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NFL: Packers And Seahawks Face Off On Championship Sunday

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We are down to the final four now in the race to the Super Bowl, with only three games left for the year. The AFC and NFC Championship games take place on Sunday and, with only the cream of the crop left, we can be sure of two top games coming up. With players and coaches knowing they are just sixty minutes of football away from the promised land of the Super Bowl, everything will be laid on the line come Sunday. Let’s look ahead to two of the most hotly contested matches of the year.

Green Bay Packers at Seattle Seahawks

The Seattle Seahawks are now in a situation they are very familiar with, having been the host for the NFC Championship game last season. On that occasion, they overcame divisional rivals in the San Francisco Forty-Niners, who pushed them harder than any team on the Seahawks run to the Super Bowl. The Seahawks will be prepared for a frenetic bout against Aaron Rodgers and his troops. The game will be a classic encounter of strength versus strength, as the Seattle Seahawks and their immense defense prepare to face arguably the best quarterback and wide receiver pair the NFL has to offer. The ‘Hawks defense has went from good to unbelievable down the stretch, with the return of previously injured players like Bobby Wagner and Kam Chancellor returning to harden the core of this defense. The Seahawks gave up just under 16 points per game and 267 yards of offense per game in the regular season, and if they can replicate those numbers on Sunday they will be advancing to their second successive Super Bowl appearance. Facing a game but physically limited quarterback, the Seahawks will surely attack Rodgers early and try to unsettle him, with his mobility severely limited by a calf injury. If they can shut down the run game and force Rodgers to bob and weave in the pocket, they will create opportunities to put him on the ground. Offensively, the Seahawks will fancy their chances of exposing that defense, with Marshawn Lynch, Russell Wilson and Robert Turbin likely getting a large number of carries against a unit not renowned for stuffing the run. With Wilson throwing the ball better than ever in recent weeks, Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse will likely get opportunities off of play-action, although Paul Richardson’s absence will be felt.

The Green Bay Packers are facing an uphill battle in their attempts to make it to the Super Bowl for the first time since 2010, with the lifeblood of their offense, Aaron Rodgers, hobbling through the Divsional Round win over the Dallas Cowboys. Rodgers was unable to put pressure on his foot due to the calf problem, and that caused him not only to miss high on throws that he had been making with ease before getting hurt, but also meant he couldn’t escape from broken pockets and play on the run. That defensive line will see him as a sitting duck, but his pass protection (which had been a huge issue in recent years for Green Bay) was magnificent against Dallas, keeping him upright throughout. Even though he played from the shotgun and pistol, that protective effort was huge. However, if he is to play a similar game again on Sunday, it may make life difficult for Eddie Lacy and James Starks, with shotgun runs not exactly desirable for running backs. Expect Jordy Nelson to be met with plenty of physicality on the line of scrimmage, while Randall Cobb lines up all over the formations in order to ensure some free releases. Cobb and Davante Adams will probably have to come up big, but Jordy Nelson is a top receiver and is capable of putting up big numbers in double and triple coverage. If those three guys get shut down by the Legion of Boom, then the Packers will be finished. Similarly, if the defensive front can’t put up a better effort in run defense (DeMarco Murray fumbled away one certain touchdown from midfield in an otherwise massive day), then the game will get away from them quickly. AJ Hawk and Clay Matthews will have huge roles at linebacker, needing to stuff the run and similarly run with the tight ends Seattle have been utilising so effectively in recent weeks. This Packers team is a very different one on the road, and they are clear underdogs in this one.

Verdict: Seattle

Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots

The New England Patriots are heavy favourites to overcome the cheeky young upstarts from the AFC South on Sunday night. With home field advantage and a penchant for winning in the cold, the Patriots will have shed any ounce of complacency after being pushed by the Baltimore Ravens right until the end in the Divisional Round. Playing in their fourth successive AFC Championship game, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady dug deep into their bag of tricks to extend their playoff run one more week, and it will be interesting to see if they deploy any new surprise plays, or if they bring out the four-man offensive line once more. They shouldn’t need it in this one, even if they are going against a quarterback who doesn’t know when to give up. The Patriots will find some favourable match-ups in that defense, as they always do when Rob Gronkowski is available. The star tight end is near impossible to cover, and if he receives special coverage then it opens things up for Julian Edelman, Brandon LaFell and, for the first time since joining, Danny Amendola. Amendola made a big difference last weekend, and his ability to operate in the slot opposite Gronkowski or Edelman gives the Patriots great flexibility in the passing game, particularly with Shane Vereen shifting out wide from the backfield. Brady’s offensive line has been giving him plenty of time in the pocket, allowing him to hone in on the man in space and find him. But Sunday may well be a night for running the ball, especially considering they are facing the NFL’s 18th ranked run defense. Defensively, the Patriots may feel a little less comfortable after giving up 31 points last weekend, but they have plenty of talented pieces in place. As good as Darrell Revis has been, he has given up touchdowns to Jordy Nelson and Steve Smith in tough moments for the defense, and there has been some suspicion that you can get at New England on crossing routes. The Patriots linebackers will likely spend much of the day in coverage, although with a limited run game and some deep threat, it might be an idea for Belichick to finally let the dogs loose and blitz a bit, to at least limit TY Hilton’s opportunities.

The Indianapolis Colts come into this one with nothing to lose and a Super Bowl appearance to gain. They come in having toppled the Denver Broncos on the back of a brilliantly executed defensive gameplan, and they will likely need the same if they are to overcome the odds once more. The Patriots have a lot of weapons that thrive up the middle of the field, so taking away that option could give them trouble, but Brady is still able to throw outside the numbers, so that would be a dangerous way to play. It remains to be seen if they can get to Brady like they got to Peyton Manning, but that pressure will be needed. It is imperative that the run defense holds up though, because with so many different types of backs at Belichick’s disposal, they will probe for the weaknesses up front. On offense, it may simply be a case of putting the ball in Andrew Luck’s hands and asking him to go win the game. Luck has had nothing but torrid experiences with multiple turnovers playing against the Patriots defense, though. Although Boom Herron has been an upgrade on Trent Richardson, his fumbling issues and inexperience make it hard to lean on him at such a critical juncture. He will get some carries though, and it will be very interesting to see how much impact the Colts can make on the ground. Finding offensive balance would certainly open things up for Andrew Luck and TY Hilton, who have no shortage of match-winning potential between them. If Hakeem Nicks, Donte Moncrief and Reggie Wayne (in perhaps his final NFL game) can make some plays, maybe the Colts will be alive in time for Luck’s patented fourth-quarter magic.

Verdict: New England

Image courtesy of NYpost.com

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