So here we are, the conference Championships, for every player this is the big one, they are on the cusp of the Superbowl and the game they have dreamed of for so long. Of course this is hardly alien territory to the likes of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Bill Belichick or indeed any member of the 49ers who of course lost the big game itself a year ago.
New England Patriots @ Denver Broncos
Tom Brady versus Peyton Manning for the AFC title. It’s a script we’ve all read before but this time Manning is clad in orange not blue. In his second year in Denver Manning has had one of the greatest years in NFL history, breaking virtually every single season passing record along the way. Of course Brady’s historic 16-0 season of 2007 saw play of a similar calibre and the two best quarterbacks of this century will once again do battle here, maybe for the final time.
Brady took a backseat as the Patriots pummelled the Colts on the ground last week. It was a win that will have inspired confidence in New England considering the Colts were one of just three teams to beat the Broncos in the regular season, of course New England were one of the trio too, downing the Broncos in overtime nearly two months ago. LeGarrette Blount led the way as the Patriots scored six rushing touchdowns against the Colts and ran for 234 yards total. The Patriots lack of a superstar receiver minus Rob Gronkowski was easily overcome with Blount in particular’s big day but if the Broncos can tighten up against the run it will be interesting to see how Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman fare against a secondary that gives up too many big plays. The Patriots defense scooped up four interceptions from Andrew Luck last week and the unit tries to mix up coverages and give opposition signal callers a variety of different looks to cause confusion. Manning will enjoy such a battle and his excellence at changing plays at the line of scrimmage could tie the Patriots in knots. The defense of New England has to have some success up front to give them a chance here. If they can attack running back Knowshon Moreno at the line of scrimmage and get some pressures on Manning they should be able to force a few punts but if Manning has time and a viable check down run game to audible to the Broncos dominant offense could be unstoppable.
Denver’s offense is not just about Manning, the arsenal of offensive weapons at his disposal is what terrifies opponents. Demaryius Thomas is their number one; he is the big bodied dynamic deep threat. Eric Decker runs fantastic routes, catches well and is a danger with the ball in his hands. Wes Welker faces up to his old team here and remains the premier slot receiver in the game, his ability to find a small crease in the center of the field to get open is unparalleled. Julius Thomas has been the surprise of the year; the tight end is a real threat in the red zone and his combination of size and wide receiver speed causes matchup nightmares. Running back Knowshon Moreno is also having a career year, the former first round pick is a tough inside runner who excels near the goal line. The Broncos defense has been up and down throughout the year but seems to have a knack for making big plays just when they need them. They held the Chargers top five offense to just 17 points last week but couldn’t cope with Keenan Allen. Star pass rusher Von Miller’s season ending injury could yet haunt the Broncos and in this game they could really do with him. New England do a great job of keeping Tom Brady upright so minus the superb Miller it will be interesting to see if and how they pressure him.
Both defenses are flawed here so this one will come down to which defense can make a stand every now and then because we suspect the majority of drives will result in points. Expect the Broncos to priorities stopping the Patriots running game after last week and try to turn this into a shootout. If that becomes the case Manning’s superior weapons will be key and for that reason we expect Denver, the AFC’s best team to indeed win the AFC.
ATPF Prediction– Broncos 38 Patriots 27
San Francisco 49ers @ Seattle Seahawks
These two NFC West powerhouses hate each other and on the field blood is always spilled when they do battle. The two teams are very similar and that’s what makes their contests so fascinating. They both won their home clash against each other with Seattle beating San Francisco surprisingly easily here early in the season.
The Seahawks only lost once at home this season and their 13-3 record was the best in the NFC. They built their success around the league’s number one ranked defense and the unit gave up just one touchdown in two meetings with the 49ers. The Seahawks are dominant and deep upfront with giant Red Bryant playing over the strong side tackle and speedy pass rushers Chris Clemons, Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett all rotating in to get after quarterbacks. Cornerback Richard Sherman has gained virtual shutdown status, his physical style and ability to intercept passes strikes fear into opposing quarterbacks. Playmaking strong safety Kam Chancellor and center field hawk Earl Thomas are easily the best duo in the league and round out a fantastic defense. Seattle’s offense isn’t far behind, sophomore quarterback Russell Wilson has climbed to the top of an extraordinary quarterback draft class of 2012 with his brilliant play this season. Wilson is as dangerous with his legs as he is with his arm but even when he sets off he keeps his eyes downfield looking to throw rather carry the ball and his accuracy on the move is as good as anyone in the league. As good as Wilson is veteran running back Marshawn Lynch remains the bread and butter of the offense. Lynch is a relentless battering ram who has a knack of making people miss and is as tough to tackle as anyone in the league. Lynch’s inside running opens up lanes for Wilson to scramble to the edge and make plays. The Seahawks look like missing playmaker Percy Harvin again but he has barely been sighted all year and that hasn’t stopped them.
San Francisco are in their third straight NFC Championship under head coach Jim Harbaugh and after making the Superbowl at the second attempt they only have eyes on winning the Lombardi Trophy this time around. Like their rivals defense is the strength of the team and after a slow start they ended up as the fifth best unit in the league. A week ago against the Panthers two interceptions of Cam Newton were vital in a game that was considerably closer than the final score suggested. Linebacker Patrick Willis and safety Donte Whitner were the two interceptors and both are top drawer defenders. Willis’s partnership with Navorro Bowman is the heart of this unit with both undoubtedly in the top five inside linebackers in the league and as a unit the two can take over a game at times. Upfront the relentless power of defensive end Justin Smith sets the tone and defensive end/linebacker Aldon Smith is one of the most physically gifted pass rushers in the league. Continuing the similarities between the two teams the 49ers offense revolves around their power running game. Veteran Frank Gore has been a fine player for the 49ers for a long time and he sets the tone. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick may be the most explosive runner at his position in the league and his speed off the edge makes him a big play threat every time he tucks it and runs. The 49ers passing offense languished near the bottom of the rankings all year but Kaepernick’s favourite target Michael Crabtree’s return has given them a jolt. Hardnosed veteran Anquan Boldin and lightning fast tight end Vernon Davis combine with Crabtree to give Kaepernick a strong arsenal of weapons.
These two know each other so well and such games tend to come down to turnovers. Who will make the crucial error when it matters, who will make the big play that swings the game in his teams favour? We can’t split the two on paper but they reckon home field advantage is worth three points and at deafening CenturyLink Field it may be worth a little more so we are going to give Seattle the edge.
ATPF Prediction– Seahawks 17 49ers 13