Sunday is one of the biggest sports days of the year. While it is naturally overshadowed by Super Bowl Sunday, it is nearly as important, as it sets up the matchup for the biggest single game of the year in the American sports world (and probably the 2nd biggest worldwide this year, since it is a World Cup year). And it would be hard to even Hollywood to generate a better pair of matchups for this year’s conference championships than what we have after last week’s Divisional Round action. I don’t remember having this many storylines in the AFC and NFC Championships in the years I’ve been watching the NFL.
AFC Championship: New England Patriots (13-4) at Denver Broncos (14-3)
The Broncos are 5-point home favorites in the 15th all-time matchup between future Hall of Fame quarterbacks Tom Brady (NE) and Peyton Manning (DEN). Brady has won 10 of the previous 14. However, in many of those matchups, Brady had better pieces around him than Manning did, back in the days of the Patriots-Colts rivalry (that rivalry still exists, but in a different form). I think now it is Manning who has the better team around him, although one could beg to differ with the fact that Brady has won both meetings since Manning joined the Broncos. This is the 4th playoff meeting between the pair, and while Brady is 2-1 in those meetings, the home team has won each matchup. Brady and Manning split their 2 AFC Championships against each other, with the Patriots winning in 2004 and the Colts winning in 2007 (that’s the 2003 and 2006 seasons, by the way). In addition to the Manning-Brady matchup is Manning’s rivalry with Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who Manning called this week the “greatest of all time”. Manning as 6-11 against Belichick’s teams, which is just a .353 winning percentage. Manning only has a worse win percentage against 1 other coach, Dave Wannstedt (former Bears/Dolphins coach), who he was 2-5 against (.286). Brady is playing in his first road playoff game since the last AFC Championship against Manning in 2007, which was in Indianapolis. In his career in the playoffs, Brady is 12-3 at home, and 3-2 on the road. It is always impressive to have a road playoff record, but this isn’t impressive: in those 5 games, Brady has thrown 6 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. The combined age of Brady and Manning is 74 years and 3+ months, making this the oldest quarterback matchup in a conference championship game. There are a few more big storylines in this game besides the quarterback battle. Bill Belichick (NE) and John Fox (DEN) coached against each other in Super Bowl XXXVIII, when Fox was coaching the Panthers, and the Patriots won 32-29. Fox is 1-6 overall against Belichick, which is a cause for concern in Denver. Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was the Broncos’ last head coach, going 11-17 in a stint that didn’t even last 2 full seasons. Broncos WR Wes Welker is in his first year in Denver after leaving the Patriots, who he played for from 2007-2012. While his stats are down in Denver in receptions and targets, he has scored more touchdowns in a Broncos uniform than he did (in an average season) in a Patriots uniform. The Patriots are playing in their 3rd straight AFC Championship game, although this is the first of the 3 that isn’t against the Baltimore Ravens (although if the cards fall right, they could still end up playing a coach named Harbaugh in the playoffs). These two teams met back in Week 12 in an epic, 34-31, overtime win for the Patriots. The Broncos led 24-0 at halftime before the Patriots came back to send the game into overtime, when a special teams blunder by the Broncos led to a fumble and gave the Patriots and easy field goal to win. The Broncos can use that big lead as motivation and proof they can win this game, even though that was the worst statistical game of Manning’s historic season. Broncos TE Julius Thomas, who has 12 TD catches on the year, did not play in that game. In addition, the Broncos were 7-1 at home in the regular season and beat the Chargers at home last week in the Divisional Round, while the Patriots are just 4-4 on the road. This should be a great game, but I think the Broncos will find a way to win at home and return to their first Super Bowl in 15 years, back when John Elway was still under center. 9 of the 13 NFL analysts on ESPN.com agree. This is a very even matchup, but I’ll stick with my original Super Bowl pick since I haven’t been convinced of anything otherwise. Tom Brady will fall short in his effort to become the first QB to appear in 6 Super Bowls.
Broncos 35, Patriots 31.
NFC Championship: San Francisco 49ers (14-4) at Seattle Seahawks (14-3)
The Seahawks are 3-point home favorites at home, although I question that spread due to the Seahawks strong home-field advantage. They are 16-1 since the start of the 2012 season, including a playoff win last week to improve their all-time home playoff record of 8-2, which includes a current 6-game winning streak dating back to 2004. To the contrary, however, the 49ers come in as maybe the hottest team in the NFL, having won 8 straight, including road playoff games in Green Bay and Carolina, and including those playoff wins they are now 8-2 on the road this year. This is the 49ers 3rd straight trip to the NFC Championship, and they are 1-1 in the first 2, with the win coming last year on the road in Atlanta. While the AFC Championship is the oldest combined QB matchup in a conference championship, 26-year-old Colin Kaepernick (SF) meets 25-year-old Russell Wilson (SEA) in the NFC. While Kaepernick has technically been in the league a year longer than Wilson, both players are in their 2nd season as an NFL starting QB. Kaepernick has been playing extremely well, while Wilson has hit a small slump, at least statistically, in recent weeks. However, Wilson continues to lead the Seahawks to wins, which is all that matters in the playoffs. Another key matchup on the field is between running backs Frank Gore (SF) and Marshawn Lynch (SEA), both league veterans who are more than capable of being game breakers. The key matchup off the field, as far as a storyline goes, is between coaches Jim Harbaugh (SF) and Pete Carroll (SEA). The rivalry between the two goes back to their college coaching days, when Harbaugh was at Stanford and Carroll was at USC. It was, in fact, Harbaugh’s Stanford team, early in his tenure there, that pulled one of the biggest upsets in college football history in 2007 when they beat USC, 24-23, after being a 41-point underdog (it is the biggest upset, according to the spread, but that’s another discussion for another day). Harbaugh won 2 out of their 3 collegiate meetings, and 4 out of 6 since he came to the 49ers a year after Carroll became the Seahawks coach. In those 6 meetings, however, while the 49ers are 4-2, the Seahawks have outscored the 49ers by 28. Then again, the 49ers have more yards and more rushing yards, although they’ve also committed more turnovers. This is the 5th meeting of divisional opponents in a conference championship game since 1990, and the divisional matchup means we have 2 regular season meetings to look at. The teams met in Seattle in Week 2, and the Seahawks absolutely dominated, winning 29-3. However, that game was over 4 months ago, and these teams have changed a lot since then. The most recent meeting was in Week 14, and saw the 49ers win 19-17. The 49ers outplayed the Seahawks statistically, but it took a Phil Dawson field goal with :26 left to give the 49ers the slim victory. That game, although it was in San Francisco, is a much better measuring stick for what to expect in this game on Sunday, and I expect this one to also be close and close to the same scoring range. The Seahawks will be without WR Percy Harvin, who has a concussion, but he missed a large portion of the regular season, so Seattle is somewhat used to playing without him. This may be the biggest rivalry in the NFL right now, and if you thought last week’s 49ers game against the Panthers was chippy, just wait to see what happens when these two teams occupy opposite sidelines in a game of this magnitude. This is a very difficult pick to make, as both teams are playing so well, and both teams are wholly deserving of playing in Super Bowl XLVIII. But only one team can win in the playoffs, and 8 of the 13 experts on ESPN.com have picked the Seahawks. With the Seahawks, my Super Bowl pick at Week 8 and at the beginning of the playoffs, playing at home in front of the “12th man”, I pick them to advance to their first Super Bowl in 8 years.
Seahawks 20, 49ers 17.