For those of you who are somewhat new to this blog (stumbling upon it in the last year), you might have been asking yourself, ‘what’s up with the head cheese?’ Here’s the thing, every year after the Pack’s last game, I take a little mental break. Let a week or so pass before I pick things up. It’s also the time of the year that I travel a lot for work, so, no more excuses.
By Monday I’ll post my thoughts on the Packers’ free agents, but for now I want to weigh in on what I think we’re in for this weekend, with two games providing endless storylines and a whole lot of anticipation.
Let’s start with Brady vs. Manning XIV in Denver. To me, the Patriots have been the Packers of the AFC, dealing with more than their share of devastating injuries. No they didn’t lose Brady, but all three levels of their defense lost their best player, the offense lost it’s top playmaker and they’ve had to dig deeper into the depth chart at some positions than the hole being dug in downtown Minneapolis right now.
That they’ve reached this spot is not monumental. The AFC was down this year, thanks to the dips by teams like the Steelers and the Super Bowl champion Ravens. It was hard for most of us to believe that teams like the Chiefs, Bengals and Colts were going to be January warriors. That left the Broncos and Patriots. And here they are.
This edition of Belichick’s group has morphed in recent weeks into a power running team. When Stevan Ridley fumbled away his chance and Shane Vereen couldn’t stay healthy, they turned to LaGarrette Blount the last games of the season. All he did was gain more than 280 yards rushing in those two games and score four times. We saw what he did against the Colts. The Broncos enter this game knowing they have to stop the run. If they don’t, Peyton stands on the sidelines and he can’t yell ‘Omaha!’ from the sidelines.
That said, look for the Patriots to exploit the Broncos’ defense through the air. The loss of cornerback Chris Harris cannot be overstated. Champ Bailey is running on fumes and Quentin Jammer is no longer Quentin Jammer. Brady will find mismatches and he will exploit them. Without a playmaking tight end, the Pats’ passing game is no longer electric. But Brady and his coordinator Josh McDaniels are savvy enough to find a way to move the ball through the air.
Needless to say, the Broncos’ hopes of delivering Peyton to his third Super Bowl rest on the arm and the nerves of Manning himself. I think his playoff record has been a bit overstated, I mean, he put his team in position last year and his secondary went brain dead. But make no mistake, Manning will feel the pressure of expectations.
He knows his time is running out. He’ll meet with doctors in a couple of months to see how his neck looks. Then the team will decide if it will pay him another $20 million to return in 2014. There’s no question, they’d be thrilled to write those checks, but if the prognosis is not good, this could be the end of the line for maybe the greatest QB ever.
And unless he can win two more games, he’d stare at a trophy case full of awards, but his brother would always wear more rings. I think Manning will play well on Sunday, well enough to win, but I think the Patriots are the grittier team, the tougher team up front on both sides of the ball. Brady’s won 10 of these 13 meetings. I think he gets it done again.
Patriots 30 Broncos 27
If the Packers couldn’t get here, this was the NFC’s dream matchup (OK, non-Packers will naturally disagree; I get that). The title game in the NFC is the polar opposite of the AFC’s. Instead of ‘Hall of Fame quarterbacks meet once again,’ we get: ‘elite, hard-nosed defenses square off for the third time.’ The Seahawks have gotten the better of this rivalry this season, dominating the Niners both times they played at Century Link.
Something tells me this one will be a little different. The Hawks’ air of invincibility at home evaporated with a week 16 loss to Arizona. Their offense has been sputtering along for the last month or so, with Russell Wilson looking less comfortable out their than we’re accustomed to seeing. Much of that can be pinned on an offensive line that has him running for his life. And when it comes to playmakers in the passing game, Seattle comes up short, considering Percy Harvin can’t be counted on to be that wildcard.
Both teams will try to pound it on the ground and let their defenses strut their stuff. This is a big spot for Colin Kaepernick, who understands what it’s like to play there and needs to play a whole lot better than his last two outings there. This time he has a healthy Michael Crabtree to go along with other physical receivers in Boldin and Davis. Seattle can take one or two of those guys away, but not all three. Can Kaepernick find the mismatches? That’s what this game will come down to.
My brain is leaning towards San Francisco this game, despite the mega home field advantage. The Niners are healthier than they’ve been all season and it feels like they’re going to be that rare team that loses the Super Bowl and returns the next year.
49ers 20 Seahawks 19
My preseason prediction was Seattle over Denver, so it hurts to go against that, but it feels like the road teams step up and deliver on what should be a historically great championship weekend. Anyone agree?
I’ll have much more on the title games, along with my partner Trent Tucker on “In the Zone,” Saturday morning at 8 on KFAN and kfan.com.