowns on just 22 throws, giving him an incredible 12.2 yards per attempt.

Expect Seattle to revert to its usual run-heavy ways, with Wilson picking his spots in a more subdued effort. Nevertheless, Pete Carroll's offense is well positioned to exceed 20 points against a vulnerable rushing defense, and that's usually enough with the Legion of Boom roaming the secondary.

Prediction: Seahawks 23, Packers 17

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