GAMES OF THE WEEK
New England at Denver
The time: 3 p.m., EST
The line: Broncos by 5 1/2
The story: It's supposed to be Brady-Manning XV, but this may be less about Tom Brady and more about his running backs. Since the loss of tight end Rob Gronkowski the Patriots have become a rushing team, with the club running for 151 more yards the past three games than Brady has passing. They have 10 rushing TDs, too, to Brady's two -- and those two scores? Yep, to running back Shane Vereen.
When San Diego went into Denver and won last month, the Chargers did it by running first and throwing second. They couldn't recreate that formula last weekend because running back Ryan Mathews was handicapped by a high-ankle sprain, and the results speak for themselves. But the Patriots have a cadre of four backs -- led by bulldozer LeGarrette Blount -- who can move the chains, control the ball and keep Peyton Manning off the field.
It worked for San Diego. It could work here.
Some people believe Denver's latest loss on defense -- cornerback Chris Harris -- means Brady tries to exploit the league's 27th-ranked pass defense, but I'd be surprised. New England put up 41, 34 and 43 points the past three weeks not by throwing deep because ... well, because they don't have a deep threat. And it wasn't by taking advantage of red-zone targets, either, because, with Gronk gone, they don't have one. Nope, they won because they ran.
Denver can run, too, as it demonstrated in its come-from-ahead-loss to New England in November, when it blew a 24-0 halftime lead. Knowshon Moreno shredded the Patriots for 224 yards, and the Broncos rolled up a season-high 280. But that was then, and this is now, and now the Patriots' defense is more of a 4-3 alignment that's tougher for backs to solve, which means Manning will do what comes naturally.
Just throw, baby.
Manning has an abundance of targets, including tight end Julius Thomas, who didn't play in November. The question, of course, is: Who covers him? Aqib Talib is a possibility, but look for him to match up on the Broncos' long-ball threat, Demaryius Thomas. A more likely choice is linebacker Jamie Collins, who played so effectively vs. Coby Fleener last week.
The Patriots were effective stopping Manning and Co. in the second half in November, holding them to one touchdown in three quarters, but the wind and cold were factors then. They aren't now. That bodes well for the home team, and so does this: The only club that has a winning record vs. Tom Brady? You're looking at it. The Broncos are 6-5.
Something to consider: The Patriots haven't lost by more than seven this year and are 6-1 in games decided by three or fewer points.
SAN FRANCISCO @ SEATTLE
The time: 6:30 p.m., EST
The line: Seahawks by 3 1/2
The story: These aren't just the two best teams in the NFC; they're the two best teams in football, and there's a reason why: Defense. Both are among the league's best. In fact, there's nobody out there better than Seattle, which led the league in points allowed, yards allowed, pass defense, interceptions and takeaways.
That's one reason the Seahawks are favored here. The other, of course, is the 12th Man. The Seahawks are 16-1 the past two years at CenturyLink Field and won four of their last five at home vs. San Francisco. More important, they buried them the last two times there by a combined score of 71-16, with the 49ers finding the end zone just once in 21 possessions.
Trust me, this one won't be a blowout. San Francisco is back on its game, winning its last eight. And quarterback Colin Kaepernick is back on his game -- with 12 touchdowns and two interceptions in his last eight starts. Having Michael Crabtree back helps, but cleaning up the mistakes does, too. San Francisco committed seven turnovers its last two games in Seattle, and if that happens again you can punch their ticket to the next tee.
If it doesn't the 49ers have a legitimate shot at pulling the upset. Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson has been struggling and wide receiver Percy Harvin (concussion) still hasn't been cleared by physicians. That means it's up to running back Marshawn Lynch, and that may be OK. All the guy's done in his last five games vs. San Francisco is score six times and produce three 100-yard performances.
But I'm not so sure it's up to Lynch as it is the 49ers' playmakers. They made the mistakes that crippled the club in the past. They can't make them again. It's tough enough to win in Seattle. But try to win from behind? Good luck.
Something to consider: San Francisco is trying to become the first Super Bowl loser to return to the league championship game the following season since Buffalo did it in January 1994.
FIVE GUYS IT'S GOOD TO BE
--1. Denver quarterback Peyton Manning. He's 15-3 at home with the Broncos, with 54 touchdowns, 11 interceptions and a passer rating of 111.1. He's also 1-0 vs. Tom Brady at home in conference championship games.
--2. Denver linebacker Shaun Phillips. He has two sacks in his last three games vs. New England.
--3. Seattle wide receiver Doug Baldwin. He has three touchdown catches in his last three at home vs. the 49ers.
--4. Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman. He has four interceptions in his last four starts.
--5. San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick. He not only is 3-0 on the road in the playoffs; he has more road wins than any San Francisco quarterback in history. Joe Montana was 1-3, John Brodie 1-1, Steve Young 0-3 and Jeff Garcia 0-2.
BELIEVE IT ... OR DON'T
--1. The last six NFC championship games were decided by seven or fewer points, including three in overtime.
--2. Home teams lost four of the past six NFC championship games, including the last three.
--3. With a defeat of Denver, New England will reach its eighth Super Bowl -- tying Pittsburgh and Dallas for most Super Bowl appearances. Denver has six.
--4. If Peyton Manning wins Sunday, he becomes the fourth quarterback in league history to reach a Super Bowl after leading the league in touchdowns and passing yardage for the regular-season. The others are Dan Marino (1984), Kurt Warner (2001) and Tom Brady (2007).
--5. San Francisco's Jim Harbaugh is the first head coach since the 1970 merger to reach the conference championship game in his first three seasons.
--6. With a defeat of New England, Broncos coach John Fox becomes the sixth coach in league history to lead two franchises to the Super Bowl.
--7. Seattle's Russell Wilson isn't just 16-1 at home; he has a passer rating of 110.7, with 34 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
--8. Tom Brady is 7-0 vs. Jack Del Rio's defenses, with 17 touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 121.1.
--9. San Francisco is the only NFL team in history to have a 100-yard receiver in seven consecutive playoff games.
--10. With a victory Sunday, New England coach Bill Belichick ties former Miami coach Don Shula for most Super Bowl appearances (six) in NFL history.
NUMBERS THAT MAY MEAN SOMETHING