Commentary

NFL's best take center stage

Sunday's championship pairings are tough to top; vastly different games likely

Originally Published: January 17, 2014
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

For those wanting the playoff-seeding format tweaked, it's hard to find fault with the 2013 results.

The best teams made it to the conference championships. The Denver Broncos and New England Patriots are the top two seeds in the AFC. They meet Sunday in Denver in what promises to be yet another memorable matchup between Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.

Since the beginning of the season, Seattle and San Francisco arguably have been the best teams in the NFC, if not the NFL. What has become the best rivalry in football is featured in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday at CenturyLink Field.

The salary cap has made it hard to sustain dynasties or to construct dominating teams. Good teams have to juggle their rosters to keep as many top players as possible, but ultimately, they have to make sacrifices. As we saw during the regular season, rosters are close enough in talent that even the best teams have to pull out victories in the fourth quarter.

Championship Sunday is historic, possibly going down as one of the greatest championship pairings in NFL history. Under the current playoff format, it's only the fourth time the four teams playing on championship weekend each had at least 12 regular-season wins. The last time that happened was the 1998 season, when John Elway led the Broncos to their second straight Super Bowl victory.

Some critics of the system believe wild-card teams should be seeded higher than division winners with worse records. The 49ers proved good teams can overcome the rigors of the road and make it to the championship game.

The NFL got it right this year.

Here are the top 10 trends from the championship round:

1. The over-under for the weekend: In Denver, everyone expects a high-scoring shootout. In Seattle, the odds favor a low-scoring, physical game. Las Vegas defines the differences in these conference championships. The over-under for the New England-Denver game is 56. The over-under for Seattle-San Francisco is 39½. For the first time since the merger, one conference title game has two teams that finished in the top three in scoring offense while the other conference has a pair of top-three scoring defenses. The Broncos and Patriots are built around their quarterbacks. The Seahawks and 49ers are built in the old style of football that goes back to the 1960s and '70s. Defense and running the ball are the themes for these teams. Two games. Two styles. Fascinating stuff.

[+] EnlargeRussell Wilson
Harry How/Getty ImagesThe Seahawks believe an efficient game from Russell Wilson should be enough to get them to the Super Bowl.

2. Ultimate test for the Carroll formula: When asked about his struggling pass offense, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll says he's not concerned. Carroll sites a formula for winning. Each Monday, Carroll meets with quarterback Russell Wilson to go over the formula for that week's game. Ultimately, the formula comes down to not committing turnovers. Carroll reviews the opponent and tells Wilson his thoughts. He has a defense that surrenders only 14.4 points a game. Carroll will tell Wilson that his defense can hold down the score, and as long as Wilson doesn't turn over the ball, the Seahawks should win. The formula has won 24 regular-season and two playoff games over the past two years, but Sunday's game against the 49ers will be the supreme challenge. Niners QB Colin Kaepernick is getting better with the passing offense now that Michael Crabtree has come off the injured list. Over the past five games, Wilson is averaging only 13.6 completions on 24 attempts for 157.6 yards. Twice in the past three games, he has passed for fewer than 110 yards. Wilson said he needs to fix a few things to be more accurate.

3. Impact of injuries: Percy Harvin's concussion is the biggest injury concern, and it doesn't look good. The Seattle receiver is going through the concussion protocol, but there seems to be doubt about his status. Harvin had to be taken to the locker room twice in the divisional round win over New Orleans for concussion tests. The Seahawks need him. Harvin's pure speed was on notice against the Saints. He gained 9 yards on a "fly sweep" run in the second quarter. On the next play, Saints defenders positioned themselves to stop him, but Marshawn Lynch got the ball and ran for a touchdown. If Harvin plays, his role will be limited. It's pretty clear his body isn't ready for a lot of hitting after he missed all but two games because of a sore hip. Other than Harvin, the injury lists aren't bad. After missing two games, 49ers cornerback Carlos Rogers has returned to practice and may be able to play despite hamstring problems. The Seahawks may have linebacker K.J. Wright back after foot surgery. The 49ers suffered a scare when fullback Will Tukuafu suffered a knee injury last week, but he's practicing. New England punter Ryan Allen has a sore shoulder, but he should be all right. The Broncos cleaned up their injury list by putting defensive end Derek Wolfe and cornerback Chris Harris on injured reserve.

4. Official report: The NFL informed officials to do the best they could to limit the number of penalties, and the result has been exciting playoff games. The Seahawks may benefit from having Gene Steratore as the NFC championship referee. The Seahawks stress man-to-man, press coverage. They get their hands on offensive pass-catchers. Steratore called only 13 defensive pass interference penalties in 15 games this year. Tony Corrente, the AFC ref, had a crew that called 26. Overall, officials have been letting defensive backs play. Only six defensive pass interferences have been called in the first eight playoff games. But blockers in the Denver-New England game have to be on guard for holding penalties. Corrente ranked eighth among the 17 referees and crews with 42 offensive holding penalties. Don't expect games in which a lot of flags are littering the field.

5. The pressure is on Manning: This matchup between Manning and Brady will further define the legacies of these two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks. Brady is 10-4 against Manning, including the Patriots overcoming a 24-point deficit in Week 12 to beat the Broncos. Manning is 10-11 in the playoffs and would invite harsh criticism if he loses in the postseason for the second straight year despite having home-field advantage. Manning chose to play in Denver because he thought -- like Elway -- he could finish his career with a Super Bowl ring or two. Manning has always had trouble in his matchups with Brady because he also has to face Bill Belichick, who usually does enough to throw Manning off his game a little. In their three meetings in the postseason, Manning has one win, averages only 18.3 points a game and completes only 56.6 percent of his passes.

6. Bringing back the running game: It's not surprising Frank Gore and Lynch have done well. Carroll and Niners coach Jim Harbaugh emphasize the run. It's the impact of the run on the AFC that turned out to be the surprise. Manning works out of a three-receiver set, but he has made sure not to forget the run. Knowshon Moreno got 23 carries against San Diego last week and rushed for 224 yards against the Patriots in Week 12. Belichick didn't start featuring the 250-pound LeGarrette Blount until the final weeks of the regular season, but his power running has been important. In his past three games, Blount has eight touchdown runs. He had 189 rushing yards in the regular-season finale against Buffalo and 166 yards last week against Indianapolis. The Patriots have averaged 39.3 points in the past three games. The trend in these playoffs is to use the run more. The 45.8 run percentage in the first eight games of the playoffs is the highest in the postseason in more than a decade. The 265 combined rushing yards per playoff game are the second most since 1997.

7. Getting a rush on Kaepernick: After the Seahawks' pass rush faded down the stretch last year, Seattle added Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett to the defensive line and moved Bruce Irvin to linebacker. Add Chris Clemons to the mix, and the Seahawks have four key pass-rushers to disrupt an offense. That's important because it gives defensive coordinator Dan Quinn plenty of options in trying to pressure Kaepernick. According to ESPN Stats & Information data, Kaepernick is blitzed 39 percent of the time he drops back to pass, most in the NFL. The Seahawks don't have to blitz him. Against Seattle's four-man rush the past two seasons, Kaepernick has completed only 49.3 percent of his passes for a 6-yard average and has five interceptions. The Seahawks are very familiar with his running style, too. They know how he prefers to run to his left.

[+] EnlargeWes Welker
Maddie Meyer/Getty ImagesWes Welker isn't the only slot receiver who looms large in the AFC title game.

8. Playing the slots: When he was with the Patriots, Wes Welker enhanced the value of receivers working out of the slot. He'd catch more than 100 passes a year for Brady and move the chains with first-down receptions. When the Patriots didn't want to pay him $6 million a year, he moved on to Denver to help Manning. The slot is where a lot of the action will be Sunday in the AFC Championship Game. Belichick signed Danny Amendola to replace Welker, but it turned out that the replacement was already on the roster: Julian Edelman. Edelman ranked fourth in the league catching 53 passes for 497 yards from the slot. Welker was third with 57 catches for 688 yards. Both teams are loaded with slot options. Brady has Edelman and Amendola. Manning has Welker and Eric Decker. Amendola caught 42 catches for 501 yards from the slot. Decker caught 33 for 362 from the slot.

9. Expect close games: Even though the 49ers and Kaepernick have been blown out in their past two trips to Seattle, expect a close game that will be decided in the fourth quarter. The past six NFC Championship Games each have been decided by seven points or fewer. Four of the past five AFC title games have been decided by five points or fewer. Kaepernick has shown he's fearless on the road. He's 3-0 in playoff road games. He's in rare company. Brady is 3-2 in road playoff games, Joe Flacco is 6-4, and Eli Manning is 5-1. It will be interesting to see how Kaepernick does after three quarters. Crowd noise affected him in his first two games in Seattle, and if he gets into a close game that's decided in the fourth quarter, the crowd could force a few mistakes. That happened to Drew Brees last weekend.

10. Pace of the game: What will be interesting is how Manning and Brady manage the game. Both quarterbacks love to work no-huddle offenses at a fast pace. As a result, Manning averages 72.2 plays a game and Brady averages 71.1. That's No. 1 and No. 2 in football. The more plays each quarterback can run off, the greater chance there is to get more running plays. Last year, Brady did a masterful job of using the pace to mount a running attack. They averaged 74.4 plays a game and there were enough running plays to get Stevan Ridley more than 1,200 yards. In 2013, the Broncos averaged 28.8 running plays per game, the Patriots 29.4.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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