The NFL schedule for this weekend consists of two Sunday games–the AFC and NFC championships.
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)
49ers vs. Seahawks: The key matchups
Matchups for the NFC championship game Sunday between the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks at the CenturyLink Field:
When the 49ers (14-4) have the ball:
San Francisco runs the ball as well as anyone left in the playoffs, with RB Frank Gore (21) as the focal point, but QB Colin Kaepernick (7) as the wild card. The 49ers will try to establish something on the ground immediately behind a strong line led by left tackle Joe Staley (74) and guard Mike Iupati (77). That means plenty of Gore inside and even a bit outside, and Kaepernick using his speed — unmatched by any quarterback in the league — to get to the edge.
But Gore has struggled at Seattle, and the Seahawks command the line of scrimmage as well as any team, even San Francisco. They ranked seventh at stopping the run, with huge tackle Brandon Mebane (92) clogging the running lanes. Seattle’s other D-linemen, particularly Red Bryant (79) and Michael Bennett (72), are versatile and rugged.
If the 49ers can’t get the rushing game going, it lets Seahawks linebackers Bobby Wagner (54) and Bruce Irvin (51) get even more involved. It also means Bennett, DEs Chris Clemons (91) Cliff Avril (56) and Irvin will be more of a threat in the passing attack, although trapping and sacking Kaepernick is no easy chore.
Kaepernick struggled mightily in the Niners’ 29-3 loss at Seattle in September and has performed poorly at CenturyLink Field in both of his appearances. He’s a more mature player now and is 3-0 in road playoff games.
To get to 4-0 might require more use of his arm than coach Jim Harbaugh prefers. And that’s where the most intriguing matchups of this game will occur: San Francisco’s receivers against Seattle’s secondary.
WR Anquan Boldin (81) helped Baltimore beat the 49ers in last year’s Super Bowl, and he has had a superb season. Since WR Michael Crabtree (15) returned from a torn Achilles tendon, the 49ers haven’t lost, including a win over Seattle, and their air game has risen to another level. Throw in Vernon Davis (85), the best deep threat in the league among tight ends, and the Seahawks’ terrific group of DBs will be heavily challenged.
All-Pros CB Richard Sherman (25) and S Earl Thomas (29) are elite in coverage and will make for a juicy encounter with San Francisco’s receivers. Sherman led the league with eight interceptions, Thomas had five. The other starting safety, Kam Chancellor (31), is almost as good, especially standing out in run defense, and CB Byron Maxwell (41) has been a real find since Brandon Browner (39) was suspended by the NFL.
When the Seahawks (14-3) have the ball:
Seattle’s offense has slumped in recent weeks, but it also has made big plays when needed. RB Marshawn Lynch (24) is Gore’s counterpart and comes off a great game vs. New Orleans: 140 yards and two touchdowns. He’s a similar-type runner and when in “Beast Mode,” he’s as tough as they come.
Then again, so is San Francisco’s run defense, led by do-everything tackle/end Justin Smith (94) and linebackers NaVorro Bowman, an All-Pro, Patrick Willis and Ahmad Brooks. The Niners aren’t quite as deep up front as Seattle, but they make up for it with the NFL’s top linebacking corps.
Coach Pete Carroll is most comfortable when Lynch is on the loose, which makes things much easier for QB Russell Wilson (3). If the 49ers can control Lynch, who averaged 105 yards rushing at home against them, it puts a heavy onus on Wilson, whose passing numbers have been pedestrian recently.
Wilson, of course, is like Kaepernick with his escapability. While not as fast as Kaepernick, Wilson is more elusive and keeps passing plays alive with his uncanny scrambling. That’s something 49ers DBs Tramaine Brock (26), Eric Reid (35), Donte Whitner (31) and, if he’s recovered from a hamstring problem, Carlos Rogers (22) must be aware of at all times.
Like San Francisco, Seattle prides itself on an unrelenting physical offensive line. It’s anchored by center Max Unger (60) and tackle Russell Okung (76), but it’s also deep because injuries forced backups into action all season.
They’ll face a hefty challenge trying to keep LB Aldon Smith (99), Justin Smith and San Francisco’s other prime sackmasters away from Wilson. Then again, those defenders might get tired chasing Wilson.
Where the Seahawks don’t equal the 49ers on offense is at receiver. There’s not a lot of star power there, especially if Percy Harvin (11) can’t go because of concussion symptoms.
Still, don’t underestimate the hands of Doug Baldwin (89), the moves and quickness of Golden Tate (81) or the steadiness of TE Zach Miller (86).
No real big edges here unless Harvin is healthy — he’s a gamebreaker on returns.
Tate probably is the next-best weapon on either side running back kicks.
Both sides treasure the reliability of their kickers. San Francisco brought in veteran PK Phil Dawson (9) as a free agent after David Akers flopped last season. Dawson has excelled, and he beat Green Bay in the wild-card round with a final-second field goal through the frigid night air. Punter Andy Lee (4) has been a perennial Pro Bowler.
Seattle counters with PK Steven Hauschka (4), who also has had a topnotch season, and Jon Ryan (9), who regularly buries punts deep in opponent’s territory.
Harbaugh and Carroll have no love lost, dating to when they were at Stanford and Southern Cal and Harbaugh ran up the score, prompting Carroll to ask him, “What’s your deal?”
Harbaugh’s deal has been winning like no coach in San Francisco since Bill Walsh. This is the Niners’ third straight trip to the NFC title game under him. He exudes confidence and, yes, arrogance, and it works for the 49ers.
Carroll’s nonstop exuberance rubs off on his players, and no team is more aggressive, especially on defense, which is Carroll’s specialty. He had some success in a previous head coaching stint with the Patriots, then went to USC and, since returning to the pros, Carroll has done a brilliant job turning the Seahawks into a championship contender.
Playing in the same division means both sides are deeply familiar with each other; there won’t be many secrets on display here.
That the Niners have struggled in the Pacific Northwest is, well, tangible: They were outscored 71-16 in their last two visits, Harbaugh’s two worst losses. They’re an experienced outfit in pressure situations, though, so the supersonic noise from the 12th Man in the stands shouldn’t affect them.
But it has. And it figures to be louder than ever on Sunday.
Patriots vs. Broncos: The key matchups
Matchups for the AFC championship game Sunday between the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field:
When the Patriots (13-4) have the ball:
Run, baby, run.
The Patriots? Yep.
While all four remaining teams in the playoffs have solid ground games, New England has ridden the backs of its backs the most effectively. Sure, QB Tom Brady (12) is among the best ever and is seeking a fourth Super Bowl ring, but he’s also among the smartest ever. Brady knows that if his trio of runners — LeGarrette Blount (29), Stevan Ridley (22) and Shane Vereen (34) — are gouging the opponent, it’s the best approach to keep at it.
Blount has been unstoppable recently, rushing for 431 yards and eight TDs in the last three games. He scored four times in the rout of Indianapolis last week and is the power back the Patriots have lacked for a while.
That they’ve gotten such production behind an offensive line that entered the season with some uncertainty has been impressive, too. Left guard Logan Mankins (70) and left tackle Nate Solder (77) anchor the group, which has allowed only six sacks in the last four games.
Give Brady time and it’s a recipe for defeat for the opposition. So Denver has a dilemma: Would it rather force the clutch-passing Brady to go to the air or deal with the run game?
The Broncos’ defense was staunch for most of the divisional round win over San Diego, but it has lots of holes. It ranked 19th this season, is without its best player, injured LB Von Miller, so there’s vulnerability.
Losing CB Chris Harris (25) to a knee injury won’t help, either. A hefty burden will be placed on the front seven to bottle up the run and get some pressure on Brady when he throws. That would make things much more comfortable for DBs Champ Bailey (24), and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (45).
Although Brady’s crew of targets was significantly downgraded this season by the departure of WR Wes Welker — to Denver, of all places — and Brandon Lloyd, injuries to TE Rob Gronkowski, and the arrest of TE Aaron Hernandez on murder charges, he’s made the best of it. In fact, he’s helped turn Julian Edelman (11) into another Welker.
Danny Amendola (80) is another pint-sized wideout, and the rest of the receivers have contributed in spots.
Not having to deal with Gronk should make Denver LBs Danny Trevathan (59) and Wesley Woodyard (52) more available in all defensive areas. If the line, led by DT Terrance Knighton (94) and end Shaun Phillips (90) gets some penetration and slows the running game, it will make the Patriots more one-dimensional.
Then again, is that such a good thing when Brady is chucking the ball?
When the Broncos (14-3) have the ball:
Things are a lot more simple on Denver’s offense. Sure, RB Knowshon Moreno (27) has been a mainstay and had a career-best 224 yards on a career-high 37 carries in a November loss at Foxborough. And rookie Montee Ball (28) can be a significant contributor.
But everyone knows this attack is all about QB Peyton Manning (18).
Manning broke Brady’s single-season marks with 55 TD passes and 5,477 yards in the air, and the Broncos established an NFL record with 606 points. It would be the capper to one of the greatest careers in league history for Manning to get his second championship, and he has the supporting cast to do so.
The main problem is that New England has had his number. Manning is 4-10 against Brady, and the defenses schemed by Patriots coach Bill Belichick often have puzzled him.
The Patriots’ defense, sparked by DE-LB Rob Ninkovich (50), DE Chandler Jones (95) and LB Jamie Collins (91) really has come on late in the season as Belichick kept plugging in new faces when regulars went down with injuries. That New England lost its best two defenders, DT Vince Wilfork and LB Jerod Mayo, and prospered is somewhat amazing.
Belichick will instruct his DBs, led by Devin McCourty (32) and Aqib Talib (31) to be extra-physical from the outset. It’s a plan that has worked for New England for a few decades, going back to the 2002 Super Bowl upset of a similarly high-powered offense, the Rams’ “Greatest Show on Turf.”
So the ability of receivers big — Demaryius Thomas (88), Eric Decker (87) and TE Julius Thomas (80) — and small (No. 83 Welker) to avoid those bumps and remain on their routes will be critical for Denver. Manning has to hope the officials also aren’t particularly lenient in what they allow the Patriots to do on defense. It has happened before — often.
Welker’s contributions will be of the highest interest, because the Patriots know his game inside-out. Denver’s best matchup through the air could wind up being tight end Thomas, particularly if he draws coverage from a linebacker such as Collins or Dont’a Hightower (54).
Denver PK Matt Prater (5) broke the NFL record with a 64-yard field goal and might have the strongest leg in the league. But New England’s Stephen Gostkowski (3) is no slouch. Both are reliable in tight situations and from distance; in Denver’s thin air, that’s important.
Ryan Allen was sidelined with a right shoulder injury in the victory over Indianapolis, so their punting situation is somewhat uncertain. Of course, they hope they never have to punt the ball back to Manning.
Denver’s Britton Colquitt (4) is among the NFL’s top punters.
The only game-breaker among the kick returners is Denver’s Trindon Holliday (11), who must show he can hang onto the ball. Blount has done well on kickoff returns, including an 83-yarder.
New England’s coverage units are strong, while Denver’s are not nearly as stingy.
Belichick bested John Fox when Fox was coaching Carolina in the 2004 Super Bowl. Obviously, Belichick is seeking a fourth Super Bowl title, rare territory, and hasn’t won it since the 2005. He’ll come up with something on both sides of the ball that will trouble Denver.
Fox, who missed a month of the schedule after heart surgery, is a strong motivator, too, and is smart enough to keep the reins very loose on Manning. His background is in defense, but that’s where the Broncos have struggled under him this season, in large part because they lost five defenders to IR and injuries to Woodyard and Bailey made them backups for most of 2013.
Start with Brady having lost his last two Super Bowls and not playing particularly well in either of them.
Add in Manning seeking his third trip to the big game — and an emphatic stamp of approval as a championship QB.
The Broncos also are spurred on by their meltdown late in last year’s playoff loss to Baltimore at home. New England is driven by no championships in nearly a decade.
Neither side will forget the regular-season meeting, either. Denver wants to replicate the first half in which it forced a slew of turnovers and went ahead 24-0. New England wants to carry the momentum from its second-half surge to victory.