The NFL playoff bracket has been narrowed down even more after Sunday’s divisional games.
NFC Championship game: San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks, who will play at home.
AFC Championship game: Denver Broncos play at home against the New England Patriots.
Divisional Playoffs: Saturday, Jan.11:
Seattle won 25-18: New Orleans Saints (12-6) at Seattle Seahawks (14-3), 4:35 p.m. ET (FOX)
New England won 43-22 - Indianapolis Colts (12-6) at New England Patriots (13-4), 8:15 p.m. ET (CBS)
Sunday, Jan. 12:
San Francisco won 23-10: San Francisco 49ers (13-4) at Carolina Panthers (12-4), 1:05 p.m. ET (FOX)
Denver won 24-17: San Diego Chargers (10-7) at Denver Broncos (13-3), 4:40 p.m. ET (CBS)
AP updates below:
NFL playoffs: Go with the underdogs
So the top three and four of the top five teams in the final AP Pro32 power rankings have made the NFL’s Final Four. Nothing surprising about that.
As for the outcomes in the conference title games, well, read on. And remember, Pro Picks went 4-0 in the divisional round, 3-1 in the wild-card round for picking outright winners.
No. 5 New England (plus 6 1-2) at No. 2 Denver
Ah, the classic rivalry: Manning vs. Brady.
That’s the juiciest of the matchups here, but there are many others. First, let’s focus on Peyton vs. Tom Terrific.
Brady holds a big edge in their 14 head-to-head meetings, 10-4, but they have split two AFC championship faceoffs.
Manning has had, by far, the more dynamic season, the best statistically of a 16-season pro career, what with the 55 TD passes and the 5,477 yards passing. Not to mention a 14-3 record.
He’s also had a lot more support on his side, particularly at the wide receiver and tight end positions.
“I really think the team needs to be commended for even getting to this point,” Manning says. “There are a lot of teams that had disappointing losses last year: Atlanta, Washington. Everybody says in that locker room, ‘Let’s get back next year.’ It just doesn’t happen. It’s hard to get back.”
New England has built a 13-4 mark in part on Brady’s brilliant leadership and adaptability. He’s made Julian Edelman into a consistent offensive threat (105 catches, 1,056 yards), and has turned to the ground game because the rest of his receivers are new or inexperienced.
“We keep handing it off and those guys just run so hard and do such a great job running and finding the holes where they can just slice through there and gain as many yards as they can,” Brady says.
The defensive matchups seem to favor the improving Patriots rather than the up-and-down Broncos. New England might have a better idea on how to slow former Patriots star Wes Welker more than Denver knows how to deal with Edelman, for example.
And there’s the coaching battle between Bill Belichick and John Fox, one that Belichick won a decade ago in the Super Bowl, when Fox was at Carolina.
For the folks who are tired of seeing the Patriots in the big game, Pro Picks apologizes …
UPSET SPECIAL, BEST BET: PATRIOTS, 30-28
No. 3 San Francisco (plus 3) at No. 1 Seattle
The coaching tussle here is even more intriguing because Seattle’s Pete Carroll and San Francisco’s Jim Harbaugh don’t exactly spend quality time together. In fact, there’s a spicy feud dating back to their college days.
So the satisfaction of getting to New Jersey in two weeks will be increased for either coach by beating the other.
The 49ers also have the added incentive of coming so close last year at New Orleans before losing the Super Bowl to Baltimore. Don’t be fooled — that has driven them this season.
“We want to win. We’ll do whatever it takes,” running back Frank Gore says. “We have that Super Bowl feel, we didn’t finish like we wanted to, and we have a chance to get back.”
A third meeting in one season means there will be few if any secrets for either side to bring into this one. Look for a knockdown, drag-out contest between the fiercest and most efficient defenses in the league.
Also look for the Seahawks to prevail.
Peyton Manning very good at second chances
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) — From rematches to revivals to redemption, it’s not a good idea to bet against Peyton Manning when it comes to second chances.
He has 97 touchdown throws since hooking up with John Elway in Denver two years ago after the Indianapolis Colts released him when neck troubles clouded his football future.
After dispatching San Diego Sunday on the anniversary of last year’s crushing loss to Baltimore in eerily similar circumstances, Manning stands one win from a shot at becoming the first quarterback to win Super Bowls with two franchises.
Standing in his way are Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, who beat the Broncos 34-31 in overtime in November.
Thing is, it’s been six years since Manning lost a rematch to a team that beat him earlier in the season.
The Broncos (14-3) lost just once at home this season, when they became the highest-scoring team in the Super Bowl era, propelled by Manning’s record 55 TD throws and 5,447 yards through the air.
That was back on Dec. 12, when they were upset by San Diego, a loss they avenged Sunday by beating the Chargers 24-17.
The last time Manning lost twice in a row to the same team was in 2007, when the Colts lost 23-21 at San Diego in November and then dropped a 28-24 heartbreaker at home in the wild-cardplayoffs.
Since then, Manning has won five straight rematches, including the AFC championship against the Jets 30-17 following the 2009 season, avenging a 29-15 loss in Week 16 that ended Indy’s shot at a perfect season.
It took a vintage performance from Manning on Sunday to keep that streak going.
After controlling the game for 3½ quarters, the Broncos allowed 17 fourth-quarter points after losing shutdown cornerback Chris Harris Jr. to a torn ACL.
The Broncos were facing third-and-17 from their own 20 with three minutes left and Rivers loosening up his right arm on the Chargers sideline, ready for his chance to tie this one just like the Ravens had a year earlier on their way to a 38-35 win in double-overtime.
“It was deja vu,” Elway, now the Broncos’ executive vice president, said on his weekly podcast on the team’s website Tuesday.
As Manning took the snap and stepped up, the pocket began to collapse around him, but he spotted tight end Julius Thomas open along the Broncos sideline. The pass was perfect, as was Thomas’ tap dance until his momentum took him out of bounds at the 41.
Then, on third-and-6 from his 45, Manning hit Thomas for a 9-yard gain over the middle with 2:12 left.
A year ago, then-offensive coordinator Mike McCoy called for a run by undersized Ronnie Hillman on third-and-7 at about the same point in the game, which in turn led to Joe Flacco’s 70-yard touchdown heave to Jacoby Jones over Rahim Moore with 31 seconds left.
This was the ultimate second chance, and Manning made good on it.
“Julius and I have spent a lot of time working on those particular routes, after practice, in practice,” Manning said. “And that’s one of the most rewarding parts of football, when you put that work in, off to the side and after practice, and it pays off for you in a game … those two plays were certainly worth the hard work.”
Thomas had just one career catch coming into this season, his third in the NFL, and he had gotten hurt on that one reception, no less. He even briefly considered giving up his dream of playing football.
But this season, he broke Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe’s team record for tight ends by catching 12 TD passes and it was his emergence that freed up Manning’s other targets — Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker, along with running back Knowshon Moreno — who all joined him with 10 or more touchdowns.
Thomas, who didn’t play in the first matchup against the Patriots because of a knee injury, finished with six catches for 76 yards Sunday, but none was longer — or bigger — than his 21-yarder.
“Third-and-17 was the play of the game,” Elway said. “We had to pick it up, keep the chains moving, keep them off the field and not give them a chance and so that’s where it was tremendous. The offensive line did a great job of protecting Peyton, Julius Thomas made a great catch dragging his feet on the sideline.
“But who knows where the game goes if we don’t make that play? Those are the types of plays you have to make in playoff football to be able to advance.”
And make the most of second chances.
Patriots secondary set for rematch with Manning
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — The Denver Broncos tried to beat the New England Patriots less than two months ago by running the ball. It didn’t work.
With a Super Bowl berth at stake in Sunday’s rematch, Peyton Manning figures to have a better day.
“We’ll have to be on top of our game,” Patriots safety Steve Gregory said.
Their pass defense has been pretty close to that lately.
The Patriots intercepted Andrew Luck four times Saturday night in their 43-22 divisional-round win over the Indianapolis Colts. And in their next to last regular-season game, they picked off Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco three times in a 41-7 rout at Baltimore.
They’re traveling again this week, to Denver for the AFC championship game, with a deep, experienced secondary. And though Flacco and Luck are impressive quarterbacks, Manning appears to be on a different level — regardless of how he did last time out vs. New England.
“What you are always trying to strive for is consistency,” Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said Tuesday, “certainly in a position like the defensive backs where there is a lot of communication.”
In their first meeting with the Broncos, the Patriots won 34-31 in overtime after trailing 24-0 at halftime. Manning had season lows of 19 completions, 150 yards passing, a 52.8 completion percentage and a 70.2 passer rating. With the wind whipping, and the running game rolling behind Knowshon Moreno’s 224 yards, Manning threw 36 passes, five below his average. His longest completion gained 17 yards, although tight end Julius Thomas sat out with a knee injury.
New England struggled against the long ball early last season. That changed after it acquired cornerback Aqib Talib in a trade with Tampa Bay after the eighth game. He sat out the next game to complete a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances. He said it was Adderall.
In his first game with the Patriots, he returned an interception for a touchdown against Luck.
Talib’s arrival solidified the move of Devin McCourty from cornerback to safety, made after the sixth game. With Gregory at safety and Alfonzo Dennard at cornerback, the Patriots had the starting secondary they continued using this season.
“It’s been a huge plus for us that we’ve been able to essentially keep those same players back there,” coach Bill Belichick said. “Then (there’s) some degree of flexibility because both Steve Gregory and Devin have both played corner.”
Injuries on defense sidelined tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly and linebacker Jerod Mayo for most of the season and linebacker Brandon Spikes for the postseason. But in the secondary, the four starters have missed a total of just nine games.
When they’ve been out, veteran Kyle Arrington and two rookies, cornerback Logan Ryan and safety Duron Harmon, have played more.
Ryan’s interception against Manning early in the fourth quarter Nov. 24 led to the touchdown that put the Patriots ahead for the first time, 28-24.
“I practice against a great quarterback every day,” Ryan said before his playoff debut against Luck. “So I think practicing against Tom (Brady) makes everything a little bit easier.”
Ryan led the Patriots with five interceptions. Talib had four. Dennard had just one then picked off two in the playoff win over the Colts. He did give up a 38-yard touchdown reception to LaVon Brazill on a perfectly thrown pass on which he barely missed the deflection.
“He’s got attitude,” Gregory said. “He believes in his talent. We believe in him. We’re always out there supporting each other, letting the guys know that, ‘Hey, we got this, you can do this.’ Those corners, they have to play with confidence. You see it in Talib, you see it in ‘Zo, Logan, Kyle. You need that in order to cover guys in the NFL.”
Especially when those guys are Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker. They combined for 252 catches for 3,496 yards and 35 touchdowns for Denver.
But the Patriots still have Talib, Dennard, Gregory and McCourty trying to contain them.
“They have a good comfort level out on the football field,” Patricia said. “So as much as you can have the continuity within a group — especially in the back end — I think it is always what is going to help you in the long run.”