New England Patriots #2 (+5.5) @ Denver Bronco #1 (55.5): Patriots 37-34
Sunday, 3:00 PM, Mile High Stadium, Denver, CO (Weather: Clear, mild, mid-50s)
Reasons: This is truly a battle of the titans, the 15th time future first-ballot HOF QBs Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have faced each other in their careers in the regular season and playoffs, the 4th time for the AFC Championship. Tom Brady leads those head-to-head match ups 10-4 and 2-1, respectively (Brady also leads in all-time playoff wins -18-7 compared to Manning's 10-11). Some would argue that Manning is the better QB of this generation, and statistically they might be right, as Manning continued his HOF career in 2013 by breaking Brady's 2007 record for TDs (55) and Drew Brees' 2011 record for total passing yards (5,477), but greatness is measured in championships and Brady leads that category 3-1. One could easily argue that Brady could have five Super Bowl rings; I am one of those people. If it didn't look pathetic I might talk about Peyton Manning's 2006 Colts, who turned up the heat on us, costing us our sixth title, but that would look pathetic. So these two players have a long history, but so do these teams - the Broncos bounced Brady, Belichick and the Patriots from the playoffs in 2005, ending their dreams of a three-peat, and the Patriots returned the favor in 2011, John Fox's first year with the Broncos. Statistically the Patriots are a top-10 team in terms of scoring (2nd - offense; 7th - defense), and they're one of the best in the league in gaining yards (7th), but they also give up a lot of yards (26th). Despite losing most of their offensive weapons throughout the season, Brady and Julian Edleman have managed to make the Patriots 10th-ranked passing attack, and the stable of running backs (LaGarrette Blount, Shane Vereen & Steven Ridley) have vaulted the Patriots to the league's 9th-ranked run game. And despite losing as many key players on defense, the Patriots have stayed afloat defensively, even excelling at times, as seen last week, holding the Colts to 22 points and 69 yards rushing. The Broncos have taken over that 2007 Brady-led Patriots team, once considered the greatest offensive team in NFL history, to become the new offensive bar to which teams will be measured, scoring a mind-blowing 606 points (38 ppg) while averaging more than 457 ypg. That has most to do with Peyton Manning and his gang of ProBowl WRs, the league's top-ranked passing attack, but also has something to do with the run game (ranked 15th), which saw Knowshon Moreno reach 1,000 yards for the first time in his career. The Broncos defense, although statistically better than the Patriots (22nd-ranked scoring defense; 19th total yards), is nothing to be scared of, but they are ranked 8th v. the run. Their porous pass defense suffered a huge blow last week when they lost Chris Harris for the rest of the playoffs with a torn ACL, the main reason for the Chargers comeback led by Philip Rivers. So although the Patriots don't have any serious weapons besides Edleman at WR, the fact that Vereen catches the ball out of the backfield so well, and the Broncos secondary could be non-existent, the Patriots still have the slight advantage. The one advantage the Broncos seem to have on defense is minimized greatly by the resurgence of the Patriots running team, something the offensive line and three RBs have gotten behind. So this game might not come down to Manning v. Brady, but we know it will. Manning will try and go up early on the Patriots, who average 3 fewer points on the road, and Brady and Belichick will relish in the spotlight that is the road underdog, the first time the Patriots have been playoff underdogs since 2007 (1/14/07, -5 v. SD, Divisional Round - NE won 24-21). In fact, the Patriots are 3-0 as playoff underdogs under Bill Belichick, and just like 2001, not many people expect them to win. That's exactly why I am. Not only has this been arguably Bill Belichick's best coaching job, Tom Brady has made a legitimate case for MVP despite his Sunday opponent's 2013 feats. This Patriots team has mounded lots of experience with players no one knows, and the locker room claims it's the toughest Patriots teams any of these veterans have ever been around. The Broncos might be the darlings of the 2013 NFL, but those are just the teams the Patriots come in and crumble. It'll be an offensive battle to the end (take the over), but this time it won't take a miraculous 34-point, second half comeback like it did with the Patriots victory over the Broncos in New England Week 12. A last second FG might win this one...
San Francisco 49ers #5 (+3.5) @ Seattle Seahawks (39.5): 49ers 27-24
Sunday, 6:30 PM, CenturyLink Field, Seattle, WA (Weather: Chance of rain, mid-40s)
Reasons: The Seahawks home crowd, the self-titled "12th Man", is such a huge advantage that Vegas gave the Seahawks an extra half point because of it. The 3.5 point spread is because the Seahawks are are home and they have an insane crowd - and that's about it, because being home is about their only advantage. The NFC Championship could not be played between two more evenly-matched teams. They split the season series 1-1 (although SEA outscored them 48-20), are led on the sidelines by two young(er) college-turned-pro rah-rah coaches, and are led on the field by the two hottest young QBs in the NFL, and that's the tip of the iceberg. Offensively the 49ers rank 11th in scoring and 24th in total yards; the Seahawks rank 8th and 17th, respectively. The 49ers rank towards the bottom of the league (30th) in passing; the Seahawks rank 26th. The 49ers have one of the best running games in the league (ranked 3rd); the Seahawks rank 4th. Defensively there's even less room between the two teams. The Seahawks are the top-ranked scoring defense in the league and allow the fewest yards, but the 49ers rank 3rd and 5th in those categories, respectively. Against the pass the Seahawks are the top ranked defense and should make Colin Kaepernick's day tough, but it won't be much easier for Russell Wilson v. the 49ers 7th-ranked pass defense. The run game is where the battles will be won, both at RB and at QB, but it'll be tough sledding against the 4th (SF) and 7th (SEA) ranked run defenses in the league. It does seem boring to pour over so many numbers, but when you break it down it's amazing how evenly-matched these two teams are. Another slight advantage the 49ers might have is that they've won eight straight games (including the playoffs), two of their last three games have come v. top-5 defenses, and they've won five of those eight games on the road. The 49ers have about as much swag as a team can have. On the other hand the Seahawks are 3-2 in their last five games (after going 10-1), including a loss at home for the first time in two years, and Percy Harvin just can't stay healthy for the Seahawks. The 49ers WRs may be soft, except of course for Boldin, but at least they have multiple weapons, and all the national televised "soft" talk had surely reached Vernon Davis' ears. The Seahawks secondary is as bad as they come, but most of these games are won in the trenches, and the 49ers trench is the scariest place in the NFL. And if you manage to rise from that trench the baddest core of LBs this Century is waiting there to end your life, which takes the Seahawks Beast out of the equation. I like both road teams this week. One because I'm a homer and think Brady's had enough of the nonsense. They seemed destined. The other is because the 49ers are the most talented and experienced squad left in these playoffs and they just beat up the toughest team in the NFL not named the Seahawks or themselves bad at their own house. Unless these Seahawks trash talk Kaepernick right out of the game, I think the 49ers have an edge in one the most anticipated NFC Championship games in years.
Stay tuned next week for "Tuesday's Gone: Week 20 #NFL Predictions Review: CHAMPIOSHIP ROUND"...