Milt Northrop’s Sunday Playbook: Four hottest teams playing for trip to New Jersey - The Buffalo News

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Milt Northrop’s Sunday Playbook: Four hottest teams playing for trip to New Jersey

Will we have a bi-coastal Super Bowl – Bay Area Cioppino against Boston Scrod, Starbucks against Sam Adams?

Or will it be Pike Place against Pike’s Peak? North Beach versus Larimer Square?

Today’s National Football League conference championship round cooks up some delicious rivalries and hatreds. Familiar faces we’ve grown to admire or hate, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick against Peyton Manning in the AFC or opposing young quarterback stars Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick and bruising defenses in the NFC.

It will be the fourth postseason go-round for Manning against Brady-Belichick, but the first with Peyton in Denver orange. Brady leads, 2-1, but Manning won the last postseason encounter when the 2006 Colts topped the Patriots, 38-34, in the AFC championship game in Indy.

Seattle coach Pete Carroll and San Francisco’s Jim Harbaugh continue a bitter rivalry that goes back to the years when they were (then) Pac-10 rivals at Southern California and Stanford. Harbaugh supposedly embarrassed Carroll by going for a two-point conversion late in a game his underdog Stanford team won, 55-21. Carroll got even when his Seahawks routed the 49ers, 42-13 last season and 29-3 this past Sept. 15, both times in Seattle.

Then there’s the case of Josh McDaniels, the Patriots offensive coordinator who returned to New England after he was unceremoniously cashiered by owner Pat Bowlen and John Elway in the middle of the 2011 season. McDaniels will be looking for the last laugh.

The conference finalists are four teams playing the best down the stretch. The Niners have won their last eight, while Seattle has gone 10-2, New England 6-1 and Denver 5-1 down the stretch.

Today’s winners can celebrate, then get ready to fend off two weeks of hype and questions about a potentially frigid Super Bowl XLVIII on Feb. 2 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.

A look at today’s matchups:

Patriots (13-4) at Broncos (14-3)

TV: Ch. 4, 3 p.m.

The line: Broncos (-5½)

The scoop on the Patriots: How likely is it that Belichick will let Manning dink and dunk his team into submission like he did against the Chargers last Sunday? According to the official game sheets, Manning attempted only four deep balls, completing just one with an interference call on another, in the win over San Diego. His average completion was only 9.1 yards. The Patriots will dare Manning to go deep on them. ... New England led the AFC with 19 rushing touchdowns in the regular season so the recent reliance on the ground game should come as only a mild surprise. LeGarrette Blount has become the leader of a three-pronged run game with Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen after he ran for 355 yards, a 7.4 average and six touchdowns in his last two games. ... The New England receiving corps is underrated. How many teams have a receiver with 105 catches (Julian Edelman)? ... Much is made of the Pats’ losses on defense to injury (Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes), but their five offensive line starters have been together most of the season. ... Brady is 4-5 in his career against Denver, 1-1 in the postseason with both games on the road. ... The Patriots had 48 sacks in the regular season, led by Chandler Jones with 11½. The only game they failed to get at least one was the opener against Buffalo.

The scoop on the Broncos: Hard to believe that despite all the statistics Manning has rolled up, all the postseason appearances, a Super Bowl victory and the record-breaking season he just enjoyed (5,477 passing yards, 55 touchdowns), that some view this game as a final referendum on his greatness. Strange thinking. The Denver QB is blessed with a diversified receiving corps, WRs Demariyus Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker and rangy TE Julius Thomas. All hit double-figure totals for receiving TDs in 2013. Still, Manning needs effective running from Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball to keep opposing linebackers honest and out of the short passing lanes he favors. Manning was sacked only 20 times this season. The Broncos led the league by scoring touchdowns 76.1 percent of the time they reached the red zone. ... Denver offensive coordinator Adam Gase is in the news as a candidate for the Cleveland Browns head coaching job. If Gase leaves, former Broncos offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, a friend of Elway and his former backup, likely would return to Denver. ... The Denver defense is without LB Von Miller, but still managed 41 sacks during the season.

Outlook: Pats got off to 0-24 start then rallied to beat the Broncos, 34-31, in overtime when they met in Foxborough on Nov. 24. Expect a better start this time, frustrating Manning enough for a 38-31 victory.

49ers (14-4) at Seahawks (14-3)

TV: Ch. 29, 6:30 p.m.

The line: Seahawks (-3½)

The scoop on the 49ers: San Francisco hasn’t lost since a 23-20 defeat at New Orleans Nov. 17. The Niners offense has picked up after a midseason slump with Kaepernick back on his game and WR Anquan Boldin and TE Vernon Davis making huge contributions. ... This game features perhaps the two toughest running backs in the NFL, Frank Gore of the Niners and Marshawn Lynch of the Seahawks. Gore is a wonder for his durability and consistency and when the Niners need it most is when his determined style seems to show through. He had 1,126 yards and nine rushing touchdowns in the regular season. ... Michael Crabtree’s return from injury in late season added another weapon to the 49ers arsenal. ... There’s a lot of comment about the Niners’ huge offensive line. The lightweight is 6-8, 300-pound RG Alex Boone. The same five O-linemen have started every game for the Niners this season, which is more important perhaps. ... Cam Newton and the Panthers offense got off to a good start against the Niners last week, but then they couldn’t push it across the goal line on two series to the 1-yard line and were shut down in the second half. Defensively, the Niners have the talent to match the Seahawks and are just as physical.

The scoop on the Seahawks: Percy Harvin (concussion) is out for Seattle today and that is an important loss. It puts a huge load on the running of Lynch and the passing of Wilson. Wilson had only one 300-yard passing game – and one 100-yard rushing game – but was consistent most of the year with a 101.2 passer rating which included 26 TD passes and only nine interceptions. His worst game was at St. Louis when the Seahawks were overrun by the Rams for seven sacks. ... Golden Tate had 64 receptions, five for TDs, to lead the Seahawks, but Doug Baldwin was effective in the clutch. ... Seattle has some of the best defensive players in the league, even though some are not big names. CB Richard Sherman and S Earl Thomas are Pro Bowlers. S Cam Chancellor hits like a linebacker. Unsung heroes are LB Bobby Wagner and DE Michael Bennett, who also is an effective pass rusher from the inside.

Outlook: The crowd noise in Seattle bothers opponents and limits their ability to call audibles, but the Niners have dealt with it enough now that they should not be stifled. San Francisco is the hottest team in the NFL right now. Unless Seattle contains the running of Kaepernick, the Niners will win a bitter grudge match, 24-17.

Last week’s results 3-1 outright, 2-1-1 versus spread.

Season’s record 139-108-1, 121-119-8 versus spread.


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