NFL

Conference Championship previews

Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos celebrates after throwing a touchdown
Could this be the last time we see Manning under center?
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Joel Beall

Joel Beall is a writer for FOXSports.com and WhatIfSports.com. He lives with a Golden Tee machine and a jump shot that’s currently broken. Reach Joel on Twitter @FOXSportsBeall.

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As a sporting society we are plagued with overemphasis. Every moment has to be a pronouncement of something. Jameis Winston had a shaky outing in the National Championship Game, but because he worked some magic on the final drive, suddenly his performance is “one for the ages.” The Oklahoma City Thunder can’t lose a game to the Spurs because it’s the fourth game in five nights; they fall short because THEY COULDN’T RISE TO THE CHALLENGE. 

Although these conference championships are a platform for the NFL’s best, any shortcomings that occur are not emblematic of an individual or team’s innate makeup. A loss doesn’t make a quarterback a goat; it could mean his defense is a turnstile. Or, better yet, the other team is simply better. Attempt to watch the gridiron events this weekend without making sweeping criticisms or validations. Believe it or not, the viewing experience is still enjoyable.

Last Week: 2-2
Season: 170-93-1.

AFC Conference Championship

New England Patriots at Denver Broncos

The lowdown: Louisa May Alcott once penned, “Rivalry adds so much to the charms of one's conquests.” From the battles of Bird and Magic to the bouts of Rocky and Apollo, this axiom has held true in the world of sport, and is why the latest iteration of the Tom BradyPeyton Manning engagement headlines this weekend’s conference championships.

Also fueling this importance: the very real possibility that this 15th encounter between the respected arms may be its last. Manning and Brady are a combined 73 years old; moreover, reports surfaced over the weekend regarding a forced retirement for Manning dependent on a medical exam. If this indeed is the final confrontation for the field generals, it is one to be cherished, as few gridiron wars can equal the fireworks and fervor this clash produced.

A defeat would hardly damper the record-breaking season, and to greater extent, career, of Manning. Alas, the stigma of falling short on the big stage would endure with a loss, which would leave the Tennessee product 4-11 in meetings with Brady. Worse, Manning would exit with a losing record in the playoffs. It’s seems asinine to boil down Manning’s brilliant career narrative to the outcome of the next few weeks; fair or not, it’s a circumstance that holds true. (Although Denver fans, rejoice. Sunday’s forecast is calling for clear skies and temperatures in the 50s, so we can table the discussion about a certain quarterback’s cold-weather merits.)

Brady’s reputation resides on the opposite end of the legacy gamut. With three rings under his belt, his standing in the prime-time environment is close to impervious. What he’s done this autumn and winter solidify that disposition. Despite losing his top five targets in the offseason and dealing with a backfield that displayed Butterfingers Syndrome, the two-time MVP directed the Patriots to an offensive onslaught this season, averaging 27.8 points per game (third-best in the league). Due to the assimilation process of his inexperienced receiving crew, Brady’s personal figures deteriorated this season. Don’t misconstrue that as actual decline, as Brady remains a formidable force under center.

While Sunday’s Mile High showdown serves as a celebration of quarterback play, let’s not diminish the impact of players not named Brady or Manning. New England finds itself at this juncture thanks to the recent harvest of LeGarrette Blount. Acquired last April, the former Buc was relatively quiet in the first three months of the season, resigned mostly to backup duty. However, it’s been a different tale the past three games, rushing for 431 yards and finding the end zone eight times. He’s also made contributions in the special teams arena on kickoff returns, with his Herculean frame proving tough to drag down. The Broncos were stout against terrain endeavors this year, allowing just 101.6 yards per contest (eighth-best in the NFL), but look for the Patriots to feature Blount early and often.

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Stopping New England’s attack may appear too tall a task for a depleted Denver defense. Not only is All-Pro Von Miller done for the season, but front-line anchor Derek Wolfe remains out after experiencing seizure-like symptoms and Champ Bailey is a shell of his former self. This unit took another blow with cornerback Chris Harris suffering a torn ACL against San Diego. Yet, in the face of these setbacks, the Broncos have demonstrated a newfound resistance, holding four of their past five opponents to under 260 total yards. Manning and the Denver offense get the acclaim, but the team will need another laudable showing from the D to punch its Super Bowl ticket on Sunday.

Line: Denver -4.5, 56 points

Fake line: Wes Welker helmet/Spaceballs jokes on Twitter – 1,450. I’m all for bringing Rick Moranis back into the cultural discussion, but the more apt comparison is to the Great Gazoo. Just sayin’.

TV: CBS – 3:00 PM EST

America’s rooting interest: Denver. Not even close, and mostly due to Manning. (Although I’m sure Bill Belichick’s presence probably has something to do with it, too.) However, it’s not because we are enthralled with Manning’s video game-like numbers. It’s due to his appearance. He’s one of the most intuitive, gifted athletes this country has ever seen, but because he kind of looks like a backwoods doofus, we accredit his success to hard work and determination. Clearly he’s well-versed in the latter conducts as well, but the dude was blessed with unbelievable genes. Yet, unlike Tom Brady, who’s in GQ as much as Sports Illustrated and is married to a supermodel, Manning gives the impression of a normal Joe. He’s one of us. Bizarre, considering the guy’s been in hundreds of commercials and has a net worth of near $150 million.

Moral of the story for aspiring professional athletes: tone down your outfit ensembles and vernacular and try to look as uncoordinated as possible. You will be beloved.

The Patriots win if… Blount’s ground efforts keep Manning on the sideline, the defensive depth-chart attrition is too much for Denver to overcome.

The Broncos win if… The Denver backfield goes to town on a New England front seven relinquishing 134.1 rushing yards per game (third-worst in the league), Manning atones for his Week 12 performance in Foxborough (52.8 completion percentage, two touchdowns, interception and just 150 yards in the Patriots’ 24-point comeback win).

Prediction: Broncos 28, Patriots 23

NFC Conference Championship

San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks

The lowdown: While the Manning – Brady rivalry could be winding down in the Rockies, another field-general feud is heating up out west. Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson have proven to be two of the best up-and-coming arms in football, with Wilson’s 24 victories in his first two NFL seasons a league record and Kaepernick leading the 49ers to the Super Bowl a year ago. Granted, both take a back seat to their squads’ preeminent defenses, yet it’s the execution and fruition of these quarterbacks that will dictate which team comes out on top.

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This is especially true for the San Francisco signal caller. In his abbreviated appearances (three starts) against the Seahawks, life has not been kind to Kaepernick, connecting on a feeble 50.5 percent of his passes for 546 passing yards, two touchdowns and a whopping five picks. To put that in perspective, in his other 21 regular season outings, Kaepernick owns a 61.4 completion percentage with 29 passing scores and just six interceptions (along with seven rushing touchdowns). The 26-year-old has been a monster in the last two postseasons, flaunting a 4-1 record with 1,221 passing yards, another 377 yards on the ground and 10 trips to pay dirt. Moreover, Kaepernick’s prowess on the ground is the spur for the 49ers’ rushing success. Nevertheless, another subpar performance against the Hawks will breed “white whale” parallels, putting all the more magnitude on Kaepernick’s feats.

Wilson will be spared from such gravity. Whereas Kaepernick is the catalyst for the San Francisco offense, Wilson fits the administrator mold, choosing his spots and serving as a complement to Marshawn Lynch and the Seattle rushing game. Not to say Wilson is irrelevant to the Seahawks’ venture; anything but. Part of the game-manager persona is possessing the type of traits that don’t render in the box score, a concept that certainly holds true for Wilson.

However, even the staunchest Wilson advocates will concede the second-year quarterback has been a fickle watch as of late. The numbers from the past five contests support this outlook: a 56.7 completion percentage, four touchdowns, three interceptions and a shockingly-low 157.6 passing yards per game. Seattle has reached this precipice in spite of his instability, and Wilson’s shown he’s capable of being a viable threat under center. Conversely, for Seattle to overcome the Niners, the elevation of Wilson’s play is a must.

Of course, the Seattle defense bequeaths its share of breathing room to Wilson. The Seahawks boast NFL-bests in yards (273.6) and points (14.4) allowed per game. For further evidence of dominance, the last opponent to hit the 20-point barrier against Seattle was Minnesota in Week 11; even then, the Vikings’ final touchdown came with only two minutes left in a 28-point blowout. Given the offensive-friendly environment of the NFL, you could make a case the prestige of this unit is in the conversation with the 2000 Ravens and 1986 Bears. Perhaps the best compliment you can hand the resistance is, like Miguel Cabrera at the plate or Peyton Manning with the ball, you don’t turn off the TV when this Seattle detachment is on the field.

Not that the San Francisco defense is far behind. The 49ers front seven, featuring Pro Bowlers in Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, Ahmad Brooks and NaVorro Bowman, is a nightmare for adversaries. Likewise, since returning from his substance-abuse sabbatical, Aldon Smith has exhibited glimpses of his former All-Pro form. The secondary, though far from foolproof, still finished the season surrendering the seventh-fewest aerial yards. The Seahawks hung 29 points against the Niners the last time these foes met in the Emerald City. Look for San Fran to avenge that shellacking.

Line: Seattle -3.5, 39 points

Fake line: “These refs are (expletive) idiots” faces from Jim Harbaugh – 8.5. Take the over.

TV: FOX – 6:30 PM EST

America’s rooting interest: Coin flip. I’ve heard “lesser of two evils” multiple times this week in justifying one’s pick. On one side you have Pete Carroll (arguably the paradigm of coaching sleaze, which is a testament in itself) and Seattle’s boatload of drug suspensions; in the other corner, Jim Harbaugh, whose sideline antics are a cross of a petulant teenager and the Cobra Kai. In theory, you could throw Richard Sherman and the Seattle fan base in there as well, but I’m giving passes to both. Sherman’s self-assurance is just that, for now, and in no way is malignant to the team (also, while I don’t see a parallel to T.O./Chad Johnson-like behavior, there is potential for similar exasperation, if that makes sense). And while the Seahawks’ embezzlement of the “12th Man” mantra from Texas A&M, along with the general hubris from Seattle fans, could rub some the wrong way, there’s no denying the effect the crowd has in CenturyLink Field.

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As for Harbaugh…yeah, his disdain for officials, media or basically anyone not associated with the San Francisco organization gets old. However, Harbaugh is in that Pete Rose/Kevin Garnett class: love ‘em if he’s on your team, hate ‘em if he’s on the other side. Given the vanilla state of sports coaches in general, that sentiment is not necessarily a bad thing.

The 49ers win if… The San Fran secondary takes away the middle of the field, Frank Gore busts through a sound Seahawks front wall.

The Seahawks win if… Kaepernick is forced to attack from the air, Lynch takes control of the clock.

Prediction: 49ers 20, Seahawks 17

Joel Beall is a writer for FOXSports.com and WhatIfSports.com. He lives with a Golden Tee machine and a jump shot that’s currently broken. Reach Joel on Twitter @FOXSportsBeall

Tagged: Broncos, Patriots, 49ers, Seahawks, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Champ Bailey, Wes Welker, LeGarrette Blount, Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson

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