The final four have arrived, and Sunday is shaping up to be an epic day of football.
The NFL couldn’t have asked for a better lineup of games, either: Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning in the matinee and the archrival San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks in the night cap. It’s going to be ratings galore.
If Brady-Manning XIV was any indication of the fireworks set to go off in Denver, then Sunday might as well be the Fourth of July. As for the NFC, the Hawks and Niners have forged one of the most hated rivalries in sports over the past two seasons, making for quite the fight to see up in Seattle.
Anyway, enough beating around the proverbial NFL bush. Take a peak below for some keys to this weekend’s games and even a few coaching nuggets.
**Editor’s Note: Each week, I’ll break down 10 thoughts from around the NFL in the NESN.com “First and 10.” That being said, here are 10 more thoughts from around the NFL after another week of football.
New England Patriots at Denver Broncos
1. Tom owns Peyton H2H. Sunday will mark the 15th meeting between Brady and Manning, adding another chapter to an already incredible anthology. However, while the great debate of Brady or Manning continues to rage on, it is clear — at least in the head-to-head meetings — who the better quarterback has been. Just take a look at the numbers below.
While Manning’s numbers are better on the whole, which always seems to be the case, Brady still has the number that matters most: wins. And, with a one-game, winner-take-all meeting this weekend, that’s really all that matters.
2. Get Vereen involved. The Patriots seemingly have been biding their time with Vereen, waiting for him to break out in the same way he did against the Buffalo Bills to begin the season. There have been flashes, most notably his 12-catch, 153-yard performance against the Cleveland Browns, but he hasn’t made the same sort of impact since returning from his hand injury.
There is no better time than the present, though. Vereen is difficult to defend and an almost certain mismatch for any linebacker trying to stick with him. The Broncos don’t have anyone fast enough to take him one-on-one, and the Patriots have too many weapons for Denver to put double coverage on the shifty back. So, expect Brady to look Vereen’s way over the middle quite a bit and open up some opportunities to exploit Denver deep.
3. The other Thomas is the key. The Broncos’ first showdown with the Patriots this season resulted in one of the biggest chokes in recent memory. But, it all happened without one of Denver’s primary weapons on offense. Julius Thomas missed the game in New England because of a knee injury, leaving Manning without one of his best third-down and red zone targets. He thrives with Thomas in the lineup.
Manning targeted Thomas 89 times this season, and the connection was one of the most efficient and productive in the NFL. On targets to Thomas, Manning completed 74.5 percent of his passes with 12 touchdowns (tied for second in the NFL) and just one interception. With Thomas on the field, the Patriots will need a different game plan to stop Manning this time around.
4. Expect seven points or less. Brady and Manning have squared off 14 times in their storied history, and the most recent matchups have been pretty memorable. In fact, six of the last seven games between the two quarterbacks have been decided by seven points or less — the lone exception being the Patriots’ 31-21 win against the Broncos in 2012. If the recent showdowns are any indication, Sunday should bring some fireworks but also some chewed nails.
San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks
5. Seahawks crush SF at home. The Seahawks and 49ers have split their season series each of the past two seasons, with the home team winning each time. However, when the Seahawks have won, it’s been in commanding fashion. While the 49ers have won their two games by a combined nine points, including a last-minute two-point win in Week 14, the Seahawks’ wins have come by a combined 55 points, which included a 29-point rout inside CenturyLink Field in Week 2. Add on the fact that the Seahawks are 16-1 at home since the start of 2012, including last week’s win against the Saints, and the 49ers’ chances are looking a helluva lot bleaker.
6. Lynch owns the Niners. The stat sheet might be a bit deceiving, but the reality is that Marshawn Lynch owned the 49ers this season. San Francisco boasted the NFL’s fourth-ranked run defense this season. The 49ers even held Lynch to just 3.5 yards per carry in their two meetings — but that didn’t stop Beast Mode from bulldozing his way into the end zone time after time. Lynch scored four touchdowns (three rushing, one receiving) against the Niners this season, and they weren’t just 1-yard pile-pushers either. Lynch scored on 14-, 11- and 2-yard runs as well as pulling in a 7-yard touchdown catch against San Francisco. Seattle will feed the Beast yet again Sunday, and the 49ers will have to hold their ground, especially inside the red zone.
7. Crabtree makes all the difference. Since Michael Crabtree‘s return, Colin Kaepernick has been a different quarterback, but the 49ers have been a better team, too. Kaepernick is completing more than 60 percent of his passes since Week 13 and has thrown nine touchdowns and just two interceptions in that span. During the same streak, San Francisco has won seven straight games. Obviously, Aldon Smith‘s return, among other factors, have contributed to the improved play, but Crabtree appears to be the key on offense. He’ll be key again to any chance at a win this weekend.
8. 49ers hottest team in NFL. San Francisco isn’t exactly the hottest place in America right now, but the 49ers are the hottest team in the NFL. Since falling to 6-4 on the season with a loss to the New Orleans Saints in Week 11, the 49ers have run off eight straight wins, including five on the road, to get themselves into the NFC Championship Game. The Niners have won those eight games by an average of 9.5 points and have been putting up close to 26 points a game while allowing just more than 15 — better than their season totals in both categories. The Seahawks might have the home-field advantage, but the 49ers are on fire right now, and not even the “12th Man” seems capable of stopping them.
9. Zimmer will be a game changer in Minny. Mike Zimmer has been waiting his turn for going on four years now, and finally the Minnesota Vikings wised up and gave him a head coaching job. Zimmer is one of the best defensive minds in football, crafting top-10 defenses in Cincinnati in four of the last five seasons. He commands a team well and, as evidenced by the parting well wishes from the Bengals, is very well respected by his players. The Vikings are in need of some serious help after finishing in the bottom five in almost every defensive category this season, including points allowed and turnovers, and Zimmer is just the guy to fix those issues. He might need some assistance finding the right quarterback and coaching him up, but, then again, that’s what assistants are for. Great hire, Minnesota. You won’t regret it.
10. Gruden doesn’t fit for RG3. While one former Bengals coordinator seems to be a perfect fit, the other appears to be mildly in over his head. The Washington Redskins are a mess right now, especially Robert Griffin III, and, while Jay Gruden is an offensive innovator, he doesn’t seem like the right guy to help fix RG3. Gruden is the same guy who convinced Bengals ownership to draft Andy Dalton instead of Colin Kaepernick, because he doesn’t believe in option attacks. Gruden likes to run a drop-back, pocket-passing system, and those aren’t Griffin’s strongest traits. Maybe Gruden changes his ways or learns to adapt on the fly, but, from the outset at least, he seems like the wrong man for the job.