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NFL Playoffs: Sunday’s conference championships will be memorable

What happens when two football match-ups unfold as the greatest quarterbacks of this generation meet, along with a rubber match between bitter rivals? You get the biggest conference title weekend in NFL history.

On Sunday, Jan. 19, the New England Patriots will travel to Denver to take on the Broncos, while NFC West foes face off as the San Francisco 49ers battle the Seattle Seahawks. This is a win-win situation for both the NFL and its fans. Both games will skyrocket in terms of ratings, while viewers get two games with massive storylines.

Can it just be Sunday already?

Brady-Manning XV: Enjoy it while it lasts

Tom Brady Peyton Manning 2

It may say Patriots vs. Broncos on the scoreboard, but it should just read “Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning”. In football, the attention is on the quarterbacks without a doubt. It just adds icing on the cake that it’s the biggest quarterback rivalry ever. Brady has dominated the all-time series with a 10-4 edge, but Manning has never been on a team as talented as the current Broncos roster. Brady also holds the higher quarterback rating with 96.6 compared to Manning’s 85.6, and has thrown eight fewer interceptions. In terms of these stats, the pressure has to be on Manning, right?

Obviously, Manning has more on his shoulders after hearing over and over again about his playoff record of 10-11. But lost in all the hate towards Manning is the fact Brady and the Patriots haven’t won a Super Bowl since 2004. Sure, Brady’s postseason is impressive at 18-7, but this team was supposed to be considered a dynasty after hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in 2001, 2003, and 2004. Instead of younger brother Eli Manning stopping New England in its tracks for the grand prize, Peyton has a prime chance to do the same at his home field in Denver.

The last meeting between both teams was on Nov. 24 at New England where the Broncos blew a 24-point halftime lead to allow the Pats to come back and win 34-31 in overtime. While that game wasn’t too long ago, I think you can just toss it out because both teams are different now. With a guy like Brady under center, you’d think they would be a pass-first oriented team, right? Wrong. In their divisional playoff contest against the Colts, the Patriots won with Brady having zero touchdowns. Instead, they relied on the run game which dominated Indianapolis, with LeGarrette Blount rushing for 166 yards and a whopping four scores. It’s pretty scary that New England could pile up 43 points with Brady having little impact on the game, but to reach the Super Bowl, the Patriots will need a solid game out of their quarterback.

The keys for the Broncos will be not allowing Blount to have a field day, and force the Patriots to either commit turnovers or punt the football. Denver needs to keep the ball in Manning’s hands and control time of possession. In the secondary, a third cornerback has to step up. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie will likely be assigned to cover Danny Amendola, but the guy that can beat Denver is Julian Edelman in the slot. If the veteran Champ Baily can’t hang with Brady’s favorite target, someone will need to be able to match-up one on one with him.

For the Patriots, I think it’s going to be stopping the running game. Manning will be Manning, but New England can’t allow the Broncos to have a balanced attack. Up front, the Patriots are without key players, so if they can’t contain Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball, who combined for 264 yards in the last meetings, it could be a runaway for Denver. Also, you gotta focus in on tight end Julius Thomas if you are the Patriots. Top cornerback Aqib Talib will handle Demaryius Thomas, but when Manning is in need of a play, he likes to go to his big tight end.

Prediction: Patriots 31, Broncos 37 – Before the season started, I picked Denver to reach the Super Bowl so I have to stick with it. In all time meetings during the Brady-Manning era, neither winning team has scored fewer than 20 points, and both shouldn’t have any issues reaching the 30s or 40s on Sunday. Expect both team to trade shots throughout the game, but in the end, Manning finally breaks through to defeat his respected rival to win. But no matter who wins, enjoy the greatness of the match-up for what it is because this may be the last time the two legendary quarterbacks meet in a game of this magnitude.

Niners vs. Hawks: Let’s get physical

kapernick_wilson

It’s no secret that the 49ers and Seahawks can’t stand each other. Period. No questions asked.

Wanna know how bad it is? Seattle won’t even allow people with a California address to purchase tickets to the game. From the players, coaches, and fan bases, there is hatred. Both teams have competed inside the NFC West since 2002, and are in fact tied in terms of all-time meetings at 15-15. But the past hasn’t played a dominant role as to why they can’t stand one another. The two coaches — Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll — have been the cause of this rivalry.

Rewind to 2007-2009 and you’ll find Harbaugh and Carroll coaching against one another at the college level — Harbaugh at Stanford and Carroll with Southern California. This is where the feud began. In that short time period, both men did not like one another at all with the two schools being Pac 12 rivals fighting over the top spot in the conference. Did the talking stop between the two once both took jobs in the NFL? Absolutely not. What a coincidence that both are in the same conference again, playing one another twice a year.

The 49ers and Seahawks split their two meeting this season, with the home team winning both times. On Sept. 15, Seattle ran away with a 29-3 victory, but the Bay area team answered back with a narrow 19-17 win on Dec. 8. The rubber match on Sunday will be held at CenturyLink Field, where the Seahawks went undefeated in front of the loudest crowd in the NFL. So if history repeats itself, the Seahawks should win.

But not so fast! (in Lee Corso voice).

The team I picked the Broncos to play in the Super Bowl was…San Francisco. I’m staying with that pick, but I’m not confident about it. The Seahawks, led by arguably the top defensive players in the league Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas, are scary good. Not only do they have the top defense against the pass which allows just 172 yards per game, but Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch could be considered the best combo in the league. I may regret my pick once the game begins.

But you can never count out San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Love him or hate him, the guy never fails to deliver with the game on the line. Kaepernick holds a playoff record of 4-1, with three of those wins coming on the road. If he can limit the interceptions and keep the 49ers in the game, I have confidence in him to come through if given the final possession of the game.

For San Francisco to win, running back Frank Gore must play well. They can’t force Kaepernick to stand in the pocket with the best secondary in the league waiting to pick him off. Gore must play a huge part in the game to be ahead on the scoreboard in the end.

Seattle needs to do two major things in my eyes: Lock down on receivers Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree, while also getting an above average game from Wilson. I’m still waiting for Wilson to breakthrough with a big game. but lately he has settled for just average games — passing for over 200 yards just once in the last four games. The defense will be in top form fueled by the crowd, but it will come down to Wilson and the offense.

Prediction: 49ers 24, Seahawks 21 – If you like physical, defensive games, get your popcorn ready. Remember how much smack the 49ers and Panthers talked during their game last week? Well, it wouldn’t surprise me if a punch is thrown on the field Sunday. Hopefully that prediction is wrong. I see both teams shutting one another down for the most part with hard-nosed defense, but in the end, San Francisco’s offense will be a tad better. I’m going to say this one will come down to a game-winning field goal at the buzzer.

Photos: Manning-Brady courtesy of Boston.com, Kaepernick-Wilson from ibtimes.com

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