NFL Conference Playoffs Preview

Justin Harned Columnist

This Sunday football fans will be salivating for two highly anticipated matchups entering the Conference Championship round of the NFL Playoffs. For two quarterbacks, time is running out.

Two legends will square off in Denver while two of the youngest signal callers will battle in the North-West region of the U.S. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning represent an older era of quarterbacks in the NFL as pure pocket passers who rarely consider using their legs to gain a first down. In the NFC Championship, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick represent the new era of quarterbacking, using their legs as well as their arms to pick up first downs. 

Unless you’re a diehard fan of one team in particular, everyone likes to see the underdog win. Manning, who earned the record for most touchdowns in a regular season this year with 55, will have home field advantage, and the injuries are starting to stack up for Denver, recently losing linebacker Von Miller and defensive back Chris Harris Jr.  Although the two have mutual respect for one-another, they’re competitive fire still burns red hot. This may be their last shot at a Super Bowl. The main focus this week will be whether or not the Patriots’ defense can hold off the Broncos’ fierce stable of receivers in the most prolific offense the NFL has ever seen to date. Running back Knowshon Moreno and tight end Julius Thomas have proven to be nice surprises for Denver early in the season and will be throughout the playoffs. Denver’s offensive line has been stout all season long and the physical battle up front will dictate how much pressure the Patriots can put on Manning. The Broncos defense can be the difference in the ball game if they can stop the Patriots steadfast group of young and talented running backs. Forcing Brady to throw the ball will put pressure on New England’s offense.

In a throwback season for the Patriots who have suddenly altered their identity from a pass-first to a run-first team due to the change at wide receiver this year are undoubtedly viewed as the underdogs for the first time in years. According to Brady, the team is playing their ‘best football’ the last three games they’ve played. Brady’s unselfishness and team first mentality with Bill Belichick at the helm has been remarkable. Under Belichick, the Patriots have played in eight AFC Championship games in 13 seasons as head coach in New England. The two star quarterbacks will add yet another chapter to their legacy and in my opinion the most important chapter, that could decide the fate of who is the best quarterback debate once and for all. Will Manning thwart Brady by earning his second Super Bowl ring or will Brady claim the throne and capture a fourth Super Bowl title in his sixth appearance? New England will compete in their third straight AFC Championship with a chance to go to Super Bowl XLVII.

In a heavyweight NFC matchup, the San Francisco 49ers square off against their division rivals the Seattle Seahawks, both of which are known throughout the league for their defense. This rivalry reminds me of the old 49ers and Cowboys rivalry back in the early 90’s where both teams knew they would have to beat the other in the playoffs. I think Seattle and San Francisco will have a competitive and fun rivalry to watch for the next decade. Fresh off a Super Bowl loss last season, Kaepernick and the 49ers look to rebound this season and nothing would make it sweeter than beating the Seahawks this weekend. Michael Crabtree will provide a huge boost this week as he seems to be fully recovered from his Achilles injury. Anquan Boldin paired with Crabtree, Davis and Gore should give the Seattle secondary plenty to do on Sunday. The 49ers are headed to their third straight NFC Championship since Jim Harbaugh took over as head coach in 2011. Harbaugh is 41-13 overall through the last three years (postseason included). 

The Seahawks look poised to make a run this year after a 30-28 loss in last season’s Divisional round to the Atlanta Falcons. If not for that loss, this would be the second consecutive NFC Championship matchup. Wilson who has had a similar sophomore season in the NFL to his rookie year will have to provide a leadership role in the offense for this game. The Seahawks offense has sputtered throughout the season, and their biggest acquisition of the season, Percy Harvin is dealing with a concussion and could possibly miss the NFC Championship. Marshawn Lynch will need help from Wilson and his receivers if they want to win this game. Physical defense will be the showcase in this game. Nonetheless, it should be a great weekend of football and I would expect nothing less than Lynch eating a whole bag of Skittles on the sideline or Manning yelling “Omaha” at the line of scrimmage 44 times. Maybe if Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski goes down with injury we might even see Brady kick the extra point, why not? Crazier things have happened.