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NFL Playoffs: Forecasting the Conference Championships

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Twelve teams entered, yet only four remain. In the NFC, two predictable foes will square off as the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers were widely considered to be the best in the NFC, even before capturing the #1 and #2 seed, respectively. The AFC saw an upset last week, as Andrew Luck and the Colts dethroned last year’s AFC champion, the Denver Broncos. Now they head to Foxborough to take on the top-seeded New England Patriots.

The stakes are undoubtedly higher, and each team sees the Super Bowl within their reach. But each team carries question marks, some bigger than others.

Green Bay Packers at Seattle Seahawks

After back-to-back playoff losses to the San Francisco 49ers, the Packers were able to break through this year and move on to the NFC Championship for the first time since the 2010 season, when they ultimately went on to win Super Bowl XLV. The Seattle Seahawks, of course, return to the Championship game as reigning Super Bowl champs, and have the confidence knowing they beat the Packers 36-16 in Week 1 and are arguably playing their best football of the season right now.

Russell Wilson is a threat both through the air and on the ground, and it is his legs that should give the Green Bay defense the most concern. Their last two playoff losses came due to Colin Kaepernick’s ability to scramble out of the pocket for big gains. If the Packers can’t keep Wilson contained, he will make them pay.

Packers Question Mark: Obviously Aaron Rodgers’s health is going to be the big question mark for this team for as long as they stay alive, but another big question is how successful will moving Clay Matthews inside be at neutralizing Russell Wilson’s scrambling ability. Matthews has elite speed for a linebacker, and has been known to chase down plays from behind while playing in his usual OLB spot. If he can spy Wilson and track him down from sideline to sideline, it will be a key factor in forcing the Seahawks offense to trust their receiving corps in third-and-long situations.

Seahawks Question Mark: With rookie WR Paul Richardson going down last week with a torn ACL, the thin Seahawks receiving corps just got thinner. Can Seattle trust their pass catchers to make plays when needed? Doug Baldwin led the team with 66 catches and 825 yards, but he will be seeing coverage from either Tramon Williams or Sam Shields all day. Luke Willson has been able to step up of late, registering 68 yards and 1 TD last week, and the Seahawks need more of the same from him to keep the Packers defense honest.

Prediction: Green Bay 16, Seattle 24

I think Green Bay’s defense will show that it is much improved from years past. Matthews should be able to limit scrambling opportunities, especially if players like Datone Jones, Julius Peppers, and Mike Daniels can get a good push up front. But Seattle’s calling card is running the ball and playing lockdown defense. Marshawn Lynch should easily eclipse the 100 yard plateau. On the other side of the ball, Expect Richard Sherman to lock down half of the field while the pass rush takes advantage of a still-hampered Aaron Rodgers. Though the Packers have to at least try and test Sherman a couple of times, Rodgers has a habit of throwing to the open guy, period, and the league’s best corner won’t allow that to happen often. As a result, the Packers may often have to settle for field goals, when they’ll be needing touchdowns.

Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots

Indianapolis was able to beat a Broncos team led by an injured Peyton Manning. Manning hasn’t looked like himself for the past month, and the real reason is finally out—he’s been playing with a torn quadriceps muscle. Manning’s accuracy was off all game and for a team that wins by making big plays, they just weren’t connecting. On the opposite side Andrew Luck was merely above average (and certainly not at the level of the other three winners last weekend), throwing for 265 yards and a 2:2 TD:INT ratio for a QBR of 73.6.

New England, meanwhile, had to claw back twice from 14-point deficits. Bill Belichick had some new tricks up his sleeve, using Julian Edelman to throw a TD pass and lining up eligible receivers as ineligible on multiple occasions. They committed almost exclusively to the pass, throwing 51 times in Saturday’s win over the Ravens. They will likely balance that out far more this weekend against Indianapolis, but expect Belichick to find a weakness and continue to exploit it.

Colts Question Mark: Who’s stopping Gronk? Plain and simple, Rob Gronkowski represents the Patriots biggest offensive mismatch. On numerous occasions, Brady even tried forcing the ball to him, knowing that his 6’6″ tight end can go get it in traffic. The Colts pass defense played well against the Broncos, but Vontae Davis is their star, and he can’t cover tight ends. Someone will have to step up and make plays in the middle of that defense to force Brady to challenge Davis on the outside.

Patriots Question Mark: Who will carry the load on the ground? Last week Tom Brady led all Patriots “rushers” with 6 carries. That nearly equaled the total of the three New England tailbacks combined (7). Can the Patriots really survive with this type of offensive imbalance? The Patriots offensive line ranks 31st in pass blocking according to ProFootballFocus, so you have to figure Belichick will want to establish the running game early.

Prediction: Indianapolis 14, New England 27

The Colts have done well to get this far, but they simply don’t have the talent on the level of the Patriots, Seahawks, and Packers. Then again, we felt that way about them against Denver last week (though a healthy Manning probably would’ve made the difference). Luck has shown he’s willing to be aggressive, especially on deep balls (both interceptions functioned as short punts, in effect), but against Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, that could turn into some passes going the other way. New England, meanwhile, can afford to dictate the terms in this game. Tom Brady’s postseason performance is unrivaled, and he’ll look to continue taking advantage of substitution mismatches. In typical Patriot fashion, expect a big performance from an overlooked player, a la Danny Amendola last week. (Paging Jonas Gray, anyone?) The Patriots should be able to force enough mistakes out of the Colts to create some separation, and Indianapolis’ inexperience may do the rest from there. It’ll be close at first, but expect a two score game by the end of it.

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