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NFL Picks – Conference Championships

The Seahawks will need another beastly performance from Marshawn Lynch in what promises to be a brutally physical NFC Title game. In the AFC, one legend will move on, so we’re all winners either way. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Last Week:  3 – 1 – 0
Playoffs:     4 – 4 – 0

Sunday, January 19 (3:00PM ET)

(2) Patriots at (1) Broncos
This is the AFC Title game matchup we’ve wanted since Peyton Manning rejoined the league in 2012. I don’t prefer Manning over Tom Brady or vice versa. Both are legendary. Both deserve more recognition than they receive. Manning’s playoff struggles are slightly overblown. What Tom Brady has done throughout his career with talent-deprived offenses is simply amazing.

I picked the Patriots to win the AFC way back on Novemeber 22, 2013. After 11 Weeks I felt the Patriots were the team best fit to survive the AFC playoffs. Despite another injury to Rob Gronkowski and more injuries to an already depleted defense, I’m sticking with Bill Belichick. This is the scrappiest, most talent-deprived Patriots team since the one that won the Super Bowl way back in 2001. In fact, this year’s version isn’t nearly as good defensively and even more banged up physically. Then again, isn’t this where Belichick and Brady thrive? When everyone says they’re too injured or too thin at important positions?

Granted, Manning could explode for a huge day given how inconsistent New England’s secondary has performed, but I would be surprised if Belichick didn’t find a way to make Manning uncomfortable in the pocket. Besides, even if Manning turned the game into a shootout, the Denver defense (especially without Chris Harris) isn’t exactly impenetrable and Brady could match Manning score for score.

However, a shootout would favor Denver and likely result in Manning’s third Super Bowl appearance. New England wants a slower game dictated by its newfound one-two punch at running back. Pounding the football keeps Manning off the field and the Bronco offense out of rhythm. I don’t think that’s the Patriots only shot, but it’s definitely their best.

Either way, I’m glad we’ll get to see Manning or Brady back in a Super Bowl, where they’ll be underdogs in the big game. That’ll be a first for Manning and the first time for Brady since his inaugural appearance way back in 2002. PATRIOTS If I were Charles Barkley; Patriots +6

Sunday, January 19 (6:30PM ET)

(5) 49ers at (1) Seahawks
Hey, you know what? Colin Kaepernick completed only 15 of 28 passes last week in Carolina. For you English majors, that’s less than 55%. And let’s ease up on the undefeated on the road narrative. Didn’t he lose the Super Bowl a year ago? If you count the Super Bowl, Kaepernick’s playoff record is an impressive 4-1, including three victories on the road. Yes, dude’s a baller. He makes enough plays to win. You can’t argue with his moxie. But before everyone keeps slurping how wonderful Kaepernick is, let me remind you of another young NFL quarterback who had an impressive playoff run to begin his NFL career.

Like Kaepernick, this quarterback boasted a 4-1 record in his first five playoff games. All four wins were road wins. His name? Mark Sanchez. Am I telling you Kaepernick is no better than Sanchez? No. But I think it’s time to pump the brakes just a little on the Kaepernick hoopla.

First, Kaepernick can’t throw the football very well, especially against good teams. His completion percentage against playoff teams this season was horrifying. In eight total games (including the playoffs), Kaepernick completed more than 55% of his passes only one time and that was back in Week 1 when he looked like the love child of Steve Young and Dan Marino.

Second, if it weren’t for a stellar defense, top offensive line and pounding run game, we likely know Kaepernick as a rich man’s Geno Smith or EJ Manuel: Full of athleticism and potential, but plenty of work to do before he figures out the quarterback position.

Third, all of Kaepernick’s numbers fell off this season. Growing pains? Sure. Perhaps he’s not as potent when the offensive load falls on his shoulders? Absolutely. The Seahawks figured out last year that beating the 49ers is easier when you eliminate Kaepernick’s toys and make him beat you. In two of their last three meetings, Kaepernick was San Francisco’s leading rusher. Seattle won both games by a combined score of 71-16. In the other meeting, Seattle again took away Kaepernick’s weapons and were leading late in the 4th quarter until the San Francisco running game and Frank Gore finally broke through on the game winning drive by rushing for 59 yards. And as I argued then, Seattle didn’t care about that game and it showed.

As for Sunday: The 49ers are the sexy pick to win the NFC Title and the Super Bowl. It makes sense, too. San Fran’s defense was excellent last week in Carolina. Without those two goal line stands I don’t think the 49ers win. Carolina wasn’t as bad as the final score indicated, they simply couldn’t score points against a defense that transformed into a steel wall once inside it’s own 30. I expect a similar performance Sunday. The only difference this week will be the opposing defense.

For the first time this postseason, Kaepernick will face a defense as potent as his own. Green Bay’s defense was a mess all year. As great as Carolina’s defense was this season, their secondary was the team’s Achilles heel. They had no answer for Anquan Boldin. Conversely, Seattle’s secondary is the top unit in the NFL. Richard Sherman is the league’s best defensive back. Right behind him is teammate Earl Thomas. Seattle will take away Frank Gore and dare Kaepernick to beat them.

From Seattle’s perspective, they’ll need a huge improvement from Russell Wilson. Wilson looked horrible last week. He missed easy five yard passes to extend drives, made poor decisions when escaping the pocket, and looked overwhelmed for the first time in his young career. Perhaps his play was a reflection of playing in front of the home crowd for the first time in the postseason. I don’t know. But Seattle can’t win with another lousy outing from Wilson.

I love games dictated by defense, so this should be epic. I also love Marshawn Lynch in tough, physical games. I like Seattle’s defense and its secondary slightly more than San Francisco’s. Finally, I like Kaepernick to struggle in the passing game because his track record says so and I’m a founding member of the anti-Kaepernick club. SEAHAWKS If I were Charles Barkley; Seahawks -3

[P.S. The two most physical playoff games I can remember were the 2003 AFC Divisional game between the Steelers and Titans and the 2008 AFC Championship between the Ravens and Steelers. The 49ers-Seahawks grudge match could surpass them both.]

*****

Last Week: 1 – 2 – 1
Playoffs:    3 – 3 – 2

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