NFL Championship Sunday preview: Down to the final four
The NFL’s conference championship games won’t feature all four of the top playoff seeds for the 10th straight season.
While the Green Bay Packers, Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots did their part by winning their divisional-round matchups, Indianapolis spoiled the party once again. The fourth-seeded Colts went on the road Sunday and upset the second-seeded Denver Broncos.
That leaves two matchups (Packers vs. Seahawks and Colts vs. Patriots) that are rematches from the regular season. Here is a preview of what’s to come next Sunday:
1. Green Bay (13-4) vs. Seattle (13-4), 3:05 p.m. ET, FOX: A one-legged quarterback was good enough to defeat Dallas, 26-21, in Sunday’s divisional-round matchup. Expecting the same heroics from Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers against the NFL’s top-ranked defense is probably asking too much. The Cowboys don’t have a pass rush nearly as ferocious as Seattle’s. The Seahawks logged 37 sacks during the regular season and two more in last Saturday night’s 31-17 mugging of Carolina.
The Packers must hope that another week of rest and rehabilitation will help Rodgers’ strained left calf heal enough to allow more mobility. Rodgers is far more dangerous when able to slide from pressure in the pocket or execute rollouts, neither of which he did much of against Dallas. But as we saw in Week 1, even a healthy Rodgers may not be enough. The Seahawks limited Green Bay’s offense to 255 yards with Rodgers not even bothering to throw in the direction of Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman. Don’t expect the same type of caution on Sunday.
Seattle’s own offensive attack will be different from when these teams last met. Wide receiver Percy Harvin was the focus then with coordinator Darrell Bevell utilizing him on jet-sweeps (and fakes) that stretched Green Bay’s defense and opened rushing lanes for running back Marshawn Lynch. Harvin finished with 100 yards from scrimmage (four rushes, seven receptions) and Lynch plowed for 110 yards and two touchdowns. While Lynch is still rolling, Harvin was traded to the New York Jets in early October.
The Seahawks have adjusted to Harvin’s departure with more emphasis on the tight end. Luke Willson led Seattle in catches against Carolina with four for 68 yards and one touchdown. Russell Wilson connected on two more scoring throws as he continues to blossom in his third NFL season. Wilson’s agility also gives opponents fits. According to STATS LLC, Wilson’s 137 passes on the move during the regular season were the most of any playoff quarterback by a wide margin (Rodgers was second with 71).
Wilson will be without one of his receiving weapons. As first reported by FOX Sports NFL Insider Mike Garafolo, rookie Paul Richardson suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament against the Panthers.
2. Indianapolis (13-5) vs. New England (13-4), 6:40 p.m. ET: It’s easy to understand why the Colts won’t be getting any respect entering this contest. The Patriots have beaten the Colts in three straight seasons by a 144-66 margin, including a 42-20 road rout in Week 11. Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck has struggled as mightily as his team’s defense in those contests, throwing seven interceptions and getting sacked 10 times. But it would be a big mistake for New England to underestimate the Colts (a trap that Patriots head coach Bill Belichick’s teams almost always avoid).
Indianapolis has shored its defense since being gouged for 503 yards by New England. Running back Jonas Gray rushed for 201 yards in that contest. He has subsequently faded back to anonymity and wasn’t active for last Saturday’s 35-31 win over Baltimore after being listed as probable on the injury report (ankle). The Patriots accumulated only 14 rushing yards against the Ravens — the lowest total ever posted by a winning team in NFL playoff history — and abandoned running plays before halftime. While the Ravens field a much better run defense than Indianapolis, there is no guarantee the Patriots can get their ground attack back on track.
At least Tom Brady is a great fallback option if that’s the case Sunday. Brady was at his best against the Ravens with four touchdowns (three passing, one rushing) as the future Hall of Fame quarterback led the Patriots back from two separate 14-point deficits. Brady will test the Colts’ pass defense far more than Denver quarterback Peyton Manning did with a dink-and-dunk approach in a 24-13 loss. Expect for Brady to try and test Indianapolis’ safeties, particularly with tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Back to Luck: Reaching his first conference championship game — especially by beating a Manning-led opponent — is a major career milestone. Luck, though, now has three more targets to aim at: Finding a way to decipher a Belichick defense, beat the Patriots for the first time in his three-year NFL career and appear in his first Super Bowl.