NFL fans wait all year for Championship Sunday. The AFC and NFC title matches feature equally talented squads battling familiar foes with unrivaled intensity. This Sunday will showcase football play of the highest caliber as the consensus four best teams compete for a chance to play one more game in 2014.
The similarities between the Denver Broncos, New England Patriots, Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers highlight both new and traditional aspects of winning team attributes. None play in a dome, which is appropriate for a Super Bowl set outdoors in New York. All four teams are fortunate to possess the all-important "franchise" quarterback. They are very different men: two are late-30s quintessential pocket passing field generals and two are new-breed, mobile QBs capable of enormous rushing plays and rocketed deep balls. Finally, it is no coincidence that on Sunday fans will witness the best four offensive lines working in the game today. Bill Parcells would be proud.
One difference between this week's games will be the styles of the officials. Gene Steratore, helming the NFC Championship crew, tends to call far fewer pass interference penalties than AFC referee Tony Corrente. Fair warning to the Broncos and Patriots DBs.
AFC Championship Game
Weather: low 60s and sunny
Patriots: Brady missed Wednesday's practice with the flu, but will of course start on Sunday at Mile High (sorry, Sports Authority). Both of his young WRs (Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins) are questionable. WR Danny Amendola's lingering groin injury has been bothering him, but he is probable for the game. Punter Ryan Allen's shoulder also has him listed as questionable, with no new punter as yet signed. The Patriots are as healthy as they've been all year after rampant early injuries necessitated their conversion to a running powerhouse.
Broncos: Joel Dreesseen (one of Manning's two dependable backup TEs) is questionable/probable with a knee injury and safety Rahim Moore is technically available for this game after sudden leg surgery a few weeks ago, though his appearance on the field is probably a long shot. Guard Chris Kuper is questionable with an ankle injury after missing last week's game. CB Chris Harris is the most significant loss. In the last month, the Broncos are down two defensive linemen, their star linebacker Von Miller and now a starting CB. WR Demaryius Thomas was limited in practice with a calf injury but is expected to play. Denver fans had better hope so. Lastly, Peyton Manning's high ankle sprain cannot possibly be healed, though wild you-know-whats couldn't keep him off the field.
Recent Performances in a Nutshell: In the last three games Denver's offensive juggernaut has slowed to 31.7 points while RB LeGarrette Blount's breakout performance has jumped the Pats up to 39.3 points per week. Conversely, the famously shaky Denver D has given up less than 15 points per game and the Pats surprisingly strong defenders have only allowed 16.3 points in the last three contests. Shockingly for a Tom Brady team, the Pats have vaulted to 214.3 rushing yards in the last three games (with an average of 5.2 yards per carry), to only 152.7 passing yards. Manning, naturally, is over 300 yards seemingly every week, but his rushers have contributed over 120 rushing yards on average.
Denver Offense versus New England Defense: Bill Belichick's defensive mission will be to prevent Peyton Manning from beating him. In the last meeting, New England sat in a Cover 2 most of the game, forcing Peyton to hand off to RB Knowshon Moreno, who carried the ball 37 times for more than 200 yards.
Cornerback Aqib Talib is a formidable prospect and whatever WR he is covering will not be Manning's first option. Two rookie defenders will be key to the Pats pass coverage: CB Logan Ryan and LB Jamie Collins. Ryan earned his starting nickel gig with two interceptions against Baltimore in Week 16 and Collins was fairly dazzling last week against Andrew Luck. Manning may choose to pick on sophomore CB Alfonzo Dennard. The Broncos offensive line is dedicated to keeping Manning upright, but Belichick will undoubtedly keep up a pass rush throughout the game. If you think you are seeing double on the Pats Dline, there are indeed two players named C. Jones: rookie DT Chris Jones and second-year pass rush marvel Chandler Jones. Expect the latter to hunt Peyton all afternoon. In 2013, Manning completed 68.35 percent of passes with 8.2 yards per attempt. He threw 57 TDs with11 INTs. No. 18 will undoubtedly do some damage with his athletic WRs, but the key matchup will be third-year TE Julius Thomas against the aforementioned Jamie Collins. Thomas did not play in the previous matchup this year and his presence in this game could be the difference on offense.
New England Offense versus Denver Defense: New England RB LeGarrette Blount scored in the first minutes of last week's Divisional game against the Colts and went on to cross the goal line three more times before the day was done. The last Super Bowl the Patriots won was on the legs of power rusher "Clock Killin' Corey Dillon." Just a thought. The 2013 Patriots use four running backs. Blount supplies both power and speed (the man returns kickoffs for Pete's sake), Stevan Ridley is a steady 4.3 yards-per-carry guy, Shane Vereen is trying to become the next Kevin Faulk as a third down threat out of the backfield and even Brandon Bolden got in the act with three scores in 2013.
The Broncos have allowed only 3.4 yards per rush to opponents and a total of 72 yards per game in the last three games. However, they haven't seen anything like Blount. The Denver defensive front is faced with slowing down the new Pats rushing attack and simultaneously harassing Tom Brady, since the only proven way to beat New England is to sack, hurry and generally bother No. 12. That's terrific in theory, but half of Denver's pass rush went to play in Baltimore and the other half just had surgery. There will be tremendous pressure on (extremely) veteran DE Shaun Phillips and the remaining LBs to both stop the run and generate something approaching an NFL pass rush.
Ultimately, the position feeling the most heat will be safety. Mike Adams and Duke Ihenacho have to read Brady's mind and either come forward into run support or drop back to help the cornerbacks cover. Oh, and by the way, don't lose sight of Julian Edelman in the slot or Shane Vereen on a screen. Guess wrong and it's six points.
Speaking of cornerbacks, Champ Bailey is playing a lot of nickel now that he has returned from injury for what may be one last bid for a Super Bowl. That puts him in position to cover Edelman and Danny Amendola on inside routes. That experience will be needed now that Chris Harris is out of the secondary. Will Harris be replaced by another old corner (Quentin Jammer), a very young corner (Kayvon Webster), a former safety (Michael Huff) or former Patriot CB Marques Cole -- signed just this week? Jammer and Bailey will be challenged to keep up with the younger and faster Edelman and Amendola.
Against San Diego, the Denver D played as if they were angry with all of the negative press. They held up surprisingly well, but once again faded in the latter half of the third quarter and needed several spectacular third-and-long conversions by the offense late in the fourth quarter to win the game. This is exactly how the Broncos lost to the Patriots in the regular season; if they can't keep the pressure on Brady for four quarters they'll be on the couch Super Bowl Sunday.
Special Teams: The Patriots punter Ryan Allen injured his shoulder on a blown play last week. He was unable to even catch the snap afterwards and tremendous PK Stephen Gostkowski handled punting duties. Tom Brady was the holder. As of Friday, the Pats have not signed a new punter. Really? On the other sideline, the Broncos talented return man Trindon Holliday has had such a shaky year that last week WR Eric Decker returned punts. He returned them well. However, once Trindon gets his hands securely on the ball, he is a six-point threat. Denver kicker Matt Prater broke the NFL record with a 64-yard field goal this season.
Coaching: John Fox lost to Bill Belichick in Super Bowl XXXVIII by succumbing to his fatal flaw -- being too conservative. Based on some sideline conversations that have been captured lately, one can assume that Messrs. Elway and Manning have disabused Mr. Fox of the notion that "playing it safe" is a winning formula. So far, so good. Let's see if he can resist the urge to sit on a lead or run for it on third-and-long.
Belichick can very occasionally be out-coached when Tom Brady is under constant pressure. There are only so many adjustments one can make when the Oline is being beaten. In the last Super Bowl loss, Belichick's plan was to force Eli Manning to throw the ball to Mario Manningham instead of Hakeem Nicks or Victor Cruz. On paper, this was an excellent plan -- until Manning and Manningham hooked up for one game-deciding deep ball.
Intangibles: They don't call it "Mile High" for nothing. Opponents try to downplay the effect that less oxygen has on them, but it matters.
How will Peyton Manning be able to handle the pressure of what is essentially the second in a series of games that will determine his place in NFL history? Manning can get tight sometimes, but tends to play better in the comfort of his home stadium.
New England is getting into a groove after a plethora of early injuries and the loss of Aaron Hernandez while the Broncos' misfortunes have been spread out over the year, leaving them once again to deal with replacing a defensive starter.
Broncos WR Wes Welker did not have a particularly good game against his former teammates earlier this season and will want badly to be a difference-maker this weekend.
Prediction: Denver controls the clock with Knowshon Moreno and Manning gets off just enough completions to build a lead. Julius Thomas beats Jamie Collins for two big plays. The Broncos linebacker/safety combo holds Blount to under 150 yards, forces a turnover and sacks Brady twice, with multiple hurries and hits. Denver by a touchdown.
NFC Championship Game
Weather: 50 and partly sunny
San Francisco: Ahmad Brooks must have caught Tom Brady's flu from across country, though he is probable. CB Carlos Rogers' hamstring has improved to make him probable, though he has been lining up in the nickel position in practice instead of his usual outside corner spot. FB Will Tukuafu's injured knee makes him still questionable and FB Bruce Miller is still out, leaving the 49ers short of lead blockers for Frank Gore and company.
Seattle: Explosive WR Percy Harvin was on the field for one catch last week before being injured again and will miss this game. LB K.J. Wright broke his foot in Week 14 but, as of January 17th, is planning to play.
Recent Performances in Nutshell: In the last three games, the Niners have scored 20 points on average; the Seahawks have put up 23. San Francisco's defenders are surrendering 16.7 points to opponents and Seattle is allowing 13.7. Both running attacks are over 125 yards per week but recently 49er QB Colin Kapernick is throwing for twice as many yards as Seahawks signal-caller Russell Wilson. Seattle's run D holds opposing rushers to less than 87 yards per contest.
Seattle Offense versus San Francisco Defense: Standout RB Marshawn Lynch will get his rushing yards behind a stellar offensive line. The question is in the passing game. After a spectacular rookie campaign, Wilson looks a bit more mortal in 2013. Statistically, his performance is virtually identical with more total passing yards, slightly higher yards per completion, the same 26 TD passes and nine interceptions to ten in 2012. The difference is in his production in the last third of the season; he has averaged only 116 passing yards over the past three games.
This decline coincides with the injury to the Seahawks only 2013 A-list WR, Sidney Rice. In 2012, Sidney Rice played in all 16 games, caught 50 of 80 passes thrown his way for 748 yards with an average of 15 yards, seven TDs and 37 first downs. The Niners will dedicate themselves to bookending No. 3 with defenders, hoping to prevent him from scrambling out of the pocket and creating his playground-type magic on the run.
Lest one get too carried away in predicting doom for the passing-challenged Seahawks, let us remember that in Super Bowl XL young Ben Roethlistberger attempted a mere 21 passes. He completed nine for a total of 123 yards with two interceptions. Roethlisberger rushed seven times for 25 yards. Willie Parker and Jerome Bettis ran the ball 24 times for 136 yards. WR Antwaan Randle El threw a TD pass, but Big Ben didn't. The Pittsburgh QB did rush for one score and three first downs. The Steelers won 21-10 over the Seahawks.
The remaining Seattle WRs are feisty and have good hands -- but they do not have the size and power usually seen in the NFL today. Their battle against the San Francisco secondary is slanted in favor of the defenders, particularly if the refs aren't calling pass interference. One somewhat forgotten man in the media coverage of this offense is TE Zach Miller, who is completely capable of making the big catch.
However, he'll have to fool the Niners LBs first. Patrick Willis may be the next Ray Lewis (and in fact wears No. 32 in honor of his boyhood hero), Navarro Bowman is on such a hot streak that he is inside every QB's head, Ahmad Brooks has become a household name and Aldon Smith is one of the top pass rushers in the league. The Dline can usually stop an opponent's rush without linebacker assistance. If they can contain Lynch, Russell Wilson will have a long and unpleasant afternoon.
San Francisco Offense versus Seattle Defense: Pete Carroll has revolutionized the NFL secondary and its new face is tall, long-limbed, strong and tough with a capital "T." Even without Brandon Browner, the cornerbacks are three of the biggest and most physical to play in recent memory. They are so willing to take risks that they collided with each other in mid-air several times last week.
The Niners WRs and TE Vernon Davis are the most talented unit outside of Denver, but they are stronger than they are fast. They can get rolling in the open field, but have to work up to top speed. Safety Earl Thomas is the brain of the Seattle secondary and Kam Chancellor is the brawn at 6'3" and 232 lbs. They have linebacker size and cornerback speed. As for the actual linebackers, this game features the two best LB squads in the NFL. In only his second season, MLB Bobby Wagner calls the defense with the savvy of a vet and the speed of a 23-year-old. He'll have his hands full against Vernon Davis.
Receiver Anquan Boldin is the new Hines Ward in terms of toughness. This game will reveal whether Colin Kapernick's favorite target, Michael Crabtree, has the physicality to match what coach Jim Harbaugh calls "the best hands of all time." RB Frank Gore carried San Francisco through Kapernick's early season struggles and is the equivalent of Marshawn Lynch. He's also an excellent pass protector, which will be needed against Seattle pass rushers like Michael Bennett. Watch the left side of the 49ers Offensive line, where there have been moments of weakness in protection by guard Mike Iupati.
This side of the game will be determined by Colin Kapernick. The San Francisco QB is an ascendant superstar, but has been inconsistent this season and has not played well at Century Link Field. If the ferocious Seattle D (backed up by their vocal fans) can rattle the third-year passer, the Seahawks can win. If "Kap" has one of his unstoppable games, the Niners will be in New York in two weeks.
Special Teams: One hopes that San Francisco's excellent PK Phil Dawson is savoring every moment of his first playoff experience after spending 14 NFL seasons as the Cleveland Browns main source of points. At age 38, Dawson may not be able to boot it a mile, but he's reliable and focused.
On the other hand, the Seattle Seahawks have allowed a total of 82 punt return yards all season. That often translates to extremely favorable starting field position for the 'Hawks offense.
Coaching: The prickly nature of Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh's relationship has been endlessly documented, but these two men are virtual mirror images in their team composition and ethos: dynamic and physical defense, pounding rushing attack and cutting edge mobile quarterback play. Both lead fired-up teams with a frenetic high-energy style. And neither will back down.
The Carolina Panther coaching staff tested this resolve in the Divisional Playoff round by choosing, twice, to run into the teeth of the Niners goal line defense. They lost. Against either of these defensive fronts, offensive coordinators are better served to use creativity rather than indulge in attempted "statements" of a type best reserved for braggadocio about the size of one's male member.
Intangibles: The home teams are 7-3 ATS in the last 10 meetings of these divisional rivals. Add the significant acoustical advantage for the Seahawks.
The safest wager in this game would be the over/under on how long it will be before a fight erupts -- 10 minutes tops. Both teams run on high at all times. Whichever group best walks that line without tipping over into unsportsmanlike conduct has an edge. Keep an eye on Niners Boldin and Kapernick in the self-control department.
Prediction: Anquan Boldin finally gets flagged for taunting, Kapernick wastes at least one timeout and throws a pick. Marshawn Lynch racks up 120 yards and Zach Miller has one big catch. Russell Wilson burns the 49er D three times. Seattle by one.
In a famously passing league, this Sunday's championship games feature three old-school power rushers. In an era when all of the rules favor the offense, two defensive powerhouses headline a title game. In a season graced by two living QB legends, two new superstars will decide the fate of the NFC. For 120 football minutes the top talent on and off the field will bring their best to games that will probably be decided by one mistake. This Sunday, the NFL will present fans with the pageantry, the fireworks, the unpredictability and the passion of playoff football. Don't miss it.
*Last three games stats USAToday.com, injury updates CBSSports.com, Seasonal stats Pro-football-reference.com, Super Bowl XL stats footballdb.com.