The NFL season has come down to the final four teams and I think if you're an NFL fan like me you'll agree that the matchups are very interesting. What stands out about this year's final four is that if you looked at preseason Super Bowl odds the top four teams were Denver, San Francisco, Seattle and New England. Who made it all the way to Championship weekend? Those four teams. I don't know when the last time that's happened or if it has ever happened at all. It's something that you think would be common, but with the way the NFL is we're just so used to seeing unpredictable reign supreme. Teams like the Ravens and Giants in the last two years were not hte favorites, but they got it done. Now we're down to four teams and it's the four that were supposed to be here. Imagine that!
I think the NFL has to love how it worked out, though. These are the four teams that they likely wanted to get here just because when the best teams make it this far it's proof that the way the regular season is run really works. Throw in the fact that you've got that tantalizing Brady/Manning matchup in the AFC Title game and that outstanding NFC West Seahawks/Niners rivalry and it has the makings of a special day of football on Sunday. I'm looking forward to it.
Regular Season Straight Up: 168-87-1 (.659)
Playoffs Straight Up: 5-3 (2-2 last week) Playoffs Spread: 5-2-1 (2-1-1 last week)
All game times are in the Eastern time zone. I'll list each team's seed number beside their name.
(2) New England at (1) Denver (3:00 pm CBS)
Manning vs. Brady. Brady vs. Manning. That's all anybody wants to talk about. Does anybody else even play for these teams? Yes. They do. It's hard to break down a game like this because if you remember their game back on November 24th, one of the key plays late happened when a Denver player accidentally got hit by the ball that was punted, which created a live ball that the Patriots recovered. Who can predict stuff like that? You can't. That's just how the wacky NFL is. Their game back in week 12 (a 34-31 Patriots win in OT) also saw seven combined turnovers. Will we see that again? I think that's unlikely.
What I really like and have been impressed with by this Patriots team is that they will always find a way to expose a weakness in the opposition. I think it's fair to say that Bill Belichick is the best coach in the NFL and has been for over a decade. Eight AFC Championship game appearances with the Patriots since 2001 is proof of that. Think about all the players that have come and gone in that time yet here's Belichick with Tom Brady one more time. You may not like them, but they have earned respect for what they have done.
The Broncos offense is arguably the best single season unit in the history of the NFL. The fact that they scored more points than any team in history is proof (606 points, 37.9 per game). Peyton Manning broke records. His numbers are ridiculous. We know they can score, but it's the defense that is concerning. I was impressed by how they looked against the Chargers last week because I figured the Chargers could put up at least four TDs against them. The 24-17 win last week showed me that the defense is rested and ready for this matchup. They won't shut down the Pats, but they can do enough.
The big question is can the Patriots run roughshod like they did against the Colts? The 4 TD performance by LaGarette Blount last week was very impressive and has to have the Broncos worried. Should the Broncos try to stack the line, you know Tom Brady is going to be able to pick them apart. The key for the Broncos will be to put some points on the board early, build up some kind of lead and hope they can keep the Patriots one dimensional as a passing team instead of a running team.
I think the Broncos are going to jump out to an early lead, the Pats will fight back and it will be a close game going into the 4th quarter. In the end, I like the Broncos. They have too many weapons. If you try to take away D. Thomas or Decker then Welker or J. Thomas can beat you. If they play dime defense the whole time then the Moreno/Ball running attack can beat you. It's a tough team to consistently stop all game long. While the Pats defense has stepped up, I don't know if they can win this game.
The hype for this game is all about the QBs as it should be because we're talking about two of the best QBs in the history of the NFL. While they are not at their physical primes anymore, they are mentally as good as they've ever been. They know how to read defenses and how to take advantage of the opportunities presented to them.
In the end, I'll go with Manning's team because he has better weapons. If the Patriots had a key player like Gronkowski I'd pick them. I don't know if they have enough right now despite the greatness of Brady. Give me the home team by a TD and they cover the 5.5 point spread too.
(5) San Francisco at (1) Seattle (6:30 pm FOX)
They're two evenly matched teams that are divisional rivals, yet this is their biggest playoff meeting ever. Last year the Niners made the Super Bowl while the Seahawks were bounced in the divisional round. The Seahawks won 29-3 at home in week two and the Niners won 19-17 in week 14. I strongly believe that the Niners are coming into this game with a lot of motivation considering that loss in week two. They have bounced back from it and thrived. They've won eight in a row including two straight road playoff games, so if any team could win this kind of game it's them.
My pick is Seattle although it's very tough to go against the Niners right now. The reason I like Seattle is because their home field advantage is significant. Obviously they can be beat because anybody can be beat and the Cardinals won in Seattle a few weeks ago. The Niners are built like the Cardinals at least defensively, so the formula is there. The reason I like Seattle is because I think their defense is going to make it very difficult for the Niners to do anything of significance. I love their secondary. The pass rush is ferocious too. The Seahawks defense is talented, has depth and has the advantage of being at home. Will the Niners be able to score enough to win this game? I don't know.
What I like about the Niners is their defense too. That's the group that got them to three NFC title games in a row and into the Super Bowl last year. They probably had one of their worst games in the Super Bowl, so they are likely going to be very motivated to get back there again. They want to prove to the world that they're the best defense. When a unit has a chip on their shoulder plus they're as talented as them it's tough to score points. Now that Aldon Smith is back and they're healthy they can really shut teams down. They gave up 20 and 10 points in two playoff games, so they've done their part.
If you look at the offenses, who will break through? The Niners have better WRs and more weapons, but I don't know if the run game is as good. I think Lynch is better than Gore. I think the Seahawks OLine is just as good if not better. If the Seahawks can get the run game going then they're going to win. The other fact is the Niners secondary. They're good, but if they have a weakness it's them. Their front 7 are their strength, but it's that back end that has me worried a bit. I think the Seahawks need to get into the play action game a bit, make it look like they're going to run all the time and find guys like Tate, Baldwin or Kearse down the field. Take advantage of one on one situations if there are any. It's been announced that Percy Harvin will be out due to a concussion, so he won't be a factor, which hurts Seattle.
The other game is getting all the attention for the QB position, but don't discount Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson. Neither guy had a great game last week. They did enough, though. The key thing is to not turn the ball over. The first time they played this year, Kaepernick threw 3 INTs. He's going to have to cut down to none or one at the most because if he turns it over like that they're not going to be able to score enough to win.
My pick is Seattle because I believe their home field really is an advantage and their defense is superior especially in that stadium. I like the way they're playing too much to go against them. Obviously the Niners have a lot of momentum too, but since I have to pick it's the Seahawks for me.
I'm really excited for these games. All four teams deserve it and the quality of play should be very high. My Super Bowl pick is Seattle vs. Denver. That's what I went with at the start of the playoffs. They're the favorites for a reason. I wouldn't be shocked if either lost. I don't think anything that happens would be considered much of an upset considering the quality of these teams.
That's all for me this week. I'll be back in two weeks for the Super Bowl preview.