NFL Conference Championship Game Picks: Will the Pats and Seahawks Roll?

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterJanuary 15, 2015

Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Riffs, rants, observations and dissenting opinions from the voices in my head about the NFL's Final Four, with a big-picture look at the Patriots' place in history and a microscopic look at what the Packers must do to upset the Seahawks. 

Lines for the games, as usual, are courtesy of Odds Shark. Times are Eastern. Unless otherwise stated, all stats are from Football Outsiders' internal database or the firewall-protected, media-only treasure trove NFLGSIS.com.

Colts at Patriots

Sunday, 6:40 p.m.

Line: Patriots -6.5

History's Greatest Villain

Bill Belichick's Patriots have reached the playoffs 12 times in 15 seasons. That's an 80 percent success rate, spread over a decade and a half.

Bill Walsh's 49ers reached the playoffs seven times in 10 years, a 70 percent success rate for one measly decade.

Chuck Noll's Steelers reached the playoffs 12 times in 23 years. That's 52 percent stretched across a quarter of a century, though it's really an astounding peak with a gentle slope on the far side.

Joe Gibbs' Redskins reached the playoffs 10 times in 16 years, a 62.5 percent rate spread across two non-contiguous eras, one glorious, one so much less significant that I nearly forgot to include it.

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Bill Parcells took the Giants to the playoffs five times in eight seasons, a 62.5 percent rate for a few moments of historical time.

Vince Lombardi became an American icon—not just an NFL icon or a football icon, but a cultural icon—based on six playoff appearances in nine seasons with the Packers, a 66.7 percent success rate in less than one decade, albeit a really important decade.

The last coach to win 20 playoff games wore his hat unironically.
The last coach to win 20 playoff games wore his hat unironically.Anonymous/Associated Press

Tom Landry led the Cowboys to the playoffs 18 times in 29 years (62.1 percent success rate). Don Shula led the Dolphins to the postseason 16 times in 26 years (61.5 percent) and did some very important things when coaching the Colts. To find coaches who colonized the playoffs more often than Belichick, you need to turn to civic institutions from an era in which a head coach might take over an expansion team and enjoy six full seasons of sub-.500 football while assembling his roster, or leap straight from Super Bowl glory into the driver's seat of a down-and-out franchise from a rival league.

Landry and Shula are men of Lombardi's time, not our time. And Belichick is still more ubiquitous than they are in the playoffs, from a percentage standpoint, though you can hack out 15-16 season chunks of Landry and Shula's careers (1966-82 for Landry, 1971-85 for Shula) that match Belichick's Patriots run.

Belichick tied Landry for the most playoff wins in NFL history with his 20th last week. His Patriots are a heavy favorite to claim the all-time record outright this week. It was both an impressive accomplishment and an easy one to take for granted.

Every time a Patriots veteran does something good in the playoffs, it establishes a milestone or sets a record. Tom Brady surpassed the career postseason mark for passing yards last week. Brady passed Joe Montana on the all-time postseason touchdown list with 46. Stephen Gostkowski became the seventh kicker in NFL history with 100 postseason points, and Gostkowski isn't even the kicker we think about when we think about Patriots history.

You get the point: The Patriots have been really good for a really long time under Belichick.

Playoff familiarity has bred both playoff contempt and playoff complacency. The contempt is understandable. The Patriots are as irritating on the national level as the Landry Cowboys were, with Gronkowski erotica and Brady metrosexuality filling in for disco-dancing Farrah Fawcett-cloned cheerleaders. It does not help that Belichick is the Nixon to Lombardi's apolitical Kennedy. You can play the "Beli-cheat" card if you want—if Shula is doing it, I can't fault anyone else for doing it—but no one really hates the Patriots because of a decade-old scandal. They hate the Patriots because 14 years of success, combined with that Boston-media we win because we are smarter, more righteous or just better than you on some metaphysical level hagiography makes them easy to dislike.

Hating the Patriots is understandable, given the circumstances. Taking them for granted, however, would be a shame. We all had them penciled into this championship game the moment they lost the last championship game, or (at the latest) when they signed Darrelle Revis. Only the opponent is a surprise. Face it, we all went through the motions this season: the manufactured Chicken Little hysteria after the Chiefs loss, the perfunctory New Year's Eve style hoopla after Brady-Manning: The Final Chapter, ho-hum been-there-done-that wins against all the middleweights and divisional rivals.

The Patriots are the spouse who brings home the bacon and fries it up in the pan. But after 15 years, they needed to spice things up. And yes, there is something inherently squicky about this team that leans toward erotic prose.

Elise Amendola/Associated Press

So Belichick gave both the haters and the granted-takers what they needed last week. With the help of Josh McDaniels, he gave us Julian Edelman-Danny Amendola trick play touchdowns. The Patriots gave us the crazy four-offensive-linemen formation and a staccato play pace that had the Ravens running in circles. While it wasn't by choice, Belichick and Brady gave us two 14-point comebacks, reminders of just who the Ravens and the rest of the NFL are up against when they face a champion of historic proportion.

The yawners got a wake-up call: Belichick reminded everyone that he is the greatest tactician of our era, one of the half-dozen best in NFL history. The haters got another reason to vilify and scream "Cheatriots" for the four-linemen set, because haters aren't likely to let the rulebook get in the way of a good story.

If you read comic books or watch comic book shows/movies, you know that the story doesn't grow stale when the hero gets boring but when the villain gets boring. Oh, they're bringing Lex Luthor back, again. The villain defines the heroes and makes their goals worthy and compelling.

The NFL just rebooted its greatest villain. Now are there any heroes available?

The Generation Gap

There is another reason to not take the Patriots for granted this weekend: Monday's events in Denver reminded us that nothing lasts forever.

The Broncos' upheaval creates a high probability that we have seen our last Brady-Manning bowl. Think about it: In the span of less than 36 hours, we went from preparing for Brady-Manning XVII to preparing for there never being another Brady-Manning anything. No more Russell-Wilt, Palmer-Nicklaus. Who knows when the next rivalry of this magnitude will arrive?

Patriots fans heckling neener-neener to Manning supporters should probably (a) make sure the Patriots take care of their Colts business first; (b) keep in mind how close we came to Luck-Flacco I for the AFC title; and (c) consider savoring what they have while they have it. The end will come for Brady and Belichick, too, soon, like a thief in the night. It could be after a Super Bowl, but it could also be as cataclysmic as what's going on in Denver. A heartbreaking loss amid quarterback aches and pains, followed by doubts in the corridors of power. Belichick deciding to tie his fate to a fading Brady, or not to. Or perhaps, a glorious Brady retirement followed by Belichick using Jimmy Garoppolo as his Danny White, sliding quietly out of contention the way Landry's Cowboys did, three yards at a time. Heck, a full-scale franchise implosion at least has a romantic element.

DENVER, CO - JANUARY 11:  Andrew Luck #12 of the Indianapolis Colts runs the offense against the Denver Broncos   during a 2015 AFC Divisional Playoff game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on January 11, 2015 in Denver, Colorado.  (Photo by Ezra Sha
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

None of that will happen to the Patriots this year, but the time has come to punctuate this era. Manning is unavailable for this year's drama, but the NFL has served up the next best things. First, Brady must stop Andrew Luck from officially drawing a thick line in the NFL history books. Then, he will have to beat one of two teams whose quarterbacks have Super Bowl rings with a lot less wear and tarnish on them.

It's a worthy gauntlet for an aging champion, perhaps worthier than conquering one Manning and facing another yet again, or some other old-guard challenger like Drew Brees or Tony Romo. Belichick and Brady beat the last generation. They can strike double blows against this one before walking away, perhaps a few years from now, hopefully on something close to their own terms.

Even Blueprints Get the Blues

What Andrew Luck is attempting this month is not quite David vs. Goliath. It's more like a cross between the feats of Billy the Kid and Alexander the Great. Luck is trying to gun down aging legends by sole virtue of his quicker hand, and he is attempting to topple empires at an age when he should still be mustering his forces.

It's hard to see him pulling it off. Joe Flacco once beat Manning and Brady back to back in the playoffs. Mark Sanchez did it once. But both faced different circumstances and had their own advantages, including very good running games and defenses. Luck does not have a running game, at all. It's not clear whether he has a very good defense.

The Colts defense looked phenomenal last week, far better than it has looked against any playoff-caliber opponent this year. Several players said (via The Indianapolis Star) that the Colts copied the "Seahawks blueprint" to beat the Broncos. The Colts have very good cornerbacks, so they could press Broncos receivers without getting regularly burned. Instead of manufacturing pressure, they kept their fronts and pass-rushes simple, making it hard for Manning to audible into perfect-counterpunch situations. Factor in Manning's sudden aging into the 2,000-Year-Old Man, and you would think that the Colts were a defensive powerhouse, not a team that gave up 93 combined points to the Steelers and Patriots.

DENVER, CO - JANUARY 11:  Wes Welker #83 of the Denver Broncos attempts to make a catch as Darius Butler #20 of the Indianapolis Colts defends during a 2015 AFC Divisional Playoff game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on January 11, 2015 in Denver,
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The Colts defense is certainly playing its best in the playoffs. But there is no "blueprint" for the Patriots, particularly now that they are emptying the deep recesses of their playbook. The old Giants blueprint of winning multiple one-on-one matchups against the Patriots offensive line still works (that works on everyone...except the Seahawks), but the Colts don't have the defensive linemen to pull it off.

There is a blueprint for frustrating the Patriots defense. The Ravens used it last week. The Patriots hate vanilla-scented, zone-stretch, run-and-play-fake Gary Kubiak stuff. They hated it when the Mike Shanahan Broncos beat them in the playoffs a decade ago. They hated it when Justin Forsett rushed for 129 yards and Joe Flacco threw four touchdowns last week. They even hated it when they beat Kubiak's Texans, though they managed to overcome it thanks to overwhelming offensive superiority and acts of Matt Schaub.

The Colts are collectively more likely to sprout wings and fly around Gillette Stadium lobbing eggs at the Patriots than they are to suddenly morph into a zone-stretch running team. They will be one-dimensional and pass-dependent. The Patriots won't need any special blueprint to stop them.

The Colts face bad matchups on both sides of the ball, just as they did in November's 42-20 loss and last January's 43-22 loss. Luck gets a little better every month. The Colts defense may play above its head for another week. But it's hard to find a bridge across that well-established 21-22 point gap between the Colts and Patriots that does not involve drafting running backs and pass-rushers and waiting until next year.

Next years...they are something the Colts have in surplus, while the Patriots are in limited supply. Luck will have to wait for one of those "next years" before taking his place on the AFC throne. The Patriots have one more season to reign in a way few teams have ever reigned. You can love it or hate it, but with times rapidly changing, be sure to appreciate it.

Prediction: Patriots 34, Colts 24

Ricardo Lockette, setting the tone for the Seahawks season.
Ricardo Lockette, setting the tone for the Seahawks season.Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

Packers at Seahawks

Sunday, 3:05 p.m.

Line: Seahawks -7.5

The following is a breakdown of the best way to beat the defending champion Seattle Seahawks. I promise not to resort to football cliches or state the obvious.

Stop the Avalanche

To defeat the Seahawks, you have to outscore them.

I will be taking my pay now, Mr. Turner, in $20 bills, gold bullion, bitcoins and old Greg Maddux bobbleheads.

Obviously, you must outscore the Seahawks to defeat the Seahawks, which means you must score against them, which can prove difficult. If you hope to score enough points to beat the Seahawks—reaching the 20s will make a game of it—it's best to start scoring early. That will prevent the slow-motion avalanche of the typical Seahawks blowout, as seen in last Saturday's win against the Panthers: a 7-0 first quarter lead becomes a 14-10 halftime lead, then two quick touchdowns (one of them defensive) suddenly turn a close game into a fourth-quarter rout. Play with the lead, and you can force the Seahawks offense out of its ball-control comfort zone, preventing them from tilting the field in their direction for drive after drive until you topple over.

The Seahawks are slow starters. They only outscore opponents 67-57 in the first quarter. By the fourth quarter, they outscore opponents 122-67. The Football Outsiders DVOA breakdowns by quarter show just how pronounced the Seahawks' increase in quality as the game progresses really is:

Seahawks Rankings by Quarter
1st Quarter2nd Quarter3rd Quarter4th Quarter
Offensive Rank151042
Defensive Rank10724
Football Outsiders

Splits by quarter are almost never as pronounced or severe as the ones in the table. The Seahawks gather momentum until they steamroll all in their path. There are many explanations for this, like their physicality and their offensive need to set up big plays by establishing rushing and option threats. The splits represent an accretion of problems for the opponent: field position getting progressively worse, tiny mistakes getting magnified by stingy defense and opportunistic offense, the Seahawks settling for field goals to mount a 12-3 lead while you desperately need to convert 3rd-and-17 for a catch-up touchdown. The chamber fills with sand, then you suffocate.

John Froschauer/Associated Press

So the opponent must get to the Seahawks early. The Chargers, Cowboys and Rams scored 20, 17 and 21 first-half points in victories, successfully negating the late-game advantages the Seahawks gain from thudding Marshawn Lynch into your line or letting Kam Chancellor troll for pick-sixes when you are forced to throw. If the Rams can do it—they needed two long kick returns to do it, but they did it—then it can be done.

Here's some good news for the Packers: They rank as the best first-quarter offense and the best second-quarter offense in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders. The Packers started slowly in the season opener against the Seahawks, though, and would have been hopelessly buried if not for Earl Thomas' muffed punt. Down 17-10 at the half, the Packers promptly started playing Seahawks football. Aaron Rodgers threw an interception deep in his own territory, leading to a field goal. Back-and-forth punts tilted field position, and Rodgers got sacked for a safety. A short safety punt gave the Seahawks the ball at midfield, thump-thump-thump, Lynch touchdown, 29-10, and so on.

That cannot happen on Sunday. Those first three or four drives are crucial for the Packers. They need at least a touchdown, some field goals and a pinned Seahawks offense when they falter.

What can the Packers do to score early on the Seahawks? It's a lot easier to itemize what they cannot do.

Down and Distance of Sadness

The Seahawks defense is great on most downs, but it is deadly on 3rd-and-long. Football Outsiders ranks the Seahawks' 3rd-and-long defense as the NFL's best, which should not be much of a surprise.

Opponents faced third down and seven-plus yards to go against the Seahawks defense exactly 100 times this season. They averaged 4.18 yards per play, and it is never an encouraging sign when you average four yards per play in situations when, by definition, you absolutely need at least seven.

Opponents managed just 20 first downs against the Seahawks on 3rd-and-long; you can probably calculate the success rate of 20 percent. Opponents scored two touchdowns, both by the Chargers on 3rd-and-goal from the 8-yard line. The Seahawks recorded 13 sacks and two interceptions on 3rd-and-long. They forced four scrambles, only one of which (by Drew Stanton of all people) reached the sticks. They allowed 19 completed passes shy of a first down, many of them "give up and punt" dump-offs to running backs like Roy Helu and Benny Cunningham. The NFL average 3rd-and-long conversion rate is 28 percent, the yards-per-attempt average is 6.44.

The team with the most success against the Seahawks on 3rd-and-long, not surprisingly, was the Cowboys. The Cowboys managed four 3rd-and-long conversions, but a survey of the plays does not reveal any tactical secrets. Two of the conversions came on checkdown passes to running back Lance Dunbar during a two-minute drill. Cole Beasley put the moves on cornerback Marcus Burley, who is now a bit player, on one underneath pass. Tony Romo threw a bomb to Terrence Williams after scrambling on 3rd-and-20 in the fourth quarter. It was one of those weird Romo plays.

The best advice for converting 3rd-and-long against the Seahawks may be to have a great, resourceful quarterback and plenty of third and fourth options to attack Byron Maxwell, Burley or a mismatched linebacker. If you have those assets (the Packers definitely have the first, but come up a little short on the second), you are still better served trying to avoid 3rd-and-long than convert it. And on the "obvious advice" scale, telling the Packers to unleash the best of their passing game on the Seahawks ranks just below telling them to outscore the Seahawks.

Sep 4, 2014; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner (54) tackles Green Bay Packers receiver Randall Cobb (18) at CenturyLink Field. The Seahawks defeated the Packers 36-16. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Since you asked, the Packers were 2-of-5 on 3rd-and-long in the opener—not bad at all. Their signature conversion was a 23-yard pass to Randall Cobb. Cobb lined up inside of two other receivers in a trips formation and ran through a zone defended by linebacker Bobby Wagner; despite the speed mismatch, Aaron Rodgers still had to escape the pocket to buy enough time to reach Cobb. Such is life against the Seahawks.

The problem with avoiding 3rd-and-long is that the Seahawks also have the best first-down defense in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders. They allow just 3.4 yards per rush (on first down and every down), so "establishing the run" appears to make little sense, though challenging their secondary on down after down only makes a little more sense. The Seahawks recorded 12 first-down sacks and seven first-down interceptions this season, both high totals (most defensive mischief takes place on obvious passing downs). So handoffs are a great way to go nowhere, while passing too often could just save the Seahawks defense the trouble of waiting until third down to punish you.

First-down passing against the Seahawks, you may recall, resulted in an interception and a safety for Aaron Rodgers.

The Cowboys and Chargers combined to average a respectable 5.55 yards on first down against the Seahawks. Philip Rivers sprayed a bunch of short passes on first down. Joseph Randle and DeMarco Murray had 38- and 25-yard runs. Jamaal Charles added 28- and 16-yard first-down runs in the Chiefs' victory over the Seahawks, setting up some play-action opportunities for a passing game that needed all the help Charles could muster.

A balanced offense that can run effectively and distribute the ball to multiple weapons can keep the Seahawks defense from entering Invincibility Mode. The obvious advice keeps piling up. When the Packers offensive line is playing its best, with Eddie Lacy fighting for every yard and Davante Adams contributing like he did on Sunday, the Packers have what it takes to be productive on first down and limit the difficult third downs. But the opener taught us just how fine their margin of error is.

Limiting Options

If you can score on the Seahawks by avoiding constant 3rd-and-long failures, you then face the somewhat easier task of stopping them from scoring. To stop the Seahawks, you must be able to stop the option.

"The option" is one of those satellite-image NFL strategy terms, a photo taken from hundreds of miles away. The Packers must stop a complex and diverse set of option series plays that include inside and outside zone handoffs to Marshawn Lynch and his backups, counters built directly off those plays, Russell Wilson keepers built directly off those plays, end-arounds to receivers off those plays, receiver screens off those plays and play-action passes built off of those plays, like Ricardo Lockette's touchdown in the season opener, which started as a fake handoff and a Wilson "ready to run" rollout that froze Lockette's cornerback.

Wilson only ran the ball of his own volition 45 times this season, averaging a remarkable 8.8 yards per keeper. He kept the ball just once for seven yards against the Packers. The keeper threat is mostly that: a threat meant to slow pursuit, freeze linebackers and create advantages for blockers and receivers.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - JANUARY 12:  Quarterback Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers runs the ball against nose tackle B.J. Raji #90 of the Green Bay Packers during the NFC Divisional Playoff Game at Candlestick Park on January 12, 2013 in San Fran
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

The specter of Colin Kaepernick jogging into the end zone with no Packers defenders in the frame two years ago still looms, but the Packers will never be that unprepared for the option package again. The team that let Lockette get wide open up the sideline, got snookered by several end-arounds and too often left the interior gaps too wide to corral Lynch, faced a different problem. The Packers just don't see many option packages in the NFC North, where the defensive priority is stopping Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford fastballs. They are sluggish and uncertain in pursuit, and still too easily counterpunched when they commit to one of Dom Capers' 20th century blitz packages.

The Seahawks stopped themselves, to a degree, when they traded Percy Harvin. Harvin rushed 11 times for 92 yards on plays which eventually counted (penalties were a persistent problem on Harvin's touches), while the other Seahawks receivers have combined for five carries and 23 yards. A little sifting through the Football Outsiders internal database reveals that the Seahawks average just 3.6 yards per "wide receiver screen," any pass thrown behind the line of scrimmage to anyone who is not a running back. Without Harvin, the Seahawks cannot quickly attack the short edges very well anymore.

But the Seahawks can beat you 3.6 yards at a time. They can use a 30-yard drive and a punt to their advantage. They can win games with 35-yard field goal drives, with one big play off a defensive lapse as the coup de grace. That's the story told by the Seahawks' quarter-by-quarter breakdowns. They erode their opponents.

The Packers face a situation where two Lynch runs for 12 yards, one 11-yard screen to Jermaine Kearse and a punt could represent a loss for them. Field position flips, and the Seahawks defense goes on the offensive. Playing pretty well against the Seahawks option series will not be enough. They will need three-and-out stops. The Packers don't have the kind of stout run defense that can stop Lynch simply by winning interior battles, so they need another way.

The Packers beat the option-heavy Panthers easily early in the season, admittedly a training-wheels trip around the block compared to stopping the Seahawks (particularly in the state the Panthers were in at the time). A few early defensive stuffs aside, the Packers neutralized the Panthers option package by taking a 28-3 lead. Play with the lead, and you don't have to fear four-yard screens and eight-yard keepers that lead to field goals or punt-and-pin tactics.

Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

It all goes back to that quick start—and to sustaining drives. The Chargers, Cowboys, Chiefs and Rams all beat the Seahawks this season. The Chargers and Cowboys were no better at stopping the run than the Packers. The Chiefs and Rams should have been completely bottled up by the Seahawks defense. The Packers are a better top-to-bottom team than any of those four, and they are a better team now than they were in the season opener, when their right tackle got hurt and rookie safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was running around in circles. Get an early edge, stay balanced, force the Seahawks to become a little imbalanced and suddenly you can exploit their weaknesses: a porous offensive line, ordinary receivers, special teams prone to the occasional lapse.

It's not easy, but it's possible. And you will know the outcome of this game early. If the Packers lead 7-3 at the end of the first quarter, things could be interesting. If the Seahawks lead 7-3, it's over, and you can enjoy a brisk walk before Colts-Patriots.

Prediction: Seahawks 26, Packers 24

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.


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