In less than 24 hours time, the NFC and AFC will have their champions, and the Super Bowl lineup will be set.
Championship Week is upon us.
The NFL playoff format is very different to most English sports, and makes for a unique and exciting finish to most seasons. Year in, and year out, the NFL playoffs result in no end of surprises. Division champions fall to wildcard teams, rank outsiders make miracle runs to the final rounds. In 2014, however, for the first time in a long time, the final four teams are probably the four best teams in football throughout the regular season.
AFC Championship Game—New England Patriots (12-4) @ Denver Broncos (13-3)—Tonight, 20:00 Sky Sports
In the NFL, with it’s drafts, salary caps and and roster limits, building long term success is a difficult task, which makes what the sixth round pick Tom Brady, head coach Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots have done one of the most impressive feats in recent NFL history. In his 12 full seasons as a starter, Brady has had five trips to the Super Bowl, winning three, and has missed out on postseason action just once in 2002, his second season as a starter. (The Patriots missed the playoffs in 2008, but Brady missed virtually all of the season on IR).
Brady is now just one game away from a sixth trip to the Super Bowl, but standing in his way is Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos.
The Broncos were one of the hottest teams during the regular season and carried that into the divisional round holding the San Diego Chargers to zero points through three three quarters of play.
Manning is unquestionably the top quarterback in football today, having thrown for an NFL record 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns in 2013. This feat is all the more impressive considering that just two seasons ago many wondered if Manning would ever play again after missing a full season to neck injury, and being called “noodle armed” as a result.
Expect this to be a high scoring affair, dominated by big plays through the air for both teams.
The game will be close, but I give the edge to the Broncos, who have home field advantage, and come into the game the slightly hotter and more consistent team. However don’t discount a late game come-from-behind win for the Patriots—few teams have manages to contain New England in the final exchanges of the game all season long.
NFC Championship Game—San Francisco 49ers (12-4) @ Seattle Seahawks (13-3)—Tonight, 22:30 Sky Sports
It’s hard to imagine that just three short years ago, the NFC West was the laughing stock of the NFL. That season, the Seattle Seahawks managed to win the division, and make the playoffs with a 7-9 losing record. Today, arguably the two best NFC teams, Seattle and San Francisco, are in the division, with a third, the Arizona Cardinals, every bit a playoff caliber team as well.
One way or another, the NFC crown will belong to an NFC West team this year.
The Seattle Seahawks own one of the NFL’s fiercest defences, and a potent offence, spearheaded by Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch.
Though some will cite the transformation of the teams like the 2013 Kansas City Chiefs as the most dramatic transformations in football, Seattle would certainly argue that their growth under Pete Carroll has been just as impressive to behold, especially considering the rapid growth of the rest of the NFC West around them.
Some have wondered aloud if Carroll has built a positive culture in Seattle—he entered the city under a cloud of controversy, and the Seahawks have regularly lead the league in some less than boast-worthy categories, like penalties and PED suspensions—but one thing is for sure, he has reignited the team’s passionate and rabid fan base, and made CenturyLink Field a feared place for opponents to tread.
The San Francisco 49ers success has, in many ways, come in the same way as Seattles—a top college coach, a stout defense, strong running game and a mobile and cerebral young quarterback.
In 2011, the 49ers were knocked out of the playoffs in divisional play, last season, they were Super Bowl runners up. Most of their players and coaches know how it feels to fall at the final hurdle, but at the same time, many feel their current trajectory leaves only one option left for them to fulfil—NFL Champions.
Both teams come into the game hot. They know each other well, and are well matched, having split the series during the regular season, both winning at home. This would incline most to give the edge to Seattle and the 12th man, and I would be inclined to agree. However Seattle are not unbeatable at home, falling to fellow NFC West rivals the Arizona Cardinals in Week 16, and San Francisco will not just roll over and concede defeat.
This game is certainly one of the NFL’s premier rivalries, and it is hard to imagine a better conference Championship game than this.
All in all, this is one of the best possible ends to the season, with the teams owning the four best records from the regular season all set to play to decide which two will get to play for it all in this years Super Bowl. Though I give a slight edge to both home teams, these games are really too close to call, and well worth staying up into the wee small hours of the morning to see how they play out.