It’s here. The best day of football all year long. After two rounds of intense playoff competition, the Conference Championships will be decided on Sunday in Denver and Seattle, where weather looks to be a non-factor. As always, I have a lot of words to blow on the subject. So let’s not waste any time. I’m bringing a prediction record of 3-3-2 into this round. Are you ready?
(13-4) New England Patriots at
(14-3) Denver Broncos
Denver’s run defense is statistically in the top ten of the NFL, But as I said in my Final Thoughts of the Divisional Round, I think that stat is inflated based on the situation Denver’s defense usually has been in: ahead. The Broncos racked up a ton of yards and points this season, so teams were no longer committed to establish a running game. The Broncos ARE 27th in pass defense, so they might average out to a middle of the road unit. Well, that was until they lost corner Chris Harris to an ACL injury. Now what happens? Does Champ Bailey see more snaps? And if that’s the case, do we see a repeat of last season’s debacle where a receiver beats the aging Bailey (or Quentin Jammer, more likely) down the sidelines for big plays? That will haunt the Broncos, especially if they can manufacture a decent pass rush outside of Shaun Philips.
There’s a lot of reminiscing to the Patriot’s come-from behind overtime win in week 12, when they rebounded from a huge first half deficit to beat the Broncos in Foxboro. This game will be vastly different, I can promise you. Without Gronk, New England’s offense doesn’t have the same potency and scheme-disrupting ability. They’re going to rely on their short-passing attack to Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, a strategy that I don’t think Denver has the slot corners to defend. When that loosens up the defense, the Patriots will merely switch over to their pounding ground attack to keep Manning on the sidelines and out of the endzone. It’s a pretty simple plan.
Speaking of that Bronco offense, it might actually be more beneficial for them to run the ball against the Patriots on Sunday. Without defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, as well as a few of their bigger linebackers (Brandon Spikes, Jerod Mayo), New England is very soft up the middle of their front seven. Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball will factor largely into the Broncos’ success. Meanwhile, the Patriot secondary is as healthy as its been all season. Alfonso Dennard is close to full-strength, coming off a game where he intercepted Andrew Luck twice. Aqib Talib will probably man-up on Demaryius Thomas, who is exactly the type of physical receiver Talib excels against. Wes Welker could be a bit of a problem in the middle of the field, but Belichick might let him go as an “eff you.” Who cares if Welker has eight catches and 120 yards if every other receiver is under wraps? Where the Patriots may have issues is defending against tight end Julius Thomas. The big guy has been one of Manning’s favorite targets this season, evidenced by the way he closed out last week’s game against the Chargers. I’m not sure who can really cover him.
The Odds: Denver is a five point home favorite.
The Prediction: Five points? Ridonkulous. I say the Patriots keep it closer than that. They may not win, but Denver won’t blow their doors off either. I’m excited for the offensive fireworks either way (as well as the Bronco cheerleaders). They’ll be great. They just won’t be as awesome as this firework display:
(14-4) San Francisco 49ers at
(14-3) Seattle Seahawks
Sunday’s second title game will be not lacking for intensity. These NFC West opponents split their regular season series and are meeting for the right to represent the conference in the Super Bowl.
The Seahawk defensive front hasn’t been stellar lately, not getting the pass rush we all expected after their free agent bonanza. Against the Niner offensive line, they’ll have trouble getting to Kaepernick. That said, Kaep will probably be scrambling out of the pocket because of the blanket coverage from Seattle’s secondary. He’s going to make mistakes in his progressions which will result in a few bad throws. It’ll be up to Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas to make plays on those balls when they happen. Niner fullback Will Tukuafu is questionable for this contest, so Frank Gore won’t have the same running lanes coming out of the backfield. Because that’s all Tukuafu does. He blocks. Hard.
Also questionable for the Niners is Carlos Rogers. There’s no telling how effective the corner will be if it makes it on the field. The San Fran secondary hasn’t had difficult tests this postseason (Green bay ran the ball quite a bit, Carolina doesn’t have wide receivers), but I’m not sure if a 75% Rogers helps or hurts their defensive backfield.
Russell Wilson has been called out this week by the media, with some going as far to say he’s been a “below average’ quarterback for the past four or five weeks. He’s struggled, yes. There’s no denying that. But the Seahawks wrecked the Niners back in week 2, and Wilson only completed eight passes in that game. Wilson doesn’t have to do EVERYTHING for the Seahawks to win. But it would be nice if he had some help.
Percy Harvin will not be on the field Sunday, having not received clearance for game action after his concussion. I consider this a non-issue. The Seahawks have won 14 games this season without his help. Moving on. Marshawn Lynch showed off beast mode last weekend against an improved Saint defense. But now he’ll need all of that intensity and more against the 49er front seven. Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are sideline-to-sideline ‘backers that are fast and big enough to take down Lynch on the first hit.
But the real conflict here will be fought on the sidelines. Jim Harbaugh’s assholishness versus Pete Carroll’s positivity. These dudes plain rub each other… the wrong way. I finished that correctly, right? Honestly, I just don’t want to see Harbaugh in the Super Bowl again. The over/under on shots of him whining, yelling, complaining, or flipping out would be set at 63.5.
The Odds: Seattle is a 3.5 point home favorite.
The Prediction: I wasn’t quite certain, but I had a general point spread limit when I decided to go with the Seahawks. I know the Niners are looking to continue their improvement over the past seasons, but I can’t give them a win in Seattle. They proved me wrong last weekend, but they’ll have to do it again on Sunday. (At this rate, I’ll probably pick against them in the Super Bowl, if they make it that far.)
By all accounts, this should be a closer game than the past two meetings at CenturyLink Field. I’m thinking 19-13 or something along those lines. But I still think the Seahawks get the win in Seattle and advance. Bring it ‘Frisco.
And I’m out! Enjoy the best Sunday of the NFL season! I’ll be back Sunday night with The Final Drive of the Divisional Round!