Saturday, January 18, 2014
Championship predictions: Broncos, 49ers
By Rich Cimini
I went 4-0 last week with my divisional round picks, bringing my postseason record to 6-2. Anyone who followed my weekly picks for the New York Jets knows my playoff success is against the norm. As Rex Ryan would say, I'm ascending. Without further delay, predictions for the AFC and NFC Championship Games:
Denver Broncos 31, New England Patriots 28
At the start of the playoffs, I picked the Broncos to win the AFC, so I have to ride that horse all the way. You have to admire what Bill Belichick has done with the Patriots, truly a fantastic coaching job, but I don't think he'll have enough answers on defense to stop Peyton Manning & Co. The Broncos' offense is so balanced. In fact, they have five players with at least 10 touchdowns, an NFL record. Yeah, yeah, I know about Manning's playoff hiccups, but I also know that, statistically, he usually improves when he gets a second crack at a team in the same season.
In the Week 12 meeting, the Patriots played rope-a-dope, playing a light "box" and daring the Broncos to run. And they did, rushing for 280 yards on 47 carries against six or fewer defenders in the box, according to ESPN Stats & Information -- 14 more attempts than any team over the past six years. Incredibly, the Broncos still lost after a miracle comeback by the Bradys. This time, the Patriots will have to show more respect for the Broncos' running game. In turn, that will open things up for Manning, who will torch the Patriots' safeties and linebackers with play-action passes. In two weeks, Manning will be playing for the Super Bowl title in his little brother's house.
San Francisco 49ers 23, Seattle Seahawks 17
I picked the 49ers to go all the way, so there's no point in jumping off the bandwagon. This game features a new-age quarterback matchup between Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson, both of whom can make plays outside the pocket. This will be a huge key in the game. I think the team that defends it better probably will win. On paper, that edge goes to the 49ers, whose defense is No. 3 in QBR against passes outside the pocket. We should note that Wilson has thrown more passes outside the pocket than any quarterback in the league, according to ESPN Stats & Info. Meanwhile, the Seahawks' defense, while dominant in so many other areas, isn't so hot in that situation -- only 15th in QBR. There will be opportunities for the elusive Kaepernick.
The 49ers have won eight straight, including two playoff games on the road. Yes, they've struggled in Seattle -- who hasn't? -- but they're playing with an incredible sense of urgency. The Seahawks are sputtering a bit on offense, with Wilson off his game in recent weeks, so I'm taking the hot team and the hot quarterback.