Over the last few years, the NFL Playoffs have been rife with surprise teams and upsets, but this year’s tournament has gone pretty much to form (San Francisco was the only road team to win in the Divisional Round, but they went into that game as a one-point favorite). Last week, when I made my picks, I figured there would be at least one upset, and I went with the Chargers over the Broncos, which was actually in play in the fourth quarter, until San Diego blew a coverage on third-and-17 and allowed Peyton Manning to complete a 21-yard game-clinching pass. I was fairly close in my other predictions though, correctly forecasting that the Niners would win a slugfest over Carolina, that the Seadderall PEDhawks would outlast the Saints at home, and that the Patriots would score a bushel of points on the Colts’ sad defense.
The results of the Divisional Round have set us up with an insane slate of football for this Sunday: In the AFC Championship, we have Manning-Brady MMXLCV, and in the NFC Championship we have a matchup between football’s two best teams and most heated rivals, the Niners and Seabitches. The slate is a veritable wet dream for football fans and ratings-hungry network executives alike, and is very much in line with what most analysts expected coming into the season. (For the record, in my season preview, I called for a final four of Denver vs. New England and San Francisco vs. Green Bay, which could have been in play were it not for Aaron Rodgers’ collarbone injury.) Maybe the playoffs have gone chalk so far, but it’s given us the Championship Sunday we wanted. Will the favorites continue their dominance? Here’s what I think.
New England at Denver
As noted above, and by every football writer in the known universe, this is the 15th time Manning and Brady have faced off. Bady’s Patriots have won 10 of the previous 14, and two of their three playoff matchups. Does this have anything to do with how this game will go? The numbers-oriented analysts will tell you no, of course not. After all, it’s not like Manning and Brady are covering each other’s receivers.
Hold on, not yet. A little more on the matchup. The two teams have very different offenses right now, with Manning leading yet another record-setting airshow and Brady managing a punishing ground game (sounds a bit like those early 2000s Pats-Colts matchups, no?) in the wake of losing his dynamic tight end duo to injury (Rob Gronkowski) and a spree of murders so crazy you wouldn’t believe it if it was in a movie (Aaron Hernandez). They both will be going up against questionable, injury-riddled defenses, and I’m guessing there will probably be a lot of points in this game—especially with the early weather forecast calling for clear skies and temperatures in the 50s in Denver next weekend. Pleasant weather and a shootout would seem to favor Denver.
Nope, not yet. I know those other 14 games these two quarterbacks have played don’t really have a lot of bearing on this one. I know that not even the most recent one, New England’s 34-31 comeback overtime victory in Week 12, should affect my prediction. After all, that game was played in frigid conditions in Boston, when the Pats still had Gronkowski and the Broncos still had Von Miller, and the key play in overtime was a punt that bounced into a Broncos coverage team gunner and was recovered by the Pats, leading to the game-winning field goal.
Look, I write these picks columns and pretend to know shit about football, but I really don’t know a damn thing. I didn’t even try out for my high school football team because I am slow and small and oh so white. The only knowledge I have comes from years and years of sitting on couches and in bars every Sunday watching this stupid, violent game that epitomizes most of the worst aspects of American society. All I can do is compare what I see now to what I’ve seen in the past. And goddammit, if there’s one thing that I know about the generation of players that I’ve been watching for the last decade, it’s that Tom Brady is the closest thing in today’s game to Joe Montana (the ultimate clutch QB), and Peyton Manning is the reanimation of Dan Marino (the guy who sets the records but chokes in big games). When I wrote about the possibility of this game back at the beginning of the season, I said Denver would win 27-24. But if someone put a gun to your head, would you pick Dan Marino over Joe Montana?
Me neither. Patriots 37, Broncos 35.
San Francisco at Seattle
I know I just wrote like 700 words about the AFC Championship Game, but I honestly don’t even give the tiniest shit about what happens in Manning-Brady MMXLCV. (Is that a real number? I’m too lazy to check). All this week, every fiber of my being has been and will be wrapped up in this game, my beloved Niners traveling to Seattle, a place where they’ve been torched twice in a row by the perpetually shit-talking Seabitches. Seeing as how this is turning into the same sort of rivalry that Niners-Cowboys (the iron upon which my undying hatred of all things Dallas was forged) was 20 years ago, it’s impossible for me to be rational about this game. But I’m going to try to handle it Socratically (well, kinda) by asking a few questions about the matchup.
Does Seattle’s homefield advantage matter?
Well, duh. The Seabitches are 16-1 at home since Russell Wilson became their starting quarterback. The damn thing was engineered to produce as much noise as possible, and the crowd gets so loud that seismologists have found that it literally creates an earthquake.
In two trips to Seattle since Colin Kaepernick became the Niners’ starting QB, San Francisco has lost by a combined score of 71-16—and they looked every bit that bad in those games, with their offense crumbling in the face of the din and the swarming Seabitches defense.
Does Seattle’s homefield advantage matter as much as people think it does?
Maybe, maybe not. Seattle’s homefield mystique has lost a bit of its luster in the last month: Arizona went in there and won 17-10 despite their quarterback throwing four interceptions, and the Saints, a piss-poor road team all year, had a shot to tie their Divisional Round game in the fourth quarter. Golden child Russell Wilson threw for 211 yards in those two games COMBINED. And can we please take a moment to dispel the myth being propagated about Seattle fans by football analysts and Kaepernick’s Beats by Dre commercial …
Seriously, have you ever been to Seattle? The people in that commercial pretty clearly haven’t. As someone who has been there recently, I can tell you that, while maybe it was once a city of loggers and fisherman, now it’s a hive of scrawny, latte-slurping, indie-rock-fan emo hipsters. The stadium gets loud, sure. But scary? Nah. Not Seattle.
Which team was better during the regular season?
Pretty clearly the Seabitches. Football Outsiders’ statistical metric DVOA had them rated the best team in the NFL by a pretty wide margin. They had the second-best point differential in the NFL, behind only Denver, a team that was running up scores in an effort to set offensive records. And Seattle, led by their Legion of Boom defensive backfield, had arguably the best pass defense of the last decade.
Which team is playing better right now?
Pretty clearly the Niners. Seattle’s passing offense has fallen apart as they’ve lost weapons to injury, leaving Wilson very few options to make plays downfield and the Seabitches’ offense looking like … well, like the Niners’ offense did earlier this year. Meanwhile, the return of Michael Crabtree has helped to open up the Niners’ passing game, and Vernon Davis, Anquan Boldin, and of course Kaepernick have all benefitted.
Moreover, I’d like to point out that if it weren’t for a string of lucky breaks, this game would be happening at Candlestick, not CenturyLink. Seattle won at least four games this year that it probably should have lost (over the Panthers when DeAngelo Williams fumbled inside the 20-yard line when Carolina was driving to possibly take the lead, over the Texans when Matt Schaub threw one of the worst pick-sixes in NFL history to let Seattle back in the game, over the Rams when St. Louis stupidly threw instead of running when they were at the goal line at the end of the game, and over then-winless Tampa when the Bucs blew leads of 21-0 and 24-7 in Seattle). Meanwhile, the Niners were victims of maybe the worst call made in the NFL this year, the obscene roughing the passer penalty on Ahmad Brooks that cost them the game against the Saints. Hell, take away that one flag, and this weekend’s game would be in San Francisco.
Meanwhile, for all the hype that Seattle’s defensive backs get—and don’t get me wrong, it’s much deserved, as Earl Thomas might be the best safety in the NFL, and Richard Sherman put together a Deion Sanders-esque season in which he led the league in interceptions while being the least-targeted cornerback in the NFL—the Niners have a pretty damn good defensive unit of their own. Consider that three of the Niners’ four starting linebackers (Brooks, NaVorro Bowman, and “Kill that Motherfucker,” Patrick Willis) made the Pro Bowl, and the guy who didn’t, Aldon Smith, had 19 sacks last year.
That’s the best linebacking corps in the NFL by about a hundred miles, which matters a great deal, considering that Seattle depends on Marshawn Lynch and their running game to move the ball.
Did I predict the Niners would win both their playoff games so far by scores of 23-20?
You’re goddamn right I did. I got the score exactly right in the Packers game (I may have mentioned this once or twice) and then the Niners’ defense shaved 10 points away to beat Carolina 23-10. The trend indicates that the Niners should beat Seattle 23-0, right?
Yeah, probably not. But San Francisco comes into this game with 1) a defense that is playing punishing, physically dominant football and also matches up very well with Seattle’s run-oriented offense, and 2) a balanced offense playing its best ball of the season, led by a quarterback who is 3-0 in road playoff games, including a win at frozen Lambeau Field over Aaron Rodgers and a comeback win at another very loud stadium, the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
Am I going to pick the Niners to win 23-20, because I’m a superstitious asshole of a sports fan, because the Niners are the better team overall and are peaking at the right time, and because the only way for this season to end in justice is for those shit-talking, PED-swallowing Seabitches to choke at their precious piece of shit echo chamber of a stadium?
YOU’RE GODDAMN RIGHT, MOTHERFUCKERS!!! NINERS 23-20, FOR THE MOTHERFUCKING WIN!!!