Thursday, January 16, 2014

NFL Weekly Predictions: Conf. Championships

By Jeffrey Boswell

Note: the quotes in this article are fictional.

New England @ Denver (-4½)

The Patriots breezed into the AFC Championship Game with a 43-22 win over Indianapolis, led by 4 rushing touchdowns from LeGarrette Blount. New England will face Denver on Sunday, the third time Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have met in the AFC final.

"If Marshawn Lynch was in 'Beast' mode," Brady said, "then Blount was in 'Feast' mode. We call LeGarrette 'The Closer,' and he is to 'closing' as the Indy defense is to 'opening.' Former Patriot and exhibitionist Zeke Mowatt would call that a 'Patriot Simile.' Sure, the 'Patriot Missile' incident has defined the careers of Mowatt and Boston Herald reporter Lisa Olson, but luckily, they can laugh about it now. Heck, Olson calls the incident a real 'knee slapper.'"

"We relish the role of underdogs against the Broncos. 4½ points is nothing. We spotted the Broncos 24 before storming back to win 34-31 in overtime back in week 12. It was the biggest turn of events in New England since the 'Tuck Rule.' In Foxboro, the 'Tuck Rule' is called a 'miracle.' Everywhere else, its known by its real name, 'fumble.'"

Peyton Manning and Broncos advanced to the conference championship with a 24-17 win over the visiting Chargers. Denver raced to a 17-0 lead and survived a late Chargers rally, and the Broncos will host their sixth AFC title game.

"Last year," Manning said, "we let the Ravens have the ball back, and we paid for it. We didn't want that to happen again. It's the playoffs — you know how much I hate reliving the past.

"A lot has been made of me shouting 'Omaha!' at the line of scrimmage. It's really just some gibberish I shout before the snap count. So it has no meaning whatsoever. It would be like my little brother Eli shouting 'Canton!'

"As for the Patriots, I look forward to the challenge presented by Brady, Belichick, and the Patriots. I'll be ready. If there's one thing everyone can agree on, it's that my preparation is second to no one. I take practice very seriously. It's important to always be at your very best, because you never know when you're being secretly filmed."

What's the biggest factor in Sunday's game? Many expect the running games to decide the outcome. Rushing attacks may set the tone early, but this is Brady and Manning — their right arms will win or lose the game. The deep ball may not be there, but the x-factor could be the slot receivers, Julian Edelman for the Pats, and former Patriot Wes Welker for the Broncos. Stopping these two could be the defensive key to the game. This time, New England wants to get the drop on, and not from, Wes Welker. Likewise, the Denver defense has to keep Edelman in check.

In the end, Manning gets the ball last, and showing true nerves of steel, coolly moves the Broncos 17 yards into Matt Prater field goal range. Prater booms a 51-yard kick as time expires.

Denver wins, 30-27.

San Francisco @ Seattle (-3½)

The Seahawks, powered by 140 yards rushing and 2 scores from Marshawn Lynch, whipped the Saints 23-15, and will host the NFC title game against the 49ers. The NFC West rivals split their regular season matchups, with the home team winning each contest.

"Our fans generated an earthquake on Lynch's final touchdown run," Pete Carroll said. "I think it registered a '6.66' on the Richter Scale, because that's the number of the 'Beast.' I'm sure Aldon Smith doesn't mind an earthquake — he likes anything shaken, not stirred. His battles with alcohol are well-documented. Rumor has it that Smith got hammered on a tour of Alcatraz. He went 'on the rocks' on 'The Rock.'

"We surely don't expect any trickery from the 49ers. The Saints tried it, and look where it got them. Marques Colston set the forward pass back 10 years, and set laterals forward ten yards. I'm surprised Jimmy Graham didn't catch that errant pass — he could have added that to his league-leading number of meaningless playoff receptions.

"Defensively, we have to communicate. For us, that usually means with the other team. Richard Sherman may be the greatest trash-talker in the history of sports. He's got a voice coach, for Christ's sake. But even he doesn't talk as much as Anquan Boldin. Boldin yaps so much, his jaw might dislocate for the second time. Sherman and Boldin will be so up in each others' face, you won't be able to get a word in edgewise, or anything else, for that matter."

San Francisco shut out the Panthers in the second half and pulled away for a 23-10 win in Charlotte last week. The 49ers defense stuffed the Panthers on three red zone visits, including two goal line stands, and moved on to face the hated Seahawks in Seattle.

"Our guys knew the game plan," Jim Harbaugh said, "and executed it to perfection. I assigned them a duty, and they did it. You could say I 'tasked' them. Conversely, the Panthers were 'jobbed.' Among the questionable calls, there was a 'too many men on the field' violation that the officials missed. A call like that surely won't be missed in Seattle, because the '12th Man' isn't allowed on the field.

"We were the best defense on the field, and Colin Kaepernick was the best quarterback on the field. How about his mocking of Cam Newton's 'Superman' pose? That makes sense, because, much like Superman, Colin hasn't seen his parents in ages. Newton played well, but faltered in the second half. That has to be nerves. Much like Isaac Newton, I don't think Cam realized the gravity of the situation at first.

"The Seahawks are favored, so the pressure's on them. And I think it will get to them. The game is in Seattle, so I expect them to choke, possibly on their own vomit. We plan to go right at them and get in their faces. We're going to test them, and if they don't respond, you could say, likely for the first time this year, that they tested negative. That team puts the 'Sea' in 'pharmacy.'"

The hatred runs deep in the NFC Championship game. Harbaugh hates Carroll, the 49ers hate the Seahawks, and Lord knows, San Francisco hates earthquakes. The levels of abhorrence are great. Rappers have died in lesser West Coast rivalries. The extracurricular activities start early, culminating in an NFL first, offsetting unsportmanlike penalties at the coin toss.

Once play starts, the "trash-mouth" football is joined by "smash-mouth" football. Big hits are made, and taken. Blood is spilled, and tested for paternity. Trainers are worked to capacity. Injuries are suffered. Concussions are experienced. There's nothing "soft and cuddly" in this battle, except Percy Harvin's brain. "V" is not only for "victory," "V" is for "viscera."

But lost in all the carnage is the play of the kickers, punters Andy Lee and Jon Ryan, and kickers Phil Dawson and Steve Hauschka. Punts and long field goals keep the game tight, and the game turns on a pass interference on the 49ers with time dwindling in the fourth quarter. Harbaugh has a hissy fit, and seismic readings later confirm it as an earthquake. Russell Wilson connects with Zach Miller to set up Hauschka's short field goal.

Seattle wins, 23-22.

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