Despite how unpredictable the NFL is, the four teams many pundits argued were the league’s best heading into the season are now each one win away from the Super Bowl.
Championship Sunday will offer everything any true football fan could possibly ask for. Two of the greatest quarterbacks of all time will renew their rivalry in the early game and two ferocious, hard-hitting defenses will play a smash-mouth brand of football in the night contest. It’s matchups like these that make the NFL such a special league. Here are my predictions:
Peyton Manning has had the greatest statistical season in NFL history, but it will all be for naught in his mind if he’s unable to lead the Broncos to the Super Bowl title. It’s only fitting that he’ll need to go through Tom Brady and the Patriots to achieve that ambition.
Manning and Brady’s rivalry dates back to the early 2000s, and Sunday’s game will mark the fourth time the two have squared off in the playoffs. Both will have opportunistic matchups on Sunday as the Broncos and Patriots’ defenses ranked in the bottom half of the league against the pass in 2013.
It’s the Broncos’ offense that is more capable of featuring a balanced attack, though. The Patriots’ injury-riddled front seven is susceptible against the run and only ranked higher than two teams during the regular season at defending it. If Denver can establish a consistent ground game with a heavy dose of Knowshon Moreno and Monte Ball, the play-action passing game will open up for Manning, and there will be virtually no stopping the Broncos’ high-powered offense.
If the Broncos avoid turning the ball over, they could win this game comfortably. However, I still see Bill Belichick devising a brilliant game plan and Brady making enough big-time throws to keep this one close.
Prediction: Denver 27 — New England 24
For those fans who miss the way the game used to played with hard-hitting defenses and dominant rushing attacks, the NFC title game is for you. The Seahawks and 49ers mirror each other in many ways. Both teams ranked in the top-10 in run defense, pass defense and rushing offense during the regular season.
Those similarities didn’t give way to a tightly-contested matchup the last time they did battle at CenturyLink Field, though. The Seahawks embarrassed the 49ers to the tune of a 29-3 beatdown back in September, showcasing why they are such an outstanding team when playing in front of their raucous home crowd.
However, San Francisco was able to rebound from that loss when it got Seattle at home last month, outlasting Pete Carroll‘s club in a 19-17 victory. I like Frank Gore and 49ers’ ability to run on the Seahawks’ front seven more than I like Marshawn Lynch to consistently gash the best linebacker corps in football.
That could prove to be the difference, but the onus will fall on Colin Kaepernick to make clutch throws in order to prolong drives and to avoid the costly mistakes he made the last time he was in Seattle.
Prediction: San Francisco 17 — Seattle 13
Cody Strahm is a Miami Dolphins contributor for Rant Sports. Follow him on Twitter @CodyJStrahm.