It's really a bittersweet time of year. On one hand, it's the best weekend of football the NFL season has to offer, at least in my opinion. On the other, it means we're only left with two weeks of North America's most popular sport. Unless you count the Pro Bowl, that is. And if you do, you shouldn't.
The upside is that the football gods have smiled on us and left the fans with two of the best matchups in recent memory for the conference title games.
|Photo from: yahoo.com
But I digress. Without any further delays, I bring you my predictions for this weekend's festivities.
- New England Patriots at Denver Broncos
Running back LeGarrette Blount had a field day on Saturday, running all over the Indianapolis Colts, as the Patriots took care of Indy in convincing fashion, 43-22. Blount racked up 166 yards and 4 touchdowns in the win. Tom Brady wasn't his usual lights out self, throwing for just 198 yards and zero scores. However, with only 25 passing attempts, it's clear the Patriots can be a team that runs the ball as well as they pass it. Overall, New England carried the ball 46 times for 234 yards. Impressive numbers, but they seem to be the norm as of late, considering the team has managed an average of 214.3 yards on the ground over their last three contests. The other component to the success of New England last week was their turnover margin of plus 4, a number they would be more than happy to repeat against Denver.
The Broncos racked up 363 yards of total offense on Sunday, in a 24-17 victory over the San Diego Chargers. Peyton Manning put up 230 yards and 2 touchdowns against his divisional rival, but the offense was a shadow of what we've become accustomed to this season. Their record-setting 37.9 points per game and their average total yards of 457.3 were nowhere close to being matched, against a sub-par defense. Alas, they managed to pull out the win, but amazingly got it done through solid defense of their own. Denver allowed only 259 yards to the Chargers, the lowest total of any team last weekend, despite their 19th-ranked regular season defense. To beat New England, they'll need to be good on both sides of the ball. A defensive repeat would be welcomed with open arms, but their offense needs to turn it back up as well. Now at 8-1 for the season playing at Sports Authority Field, it's their game to lose.
The old adage is that at its core, football is quarterback vs. quarterback, and this game is the classic tale of just that. The two best signal callers of their generation and arguably of all time, are meeting on the AFC's largest stage for the third time in their great careers. Their teams split those games, and Brady and the Patriots beat Peyton and the Colts in their only non-AFC Championship Game to date. Let's assume they both get in the Hall of Fame, considering it's just a formality at this point anyway. Once they do, this game will become only the second instance in history that two Hall of Fame quarterbacks met in the playoffs multiple times, with one of them donning a different jersey than before. The other duo? Joe Montana and Dan Marino. If that doesn't put it in perspective just how great these guys are at their craft, I'm afraid that nothing will. However, I don't buy into all of that. There is no doubt that the quarterback is the most important player on the field, but this game isn't Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady. It's a chess match between two fantastic teams, and they're simply pieces on the board.
The last time New England and Denver played, the Broncos blew a 24-0 halftime lead, allowing the Patriots to get back in the game and eventually win 34-31 in overtime. The two clubs have met a total of twelve times since 2001, each winning six, with the Patriots winning the last four. This game has all the makings of a classic, and I believe that's exactly what we're going to see. Manning-Brady XV will hopefully be one to remember. Playing at home, with warm temperatures (55 degrees) and an explosive offense should tip the scales in Denver's favor.
Broncos: 30, Patriots: 24
- San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks
The league's hottest team continues to roll, as the Niners have now pulled out 8-straight wins. Avenging a loss earlier in the year to the Carolina Panthers, San Francisco was clearly the better team on Sunday, pulling out a 23-10 victory. Colin Kaepernick wasn't fantastic, but he did manage 196 yards and a passing touchdown on the day. 136 of those yards went to his No. 1 receiver, Anquan Boldin. As usual, San Fran's defense wrote the story, as they shut down Cam Newton and the Carolina offense. My game ball goes to Ahmad Brooks in that one, as he managed to collect 2.5 of the team's 5 total sacks. While the offense wasn't nearly as dominant as they were the prior week against Green Bay, it goes without saying that the 49ers were going up against a much tougher defense as well. So what was the winning recipe? The same thing that always works for them; balance.
The Seahawks again held serve at home this past weekend, beating the New Orleans Saints by a final score of 23-15. Despite a measly 277 yards gained as a team, coupled with their No. 1 defense allowing 409 total yards, the Hawks still find themselves in the NFC Championship. Their clear MVP on Saturday was running back Marshawn Lynch, as he went "Beast Mode" to the tune of 140 yards and 2 touchdowns on 28 carries. Under center, Russell Wilson wasn't exactly impressive, but as usual, he also didn't make mistakes. Wilson finished the game with only 113 yards and no touchdowns. However, he only attempted 18 passes and he didn't throw any interceptions. The guy knows how to play winning football, and his 15-1 record at home speaks volumes as to the ability of Wilson as a player.
Seattle may find it tough to run the ball as well as they did this past weekend, as they face the NFL's best rush defense. The Niners on the other hand, face the NFL's best passing defense. What that brings us is all of the ingredients for exciting, hard-nosed, defensive football. Divisional rivals rarely disappoint, and with a split this season, the stage is set for this to be a great game. However, the last two affairs at CenturyLink have not been games to remember, as the Seahawks outscored the 49ers 71-16 combined in those outings.
The playoffs are a brand new ball game though, and the Niners are not a team to be taken lightly. In the best division in football, it's no surprise to see the NFC's two best squads squaring off in the NFC Championship. They say defense wins championships, and that's exactly what these teams have. In fact, their game model is quite similar. Great defense and mediocre offense, with solid running games. I'm taking the upset here, for no reason other than that the Niners are red-hot and hungry.
49ers: 19, Seahawks: 17
That wraps up this round. Check back in for my Super Bowl pick later this month.