The Playbook: Previewing Broncos-Patriots, Seahawks-49ers
No. 2 New England at No. 1 Denver -- 3 p.m. ET (CBS): The edge in the Tom Brady-Peyton Manning rivalry lies firmly with the Patriots' quarterback. He's now 10-4, counting the postseason, against his fellow future Hall of Famer, with win No. 10 coming in dramatic fashion as the Patriots stormed back from a 24-0 deficit in Week 12 to upend the Broncos by seven.
If there is any carryover from the quarterbacks' history against each other when Denver and New England meet in Sunday's AFC Championship Game, it could come in the form of confidence gained by the Patriots in rallying for that regular-season win. Of course, Brady and company would prefer to avoid falling into a huge hole altogether, especially on the road. (Brady has yet to face a Manning-led Broncos team in Denver.)
To accomplish that goal New England may turn back to its suddenly vibrant run game, led by the unexpected reemergence of LeGarrette Blount. The ex-Buccaneer, acquired in a throwaway trade during last offseason (Blount for Jeff Demps and a seventh-rounder), scored four touchdowns on 166 yards rushing in the Patriots' 43-22 divisional-round win over Indianapolis. Stevan Ridley also found the end zone twice for the Patriots, who needed just 198 yards passing from Brady to roll.
Brady may opt to take to the air more Sunday against a banged-up Broncos defense. The latest setback: Chris Harris' ACL tear, suffered last week. Denver struggled badly with Harris out of the lineup, replacing him with Quentin Jammer, who was burned a couple of times as San Diego attempted a second-half comeback.
The names on Denver's wide receiver depth chart are far more imposing: Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Eric Decker. Add in emerging tight end Julius Thomas, and it's not hard to see how Manning set NFL records for both passing yards and passing touchdowns this season.
The attention defenses must pay to all of those weapons also helps explain how Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball have found room to accelerate Denver's rushing attack. Moreno topped the 1,000-yard mark this season, and Denver rushed for 133 yards in its win last weekend. That backfield tandem may not be the go-to option for a pass-heavy offense, but Moreno and Ball are capable of keeping the Patriots defense honest ... or burning it if it's not.
Will either team be able to pressure the other's quarterback? The answer to that question may dictate how this one shakes out. The Patriots finished fifth in the league with 48 sacks; the Broncos tied for 13th at 41. In a game that figures to go down to the wire, one rush-induced turnover could change the tide. -- Chris Burke
Chris Burke: Denver 34, New England 31
Doug Farrar: New England 27, Denver 23
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• Matchup to Watch: Julian Edelman vs. Champ Bailey/Quentin Jammer.
Just as the Patriots do not employ Edelman strictly out of the slot (he spends about half his time there), the Broncos likely will not attack Brady's top receiver with just one defender now that Harris is unavailable. Instead, count on Denver to mix and match its coverages -- dropping Jammer into the slot, lining up Bailey versus Edelman and using Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie out wide.
New England will look to exploit the moments when Jammer and Bailey draw the Edelman assignment. And, true to Brady/Bill Belichick form, the passing attack could cycle through Edelman until the Broncos show they can prevent such an occurrence.
• Pressure's on ... : Terrance Knighton, DT, Denver.
The Broncos have not always held up well against the run this season. Knighton ensured they got the job done in the divisional round against San Diego's attack (though an injury to Ryan Mathews helped). As mentioned above, the shifting face of the Patriots offense could mean a lot more run plays than the casual observer might expect. If it's working for Blount and Ridley to pound Denver between the tackles, the Patriots will be able to control the clock, keep Manning on the sideline and open up space downfield for an occasional shot.
Should Knighton and Malik Jackson generate some push, on the other hand, the Patriots might be reduced to a one-dimensional attack. Given the lack of threats in New England's passing game, that sort of variable would put a load of heat on Brady.
• This Week's Sleeper: Shane Vereen, RB, Patriots.
With Blount taking on a starring role and Ridley churning out carries, Vereen has slid into the background of New England's offense. That all could change Sunday if the Patriots decide to attack the Broncos through the air because it's in the passing game that the versatile Vereen really shines. His ability to line up as a receiver outside helps his team offset its talent deficiency at wideout. Don't be surprised if Vereen sees plenty of snaps -- and quite a few targets from Brady -- on Sunday.
• Rookie Spotlight: Montee Ball, RB, Broncos.
Moreno has reclaimed his spot as the No. 1 back in Denver, but there has been room for Ball nonetheless. Should the Broncos stake themselves to a second-half lead, they'll do what they can to wear down the Patriots up front. Though Ball may not be front and center on that approach, he should see several key carries. -- CB
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No. 5 San Francisco at No. 1 Seattle -- 6:30 p.m. ET (FOX): While the AFC Championship Game could shape up to be a tribute to the beauty of the modern passing game, the third go-round of the 2013 season between these two NFC West rivals will most likely be anything but. The Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers drive the NFL's best current rivalry because not only are they built very similarly but also because there are legitimate bad feelings between the two organizations. That sentiment stretches back to when Seattle head coach Pete Carroll ran the USC program and San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh showed up at Stanford in 2007 to make Carroll's life in the then-PAC-10 far more difficult. One year after Carroll took the Seahawks job in 2010, Harbaugh hit the Bay Area, and their aggravation transferred to the NFL.
Both teams are built on the foundations of a strong run game and amazing defense, with young quarterbacks in Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick to round things out with the occasional aerial shot play or designed quarterback scramble. These teams are too good, too close and too much alike to feel indifference toward each other. Neither team will use "hate" as a descriptive term, but the energy comes pretty close.
"There is no love lost; there is no love found," Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman said Wednesday. "That's how I'd characterize it. It's going to be intense. It's going to be physical. I don't know if there are going to be handshakes after this one."
The Seahawks and 49ers have split their season series in each of the last two years, with the home team winning every time. In San Francisco, the games have been 13-6 and 19-17 squeakers. In Seattle, they've been 42-13 and 29-3 blowouts.
But before anyone in the Emerald City gets overconfident about a repeat performance, two things should be kept in mind. First, the 49ers haven't lost a game since receiver Michael Crabtree returned from a torn Achilles tendon to play against the St. Louis Rams on Dec. 1. Second, Seattle's passing offense has been an issue over the last month, and Wilson has thrown just four touchdown passes to three picks in his last five games. In last Saturday's divisional win over the New Orleans Saints, Seattle left things to running back Marshawn Lynch, and Wilson completed just nine passes for 103 yards. Wilson is more than aware that San Francisco's defense -- specifically its linebackers -- presents very specific challenges that affect his run/pass duality.
"They usually have a spy on me," he said Wednesday. "They always have somebody kind of watching me. And they're very athletic. So they can make a lot of plays. So just being aware of where they are and what they're doing. I have a lot of respect for how they play the game and how physical and how fast they are. They're very intelligent in how they play the game too. We're going to have to find ways to attack them and take advantage of their weaknesses. They don't have too many, so you have to play a great football game."
Kaepernick is equally aware of what Seattle's league-best defense can do to him -- in those two games this season, he completed just over 50 percent of his passes and threw two touchdown passes to five picks. Kaepernick has a miserable history at Seattle's CenturyLink Field, which must change if San Francisco is to buck the odds and win its second straight NFC title.
"He's not different," Seahawks safety Earl Thomas said of Kaepernick this week. "I think he's playing with more confidence now. But their offense is never going to get away from who they really are. We know they want to run the ball and play action off of that, so we're very prepared on all cylinders."
As with all other aspects of this ever-interesting rivalry, that applies to both teams. Force, meet force. -- Doug Farrar
Chris Burke: Seattle 20, San Francisco 14
Doug Farrar: Seattle 22, San Francisco 21
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• Matchup to watch: San Francisco's receivers vs. Seattle's cornerbacks.
Michael Crabtree caught four passes (on eight targets) for 40 yards the last time these two teams faced off. It was his second game back from a torn Achilles tendon, so he could provide a more formidable threat against a Seahawks secondary that has no equal in the NFL from right to left.
In addition, Anquan Boldin has been a thorn in Seattle's side for years, going back to his days with the Arizona Cardinals. Boldin caught six passes for 93 yards against Seattle on Dec. 8, which was payback for the one-catch, seven-yard performance he had on Sept. 15. As Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman recently said, Boldin is contentious enough to take even the best defenders a bit off their game. That happened to the Carolina Panthers in the divisional round, but Sherman is ready if Boldin decides to pop off again.
"We have a disciplined football team that understands the intensity of the moments, and it’s playoff football, so we'll deal with it well," Sherman said. "You go out there and compete, and if that's how he competes, then, yeah, we'll deal with it. You don't have to head butt him and do all this crazy stuff to react to him. You know what I'm saying? You slow him down and you stop him. If you don't want him in your face every day, don't let him touch the ball."
It's possible with a secondary this good, but in Boldin's case, that's always easier said than done.
• Pressure's on: Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks.
And the pressure is on both figuratively and literally. Wilson has an unusual amount of composure for a second-year quarterback, but he's starting to get a bit balky behind a line that has been less than spectacular in pass protection this season. The 49ers sacked Wilson just twice on Dec. 8, but they pressured him far more often, and San Francisco's linebackers -- especially Ahmad Brooks -- are on a roll in that department lately.
• This week's sleeper: Brandon Mebane, DT, Seattle Seahawks.
As much speed and talent as Seattle's defense has, it doesn't go if Mebane, the primary nose tackle, isn't holding the point and drawing double-teams on just about every play. He's less a pass-rusher than 49ers defensive tackle Justin Smith, but Mebane is no less important to what the Seahawks do. He's one of the league's best run-stoppers, and he gets more pressure on opposing quarterbacks than people think.
• Rookie spotlight: Luke Willson, TE, Seattle Seahawks.
Neither the Seahawks nor the 49ers have many impact rookies in their 2013 draft classes, but Willson caught 20 passes for 272 yards and a touchdown this season, and three passes for 70 yards and a score when the Seahawks and 49ers last faced off. Not only is the fifth-rounder from Rice an asset in Seattle's heavy percentage of two-tight end sets, but also he's an expert blocker, especially on lag plays where he heads from one side of the formation to the other. Seattle's offensive line will need all the help it can get. -- DF
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