NFL Conference Championship Picks: Last-Minute Expert Projections

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystJanuary 19, 2014

NFL Conference Championship Picks: Last-Minute Expert Projections

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    And then there were four.

    By the time Sunday, Jan. 19, comes to a close, the Halas and Hunt Trophies will have been awarded, and the participants for Super Bowl XLVIII will be known.

    Sunday's games have something for everyone.

    Like offense? Well, how about the 15th meeting between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, with the New England Patriots traveling to face the Denver Broncos.

    Defense more your speed? Then the NFC Championship Game is the game for you, with the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks meeting in the latest showdown between the heated rivals.

    As we prepare for what promises to be an exciting day of football, here's a glance around cyberspace at how pundits from several sites expect this season's conference title tilts to play out.

Experts Roll Call

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    Before we move on to the conference championship games, let's take a look at our panel of experts.

    ESPN: ESPN's picks are a combination of the selections of 13 experts. Those experts include writers like Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter, as well as former players such as Keyshawn Johnson and Tom Jackson.

    CBS Sports: The CBS Sports picks feature eight writers, including senior NFL columnist Pete Prisco and NFL insider Jason La Canfora.

    NFL Network: Melissa Stark, Shaun O'Hara and Sterling Sharpe of NFL GameDay First were late additions to this season's panel.

    Bleacher Report: I would be remiss not to include the prognostications of my esteemed colleagues here at Bleacher Report. This year's starting lineup features a combination of national lead writers and lead writers covering the NFL's divisions.

    There you have it: Over 35 NFL experts all offering their takes on this week's games.

    Last week, our experts accomplished a feat that had eluded them so far this season, sweeping the divisional round by correctly predicting the outcome of all four games.

    Last Week Consensus: 4-0

    Season Consensus: 155-84

AFC Championship Game: New England Patriots at Denver Broncos

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    When: 3 p.m. ET

    Where: Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver

    TV: CBS

    Point Spread: Denver -5.5 (per Vegas Insider)

    Sunday's first matchup features the AFC title game, with the New England Patriots traveling west to face the Denver Broncos.

    It's the eighth time that Tom Brady has led the Patriots this far in the playoffs, but this year has marked a return to days gone by for New England.

    With injuries chipping away at the receiving corps, gone are the pass-happy Patriots of years past. The Pats downed the Indianapolis Colts last week with a power running game that harkens back to early in Brady's career.

    For the Denver Broncos, on the other hand, it's been all about Peyton Manning and throwing the football.

    Manning is a shoo-in to win his fifth NFL MVP award this year. His 5,477 passing yards this season are an NFL record, as are his 55 touchdown passes.

    To say that the two quarterbacks are familiar with one another is an understatement. The pair have met 14 times over the course of their careers, with Brady holding a 10-4 edge.

    It also marks the third time the two have faced off with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. They split the first two meetings, in 2003 and 2006.

The Pick

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    Final Verdict: At first glance, Denver's 26-16 win over the New England Patriots might appear to be a relatively close game.

    It really wasn't.

    The Denver defense played one of its best games of the season, and Peyton Manning threw for 400 yards and two scores while leading Denver to scores on six straight possessions.

    If the Broncos play like that in two weeks, they're going to be tough to beat.


    ESPN: Broncos (9-4)

    CBS Sports: Broncos (5-3)

    NFL Network: Patriots (2-1)

    Bleacher Report: Broncos (7-5)

    Overall: Broncos (22-14)

    The panel has spoken, and in their opinion Tom Brady's winning streak against Peyton Manning is about to be halted at three.

    For Bleacher Report AFC East Lead Writer Erik Frenz, the disparity in weapons in the passing game is just too wide:

    This game will end just like nearly every Patriots game this season: with one team having a chance to win on the final possession. If the ball's in Manning's hands, the number of weapons is just insurmountable—not to mention, the Broncos have Julius Thomas this time around, where he was absent in the previous meeting. If it's Brady with a chance to win the game, this could be where the lack of weapons finally comes back to haunt the Patriots—additionally, they're dealing with the subtraction of Rob Gronkowski, who was a main factor in the regular-season showdown. Broncos march on to the Super Bowl.

    However, NFL National Lead Writer Mike Freeman is among the group who feels that Brady and the Patriots will once again get the best of the quarterback's longtime rival:

    Brady has won 10 of 14 matchups against Peyton Manning. He's won most of them with teams inferior to the teams Manning has quarterbacked. I think Brady gets it done again because he has the best running game maybe he's ever had and that Broncos defense isn't great. It's been good in the past month or so but can still be had. Brady takes advantage.

NFC Championship: San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks

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    When: 6:30 p.m. ET

    Where: CenturyLink Field, Seattle

    TV: Fox

    Point Spread: Seattle -3.5

    If the prevailing storyline in the AFC Championship Game is the quarterbacks, then Sunday afternoon's NFC title tilt is all about the defenses.

    Both the 49ers and Seahawks ranked in the top five in total defense this season. It's strength on strength.

    The similarities don't end there. The Seahawks and 49ers are mirror-images, from their brash head coaches and mobile quarterbacks to punishing ground games.

    Then there's the matter of the two clubs' mutual dislike for one another.

    San Francisco inside linebacker Patrick Willis told Matt Kawahara of The Sacramento Bee, “There’s no question there’s a lot of hostility between us.” Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman quipped, "There is no love lost, and there is no love found.”

    In recent years, the rivalry has been dominated by the home team. Since 2009, only once has the road team emerged with the win, a 19-17 victory by the 49ers back in 2011.

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    Read more here:

The Pick

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    ESPN: Seahawks (8-5)

    CBS Sports: Seahawks (6-2)

    NFL Network: 49ers (2-1)

    Bleacher Report: Seahawks (8-4)

    Overall: Seahawks (23-13)

    The gang at NFL Network once again went with the underdog, but just as with the AFC Championship, the majority of the panel feels the Seahawks will prevail at home.

    For Bleacher Report NFL National Lead Writer Ty Schalter, it's a matter of Seattle's dominance over the 49ers in the Emerald City the past two years.

    "The 49ers have been outscored, 71-16," Schalter wrote. "In their last two games at Seattle. It'll be closer than that, but the Seahawks will win."

    However, NFC South Lead Writer Knox Bardeen is among the baker's dozen picking the 49ers to reach their second straight Super Bowl:

    If there is a team that can go into Seattle and beat the Seahawks at home, it’s the San Francisco 49ers. Not only is the 49ers defense jelling, but its nasty, play-angry style is exactly what’s needed to disrupt the Seattle offense.