Friday, January 17, 2014

The Hail Mary - NFL Playoffs: Conference Championships

AFC Championship: #2 New England (13-4) vs. #1 Denver (14-3), Denver favored by 4 1/2

I felt like I had to pick an upset in the Divisional Round and with all the injuries New England has I thought they would be the prime candidate to be upset. I didn't account for RB LaGarrette Blount to play out of his mind for the second straight week and essentially carry the Patriots to victory. The Broncos cruised for about three quarters against San Diego but some missed scoring opportunities nearly came back to bite them when the Chargers rallied in the fourth quarter. Peyton Manning was able to complete some clutch passes on third down on the Broncos final drive, sealing the victory for Denver.

All of the hype for this game is of course the 15th meeting between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Interestingly, both quarterbacks were just decent last weekend and were carried by their rushing attacks. I don't expect that to be the case in Sunday's game. I believe the quarterback that plays better will end up on the winning side. I certainly expect New England to try to feature their run game and feed Blount, Stevan Ridley, Shane Vareen, and maybe even Brandon Bolden, but I also think that Bill Belichick sees a Broncos secondary that he can exploit. The Broncos have lost CB Chris Harris Jr. for the rest of the season, which could open up plenty of opportunities for Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, and even TE Michael Hoomanawanui. They also lost their star LB Von Miller weeks ago, and Miller had a fumble return for a touchdown in the teams regular season meeting. The Patriots have been vulnerable up front this season, allowing Brady to be sacked 40 times this season. Broncos defensive ends Malik Jackson and Shaun Phillips will have to force some sort of disruption and not let Brady get comfortable in the pocket. That same credo applies to the Patriots defense, and Manning makes that even harder with how quickly he releases the ball. Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones made their presences felt against the Colts last weekend and in the Patriots comeback against Denver, they helped slow down the Broncos attack by constantly being in Manning's face. Aqib Talib will have his hands full going up against Demaryius Thomas and so will Alfonzo Dennard against either Wes Welker or Eric Decker. The Patriots little know linebackers, Jamie Collins and Chris White, along with stud Dont'a Hightower will have the responsibility of not letting Julius Thomas go too crazy. In the regular season game, Knowshon Moreno rushed for over 200 yards, yet Denver still was unable to win the game. Belichick will make Moreno a focal point in the preparation for this week's game. New England will have to pick their poison when it comes to which part of the Broncos offense they really want to slow down. Each team has good special teams, and very accurate field goal kickers in Matt Prater for the Broncos and Stephen Gostkowski for the Patriots.

Throw out the regular season game between these teams, it means nothing. Having the game in Denver definitely presents some advantage for the Broncos, mostly in that it could help their defense disrupt Brady with the help of crowd noise. I think this game will see both offenses play well, and the defenses bend but one of them avoid breaking. I don't expect a lot of turnovers from either side and think this will be a very well played game. These teams couldn't be more evenly matched and with two of the best quarterbacks of my generation facing off, I expect no less than a classic game. I think Manning's time and the Broncos time is this year to reach the Super Bowl and a Prater last second field goal will have the Broncos in their first Super Bowl in 15 years.

Prediction: Denver 30, New England 27

NFC Championship: #5 San Francisco (14-4) at #1 Seattle (14-3), Seattle favored by 3 1/2

After the heart attack that Wild Card weekend almost caused me, it was nice for the 49ers to put away the Panthers early. I need to stay as level as possible because I know from 630-10 on Sunday during this game I am going to be a complete mess. The Seahawks jumped out ahead early on New Orleans and then were able to hold on late as the Saints blew chance after chance, mostly due to sheer stupidity. Marshawn Lynch going into beast mode was enough for the Seahawks to win, as Russell Wilson continued his dreadful play of the last five games.

The 12th and QwestCenturyLinkwhatevercorporatenameithasnow Field has been a house of horrors for the 49ers for the better part of a decade. It has been especially dreadful in their last two visits to Seattle, where the Seahawks have beaten them by a combined score of 71-16. Despite these facts, I am completely confident that the 49ers will go to Seattle on Sunday and defeat the Seahawks. The reason I feel this confident is because the 49ers are playing their best football of the past two years, having won eight in a row. The Seahawks offense is nothing but Lynch at this point as Wilson is starting to be exposed for the game manager that he is. The 49ers defense has struggled mightily to contain Wilson in the last two games at Seattle. He has really killed them when he has gotten out of the pocket and beaten the Niners defense with his legs. The 49ers have the best linebacking corps in football and I hope that they put someone out of Patrick Willis, Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks, and NaVorro Bowman on Wilson as a spy. So if they can keep Wilson contained then I am not concerned at all about Seattle's receivers or Wilson's ability to beat the 49ers with his arm. Golden Tate, and Doug Baldwin are decent receivers, and they might hit a play or two on the Niners secondary, but they aren't anyone you really have to focus your gameplan on. Percy Harvin returned last weekend but was basically used as a rag dolly by the Saints and is questionable to play Sunday after getting concussed. The 49ers focus besides containing Wilson has to be Lynch. The 49ers have an awesome run defense but Lynch seems to be the one back that has figured out the 49ers defense. He has run very well against them and even hurt the Niners as a receiver out of the backfield in the Week 2 game in Seattle. I don't expect the 49ers defense to completely stop Lynch, but at least hold him to a 3.5 yards per carry average and stop him from getting any sort of traction. Force Wilson to make plays and hopefully that will lead to Wilson turning the ball over. Offensively, just like Seattle, the 49ers want to run Frank Gore and run him the entire game. Colin Kaepernick has struggled badly in Seattle in his two starts there. Even with Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis as his weapons, I still want Kap's throwing to be limited. Even if Gore is struggling to run the ball early, offensive coordinator Greg Roman has to stay with the run. The only reason the 49ers shouldn't be a run first time in this game is if for some reason they get down by 3 touchdowns and have no choice. It is also imperative that the offensive line protect Kap from the Seahawks pass rushers, Chris Clemons and Cliff Avril. Another major factor will be how open Boldin manages to get with Dick Sherman on him. Sherman frustrated Boldin in Week 2, but Boldin was able to make some plays on Sherman in the game in San Francisco. The presence of Crabtree will also help a ton as it gives Kap another top notch weapon to throw to. If Vernon Davis has a touchdown then the 49ers are probably winning the game, so he is another key guy that has to make his presence known. Unlike last season, the 49ers have a kicker they can believe in, Phil Dawson. Dawson has been spectacular this season and everything the Niners hoped they were getting when they signed him. The Seahawks have an awesome kicker of their own, Steven Hauschka.

The 49ers will have to play their best game of the season to win in Seattle on Sunday. But this idea that the Seahawks are some unbeatable monsters at home has proven to be false over the last month. The Arizona Cardinals won in Seattle and that was despite committing 4 turnovers. The Saints had plenty of chances to get a win last weekend. The 49ers have to stick to their identity and play top notch defense. They can't get behind 17-0 like they did in the NFC Championship at Atlanta last season. They have to start fast and limit the crowds involvement from the jump. This is Jim Harbaugh's third straight time taking the 49ers to the NFC Championship and I believe this year's team is the best group he has had. He has led the 49ers one step at a time to the ultimate goal of winning the Super Bowl. Time to get a win in Seattle and chase away those Seahawks demons.

Prediction: San Francisco 23, Seattle 19

Last Week Against the Spread: 1-2-1
Overall Against the Spread: 126-112-10

Last Week Straight Up: 3-1

Overall Straight Up: 178-85-1

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