By Mike Ivcic, UltimateCapper Contributing Writer
The NFL did, in fact, get what they really wanted this weekend – arguably the best two teams in each conference playing on championship Sunday for the right to go to the Super Bowl. For the first time in half a decade, a home favorite did not lose during the Divisional round of the playoffs, as the Niners were a road favorite in Carolina by the time the line closed. As a result, home field advantage earned during the regular season still applies this weekend – Seattle and Denver earned these games, and ultimately that might prove to be a deciding factor. After a perfect weekend straight up, we’re now 6-2 overall for the playoffs. Even better, we’re now 130-126-8 against the spread on the season, which guarantees a final record above .500. With that in the books, let’s see how we do for the final three games of the 2013-14 NFL season.
New England Patriots @ Denver Broncos
Sun, 3:00pm, CBS
Line: Broncos by 5.5
Five and a half is a lot of points – let’s start there. The games between Manning and Brady have almost always been close, and have included some of the most amazing comebacks in NFL history – the Colts rally from 23 down in the AFC Championship Game against the Pats en route to Manning’s only Super Bowl, and earlier this season when New England came back from a 24-0 halftime deficit on Sunday Night Football to claim their biggest win of the year and ultimately the number two seed in the conference. Denver would appear to have all of the offensive weapons to make this a shootout, which would swing the edge significantly towards the Broncos. Still, there’s always the sense that Bill Belichick will devise some way to keep the game close. The Patriots have made a living by taking away what they deem to be the other team’s most important offensive weapon and making someone else beat them, and that will almost certainly be the gameplan this time around, too. The question is who they’ll take away. My guess is Knowshon Moreno, the dynamic Denver running back, in an effort to turn the Broncos into a one-dimensional offense and put Manning under more pressure to win the game with his arm. If they can accomplish that, they have a fighting chance.
My instincts tell me, though, that New England simply won’t have enough defensively to shut down all of Denver’s firepower. There are too many receivers for the Patriots to try to cover them all one-on-one, and Manning has seen enough of a Belichick-coached defense to see through some of the possible decoys that will come his way. With the weather expected to be nice (50-ish degrees and not nearly as windy as last week) the Broncos should be able to score into the 30’s, and I can’t see how a Patriots offense that is devoid of any true threat in the passing game will be able to keep up. They certainly have the ability to run the ball and control the clock, but that would also mean taking the ball out of Brady’s hands, and it’s not often the best of ideas to limit the involvement of your team’s best player in the biggest game of the year. I think New England can at least stay within striking distance, but the overwhelming evidence is screaming for a Broncos victory.
Pick: Denver 34, New England 30
San Francisco 49’ers @ Seattle Seahawks
Sat, 6:30pm, FOX
Line: Seahawks by 3
There’s a rumor going around that these two teams don’t like each other. I’m not sure where anyone would get such an idea, considering all of the kind, friendly banter that’s been exchanged between these two teams (and these two coaches) over the last couple of seasons. Hate? No, these two teams love each other… right…?
Sarcasm aside, this is a wonderful second helping of an amazing day of football. The Seahawks defense is arguably the best in the game, while the Niners have proven over the past two weeks that they can engineer long, productive drives that chew up clock and finish in the end zone during the game’s biggest moments. Between the last two drives of the game against the Packers and the drive before the half last week in Carolina, it should be obvious that San Francisco’s offense can deliver in the clutch – but they’ll be tested like they haven’t been all year when they have to do it against the Seahawks… on the road… in the playoffs… yikes.
The flip side, though, is that the Seattle offense has really been quite unimpressive recently. They scored just 10 points in their home loss to Arizona in week 16, and last week needed a huge performance from Marshawn Lynch to put the game away against the Saints. The Niners are much better against the run than New Orleans, whose strength is pass defense, so this time the Seahawks will likely be forced to air it out to score, and I’m not sold that they can do it with enough frequency and accuracy to outscore San Fran. Russell Wilson doesn’t quite look like the same QB that played the first year and a half of his career, and now he’ll enter the biggest game of his short NFL career as the favorite, knowing the pressure will be on him to produce – and the blame (almost certainly) on him if they lose.
But… that defense. I can’t resist. The Seahawks are just. That. Good. They may not be able to light it up on the scoreboard, but I just can’t imagine that they’ll allow Colin Kaepernick and the Niners to do it, either. The over/under is 39.5, so go with Seattle and the under and be prepared for a dream matchup of Manning vs. the Seahawks in North Jersey in two weeks.
Pick: Seattle 17, San Francisco 13
Against Spread: 4-2-2
Against Spread: 126-124-6
Against Spread: 130-126-8