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Dublin: 22 °C Thursday 24 July, 2014

The Redzone: Championship Sunday too close to call

There’s very little to choose between the NFL’s final four.

Peyton Manning and Tom Brady will face off again this weekend with a Super Bowl spot on the line.
Peyton Manning and Tom Brady will face off again this weekend with a Super Bowl spot on the line.
Image: Steven Senne/AP/Press Association Images

#2 New England Patriots @ #1 Denver Broncos – Sunday, 8.00pm GMT

Preview: BILL BELICHICK WILL inevitably go down as one of the great coaches in NFL history and while he might not always come across as the most media-friendly of coaches — and why should he? — the three-time Super Bowl winner put the task facing his team this weekend perfectly when he said:

“Every team we play is good and every game is bigger than the next. We just have to try to find some way to come out on top next week. That’s really all it is.”

And for the Patriots, it’s a difficult and simple as that.

This is the second time these teams meet this season, with their week 12 match-up the very definition of a game of two halves. In that encounter, the Broncos jumped into a 24-0 half-time lead and the Patriots were booed off the field. However, New England engineered an incredible comeback and, with some luck, were cheered from the field after winning 34-31 in overtime.

It will be the 15th time a team quarterbacked by Tom Brady will face a team led by Peyton Manning with Brady currently leading 10-5. That said, the focus this weekend will most likely be on the run game of both teams and not the undoubted ability of their quarterbacks.

In the Divisional Round win over the Colts, the Patriots rushed for six touchdowns, one shy of the NFL postseason record of seven set by the 1940 Chicago Bears with LeGarrette Blount scoring four and Stevan Ridley adding two.

In their week 12 encounter, the Broncos rushed for a whopping 281 yards — an average of 6.0 yards per attempt — a repeat of which would probably see Denver into the Super Bowl if, and it’s a big if, their defence can stop the Patriots run game from establishing a footing which, in turn will open up a play action passing game.

The Broncos secondary ranked 28th against slot receivers this year and, in Julian Edelman, New England have a not-so-secret-weapon with over 100 receptions to his name, not to mention his status as one of the game’s most effective punt returners.

Fun fact to impress your friends:  If his team wins Sunday, Peyton Manning will become just the fourth quarterback to lead the league in passing and reach a Super Bowl in the same season (Dan Marino, 1984; Kurt Warner 2001; Tom Brady, 2007).

Line: Denver are 5.5 point favourites.

Verdict: I’ve picked New England to reach the Super Bowl but it’s so difficult to pick against Denver in current form. If Brady and Bellichick win this one, it would be their greatest ever achievement. Broncos by 3.

#San Francisco 49ers @ #1 Seattle Seahawks – Sunday, 11.30pm GMT

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Image: Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP/Press Association Images

As if this game wasn’t close enough to call already, it’s worth noting that six consecutive NFC Championship games have been decided by seven points or fewer, with three of the last four decided by less four points or less.

To make it even tougher to pick, these two couldn’t be separated during the regular season with each winning their home game. However, San Francisco were undoubtedly the more impressive of the two during the Divisional Round, scoring 17 unanswered points in the second half to beat the Panthers 23-10 in Carolina.

Thier defence continues to be led by Ahmad Brooks and, after 2.5 sacks last week, he will break the NFL record for most sacks in a postseason if he gets to Russell Wilson two or more times this weekend. The Seattle quarterback was brought down four times when these two last met in CenturyLink Field.

The Seahawks have a pretty mean defence of their own though and after leading the league in points allowed (231), total defense (273.6 yards per game) and pass defense (172.0 ypg) during the regular season, held an explosive New Orleans Saints offence to just 15 points last week.

This weekend, they’ll look to get the ball into the hands of Marshawn Lynch once more. After rushing for a franchise postseason record 140-yards last weekend, the running back will want to add to his five touchdowns and three 100-yard efforts in five playoff games.

For the visitors, Colin Kaepernick — 4-1 in the playoffs — will have to take better care of the football on third down than he has on previous visits to Seattle. The quarterback has completed just five of 16 passes for 35 yards and three interceptions, while the Seahawks defence added two sacks and the 12th man claimed two delay of game penalties on third down.

Fun fact to impress your friends: Between them, Seattle (eight) and San Francisco (five) have had 13 games this season decided by seven points or fewer.

Line: Seattle are 3.5 point favourites.

Verdict: The Seahawks have won six on the spin in the postseason at home and are 16-1 at CenturyLink Field over the past two years. Say what you like about the 12th man, but they make a difference. Seattle by 6+

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