Who Will Reach Super Bowl 48?
The end of the 2013 NFL season and 2014 NFL playoffs couldn’t have been scripted any better. In the AFC Championship, the classic rivalry of Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning is renewed. In the NFC Championship, the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers meet in what is currently the best rivalry in the NFL.
In other words – what else would you be watching this weekend? (Read our arguments for and against each team below, and vote in our poll!)
Compelling storylines abound in both the AFC and NFC Championship games. Will Peyton beat the Patriots and reach Super Bowl 48 after what was statistically the most dominant season ever by a quarterback? Will Tom Brady take a 3-1 margin of playoff victories against Manning and lead the injury-riddled Patriots back to the Super Bowl? Will the Seahawks ride the 12th man and home field advantage to a Super Bowl appearance, or will the 49ers overcome their road woes at Seattle and reach their 2nd straight Super Bowl?
Strong arguments can be made for (and against) each team claiming victory in this weekend’s AFC Championship and NFC Championship games. Let’s break each of them down.
Why the Broncos will win: It took a whirlwind second half and key special teams gaffe for the Patriots to beat Denver in overtime Week 12. Even in the victory, New England only managed three 1st downs via the run and looked anemic for a full half on offense. If the Patriots are to have success in the AFC Championship, they’ll have to do much better than the 3.7 yards per carry Denver allowed them in Week 12.
And then there’s Peyton Manning and the Broncos’ offense versus an injury-ravaged Patriots’ defense. Manning only had 150 yards in Week 12, mainly because Knowshon Moreno exploded for 224 rushing yards against a Pats defense that still had Brandon Spikes (who is out for this game). Knowing that Peyton can do far more in the passing attack, or that Moreno could once again explode in the run game – that’s a two-headed monster that the Patriots’ defense should fear.
Why the Broncos will lose: The Patriots have already proven that they can surmount a 24-0 deficit at the hands of the mighty Broncos. And for all the excuses and “yeah, but” examples from Week 12, the fact remains that New England took a big punch from Denver, survived, and then beat the Broncos. The Patriots forced 4 turnovers in the victory, and their propensity to take the ball away in big moments showed itself again last week, when New England picked off Andrew Luck four times.
We won’t take the easy route and pile on Peyton Manning’s struggles in the playoffs – because largely, they haven’t been his. But is this yet another year where Peyton’s defense and supporting cast bend under the pressure of facing a strong, well-coached opponent, leaving Manning achingly short of the Super Bowl? If any coach is prepared to handle Peyton Manning and Denver’s offense, it’s Bill Belichick. And if any QB has the moxie to step into Denver on the biggest stage and win, it’s Tom Brady.
Why the Patriots will win: If the Patriots win this game, it will likely be due to their suddenly dynamic rushing attack. New England ran the ball 46 times for 234 yards (5.1 average) in their systematic 43-22 demolition of the Colts in the AFC Divisional round, with LeGarrette Blount finding the end zone 4 times. If the rushing attack of New England keeps the ball out of Peyton Manning’s hands (and the pressure off the Pats’ young WRs), the Patriots will be well on their way to victory.
Then there is the X-factor of the Broncos losing starting CB Chris Harris for this game. While the running game has been the focal point of New England’s attack of late, don’t be surprised if Tom Brady throws in the direction of Harris’ replacement (be it Quentin Jammer or someone else) early and often. With Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie likely tasked with stopping Danny Amendola, it may be Julian Edelman or Kenbrell Thompkins who has a surprisingly large game for the Patriots.
Why the Patriots will lose: While New England racked up rushing yards against Buffalo and Indianapolis in their last 2 games, neither of those teams has as stout a rush defense as Denver, which ranked 7th in the NFL in rush defense and allowed less than 4 yards per carry. As unreal as it may appear on the surface, the Patriots may find themselves at a disadvantage if they have to rely on Tom Brady’s secondary receivers to make plays on offense.
While Julian Edelman has been terrific and Danny Amendola has shown bursts of potential, the rest of Brady’s receiving options have been frustrating at best. Thompkins and Aaron Dobson have disappeared in the season’s biggest moments. Speaking of disappearing, is this the game where key defensive losses for the Pats (Mayo, Wilfork, Spikes) finally catch up with them? And can the interior defensive line contain the Broncos’ running game enough to keep 7-8 in coverage against Peyton Manning on a regular basis?
Why the Seahawks will win: Since Russell Wilson took the helm as quarterback of the Seahawks, Seattle is an astounding 16-1 at Century Link Field. Seattle’s home field advantage is currently the best in the NFL, with crowd noise reaching quake-worthy levels and breaking world records on a regular basis.
Seattle’s defense dominated its competition during the 2013 NFL season, ranking #1 in total defense, passing defense, points per game allowed, and give/take differential (+20 in regular season). The Seahawks defense was never better than it was in a Week 2 home victory over the 49ers, forcing 5 turnovers and limiting San Francisco to just 12 first downs in a 29-3 win. Seattle also had 3 sacks and 8 deflected passes in the win.
Why the Seahawks will lose: Russell Wilson has looked indecisive and shaky in his last 5 starts, averaging just 158 passing yards per game. Seattle is just 3-2 in those games, including their only home loss of the season (17-10 vs. Arizona) and a loss at the 49ers. Wilson didn’t pull the trigger on several key throws in their divisional round victory over the Saints and was held to just 103 yards passing.
While Seattle has gone 3-2 in its last 5 games, the 49ers have not lost a game since November 17th at New Orleans (23-20). San Francisco has won 8 straight games, including 3 in a row on the road at Arizona, Green Bay and Carolina. If Seattle’s defense cannot force turnovers, it may be incumbent on Russell Wilson to win the game for the Seahawks – the question is, can Wilson shake off his inconsistent play and do so?
Why the 49ers will win: As we stated above, the 49ers have won 8 consecutive games and 3 in a row on the road against teams with winning records (2 of whom won their divisions). While Seattle dominated the 49ers in their last trip to Century Link Field, the 49ers were playing without Michael Crabtree (and Vernon Davis for much of the game). This time, San Francisco has their full complement of offensive weapons.
The key advantage San Francisco has in this game may be an intangible one; momentum is a hard thing to measure, yet it has produced the last 3 Super Bowl champions. Another intangible advantage for the 49ers? The last 3 Super Bowl champions were all Wild Card teams, and the last 2 NFC Super Bowl champions (Green Bay and the NY Giants) were the #5 seed in the NFC playoffs – the same #5 seed the 49ers currently hold.
Why the 49ers will lose: No team in the Super Bowl era has won 4 road games in 4 consecutive weeks. Yet if the Niners want to reach the Super Bowl, this is precisely the feat they must accomplish. Given all the superlatives one can bestow upon the Seahawks and their home field advantage, the one thing that the 49ers may find hardest to overcome is this piece of history.
To put it kindly, the last 2 trips to Seattle haven’t gone well for San Francisco. They’ve lost those games by an average score of 35.5 to 8, and dating back to 2009 the 49ers are just 1-4 at Century Link Field. Colin Kaepernick is 0-2 lifetime at Seattle, and the Niners as a team are -5 in turnovers over those 2 contests. On top of all that bad news? Frank Gore has 44 combined rushing yards in those 2 losses.