Can you believe it? We’ve reached the penultimate weekend of the NFL season as four teams are competing for two spots in Super Bowl XLIX in Glendale, Ariz. on Feb. 1. NFL Conference Championship Sunday is upon us; so what we are we waiting for?
We went 3-1 with our bold predictions during Wild Card Weekend and 4-1 a week ago for the Divisional Round. That’s right. At 7-2, the playoffs have been kind for this column.
Now it’s onto to Conference Championship Sunday, so as the stakes are raised the predictions get that much bolder. Here are four for Conference Championship Sunday:
Belichick, Brady reach their sixth Super Bowl with rout of Indianapolis
The final two teams in the AFC left standings were none other than Tom Brady‘s Patriots and Peyton Manning‘s — wait, what? No, the script was not written up according to plan thanks to an Indianapolis upset of Manning’s Broncos, perhaps tying the ribbon on the sheriff’s NFL career. Now we have Brady vs. Luck in the AFC Championship game, a battle of the league’s most clutch quarterback against the player who perhaps will someday snag that title from him.
Luck led a balanced Colts attack past Denver a week ago. He now has a date with New England, a team in which he’s 0-3 against since entering the league in 2012. And in those losses, the Patriots have demolished the Colts by an average of 26 points per game, including a 42-20 rout when these teams met Week 11 at Lucas Oil Stadium.
New England is coming off a historical win over Baltimore, one in which Brady and Co. had to overcome two 14 point deficits. In order to earn the win, Bill Belichick reached deep into his bag of tricks to pull out an eligible offensive lineman and a gag play in which Julian Edelman became the quarterback. No, these are not typical Patriots plays.
This game boils down to whether the Colts can follow the formula set by the Giants in their two Super Bowl wins over New England, which of course is to rattle Brady. The Colts generated the ninth-most sacks (41.0) in the regular season, and that’ll be the key if they want to slow down the Pats’ passing game. Remember in the early portion of the year when New England struggled? That was due to poor offensive line play. That’s where the Pats could be vulnerable especially with Center Bryan Stork still unable to practice after sustaining a knee injury last week.
Bold prediction: Despite what the numbers suggest, this one will wind up being a laugher. So the Colts have Luck on their side, so what? They might need Luck, then some luck. While the Colts may have the NFL’s next great quarterback, to win in Foxborough, in January, against Belichick is no easy task. The Patriots needed a signature Brady game a week ago to get past the Ravens, but do you think they’ll find themselves in that many holes two weeks in a row? The Colts were able to take advantage of an injured Manning and get stellar offensive line play, but they need an even greater performance to get past New England this week. There’s a reason Belichick is on the verge of becoming the winningest playoff coach in NFL history; he finds ways to win games.
Bold prediction: Sunday will be Brady’s last AFC Championship game appearance. Go ahead. Book it. For all of the accolades and playoff triumphs on Brady’s resume, consider this victory a last hurrah. Though Brady and Belichick proved to be the king of the hill in the AFC yet again this season, this game marks a passing of the torch down from Brady to Luck, who in 2015 leads the Colts to being that all-too-dominant force in the conference as Brady begins to taper off. For all the talk about Manning hanging up his cleats, have we looked past Brady maybe doing the same? If not, I expect a shift of power in the AFC, one that doesn’t bode well for Brady’s Patriots.
Seattle defends home field, edges Rodgers and Packers to return to the Super Bowl
We’re not in Lambeau anymore, Packers.
The Packers, who boast a 9-0 record in the friendly confines of Lambeau Field, are chock full of momentum after a stunning second-half triumph past the Cowboys last weekend. Aaron Rodgers, the team’s lynchpin, followed up a very concerning first half with a MVP-caliber second. Beating Dallas at home, though, is a much different animal than traveling to the Pacific Northwest to conquer the Seahawks.
The Packers are a .500 road team, and their 318 points scored at home vs. the 168 scored on the road is the largest home-road split in NFL history, according to Elias Sports. And if the team is going to overcome its road demons, it has to do so against a Legion of Boom that’s currently at its peak.
Seattle’s defense has returned to its dominant form once it returned safety Kam Chancellor and linebacker Bobby Wagner to the fold. At CenturyLink Field, the Seahawks’ defense ranks first in yards per play (4.6), third in points per drive (1.3) and third in yards per rush (3.4).
Since 1990 in the current playoff format, in games in which the top-ranked offense (Green Bay) meets the top-ranked defense (Seattle), the teams have split wins and losses. The most recent example was these Seahawks against the Broncos in last year’s Super Bowl, and we know how lopsided that contest turned out to be.
Russell Wilson threw for three touchdowns a week ago against Carolina, and since he was drafted Seattle is 25-2 at home. In addition, the Seahawks are 9-0 against Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks over the past three seasons, including 2-0 in the playoffs. In that span, Seattle has downed the likes of Drew Brees, both Manning brothers, Brady and Rodgers.
Bold prediction: In spite of the numbers, it’s hard to count out a quarterback of Rodgers’ caliber. However, how can you pick against Seattle’s defense? Rodgers played two different games last Sunday against the Cowboys, a first half in which he played as hobbled as he looked, and another in which he wouldn’t be denied no matter what the defense threw at him. If any quarterback is going to exploit Seattle’s defense, it’s Rodgers. But without his escape ability the Seahawks pass rush is going to run all over him. Conversely, it took an out-of-this-world effort by Julius Peppers to slow down DeMarco Murray last week. The veteran Peppers needs another one of those outstanding efforts to slow down Seattle’s run game, and I don’t know how much is left in Peppers’ tank. Seattle isn’t going to light up the scoreboard, but points are going to be tough to come by. I trust the Seahawks to nurse a lead better than Green Bay in this situation.
Bold prediction: One player not mentioned in the lead-up to these picks was Marshawn Lynch, who puts together one last “Beast Mode” sort of game in a Seahawks uniform. Yes, this will be his final home game as a member of the Seahawks. Lynch’s contract disputes are well known and have been all season and offseason long. The veteran back wants one last paycheck, but he isn’t going to get it from Seattle. So on a national stage with 28 other general managers looking on, Lynch barrels through the Green Bay defense and is the game’s top offensive player. He — not Rodgers and not Wilson — is this game’s MVP and the reason why Seattle returns to the Super Bowl.