“That time of year thou mayst in me behold”: It’s championship weekend once again. Enter downstage the 49ers, Seahawks, Patriots, and Broncos. Of these four there are no surprises—in fact, given particularly recent NFL history, this is as cliché a final four as possible.
The Seahawks, 49ers, and Broncos clearly set themselves apart from the rest this year, having dealt with their opponents handily—and dominating the most crucial statistical categories by extension. While the Patriots experienced more turbulence over the course of the season, they are never to be discounted this deep in the playoffs because of one man: Tom Brady.
So, besides it being the playoffs, why watch this weekend? That top-notch football will be played on Sunday is a virtual given, but it is the theme of familiarity breeding contempt that will stoke the dramatic flames and make this must-watch television.
San Francisco @ Seattle
It’s no secret that the Seahawks and 49ers don’t like each other—players from both sides have expressed as much in interviews on numerous occasions. Seeing as this contest has “close game” written all over it, it’s entirely possible, even probable, that the team that comes out on top will be the one that makes the fewest blunders borne out of enmity for the opposition. These teams are that even. Why?
Recent history suggests as much. The Seahawks ambushed the 49ers in week two, in large part because of the poor play of Colin Kaepernick. Since then, however, the 49ers look more like the team that’s been to two straight NFC Championships, and proved as much by beating the Seahawks in week 14. The 49ers carry that edge into this game.
The teams are relatively even when it comes to quarterback and running back—two mobile, young quarterbacks in Kaepernick and Wilson, two workhorse backs in Gore and Lynch. But San Fran has the edge when it comes to offensive playmakers, especially because Seattle just lost Percy Harvin—again. Expect Anquan Boldin to play big as usual and for Vernon Davis to create huge match-up problems. Expert control of the clock will be a virtue of this game’s winner.
On defense, Seattle has superior secondary play, while the 49ers have a superior linebacking corps—the best in football to be exact—and have had a more potent pass rush since the reemergence of Aldon Smith. Containing the quarterback in the pocket is an important objective for both defenses.
Special teams are a wash; the kickers are a wash—neither has missed a kick in the playoffs in their careers—the punters are serviceable, and the kick and punt return hasn’t been a competitive strength for either team.
Other factors: the particularly raucous Seattle crowd, and the 49ers third AFC Championship game in as many years, coming off unfinished business with a Super Bowl loss.
Prediction: Despite the crowd the 49ers take care of business and advance to their second straight Super Bowl, winning a close one in Seattle 24-20.
New England @ Denver
The Patriots-Broncos rivalry doesn’t exist—it’s bigger than that. This match-up can be expressed in simple terms: Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning. Though there is a certain respect between the two quarterbacks, there must also be some contempt, considering that Brady has had Manning’s number in the playoffs over the years—that’s not even up for debate.
This year is different. You don’t throw 55 touchdowns for nothing.
This season reminds of the 1998 reboot of John Elway at the end of his career leading the Broncos to a Super Bowl victory. This writer thinks the very same opportunity for Peyton starts with a win tomorrow.
On both sides we have playoff-tested, elite pocket passers leading the charge, each with unique running attacks. For the Patriots, is it Ridley, is it Blount, is it Vereen, is it Bolden? We don’t know. It will be your typical Bill Belichick concoction because the Pats are devoid of ancillary weaponry. Edelman and Amendola are about all Brady has; the rest is a mash unit or a jumpsuit.
For the Broncos, Moreno has been a revelation, and although his value hasn’t traditionally been expressed by his power, he did rush for 208 yards in between the tackles against the Pats earlier this year. Expect Knowshon to remain equally threatening on the edge and on the screen; his dual threat ability is key to executing the game plan.
Any way you look at this, Welker, Decker, Thomas & Thomas, and Moreno bring more to the table for Peyton Manning.
The difference? The quarterback play—and there should be plenty of that given the holes on both defenses.
Atrocious pass defense and mediocre pass rush equals plenty of down-the-field passing opportunities. I hesitate to say this will be a shootout, but the final score could be in the thirties.
On special teams the kickers and punters are a wash, but dynamic returners, particularly Trindon Holliday on kickoffs and Julian Edelman on punt returns, should be factors.
Other factors: the Broncos are home, it will be cold, and they too have unfinished business—as well as a bad taste in their mouths from the last time they saw Tom Brady. The Pats have Brady; let’s see whether that playoff magic has run out. This is a legacy battle through and through.
Prediction: Broncos win at home 34-31, the same score the Pats hung on them in dramatic fashion earlier this year. This time, the tables turn and Peyton doesn’t squander what could be his last legitimate chance to write his own narrative.