We started the season with 32 teams, but now only four are left standing. After Sunday, we’ll know which of the two will play in the Super Bowl.
Here are the best storylines going into championship weekend:
1. Can Seattle’s Offense Solve the 49ers’ D?
The Seattle Seahawks’ offense did not quiet its critics in the team’s divisional-round win over New Orleans. The Seahawks’ offensive unit remained sluggish, settling for a lot of field goals in the red zone and failing to truly take hold of the game. Specifically, quarterback Russell Wilson has continued to make inaccurate throws — particularly on slant patterns — and even more specifically in the kinds of situations — 3rd-and-5, 3rd-and-4 — that Seattle has to convert on Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game.
Wilson went to the playoffs last season and performed well, but he was looser then and did not have to operate under as much pressure. It is true that bad weather has limited what Wilson can do to a certain extent, but it’s also clear that he and the Seahawks receivers are playing with a lot of pressure on their backs. They are being doubted heading into this game against San Francisco. With the Seahawks’ offense slumping, that’s part of why we see such a low point total in this one. Bovada has the over/under set at 39.
2. Will Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin Outplay the Seahawks’ Secondary?
The 49ers’ offense is the big reason why San Francisco should feel confident about its chances to cover the 3-point spread and win this weekend. However, the team has to go out and prove that it is now better than Seattle — especially on the road. The 49ers have covered the spread in seven of their eight road games this season, but their lone defeat came in Seattle.
Crabtree’s return at wide receiver has opened up the other half of the field for Boldin, the same player who, as a Baltimore Raven, dismantled San Francisco’s secondary a year ago in Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans. If quarterback Colin Kaepernick can continue to find open receivers on Sunday in Seattle, the Niners should achieve the balanced offense they need to get the job done. However, Seattle’s cornerbacks are the best in the league. They consistently bother and disrupt receivers, more so than any other secondary in the NFL. If Crabtree and Boldin are smothered, San Francisco won’t have many places to turn to on offense.
3. Can Denver Generate a Pass Rush Against Tom Brady?
The Denver Broncos are without their best pass rusher (Von Miller), and they’re also without their best cover corner (Chris Harris). These are two gigantic losses heading into a game against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. In order to somehow compensate for these two losses so they can win and cover the 4-point spread, the rest of the Broncos — particularly the front four and the linebackers on blitzes — have to be able to apply consistent pressure on Brady, enough that he has to release the ball a little sooner than he’d like to. If the Broncos can make Brady uncomfortable, the Patriots might not get all they want out of their matchup against Denver’s banged-up defense. This could give the Broncos enough of a cushion to win this game with their offense.
4. Will New England’s Linebackers and Safeties Stand Tall in Pass Coverage?
The last time the Broncos and Patriots played, a strong wind limited the ability of Denver quarterback Peyton Manning to push the ball down the field in the passing game. On Sunday, the weather in Denver is expected to be very mild — not warm, but not cold — with light winds. Temperatures at kickoff time are supposed to be in the low 50s, and since the game is a 1:05 p.m. local time start in Denver, the game will be played in sunshine for the whole duration, or very close to it. That’s mostly why we see a total of 56. The oddsmakers are expecting to see plenty of points — especially since each of the last four meetings and seven of the last nine in Denver have gone over the number.
Manning should be able to throw the ball as much — and as deep — as he wants to. In the regular-season meeting in Foxboro on a bitterly cold and windy November night, that was not the case. New England has to expect more of a passing attack from Denver and this means that it must get strong performances from its safeties and linebackers against Denver’s third wide receiver and tight ends.