For those of you in Australia, you might as well give your boss the head’s up that you’ll be calling in sick on Monday. The advance notice will make it easier to cover your shift. And really, do you want to spend half the day faking diarrhea so that you can watch football in the John on your smart phone?
And I’m not just talking to the “already converted” land-down-under NFL faithful. If you’ve never seen an American football game in your life, this is the week to start. Mark my words.
Unlike most NFL playoff tournaments, this year the Conference Championship games feature the best four teams in the league. And sorry Carolina, I don’t care about your first round bye. It was evident last Sunday that the Niners were the better team and the game had more of an air of “dominance” than “upset”. And to further bolster my assertion, both teams finished the season with records of (12-4).
Without further ado, let’s get to it.
New England Patriots @ Denver Broncos
Tom Brady took the league by storm in the early 2000’s by winning three Super Bowl titles in his first four seasons as the starter (twice SB MVP). Since then, he’s been back to the big dance twice, but fell on both occasions to the NY Giants.
(In fact, I hear that Gisele often has to comfort Tom when he wakes up during the wee hours of the morning in cold sweats from recurring David Tyree helmet-catch nightmares.)
So the funny thing is, as much as many fans love to hate on Brady and Belichick, they haven’t actually won a title in close to ten years now. This isn’t to say that the Tom Brady era Patriots aren’t a dynasty, they are. But it does mean that Belichick and crew are just as hungry for another Lombardi trophy as the rest of them.
When asked about this weekend’s match-up in Denver, Brady offered this response, “It would be as satisfying as any victory we’ve ever had.” That’s saying quite a lot for a player who’s been to the Super Bowl an incredible five times.
Why would the win be so satisfying? Because unlike the AFC Championship games of Brady’s past, this time around they will be playing as the underdog.
Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos shattered the offensive record books this season and have bucked every old adage relating to defense. Their motto is: Why play defense? The sooner we get the ball back the sooner we can score.
OK, so perhaps Denver’s defense isn’t THAT bad, but they did allow an average of 24.9 points per game, which is by far the most out of the four remaining teams (Sea 14.4, SF 17, NE 21.1).
Of course, Broncos fans will be quick to point out that the 259 total yards allowed to the Chargers is the lowest total in this year’s playoffs.
Anyhow, enough about all that.
The beauty of the playoffs is that whatever happened in the past is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter that New England already defeated Denver once this season. It doesn’t matter that Tom Brady is (2-1) against Peyton Manning in AFC Championships and (10-4) against the Broncos QB for his career.
So, on the other side of the field, what’s on Peyton’s mind?
Following the victory over San Diego, Manning had this to say when asked about whether or not the future of his NFL career was weighing on his mind: “It’s really not. What’s weighing on my mind is how soon I can get a Bud Light in my mouth. That’s priority number one.”
Really, man? You’re a multi-gazabillionaire and the best you can come up with is Bud Light?
But I digress.
No matter what he quips to the media, there’s no question that his career-long record of lackluster post-season performances worries Peyton more than locating a cold one to suck down. He knows as well as the rest of us do that one more Super Bowl ring will go a long way towards erasing his “post-season choke artist” moniker before he heads towards retirement and on to the Hall-of-Fame.
KEYS to VICTORY
In the win over San Diego, Denver lost cornerback Chris Harris for the rest of the season to injury. It was after Harris went down that Philip Rivers went to work on the Broncos secondary, scoring two touchdowns through the air and nearly commandeering a miracle comeback.
If Tom Brady can pick apart Denver’s defensive backs in the same fashion for four full quarters, we could end up seeing a big-time shootout.
The Patriots demolished the Colts with their running game, scoring 6 rushing TDs, but a more balanced attack will be needed on the road in Denver.
Brady has 6 career game-winning drives in the playoffs, so at the end of the day what New England needs to do is keep it close and have the ball last.
On the other side of this same coin, players need to step up in the secondary to prevent the Broncos from hemorrhaging yardage through the air.
And while it may seem counter-intuitive to say this after Manning pretty much had the greatest season for a quarterback of all time, I’m still going to say it. Peyton’s got to protect the ball. An ill-timed interception could make the difference in this one and if he’s to blame for a Broncos loss, he’ll be stuck reaching for something a hell of a lot stronger than Bud Light.
The Vegas line heavily favors Denver at home, but this game really is a toss-up. I do see the Broncos eking this one out, though, but not without yet another upset scare in the 4th quarter. Broncos 31 – 27 Patriots
San Francisco 49ers @ Seattle Seahawks
A battle. A brutal battle. It will be sparks, flames, you name it.
These aren’t my words. They belong to 49ers tight end Vernon Davis.
Why would he say something like that?
Niners fans have been waiting for this. Hawks fans have been waiting for this. NFL fans have been waiting for this. And anyone with a pulse who knows what’s good for them has been waiting for this rematch between quite possibly the most-bitter rivals currently in the league.
These two teams hate each other. They really do. And Pete Carroll vs. Jim Harbaugh? Man, oh man, that’s a celebrity boxing match that could rake in millions on Pay-per-view.
San Francisco and Seattle split this season, with each team winning at home. The Seahawks embarrassed the 49ers 29-3 on National TV, and then San Francisco returned the favor with a close 19-17 victory later in the season at the now-defunct Candlestick Park.
Right now the 49ers are the hottest team in the league (8 straight wins) and as much as Seahawks fans don’t want to admit it, Russell Wilson and the Seattle passing attack has slumped now for 5 straight weeks.
Regardless of who stamps their ticket to New York, there will be no blow-out this weekend in Seattle.
KEYS to VICTORY
Since the return of Michael Crabtree, the 49ers offense has become more balanced and more effective. With both Crabtree and Vernon Davis in the line-up, Colin Kaepernick will need to find holes in the Legion-of-Boom for big gains downfield.
But the biggest key to victory for the Niners will be to put a shoulder pad on Marshawn Lynch. Last week against the Saints, Lynch set a Seahawks playoff record with 140 yards and 2 TDs. If SF can keep Beast Mode out of the end zone they’ll be well on their way to their 2nd straight Super Bowl appearance, especially if Wilson can’t get anything going through the air.
Relying on Lynch to carry the team this week won’t cut it. The Niners are far too good against the run. Seattle must get their wide-outs more involved in the offensive attack and get the ball in the hands of other playmakers besides Lynch. It is still unclear whether or not Percy Harvin will suit up after suffering a concussion against New Orleans. If he can’t play then Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin need to step up and make plays.
The last two times these teams met in Seattle the combined score was 71-16 in favor of Seattle. And the Hawks were able to pull off such huge wins by disrupting Colin Kaepernick.
Kaepernick claims that the unfriendly confines of Century Link Field had no effect on his game, but the numbers prove otherwise. If Seattle can get to him early and force him to struggle, the 49ers offense will crumble around him.
Like I said, I’m not predicting Seahawks games in the playoffs. Or in the Super Bowl for that matter.