Sunday, January 19, 2014

2014 NFL Playoff Predictions - Conference Championships

If you’re not enjoying these playoffs, then football apparently isn’t your thing.  Last Saturday saw the home teams hold serve, with the Seahawks surviving a late Saints rally and the Patriots running all over the Colts.  On Sunday San Francisco earned the only road win of the weekend, and the Broncos played most of their game against the Chargers on cruise control.  You’ll have a hard time finding someone who doesn’t think these are the four best teams in the league, and with both matchups oozing storylines, you know these are the games the NFL wanted to see championship week.  Will Brady get his 11th win against Peyton?  Will Harbaugh and Carroll finally trade fists?  Most importantly, will I go undefeated again this week?

AFC Championship Game
Patriots @ Broncos
Sunday (3:00, CBS)

Last Saturday’s second game was the Sucker Punch show.  The suddenly resurgent bruising back ran for a Patriot playoff record 166 yards and 4 scores in a 43-22 win against the Colts.  Tom Brady didn’t have a TD on the day, but, more importantly, he managed a perfect game, leading the offense to 23 first downs and 35 minutes of possession.  Playing with the lead throughout, the Patriots defense was able to force four Andrew Luck INTs and thwart any attempt at a comeback.  It was an excellent game plan against an offense that put up 45 points the week before.  They’ll need an even bigger effort this week against a Broncos team that had no trouble avenging an earlier home loss to the Chargers.  After a 27-20 defeat that saw San Diego befuddle Peyton and run through his defense, Denver dominated the action, holding the Chargers scoreless into the fourth quarter and limiting them to 65 rushing yards, or 112 less rushing yards than their last meeting.  They’ll need to bring that effort and then some this week against a Patriots team that has transformed itself into a power rushing team that can thrown when necessary.  

You can break this game down any number of ways, but you’ve got to start with the two future HOF QBs.  Brady is 10-4 in head-to-head matchups against Peyton’s teams, including three road wins in five contests.  Brady has also been the more consistent QB in their games, accumulating a 26-12 TD-INT ratio compared to 29-20 for Peyton.  One of the more memorable matchups was their last, the week 12 encounter that saw Brady rally the Patriots from a 24 point deficit to top the Broncos 34-31 in OT.  What historical moments will come from this edition?

Taking a look at the personnel, there are several significant differences.  Starting at the TE position, a regular season role reversal has taken place.  Now the Patriots are the team without theirs, as Gronk is on IR and Julius Thomas is active for this one.  Sucker Punch figures to be a factor in this one after totaling two totes in week 12.  Von Miller scored the first TD in that last meeting, but he’s out of this one with a torn ACL.  More importantly, in my opinion, the Broncos will be without their best corner, Chris Harris, who sustained a season-ending knee injury last week against the Chargers.  Not coincidently, San Diego started scoring after Quentin Jammer replaced Harris.  Think Bill Belichick might find a way or two to exploit Jammer?  As Steelers safety Ryan Clark pointed out this week, it’s more about chemistry and communication than skill in the secondary, and replacing Harris with Jammer had a negative impact on both the chemistry and communication.  That’s usually not something that gets cleaned up in a week of practice. 

One thing about this game that intrigues me is that either team can successfully play it out multiple ways.  Will the Patriots lean on the run game and try to keep Peyton on the sidelines, or will they try to match scores by throwing against a beatable secondary?  Will the Broncos rely on Peyton to read and confuse defenses with the pass, or like last time they met, will Knowshon Moreno (37 carries, 224 yards) have a huge game on the ground?  I think we’ll see New England look to keep the power run game going and throw when they need to, matching scores with Denver, albeit at a slower pace.  Denver will do what it does – thrown when you play run and run when you play pass. 

I look for Wes Welker and Julius Thomas to be the offensive keys for Denver in this one, with the latter presenting the biggest mismatch for the Patriots.  Thomas was second on the team in receiving TDs despite missing two games.  His ability to draw more than one defender will open things up for the trio of Welker, Demaryius Thomas, and Eric Decker.  With Thomas and Decker drawing Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard out wide, look for Welker to draw a lot of targets against Kyle Arrington.  His ability to exploit that matchup could be the deciding factor.  For the Patriots, I look for Julian Edelman to run a lot of quick-cutting routes against Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in an attempt to get the corner leaning.  Despite the 280 Denver rushing yards in week 12, I think the Patriots will be the more successful team on the ground this time around.  We know New England is missing Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, and now Brandon Spikes, but as they’ve done in the past, the Patriots are playing next man up.  Sealver Siliga stepped into the lineup after that last Denver game and has done a tremendous job of holding his run gaps.  Dont’a Hightower has come on huge in Mayo’s absence, and rookie linebacker Jamie Collins is becoming more of an impact player every week.  New England features a much better offensive line than San Diego, and I think they’ll find success running straight at a Denver defense that isn’t very big behind Terrance Knighton.  If Sucker Punch is able to get past the line of scrimmage, he could run for a while.  Denver did a much better job against Mathews in the rematch, but he was significantly banged up, doesn’t bring the pop that Sucker Punch does, and runs behind an inferior line. 

The Broncos and Patriots face each other next season, so unless Peyton’s neck scan holds bad news, these legends will have at least one more showdown.  But will this be their last face-off on the conference’s biggest stage?  I’m extremely impressed with what Belichick and Brady have done this year.  I think they keep this one close and even lead at some point, but Peyton and his superior weapons will make just enough plays to squeak out a trip to the Super Bowl.  Welker scores the winning TD with a minute to go. 

Broncos 34
Patriots 30

NFC Championship Game
49ers @ Seahawks
Sunday (6:30, FOX)

Both of these teams bullied their way to the NFC title game.  San Francisco beat up and frustrated Cam Newton a week after withstanding the Packers in the cold, and Seattle made Drew Brees look silly for a second time, holding him to an unimpressive 39.4 QBR.  The Niners, playing their third road game in three weeks, made good on a three point halftime lead, shutting out the home team Panthers the rest of the way.  Vernon Davis’ replay reversal TD just before the break was the turning point in the game.  After that, San Fran took away Carolina’s run game and forced Cam to make plays in the passing game with a gimpy Steve Smith, a bracketed Greg Olsen, and Ted Ginn.  Offensively, Anquan Boldin continues to make plays in the postseason, catching 8 passes for 136 yards, while Frank Gore averaged just under 5 ypc on 17 totes.  Seattle, much like Denver, had an easy going through three quarters.  Marshawn Lynch was in Beast Mode, running for 140 yards and 2 scores, while their defense shut down the run game and forced Bres into uncomfortable situations all afternoon.  Jimmy Graham was limited to 1 reception on 8 targets, and aside from the one weekly deep ball to Robert Meachem, no Saint had a catch go longer than 25 yards.  Marques Colston put up the best stat line of the afternoon for New Orleans, but he’ll be remembered for his failed attempt at extending the game with a cross-field, game-ending forward lateral.

Unsurprisingly, these teams split their regular season matchups, with each holding serve at home.  Seattle had their way with San Fran in week 2, confusing Colin Kaepernick into 3 INTs en route to a 29-3 victory.  The California contest was much closer, with the Niners emerging with a 19-17 win in Michael Crabtree’s second game of the season.  This one is in Seattle.  Home field in the playoffs is an understood advantage, but the edge the Seahawks have at CentruyLink Field is one that cannot be understated or beaten with game planning.  The ability for the 12th man to constantly disrupt Kaepernick’s communication and keep the visitors at a disadvantage may be the best thing the Seahawks have going for them in this one.

There are a couple of key player updates on Seattle’s side.  First, the bad news.  Percy Harvin’s return to the field was short-lived.  The big play receiver suffered a couple of big hits and a concussion against the Saints and has not been cleared to face the Niners.  His absence means the Seahawks will rely on their regular season arsenal of Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin, and Jermaine Kearse.  Not exactly the Three Amigos.  For the good news, linebacker KJ Wright is good-to-go after sitting out the last five weeks with a foot injury.  He may be limited, but having their best coverage linebacker on the field to provide support against Vernon Davis will be huge.  Kaepernick has gotten into a groove lately, and limiting his downfield weapons is Seattle’s best chance of keeping San Fran off the scoreboard.

The Niners will hope Kaepernick can stay in that groove and get them to the big game for a second straight year.  Since Crabtree’s return, the Niners have been, arguably (maybe), the league’s best team, winning seven straight.  Boldin is still the most physical receiver in the game and will destroy a defense if it doesn’t give him enough attention.  Davis doesn’t get the targets his skills suggest he should, but he’s nearly unstoppable in the red zone.  Just ask the Panthers.  Frank Gore just keeps making plays.  He totaled 110 yards on the ground the last time he visited Seattle and will need to put forth that kind of effort once again for San Fran to win their fourth straight road game. 

For Seattle, the offensive game plan is simple – Marshawn Marshawn Marshawn.  A week off did the big man some good, as he pounded away at the Saints and kept his offense in perfect down-and-distance situations throughout.  They may need an even bigger effort this week, given the recent uninspiring play of Russell Wilson.  Seattle’s QB got a win last week, but he was actually worse than Brees.  Numbers aren’t everything, but Wilson has had a sub-50% QBR in each of his last five games, two of them coming against the very beatable Giants and Rams.  In addition to being more efficient with the football and forcing the Niners to respect the pass, Wilson will undoubtedly have to move the chains with his legs.  I could see Seattle featuring quite a bit of zone read in this one to keep the Niners off balance. 

What can’t you say about these defenses?  Seattle led the league in fewest points and passing yards allowed per game.  Their league best secondary intercepted more passes (28) than any other team in the game and tied Carolina for fewest rushing TDs (4) allowed during the regular season.  They come at you from every spot up front.  When Bobby Wagner isn’t shutting down the run game, he’s coming up the gut and getting in the QBs face.  Wagner, Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, Clinton McDonals and Chris Clemons combined for 31.5 sacks and should be able to break through a Niners line that hasn’t had its best season.  Their ability to get after Kaepernick and force him into mistakes against Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, and Kam Chancellor will go a long way to securing a win for Seattle.  Similarly, San Fran will hurt you all over the field.  This is a consistent unit that forces you be multi-dimensional.  The trio of Justin Smith, Aldon Smith, and Ahmad Brooks will look to get Wilson off his mark and funnel him into the arms of the best inside backer duo in the game, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman.  The secondary got some good news this week with the return of slot corner Carlos Rogers. 

The battles between these two teams have become the most physical matchups in the NFL.  The fans don’t like each other.  The players don’t like each other.  Even the coaches don’t get along.  What’s your deal?!  There’s no reason to expect this game to be much different from their previous confrontations.  I’m counting on Marshawn to be Marshawn and for Wilson to make a few plays in critical situations.  The key for me will be Seattle’s ability to confuse and unsettle Kaepernick.  If they can force him into bailing out on plays and bad decision making, this crowd will be absolutely deafening.  As their collective voice rises, so does the playmaking ability of that Seattle secondary.  I love the run San Fran is on, and while they may be the best team in the sport at this point, I think the home team emerges victorious in the game’s hardest place to play.  Marshawn and the kicker handle all the scoring for Seattle.

Seahawks 16
Niners 13

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