Xtra Points: Whittling down NFL's final four
The NFL's final four this season doesn't do much for neutral fans who might like to see something a little different, perhaps a little unexpected. For Packer fans, it might even be a little nauseating.
After all, one remaining team has orchestrated a hostile takeover of Packers ownership over the past couple of seasons. Another has the coach and player who defended this play. And the other teams have two quarterbacks who have been in Super Bowls and TV ads over … and over … and over again.
Peyton Manning and the Broncos clearly are the least of the four evils here (or is he?). But when it comes time to pick winners, who is good and who is evil usually doesn't factor into the equation. Regardless of how you feel about them, it's hard to argue that these aren't the four best teams in the NFL. There were five teams in the league that finished the regular season 12-4 or better, and these are four of them (Carolina was the fifth, but the Panthers were pretty well handled Sunday).
Here are my championship weekend picks against the point spread, which is listed after the favorite in parentheses.
New England Patriots at Denver Broncos (4½)
This line is a little bizarre to me, especially considering the history, recent and not-so-recent, of Tom Brady/Bill Belichick vs. Peyton Manning. In 14 meetings between the sides, Brady/Belichick hold a 10-4 advantage, including the last three matchups.
In the regular-season game between the teams, Denver jumped out to a 24-0 lead at halftime before New England scored 31 unanswered points to take the lead in the fourth quarter. Manning threw a touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas to tie it. Then in overtime, the teams traded punts, and a 31-31 tie looked like the most likely outcome … until a Patriots kick bounced into a Broncos player. New England recovered the loose ball at the Denver 13 with 3:01 to go, and Stephen Gostkowski kicked the game-winning field goal from there.
The 24 first-half points don't do justice to the way the Patriots defended Manning in the game. The quarterback fell short of his season averages in yards, completion percentage and passer rating. He only threw for two scores and gave away one of his season's 10 interceptions in the game.
Brady, on the other hand, was stellar, passing for 344 yards and two touchdowns.
In the rematch, everyone will rightfully look to the quarterbacks, but it might be the Denver runners—including former Badger Montee Ball—who make the difference.
The Patriots, without defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and linebacker Jerod Mayo for much of the season, were dead last in the NFL in rushing yards allowed. Even in the first game, the Broncos carried the ball 48 times for 280 yards. And in the playoff win against the San Diego Chargers, Denver showcased its clock-controlling ground game at Mile High, running 34 times for 133 yards.
If the game is close, though, Brady has a record of breaking opponents' hearts, even with a substandard supporting cast on offense.
The pick: Brady gets one last chance to lead his team to a win after Manning and Co. grind out five touchdowns, but a key drop foils the Patriot comeback. The Broncos win the game—but don't cover the spread.
DENVER 35, NEW ENGLAND 31
San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks (3½)
Whereas the AFC title game features the No. 1 and No. 3 scoring offenses, the NFC title game boasts the league's No. 1 and No. 3 scoring defenses, meaning the Super Bowl will determine the veracity of the old “Defense wins championships” cliché.
Whoever the winner of this one will be, they'll be happy to get a week off after the inevitable beating they take at the hands of their division rivals. Both the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks have: fast, hard-hitting defenses; winning swagger; dynamic quarterbacks; and a coach that doesn't particularly like his counterpart.
CenturyLink Field has become a house of horrors for all visitors, but Colin Kaepernick might be the biggest victim of the NFL's best home-field advantage. Much like Brett Favre in Dallas in the mid-1990s, Kaepernick has been mind-bogglingly bad in Seattle. After slicing and dicing the Packers in Week 1, it was hard to believe it was Kaepernick—and not, say, Matt McGloin—quarterbacking the 49ers against the Seahawks in Week 2.
Kaepernick was 13-of-28 through the air for 127 yards and three interceptions. He was also sacked three times. His passer rating in that game was 20.1, worse than if all his attempts had fallen incomplete. Frank Gore was ineffective as well, carrying the ball just nine times for a measley 16 yards.
The second regular-season meeting went better for the Niners, and Gore in particular, but that was at Candlestick Park. The San Francisco crowd won't be around to help its team in this one.
Despite all the bad history the 49ers have, they'll be testing another NFL cliché about being the hot team going into the playoffs. San Francisco hasn't lost since Week 11 in New Orleans.
Seattle, on the other hand, came into the playoffs a little lukewarm after starting 10-1. In their last five regular-season games, the Seahawks went 3-2, including a home loss to the Arizona Cardinals. Their offense has been struggling, too, surpassing 300 total yards just once since Dec. 8.
The pick: Knock 'em down, drag 'em out. That's what this one will be all about. It was the same for San Francisco in Carolina on Sunday, and the 49ers rose to the occasion. Jim Harbaugh's club will deliver more of the same, beating the spread and winning outright.
SAN FRANCISCO 20, SEATTLE 16
This week's sports haiku
A full season is
a long time to sit. A-Rod
will know soon enough.