It should be another classic Brady-Manning matchup, but it's starting to feel like No. 18's year.
Last week: 4-0; Postseason: 6-2; Season 169-86
Sunday, Jan. 19
3:00 p.m. ET (CBS)
No. 2 New England Patriots (13-4) at No. 1 Denver Broncos (14-3) It still sounds quite strange, but I think Tony Dungy had it right when he told me on Monday that this meeting of Hall of Fame-bound quarterbacks will likely come down to the running games, and the run defenses. The Patriots' passing game weapons just can't match the multifaceted Broncos', so the devastating power running of LeGarrette Blount is New England's best chance to dictate the tempo of the game, and in the process limit the number of Peyton Manning possessions as much as possible. In the Patriots' past three games, they have scored 10 rushing touchdowns and just two through the air, and are succeeding at almost 70 percent (9-of-13) in terms of their red zone touchdown percentage. The Denver run defense is going to have to hold up against a New England offensive line that's blowing people off the ball, and Manning is going to have to make the most of almost every scoring opportunity the Broncos get. In their seven losses the past two seasons, the Broncos are giving up almost 148 yards rushing per game. Denver can run it a little bit too (remember Knowshon Moreno gouging the Pats for 224 yards in late November?) but the Broncos will also take their share of shots downfield as well, especially with tight end Julius Thomas healthy for this game after he missed playing at New England in Week 12. It should be yet another classic in the Manning-Brady rivalry, but in the end, it just feels like it's going to be No. 18's year. If not now, when?
6:30 p.m. ET (FOX)
No. 5 San Francisco 49ers (14-4) at No. 1 Seattle Seahawks (14-3) With Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin all in the lineup and clicking at the same time, the 49ers offense will not remotely resemble the grasping and limited unit that got dominated and pushed around in San Francisco's 29-3 loss in Seattle in Week 2. 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is playing with more confidence than at any point since the season-opening win against visiting Green Bay, and winning three consecutive games on the road (including a tough Week 17 trip to red-hot Arizona) has steeled San Francisco with the necessary mental toughness and resolve needed to face the pressure-cooker that awaits at CenturyLink Field. Kaepernick has thrown just one interception in his past 146 pass attempts, but Seattle's secondary is always near the ball and presents the game's ultimate challenge when it comes to squeezing passes into tight windows. The Seahawks made one of the NFL's most accurate throwers, the Saints' Drew Brees, look like he was a scout-teamer for the first three quarters of last week's divisional-round game. The Seahawks are going to aim Marshawn Lynch at the heart of the 49ers defense and hope he can move the pile all game long. But Seattle needs more than last week's 103 yards passing and nine completions from quarterback Russell Wilson, and at some point in Sunday's fourth quarter he's going to have to produce the same kind of difference-making pass he completed to receiver Doug Baldwin to seal the win against New Orleans. When the moment arises, Wilson and Seattle will find a way to get it done.