Late Merry Christmas to me! Santa Claus may have come up short back in December, but Lord Roger Goodell is more than making up for Saint Nick’s failures this weekend. Can it get any better than Broncos-Patriots and Seahawks-49ers?
At the beginning of the season, if given an opportunity to pick the four teams I would want to see on conference championship Sunday, these would be the four. The appetizer, if you can call it that, matches arguably the two greatest quarterbacks of all time when Denver’s Peyton Manning squares off against New England’s Tom Brady.
The main course features two of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL when Russell Wilson and the Seahawks host Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers. The Seattle-San Francisco rivalry has developed into the league’s fiercest in recent seasons. To quote Seattle’s Richard Sherman, “There’s no love lost and there’s no love found” between these two organizations.
So here we are, a couple days away from witnessing Manning v. Brady, the undisputed best individual rivalry in professional football followed by Seahawks v. 49ers, the best team rivalry. Unbelievable!
A 2-1-1 mark in the Divisional Round improved our record to 3-3-2 during the playoffs. We’ll recap the entire year ATS in the Super Bowl column. For now, let’s get straight to this week’s picks.
@ Denver Broncos -6
There’s no denying Peyton Manning threw for five zillion yards and 55 touchdowns this season, perhaps the best year of his remarkable career, but it’s not like Tom Brady is some country bumpkin. Manning’s kryptonite threw for 4,343 yards and 26 scores himself, fantastic numbers by any measure.
Tom Terrific was at his best in Week 12, rallying his team from a 24-0 halftime deficit to beat these same Denver Broncos 34-31 in overtime.
In that contest Brady threw for 344 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions. On the other side Manning posted easily his worst performance of the season. Old No. 18 threw for a measly 150 and two scores against Bill Belichick’s defense.
Facing Darth Belichick in January has to be a Broncos fan’s worst nightmare. Belichick and Brady own Peyton Manning. Brady holds a 10-4 lifetime mark when facing Manning. That includes a 2-1 record in the postseason.
Brady has three Super Bowl rings in five appearances. Manning has just one victory in the big game paired with a loss. If you’re a stats geek Peyton Manning is your quarterback, but if you want big-time performances on the biggest stage you want Tom Brady.
We can’t just talk about quarterbacks, right? Defense wins championships, at least that’s what grandpa used to say. Both Denver and New England have struggled to stop their opponents from gaining yards and scoring points all season. The Broncos rank 19th in the NFL, allowing 356 yards per game. The Patriots fare even worse, New England ranks 26th allowing 373.1 yards per game, just a tick better than the Jacksonville Jaguars. That’s not good.
Despite their struggles on the defensive side of the ball, New England did an adequate job of keeping points off the board. The Patriots surrendered 21 points per contest, the 10th best mark in the NFL. Opponents had an easier time against a Broncos defense that allowed 24.9 points per game, bad enough to be the 22nd ranked scoring defense in the league, but still a few decimal points better than the Cleveland Browns.
Defense may win championships, but safe to say it won’t win the 2013 AFC Conference Championship. This contest will come down to which all-time great quarterback has the best performance. If past success in postseason games is the measuring stick you have to like Brady’s chances when you’re getting six points. Obviously, Denver has an excellent opportunity to advance to the Super Bowl this Sunday and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if that’s how this game played out, but siding with Tom Brady and six points is too good to pass up. Broncos win 31-28
San Francisco 49ers @
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS -4
This is undoubtedly a great matchup between two powerful football teams that have become mirror images of each other. Both teams feature exciting young quarterbacks, physical pounding running backs, dominant defenses and coaches that can’t stand one another.
The Seahawks earned home-field advantage by posting a 13-3 mark during the regular season. Coach Pete Carroll had targeted the NFC’s top seed as the team’s primary goal entering the 2013 season after a gut-wrenching defeat in Atlanta last postseason.
Accomplishing that goal means the NFC road to the Super Bowl travels through Century Link Field, a place that has become a house of horrors for the opposition. Twice this year Seattle’s fans have set the Guinness World Record for crowd noise at a sporting event. The volume is so deafening that local seismology centers frequently record small (in the 1.5 to 2.0 range) earthquakes during Seahawks games. The ground underneath “The Clink” literally shakes when the Seahawks make a big play.
The chaotic environment has been almost impossible to overcome for visiting teams. Just ask 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick has been brilliant in his young career, leading San Francisco to a Super Bowl appearance in his first year as a starter and now another NFC Championship game in his second season under center.
The brash 49ers passer has thrown just 11 career interceptions, but four of those have come in his two visits to Seattle. In fact, Kaepernick’s worst quarterback rating performance in both the 2012 and 2013 seasons took place in the beautiful Pacific Northwest. In those two games the 49ers have been outscored 71-16!
As terrifying as Century Link Field has become for opposing players it’s been a place of tranquility for the Seahawks. Russell Wilson, Seattle’s darling second-year quarterback, has a 15-1 career record at home. That success has led the Seahawks to a NFC best plus -186 point differential this year.
Seattle’s defense has benefited the most from the raucous home crowd. The Seahawks rank first in the NFL, allowing a miniscule 273.6 yards per game. Seattle is the only team in the league surrendering less than 300 yards a game.
Not surprisingly, the Seahawks lead the NFL in scoring defense as well. Opponents barely manage two touchdowns a game against Seattle. Of course, San Francisco’s defenders aren’t the little sisters of the poor. The 49ers rank fifth and third in yards allowed and scoring defense.
This is the only opponent in the NFC that concerns me as a Seahawks fan. San Francisco is battle-tested and although they’ve struggled mightily in Seattle recently the 49ers understand what they’re entering into. Had the Carolina Panthers advanced to face the Seahawks I would have be preparing Super Bowl plans a week early, but San Francisco can’t be overlooked.
In the end, a dominant Seattle defense playing in front of the most intimidating crowd in professional football will be enough to push the Seahawks past the hated San Francisco 49ers. Seahawks win 20-13