Back of the Jersey Conference Championship Picks & Match-ups to Watch

Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning

New England at Denver – by Rory Goulding

Spotlight: A Different Look for Brady-Manning, Round 15

The Patriots 34-31 win over the Broncos in Week 12 should mean absolutely nothing when looking at Sunday’s rematch. Not only was the game played in below freezing temperatures, but the teams combined for seven fumbles. SEVEN! That’s the same amount of times that Bill Belichick smiled all season. But perhaps more importantly, the teams themselves will look significantly different. Pro Bowl tight end Julius Thomas did not play, impact starters Rob Gronkowski, Brandon Spikes, Chris Harris and Von Miller (all now out with injury) did, and LeGarette Blount had yet to get into the Seahawks stash of PEDs.[1]

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As fair or unfair as it may be, quarterbacks are judged almost solely on wins and losses. And in the context of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, the actual number of wins and losses against each other is more remembered than who actually made plays in the game. New England’s running game led them to a win last weekend against the Colts, and I think that’s what the Patriots will look to build upon this weekend. If anything, Brady-Manning 15 will come down to anyone but those two.

Matchup to Watch: Random, Out-of-Nowhere Defensive Player X vs Peyton Manning

Bill Belichick is the closest thing to a mad scientist that we’ve ever seen in the NFL. He makes something out of absolutely nothing, whether it’s successfully playing wide receivers (both Troy Brown and Julian Edelman) at defensive back, resurrecting careers like Rob Ninkovich and Mark Anderson, or making sleeveless hoodies a thing. It was even rumored that after All-Pro defensive tackle Vince Wilfork went down with a knee injury earlier this season, Belichick contemplated signing New Jersey governor Chris Christie to take his place on the defensive line, due mainly to his large stature, competitive nature and ability to plug up even the biggest (running/traffic) lanes.

Last week it was Jamie Collins, playing in place of IR-bound linebacker Brandon Spikes, who claimed the “guy-off-the-street” spot for the Patriots. Collins, in his first-career start, had 3 tackles, a sack and an interception, because that’s what players do when Belichick sprinkles his fairy  dust on them. I wish Sportsbook had a prop bet for this, but regardless my wager is on 2nd year defensive tackle Sealver Siliga. Why? Because I’ve never heard of him.

Brady gets to his 6th Super Bowl, Siliga gets to his first.

Patriots 31, Broncos 27

San Francisco at Seattle

Spotlight: Seattle’s Home Dominance 

Since Pete Carroll was hired as head coach in Seattle in 2010, his Seahawks are 24-8 at home during the regular season.[2] In the past two seasons, Seattle has lost one regular season game at home, and that came this season at the hands of the Arizona Cardinals. The 49ers last win in Seattle was during the 2011 season, and they have yet to beat Russell Wilson in his home stadium. As a matter of fact, they’ve been manhandled in their last two trips up to CenturyLink Field, getting outscored 71-16 in the process.

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The 49ers NEED to get the lead first. If they get down 10 or more points early, Colin Kaepernick has little to no chance of coming back against the Seattle defense with their raucous crowd behind them. If the Niners can get some early mojo and take the lead before halftime, they have a chance for the upset.

Matchup to watch: Marshawn Lynch vs. SF Defense

Marshawn Lynch

Image courtesy of washingtonpost.com

Since Jim Harbaugh has taken control[3] of the San Francisco 49ers, his defense has yet to find an answer for Marshawn Lynch; specifically when these teams meet in Seattle. Since Harbaugh’s first season as head coach in 2011, Lynch has rushed for 316 yards and six total touchdowns against the 49ers in Seattle.[4] This is extremely out of character for a 49ers team that has been incredible against the run under Harbaugh. The Niners haven’t allowed a 100+ rusher in six playoff games under Harbaugh, and in the 24 regular season games with him at the helm, the Niners have allowed an opposing running back to rush for more than 95 yards only 8 times. Four of those times were Marshawn Lynch.

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The Niners need to find a way to stop, or at least slow down, Marshawn Lynch. If they can keep Lynch under 75 yards, that will be a huge step towards making the Super Bowl.

I think my Niners find a way to slow down Beast Mode and eke this one out.

49ers 22, Seahawks 16

New England Patriots versus Denver Broncos – by Tyler Michels

Spotlight: The Hall of Fame Quarterbacks

Although this is an obvious “spotlight” in the terrific matchup this Sunday afternoon at Mile High Stadium, it is just too good to not discuss. Brady versus Manning for a trip to the Super Bowl?  Honestly, as a football fan it cannot get much better. I do not believe it will ultimately come down to the way they play, I think outside factors out of their control (see run game for Denver vs. NE defense below) will end up determining this game, eventually swinging it in the Broncos favor.

But, the excitement building for this matchup is impossible to avoid. Brady versus Manning also adds another element that will not be present in the Niners-Seahawks game – a quarterback battle that features two traditional passers and two rather traditional offenses.

Pure football fans should be as enthusiastic as ever for this AFC Championship. Will Brady beat Manning once again in the playoffs to reach his sixth Super Bowl? Or will Peyton best Brady and the Pats like he did in 2006 with Indianapolis en route to his one and only championship ring. I cannot wait to find out.

Matchup to watch: The Running Game – Moreno versus NE defense

Anyone who watched the meeting this past November between New England and Denver should be familiar with Knowshon Moreno and the improved running game of the Denver Broncos. Moreno’s season was highlighted in that game in Foxboro when he rushed for a career-high 224 yards. I expect this to be the key matchup this time around.

I do not think that New England will allow Peyton Manning to torch them all game, and they’ll make a commitment to stopping the pass. This should open lanes for Moreno, who won’t come as a surprise, but will be difficult to stop. Denver has run the ball too consistently for it to not have any success this week. I expect another 100+ yard rushing effort from Moreno, and a healthy mix of Monte Ball will also help keep Knowshon fresh.

New England Patriots 27 Denver Broncos 30

San Francisco 49ers versus Seattle Seahawks

Spotlight: San Fran’s defense versus Seattle’s defense

Another brilliant matchup occurs in Seattle this Sunday, where the Seahawks will host the Niners in a game featuring two divisional rivals in the most important game of their head to head history.

This game again showcases an interesting quarterback dynamic, and a completely different style than the one in the previous game. Kaepernick versus Wilson may be a bit more exciting, a look into the future as the NFL is beginning to shift to mobile QB’s who can extend the play and beat you with more than their arm.

In the end, the quarterback play won’t be the difference. The overall play of the defenses will determine which team is packing their bags for a trip to the Meadowlands in a few weeks. Kaepernick’s struggles against division rival Seattle have been well established, but how will San Francisco’s defense fare against Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch?

During their eight game win streak, the Niners are giving up just 15 points per game, and allowing a mere 304 yards per game. These numbers are definitely impressive, but San Francisco will need their best effort to slow up an offense that can beat you in more ways than one.

Whoever shows up and can get more stops defensively will be the ones headed to face their AFC foe on February 2nd.

Matchup to watch: Seattle Secondary – Sherman vs. Boldin

One specific matchup to keep an eye on is the Seattle secondary versus the San Francisco receivers. Kaepernick has been hot of late, and Boldin has been consistent all season (I still don’t know what Baltimore was thinking in letting this guy go. He just gets the job done!). Richard Sherman versus Anquan Boldin is a matchup the Seahawks have to win in order to win this game in my opinion. Boldin has to be limited in what he does as a playmaker, especially on third down.

Of course, if the Niners lose this battle of Sherman vs. Boldin, that does not mean they can’t win the game. It will just eliminate their first option. Someone from San Francisco will have to step up, but they are not short of options. Kaepernick can find Vernon Davis, one of the NFL’s best tight ends, or he could find Michael Crabtree, another talented pass catching machine. Or, the Niners may choose to go with the ground and pound game with the always-reliable Frank Gore.

Either way, the strategy for Seattle has to start with eradicating Anquan Boldin’s success, and forcing San Francisco to beat them with options B, C and D.

Ultimately, I am looking forward to these two championship games more so than I can ever remember as a neutral fan. The NFL playoffs have overall been thrilling so far this season, and I expect nothing less than this on Sunday.

San Francisco 49ers 17 Seattle Seahawks 23

Colin Kaepernick

Image courtesy of balleralert.com

New England Patriots vs. Denver Broncos – By Jim Armstrong

Spotlight: LaGarrette Blount & Knowshown Moreno

Think about where both of these guys were 12 months ago? LaGarrette Blount was a rotting cadaver on Greg Schiano’s bench, having been benched in favor of rookie Doug Martin early last season. Blount recorded a total of 41 carries for 151 yards in the 2012 season…good for a 3.7 yards per carry average. In last week’s AFC Divisional Playoff match-up against Indianapolis, Blount carried the rock 24 times for 166 yards…good for a 6.9 yards per carry average.

Entering this season, Knowshown was coming off a strong finish to his 2012 season, one in which he picked up the rushing duties in December after a knee injury knocked out Willis McGahee for the remainder of the season. Even with a strong final six weeks, Moreno had long been labeled a bust. Having been selected with the #12 pick in the 2009 draft, Knowshown had yet to eclipse 1,000 yards prior to the 2013 season. How quickly we forget how close Knowshown was to failing in the NFL…(and how much it shows how itinerant and week-to-week the life of an NFL running back is).

Let’s fast-forward 12 months…Both LaGarrette Blount and Knowshown Moreno have played key roles during the last several games for each of their respective teams. Knowshown finally had his breakout year, surpassing 1,000 yards rushing (1,038) and posting double-digit touchdowns (10) for the first time in his 5-year career (how has he already played five seasons??). Reclamation project Blount (or “Blount Force Trauma” as New England fans have begun so affectionately calling him) has resurrected his career in New England, as so many other studs of the past decade have done (re: Harrison, Rodney & Moss, Randy).

Both of these backs will figure to be front and center in each of their team’s offensive game plans. Although the weather in Denver is supposed to be balmy on Sunday (high of 58 degrees, low of 35), I don’t expect Manning and Brady to put on an aerial display. Both John Fox and Bill Belichick will focus on keeping the football out of the opposing quarterback’s hands. To achieve this, each team must run the ball successfully, which they have done emphatically the last several weeks.

Matchups to watch: Demaryius Thomas & Eric Decker vs. Alfonso Dennard & Aqib Talib

These are two of the most talented receivers in football going up against two of the better cover corner defensive backs in the NFL. At 6’1” and 205 lbs, Talib is one of the biggest cornerbacks that you’ll find in this league. His press coverage skills and physicality have earned him a rep as one of the best corners in the league.

At 5’10” and 200 lbs, Alfonso Dennard is another big corner who will be responsible for covering Decker and at times Welker. Whoever wins these matchups wins the game. If Peyton can get his stud receivers going, then it’s all downhill from here for the Broncos.

Who wins: Although I think Blount will rush for more yards in this game, I like Denver in another classic. Let’s be honest with ourselves. Blount and Knowshown will be workhorses in the fist half, with each coach angling to keep the ball out of the opposing QB’s hands. After halftime the aerial shows will be on full display, with Wes Welker and Julian Edelman each catching multiple touchdowns.

Too much Welker, Decker, Thomas brothers (Julius & Demaryius) and Moreno in this one. Broncos win 34-28 and Peyton pushes his career playoff record to .500, at 11-11.

San Francisco 49ers vs. Seattle Seahawks

Spotlight: Seattle’s 12th man vs. Colin Kaepernick & San Fran’s O-Line

The 12th Man

Image courtesy of www.pnsn.com

In purported “game of the week” in week 2 turned into an absolute disaster for the 49ers. They fell behind early and couldn’t recover amidst the earth-shattering (literally) din of CenturyLink field. Colin Kaepernick completed only 13 passes for 127 yards and fell flat in this nationally televised game on NBC. The game felt very much like the Varsity squad vs. the JV squad. The ‘Hawks were just faster, stronger and better than the 49ers in Week 2 and a big reason for this was the ear-splitting noise that forced Kaepernick into the silent count and threw off timing between him and his receivers.

I don’t see this happening again but due to having the best home field advantage in all of sports (go ahead and try to name a more disruptive place to play) I see Seattle advancing. The 49ers margin for error is so slim. They must start out hot and at least restrict the crowd’s involvement in the game from the first snap. If they fail to score in their first three drives, look out for the crowd to play a larger role in this game than anyone on the 49ers would care to admit.

Matchup to watch: Colin Kaepernick vs. Seattle’s DB’s

Richard Sherman gets most of the notoriety (both good and bad) in Seattle’s secondary but Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor are two of the best safeties in football. All three of these guys were Pro Bowlers in 2013 and are ascending players (none older than 25). Sherman tied a career high in interceptions with 8, which also led the NFL. Earl Thomas recorded a career-high 105 combined tackles, to go along with 5 interceptions and 2 forced fumbles, while Kam Chancellor nearly matched him, with 99 combined tackles, 3 interceptions and one forced fumble.

Kaepernick has a tendency to break off his reads in progressions and tuck the ball to run. He won’t be able to tuck it after one read and run due to Seattle’s superb containment from its front 7 guys. Seattle was the #1 overall defense for total yards allowed in the NFL and #7 in rushing yards. Kaepernick has historically struggled against the Seahawks, throwing only 1 TD versus 4 interceptions in the two match-ups this season.

Russell Wilson is more protective of the football and has Marshawn Lynch to hand to 30 times if needed in this game (although Frank Gore is no slouch). I like the Seahawks disrupting the 49ers flow on offense and doing just enough on defense to win this one and advance to the Super Bowl for the first time since 2005.

Seahawks 27, 49ers 26

I’m sticking with my Super Bowl pick from week 17:

Broncos 17, Seahawks 14

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