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Inside the NFL | AFC and NFC championships look to be closely contested

Published: Friday, January 17, 2014

Updated: Friday, January 17, 2014 03:01

With January more than halfway over, playoff football is well underway. Only four teams remain and, after this weekend’s conference championship games, that number will be cut in half. The victors will meet up in Super Bowl XLVIII, while the losers will watch on TV with the rest of the country.

There were no surprises in this year’s AFC divisional playoffs, with the conference’s top two teams advancing to the AFC Championship Game. The New England Patriots, who fell in last year’s AFC title game to the Baltimore Ravens, wiped out their old foes, the Indianapolis Colts, 43-22 behind four rushing touchdowns from LeGarrette Blount.

The Denver Broncos had a tougher time against the San Diego Chargers, who upset them during the regular season and nearly did so again with a furious fourth quarter charge. But Denver ultimately held off San Diego and advanced with a 24-17 win.

Armed with likely MVP Peyton Manning and an impressive array of wide receivers, including former Patriot Wes Welker, the Broncos are the favorite heading into Sunday’s matchup. The team posted the best record in the NFL, thanks in large part to their league-leading offense.

But to get to the Super Bowl, the Broncos will have to go through Tom Brady and the Bill Belichick-coached Patriots. Though some of their key players are struggling with injuries, the Patriots have history on their side: their regular season meeting with Denver became an instant classic after New England rallied from a 24-point halftime deficit to win 34-31 in overtime, improving Brady’s career record against Manning to 10-4.

Expect both quarterbacks to be in top form on Sunday as the predicted game-time temperatures push 60 degrees in Denver. With neither team known for its defense, the game figures to be a shoot-out, ultimately determined by which veteran gunslinger has the better day.

A win for Brady would mean a chance to play in his sixth Super Bowl, which would be a record for quarterbacks. After being held without a touchdown against the Colts, look for him to bounce back with a big game against his long-time nemesis. On a similar note, Manning should improve upon his most recent appearance against New England, when sub-freezing conditions forced him to hand the ball off to Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball.

The NFC Championship Game will probably be a closely contested affair, as well — although with significantly less scoring. The Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers, both of whom came out of the NFC West, are set to square off for the third time this season.

The Seahawks have been a powerhouse all season long and might be the NFL’s most well-rounded team. They stymied Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints 23-15 in the Divisional Round and will look to do the same to their division rivals, who finished one game behind them in the standings. San Francisco survived a three-point win against Green Bay in the first round of the playoffs and was then able to hold off the Carolina Panthers last weekend. Now, however, the 49ers must topple the Seahawks in order to win their second straight NFC title.

Getting back to the Super Bowl won’t be easy for the 49ers — Seattle boasts the NFL’s stingiest defense and has the luxury of home field advantage. Even so, the 49ers have a defense that allowed fewer points than all but two teams — Seattle and Carolina —along with an offense that scored just one fewer touchdown than Seattle’s offense this year. Throw in the fact that San Francisco is riding an eight-game winning streak, including their most recent head-to-head matchup with the Seahawks, and suddenly the possibility of an upset doesn’t seem so unlikely.

Denver and Seattle shared the NFL’s best records during the regular season, but they’re not unbeatable, so don’t be surprised if the Patriots, the 49ers or both are playing for the championship two weeks from now. At the very least, these matchups should make for entertaining, competitive games and keep fans engaged all Sunday long.

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