Calling a spade a spade, Roger Goodell couldn’t have asked for a better conference championship slate. These are the four teams most expected to be playing late into January when training camps opened in last summer.
The fact New England, Denver, San Francisco and Seattle all weathered the storm that is an unpredictable NFL season to earn the right to punch their ticket to the Super Bowl is the intriguing aspect. In the early game, if the Patriots and Broncos’ Week 12 preview provides any sort of insight, saying “we’re in for a treat” could prove to be the weekend’s biggest understatement.
Meanwhile, in the NFC, expect a street fight. These two teams absolutely loathe one another, starting with their respective head coaches stemming from a beef when both were then-Pac-10 employees. This game’s going to hurt. And it’s not for the weak at heart.
Dear Lord, is it time for kickoff, yet?
AFC Championship: New England Patriots vs. Denver Broncos (3:00 p.m. EST, CBS)
1. Let’s get the obvious one out of the way first. This is the latest (and last?) match-up in the epic Tom Brady/Peyton Manning rivalry. Anyone who has braved the onslaught of red-faced screaming analysts on ESPN knows that Brady is 10-4 against Manning in his career.
2. Ok, one more obvious one: Peyton Manning really, really, really needs to win this game. Manning is without a doubt one of the best quarterbacks of all time but he is only one Super Bowl win against Rex Grossman away from having one of the least inspiring clutch playoff performance records ever. He’s 10-11 in postseason appearances with eight “one and dones.” Mr. Laser-Rocket Arm Manning has to win this game, especially at home.
3. It wouldn’t be outrageous to see 350+ combined rushing yards in this game. Both teams have two of the worst rushing defenses in the NFL to go along with frightening rushing attacks on offense. LaGarrette Blount is playing like a man possessed and John Fox’s Broncos are playing like the Shanahan zone-blocking teams of yore: any competent RB should be able to crack 100 yards behind that line and with Peyton spreading the defense.
4. Whose defensive losses will hurt the most? The Patriots defense has been losing players in a steady stream all season, culminating in Brandon Spikes Brandon Spikes’ing himself off the team. But the Broncos aren’t necessarily the picture of perfect health either, with game changer Von Miller watching the game from the sideline (defensive back Chris Harris, too). The loss of Miller could very well equal the loss of half the Patriots starting defense.
5. For as good a season as Wes Welker as had, no one in New England can say they’ve truly missed him thanks to the remarkable work by Julian Edelman. Whichever wide receiver has a better game could be a microcosm of how the result eventually turns out.
NFC Championship: San Francisco 49ers vs. Seattle Seahawks (6:30 p.m. EST, FOX)
1. Never has the sports cliche “defense wins championships” been so accurate. Both teams are nasty, aggressive, strong, fast, heady and disciplined on the defensive side of the ball. The Niners linebacking corp will be in attack mode all game, and the ‘Hawks defensive backfield will fly around the field looking for potential turnovers like prey. Both offenses will pay dearly for every mistake.
2. Quarterback play will be key. While Colin Kaepernick has stepped up his game as of late, Russell Wilson’s recent performances have been underwhelming. Russ has been mostly mistake free, he’s going to need to make some big plays if he wants to make it to the Super Bowl.
3. Frank Gore has had a relatively quiet season, with only 1,178 yards rushing. San Francisco will need him to control the rock and keep those Seahawks DBs honest, if they’re going to have any chance to win.
4. The hatred between these two division rivals is palpable. The team that maintains its discipline the longest will likely come away with the win. Look out for helmet-to-helmet hits, hits out of bounds and scuffles after the whistle in this rubber match.
5. It can’t be overstated. The Seattle Seahawks’ “12th Man” will be a factor. Seattle only lost one game at home this season, and the last time they met San Francisco the friendly confines of CenturyLink Field, they drubbed the Niners 29-3. The Niners are definitely a different team than they were during the first meeting, but can they deal with the pressure of being one game away from the Super Bowl and block out the noisiest, most rabid fans in the NFL?