New England Patriots (+4-1/2) at Denver Broncos: Believe it or not, there are other players playing in this game besides the two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks. Nevertheless, we'll acknowledge the Tom Brady-Peyton Manning angle. This will be the third conference championship pitting these two QBs (fourth overall postseason meeting). Brady's Pats won in Foxboro, MA in the 2003 AFC title game while Manning's Colts prevailed in Indy three seasons later. So I guess you could say this is the rubber match.
How the Patriots continue to get this far is truly amazing. Some of Brady's most potent weapons from previous seasons are now gone. Said departures included WR Wes Welker (gone to Denver via free agency), TE Rob Gronkowski (gone to IR with torn ACL) and TE Aaron Hernandez (gone to jail after being charged with a homicide). Combine that with a defense ranked 26 out of 32 in terms of yards allowed, you have to figure the magic may run out soon. However, the Pats were given a tremendous boost last week in the play of RB LeGarrette Blount, who rushed for 166 yards and four touchdowns. With 234 yards rushing as a team last week, the Pats were able to control the clock, resulting in a 10 minute time of possession advantage over the Indianapolis Colts. That's the exact formula New England will have to employ in an effort to limit Manning's presence on the field.
On the flip side, Manning doesn't necessarily need to be the magic for Denver. The Pats' defense ranked 30th in rushing yards allowed, a weakness that was exposed in the regular season matchup. Broncos RB Knowshon Moreno rushed for 224 yards versus New England in a week 12 loss. Nevertheless, Manning has his full complement of receivers (Welker, Eric Decker, Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas) to go along with that potent running game. All that just appears to be too much for the Patriots defense to handle.
Denver 34 New England 24
San Francisco 49ers (+3-1/2) at Seattle Seahawks: While 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick has appeared Superman-esque at time, the Seahawks have been his personal kryptonite. In two starts versus Seattle in the regular season, Kaepernick turned the ball over five times (4 INTs, 1 fumble). If the 49ers are to return to the Super Bowl for a second consecutive season, they must win in a stadium (CenturyLink Field in Seattle) where they've been outscored 71-16 over the past two matchups.
Including the 19-17 loss in San Francisco in week 14, the Seahawks are 3-2 with QB Russell Wilson throwing 4 TDs, 3 INTs and averaging a lackluster 158 yards per game. He won't be helped by the fact that WR Percy Harvin will miss this game due to a concussion suffered last week. As such, the Seahawks may lean heavily on RB Marshawn Lynch, but running yards may also be at a premium against the fourth ranked 49ers run defense.
While Seattle often overwhelms opponents at home (16-1 over the past two seasons) due in large part to a raucous crowd and typically dreary weather, the current forecast shows a 0% chance of rain with temps in the 40s. Sure, the crowd will be as noisy as ever, but the Niners have played in tough venues all postseason. I think they got this.
San Francisco 17 Seattle 14
2013 Postseason record:
Straight up: 4-4
Against the spread: 4-4