NFL playoffs: 10 burning questions about AFC, NFC championship games
The NFL's best four teams play two games to determine out Super Bowl foes. Answering 10 basic questions provides some clarity about the AFC and NFC championship games.
The NFL playoffs reach the AFC and NFC title games with the best four teams standing. By answering 10 basic questions, we can see which players or which side of the ball may clear a path to the Super Bowl. It's time to predict who will have the best days and why.
Take a look, and let us know your predictions in the comments section below.
1: Which QB has the best passing day?
Let's eliminate Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick because of their style of play and defenses they're facing. That leaves AFC title-game QBs Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, who meet for the 15th time.
With Manning throwing for 55 touchdowns in the regular season and averaging 342 yards a game, he looks like a lock. However, when these two met Nov. 25, Brady threw for 344 and three touchdowns to Manning's 150 yards and two scores as New England rallied to win in overtime.
Against Bill Belichick's defenses, Manning has averaged 284 yards and two TDs in 17 games, so he's not a lock for the best passing day -- but I'm giving him the edge Sunday at home, where he's averaging 339 yards and 3.2 TDs this season.
Best passing day: Peyton Manning
2: Which RB has the best rushing day?
Moreno hasn't had 100 yards in his past six games, but he is up against the league's No. 30 run defense. Blount is on fire the past two games -- 48 carries for 355 yards and six touchdowns -- but he's on the road against the No. 7 rushing defense. Frank Gore has struggled against the Seahawks, and over his his past six outings vs. Seattle is averaging only 71 yards with only one rushing TD. Lynch against the 49ers is a different story. In his past six games vs. San Francisco, he has five TDs on the ground is averaging 87 ypg. It's a tough call, but I'll go with Blount, despite Denver's rugged run D.
Best rushing day: LeGarrette Blount
3: Which WR has the best receiving day?
Patriots wideout Julian Edelman is the most-targeted receiver left, and he has the most receptions. Denver's DeMaryius Thomas has the most receiving yards, touchdowns, and the most yards after catch of the remaining WRs. Teammate Wes Welker returned from a concussion last Sunday and faces his former team this week. Belichick may game plan to take Thomas away, which could open the door for Eric Decker.
The Niners' Michael Crabtree is heating up but has only one TD in his seven games since returning from injury, and we never should underestimate Anquan Boldin in a playoff game. But that stifling Seattle has been tough on Boldin, who had only had seven catches and no TDs in two regular-season meetings vs. Seattle. So I'm taking Thomas.
Best WR receiving day: Demaryius Thomas
4: Which TE has the best receiving day?
The Niners' dynamic Vernon Davis seems like an obvious choice here, but has only 15 receptions and one TD in his past six games vs. Seattle. Denver's Julius Thomas didn't play in the first game against the Patriots, but New England's safeties can struggle against tight ends. Since the Pats (without Rob Gronkowski) and Seahawks really don't have contenders here, so I'll go with Julius Thomas.
Best TE receiving day: Julius Thomas
5: Which DB is the biggest interception threat?
Seahawks corner Richard Sherman led the NFL with eight interceptions this season, and picked off Colin Kaepernick the last time the Niners visited Seattle. Tramaine Brock (49ers), Earl Thomas (Seahawks) and Ryan Logan (Pats) each had five regular-season INTs. New England's Aqib Talib had four and teammate Alphonzo Dennard had two off Indy's Andrew Luck last week. However, the four quarterbacks remaining simply don't throw interceptions. Look at these ratios of interceptions to attempts (Manning, one INT every 63 attempts; Brady, one every 57 attempts; Kaepernick, one every 53 attempts; Wilson, one every 47 attempts). I'll take Thomas.
Biggest INT threat: Earl Thomas
Which pass rusher has the most sacks?
Chandler Jones of the Patriots (11.5) has the most of the remaining pass rushers. Denver's Shaun Phillips is next with 10, and he added two vs. the Chargers in the divisional round. The Seahawks' Michael Bennett (8.5) and Cliff Avril (8), along with the Pats' Rob Ninkovich (8), are right behind the leaders. You can forget Jones and Ninkovich, or anyone from the Patriots, because Manning gets sacked once every 40 attempts. Among the other QBs, Brady is sacked once every 17 throws, Kaepernick once every 12 and Wilson once every 10. He missed five games because of rehab for substance abuse but my pick (even with Wilson's mobility and low sack ratio) is the Niners' Aldon Smith, who remains one of the game's most-feared pass rushers.
Pass rusher with most sacks: Aldon Smith
7: Which offense gets untracked?
The NFC game should be another low scoring game with Seattle giving up 14 points a game at home and the Niners are yielding 16 on the road. Denver averages 38 points at home, though that number drops to 28 ppg vs. the seven playoff teams they faced. The Patriots have scored 118 points in their past three games (39 ppg), so I'll go on a limb and take New England.
Best offense this weekend: Patriots
8: Which defense is most stout?
We can leave out the AFC teams. The winner here comes from the NFC, where the 49ers' D is hot right now. However, Seattle has limited San Francisco to 48 total points in their past four meetings). I'll go with the Seahawks.
Best defense this weekend: Seahawks
9: Which kicker boots the most FGs
The Pats' Stephen Gostkowski has the most attempts (41) of the remaining kickers. Denver scores too many touchdowns, so Matt Prater only has 26 attempts. Seattle's Steven Hauschka (35) and the Niners' Phil Dawson (36) are neck and neck. The defensive battle up in the Northwest figures to lead to more FG attempts, so I'll go with the home-field kicker, Hauschka.
Kicker with most FGs: Steven Hauschka
10: Which returner has the most impact?
The Patriots, Niners and Seahawks have not returned a punt or kickoff for a touchdown. Denver's dynamic Trindon Holliday has returned a punt and a kickoff for scores. Couple that with the Patriots' four penalties on special teams last week, and Holliday is the clear choice.
Most impactful kick returner: Trindon Holliday
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