CONFERENCE FINALS MATCHUPS ARE THE BEST IN RECENT NFL HISTORY

18Jan14

Like most sports nuts (not just fans, but nuts), this is my favorite time of the year.  College basketball is in full swing, the NHL is just past the halfway point and that other league (the NBA?) is right behind them.  But most importantly, we’re down to the final four in the NFL.

Yet, more times than not, we’re stuck with at least one clunker game at this point.  You know what I mean.  One of the matchups is more than likely going to be a wipeout, which leaves you only one game to look forward to on Sunday.

Well, for the first time in a while we have four teams that have legitimate chances to make it to the Super Bowl and actually have realistic chances of winning the big game.  How can it get any better than that?

On top of that, history is in the making in both of these games.  In the AFC, we have the fifteenth showdown between two of the best quarterbacks of the last decade.  In the NFC, we have a showdown between two of the best up and coming quarterbacks in the league.

I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say that it will be the changing of the guards.  Enough of the talking heads have been doing that for me this week, but I don’t necessarily agree with their arguments.

First of all, the styles of play between the two sets of QBs is so drastically different, I’m not ready to say that the old style is on its way out.  Yet, the new guys in town still must garner some respect for their achievements in the short couple of years that they’ve been in the league.

We’ll explain a bit more when we look at the games.  Let’s start with the AFC.

The New England Patriots at the Denver Broncos:

When you think of NFL quarterbacks from the past fifteen years, what two names come to mind first?  Peyton Manning and Tom Brady!  So isn’t only fitting that, as their careers approach the finish line, they should be squaring off against each other for the right to go to the Super Bowl?  Absolutely!

Now I’m not going to bore you with the stats of how they have fared against each other or which one wins on the road more often or who plays better in snow or what their playoff records are against each other.  After all, you haven’t been able to turn on a radio or TV without having that data shoved down your throat for the past week.

Instead, let’s focus more on the teams.  After all, it doesn’t matter how good the QB is if the team that surrounds him is not up to the task.  Just ask Luck, Newton, Brees and Rivers!

The Broncos came into the season as the favorites to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl this year.  I admit that I was on that bandwagon, too.  After the season that they’ve had, it would be difficult to abandon that ship now.

Sure they dropped a couple of games along the way, but they won when they had to and finished the regular season with the #1 seed.  Early in the season, it was their offense that dominated, scoring touchdowns at will and blowing their opponents away.  It didn’t really matter to anyone at the time that their defense was average at best because the offense was scoring 40 or more points every week.

Now that their offense has come back down to Earth, and their opponents are not the scrubs of the league, they have had to battle until the end to come away with victories.

The Patriots had a different path to this game.  They had enough turmoil in the off season to destroy any team, losing key players in various fashions, resulting in an opening season roster that did not include a receiver that could be counted on.  That spelled trouble for Brady fans everywhere.

They were still confident because they had a go-to guy in the backfield in Steven Ridley.  Unfortunately for Patriot fans (and a lot of Fantasy Football coaches), that turned into a bust quickly, as he couldn’t hold on to the ball.

However, a couple of players took advantage of the opportunity and stepped up to the plate.  They performed well enough to win close games early in the season, as their defense made the necessary changes to become legitimate.  By the end of the season they had won their division (nothing to brag about) and the #2 seed and had a solid corps of RBs and WRs.  No Pro Bowlers, but solid all the same.

So here we are, the top two teams in the AFC with the top two QBs of recent history leading the attacks, about to square off for the right to go to the Super Bowl.  It is very possible that it will be the final chance for them to beat each other in a game of this magnitude.

In other words, we could be watching history in the making!

That leads to questions.  Will the weather have an impact on the outcome?  Will the home team advantage come into play?  Will it be a scoring explosion?  And most importantly, who wins this game?

That’s a lot of questions, so I’ll answer them quickly and painlessly.

Regardless of all of the hype of Manning being a dome quarterback, both teams are outdoor teams from the snow.  The weather will only impact the game plans, but will not favor either team.

Home field advantage, while important, will not have a big impact on the game.  We’re talking about a visiting team led by one of the best coaches in the business and one of the best QBs around.  The only impact would be with a young player in a key play, not with the Patriot offense on the field.

You would think that this would be a high scoring game, but that would be implying that the defensive units are subpar, and that is not the case.  Early in the season, yes it would have been a 56-54 game.  But now?  Don’t put money on it!

Ultimately, I’ve got to go with the team that is playing the best right now.  It goes against most of the experts’ picks (not to mention my preseason choice), but I think the Patriots will come to town and steal this one.

This will not be a 500 yard passing game for the QBs.  I think both teams try to establish the run and then turn to play action pass.  There is no one in the league that does that as well as Brady.  If Blount can even approach what he did to the Colts last week, then the Broncos are in trouble.

Denver will try to get some running magic of their own with Moreno.  If they succeed, the game will stay close.  If not, they will need to turn to the passing game, which of course is the best in the league.  However, if the Patriots can run the ball and keep Manning off the field, then a one dimensional Bronco offense will come up short.

As crazy as this may sound, I’m going with the New England Patriots over the Denver Broncos 34-30.

The San Francisco 49ers at the Seattle Seahawks:

Before the season began, when everyone was handing the NFC championship to the 49ers, I said that the Seahawks were going to finish on top.  I acknowledged that the 49ers would be the only team with a chance to beat them, but felt that Wilson would grow more than Kaepernick this season and lead Seattle to the Super Bowl.

Do I still believe that?  I’ll let you know in a minute.

Just as the AFC championship game is featuring two of the top QBs from the past fifteen years, the NFC championship game is featuring two of the future star QBs.  However, there is one big difference.

While Manning and Brady are pocket passers with pinpoint accuracy, Wilson and Kaepernick are runners.  Okay, that really doesn’t describe them accurately.  They can both play the pocket passer game.  However, if nothing opens up for them, they can hit the road running and create a whole new headache for the defense.

That’s not to say that they are not good passers.  They are.  But they can do it in the pocket or on the run.  If the defense is not smart enough to keep someone on the outside to contain them, they will put up 100 yards or more on the ground.  If that happens, they don’t lose.

The irony of this game is that both teams fully understand this and, therefore they know how to play their defense to avoid this trap.

So does that mean that the QBs will not be able to run like they normally do?  The answer is “it depends”.  I know, that doesn’t help much, but it’s still a true statement.  Why?  Because the key to this game will not lie with the QBs.  It will lie with the RBs!

We’ve already established the fact that both teams have QBs that can pass, run or both.  Both teams have great defenses and very talented receivers.  But the key to this game will lie in the hands of Gore and Lynch.

Whichever running back is able to pound out the yardage on the ground will more than likely find themselves in the Super Bowl.  All I’ve heard all week long is the only time that the 49ers have had success against the Seahawks in recent years is when Gore has had a good game.

Well, take a look at the other sidelines.  Why have the Seahawks been winning this season?  Because few teams have been able to stop Lynch.  When he has been contained (let’s be real, you can’t stop him), the games have been close and the Seahawks have been vulnerable.  When he is on, forget about it!

So let’s address the key questions from the AFC.  Will the weather have an impact on the outcome?  Will the home team advantage come into play?  Will it be a scoring explosion?  And most importantly, who wins this game?

The weather will have no impact at all on this game.  Both teams are outdoor, rainy weather teams.  Both teams are run first, pass second, scramble third teams.

Home field advantage?  You better believe it.  What other city measures the impact of crowd noise with a Richter scale?  The only way to eliminate this advantage is to score first and never relinquish the lead.  Since Seattle has not allowed a first quarter TD by any opponent this season, that’s a tall order for San Francisco.

This will definitely not be a scoring explosion.  These are the two best defenses in the league.  These are teams that do not turn the ball over and make you pay when you turn it over.  If the turnovers are kept to a minimum, the scoring will be at a minimum, too.

So who wins the game?  Well, in the preseason, I had picked the Seahawks to beat the Broncos in the Super Bowl.  I changed my mind about the Broncos part, but I’m sticking with the Seattle part.

This is the team of destiny this season (not the Colts, as so many experts were trying to claim a week ago).  They have a solid, mistake free team on both sides of the ball.  They win the battle of the trenches, while running the ball down your throat.  When you are forced to go to the passing game to beat them, they have the best secondary in the league waiting for you.

They have few weaknesses and many strengths.  Although the 49ers are a very good team and are potentially the second best team in the league (once again), the Seahawks are the best.

I’m picking the Seattle Seahawks over the San Francisco 49ers 23-20.

Now go and enjoy the best football Sunday you’ll see for years!

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