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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

And Then There Were Four...

Wild on Sports
And Then There Were Four...
By Wild on Sports Analyst Ryan Winters

Championship weekend is upon us and there are no surprise teams playing this weekend. Seattle, San Francisco, New England, and Denver are all supposed to be in this position. They have been four of the best teams in the league all season long, and most people’s preseason Super Bowl predictions are still alive. Still, in such an unpredictable league that has seen the last seed New York Giants spoil the New England Patriots perfect season in 2008, or the Arizona Cardinals limp into the playoffs only to lose the Super Bowl in the last minute against the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2009, how did this year’s championship teams get there? And what are the keys to getting to the big dance?


New England

The Patriots receiving corps has been decimated by free agency, injury, and first-degree murder charges this season, and Tom Brady’s play has been affected by it. In 2013, Brady was limited to just 25 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions. Not bad numbers, but very pedestrian for Brady. Fortunately, the Pats have been able to rely on their much-improved defense and new-found consistency in the running game, led by the freight train known as LeGarrette Blount.

Blount has averaged 5 yards per carry this regular season and carried that production over into last weekend’s postseason victory over the Colts. Blount had 166 yards and four touchdowns against Indy, including an incredible 73-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. Blount’s size and power makes him tough to bring down, but his speed and athleticism makes him that much more dangerous, and he must play a key part in Sunday’s game if the Patriots are going to wint the time of possession battle and upset Peyton Manning and the Broncos.

On the defensive side of the ball, New England has to find a way to slow down Peyton Manning. Defensive end, Chandler Jones, must make his presence felt on Sunday. Jones had a very solid 2013 campaign, with 11.5 sacks, and he needs to be in Manning’s face all night. If Jones, along with linebacker, Rob Ninkovich can keep pressure on Manning, and make Knowshon Moreno beat them, I like the Patriots chances in Mile High.

Keys to New England Victory
Ø Keep utilizing LeGarrette Blount and the run game and keep the ball out of Manning’s hands
Ø Pressure Manning
Ø Make Moreno beat you


For most of the season, watching the Broncos was like watching a game of Madden on rookie. Peyton Manning had the best statistical season ever by a quarterback, breaking every record and leading my fantasy team deep into the playoffs. Now he finds himself in another AFC Championship game, trying to do away with his reputation as a playoff choker. He will have to do so against a very solid Patriots defense, led by defensive end, Chandler Jones and linebacker, Rob Ninkovich. Manning is 10-11 in playoff games and while he is no doubt one of the greatest to ever play, he still has plenty of critics, who say that his postseason play leaves much to be desired.

Wide receiver Wes Welker can relate. Known for his consistency, Welker has had key drops in numerous postseason games. He dropped a third down pass in last year’s AFC championship against the Ravens that would have put the Patriots deep into Ravens territory and would have kept the drive going. He had another big drop in Super Bowl XLVI in Giants territory. Welker needs to step up against his old team on Sunday to take pressure off receivers Demariyus Thomas, Eric Decker, and tight end Julius Thomas, and open up the field for Peyton. Welker had a solid performance against San Diego last week, scoring in his first game back from concussion. That production needs to carry over into this Sunday’s championship game.

On defense, in addition to dealing with how to stop a red-hot LeGarrette Blount, Denver was dealt a major blow this week, losing cornerback, Chris Harris, for the season after he tore his ACL against the Chargers. After Harris left the game Sunday, Phillip Rivers got hot, exploiting holes in the secondary left by a sluggish Quentin Jammer. If the Broncos can’t figure out a formula that works in their hobbled secondary, Brady could easily put a cap on what has been an otherwise fantastic Broncos season.

Keys to Denver Victory
Ø Manning needs silence his critics
Ø Wes Welker needs to step up and prove he can be relied on in the clutch
Ø Stop LeGarrette Blount
Ø Back-ups in the secondary need to show up


San Francisco

All season long, the 49ers have relied on their stingy defense to win games. With Colin Kaepernick’s inconsistent play this season, linebackers NaVorro Bowman, Ahmad Brooks, and Patrick Willis have proven that they are the best linebacker corps in the league. They were especially unreal last weekend against Carolina. Brooks and Bowman were integral on San Francisco’s two goal line stands in the first half, with Brooks stopping Cam Newton on 4th and 1 on the first stand, and Bowman stopping Mike Tolbert on 3rd and 1 on the second stand. Willis added 11 tackles and an interception. All three will have to bring that same intensity against Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch on Sunday. Lynch is coming off of a club playoff best 140 yards against the Saints. While I don’t quite expect that kind of production against San Francisco’s front seven, he will still be “Beast Mode,” and the Niners have to find a way to keep him in check.

Colin Kaepernick was inaccurate during most of the first half at Carolina, before finally finding his rhythm. That won’t work against Seattle and the 12th man. Seattle’s defense will make Kaepernick pay for any mistakes he makes. He must take care of the ball and must make plays, whether it be with his arm or his legs. This isn’t likely to be a shootout, but the niners have to make sure drives end in points. The offensive line has to give Kaepernick time in the pocket and don’t make him rely solely on his legs. Kaepernick has a total QBR of 19 in Seattle throughout his career. Bottom line is he will have to be better if the Niners are going to get another shot at the Lombardi.

Keys to San Francisco Victory
Ø Linebackers need to be great once again
Ø Find a way to slow down Marshawn Lynch
Ø Kaepernick must start fast and finish strong
Ø Offensive line must win the battle in the trenches


The Seahawks have been number one in the power rankings all year, and for good reason. Their defense has been borderline legendary, especially at home, and especially the secondary. And they will have to be legendary again on Sunday. Richard Sherman is the best cornerback in the league, and he will do his thing. But, on the other side is Byron Maxwell, who took over for suspended cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Walter Thurmond six games ago. However, he has proven to be a fantastic cover corner, and that will be the key on the defensive side of the ball on Sunday. Seattle will have to win the turnover battle. Sherman and Maxwell must be stellar in man coverage on Sunday, and force Colin Kaepernick to hold onto the ball, giving the defensive line time to get to him, just as they have done all season. If they can do this, Kaepernick will have a long day.

On the offensive side of the ball, much like Colin Kaepernick, quarterback Russell Wilson has struggled as of late. His receivers haven’t helped him either. It still isn’t clear whether Percy Harvin will be back in the lineup after suffering a concussion last week against the Saints, but Wilson will need help from whoever he is throwing to. Doug Baldwin and Golden Tate need to make plays on Sunday, and Wilson needs to be accurate and decisive. I believe he will respond and have a productive afternoon. In the ground game, Marshawn Lynch is red hot, and will need to continue to be productive against the 49ers 4th ranked run defense.

Keys to Seattle Victory
Ø Win the turnover battle
Ø Force Kaepernick to hold onto the ball
Ø Receivers must make plays
Ø Wilson must play well
Ø Red hot Lynch must stay red hot


New England at Denver
I believe this will be a close game, and Manning will play well, but Denver’s front seven will have trouble stopping LeGarrette Blount. This, in conjunction with the loss of Chris Harris, will be too much for the Broncos to overcome, and Brady will have another shot at that elusive 4th Lombardi trophy.
New England wins 31-27

San Francisco at Seattle
This should be a very exciting game to watch. I believe it will come down to the wire, but the Seahawks will win the turnover battle, and Russell Wilson play better than he has in recent weeks.
Seattle wins 27-20


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