The AFC and NFC championship games are next Sunday, and here’s the schedule and picture.
Conference Championships: Sunday, Jan. 19:
NFC: Seattle Seahawks playing at home vs the 49ers, 6:30 p.m. (FOX).
AFC: New England Patriots vs the Broncos in Denver, 3 p.m. (CBS).
Pro Bowl: Saturday, Jan. 26, in Honolulu:
Super Bowl: Sunday, Feb. 2, at East Rutherford, N.J.
TBD, 7:30 p.m. (NBC)
AFC champion vs. NFC champion, 6:30 p.m. (FOX)
Earlier: Sunday, Jan. 12:
Broncos won 24-17; they’ll play the Patriots in Denver next Sunday – San Diego (10-8) at Denver (14-3), 4:40 p.m. ET (CBS)
San Francisco won 23-10; San Francisco plays the Seahawks in Seattle at home – San Francisco (14-4) at Carolina (12-5), 1:05 p.m. ET (FOX)
Divisional Playoffs: Saturday, Jan.11:
Seattle won 25 – 18: New Orleans (12-6) at Seattle (14-3), 4:35 p.m. ET (FOX)
New England won 43-22 – Indianapolis (12-6) at New England (13-4), 8:15 p.m. ET (CBS)
Patriots underdogs against Broncos
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — The Patriots’ streak of 11 postseason games as a favorite is over.
For the first time since the AFC championship game against Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts in 2007, New England is a playoff underdog — against Manning and the Denver Broncos in the AFC championship game on Sunday.
Tom Brady & Co. are willing to use that as motivation for the game that will send the winner to the Super Bowl.
“We play with a chip on our shoulder,” wide receiver Danny Amendola said. “We like to play that way.”
Count the Patriots out?
Go right ahead, fullback James Develin said.
“I can’t really speak for everyone, but I personally love the underdog story,” he said. “It just kind of keeps a little bit of the pressure off you and I just like to prove the doubters wrong.”
Brady sounded the first “woe is us” note during his weekly appearance on WEEI radio Monday.
“I know when we played Baltimore nobody picked us to win,” Brady said. “I’m sure no one’s going to pick us to win this week. We’ve had our backs against the wall for a while. Really, the whole season we’ve lost players, and teams have really counted us out.
“We’ve got a bunch of underdogs on our team, and we’ll be an underdog again.”
The Ravens were favored to extend their four-game winning streak in the next to last game of the regular season. Baltimore was at home, but the Patriots won 41-7.
Now New England (13-4) is preparing to go on the road again. And Brady’s teammates figure if playing the underdog card against Denver (14-3) is good enough for him, it’s good enough for them.
“If Tom’s going to embrace it, I’m going to embrace it,” New England running back LeGarrette Blount said with a smile. “That’s the leader of this team, and if that’s how he feels, I’m sure that’s how most of the guys out here feel.”
In that loss to the Colts seven years ago, the Patriots held an 18-point lead late in the first half but lost 38-34. Indianapolis went on to win the Super Bowl.
That also was the Patriots’ most recent playoff road game. Since then, they’re 7-2 at home and 0-2 in Super Bowls at neutral sites.
This season, they were underdogs at home against Denver on Nov. 24, but won 34-31 in overtime after trailing 24-0 at halftime. Broncos tight end Julius Thomas missed that game with a knee injury. Now he’s back, one of five Denver receivers with at least 60 catches this season.
“He’s a heck of a football player, a playmaker, go-to guy for them,” Patriots safety Steve Gregory said. “He can create mismatches and things like that, so he’s a good football player. But they have a lot of good football players.”
The 250-pound Blount creates mismatches as well — able to elude big linemen and run over small defensive backs. He ran for 166 yards and four touchdowns in Saturday night’s 43-22 win over Indianapolis after rushing for 189 yards and two touchdowns in the previous game, a 34-20 win over Buffalo in the regular-season finale.
“I can do a lot of improving,” Blount said after watching video of the Indianapolis game. “I’ve seen a couple of holes I could have hit, and I’ve seen a couple of cuts I could have made. I’m going to go out there and look at what they’re going to give me, and hopefully explode somewhere.”
Blount got off to a slow start this season, his first with the Patriots.
It would be dangerous to underestimate him now, just as the Broncos would be unwise to put too much stock into their status as favorites.
After all, Brady fooled all those teams that bypassed him in the 2000 draft until the Patriots took him in the sixth round with the 199th overall pick.
“He came into the league as a big underdog,” Develin said, “so I’m sure he’s used to that.”
SF beats Carolina 23-10
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers are headed to the NFC championship game once again — to face a familiar opponent in a place where they’ve struggled.
Kaepernick threw one touchdown pass and ran for another score as the 49ers shut down Cam Newton and defeated the Carolina Panthers 23-10 on Sunday to advance to the NFC title game for the third straight season.
Kaepernick completed 15 of 28 passes for 196 yards, avenging his worst statistical performance of the season two months ago against the Panthers.
Anquan Boldin had eight catches for 136 yards and Frank Gore ran for 84 yards on 17 carries for the 49ers (14-4), who’ll travel to Seattle next Sunday looking for a return trip to the Super Bowl.
San Francisco split two games with the Seahawks this season. The 49ers lost 29-3 at Seattle in September and were beaten 42-13 at CenturyLink Field in December 2012.
The 49ers held Newton in check, intercepting him twice and sacking him five times while stopping the Panthers (12-5) twice on the 1-yard line in the first half. It was a rough playoff debut for the former Heisman Trophy winner.
Linebacker Ahmad Brooks stopped Newton on a fourth-down sneak early in the second. Later, Brooks vaulted over the line and past Newton — he was called for offsides, but the 49ers showed the Panthers it wouldn’t be easy.
Kaepernick was held to 91 yards passing and 16 yards rushing in the first meeting with Carolina, a 10-9 loss at Candlestick Park.
But he played efficient football on Sunday.
San Francisco led 13-10 at the half, and Kaepernick scored midway through in the third quarter on a 4-yard touchdown run off a read option. Kaepernick then imitated Newton’s Superman celebration by pretending to rip open his shirt.
Newton and the Panthers offense had no answer, failing to score in the second half.
The game was not without its share of disputes.
The 49ers took a 13-10 lead into the locker room after Vernon Davis caught a 1-yard touchdown pass in the back of the end zone from Kaepernick with 5 seconds left in the first half.
After a pass interference on cornerback Drayton Florence set the 49ers up with a first and goal at the 1, Davis was initially ruled out of the end zone, prompting 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh to come racing on to the field to dispute the call, drawing a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. But after reviewing the play, officials ruled Davis dragged his left foot and overturned the call on the field.
But that wasn’t all.
Television replays showed the 49ers had 12 men in the huddle before the play, which should have resulted in a 5-yard dead ball penalty.
The touchdown was the first time in 18 possessions for the 49ers against the Panthers this season.
Carolina spotted San Francisco a 6-0 lead with two defensive penalties — an unnecessary roughness on safety Mike Mitchell and a headbutt on cornerback Captain Munnerlyn — leading to field goals.
Wide receiver Steve Smith, who was questionable all week with a sprained knee ligament, gave Carolina a 7-6 lead with a 31-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter. Smith was well covered, but turned just in time to see the ball coming over cornerback Tarell Brown’s shoulder for his 10th touchdown in nine postseason games.
Carolina led 10-6 before Davis’ touchdown catch put the 49ers ahead for good.
It’s the second time since 2008 the Panthers have lost at home in the divisional playoffs after winning the NFC South and claiming a first-round bye with the No. 2 seed.
The win set up the third game of the season between Seattle and San Francisco. The Seahawks romped at home 29-3 on Sept. 15, then the 49ers won at home 19-17 on Dec. 8.
Patriots pummel Colts
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — This time, there was no stunning comeback for Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts.
Just a handful of frustrating mistakes, some missed opportunities and now a long offseason to imagine what could have been.
Luck threw four interceptions and the Colts gave up four touchdown runs by LeGarrette Blount and two by Stevan Ridley as the New England Patriots advanced to the AFC championship game with a 43-22 victory Saturday night.
“I’m just disappointed in myself,” Luck said. “I can’t commit that many turnovers and have a chance to win against a great team like this.”
The Colts (12-6) were coming off a stunning 45-44 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs in which they overcame a 38-10 third-quarter deficit in the wild-card game for the second-biggest comeback victory in NFL playoffs history.
They fell behind 14-0 early in this one, but were within a touchdown — down 29-22 — entering the fourth quarter. But Blount, Tom Brady and the rest of the Patriots’ offense pulled away.
“We never stopped fighting and we had our chances and just couldn’t get over that hump,” said Luck, who threw two touchdown passes to LaVon Brazill. “The Patriots deserved to win.”
Billed as a matchup between marquee quarterbacks — long-time great Brady and second-year star Luck — the Patriots’ leader was content to hand off while Luck threw an interception on his second pass and never found consistency.
“He’s a good quarterback, man,” Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib said. “We just tried to put pressure on him. That’s about the best thing you can do is to put pressure on him. And try to make him force some throws.”
AP update for Seahawks win
SEATTLE (AP) — Marshawn Lynch ran for 140 yards and two touchdowns, Steven Hauschka kicked three field goals in blustery conditions and Seattle’s defense flustered Drew Brees and New Orleans in a 23-15 victory Saturday in the NFC divisional playoff game.
The top-seeded Seahawks advanced to the NFC championship game for the second time in franchise history and will host San Francisco or Carolina next Sunday. Seattle last reached the conference title game in the 2005 playoffs.
Seattle shut out the Saints in the first half, got Lynch’s first 100-yard game since Week 10 of the regular season and received a spark from the brief return of Percy Harvin before he left with a concussion. Lynch scored on a 15-yard run in the first half and capped the victory with a 31-yard scoring run with 2:40 left that coach Pete Carroll celebrated by jumping into offensive line coach Tom Cable’s arms.
AP update for Panthers-49ers game:
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis says he’ll never forget the sinking feeling in his stomach after Carolina’s last home playoff game in 2008.
The final: Arizona 33, Carolina 13.
But Davis said as painful as that memory is, it’s important the Panthers learn from that game and not allow history to repeat itself Sunday when they host the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC divisional playoffs.
“Don’t come out and play like that team did,” said Davis, one of 10 holdovers from the 2008 team.
The Panthers face a similar situation to five years ago when a pumped-up crowd watched in disbelief as quarterback Jake Delhomme committed six turnovers in the most deflating loss in franchise history — one that sent the organization into a tailspin.
Like 2008, this year’s Panthers are 12-4, division champions and the NFC’s No. 2 seed.
“The valuable lesson is you better be ready for the playoffs,” said Panthers veteran offensive tackle and co-captain Jordan Gross.
The loss has become the elephant in the room for Carolina fans.
Sure, there is a buzz of excitement in Charlotte with the city’s mayor declaring “Fan Friday” for Jan. 10, imploring fans to wear Panthers colors or black to show their support. But while there is anticipation, there’s also an underlying current of trepidation heading into the weekend that another emotional letdown could be looming.
The 2008 Panthers were heavy favorites going into the divisional playoffs and, if they had beaten the Cardinals, they would have hosted their first NFC championship game.
“It seemed like it was set up perfectly for us and then, ‘Bam!,'” offensive tackle Travelle Wharton said. “You look back on it and you’re like, man, we let one get away. The thing you have to learn from it is you don’t get those chances very often. I mean look what happened around here after that game.”
It was a disaster.
The Panthers went from Super Bowl contender to irrelevant in a hurry.
Carolina would start the next four seasons 1-3, 1-12, 1-5 and 1-6 and were never in contention when December arrived. The Panthers released Delhomme one year after giving him a $42 million extension, and they allowed John Fox to leave following a 2-14 season in 2011.
This season appeared headed in the same direction after another 1-3 start, but the Panthers got hot and have won 11 of 12 games to return to the postseason for the first time since 2008.
“That year we were expected to be good — and we were good,” Gross said of 2008. “But we lost, and we lost in a really bad way. It wasn’t a close game. And it was really deflating for this franchise.”
The 49ers (13-4) would love to spoil Carolina’s return to the postseason.
Carolina defeated San Francisco 10-9 earlier this season at Candlestick Park, limiting Colin Kaepernick to 91 yards passing and 16 yards rushing.
“We owe them,” Kaepernick said earlier this week.
Meanwhile, Davis said the Panthers owe it to themselves to leave it all on the field.
“You never forget that feeling,” Davis said of 2008. “You want to make sure we do everything in our power to make sure we don’t feel that way again. But this is a completely different team and we understand that we have to go out and take care of business.”