2014 NFL Championship Round Predictions

January 16, 2014

I’m proud to say that I went 4-0 in picking last weekend’s games.

It is slightly less impressive than picking all of the Wild Card games right, because I’m sure that many people correctly predicted last weekend’s games. Hell, with the exception of Seattle, these are the teams I predicted would make the Championship round at the beginning of the season.

This weekend’s games appear to be much more difficult to call, however. We’re left with the four best teams from start to present, which should result in two very close games.

Here are the previews and predictions for the AFC and NFC Championship games.

AFC Championship

(2) New England Patriots at (1) Denver Broncos (Sunday, 3 PM ET – CBS)

Brady vs. Manning XV, which could be the last time that the two square off pending a clean bill of health for Peyton at the end of the season, is exactly the matchup that fans without a favorite team in the playoffs were hoping to see. Despite New England’s issues offensively due to injuries and Denver’s sometimes suspect defense, these are the two best teams in the AFC and not many people would argue that claim. The only thing that would be better than the two best quarterbacks of the current generation facing each other for a chance at playing in the Super Bowl would be actually seeing them play each other in the Super Bowl. Since that never has been and likely won’t be possible in the future, let’s consider ourselves lucky that we get to watch this game.

Until the fourth quarter of Denver’s game against San Diego last weekend, it looked as if both of these teams would come away with a fairly lopsided Divisional Round victory. But Denver let the Chargers creep back in late and Philip Rivers had a shot to bring his team all the way back from a 24-7 fourth quarter deficit. New England took care of business against Indianapolis, putting perhaps the next Tom Brady (Andrew Luck) in his place with a three interception performance. Unfortunately, the Patriots cannot count on turnovers being the difference in this game. Manning won’t try to thread the needle in desperation as Luck did last Saturday night, meaning that New England either needs the secondary to play strong coverage or the offense needs another 40-plus point performance. Both are possible albeit unlikely. More likely is that Brady takes advantage of Denver’s pass defense, as he did in the regular season to lead the Patriots to an unlikely 34-31 comeback victory.

Don’t expect Denver to get out to a huge lead in this one. New England’s offense is balanced and has learned to play within its capabilities since losing Rob Gronkowski mid-season and a slew of other offensive pieces before the season began. If the running game is working, Brady will be able to find holes in the defense and this will be a high scoring game. If Denver stuffs the run game, expect the Broncos to control the pace and look to win this game in a non-shootout. Manning & Co. can score at will, but would be better off not challenging Brady to keep pace because he can given the right circumstances.

My Pick: 31-27 Denver

NFC Championship

(4) San Francisco 49ers at (1) Seattle Seahawks (Sunday, 6:30 PM ET – FOX)

This is the storyline that writers love to be able to take advantage of in playoff scenarios. Two teams, division rivals, facing off for the third time in a season. The series is tied at 1-1 for the year. The loser goes home having to think about the defeat for eight months until next season, while the winner earns a spot in the Super Bowl. With all due respect to Brady vs. Manning, the NFC Championship Game has one of the more delectable matchups you could hope to ask for in a football game.

What was the biggest difference between Seattle’s 29-3 drubbing of San Francisco in Week 2 and San Francisco’s 19-17 victory over the Seahawks in Week 14? The emergence of Frank Gore in the running game. In the Week 2 edition of this divisional rivalry, Gore was held to just 16 yards on nine carries, while Colin Kaepernick had 87 rushing yards with the same amount of attempts. By Week 14, emphasis in the running game had shifted back to Gore, where he was able to pick up 110 yards on 17 carries. This is not to say that Kaepernick is ineffective in the run game. But for the 49ers to have success against the best defense in the league, Gore needs to be the guy doing the heavy lifting on the ground. Last weekend the Seahawks held Drew Brees in check for the majority of the game, knocking down several third down passes and almost completely taking Jimmy Graham out of the game. But the Saints were able to run on Seattle, and San Francisco will need to do so as well to have a chance in this one. It all starts with Gore in that department, not Kaepernick.

Seattle is a difficult place to play, and San Francisco is well aware of that fact. But just how ready will the 49ers be against a hungry Seahawks team looking to make its first appearance in a Super Bowl since 2005? Jim Harbaugh’s squad came into this season on a mission to complete unfinished business, but for most of the year Seattle was the team from the NFC West that looked like it had the chops to represent the conference in the big game. I expect this one to be extremely close, hard fought and dominated by the run game. Good luck to the AFC team that has to prepare for these defenses.

My Pick: 24-21 San Francisco

– K. Becks

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