PATRIOTS at BRONCOS
When: Sunday, 3:05 p.m. EST (CBS)
Records: Patriots 13-4, Broncos 14-3
Favorite: Broncos by 5.
Story line: While it's not quite Super Bowl XLVIII, it is Brady vs. Manning XV. Tom leads Peyton 10-4 with the caveat that he's usually had the stronger supporting cast.
About the Patriots: Rallied from a 24-0 halftime deficit to beat the Broncos 34-31 in November at Foxboro. Brady was sharp, finishing with 344 yards, three TDs and no INTs. But unless Bill Belichick throws Denver a curveball (always possible), look for New England to try to establish the run in the rematch. LeGarrette Blount is a sledge-hammer who has totaled 355 yards rushing in the past two games. Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen offer changes of pace. The defense came on late, and DBs Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard and Devin McCourty aim to get away with playing roughly.
About the Broncos: Manning broke many of Brady's single-season records, throwing for 55 TDs and 5,477 yards. His 5,909 career yards passing in the playoffs are second to Brady's total. Manning played his only stinker vs. the Patriots, but matchup-nightmare Julius Thomas (12 TDs) missed the first meeting. Former Patriot WR Wes Welker will try to atone for his critical special-teams gaffe in that game. RB Knowshon Moreno (1,038 yards) should find holes in the No. 30 run defense. DT Terrance Knighton and LB Wesley Woodyard will be critical to stopping New England's running game, but the pass defense is spotty at best.
Prediction: Broncos, 31-24. Although Manning can't be completely trusted in the postseason, he is 15-3 at home for Denver with 54 TDs and 11 picks. And between these two, the Broncos have more unfinished business.
49ers at SEAHAWKS
When: Sunday, 6:30 p.m. ET (FOX)
Records: 49ers 14-4, Seahawks 14-3
Favorite: Seahawks by 31/2.
Story line: No love lost between these hard-edged NFC West rivals with similar bruising, brawling styles. The coaches don't even like each other. "We are not friends," Seattle's Pete Carroll said of himself and Jim Harbaugh.
About the 49ers: Have won eight in a row, including three straight on the road. The Niners are 41-13-1 under Harbaugh and in their third consecutive conference title game. Colin Kaepernick is 4-1 in the postseason, 3-0 on the road with a 92.7 rating, but he and his team have played poorly in Seattle. RB Frank Gore has rushed for just 44 yards combined in the past two at Seattle. San Fran does have a huge edge at receiver with Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis vs. Seattle's pedestrian group. NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis and Ahmad Brooks are the premier LB crew in the NFL. The 49er offense ranks 24th, the defense fifth.
About the Seahawks: Totally dominant while forcing seven turnovers and outscoring the 49ers 71-16 in the plast two games at raucous Seattle, where the noise level produced earthquake tremors twice this season. The defense led the league, allowing 14.4 points and 273.6 yards per game; San Fran's D has averaged 15.5 and 304.9 during its winning streak. The secondary is the best; Richard Sherman's eight picks topped the NFL and Earl Thomas had five. The matchup to watch is RB Marshawn Lynch vs. the San Fran linebackers. "Beast Mode" has a 112.5 rushing average and six TDs in four home games vs. Niners. Can Russell Wilson outshine the more gifted Kaepernick again?
Prediction: 49ers, 23-20. This will be a slugfest, not a shootout. And don't be surprised if it goes to overtime. The NFC title game has been decided by seven points or fewer six years in a row.
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