For all the talk about parity around the NFL, and despite the rise of teams like Kansas City and Philadelphia this season, we more or less wound up right where many believed we would: with New England and Denver in the AFC title game, and San Francisco battling Seattle for the NFC's Super Bowl bid.
What's on tap for championship weekend? We take an early look:
No. 2 New England Patriots (12-4) at No. 1 Denver Broncos (13-3)
Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning ... what more could you ask for? And lest anyone forget, the most recent meeting between the two future Hall of Famers -- a Week 12 game in Foxboro -- turned into an instant classic, with Brady's Patriots somehow erasing a 24-0 halftime lead to nab a 34-31 win. New England also bested Denver in 2012, 31-21.
Revenge may not be on the Broncos' minds Sunday so much as figuring out how to replicate their first-half effort from Week 12. Denver forced three New England turnovers early in that game and appeared to have things totally in control, right up until a Montee Ball fumble really shifted the momentum in New England's favor. Brady wound up throwing for 344 yards and three touchdowns. Manning, meanwhile, mustered only 150 yards through the air, as he was unable to crank it back into gear once the Broncos started reeling.
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Leading the offensive charge for the Broncos instead was RB Knowshon Moreno, who churned out 224 yards and a touchdown on 37 carries. He and Montee Ball have developed into a very steady 1-2 punch out of the Broncos' backfield -- the duo no doubt benefiting from the attention defenses have to pay to Manning and the passing game.
New England may not have Wes Welker anymore (or anyone like Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker or TE Julius Thomas), but its offense keeps cranking. Brady's bunch finished the year by hanging 41 on Baltimore and 34 on Buffalo, then torched Indianapolis for 43 points and 419 yards of offense Saturday. All six Patriots touchdowns in that playoff win came on the ground, with surprise hero LeGarrette Blount scoring four times and Stevan Ridley twice.
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Standing in the way of New England's ability to do that again: A Denver defense that played arguably its best game of the season vs. San Diego on Sunday. Bulky defensive tackle Terrance Knighton led the way up front by generating a consistent push against the Chargers' line. Doing the same next week may force Brady to hurry his progressions or allow Shaun Phillips to lead a charge off the edge.
Manning may have to contend with extra pressure himself. The Patriots had the fifth-most sacks in the league this season (48), despite only taking down Manning once back in November.
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No. 5 San Francisco 49ers (12-4) at No. 1 Seattle Seahawks (13-3)
Much has been made of Seattle's incredible home-field advantage and, well, San Francisco has not been immune to the effects of late. In their last two trips to CenturyLink Field, the 49ers have been handed a pair of losses by a combined score of 71-16. That count includes Seattle's 29-3 romp over its arch-rival back in Week 2.
The Seahawks moved to 2-0 with that victory and never really slowed down en route to the NFC's No. 1 seed. The 49ers needed more time to kick into gear -- they started the season 1-2, then slipped to 6-4 after losses to Carolina and New Orleans, before embarking on their ongoing eight-game win streak.
If nothing else, San Francisco should be better positioned this time around to give Seattle a run for its money.
The 49ers do have a win over the Seahawks to draw from, too. That 19-17 decision came on the strength of a 110-yard rushing performance from Frank Gore, who was one of few offensive players to find success during the Week 15 contest. He'll need to need to be on his game again Sunday, because the Seahawks finished the regular season with the league's top-ranked pass defense and mostly stuffed Drew Brees this weekend. The latest Seattle shutdown included holding Jimmy Graham to one late, relatively meaningless catch; Vernon Davis could land in the crosshairs during the title game.
Of course, Colin Kaepernick has other options available to him. Michael Crabtree turned in an impressive performance during the wild-card round, then Anquan Boldin confounded Carolina Sunday.
The Seahawks may be at least a little concerned with their own passing attack after a shaky nine-completion showing by Russell Wilson vs. New Orleans. Some of his issues were created by an ultra-conservative game plan in the second half, one meant to preserve what appeared to be a comfortable lead. Wilson, though, has yet to top 200 yards passing in four career starts against the 49ers. (Kaepernick is 1-for-3 in that regard vs. Seattle.)
Marshawn Lynch, on the other hand, has scored in his last three games against San Francisco and is coming off a 140-yard, two-TD afternoon in the Seahawks' divisional-round win.
Each team will try to use its top running back to grind out some yards on early downs, in hopes of preventing the opposing defense from pinning its ears back on 3rd-and-longs. The Seahawks generated 44 sacks during the regular season with their deep and versatile set of linemen and linebackers; the 49ers dropped Cam Newton five times on Sunday, led by 2.5 sacks from Ahmad Brooks.
Seattle has lost just once at home over the past two seasons: in Week 16 this year vs. Arizona.
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