And then there were four. On Sunday, the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers, Denver Broncos and New England Patriots will find out who will have the honor of playing in Super Bowl XLVIII. Key performances are more important than ever, and schemes must be as tight as they've ever been. With that in mind, here's one thing each team must accomplish if it wants to punch a ticket to MetLife Stadium on Feb. 2.
Seattle Seahawks: Stay in your lanes against Frank Gore.
Though the Seattle Seahawks have had a number of great defenses over the last few seasons, running back Frank Gore has been a thorn in the franchise's side for a good, long time -- and Seattle's current status as the league's best defense based on metrics both typical and advanced doesn't make much of a difference when it comes to the nine-year veteran. Gore has run for more yards (1,364) against the Seahawks than against any other team, and his 16 games against Seattle is bested only by his 17 games against the Arizona Cardinals.
In 2013, however, his two games against the Seahawks produced wildly divergent results. He rushed for just 16 yards on nine carries in San Francisco's 29-3 loss in Seattle on Sept. 15, and turned that around with 110 yards on 17 carries in the Candlestick Park rematch on Dec. 8. Gore's most important run in San Francisco's 19-17 win came with 4:21 left in the game. The 49ers had first-and-10 at their own 31-yard line, and Gore flared out and cut back inside for a 51-yard run. That put the ball at the Seattle 18-yard line, and set up Phil Dawson's 22-yard game-winning field goal with 31 seconds left.
Though the 49ers blocked the play with their usual mix of power and fundamental awareness, the gain would not have been as long as it was had the Seahawks avoided an over-aggressive approach -- especially in the defensive backfield, where just about everybody missed an opportunity to make a play.
“We just overran it, just overran the tackle," Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said after the game. "A number of guys had a chance. [Safety] Kam [Chancellor] had a real shot at it, just floated over the top of the run. [Safety] Earl [Thomas] had a shot at it as it came back underneath and it got back all the way to Sherm [cornerback Richard Sherman]. Sherm got nicked by a blocker and just didn’t get off of it cleanly and he took off and hit it. We were going this way and he was going that way. So they blocked it well up front, but we had plenty of shots to keep it to being an eight- to nine-yard gain.”
Coming into the NFC Championship game, Carroll has talked a lot about gap fundamentals, because he knows that without them, it will be nearly impossible to beat a 49ers team that has not lost a game since late November.
“Frank Gore had a great run the last time we played," Carroll said Monday. "They were running the ball okay in that game, they were competitive and all of that, and then they busted one that changed the game. It was a great job by them and unfortunately we didn’t get it down -- it put them in field goal range and the game was at hand there and the clock became the issue. He did it again the other day, he busted one again [against the Carolina Panthers in the divisional round]. He’s really capable, he’s a fantastic runner, he’s got great sense, and he’s got as good a sense in the line of scrimmage as anybody that’s playing in the game. If you make a mistake, he takes advantage of it, and he certainly did that against us.”
San Francisco 49ers: Keep Ahmad Brooks after the quarterback.
When the 49ers are in their 3-4 base defense and certain sub-packages, there's little doubt that they put the NFL's best linebacker quartet on the field. Outside linebacker Aldon Smith is the noted pass-rusher, while inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman patrol the middle with an unmatched combination of physical prowess and football acumen. Bowman, in particular, has played at a Defensive Player of the Year level through most of the season.
The hidden asset among San Francisco's linebackers, however, is Ahmad Brooks, the eight-year veteran who tied Smith for the team lead in sacks this season with 8.5. Brooks added two more sacks in the 49ers' wild-card win over the Green Bay Packers, and 2.5 more in the team's divisional victory over the Carolina Panthers. Thus, one sure and simple truth -- though Brooks may be relatively underrated among that linebacker group in the public eye, he's anything but in the NFL's film rooms.
"He's not underrated around here," Pete Carroll told me Wednesday about Brooks and San Francisco's linebacker group overall. "He's had a great season. He's been aggressive and tough and playmaking all year long. It's a very, very good group. It's the highlight group of their defense that just jumps out at you. Inside guys are terrific, and both outside guys cause problems in numerous ways. So that is a focal point for us, for sure."
Carroll also said that despite Brooks' recent statistical uptick, the 49ers aren't using him in any different ways -- it's just that everything is just kicking in at the right time.
"No, they've pretty much used him perfectly for a long time. They've used them in their base packages and their nickel packages and they move them around a little bit. But he's just been tearing it up as their whole defense has."
Sacks aside, Brooks' most important play of the postseason was a run stuff on fourth down, because it prevented a Panthers touchdown at the start of the second quarter that could have turned the momentum of San Francisco's eventual 23-10 result. Carolina had fourth-and-goal from the 49ers' one-yard line, and it was up to Brooks to kill quarterback Cam Newton's attempt at a touchdown.
“The un-scouted part of the whole situation was the defense itself," Harbaugh said. "We went from a 6-2 defense on the goal line ... That’s been our defense on the goal line. For the years we’ve been here, we’ve never shown a 5-3 look. By taking Ahmad and moving him into the center to create the 5-3 ... was un-scouted. We had not shown that, and I thought it was a great move by [defensive coordinator] Vic Fangio. We talked about it during the week. This is something that would be very difficult for the opposition if we get in that position, and Vic said, ‘Well, I hope we’re not in that position.’ Sure enough, we were in that position two times, and that planning, that preparation by our players, especially by Vic Fangio and the defensive coaches, was profound.”
The 49ers will need to be just as profound against Seattle's inside run game, and Brooks is more than able to expound.
New England Patriots: Engage in Blount-force trauma.
When the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos last met, it was Tom Brady's team that came away with a 34-31 overtime win. And that version was truly Brady's team -- New England's passing game was front of mind as the Pats had to overcome a 24-0 Denver halftime lead to get back in the game in the first place. Brady completed 34 of 50 passes for 344 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions for his most important performance of the season. But that was when everything was rolling through the air, and Brady had Rob Gronkowski as a primary receiver.
Adaptability is the order of the day for Bill Belichick's team, though. And when Gronkowski was lost for the season due to a torn ACL, a reset was in order. To get to the AFC Championship game against these very same Broncos, New England had to beat the Indianapolis Colts in the divisional round. This they did, by a 43-22 margin, but Brady was a bit player. He completed just 13 of 25 passes for 198 yards and no touchdowns, and left the scoring -- not to mention the primary means of production -- to running back LeGarrette Blount. The same man who carried the ball exactly two times in the Denver game was the main man behind the drive to the rematch, with 166 yards and four touchdowns on 24 carries.
"Once I get into the open field, they're going to have to chase me," Blount said after the game. "And if they catch me, they do. And if they don't, they don't. They usually don't."
Blount, traded by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in April 2013 for running back/track star Jeff Demps and a seventh-round pick after he fell out of favor with former head coach Greg Schiano, has found a new lease on life in Foxboro -- he's the latest of a new group of Pats who seem to find their best selves when they hit the door. And because he's done so, Blount makes the Patriots dangerous in ways this team hasn't been since it was winning Super Bowls a decade ago. Some who have played and beaten New England in those most important games in recent years are convinced that Blount can be the next Corey Dillon, who gained 1,635 yards for the Pats in 2004 -- the first year after the Cincinnati Bengals decided they were tired of the headaches Dillon brought with his talent. That was the last season in which Belichick's team took home the Lombardi Trophy.
"People always ask me, what's the difference between today's Patriots and when we faced them in 2007, when they had the most explosive offense until this year's Denver Broncos," former New York Giants linebacker Antonio Pierce told ESPN's Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic on Wednesday. "They had no running game. We didn't fear their running game. We dared them to try to run the football on us. But you imagine Tom Brady with a 245-, 250-pound back running downhill? That's dangerous. You give that kind of quarterback a two-way option ... when they had the most success in [Brady's] career as a Patriot -- I'm talking about winning championships -- it was all about the running game. You remember Corey Dillon. That big back, that factor where when he drops into play-action and throws the ball over the top ... now, you're saying, 'Wow -- how difficult is this? What do we do?"
The Colts' problem wasn't play-action, though -- their problem was how to stop a back as big as Blount, who can pick up serious speed when he gets a head of steam. The Pats had supreme confidence in Blount's ability to shred Indy's defense, and there was one run concept that really killed the Colts -- Blount as the single back with a two-tight end set, and a pulling left guard (Logan Mankins) to seal the right edge. This was good for an eight-yard gain with 4:58 left in the first half, when Blount blew through the right side of the Colts' defense.
Belichick went back to the well with 12:55 left in the game, and Blount put the game away with a 79-yard touchdown run. This time, the hole Blount had to run through was simply ridiculous, and a perfect indicator of how well New England's offensive line is set up to accentuate his newfound status as a force multiplier.
"That’s why we go with LG, make it easy there," Belichick said Wednesday. "LeGarrette has given us good football all year long, he really has. Certainly he’s had some outstanding games recently, but he’s been a solid player for us all the way through. I think everybody has a lot of confidence in him. He’s done a good job in the passing game. He’s caught a couple check-downs, screen passes and stuff like that. He’s run the ball well. He has a great skill set: good vision, good size, good quickness, good speed, he’s a hard guy to tackle. I think he’s been solid; he’s been a solid player for us all year long."
In Belichick-ese, "solid player" is a supreme compliment. It's one that Blount has earned with no question, and it's one that the Broncos' defense could soon echo with regret.
Denver Broncos: Find a way to replace an indispensable slot machine.
Then again, the Patriots may want to investigate the possibilities of the slot receiver position in this Denver rematch in ways they may not have against the Colts. Because a Broncos defense that has managed to overcome a lot of injuries will unquestionably be in trouble without cornerback Chris Harris, who was lost for the rest of the postseason with a torn ACL in the third quarter of Denver's 24-17 divisional win over the San Diego Chargers. When Harris left the game, Denver was up 17-0 and had everything in hand, which is a testament to Harris' value -- and that value had been evident all season. Especially in the slot, Harris has been one of the NFL's best pass defenders over the last two seasons -- and when the Broncos had to sub in veteran Quentin Jammer, the game tape got a lot uglier.
Jammer was directly responsible for two big plays from quarterback Philip Rivers to rookie receiver Keenan Allen -- a 49-yard completion with 7:38 left in the game, and the 16-yard touchdown detailed below. On this play, San Diego had third-and-4 with Allen in the slot, and Jammer unfortunately proved that he could not mirror Harris' knack for that role. On this play, Allen simply outran Jammer, who was reduced to the role of bystander.
Jammer's look said all that needed to be said... until the game was over.
“I think we made some mental errors,” Jammer recalled. “I know me, myself, I made mental errors that led to three big plays. I sat on a route on fourth-and-3. I overthought everything. Me being a veteran player, there’s fourth-and-3, going against the wind, I’m thinking a curl, something just to get the first down and keep the chains moving [and I] let the guy run right by me. [Chargers receiver] Eddie Royal on third-and-6, I’m thinking one thing and he runs a completely different route. There’s a lot that we can clean up, and there’s a lot that I need to clean up.”
The Broncos have subscribed to the "next man up" philosophy, signing former Patriots defensive back Marquice Cole to try to provide some insight into New England's ability to exploit slot mismatches.
“When you have people like Peyton [Manning], I’m pretty sure he knows more about the defense than even I would," Cole said Wednesday. "Same thing with Tom [Brady]. What could I say to Peyton Manning, you know? What, ‘They’re going to be in Cover-1, they’re going to be in Cover-2, they’re going to be in Cover.’ It is what it is. He is going to do his scouting, which I’m pretty sure he’s been doing before I even signed here, so there isn’t much I can do to help out.” Whoever's in charge of that aspect of Denver's defense, they'll have to keep an especially sharp eye on Julian Edelman, who caught 54 passes on 73 targets for 503 targets and six touchdowns from the slot this season. Against the Colts, Edelman, Danny Amendola and Kenbrell Thompkins combined for five catches in nine targets for 117 yards in various slot roles, and you can expect those numbers to get a bump in the championship round.