NFL Playoffs: Conference Championships


We are one week further down the road in the NFL Playoffs, and are considerably lighter now, having let go of the collective bulk of the Panthers, Chargers, Colts and Saints. At this point, as you would hope by Conference Championship weekend, we are left with the very finest teams in the NFL. On Sunday, the AFC will be settled between the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots, while the NFC title will go to the winner of the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco Forty-Niners. As much as it’s great to win your conference and receive the trophy that comes with it, the Conference Championship really is just the final hurdle to get over on the road to the Super Bowl. Here is our preview of the Conference deciders.

AFC Conference Championship:

New England Patriots at Denver Broncos (Sunday, 20:00)

The Patriots head to Mile High to face the Denver Broncos with a shot at getting to the Super Bowl for the sixth time during the reign of coach Bill Belichick. But the Pats haven’t actually won the big game since 2004, and in recent years have been more of an obstacle for teams to get over on the road to the big one. Yet they are a perennial contender, which is remarkable given the salary cap and drafting rules that lead to this being called a league of parity. In the last two seasons, they were knocked out by the eventual Super Bowl Champions (The Giants beating them in Super Bowl XLVI and the Ravens beating them in the Conference Championship last year), so it would be a good omen for the Broncos if they could knock the Pats off. These two did already square up earlier this season, with Denver romping ahead to a seemingly insurmountable lead at the half following an error-strewn display from New England, only for them to come back and surmount that lead with a scarcely credible second-half comeback.

Due to some heavy player turnover on the offensive side of the ball, New England this year have largely become a team with a running offense, trying to ground and pound their way to victories, while still having a top tier quarterback in Tom Brady to make throws when the time comes. It has served them well thus far, and they were able to hold off the Colts last weekend until they wanted to kick it up a gear and simply blew them away in the end. But Brady will be all too aware that the other quarterback this weekend is no novice at this level, given how often he has squared up against Peyton Manning over the years. But Brady holds the far better record in games between the two. How New England’s patched up defense holds up against the onslaught of the Denver Broncos offense may well settle this one.

The Denver Broncos have seemed like a team on a mission all season long. They have obliterated teams that were unfortunate enough to come across them, with Peyton Manning earning the single-season record for touchdown passes thrown and yards thrown for. All this on top of a top running game, and the Broncos are a ferocious side to have to topple. But last weekend in their win over the Chargers, it was the defense who showed up with a big game, as they squeezed the life out of San Diego. If they can come up with that kind of effective display once again this weekend, they will surely advance to the Super Bowl. And while New England may have won the early season game between these two, that game was played in New England and, while Sunday may not be much warmer than that particularly bitter cold night, you would have to think that home-field advantage will be worth something to the Broncos. The Broncos were dumped out rather spectacularly last year by the Baltimore Ravens, largely thanks to a heaving Hail Mary pass lumped down the field that was inexplicably allowed to end in a touchdown, and Peyton has been dogged for years with claims that he can’t get it done on the biggest stage, having won the Super Bowl only once during his reign of dominance over the years. The Patriots seem to always be able to find ways to win games against all odds, but Denver look too strong (on paper).

Pick: Broncos

NFC Conference Championship:

San Francisco Forty-Niners at Seattle Seahawks ( Sunday, 23:30)

Oh boy. The rivalry that just keeps on giving is coming back to decide the NFC this year. San Francisco and Seattle have been roughly on the same trajectory for a few years now. Both teams were in the doldrums in a division that was a joke before hiring coaches Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh. These two coaches don’t like each other, having clashed while coaching against one another in college football, and now they have powerful teams that do not like each other. Both have rebuilt their sides remarkably well, both have plucked excellent young mobile quarterbacks from relative obscurity, and both have tough defenses and like to run the ball hard on the ground with strong running backs. With so much in common, it is a wonder they don’t get along.

San Francisco are the hottest team in football right now, coming in to the Playoffs via a wild-card spot and taking down both the Green Bay Packers and Carolina Panthers, both games which they played on the road. They got all their important players back fit towards the end of the regular season, and the return of Michael Crabtree in particular made this offense a lot more dynamic. With other outstanding receivers in Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin (who showed he still has tremendous pace while torching the Panthers secondary last weekend on a big play), the Niners are able to vary their offense and put it up to even the best of defenses. Defensively, they have been able to generate huge pressure from their all-star linebacker core, but a lot of this comes down to the hard work of their unheralded front three of Justin Smith, Glenn Dorsey and Ray McDonald, who free up space for the supremely quick and physical linebackers to come through the gaps. Patrick Willis and NaVarro Bowman are also able to cover ground so quickly that they provide great defensive coverage for their team. In Harbaugh’s three years in charge, he has taken the team to this stage on all three occasions. They were defeated in last year’s Super Bowl by the Ravens, and are clearly intent on getting back there again.

Seattle cruised through the regular season more or less, before a jittery end saw them have to win on the last day of the season to guarantee they took the number one seed and home-field advantage through the post-season. That advantage is massive, as the Seahawks fans create a frankly ridiculous atmosphere for the home team, with their cheering during games having registered on the earthquake measuring scale. Seattle have had ample salary cap space thanks to the puny rookie deals that star players like Russell Wilson and Richard Sherman, meaning they have been able to splash out and bring in defensive ends Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett in free agency. Add those to Chris Clemons and Red Bryant, as well as Brandon Mebane at defensive tackle, and the Seahawks have an awesome pass rush that can be rotated throughout the game to maintain freshness. With a physically challenging secondary and a mean linebacking core in between, they boast a great defense. The same depth doesn’t exist on the offensive side, although they have stars at quarterback and running back with Wilson and Marshawn Lynch. Their receivers do manage to step up and make plays though, and although Percy Harvin may not be able to play Sunday, they have been without him all year so the disruption is minimal. The Niners won the last clash between these two, but that was in San Francisco in a game San Francisco simply had to win. It is a different story in Seattle, where the Seahawks have doled out some bad beatings to their divisional rival in recent years. It looks like San Francisco will put in an almighty effort, but the Seahawks should have enough on their side to get the win.

Pick: Seahawks

All kick-off times are Irish time.

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