When it comes right down to it, each one of the four teams remaining in the NFL playoffs can make a good case for reaching the Super Bowl.
Denver, New England, San Francisco and Seattle have proven that they are the class of the league this season. Sure, San Francisco went the wild-card route to make it to the playoffs, but the NFC West was miles ahead of the other NFC divisions this season.
Sunday’s games should be entertaining. The AFC title game is a rematch of a Week 12 meeting in which New England won in overtime after spotting Denver a 24-0 halftime edge. And San Francisco and Seattle split their two regular-season meetings, with the Seahawks winning big in Seattle in Week 2 and the 49ers winning a close one in Week 14 at Candlestick Park.
So which teams have the edge? Let’s take a look.
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New England: The Patriots and head coach Bill Belichick are to the NFL what Jimmie Johnson is to NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series. Not flashy, not all that endearing, yet right in the hunt year after year. Belichick and the Patriots’ front office have a knack for putting the right players in the right positions, even if those players haven’t worked out in other places.
Such is the case this season with running back LeGarrette Blount, who bounced around a couple of teams before settling in this season with the Patriots.
But the secondary is a weakness against a Denver team that likes to throw the ball, with New England ranking 18th in passing defense at 239 yards allowed per game.
Denver: Peyton Manning has proven Indianapolis wrong in a big, big way this season, leading the NFL in passing yardage. Helping him lead the league is an impressive cast of receivers, including West Laurens and Georgia Tech product Demaryius Thomas, along with Eric Decker and Wes Welker, as well as running back Knowshon Moreno, who had a breakout season.
Even though the Broncos dealt with some adversity in the preseason with linebacker Von Miller’s suspension and and again late in the season with his knee injury, the team’s run defense tied for seventh with Seattle at 101.6 yards per game.
The cloud hanging over the Broncos, however, is that Week 12 meltdown against the Patriots in a game in which Manning was held to 150 passing yards.
San Francisco: Knowledge is power during the postseason. Head coach Jim Harbaugh shows he has the knowledge to advance deep into the playoffs, reaching the NFC title game for the third straight season. He does so with an offense that isn’t flashy. The 49ers were 24th in the league in total offense this season despite having a flashy quarterbacks in Colin Kaepernick. But the team’s defense, which ranks third in points allowed, allows the 49ers to win low-scoring games.
Seattle: The Seahawks have turned into the absolute best defensive team in the NFL, leading the league in points allowed and yards allowed. They will be playing at home in a stadium that has become quite an imposing place to play. But this will be the team’s first trip to the NFC championship game under head coach Pete Carroll, as well as its first trip to the NFC championship game since the 2005 season.
So how does Sunday play out? Count on Manning and the Broncos to have learned a lesson from their first meeting with the Patriots and not fall apart again in the second half. And the 49ers won’t be intimidated by the Seahawks’ defense or home crowd. Go with Denver and San Francisco and give us two weeks of Manning vs. Kaepernick hype leading into the Super Bowl.
Contact Ron Seibel at 744-4222 or firstname.lastname@example.org