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NFL conference championship previews

By Melanie Bethune, January 15 2015 —

Looking at the NFL playoffs this season, one can’t help but feel a sense of déjà vu. Two of the four remaining teams — the Patriots and Seahawks — had wild-card byes this time last year and both went on to play conference title games.

The Packers and Colts stand as outliers, but they are far from being underdogs with strong MVP-candidate Aaron Rodgers in the mix for Green Bay and football’s next marquee star, Andrew Luck, slinging it for Indy.

Let’s look ahead to this weekend’s two matchups that will decide which teams represent the National Football Conference and the American Football Conference in Superbowl XLIX in Arizona.

National Football Conference:
Green Bay Packers vs. Seattle Seahawks

Despite strong pushes from surprise teams like Dallas and Detroit, this is the conference matchup the season has been building up to.

Seattle is dominant. It’s impossible to deny that. Last week in the divisional round, the defending Superbowl champions crushed the Carolina Panthers through the strength of Russell Wilson’s arm and the ‘Legion of Boom’ defence.
Watching Kam Chancellor pick off Cam Newton and take it back 90-yards — the longest post-season touchdown, offence or defence, in Seahawks history — shows this team’s control of the game.

Hosting the NFC championship plays more to the Seahawks’
favor than it would for any other home team in the league. Seattle boasts a near flawless record at Century Link Field over the past two years. The Seahawks defeated the Packers at home in the season opener and are looking to repeat in the postseason.

Speaking of Green Bay, it’s crazy to think back to when Aaron Rodgers was Brett Farve’s backup. Rodgers is easily the best quarterback in the league. His three touchdowns and 304 passing yards allowed the Packers to come back against the Cowboys last week, mirroring the MVP season he had in 2011.
Rodgers had a rough start in that game. However, after picking up less than 100-yards passing and a lost fumble in the first half, he settled into his usual groove in the third and fourth quarters.

The calf injury that plagued him in that game is still going to be a factor when the Packers hit Seattle next week. But thankfully the team built around their MVP is good enough to make up for it.

Runningback Eddy Lacy — who rushed for over 100 yards versus Dallas last week — will have to be primed to pick up the slack against Seattle’s suffocating front seven.

Seattle’s running game can’t be discounted either. Beneath all of the press surrounding their quarterback and defence, Marshawn Lynch has rumbled on as one of the league’s elite rushers despite backstage controversy over his future with the organization.

I wouldn’t discount the Packers completely. But it’s hard to bet against the Seahawks. They’re shaping up to be the first team since the 2003–04 New England Patriots to repeat as Super Bowl champions, and at this rate it’s looking like nothing can stand in their way.

American Football League:
Indianapolis Colts vs. New England Patriots
The AFC championship represents an intersection of the new and old. Rather than another Tom Brady versus Peyton Manning marquee matchup, Brady will square off against Manning’s old team and their fresh young quarterback, Andrew Luck.

The New England Patriots are perennial contenders in the NFL postseason, and once again they’ve rolled into the AFC championship as favourites. Brady is still playing at an elite level, Bill Belicheck is still coaching and the Pats are still winning. Same old story.

Last week the Baltimore Ravens threatened the Pats with the same late-season spunk they showcased in their Super Bowl season a few years ago, forcing Brady and company to work from behind until the bitter end.

Of course New England orchestrated a comeback. Of course it all fell on Brady’s shoulders as he was forced to carry the team in a game with the fewest rushing yards by a winning team in postseason history.

In a league without Aaron Rodgers or Houston’s J.J. Watt, tight-end Rob ‘Gronk’ Gronkowski would be a strong MVP candidate, and the Pats are looking to ride his and Brady’s backs going into their fourth consecutive AFC championship. Gronk is a beast, and his matchup with Indianapolis’ secondary will be one to watch.

Indy’s young quarterback Andrew Luck is constantly asked to do what players with Brady’s level of experience and maturity do. And the thing is, he does it flawlessly.

Luck is playing at such a high level — he led the league in passing yards and touchdowns this season — that it’s almost scary to think of how good he might be in a few years older.

Last week he outgunned Peyton Manning, the man he took the torch from in Indy. Now he faces off against Manning’s rival, Brady, a future Hall-of-Famer. At this rate, Luck’s accomplishments could surpass them both.

That being said, the Colts won in Denver last week thanks to a team effort. Luck is able to play so well thanks in part to his outstanding offensive line, and every part of the defence is coming into form at just the right time. Everything still rests on Luck’s shoulders, but he does have more support around him than ever before.

The fight for a Super Bowl berth is going to be tight. The Colts have evolved since losing 42–20 to the Patriots in week 11. Indy is streaking at the right time, and a dominant victory against the defending AFC champions is the perfect statement to make going into the title game. It’ll be close, but don’t be surprised if new upsets the old once again as Luck defeats Brady en route to Arizona.

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