The divisional round of the NFL playoffs did not quite live up to the hype that Wild Card weekend provided for the fans. The match ups were great, but there weren’t any 28 point second half comebacks or any type of upsets. It is all good because the next round provides fans with the best possible championship games that anyone could have asked for. The NFL has had parity across the league this season, but the match ups for the upcoming championship weekend were predicted amongst many of the critics in the preseason. Before getting into the games predictions and analysis, I want to look back at what stood out in last weekend’s games.
There were common themes amongst the two number one seeds I noticed in both their games. The Seahawks and Broncos both got out to hot starts in their match ups and looked as if they were going to blow the other team out by half time. Great teams know how to put other teams away when they have an opportunity to do so, better known as a kill. We see the great Quarterbacks “kill”, if the opposing team is ineffective or making mistakes consistently, those great quarterbacks make them pay for those miscues and “kill” the other teams chances at a possible comeback. If you look at both these number one seeds, neither team could “kill” off the opposing team and put them out of the game. Drew Brees and his offense were not effective at moving the ball at all until the late fourth quarter. Once the rain slowed down and came to a halt, Brees was able to throw it around and began to put points up. Seattle had a 16-point lead, but was unable to continue to add to that lead for quite some time. They did not put away New Orleans, so when Brees led a scoring drive, all of the sudden a game that felt like it was one sided, was now a close game once again. Marshawn Lynch did later score a touchdown to increase the lead, but New Orleans did have a chance at the end of the game to make something happen to potentially tie the game.
Denver’s game was almost identical to Seattle’s. Denver had a 17-0 lead heading into the third quarter. San Diego was trying to run the ball throughout the contest, but they were ineffective for three quarters. The defense made key stops to keep the Chargers still in the game. Once they opened up the playbook and let Phillip Rivers throw the ball, their offense began to move the chains and score points. Denver scored another touchdown to extend their lead, but ultimately the Chargers almost had a shot at tying it. The defense forced a 3rd and 17 for Manning, but he made the conversion that ended the game. As stated above, a game that virtually felt like a blowout was still close when the Chargers scored a touchdown. Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos did not get the “kill” in the first half or third quarter, it took a 3rd and 17 conversion to get it.
Indianapolis almost seemed like the favorite heading into Foxboro after their 28-point comeback victory against the Chiefs. I mentioned in my last predictions post that this matchup was the easiest for me to pick and had New England by 13. Instead it was a 21-point rout by the Patriots, but one that no one could have ever predicted. They put up 43 points without Tom Brady throwing a touchdown pass. If you would have told me the score of the game before it started and said Brady would not have thrown a touchdown pass, Indianapolis would appear as the team that would have scored 43 points. That was not the case as the Patriots running game was tremendous, especially Blount. Along with the defense that was causing turnovers, Jamie Collins stood out the most. This is a different side of New England we have not seen in a long time, scary if your trying to game plan against them now.
The best match up of the weekend was a solid game across the board. Two great defenses against two of the better up and coming young quarterbacks. Everyone was more interested to see how Cam Newton would play in his playoff debut and I thought he did well. His last interception was a bad throw, but other than that he was good against a great 49ers defense. He had about 270 yards through the air and above 50 on the ground. I liked the way he was using his legs to get some yards at a time versus that defense, making third downs more manageable. What I did not like was the conservative feel to the play calling. Similar with the Chargers, I felt like the Panthers tried to run the ball too much at one point when it was not effective. Carolina has been great on offense this season because of their great balance, but after a while in the playoffs, you have to turn your best playmaker loose. I just felt that they never let Cam turn loose and let him make the big plays that we are accustomed to seeing. Its not like he did not have success early, his throw to Steve Smith for the first touchdown is as good a throw as your going to see. Also, the quarterback sneak on the goal line is a head scratcher. I like that call usually, but not against the 49ers linebackers. Move Cam around to the outside or run the Gator package and let Cam jump over the pile if anything. It is very clear the Carolina needs more weapons on the outside because Steve Smith isn’t getting any younger and Ted Ginn Jr. just does not quite cut it as a second option on the outside. Other than that, Carolina is a great young team and this wont be their last trip to the post season. Now with all that review done, onto the championship round predictions.
New England 33 Denver 31
Brady vs. Manning, what else could you ask for in the AFC championship? The two greatest quarterbacks of this era and one of the best quarterback rivalries ever, this championship will live up to the hype. Unfortunately for Denver, they will not live up to the hype. We saw what impact the loss of Chris Harris was last round; you know Tom Brady is well aware of that. The main reason why the Patriots will move on and Denver won’t, Bill Belichick will outcoach John Fox. Belichick is one of the greatest coaches of all time and he is a genius. He is going to come out with a game plan that will be the difference. Imagine how difficult it is for Fox to game plan against the Patriots, a week after they ran the ball that effectively. Tom Brady does not have the weapons offensively that Manning has, but he will make it work against the Broncos defense. I see New England running the ball effectively early, but turning Brady loose early on as well. If Brady can have the run game working his way, their play action passing game will deteriorate the Denver D. As for Manning and his offense, I see them scoring early and often too. It will have to come down to what defense is opportunistic and forces the key turnovers. I see the Patriots defense doing so, similar to what they did last week against the Colts. If Denver does get a lead early, it wont matter because if they don’t “kill” off Brady, he will come back to hurt you. Bottom line for this game, never count against Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.
San Francisco 23 Seattle 17
The most fresh and best rivalry in the NFL owns the NFC championship game. San Fran comes in after two straight road wins and Seattle comes in after a home win vs. the Saints. Seattle has gotten the hype all of the preseason and during the regular season, as they should. They have a great defense led by the cocky secondary group known as the Legion of Boom. The Seahawks also have the toughest home crowd in the NFL, where they hardly lose. They have blown out the 49ers two straight seasons at home, but the third time is a charm. San Francisco is the most experience team out of the two and they were in the Super Bowl last season. They will get back by taking down the Super Bowl favorite Seahawks. Seattle comes into this game with all the pressure on them, which benefits San Fran. I have made it known throughout the regular season that when it all came down to this game, the 49ers would be victorious. They have the best personnel to match up against Seattle’s defense. Their secondary is tough, but Boldin, Crabtree and Davis are the perfect set of weapons to have facing them. The offensive line and Kaepernick’s legs will buy him time to throw to these weapons with the Seattle pass rush coming at him. As for Seattle’s offense, they are reliant on Marshawn Lynch to carry the load. The 49ers defense is yet to allow an individual one hundred yard rusher all season, that spells trouble for the Seahawks. If they are unable to run the ball, this forces them to be one-dimensional with Russell Wilson. That is not his game because he likes to utilize the play action to get him moving outside the pocket. Carlos Rogers looks to be back in the49ers secondary, which is great for that unit.
Percy Harvin as of Thursday has not been cleared to play. Throughout the regular season, the biggest point I tried to stress was who the bigger difference maker would be for their team when this match up came about. Percy Harvin and Michael Crabtree were injured throughout the majority of the regular season, but both were set to return at the tail end. There was a whole lot of buzz in the offseason when the Seahawks traded for Harvin, but I was not sold on it as much as every other expert in the country was. He has never shown he can stay consistently healthy and on the field. Crabtree’s impact on the other hand, is huge. That is Kaepernick’s number one target and we have seen that since he has made his return from a pre season Achilles injury. Crabtree will be the biggest difference maker in this game and one of the main reasons why San Francisco upsets Seattle at home to move on to the Super Bowl for a second straight season.