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Seattle’s defense is the most feared unit on the Gridiron. Their opponent and division rival San Francisco has the tools and physical style of play to man up against Richard Sherman and gang. But will it be enough to protect the football against Seattle’s playmaking defense?
AFC/NFC Championship Round
Sunday, January 19
AFC Championship 3:00 PM ET – TV: CBS
New England Patriots (2) 13-4 @ Denver Broncos (1) 14-3
Let’s go back to the Nov. 24th matchup between these two, a game which New England fought their way back from a 24-0 deficit to win 34-31 at Foxboro, with a second half surge. Denver’s offensive game-plan of dialing up 37-rushing attempts to Knowshon Moreno gashed New England’s defense for 224-yards and a score, 48-attempts and 280-yards total as a team. Those statistical factors would tell you that Denver should’ve won that game on the road, but like always, key turnovers and extra possessions for New England always puts Bill Belichick’s team in the win column.
Tom Brady and the Patriots’ offense opened things up through the air on Denver’s secondary, as Brady was able to work things to his prime-targets in the slot to receiver Julian Edelman and tight end Rob Gronkowski, and running back Shane Vereen was also a key part of the New England’s comeback as a receiver. But this time around, there will be no Gronkowski.
Changes made offensively for New England’s approach since Gronkowski’s season-ending ACL/MCL injury – Without Gronkowski, Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels have made adjustments in their schemes and are using the tight ends, Matthew Mulligan and Michael Hoomanawanui as extra blockers that has influenced their newfound way of dissecting defenses on the ground. Hoomanawanui played a major role and laid some pancaking-blocks on Indianapolis’ edge-rusher Robert Mathis, especially on LeGarrette Blount’s 73-yard touchdown run, a run off right towards Indianapolis’ strong side of their defensive line where Mathis roams. And I’m expecting New England to have Hoomanawanui and Mulligan put a bulls-eye on edge-rushers Shaun Phillips, Malik Jackson and Robert Ayers, Denver’s three key assets of their defensive front.
No Chris Harris at cornerback spells trouble for Denver – When Harris left the game after tearing his Achilles in last week’s divisional playoff against San Diego, Denver’s pass-defense floundered. Quentin Jammer, who replaced Harris, got exploited, particularly in covering the slot against receivers Keenan Allen and Eddie Royal. Things don’t get easier for the “Harrisless” Denver secondary this weekend in dealing with New England’s dynamic-slot forces of Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. Throw Kenbrell Thompkins in the mix, who also worked out of the slot against Indianapolis. Don’t expect to see Jammer, Denver’s weakest-link at cornerback that Brady shredded last time to be placed on Edelman, but expect Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who left after the first half of the Week 12 battle due to injury to go one-on-one with Brady’s top target that finished the regular-season with 105-recpetions. Veteran cornerback Champ Bailey, a 12-time Pro Bowler was also missing for Denver in the regular-season meeting. Bailey is now healthy and will likely be matched up on Danny Amendola. Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson are the silent weapons in this matchup at Brady’s disposal that Bailey can find himself covering as well. But both Thompkins (Concussion) and Dobson (Foot) are both iffy for Sunday’s game. Thompkins hasn’t been a big part of New England’s aerial-attack since the halfway point of the regular-season, but if Dobson plays, he’s capable of getting open deep. Denver’s DB’s shouldn’t be sleeping on either one of them, with the exception of Belichick and McDaniels capable of throwing a screw-ball or two at any defense. Ultimately, Rodgers-Cromartie needs to limit Edelman from getting separation and force Brady to look towards his second, third and fourth reads.
My Verdict has been decided on Manning’s and Brady’s pre-snap reads and coaching – Coach Belichick is known for taking away his opponents strengths by formulating schemes and approaches that work best with his assistants. And I’m pretty sure he’s preaching the same concept for defensive coordinator Matt Patricia on not letting Peyton Manning beat them with his arm. So you keep your safeties on the double-high with a six-man box. That plan worked the first time against Manning by limiting him from connecting big to his dynamite-trio of receivers Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas on the outside, and Wes Welker in the slot. But Manning is able to read the favorable matchups one-on-one at the line of scrimmage before the snap and will turn to the running game, letting his stellar offensive lineman that features Manny Ramirez, Louis Vasquez, Orlando Franklin, Zane Beadles and Chris Clark, all fundamentally sound in executing their blocks, particularly on the interior that creates huge lanes between the tackles for Knowshon Moreno to run through. The same for Montee Ball when he gets his touches in his change-of-pace role for Denver’s running game. Moreno not only is an excellent runner and dangerous in the screen-game in the open field, he’s important in pass-protecting as well. Having him lined up in the backfield on spread-shotgun-formations will be vital on picking up the rush and off the play-fake on passing downs, especially if New England throws some blitzes at Manning. The Patriots’ offensive line is a sound group as well. The emergence of LeGarrette Blount running with authority and break-away speed has to be a concern for Denver’s defense. But Blount isn’t the only threat in New England’s backfield. Stevan Ridley has upped his game since being disciplined for fumbling the football and Shane Vereen is a deadly weapon that swings out of the backfield in multiple ways. New England likes to motion their receivers around before the snap with their spread alignments, creating confusion on the backend of opposing defenses. Sending Edelman and Amendola out on pivot, arrow and seam-routes generates lots of attention to circle in on both of Brady’s main-options. This is where Shane Vereen comes into play, who I see being the x-factor for New England’s offense on critical third downs as a pass-catcher in this matchup. New England’s defense will get their first cracks at Denver’s athletic tight end Julius Thomas, who missed the Week 12 showdown with a knee injury. Thomas does so much for Denver’s offense as an all-around tight end that can stretch the defense vertically and as a blocker. His presence in this contest can definitely help Denver open things up more through the air against New England’s secondary, as Manning will now have four valuable-targets instead of just three, last time out at Gillette Stadium. In the grand scheme of this, my gut feeling has me riding with the better coach and team that usually wins the turnover battle and capitalizes off of them, the Patriots.
Pick: Patriots 30, Broncos 27
NFC Championship 6:30 PM ET – TV: FOX
San Francisco 49ers (2) 14-4 @ Seattle Seahawks (1) 14-3
Major difference for the 49ers out in San Francisco than their Week 2 battle out in the pacific northwest; Seattle’s defense took Frank Gore out of the game on Sept. 15 at Century Link in their 29-3 blowout win over their division rivals. But out in the bay area, Gore and the Niners running game had much more success. Gore ran for 110-yards on 17-attempts, helping San Francisco edge out Seattle 19-17 in Week 14. More importantly, Colin Kaepernick protected the football much better. Seattle’s pass-rush forced Kaepernick to make ill-advised throws against Seattle’s press-coverage that disrupted San Francisco’s depleted receiving-core in their routes minus Michael Crabtree in their first meeting. But with Crabtree back and improved play from the offensive line, San Francisco’s offense may fare much better in trying to end their woes in a hostile environment.
The similarities in approach – Both teams do it with physicality, with a power running game, a ball-hawking speedy defense, special teams, quarterbacks that fit perfect within their offensive scheme off the zone-read option, ability to sling the ball down field, and improvise by using their extreme athletic-traits and pocket awareness that helps them extend plays by using their feet. The mentality is identical in lots of aspects, and they’re both coached well and prepared to handle situational football matters as disciplined football squads.
San Francisco’s receivers need to get separation – Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin are both physical and good route-running receivers that use their physicality on winning the battles at the snap against man-coverage. But doing that against the games most talented secondary will be essential for Colin Kaepernick to be able to sustain drives and move the chains on passing downs. You can’t expect to have a clean pocket against Seattle’s ferocious pass-rush. Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett create havoc on the edges. Red Bryant and Brandon Membrane do all the bench-press stuff on the interior that help free up the outside and close gaps against the run. It’s not just about Seattle’s tremendous talent on the back of their defense. It’s their technique on how they position themselves to make a play. Byron Maxwell has filled the void for the suspended Brandon Browner on the opposite side of arguably the games best corner Richard Sherman. Both cornerbacks lockup the outside on the oppositions best receivers, and I’m expecting Sherman to mostly be manned up on Kaepernick’s go-to-receiver Anquan Boldin and Maxwell to be placed on Michael Crabtree. Their press-alignments dictate the flow of the deep end of the secondary that sports the best one-two punch at safety, with Earl Thomas playing in single-high, roaming in center field, and Kam Chancellor that can jam talented tight ends up at the line. The pressing they use in their Cover 3 scheme funnels the outside towards Thomas in the middle and underneath defenders in the zone. If San Francisco is going to find any comfort throwing the football, Frank Gore needs a heavy-dose, 20-plus attempts and has to be a bull-dozer in gaining the extra yards against Seattle’s gang-swarming tackling unit to keep Kapernick upright by neutralizing Seattle’s front. Establishing the run could also help San Francisco use the play-action or miss-direction off the read-option that can buy enough time for tight end Vernon Davis to get behind Seattle’s linebackers that will be focused on the run.
My verdict has been decided on Marshawn Lynch dictating Seattle’s passing game, field position, special teams and turnovers – Like Seattle that has an area of the defense that’s better than the rest of the pack, so do the 49ers, with Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith, the best linebacker-core in the business. Since the 2000 season, the 49ers have allowed only five 100-yard rushing games. Three of those five 100-yard rushing games belong to Seattle’s power-back Marshawn Lynch. Seattle’s offense doesn’t present high-profile receivers, but Lynch is what the offense centralizes around that helps dictate Russell Wilson to be effective off the zone-read. And when the defense brings the safety down in the box to help stop the run, Wilson has speedy-receivers Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse that are threats to get open on the deep-ball. In their two meetings this year, San Francisco’s defense managed to keep Lynch under the century-mark. Lynch only averaged around 3.5-yards per carry in both games, but when the Seahawks got in the redzone, they were able to pound it in the endzone by calling Lynch’s number. He scored twice on rushing attempts and one receiving in the Week 2 contest, and once on a rushing attempt in Week 14. Although San Francisco’s inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman patrolling the middle is the more highlighted asset to San Francisco’s success on defense, outside Linebackers Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith are two factors in the shadows of this matchup that need to contain Wilson when working off the zone-read on the edges. However, Brooks is up a notch on Smith in terms of being versatile and used in different ways. Vic Fangio, San Francisco’s defensive coordinator will move Brooks around to help against the run. Russell Wilson and Seattle’s passing game has had their struggles recently, but when your quarterback isn’t doing anything spectacular through the air, this proves the game can be won in many different aspects within the confines of the game. Seattle protects the football, generates turnovers, and has a special teams unit that’s one of the vital successes of the team. Having an extreme plus of having home-field advantage played a huge part of me picking Seattle to make it to Jersey on February 2, and I’m sticking with it. You have to have the best of something, and Seattle has that defensively.
Pick: Seahawks 20, 49ers 17
You can follow Massimo Russo on Twitter @NFLMassimo and SilverandBlueReport.com @SilverBlueRpt