NFL Playoff Preview — Keys to Watch For in the AFC & NFC Championship Games
The final four NFL teams head into their respective conference championship games hoping to advance to the Super Bowl. Here are three things to watch for in each of Sunday’s games:
AFC Championship: New England Patriots at Denver Broncos
Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver; 3 p.m. (ET) on CBS
• Pressure on Peyton – This is the 15th time quarterbacks Tom Brady of New England and Peyton Manning of Denver have faced each other including the regular season and playoffs. Brady has won 10 of the meetings, including the Patriots’ 34-31 overtime win on Nov. 24 when he rallied his team from a 24-0 halftime deficit. Manning is just 10-11 lifetime in the post-season. His record-setting 2013 has made it so that anything short of a Super Bowl appearance will be seen as a disappointment.
• Backs to the Future – While Brady and Manning must avoid turnovers on Sunday, the play of each team’s featured running back could be more important. Knowshon Moreno leads the Broncos ground attack and LeGarrette Blount, who scored four touchdowns in last week’s win over the Colts, is the feature back for the Patriots. The player who can help establish the running game — and free up the passing lanes — could carry his team to the Super Bowl.
• Looking for a Hero – With defensive leaders Vince Wilfork of the Patriots and Von Miller of the Broncos sidelined with injuries, other players will have to lead their respective defenses against the opponent’s Hall of Fame-level QB. Whoever fills that vacuum best with a turnover, sack or stop could change the course of the game.
NFC Championship: San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks
CenturyLink Field, Seattle; 6:30 p.m. (ET) on FOX
• Russell’s Runs – San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick is often lauded for his ability to run the football for positive yardage, while Seattle’s Russell Wilson gets credit for his elusiveness. In addition to scrambling, Wilson must create his own running opportunities and keep the ‘Niners’ defense from keying too heavily on running back Marshawn Lynch.
• Beware of the 12th Man – The 49ers have lost their last two meeting with the Seahawks at the very loud CenturyLink Field by a combined score of 71-16. Seattle hasn’t lost a home playoff game since 2004. If the 49ers do win their third road playoff game in three weeks, they will have earned every bit of it.
• Which Defense Will Rise Up? – Seattle’s ‘Legion of Boom’ secondary is known for shutting down the passing games of opponents. The 49ers pass rush can beat any quarterback into submission. The defensive unit that comes up biggest could rule the day.