NFL Conference Championship Preview

NFL Conference Championship Preview
January 17, 2014, 5:00 pm
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It’s Friday afternoon, about 48 hours before the opening kick of the AFC Championship, and I’m sitting here wishing that now was then. After five days of obsessing over everything that’s on the line and all that might happen, I don’t want to obsess anymore. I want to see it. I want to live it. Like a drunken Billy Madison, I want to stumble onto the NFL’s doorstep and greet Roger Goodell (probably wearing a bathrobe and cucumber mask) with a barely coherent: “Talky, talky, talky. No more talky.”
 
It’s enough already, don’t you think?
 
Yeah. You do. We all do. But hey, it could be college football. We could’ve had to wait a month for this. So what’s two more days? What’s one more preview? It beats banging your head against a wall.
 
So here it goes —
 
After a week’s worth of researching this game, and for all the incredible stats and stories surrounding what’s at stake, here’s the one number that jumped out at me most:
 
12.
 
That’s not for Tom Brady. It’s for possessions.
 
The Broncos offense had 192 drives this season. The Patriots had 191. Those numbers are from Football Outsiders and that pretty much boils down to 12 drives a game. And sure, that’s the regular season, but recent Patriots playoff history doesn’t stray too much from that figure.
 
The Pats had 13 possessions last week against the Colts (not counting the kneel down). They had 12 in last year’s AFC title against the Ravens. They had 12 in last year’s divisional round against the Texans.
 
Going a little further back, they had nine in the most recent Super Bowl loss to the Giants, and only 10 against the Ravens in that year’s AFC title game, but it was 12 the week before against Tim Tebow and the Broncos. In 2011, they had 12 possessions in their playoff loss to the Jets. In 2010, they had 12 possessions in their playoff loss to the Ravens.
 
Eight weeks ago, the Pats had 14 possessions in their overtime win against Denver, but two of those came IN overtime. Over the first 60 minutes, it was 12. 12 is the key number here. 12 Days of Christmas. 12 Angry Men. 12 chipmunks twirlin' on a branch, eatin' lots of sunflowers on my uncle's ranch.
 
12.
 
We’ve spent the last week setting the stage for this historic match-up, and while that word is thrown around far too often these days, in this case it’s almost an understatement. Sunday’s AFC Championship is potentially the most historic non-Super Bowl game the NFL has ever seen.
 
And it will mostly likely come down to 12 possessions. That’s it. Well, 24 possessions. But individually, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning — two quarterbacks who have made a combined 431 starts, won a combined 315 games and thrown a combined 850 touchdown passes — will have 12 chances to make or break that history, and leave an impact on the league that will never be forgotten.
 
Of course, either way, no one will ever forget about Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. Win or lose, nothing will change their standing among the greatest quarterbacks to ever live. At the same time, if one of them manages to win their next two games, there’s a strong argument to be made that he’s the greatest.
 
On that note, here’s a quick NFL Conference Championship Preview:
 
Game 1: (2) New England Patriots at (1) Denver Broncos
 
Time: Sunday, 3 pm.
 
That’s a 1 pm start, Denver time. So while it might be dark in Boston, it’s a day game for the Pats. This is probably a meaningless stat, but Sunday will only be the fifth day playoff game of Brady’s career. He’s 3-1 so far, with the one loss coming in that home blowout against the Ravens.
 
Weather: 59 degrees, breezy.
 
The Pats might have preferred colder temperatures, but I doubt they’ll mind the warmth. And either way, as it always is in Denver, the altitude is the biggest concern.
 
Yesterday on Grantland, Bill Barnwell noted that “just one defensive lineman — Chiefs nose tackle Dontari Poe — managed to play every single down as a visiting player in Denver this year, with Oakland’s Lamarr Houston the only other defensive lineman suiting up for more than 82 percent of his team’s snaps.”
 
That’s bad news for a Pats defense that so thin that they’re only an injury or two away from handing a uniform to Matt Patricia.
 
Spread: Broncos -5
 
This is the first time the Pats have be an underdog in the playoffs since the AFC Championship in Indianapolis six years ago. It’s also only the fourth time this season that they’re not favored. In the previous three games, they’re 1-2, with the one win coming Week 3 at Atlanta, and thus not all that impressive.
 
The Pats are 2-6 against the spread this season on the road.
 
History: Yes, there is some history here. But for all the talk about Brady and Manning, Bill Belichick’s legacy has flown under the radar.
 
With a win on Sunday, Belichick will tie Tom Landry for the most playoff wins in NFL history*. In that case, the Super Bowl would provide him an opportunity to:
 
1) Set a new record for playoff wins by a head coach.
 
2) Tie Chuck Noll’s record for Super Bowl wins by a head coach.
 
(*Belichick would be 20-8. Landry, 20-16.)
 
Injuries:
 
Patriots: The Patriots are as healthy as they’re going to be. Aqib Talib’s hip appears to be feeling better. Logan Mankins’s ankle might be sore, but they could amputate his leg and he still wouldn’t miss a snap. Brady’s tummy is OK after a brief scare on Tuesday. Aaron Dobson is listed as questionable with that foot, but he spoke with the media on Friday, and that’s typically a good sign.
 
Finally, there’s punter Ryan Allen, who’s questionable with the shoulder injury he suffered last week. Belichick’s been (shocker!) mum on Allen’s status, but the fact that they didn’t sign a new punter indicates that either:
 
a) Allen’s fine, or b) The Pats are comfortable with Stephen Gostkowski handling punts. As a result, c) it’s nothing to worry about.
 
Broncos: Denver took a big hit last Sunday, when cornerback Chris Harris tore his ACL. That will cause a chain reaction throughout the Broncos secondary and equal a net positive for the Pats. But the guys who will be on the field are very healthy. No Broncos are listed as questionable. Only seven — including Peyton Manning (ankle) — are even listed as probable.
 
Three things to watch:
 
1. You know how it works with Belichick in games like this. Defensively, he picks one guy on the opposing offense and tailors the entire game plan around eliminating him. And with most teams, that’s an easy choice. Against Indy, it was T.Y. Hilton. Against the Chiefs, it would have been Jamaal Charles. Against the Bengals, it would have been AJ Green. Against the Chargers? Probably Keenan Allen. But with the Broncos, I’m not sure.
 
It can’t be any of the four receivers (Wes Welker, Eric Decker, Demaryius and Julius Thomas), because the other three will make you pay. It can’t be Knowshon Moreno, because you don’t obsess over the running back when Peyton Manning is the quarterback. So in this case, I’d say that the answer IS the quarterback.
 
Manning is the guy. You play Talib on Demaryius Thomas, Alfonzo Dennard on Decker, Logan Ryan/Kyle Arrington on Welker and trust the new-and-improved Jamie Collins to hang with Julius Thomas. And every one else is focused on messing with Manning. Making him uncomfortable. Confusing him as much as you can. Forcing him into mistakes.
 
That’s easier said than done, but this match-up is far from easy.
 
2. One way to mess with Manning is to keep him on the sidelines, and one way to do that is to run the hell out of LeGarrette Blount, who’s suddenly evolved into a modern day Corey Dillon.
 
Most of Blount’s damage this last month has been done between the tackles, and earlier this week, ESPN Stats & Info dug up this incredible stat:
 
“Blount is averaging 130 rush yards per game inside the tackles since the start of Week 16, which is not only more than any other player, but also more than 28 of 31 other teams.”
 
For Denver, the same story notes, the key to stopping Blount will be defensive tackle Terrance Knighton.
 
Knighton’s been on the field for 70 percent of first- and second-down rushing attempts against the Broncos this season. When he’s out there, they give up 3.5 yards per rush, which would rank second in the league. When he’s not, they allow 5.2 yards per rush, which would rank as the second worse.
 
3. ESPNBoston’s Mike Reiss tweeted earlier this week that every one other than Brady, Mankins and Gostkowski will be playing their first road playoff game as a member of the Patriots. I took that a step further and found that Andre Carter, Austin Collie and Stephen Gregory are the only other significant contributors who have played a road playoff game, period.
 
It’s easy to overstate how much something like that matters, but it does matter. It’s a factor. In that sense, it’s probably a good thing that the game will be played during the day. The lights are always (literally) much brighter at night. But moving forward, while it’s nice that the guy under center has been there so many times before, it’s at least a little unsettling to know that he doesn’t have much company.
 
Pick: I don’t know.
 
Does that count? I mean does anyone really know? Isn’t that the point?
 
But I have to pick someone so I’m picking the Patriots. I’ll take Brady and Belichick. I’ll take Blount. I really think that he will make the difference here — both by keeping the chains moving and keeping Peyton on the sidelines. And while the Patriots have been beaten down on defense, I think they’ve found a rhythm with this new rotation. The two most impactful players — Aqib Talib and Chandler Jones — are where they need to be, and I’m not sure how you could’ve watched Jamie Collins last week and not feel optimistic about him leaving his mark on this game.
 
Final Score: 31-28
 

Game 2: San Francisco 49ers (5) at Seattle Seahawks (1)
 
Time: Sunday, 6:30 pm.
 
Weather: High around 50, with a 20 percent chance of precipitation
 
In other words, there’s an 80 percent chance that weather won’t be an issue. And even then, it won’t affect much.
 
Other than Jim Harbaugh maybe having to swing by Walmart for a new raincoat.
 
Spread: Seahawks -3.5
 
Home field advantage is usually worth three points, but you can understand why Seattle’s is worth a little more.
 
Not surprisingly, the Seahawks have been favored in every home game they’ve played this year. And only once has it been by less than the 3.5 points. That was in Week 2, against San Francisco, when Seattle was only favored by three.
 
They won that game 29-3.
 
History: This is already the best rivalry in the NFL. Harbaugh vs. Carroll might be the best coaching rivalry in the NFL. Other than Brady/Manning, Kaepernick/Wilson might be the best quarterback rivalry in the NFL. And if it’s not the second best now, then it will be after Sunday.
 
Historically speaking, the AFC Championship obviously has the edge this year. But in terms of tension, intensity and pure hatred, the NFC title takes the cake. It’s going to be a battle. One that Patriots fans will either watch while running around like mad, spraying beer on each other’s heads, or while slumped in a corner chugging straight from a bottle of Jack.
 
Anyway, the all-time series between Seattle and San Francisco is tied 15-15.
 
This is the first time they’ve met in the playoffs.
 
Injuries: Two big pieces of injury news. The first is good for San Francisco, and the other is bad for Seattle. Or is it that the first is bad for Seattle and the second is good San Francisco? Actually, forget it.
 
San Francisco: Starting cornerback Carlos Rogers sat out the 49ers first two playoff games with a hamstring injury but is on target to rejoin the team on Sunday. He won’t be 100 percent, and if he plays, it would probably only be as a nickel back. But having a veteran like Rogers — who was a part of last year’s run to the Super Bowl and has seven career playoff games under his belt — will help.
 
Seattle: Percy Harvin’s long-awaited comeback ended quickly last week when he took two enormous early hits and left the game with a concussion. He hasn’t been cleared to play yet, and it’s very unlikely that he will.
 
On the bright side, starting linebacker K.J. Wright is on track to return after missing more than a month with a broken foot. And thank God, because the Seahawks defense has been such a disaster without him . . .
 
Three Things to Watch
 
1. Coaching will be a factor and the 49ers get that check mark. Harbaugh might be out of his mind, but he clearly understands what makes his team tick, and once again has them playing their best football when it matters most. And while Carroll has done an amazing job building the Seahawks up to where they are, it’s still hard to trust him in a game like this.
 
2. Michael Crabtree has 11 receptions this postseason, which is tied for third most in the league. He’s been targeted 20 times, which ranks second. He’s become such an unbelievably important part of this offense, and he wasn’t around when these two met in Seattle back in September.
 
Obviously, if any secondary is up to the task, it’s Seattle. But even they will have their hands full with Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis. And the threat of those receivers, only makes Seattle more susceptible to Kaepernick-infused chaos. And Frank Gore’s not bad, either. Suddenly, San Francisco looks like a complete team.
 
3. And it’s up to Russell Wilson to raise the Seahawks to that same level. Wilson’s developed the reputation of being more of a game-manager these last two years. As an Alex Smith kind of guy, who won’t lose you many games, but won’t necessarily win them either. And for the most, as long as you surround him with the right players, that’s works fine in the NFL.
 
But on this stage, against this team, the Seahawks need to let Wilson loose.
 
Pick: I spent the entire season claiming that the Seahawks would never lose a home playoff game and now I’ve convinced myself that the Seahawks will lose a home playoff game.
 
These teams are about as even as it gets, and yeah, that usually favors the home team. Especially when that home team is Seattle. But in this case, between all that the Niners have been through the last two postseasons, combined with their familiarity with playing in front of the 12th Man, they should be up to the task.
 
This will obviously be a great game. We have two dominant defenses. Two solid rushing attacks. It won’t be a shock to see it come down to the wire. In that case, the quarterback that makes the most plays will prevail, and my money’s on Kaepernick winning out.
 
Final Score: 49ers 24, Seahawks 21
 
It’s San Francisco vs. New England in the Super Bowl.
 
And Brady’s 12 more possessions away from history.
 
Follow me on Twitter: @rich_levine