NFL Playoffs – Conference Championships Preview


Image Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

I went 1-3 in picking the winners of last week’s divisional round games.  That is pretty bad considering I wasn’t even factoring in the point spreads.  There goes my plan to retire and become a full-time handicapper. I suppose I’ll have to show up to my day job on Monday.  (Actually, on second thought, I won’t.  The office is closed for Martin Luther King Day!)

The good news is, I’ve got a chance to redeem myself as I preview this weekend’s conference championship games.  We’ve got the Patriots vs. the Broncos (Or as some people would have you believe, the Bradys vs. the Mannings) and the 49ers vs. the Seahawks.

If you read my divisional round preview last week, you should be able to easily figure out which team I’m pulling for in each game.  If you didn’t read that preview, then I’m horribly insulted that you would overlook – intentionally or not – such a crucial piece of sports punditry.  But since you’re here now, I won’t hold it against you.

For each game, I’ll talk about a player in the game who isn’t a quarterback.  I mean, I like the QBs as much as the next guy, but is there anything really left to be said about Tom Brady or Peyton Manning?

Patriots at Broncos

If I’m any of the other players in this game, I’m probably getting a little annoyed by how much of the focus is on the quarterbacks. Then again, I’m sure it’s nothing new for members of a football team to be overshadowed by the quarterback, especially when he’s a star.  I suppose it’s probably better than being on a team where Blaine Gabbert is calling the signals.  That’s because Blaine Gabbert sucks, and if he’s your quarterback, you probably (definitely) aren’t making the playoffs.

Due to the overshadowing effect that the quarterbacks have, the running backs for both teams are a bit underrated.  Denver’s Knowshon Moreno had over 1,000 yards rushing with ten touchdowns, while New England’s tandem of Stevan Ridley and LaGarrette Blount combined for over 1,400 yards on the ground.

The perception is that these teams do nothing but throw, but it wouldn’t shock me if this game came down to which team ran the ball more effectively.

Featured Player Who Isn’t a Quarterback: Wes Welker

Early on his career, Wes Welker was a good receiver who was largely unknown by fans. (This is mostly because he played for the Dolphins, and nobody has paid much attention to them since Dan Marino retired.)  In 2007, Welker was traded to the Patriots, and despite lining up alongside the much more heralded Randy Moss, he soon established a fantastic rapport with Brady.  Soon after, he became known as the Greatest Slot Receiver Who Ever Lived.

Apparently, he got a little too much publicity for Bill Belichick’s liking, and was allowed to leave as a free agent.  He happily signed with the Broncos, and is still an awesome possession receiver.  (Quick fantasy football tip: If you are in a points-per-reception league, draft Welker!)

If it wasn’t enough to be known as the Greatest Slot Receiver Who Ever Lived, Welker is now also known for wearing an enormous helmet.

Image Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Welker looks all sorts of out of proportion in this picture.  Keep in mind that he’s standing next to Peyton Manning, who you might have noticed has a fairly large noggin of his own.

Featured Ex-Eagle in the Game: Winston Justice

When most Eagles fans think of Justice, the first thing that comes to mind is the Osi Umenyiora game.

Winston Justice. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

On September 30, 2007, I was in a great mood.  Earlier that day, the Phillies had clinched the National League East, and would be appearing in the playoffs for the first time since 1993.  I figured that the Eagles would keep the good times rolling that evening when they took on the New York Giants on Sunday Night Football.

Unfortunately for the Eagles, running back Brian Westbrook and left tackle Tra Thomas both missed the game with injuries.  Westbrook’s absence was somewhat compensated by backup Correll Buckhalter rushing for over 100 yards.  Justice didn’t fare nearly as well subbing in for Thomas.

Justice spent most of the game matched against Giants defensive end Umenyiora. It’s safe to say that Umenyiora was the winner of that matchup as he recorded six sacks in the game.  Justice wasn’t the only one to blame as the Eagles gave up 12 total sacks in the game, and perhaps if the other linemen held their own, they could have given Justice some additional assistance.  (Although if a guy is getting beaten that thoroughly, you should probably do something regardless.)

The rest of his tenure with the Eagles wasn’t nearly that bad, but it is still hard to shake the image of Justice being used as a turnstile.  It also doesn’t help his reputation that in his final game for the Eagles (a playoff loss to the Packers), he was benched in favor of King Dunlap.

Who Will Win?

The Broncos’ offense is good.  People may talk about how they didn’t do so well against the Chargers, but they still scored 24 points.  That’s not being shut down, that’s just not scoring at their normal insanely high rate.  Had they just avoided a few very avoidable mistakes, the game would have been a blowout.

The Patriots won last week mostly due to their rushing game, but I’m guessing that they have more of a pass-based offense this week.  The Broncos are ranked poorly against the pass, but the numbers may be a bit deceiving.  The Broncos had more than a few games in which they established a big lead, which means that opponents were forced to throw a lot in order to catch up.

Bill Belichick may be good at taking away one aspect of an offense. If he is smart, he’ll focus on the Broncos’ short passing game and take his chances on Manning throwing deep in the cold air.  Still, I think that the Broncos have too many good receiving options to be shut down completely.

Tom Brady and the Patriots offense will keep it close, but in the end, the more talented team wins on their home field.

Broncos 33 – Patriots 27

49ers at Seahawks

Image Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The stupid 49ers won last week, so I have to watch stupid Colin Kaepernick and his punchable face on my television again this week.  I was talking to a friend last night who also finds Kaepernick to be horrifically unlikable.  I’m glad I’m not alone in feeling this way.

Although I hardly think I was alone before.  I bet I could find some fellow haters in North Carolina:

One person who doesn’t share this opinion is ESPN’s Mike Greenberg:

What the hell does that even mean?  As far as I can tell, the only difference is that Greenberg happens to like Kaepernick.

The Seahawks are favored, largely because they’re at home, and as we know, CenturyLink Field provides the Greatest Home Field Advantage in the NFL.  I almost feel that their home field advantage has been built up so much that a letdown is inevitable.

Sure, if the Seahawks get off to a strong start, the crowd really could carry them home. But what happens if they struggle out of the gate? Could the fans – who are assuredly expecting success – become unnerved and quiet?  Would the Seahawks start to become unnerved as well?

I realize I just described what would happen if this game was in Philadelphia.  Does this type of thing happen in other cities?

Featured Player Who Isn’t a Quarterback: Earl Thomas

Many pundits predicted that the Eagles would select safety Earl Thomas in the first round of the 2010 draft.  That probably would have been a good move, since Thomas has established himself as one of the best safeties in the league.  (Brandon Graham – the player the Eagles picked instead – has not quite reached that level.)

Thomas is strong in coverage (He had five interceptions this season), and like the other members of the Seahawks’ “Legion of Boom” secondary, he can deliver punishing hits.  But don’t worry, Eagles fans.  They’ll probably draft another safety this year.  One of these years, they might actually get it right!

Featured Ex-Eagle in the Game: Chris Clemons

Chris Clemons was thoroughly mediocre as a Philadelphia Eagle, racking up seven total sacks in two years.  He did have one awesome highlight where he bodyslammed Vikings quarterback Tavaris Jackson.

Would you like to see a video of that?  Of course you would!

Naturally, the two players are now teammates on the Seahawks.  Do you think they ever bring up that play?

The Eagles didn’t think that much of Clemons, since they traded him (and a 4th round draft pick!) to Seattle in exchange for Darryl Tapp.  Naturally, upon reaching Seattle, Clemons recorded three straight seasons of double-digit sacks, and provided the Seahawks with the pass rushing presence that the Eagles seem to be eternally searching for.

Who Will Win

The Seahawks might struggle on offense.  The 49ers have an imposing defense, and the Seahawks didn’t look all that great last week against a much less heralded Saints defense.  So does this mean that I’m picking the 49ers?  No.

Maybe it’s just wishful thinking, but I still believe at some point, a team will force Kaepernick to stay in the pocket, and he will struggle.  I think the Seahawks are capable of this.  They won’t let Kaepernick run, and their secondary will probably bait him into a few interceptions.  Once that happens, the crowd will start to become a factor, and that should be that.

Seahawks 20 – 49ers 13