Articles By Mark Ross

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Baseball players have often been referred to as the “boys of summer,” and as far as MLB goes, the use of the word “boy” may have never been more appropriate. Look around the majors and there is no lack of young impact players all over the diamond, a group that’s led by arguably the best player in the game.

Take last year’s All-Star Game, for example. The National League’s 38-man roster alone featured 12 players who were 25 years old or younger at the start of the 2013 season. The AL team had eight such players representing them at Citi Field in New York. And while some of these have since graduated from the ranks of the 25-and-under crowd, there are still plenty of candidates remaining when it comes to indentifying the cream of this crop.

Here’s Athlon Sports’ list of the top 25 players who will be 25 years or younger as of Opening Day (March 31).

1. Mike Trout, OF, Los Angeles Angels
Not only is Trout the best of the 25-and-under crop, he’s arguably the best player in the entire game – and he’s just 22 years old. The 2012 AL Rookie of the Year could already have two MVP awards to his credit if not the for the Triple Crown exploits of one Miguel Cabrera.

As it is, all Trout has done is average a .324-29-90 line along with 41 stolen bases, while making a number of highlight-reel plays in the outfield in his first two full seasons. Trout figures to have a lock on a starting All-Star spot for years to come, and there’s no telling where the ceiling is for this unique, one-of-a-kind talent. No wonder there is already speculation that Trout could up being baseball’s first $30 million (per season) man.

2. Bryce Harper, OF, Washington
Harper (above, right) and Trout will forever be linked, as they were the 2012 Rookies of the Year and are similar in that they are five-tool players. A two-time All-Star in his own right, Harper’s true potential won’t be known until he’s able to stay on the field consistently.

Injuries limited Harper to just 118 games last season, although his numbers were pretty much in line across the board with what he did in 139 games in his 2012 ROY campaign. Still just 21 years old, Harper is probably the closest thing there is to a Trout-like talent in the senior circuit. Now it’s just a matter of the Nationals’ outfielder producing Trout-like numbers.

3. Craig Kimbrel, P, Atlanta
Kimbrel and the Braves made news recently when he signed a four-year, $42 million contract. While that’s a lot of money for a pitcher who rarely goes more than an inning, it could end up being a bargain if the 25-year-old can maintain his level of performance.

Kimbrel leads the majors with 138 saves since 2011, while posting ridiculous numbers across the board. Among pitchers with 200 innings, Kimbrel is No. 1 in ERA (1.48), WHIP (0.87), opponents’ batting average (.158) and strikeouts per nine innings (14.9) over the last three seasons. For his career, Kimbrel has struck out 381 batters in 227 1/3 innings or more than three times as many hits (123) as he’s allowed.

4. Freddie Freeman, 1B, Atlanta
The Braves’ future seems incredibly bright as the team is well represented on this list. Prior to Kimbrel’s new contract, Freeman inked his own new deal, an eight-year, $135 million pact that is the richest in franchise history. That’s what happens when you make your first All-Star team and finish fifth in the NL MVP voting after batting .319 with 23 home runs and 109 RBIs.

Whether he’s able to match or even surpass those numbers on a consistent basis remains to be seen, but what is clear is that the 24-year-old will be manning first base for the Braves for many years to come.

5. Madison Bumgarner, P, San Francisco
In a rotation that included two Cy Young winners that helped win two World Series in a four-year span, it would have been easy for Bumgarner to get lost in the shuffle. Instead, all the 24-year-old lefty has done is establish himself as one of the best southpaws in the game.

He has won 13 or more games three seasons in a row and last season posted a career-best 2.77 ERA with 199 strikeouts in 201 1/3 innings while earning his first All-Star game invitation. If the Giants are going to bounce back from last season’s disappointing 76-86 showing, don’t be surprised to see Bumgarner leading the way on the mound.

6. Stephen Strasburg, P, Washington
There’s no denying Strasburg’s immense talent, but this season is a critical one for the 2009 No. 1 overall pick who will turn 26 in late July. After going 15-6 with a 3.16 ERA in his innings-capped 2012 season, his first back after Tommy John surgery, Strasburg slipped to just 8-9 last season. On top of that, he went under the knife yet again to have bone chips removed from his elbow this past October.

The upside with Strasburg comes in the form of his 3.00 ERA in 2013 along with more strikeouts (191) than innings pitched (183). Still, if the Nationals are to take that next step and become a legitimate NL pennant contender, Strasburg needs to develop into that 20-win, 200-innings workhorse ace everyone thought he would be when he made his debut back in 2010.

7. Yasiel Puig, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers
The newest Cuban sensation, Puig made quite the splash last season when he debuted in early June. The epitome of a first-pitch swinger, Puig capitalized on the element of surprise, as he batted .436 with seven home runs and 16 RBIs in his first 26 games. While his plate discipline (36 BB, 97 SO in 382 AB) is a work in progress, there’s no disputing the 23-year-old’s all-around talent or the impact he can have on a team.

Puig was one of the catalysts behind the Dodgers’ turnaround last season, as his .319-19-42 line with 11 stolen bases in just 104 games resulted in a runner-up finish in the NL Rookie of the Year voting for the NL West champs. The key for Puig moving forward is to continue to get better at the plate, with his defense and on the base paths and applying this acquired wisdom and maturity to the decisions he makes off of the field as well.

8. Manny Machado, 3B, Baltimore
As last season wound down, no one seemed to be primed for a breakout 2014 campaign than Machado. Not only did he make his first All-Star team, he was putting up MVP-caliber numbers at the plate (.284-14-71) and providing Gold Glove-winning defense at third base.

Unfortunately, Machado suffered a serious knee injury running the bases in Tampa Bay in the last week of the season, resulting in reconstructive surgery and plenty of uncertainty regarding when he will able to return to the field this season. The hope is that Machado will fully recover and pick up right where he left off, but either way the future still seems incredibly bright for this 21-year-old.

9. Jose Fernandez, P, Miami
The reigning NL Rookie of the Year, in just one season Fernandez has inserted himself into the conversation of best pitchers in the game, while also replacing slugging teammate Giancarlo Stanton (see below), as the gem of the Martins’ franchise. After finishing third in the NL Cy Young voting with a 12-6 record, 2.19 ERA (2nd in NL) and 0.98 WHIP (3rd), it appears the only things that could hold back this 21-year-old this season are a potential innings cap and the lack of run support from a lackluster Marlins offense. 

10. Chris Sale, P, Chicago White Sox
The unorthodox delivery combined with his lanky (6-6, 180) build are reason for concern, but Sale’s results on the mound speak for themselves. Although he went just 11-14 last season, the White Sox’ left-handed ace made his second straight All-Star team as he posted a 3.07 ERA with 226 strikeouts in 214 1/3 innings and led the AL with four complete games. And durability questions aside, what hitters should really be concerned about is the fact that Sale, who will turn 25 just prior to Opening Day, cut down on his walks (46) last season even though both his innings and strikeouts went up compared to 2012.

11. Giancarlo Stanton, OF, Miami
Considering Stanton has averaged nearly 30 home runs per season over his first four, the first thought may be why isn’t he higher on this list? The simple answer to that query is that the jury is still very much out on the 24-year-old slugger, who has had a hard time staying on the field over the last two seasons. This also has led to a slip in his production.

The sky was seemingly the limit after Stanton bashed 34 home runs in 150 games as a raw 21-year-old in 2011. And while he has knocked a total of 61 more balls out of the park over the last two seasons, he’s played in just 239 total games during that same span and saw his batting average tumble to just .249 last season with only 62 RBIs. Still any player that hits a home run every 15 at-bats is someone who needs to be feared every time they step up to the plate.

12. Elvis Andrus, SS, Texas
Entering his sixth full season, Andrus finally turned 25 last August. So while this will be his last time mentioned in this vein, it shouldn’t overshadow the All-Star-caliber player he has been since making his debut for the Rangers in 2009. At the plate, Andrus has consistently been a .270 hitter good for more than 80 runs and more than 30 steals each season. He’s also driven in more than 60 in each of his last three campaigns and has become a reliable, and at times slick-fielding, shortstop.

13. Michael Wacha, P, St. Louis
Wacha pitched in just 15 games for the Cardinals during the regular season, but it was his five appearances in the postseason that have Redbird Nation and the rest of baseball buzzing. The 22-year-old went 4-1 in five postseason starts, posting a 2.64 ERA and claimed NLCS MVP honors after beating the Dodgers in two scoreless starts.

Wacha then went on to beat the Red Sox in Boston in Game 2 of the World Series before getting knocked around a little in the decisive Game 6. Still, in less than a span of two months, Wacha went from being just one of the Cardinals’ impressive crop of young pitchers to one of the most-talked about hurlers in the entire game. All eyes will be on this tall (6-6) Texan whenever he takes the mound this season.

14. Eric Hosmer, 1B, Kansas City
Believed to be one of the top prospects in the majors a few seasons ago, Hosmer’s star dulled somewhat following a disappointing 2012 campaign in which he batted just .232. After another slow start last season, Hosmer caught fire in June, as he batted .318 with 16 home runs and 63 RBIs over the last four months. Disciplined enough to take a walk (51 compared to 100 SO in 623 AB) and athletic enough to steal a base (11 with 4 CS), while providing Gold Glove defense at first base, the 24-year-old finally appears ready to become the Royals’ next superstar.

15. Wil Myers, OF, Tampa Bay
Myers was the centerpiece of the December 2012 trade that sent James Shields and others from the Rays to the Royals, and it looks like a deal that Tampa Bay will be glad they ended up making. All Myers did after getting called up on June 18 last season was win AL Rookie of the Year honors even though he played roughly half a season. In just 88 games, Myers posted an impressive .293-13-53 line, so there’s no telling what this 23-year-old will do with a full season’s worth of at-bats. 

16. Jean Segura, SS, Milwaukee
A first-time All-Star last season, Segura finished second in the NL in both stolen bases (44) and triples (10), while hitting .294 with 74 runs scored for the Brewers. Fairly reliable at shortstop (15 errors), Segura is the ideal table-setter for Carlos Gomez, Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez. If there’s any weak spot to the soon-to-be 24-year-old’s game, it’s getting on base consistently. His .329 on-base percentage (25 BB in 588 AB) is something the Brewers would like to see improve in 2014, especially with last season’s leadoff hitter (Norichika Aoki) now in Kansas City.

17. Starling Marte, OF, Pittsburgh
The strikeouts (138 in 510 AB) are certainly concerning, but there’s nothing wrong with the 83 runs and 41 stolen bases Marte contributed last season in helping the Pirates break their record streak of 20 consecutive losing campaigns. Add in the assortment of extra-base hits (26 2B, 10 3B, 12 HR) and a good glove in left field and the 25-year-old from the Dominican teams with reigning NL MVP Andrew McCutchen to give the Pirates a formidable one-two punch in their outfield.

18. Andrelton Simmons, SS, Atlanta
The NL Gold Glove winner at shortstop last season and the league leader in defensive WAR, there’s no debate regarding Simmons’ value in the field. The next step for the 24-year-old is to continue his development at the plate. While his batting averaged dropped from .289 in 2012 (49 games played) to .248 last season, Simmons displayed an increased ability to drive the ball (17 HR, 27 2B) while posting a respectable 40:55 walk-to-strikeout ratio. And just like teammates Kimbrel and Freeman, Simmons signed his own long-term contract (seven years, $58 million) this month, cementing his status as one of the Braves' key building blocks for the future.

19. Jason Heyward, OF, Atlanta
The fourth Brave on this list, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Heyward eclipse his teammates when it comes to eventual stardom. The 24-year-old has already displayed his immense all-around talent and potential, as evidenced by a 2012 season in which he batted .269 with 27 home runs, 82 RBIs, 93 runs scored and 21 stolen bases.

Unfortunately, that breakthrough season has been sandwiched by two disappointing, injury-plagued campaigns, including last season’s 104-game showing in which he hit just .254 with 14 home runs, 38 RBIs and only four steals. Heyward did seem to find a home as the Braves’ leadoff hitter late last season, and there’s still plenty of time for the Georgia native to emerge as a legitimate superstar for his hometown team.

20. Trevor Rosenthal, P, St. Louis
Rosenthal saved more games in the postseason (four) than he did in the regular season (three) and did so in dominating fashion. The 23-year-old didn’t allow a run in 11 2/3 October innings last season and has yet to allow one in 20 1/3 career playoff frames.

Rosenthal has expressed a desire to join the starting rotation, but the Adam Wainwright-esque transition will more than likely wait at least one more season as manager Mike Matheny understandably doesn’t want to remove Rosenthal’s ability to miss bats (126 strikeouts in 87 total innings last season) from the closer role.

21. Matt Moore, P, Tampa Bay
Moore led the Rays with 17 wins last season, which is pretty impressive considering Tampa’s rotation also features a former Cy Young (David Price) and AL Rookie of the Year (Jeremy Hellickson) winner. Moore went 17-4 in his second full season in the majors, lowering his ERA from 3.81 to 3.29 in the process.

A power arm, the strikeouts (143 in 150 1/3 innnings) should always be there, but the real key to Moore’s development and maturation on the mound will be harnessing his control (76 BB). If he can figure that out, the Rays may end up with yet another award winner in their rotation.

22. Shelby Miller, P, St. Louis
After winning a spot in the starting rotation out of spring training last season, all Miller did was win 19 games with a 3.06 ERA for the eventual NL champs. The problem for Miller is that this was mostly forgotten come October, as he pitched a grand total of one inning in the postseason and watched his teammate, Michael Wacha, claim the mantle of the Cardinals’ best young pitcher in the process.

However, don’t count out Miller this season as the 23-year-old Texan is no doubt just waiting for the opportunity to not only silence any would-be critics, but show just how well-armed the Cardinals are as they seek to defend their NL Central and league titles.

23. Jose Altuve, 2B, Houston
Altuve didn’t repeat his All-Star selection last season, but he still provided quite a bit of production, especially considering he stands just 5-5. Don’t let his diminutive size fool you, however, as he’s hit more than 30 doubles and stolen more than 30 bases in each of his last two seasons. He’s also managed to bat a combined .286 during the same span. A good glove at second, the 23-year-old Venezuelan still has plenty of room for growth, especially when it comes to drawing a walk (32 in 626 AB in 2013).

24. Wilin Rosario, C, Colorado
No catcher has more home runs in the past two seasons than Rosario, who has slugged 49 in 238 games. While playing his home games in Coors Field probably helps, Rosario’s career home-away splits in the power department (29:23) aren’t that different. A .292 hitter last season, the just-turned 25-year-old backstop needs to improve his plate discipline (career 42:228 BB:SO ratio) if he wants to fully realize his potential.

25. Starlin Castro, SS, Chicago Cubs
This could potentially be a make-or-break season for Castro, which is hard to fathom considering he’ll turn 24 years old a week before Opening Day. But that’s where the two-time All-Star finds himself following an all-around disappointing 2013 campaign and with top prospect Javier Baez breathing down his neck.

The good news for Castro is that he gets a clean slate with new manager Rick Renteria now running the club and he also has financial security (signed through 2019). Now it’s just a matter of the talented Dominican rediscovering the form that made him such a productive hitter earlier in his career and continuing his development on the field as it relates to both his glove (22 errors last season) and on the base paths (just 9 SB in 2013).

Honorable Mention

Matt Harvey, P, New York Mets
Harvey is most likely going to miss the entire 2014 season as he recovers from Tommy John surgery, but he still deserves to be recognized for this exercise. The NL All-Star Game starter at just 24 years old, Harvey finished tied for fourth in the Cy Young voting even though he made his last appearance on the mound in late August.

A nine-game winner in 2013, Harvey’s value went well beyond the win-loss column, as he posted a 2.27 ERA and struck out 191 batters with just 31 walks in 178 1/3 innings. The Mets will clearly miss Harvey this season, as will baseball in general, but the hope is that he will be able to pick up where he left off when he does finally return to the mound.

Best of the rest (alphabetical order)
Brandon Belt, 1B, San Francisco
Xander Bogaerts, 3B/SS, Boston
Gerrit Cole, P, Pittsburgh
Patrick Corbin, P, Arizona
Sonny Gray, P, Oakland
Jedd Gyorko, 2B/3B, San Diego
Brett Lawrie, 2B/3B, Toronto
Sal Perez, C, Kansas City
Jurickson Profar, 2B/SS, Texas
Addison Reed, P, Arizona
Anthony Rizzo, 1B, Chicago Cubs
Julio Teheran, P, Atlanta
Chris Tillman, P, Baltimore

On deck? (alphabetical order)
Chris Archer, P, Tampa Bay
Oswaldo Arcia, OF, Minnesota
Nolan Arenado, 3B, Colorado
Jackie Bradley, Jr., OF, Boston
Nick Castellanos, OF, Detroit
Tony Cingrani, P, Cincinnati
Avisail Garcia, OF, Chicago White Sox
Billy Hamilton, OF, Cincinnati
Will Middlebrooks, 3B, Boston
Anthony Rendon, 2B/3B, Washington
Danny Salazar, P, Cleveland
George Springer, OF, Houston
Oscar Taveras, OF, St. Louis
Taijuan Walker, P, Seattle
Zack Wheeler, P, New York Mets
Christian Yelich, OF, Miami Marlins

Teaser:
25 Best Baseball Players 25 and Under
Post date: Monday, February 24, 2014 - 11:00
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The Seattle Seahawks are champions of the NFL and while the celebration in the Pacific Northwest is just getting started, the focus elsewhere across the league has already shifted to next season. As far as the 2014 campaign goes, one thing is for certain: the weather will not be an issue whatsoever when the Super Bowl returns to Glendale, Ariz., next February.

So with that settled, the question then becomes which two teams will meet on the field at University of Phoenix Stadium on Feb. 1, 2015 in Super Bowl XLIX? With the start of free agency still a month away and the draft a little farther down the road; here is an early look at the contenders.

The Reigning Champions

Seattle Seahawks
2013 Record: 13-3 (NFC West, NFC, Super Bowl XLVIII champions)

To the victor go the spoils, which is why the Seahawks understandably top this list. The youngest team to ever win a Super Bowl, according to ProFootballReference.com, Pete Carroll’s bunch appears well positioned for a shot at making history next season. Several of the team’s core players are signed, but there is definitely work to be done this offseason with numerous key free agents and others on the verge of significant pay raises.

Similar to Baltimore after its Super Bowl victory in 2013, don’t be surprised if Seattle’s roster undergoes some rather significant changes. The Seahawks also don’t have a third-round pick in the upcoming draft thanks to the Percy Harvin trade with Minnesota, but this front office has done an excellent job in finding impact players in the later rounds. There’s no reason to expect this team to take a major step backwards next season, but the road back to the Super Bowl will be anything but easy.

The Hated Division Rival

San Francisco 49ers
2013 Record: 12-4 (NFC Wild Card berth, lost to Seattle in NFC Championship Game)

A couple of plays and lucky bounces away from a repeat trip to the Super Bowl, the 49ers are not that far behind the defending champions. Just like Seattle, this team is young and has even more of its core signed to long-term deals. There are decisions to be made with wide receiver Anquan Boldin and several members of the secondary free agents, but the team has some cap space to work with.

Quarterback Colin Kaepernick also appears headed for a lucrative new contract, but Jim Harbaugh and the front office have a treasure trove of 12 draft picks at their disposal, including a total of five in the first three rounds. The only negative for San Francisco was the serious knee injury that All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman suffered in the NFC Championship Game loss. He recently underwent surgery and there’s a chance he won’t be ready to go by Week 1 this fall.

The Runner-ups

Denver Broncos
2013 Record: 13-3 (AFC West, AFC champions, lost to Seattle in Super Bowl XLVIII)

The sting of the 43-8 drubbing by Seattle in the Super Bowl will no doubt linger, but as long as Peyton Manning’s surgically repaired neck checks out, Denver could find itself in the very same position next February. Keep in mind that this was a team that played without its All-Pro left tackle the entire season and was missing its All-Pro linebacker, as well as a starting defensive tackle and cornerback in the Super Bowl.

John Elway has some work to do with this roster, with running back Knowshon Moreno, wide receiver Eric Decker, linebackers Wesley Woodyard and Shaun Phillips and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie topping a deep group of pending free agents, but there should be enough resources available, as well as motivation, to find a way to keep the band together for another championship run. Also worth pointing out, the AFC West and NFC West play each other in crossover action next season with the Broncos set to pay a visit to Seattle, possibly as early as Week 1. Can you say “must-see TV?”

The Other Contenders
(in alphabetical order)

Carolina Panthers
2013 Record: 12-4 (NFC South champions, lost to San Francisco in NFC Divisional Round)

This young team took a giant leap forward in 2013, but this offseason will go a long ways to determining if the Panthers are going to stick around or be a one-hit wonder. Key pieces like defensive end Greg Hardy, tight end Greg Olsen, offensive lineman Jordan Gross, and defensive backs Captain Munnerlyn and Mike Mitchell headline the free agents and this offense desperately needs help at wide receiver. With the right moves, Carolina could take the next step this fall, but there’s also a chance the Panthers could fall back to the rest of the pack in the NFC South.

Cincinnati Bengals
2013 Record: 11-5 (AFC South champions, lost to San Diego in AFC Wild Card Game)

A promising regular season for the Bengals ended with a disappointing thud in the home Wild Card game loss to San Diego. Couple that with the departure of both coordinators and Marvin Lewis’ team enters an offseason of transition. That said, this was the No. 3 defense in the NFL and that was without All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins for about half of the season. Cincinnati has plenty of cap space to build for both the present and the future, as it looks to reinforce weak areas. Andy Dalton’s maturation as a quarterback could be the difference between another playoff appearance and a potential deep postseason run.

Green Bay Packers
2013 Record: 8-7-1 (NFC North champions, lost to San Francisco in NFC Wild Card Game)

As long as Aaron Rodgers is upright, this team will be a contender. But we saw what happened to the Packers when he got hurt in Week 9 – they went 2-4-1 without him under center. The emergence of Offensive Rookie of the Year Eddie Lacy is important, but the NFL’s 25th-ranked defense must be addressed. There also are some concerns regarding the offensive line and several free agents along the defensive line and in the secondary. Green Bay has room to improve, and will need to do so or run the risk of Chicago and/or Detroit possibly overtaking them in the NFC North.

New England Patriots
2013 Record: 12-4 (AFC East champions, lost to Denver in AFC Championship Game)

As long as Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are together, the Patriots will be right there in the thick of things in the AFC. Especially considering the rest of their division is full of teams in different stages of rebuilding. That said, Brady will be 37 years old when next season opens and it’s no stretch to say New England’s window of opportunity may be closing. There are plenty of free agents on this roster, All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski will be coming back from yet another serious injury that required surgery, cap space is an issue and the Patriots don’t have their usual stash of draft picks to work with. New England should still be the team to beat in the AFC East, but its margin for error is shrinking.

New Orleans Saints
2013 Record: 11-5 (NFC Wild Card berth, lost to Seattle in NFC Divisional Round)

Similar to New England, New Orleans will be a team to be reckoned with as along as Sean Payton and Drew Brees are there tormenting opposing defenses. The Saints finished just behind Carolina in the NFC South and after beating Philadelphia in the Wild Card game on the road, hung tough in Seattle before falling to the eventual Super Bowl champs. New defensive coordinator Rob Ryan orchestrated a remarkable turnaround on that side of the ball and the challenge now is to keep enough of the pieces together. New Orleans is projected to be well over the cap, and re-signing tight end Jimmy Graham is the No. 1 offseason priority. It will take some work, but with shrewd moves in free agency and the draft, the Saints should be right in the thick of things again in 2014.

The Wild, Wild NFC West

Arizona Cardinals
2013 Record: 10-6 (3rd in NFC West)

The only 10-win team to not make the playoffs; the Cardinals can’t be taken too lightly even though they are in the same division as the past two NFC champions. All-Pro wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald restructured his contract in hopes of re-signing key free agents like linebacker Karlos Dansby, as Arizona finished sixth in the NFL in defense in the regular season. The success of this team next season will more than likely come down to the offense, as more is needed out of the running game and the tight end position. Quarterback Carson Palmer is 34 years old, so Bruce Arians and the front office also need to start thinking about the future of this position, especially with so many promising options in this year’s draft.

St. Louis Rams
2013 Record: 7-9 (4th in NFC West)

In another division, the Rams could be considered the frontrunner, but instead they find themselves battling in the league’s toughest four-team grouping. The defense has the potential to be just as good as its divisional brethren, which is saying something, but the offense has a long ways to go. First Jeff Fisher and the front office have to decide whether they are committed to quarterback Sam Bradford, who is returning from a torn ACL, long term or if they need to use an early pick on another quarterback. The good news is the team has a bevy of selections in May’s draft, including the No. 2 overall pick thanks to the 2012 trade with Washington and the Redskins’ subsequent collapse (3-13) this season. The offensive line has some holes, but if running back Zac Stacy and wide receiver Tavon Austin and some others continue to develop, this offense, and likewise the Rams, could surprise.

Other Teams to Watch
(in alphabetical order)

Atlanta Falcons
2013 Record: 4-12 (4th in NFC South)

From hosting the NFC Championship Game just a season ago to a 4-12 train wreck, it’s been quite the roller-coaster ride for Mike Smith and the Falcons. Injuries absolutely decimated this team on both sides of the ball and there will be changes this offseason. However, with quarterback Matt Ryan, running back Steven Jackson and wide receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White, Atlanta has plenty of offensive firepower to work with. Future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez will be tough to replace at tight end, but the focus needs to be on beefing up the offensive line and reinforcing the defense. The Falcons figure to be active in free agency and it’s not out of the question that they pull off a Carolina-esque turnaround in 2014.

Houston Texans
2013 Record: 2-14 (4th in AFC South)

Everything that could possibly go wrong for the Texans this season did and as a result they have a new head coach in Bill O’Brien and the first pick in May’s draft. Quarterback is obviously a priority and O’Brien and the front office will identify their guy and target him in the draft. Running back Ben Tate is a free agent and will probably cash in elsewhere, but as long as Arian Foster returns healthy, the backfield shouldn’t be an issue. Houston doesn’t have much cap space to work with, but it’s not like O’Brien is starting completely over from scratch either. Depending on what happens at quarterback, the Texans could be next season’s version of Kansas City – go from being the worst team in the NFL to a playoff participant.

Indianapolis Colts
2013 Record: 11-5 (AFC South champions, lost to New England in AFC Divisional Round)

The defending AFC South champions have one of the best young quarterbacks in the game and some talented pass-catchers. However, the backfield is a mess and the offensive line needs some attention. The good news is the Colts are projected to have a lot (as in $33 million) of cap space to work with, but the team also has a lot of pending free agents on the roster. Indianapolis can’t count on much help coming from this draft either, as the Trent Richardson trade with Cleveland cost the Colts their first-round pick. In fact, as of right now, Indianapolis has just four picks.

Philadelphia Eagles
2013 Record: 10-6 (NFC East champions, lost to New Orleans in NFC Wild Card Game)

Even though the Eagles lost to the Saints at home in the NFC Wild Card game, Chip Kelly’s first season in the NFL couldn’t have gone much better. Now the question becomes what does he and his team have in mind for an encore? Philadelphia appears to be well positioned considering the current state of affairs that exists with its divisional foes. Washington has a new coaching staff, Dallas has salary cap issues galore and the New York Giants are a team in transition. Offensively, the Eagles are pretty much set with Pro Bowl-caliber skill players and an outstanding offensive line in place. Wide receivers Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin, who missed all of last season, are both free agents, but otherwise the biggest area of concern appears to be in the secondary. Don’t be surprised if defense is the focus in free agency and the draft.

Teaser:
Early Super Bowl Favorites for the 2014 NFL Season
Post date: Thursday, February 6, 2014 - 15:00
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It’s February and while the groundhog may have seen his shadow, one of the best indicators that winter is coming to an end and that is baseball is just around the corner. To that end, spring training will commence in full in Florida and Arizona in less than two weeks with MLB's official Opening Day slated for March 31. The Arizona Diamondbacks and Los Angeles Dodgers get a head start on everyone because of the two-game series they will play in Sydney, Australia, on March 22-23 to open their 2014 campaigns.

Elsewhere, the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox will reunite on Feb. 15 as one of the 15 teams in Florida, otherwise known as the Grapefruit League. Out west, the Cactus League is home to the other 15 teams who gather in the greater Phoenix metropolitan area to prepare for the upcoming 162-game regular season, and hopefully a few more games after that.

To help get you ready for the upcoming season, Athlon Sports' 2014 MLB Preview magazine is available on newsstands and to order online now. Starting with 21 unique covers to choose from, Athlon covers the diamond and circles the bases with enough in-depth preseason analysis, predictions and other information to satisfy fans of the national pastime from the Bronx to the Bay and everywhere in between.

This year's edition includes features on "14 Things to Watch in 2014," as well as a look back on the 2004 MLB Draft, the newest crop of Cuban stars, the unwritten rules of baseball etiquette and much more. As always, there's team-by-team preview of all 30 clubs, with rosters, stats and schedules as well as a look at each club's farm system and our predictions for how this season will shake out, both for the regular and postseason. Athlon Sports' 2014 MLB Preview is the most complete preseason publication available today. Order your copy now! 

Below are the reporting dates and locations for 2014 spring training for all 30 MLB teams:

TeamLocationPitchers & CatchersPosition Players
Reporting DateFirst WorkoutReporting DateFirst Workout
Arizona DiamondbacksScottsdale, AZFeb. 6Feb. 7Feb. 11Feb. 12
Atlanta BravesLake Buena Vista, FLFeb. 13Feb. 14Feb. 18Feb. 19
Baltimore OriolesSarasota, FLFeb. 13Feb. 14Feb. 18Feb. 19
Boston Red SoxLee County, FLFeb. 15Feb. 17Feb. 18Feb. 20
Chicago CubsMesa, AZFeb. 13Feb. 14Feb. 18Feb. 19
Chicago White SoxGlendale, AZFeb. 15Feb. 15Feb. 20Feb. 20
Cincinnati RedsGoodyear, AZFeb. 14Feb. 14Feb. 19Feb. 19
Cleveland IndiansGoodyear, AZFeb. 11Feb. 13Feb. 15Feb. 17
Colorado RockiesScottsdale, AZFeb. 15Feb. 17Feb. 21Feb. 23
Detroit TigersLakeland, FLFeb. 13Feb. 14Feb. 17Feb. 18
Houston AstrosKissimmee, FLFeb. 15Feb. 16Feb. 19Feb. 20
Kansas City RoyalsSurprise, AZFeb. 14Feb. 15Feb. 19Feb. 20
Los Angeles AngelsTempe, AZFeb. 13Feb. 14Feb. 18Feb. 19
Los Angeles DodgersGlendale, AZFeb. 8Feb. 9Feb. 13Feb. 14
Miami MarlinsJupiter, FLFeb. 16Feb. 16Feb. 20Feb. 22
Milwaukee BrewersPhoenix, AZFeb. 15Feb. 17Feb. 21Feb. 22
Minnesota TwinsFort Myers, FLFeb. 16Feb. 17Feb. 21Feb. 22
New York MetsPort St. Lucie, FLFeb. 15Feb. 17Feb. 20Feb. 20
New York YankeesTampa, FLFeb. 14Feb. 14Feb. 19Feb. 20
Oakland A'sPhoenix, AZFeb. 14Feb. 15Feb. 19Feb. 20
Philadelphia PhilliesClearwater, FLFeb. 13Feb. 13Feb. 18Feb. 18
Pittsburgh PiratesBradenton, FLFeb. 12Feb. 13Feb. 17Feb. 18
St. Louis CardinalsJupiter, FLFeb. 12Feb. 13Feb. 17Feb. 18
San Diego PadresPeoria, AZFeb. 13Feb. 14Feb. 18Feb. 19
San Francisco GiantsScottsdale, AZFeb. 14Feb. 15Feb. 18Feb. 19
Seattle MarinersPeoria, AZFeb. 12Feb. 13Feb. 17Feb. 18
Tampa Bay RaysCharlotte County, FLFeb. 14Feb. 15Feb. 19Feb. 20
Texas RangersSurprise, AZFeb. 16Feb. 17Feb. 19Feb. 20
Toronto Blue JaysDunedin, FLFeb. 16Feb. 17Feb. 20Feb. 21
Washington NationalsViera, FLFeb. 13Feb. 15Feb. 18Feb. 20
Teaser:
2014 MLB Spring Training Reporting Dates and Locations
Post date: Wednesday, February 5, 2014 - 10:15
All taxonomy terms: 2014, Sochi, Twitter, Winter Olympics, News, Olympics
Path: /olympics/25-twitter-accounts-follow-2014-winter-olympics
Body:

The 2014 Winter Olympic Games are upon us, as the world’s attention will soon focus on Sochi, Russia. More than 2,500 athletes from 88 different nations are scheduled to compete in 98 events over 15 disciplines from Feb. 7-23 in the Russian resort city located on the coast of the Black Sea.

And while the IOC and Sochi Games have their own official accounts, Athlon Sports has put together its list of the 25 other must-follow Twitter accounts for the 22nd Winter Olympics. Whether you are looking for up-to-the-minute coverage or are more interested in what goes behind the scenes or with the athletes themselves, the accounts listed here should be able to satisfy your informational and entertainment needs.

25. @curling

What is curling? Think of it as something akin to shuffleboard on ice. Its origins date all the way back to the 16th century and it was part of the inaugural Winter Olympics in 1924. It’s been an official event since the 1998 Nagano Games and The Curling News, the self-described “global authority” on the sport, will have blanket coverage of both the men’s and women’s tournaments in Sochi. And if you can't get into the sport, there's always the fashion.

24. @USBiathlon

Another one of the Winter Games’ unique events, biathlon combines cross-country skiing and rifle marksmanship. The United States has never won an Olympic medial in biathlon and will be looking to make history in Sochi with its largest team (5 men, 5 women) in 22 years.

23. @USA_Luge

Luge may get its name from a French word that means “small coasting sled,” but when it comes to Olympic-level competition it’s all about speed. Of the three Olympic sliding sports, which also includes bobsled and skeleton, luge is the fastest and most dangerous. One- or two-person sleds race down the track feet-first at speeds up to 87 mph. The United States’ 10-person team (7 men, 3 women) features six first-time Olympians and medal hopeful Erin Hamlin. No American woman has ever medaled in luge at the Olympics.

22. @ShaniDavis

Speed skater Shani Davis’ Twitter handle reads “Not your average Olympic Champion,” and it’s perfectly understandable why he would make such a claim. During the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy, Davis became the first African-American from any nation to win a gold medal in an individual sport at the Winter Games. He repeated his feat in the 1,000 meters four years later in Vancouver and enters these games looking to add to his overall medal haul (four total) and become the first American man to win three gold medals in a single event.

21. @AroundTheRings

Around The Rings certainly knows its way around the Olympics; having covered them for more than 20 years. Expect their reporters to have the Sochi Games blanketed with plenty of news, interviews, features and other information posted from now until the Closing Ceremonies.

20. @USBSF

The US Bobsled & Skeleton Federation (USBSF) is the official governing body for the sports of bobsled and skeleton. The U.S. bobsled and skeleton contingency captured two medals four years ago in Vancouver and will be looking for similar, if not better, results in Sochi led by Steven Holcomb, Christopher Fogt and Lolo Jones, to name a few.

19. @StevenHolcomb

A member of the gold medal-winning four-man bobsled team in Vancouver, Steven Holcomb is back for more. A five-time world champion, Holcomb’s story of how he overcame depression and an eye disorder to achieve his goals has already been an inspiration for many.

18. @kikkanimal

Kikkan Randall loves going up and down hills and the 31-year-old Alaskan is competing in her fourth Olympics. A World Champion cross-country skier, Randall is considered a medal contender in the individual sprint event in Sochi. If she makes the medal stand, Randall would become the first American woman to win an Olympic medal in cross-country and the first U.S. athlete period to medal in the discipline since 1972.

17. @USSpeedskating

U.S. speed skaters have won 85 Olympic medals, including four at the Vancouver games. You can follow the team’s progress and experience in Sochi through the association’s official account.

16. @MikaelaShiffrin

The 18-year-old Eagle-Vail, Colo., native may be young and competing in her first Olympics, but Mikaela Shiffrin is no stranger to the big stage. Already the youngest American skier to be World Cup champion (slalom), Shiffrin will be “searching for the fastest way down the mountain” in Sochi.

15. @ussnowboarding

A relative newcomer to the Winter Olympics, there’s no questioning the growing popularity of snowboarding worldwide, as evidenced by the number of countries sending competitors for the six events (three men’s, three women’s). Once again, the U.S. team should be one of the top groups in Sochi led by Shaun White, Hannah Teter, Kelly Clark, Lindsey Jacobellis and also including the brother-sister tandem of Taylor and Arielle Gold, among others.

14. @tedligety

A four-time World Champion alpine skier, Ted Ligety won gold in the alpine combined in the 2006 Turin games. Participating in his third Olympics, Ligety is looking to bounce back from a disappointing showing four years ago in Vancouver.

13. @usskiteam

The United States is sending its largest ski and snowboarding team ever with a record 94 athletes set to compete in Sochi. On the skiing side, 31 different athletes have previous Olympic experience, including six gold medalists. Nordic combined skier Todd Lodwick is competing in his sixth Olympics, which is the most for any U.S. skier in history and ties the most ever by a winter Olympian. The team members range from 37 years old to 15, as the skiers will compete in alpine, cross-country, freestyle, Nordic combined and ski jumping events.

12. @USFigureSkating

One of the more high-profile events of the winter games, this is the official account for the governing body for figure skating in the U.S.

11. @jeremyabbottpcf

A four-time U.S. champion in men’s figure skating, Abbott is looking to bring home a medal in his second Olympics. The 28-year-old isn’t all business, however, as he’s a self-described “total goof ball,” a side of his personality that comes across on his Twitter account.

10. @GraceEGold

Has an Olympian ever had a more appropriate name? Women’s figure skater Gracie Gold will be looking to live up to her last name in Sochi as the 18-year-old tries to join the ranks of U.S. greats Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, Kristi Yamaguchi, Tara Lipinski and Sarah Hughes.

9. @usahockey

Similar to basketball in the Summer Games, professional hockey players will comprise the majority of the rosters of those countries competing in Sochi as the NHL will take a two-week break. The U.S. men’s and women’s team are defending silver medalists but have their sights set higher this year. You also can follow the action on NBC’s hockey Twitter account, @NBCOHockey.

8. @JuliaMancuso

With Lindsey Vonn (see below) sidelined, Julia Mancuso is arguably the face of the U.S. women’s ski team. The 2006 gold medalist in the giant slalom, “Super Jules” will be skiing for even more success in Sochi.

7. @USOlympic

The official account of the U.S. Olympic Committee, this year’s team of 230 athletes is the largest delegation for any nation in the history of the Winter Games. Over 200 U.S. Olympians are on Twitter and all of them along with exclusive behind-the-scenes coverage can be found here.

6. @NBCOlympics

The official broadcast partner of these Winter Games, NBC will have comprehensive coverage of the events in Sochi across all of its platforms. This account will feature instantaneous updates, firsthand accounts, behind-the-scenes photos, observations and so much more.

5. @ApoloOhno

The most decorated American Winter Olympian of all-time, speed skating great Apollo Anton Ohno will get a different taste of the games in Sochi. The eight-time medalist won’t be competing on the track and instead will serve as a correspondent and analyst for NBC Sports. Besides should something go wrong during his commentary, all Ohno has to do is break out his dance moves, right?

4. @lindseyvonn

A knee injury will keep Lindsey Vonn from being on the slopes in Sochi, but the 2010 Vancouver gold medalist in the downhill will still be visible during these Winter Games. The 29-year-old will be a part of NBC’s broadcast team, appearing on both the “Today Show” and on the network’s other platforms as a stateside correspondent. There’s also a chance you may see some updates about a certain golfer too.

3. @lolojones

The rare two-Olympic athlete, Lolo Jones is competing in her first Winter Games as a member of the U.S. women’s bobsled team. A World Champion hurdler, a medal in Sochi would be Jones’ first after failing to reach the stand at both the 2008 Beijing and '12 London Olympics.

2. @shaun_white

Like Shani Davis, Shaun White also has a chance of making history as he comes to Sochi with hopes of winning a third straight gold medal in the halfpipe. Regardless of if it’s a snowboard or skateboard, White is well known for winning (most gold medals and overall medals in X Games history), huge aerial tricks and his red hair. Just don’t call him “The Flying Tomato” anymore.

1. @JohnnyGWeir

A three-time U.S. champion and two-time Olympic figure skater, Johnny Weir will serve as an analyst for NBC Sports’ coverage. Weir is known for his colorful personality, flamboyance and fashion sense, among other things. It’s no stretch to say that Weir may end up being one of the most fascinating and intriguing figures to follow in Sochi.

Teaser:
25 Twitter Accounts Every Winter Olympics Fan Should Follow
Post date: Tuesday, February 4, 2014 - 14:24
Path: /nfl/super-bowl-xlviii-preview-and-predictions-seattle-seahawks-vs-denver-broncos
Body:

It’s a classic, yet unique matchup on tap for Super Bowl XLVIII this Sunday at MetLife Stadium when the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos kick things off at 6:25 p.m. ET on FOX. For the first time since 1991, the battle for the Lombardi Trophy features the NFL’s No. 1 scoring offense (Denver) against the No. 1 scoring defense (Seattle).

There is certainly no lack of storylines when it comes to this game, one of the biggest being the on-field conditions at the first-ever outdoor Super Bowl in a cold-weather city. NFL Commissioner Roger Gooddell and many others have been waiting for this moment – hosting the biggest game of the year in the New York metropolitan area – for some time. And while it may be a little on the cold side (projected day-time high of 46 degrees on Sunday, low of 26 according to weather.com), it does appear that otherwise (slight chance of precipitation, minimal wind) Mother Nature will cooperate.

On the field, Pete Carroll is hoping to lead Seattle to its first Super Bowl victory in two tries, while John Fox and Denver are aiming for the franchise’s third world championship in seven appearances. Besides the No. 1 offense vs. No. 1 defense aspect, this is the first Super Bowl that pits the top seeds from each conference since New Orleans defeated Peyton Manning and Indianapolis in Super Bowl XLIV and just the second such matchup in the past 20 seasons.

This also is a pairing of former division rivals, as the Seahawks and Broncos were both in the AFC West from 1977-2001. For what it’s worth, Denver holds a 35-18 edge in the all-time series, which includes one previous postseason encounter. Seattle won that game, defeating the Broncos 31-7 in a wild card game during the 1983 playoffs. The last time these two teams faced each other was during the 2010 season, a 31-14 Broncos victory at home.

Super Bowl XLVIII Breakdown

When the Seattle Seahawks run:
During the regular season, Seattle averaged 136.8 yards rushing per game, good for fourth in the NFL in that category. In two playoff games, that number has increased to 144.5 per game thanks to a heavy dose of Marshawn Lynch. The Seahawks’ powerful, punishing workhorse, Lynch has 249 yards rushing on 50 carries in wins over New Orleans and San Francisco. That 5.0 yards per carry average is right in line with his career postseason mark of 5.1 in six playoff games.

Seattle’s offense is built around running the ball, so Denver’s defense can expect to see a heavy dose of Lynch. Besides being productive, Lynch’s presence forces the defense to load up in the box, which then opens up things in the passing game for Russell Wilson, especially in play-action situations. While Lynch is the main cog of the Seahawks’ ground game, he’s not the only effective ball carrier. Wilson is second on the team with 555 yards rushing (5.4 ypc), and uses his athleticism and mobility to frustrate pass rushers and often turn what appears to be a big loss on a play into a positive gain.

Understandably overshadowed by the exploits of the offense, Denver’s defense has done a solid job against the run all season. The Broncos were just as effective as Seattle’s mighty defense in defending the run (101.6 ypg) during the regular season and has taken that performance to another level during the playoffs.

In their wins over the Chargers and Patriots, the Broncos’ defense yielded a total of 129 yards rushing on 34 carries (3.8 ypc). Even more impressive, this unit is missing All-Pro linebacker Von Miller, starting defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson and starting cornerback Chris Harris. Tackle Terrance Knighton (6-3, 335) has been an immovable object in the middle of the line for Denver and the man affectionately known as “Pot Roast” needs to make his presence felt if the Broncos want to keep Lynch from reaching “Beast Mode” Sunday night.

The linebackers, sans Miller, also will be key as Danny Trevathan, Wesley Woodyard and Nate Irving will be responsible for making sure Lynch doesn’t break through the second level. Lynch was second in the league with 574 yards rushing after contact (YAC) during the regular season and he’s added another 107 in the playoffs. The Broncos allowed just 1.4 YAC per rush in the regular season, the fifth-best mark in the NFL, according to ESPN’s Stats & Info.

 Check out Athlon Sports' special Super Bowl section for more coverage on the Broncos vs. Seahawks and the history of the big game. 
When the Seattle Seahawks pass:
Seattle finished 26th during the regular season in passing offense at 202.3 yards per game. This ranking is the lowest of any team to ever reach the Super Bowl. While it may not be anywhere near as prolific as Denver’s, Seattle’s passing attack has certainly been effective.

Despite ranking 16th in the league in yards passing (3,357), Russell Wilson tossed 26 touchdown passes and just nine interceptions. The end result was a 101.2 passer rating, which was seventh overall. For his career, including playoffs, Wilson has produced a 56:20 TD:INT ratio in 36 career games. Only 25 years old, Wilson plays with the poise and maturity of a 10-year veteran, so don’t expect him to be rattled on the game’s biggest stage.

Wilson doesn’t possess the weapons in the passing game that Peyton Manning does, but he could get a big boost with the expected return of Percy Harvin. One of Seattle’s key acquisitions during the offseason, Harvin has played in just two games because of hip surgery and a concussion. His on-field impact to this point has been limited, but Harvin possesses the speed, explosiveness and big-play ability that could make him a difference-maker in this game.

In Harvin’s absence, Wilson has relied on wide receivers Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin to do the heavy lifting. Tate leads the team in receptions and yards, and he and Baldwin are both capable of breaking off a long play once the ball is in their hands. Tight ends aren’t completely ignored in the Seahawks’ passing game, but they aren’t a focal point either. Zach Miller is the primary tight end and he could become an option for Wilson, especially in play-action situations. 

Denver’s pass defense has been busy this season, if anything because of the numbers and points the offense has put up. Large leads established by Manning and company have forced the opposition to throw, which is part of the reason why the Broncos’ defense gave up so many yards and touchdowns through the air.

Denver finished the regular season 27th in passing defense at 254.4 yards per game, but has really tightened things up recently. Over the past six games, including the two playoff wins, the Broncos have given up just 185.3 yards passing per game. Things figure to be a little tougher against the Seahawks without Harris, but the secondary features plenty of experience in cornerbacks Champ Bailey and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and some decent size in strong safety Duke Ihenacho (6-1, 207). The main priority for the defensive backs in this game will be limit the big plays through the air to force Seattle to convert on third down and sustain drives.

Von Miller’s presence as a pass rusher will certainly be missed, but Denver has other options in ends Shaun Phillips and Robert Ayers and rookie tackle Sylvester Williams. Even with all of his mobility, Wilson was sacked 44 times during the regular season (tied for the third most), but the key for the Broncos will be making sure they bring down the athletic, mobile quarterback should the pressure get to him.

When the Denver Broncos run:
While Peyton Manning’s assault on the record books was the talk revolving around Denver’s offense this season, it’s not like the Broncos weren’t getting the job done on the ground exactly. Led by a career year from Knowshon Moreno, Denver averaged 117.1 yards rushing per game during the regular season, which placed the Broncos 15th in the league.

For comparison’s sake Denver’s yards per carry average (4.1) and rushing touchdowns (16) in the regular season are more than comparable to Seattle’s numbers (4.3, 14) and the Broncos had 48 fewer carries than the Seahawks over their first 16 games. Moreno posted his first 1,000-yard season with 10 rushing touchdowns and he didn’t lose a single fumble in 301 total touches (241 rushing).

Rookie Montee Ball, who was expected by many to be Denver’s lead back, has gotten better as the season has progressed. He’s averaged 4.8 yards per carry over his past eight contests and has gotten double-digit carries in five of those, including both playoff wins. Ball also has done a better job holding onto the ball with just one fumble in his last 92 touches (74 rushes).

If there is any chink in the armor of the NFL’s No. 1 defense it may be on the ground. The Seahawks finished tied with the Broncos for seventh in rushing defense during the regular season at 101.6 yards per game. This includes back-to-back games against the Rams and Buccaneers in which the defense gave up more than 200 yards rushing. In the playoffs, Seattle has yielded an average of 135 yards on the ground to New Orleans and San Francisco.

While it may give up some yards, one thing the Seahawks’ defense does really well is prevent teams from getting into the end zone. Seattle surrendered just four touchdowns on the ground during the regular season, which tied Carolina for the fewest. The Seahawks have one of the deepest defensive lines in football with the likes of Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril coming off of the bench in support of Brandon Mebane, Red Bryant and Chris Clemons.

The linebackers are led by tackling machine Bobby Wagner with Bruce Irvin bringing pressure and making big plays, very similar to what Miller brings to Denver’s defense when healthy. And of course, everyone knows about Seattle’s secondary, which is just as good against the run as they are the pass thanks to their collective size, athleticism and physicality.

While the numbers may suggest otherwise, Denver does run the ball and uses it to set up the pass and vice versa. As effective as this game plan has been this season, doing so against Seattle’s defense will be no easy task. One of the keys for the Broncos will be can the offensive line open up some holes for Moreno and Ball to get through in hopes of forcing the Seahawks to adjust their alignment and get them out of their comfort zone?

When the Denver Broncos pass:
The most prolific passing offense in the history of the game versus the No. 1 passing defense and a secondary known as the “Legion of Boom.” What more could a football fan want? Peyton Manning’s record-breaking season has been well documented, but he has yet to face a defense like Seattle’s.

Less than three years removed from multiple neck surgeries that threatened to end his quarterbacking days, Manning is playing arguably the best football of his career. Besides his ridiculous regular-season totals, Manning has been on point during the playoffs too. In wins over San Diego and New England, he has completed 57 of 79 passes (72.2 percent) for 630 yards, four touchdowns and just one pick, good for a passer rating of 107.0. The experience gleaned from his two previous Super Bowl appearances should also aid Manning in his quest for a second Lombardi Trophy.

Manning can’t beat the Seahawks alone, however, which is where his impressive stable of pass-catchers comes in. Seattle may have the NFL’s best secondary, but a strong case could be made that Denver has the best weapons. Wide receivers Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker combined to average nearly 14 yards per catch and 35 touchdowns during the regular season while tight end Julius Thomas exploded from virtually nowhere to catch 65 passes and 12 touchdowns.

There’s also running backs Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball, who combined for 80 receptions for 693 yards and three scores, as well as role players like wideout Andrew Caldwell and tight ends Jacob Tamme and Virgil Green who are all capable of making a play when called on. With the exception of Welker, the Broncos’ pass-catchers feature decent size, which makes them a better match against the Seahawks’ big defensive backs.

One of the keys to Denver’s passing game is Manning’s ability to make quick decisions in the pocket and get rid of the ball in a matter of seconds, while the offensive line has done a fine job of keeping No. 18 upright. Manning was sacked just 18 times during the regular season, but the line knows it will have its work cut out for it against Seattle’s aggressive, unrelenting pass rush.

The Seahawks have allowed just two teams (Houston, New Orleans in the Divisional round) to throw for more than 300 yards on them this season. Overall, Seattle is giving up just 177.8 yards passing per game and this defense has been waiting for this opportunity to matchup against Manning and company.

Although All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman may do the most of the talking, both on the field and off of it, he is not a one-man wrecking crew. Fellow All-Pro Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor form arguably the hardest-hitting safety tandem in the league, while cornerback Byron Maxwell has more than held his own in coverage. Sherman and Chancellor both stand 6-3, while Maxwell is 6-1, but this is one game in which the Seahawks won’t enjoy much of a height advantage on the opposition.

Seattle’s secondary likes to play physical, so it will be interesting to see how closely the officials call things on the outside and across the middle, especially considering how many crossing routes and rub patterns Denver likes to run. The Broncos’ pass-catchers also need to be ready for some pushing and shoving and not back down from the contact at the line or allow the Seahawk defenders to disrupt their route.

Seattle will try and pressure Manning, who isn’t near as mobile as Wilson nor as effective a passer when he’s moved from his spot in the pocket or forced to hold onto the ball longer than he wants. The Seahawks’ pressure may be effective even if it doesn’t result in sacks, as it could help create some rushed or errant throws, which plays right into the hands of this ball-hawking (28 INTs) unit.

Special Teams:
No one knows how much Percy Harvin will play on Sunday, but if there’s one area he could have a big impact in it’s special teams. In his career, Harvin has averaged 28.2 yards per kickoff return and has five touchdowns. His only return this season went for 58 yards and with Matt Prater not kicking in the Mile High City, whomever gets the call back there should get some chances to bring one back. Golden Tate (11.5 ypr) should handle the punt return duties for the Seahawks.

Steven Hauschka has been solid this season, connecting on 33 of 35 field goal attempts, including just one miss (14 of 15) from 40 yards and beyond. He shouldn’t have any trouble kicking in the cold, as he’s well versed in dealing with the conditions in the Pacific Northwest. Punter Jon Ryan has been effective (39.2 ypp) by limiting returns (3.9 ypr) on his kicks.

While Seattle may finally get Harvin back on kick return duty, Denver has its own special teams weapon in Trindon Holliday. He has returned a kickoff and a punt for a touchdown this season and is averaging nearly 28 yards per kickoff return. The only question may be will the Broncos let him handle both assignments on Super Sunday, as Eric Decker and Wes Welker have been called on for punt return duty during the playoffs.

Denver has a pretty solid punter-kicker tandem in Britton Colquitt and Prater, but neither will have the benefit of kicking in the thin air of their home stadium in this game. Colquitt placed more than a third (23) of his 65 punts inside the 20-yard line during the regular season, while Prater missed just one (25 of 26) field goal attempt and nailed an NFL-record 64-yarder back in Week 14.

Key Factor: Turnovers
Seattle led the NFL with a plus-20 (39 takeaways, 19 giveaways) turnover margin during the regular season and has posted a plus-three mark in the playoffs. Denver tied for 13th in the league with a zero turnover margin (26 of each), and has gone minus-two in its two postseason victories. Despite this large discrepancy (Seattle is plus-23 overall, while Denver is minus-two), both teams enter this game with identical 15-3 records.

The Seahawks would no doubt love to force the Broncos into some mistakes, but Peyton Manning has thrown just 11 interceptions compared to his 59 touchdowns in 738 total pass attempts this season. He has fumbled it away six times and some of Denver’s other players have had their own issues with ball security, so it’s imperative that the Broncos keep two hands firmly wrapped around the pigskin when its in their possession. After all, they know full well how opportunistic Seattle’s defense has been this season.

On the other side, the Seahawks’ offense has committed fewer miscues, but Russell Wilson and company will need to continue to take good care of the football as it does not want to give Manning and the Broncos additional opportunities, especially should those turnovers occur in Seahawks territory. One thing is for sure, winning the turnover battle will more than likely go a long ways towards deciding Sunday night’s outcome. The team with fewer turnovers in the Super Bowl is 35-3 all-time.

Closing Thoughts:
Is this Peyton Manning’s (final?) chance at redemption or a golden opportunity to cap off the greatest season in the history of the game? Will Russell Wilson establish himself as the NFL’s top young quarterback? Will Denver’s experience be too much for Seattle’s talent and athleticism to overcome? Can the No. 1 defense slow down the highest-scoring team the league has ever seen?

These are just some of the storylines surrounding this game and that’s without even bringing up the weather. The bottom line is this: these two teams were the best in their respective conferences and what better way to decide which one is truly No. 1 than to settle things on the field?

While it can certainly be said that the stakes for John Fox’s Broncos are higher given where Manning and others are in their careers, that doesn’t mean there’s any less pressure on Pete Carroll’s team. After all, regardless of how young and talented a team you are, there is no guarantee you will make it back to the Super Bowl before that so-called window of opportunity closes. Just ask Jim Harbaugh and the San Francisco 49ers.

Manning and Wilson may take center stage at MetLife Stadium Sunday night, but both defenses will have plenty to say before this game is decided.  So what happens when the top-scoring offense in the league goes head-to-head with the stingiest defense? Fortunately for us as football fans, we get to find out.

Athlon’s editors make their pick for Super Bowl XLVIII:

EditorWinnerScoreMVP
Rob Doster27-21Peyton Manning
David Fox35-21Peyton Manning
Braden Gall31-28Peyton Manning
Steven Lassan27-24Peyton Manning
Mitch Light27-21Russell Wilson
Rich McVey21-17Peyton Manning
Mark Ross27-24Peyton Manning
Nathan Rush27-23Marshawn Lynch
Corby Yarbrough31-28Marshawn Lynch

 

Teaser:
Super Bowl XLVIII Preview and Predictions: Seattle Seahawks vs. Denver Broncos
Post date: Friday, January 31, 2014 - 11:00
All taxonomy terms: NFL, News
Path: /nfl/super-bowl-xlviiis-top-5-most-likely-mvps
Body:

A new NFL champion will be crowned Sunday night during Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife Stadium as the most-watched sport in the nation takes its biggest stage of the year. Besides more than likely hoisting the Lombardi Trophy once the game is over, the MVP of Super Bowl XLVIII will reap some other enviable rewards.

For starters, he will be presented with a Super Bowl MVP trophy along with a new GMC vehicle. Joe Flacco, last year’s Super Bowl MVP got a 2014 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray. There’s also the numerous media and potential sponsorship opportunities that could present themselves. Do the words “I’m going to Disney World!” ring a bell?

So with this in mind, which Denver Bronco or Seattle Seahawk is best positioned to leave MetLife Stadium Sunday night with extra hardware and additional spoils of victory in tow?

Note: Odds to win courtesy of Bovada Sportsbook, as of publication date.

1. The Odds-on Favorite: Peyton Manning, QB, Denver
Odds to win: 11/10

Should the Broncos defeat the Seahawks Sunday night, it would be somewhat of a major upset if Manning wasn’t on the podium to accept his second Super Bowl MVP award. For one, no player will garner more attention leading up to and during Super Bowl XLVIII than the man behind the greatest statistical regular season of any quarterback in the history of the game. Also, whether he likes it or not, this game has already been labeled as Manning’s opportunity to stake his claim as the greatest quarterback to ever play or merely cement his Hall of Fame legacy, depending on who you ask. The good news for Manning, and perhaps Denver fans, is the fact that No. 18 is playing the best football of his career.

2. The Other Quarterback: Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle
Odds to win: 15/4

If the Seahawks end up winning Super Bowl XLVIII Wilson appears to have the best chance of being named the game’s MVP. Quarterbacks have earned Super Bowl MVP honors 26 times in the game’s 47-year history. The last four Super Bowl MVPs have been quarterbacks and six of the last seven. As good as Seattle’s defense has been this season, the offense will need to score some points of its own. This is where Wilson comes in, as he’s capable of making plays with both his arm and his legs, and he’s already shown what he can do when the games count the most. In four career playoff games, Wilson has posted an impressive 96.9 passer rating. Don’t forget, he just turned 25 years old a couple of months ago.

3. The Bruising Running Back: Marshawn Lynch, RB, Seattle
Odds to win: 15/4

Despite Wilson’s presence, poise and production, the Seahawks’ offense is built around running the ball. Seattle finished fourth in the regular season with 136.8 yards rushing per game with Lynch accounting for more than half (1,257 of 2,188) of the damage. A true workhorse, Lynch leads all players with 249 yards rushing on 50 carries this postseason and boasts a career 5.1 yards per carry average in the playoffs. Denver’s defense has been awfully stingy against the run lately (64.5 ypg, 3.8 ypc in two playoff games) and no doubt will be focused on bottling Lynch up at the line of scrimmage. If “Beast Mode” makes an appearance Sunday night it could lead to big things for both Lynch and the Seahawks.

 Check out Athlon Sports' special Super Bowl section for more coverage on the Broncos vs. Seahawks and the history of the big game. 
4. The Mouthpiece: Richard Sherman, CB, Seattle
Odds to win: 20/1

Intentional or not, Sherman guaranteed he would be one of the primary faces and storylines of Super Bowl XLVIII following his explosive commentary after the NFC Championship Game. A two-time, first-team All-Pro shutdown cornerback, Sherman definitely has the game to back up his big talk and now has everyone’s full attention. The Seahawks’ “Legion of Boom” secondary is by the far the toughest test Peyton Manning and company have faced this season, but the same could be said for Seattle’s defense matching up with the highest-scoring team in the history of the game. Since Sherman serves as the secondary’s official spokesman, if you will, all eyes will be on him Sunday night to see if his actions back up his words. One thing worth noting: Sherman (6-3, 195) won’t enjoy the same height advantage against Denver’s Demaryius Thomas (6-3, 229) or Eric Decker (6-3, 214) that he did against San Francisco’s Michael Crabtree (6-1, 214) and Anquan Boldin (6-1, 220).

5. The Big Game Veteran: Wes Welker, WR, Denver
Odds to win: 25/1

Welker may not be nearly as big (5-9, 185) as aforementioned teammates Thomas and Decker or any of the Seahawks’ starting defensive backs for that matter, but he does enter Super Bowl XLVIII with one sizeable advantage – experience. Welker and Manning have each played in two Super Bowls, which is twice as many as any other active player on either team’s roster. Unlike Manning, however, Welker has yet to hold the Lombardi Trophy, as he came up short twice (Super Bowl XLII, XLVI) during his six seasons with New England. Fortunately for Welker, he’s not playing the New York Giants Sunday, and he’s also been given a third opportunity to win the biggest game of his career. Welker’s Super Bowl stats (18 rec., 163 yds., 2 att., 21 yds.) certainly aren’t overwhelming, but his experience on this stage, his hands and his ability to find holes in the defense could come up huge for Manning and the Broncos.

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The top two teams in the NFL will conclude the 2013 season when the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks meet in Super Bowl XLVIII on Sunday. It’s only fitting that the champions of the AFC and NFC have both posted 15-3 records to earn the right to play for the Lombardi Trophy at MetLife Stadium.

This is not the only significant number associated with this game, however. Here are some other noteworthy statistics, numbers and figures to analyze and dissect prior to kickoff.

7: Super Bowl appearances for Denver
The Broncos will play in their seventh Super Bowl this Sunday, tying them with the New England Patriots for the second-most in NFL history. The Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers each have played in the Super Bowl eight times. Denver is looking to claim its third Lombardi Trophy, which would tie New England, the Los Angeles/Oakland Raiders and Washington Redskins for the fifth-most. The Broncos have gone 2-4 in their previous Super Bowl appearances, the most recent ending in victories in 1998 (XXXII) and ’99 (XXXIII). This is just the second Super Bowl appearance for Seattle, who lost to Pittsburgh 21-10 in Super Bowl XL eight years ago.

4: Players on Denver’s active roster with Super Bowl experience
The most notable of course is Peyton Manning, who went 1-1 in the big game when he was with Indianapolis. Tight end Jacob Tamme was a teammate of Manning’s when the Colts fell to the Saints 31-17 in Super Bowl XLIV. Wide receiver Wes Welker came up short twice on Super Sunday (both times to the New York Giants) during his six seasons in New England, while cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and the Arizona Cardinals lost a heart breaker to Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XLIII. Besides the players, Denver head coach John Fox also has experienced the NFL’s biggest stage before, leading Carolina to Super Bowl XXXVIII, where the Panthers lost to the Patriots on a last-second field goal. And the primary architect of this team, executive vice president of football operations John Elway, started five Super Bowls for the Broncos during his career, winning his last two. There’s also center Dan Koppen, who has been on injured reserve all season, but won two Super Bowl rings and played for a third during his nine seasons with New England.

0: Seahawks with Super Bowl experience
No player on Seattle’s roster has ever appeared in a Super Bowl, which is not that surprising considering the Seahawks entered this season as the fourth youngest team in the NFL. Seattle’s roster averages 25.3 years old compared to 26.3 for Denver’s, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com. Head coach Pete Carroll is 5-4 in his career in the playoffs but his teams had never made it past the Divisional round until this season.

25.5: Points per game differential between Denver’s offense and Seattle’s defense
The Broncos scored an NFL-record 606 points during the regular season (37.9 ppg), while the Seahawks were tops in scoring defense (14.4 ppg). Seattle is 15-2 this season when allowing 24 points or fewer, as the only team to score more than that was Indianapolis (34 points in Week 5). On the flip side, Denver is 15-2 when scoring at least 24 points per game. The only team that held the Broncos to 24 points or fewer was San Diego, who did it in both the regular season (27-20 win in Week 15) and the playoffs (24-17 loss in the Divisional round).

1991: Last time NFL’s No. 1 scoring offense and No. 1 scoring defense met in the Super Bowl
Super Bowl XXV back on Jan. 27, 1991 pitted the high-scoring, no-huddle, K-Gun offense of the Buffalo Bills against a ferocious, physical New York Giants defense that had given up just 12.6 points per game (including playoffs) that season. In a classic strength vs. strength matchup in Tampa Stadium in Tampa, Fla., points were hard to come by, but the Bills had a chance to potentially seal the deal on a 47-yard field goal attempt by Scott Norwood with just eight seconds remaining and the Giants leading 20-19. Unfortunately, Norwood’s kick went wide right, crushing the Bills’ championship dreams and giving the Giants and Bill Parcells their second Super Bowl victory in five years.

22: Career postseason starts for Peyton Manning entering Super Bowl XLVIII
Come Super Sunday, Tom Brady (26) and Brett Favre (24) will be the only two quarterbacks in NFL history with more career postseason starts than Manning’s 23. Manning will tie Joe Montana, who went 16-7 in the playoffs including four Super Bowl titles, and is hoping to push his career postseason record to 12-11. A win Sunday night also would make Manning the 12th quarterback to lead his team to multiple Super Bowl victories.

 Check out Athlon Sports' special Super Bowl section for more coverage on the Broncos vs. Seahawks and the history of the big game. 
4: Career postseason starts for Russell Wilson entering Super Bowl XLVIII
Seattle’s third-round pick (75th overall) in the 2012 draft, Wilson will be making his fifth career postseason start with the opportunity to lead the Seahawks to their first-ever world championship. Wilson will become just the sixth quarterback to start in the Super Bowl in their first or second season in the NFL. He will join a group that includes Dan Marino (Super Bowl XIX), Kurt Warner (XXXIV), Tom Brady (XXXVI), Ben Roethlisberger (XL) and Colin Kaepernick (XLVII). Warner, Brady and Roethlisberger all wound up victorious on Super Sunday, while Marino and Kaepernick came up short.

85.4: Peyton Manning’s passer rating in the Super Bowl

In two previous Super Bowl appearances Manning has completed 56 of 83 passes (67.5 percent) for 580 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. That’s good for a passer rating of 85.4, which is nearly 12 points lower than his career mark of 97.2. His Super Bowl mark also is lower than his career 90.1 passer rating in 22 total postseason games. That said, this season has been the best, statistically speaking, by far in Manning’s 16-year career, as he posted a 115.1 passer rating during the regular season. That mark is surpassed only by the 121.1 he produced in 2004, the second of his soon-to-be five MVP campaigns. This postseason Manning has been at the top of his game, completing 57 of 79 attempts (72.2 percent) for 630 yards, four touchdowns and just one pick in wins over San Diego and New England. That’s good for an impressive passer rating of 107.0. Russell Wilson’s career passer rating is 100.6 in two seasons with a postseason mark of 96.9 (four career playoff games).

5.1: Marshawn Lynch’s career postseason yards per carry average
In six career playoff games, Lynch has rushed for 560 yards on 109 carries. He has averaged 5.1 yards per carry, has posted four 100-yard games and scored six touchdowns on the ground. In fact, if you take out his two yards on four carries before leaving with an injury against Chicago in the 2010 Divisional round, Lynch’s yards per carry average goes up to 5.3. This postseason, Lynch has picked up 249 yards on the ground on 50 carries in wins against New Orleans and San Francisco.

3.8: Yards per carry Denver’s defense has given up in two playoff games
In their two postseason wins, the Broncos have surrendered a total of 129 yards rushing to the Chargers and Patriots on 34 carries. Denver’s defense has held the opposition to just 3.8 yards per carry and yielded just two runs of more than 10 yards. In the regular season, the AFC champions tied with Seattle for seventh in rushing defense (101.6 ypg), yet have taken their run-stopping efforts to another level this postseason. And this unit has done so without the services of injured All-Pro linebacker Von Miller, defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson and cornerback Chris Harris.

26th: Seattle’s passing offense rank during the regular season
The Seahawks finished the regular season 17th in the NFL in total offense with 339 yards per game, but this was largely a byproduct of the league’s fourth-ranked rushing offense. Seattle averaged 136.8 yards rushing and just 202.3 yards passing per game. Just six other teams were less productive than the Seahawks through the air, as their 26th-ranked passing offense (based on yards) is the lowest of any team to ever reach the Super Bowl. Even the 2000 Baltimore Ravens and 1990 New York Giants, two teams more known for defense than offense, ranked higher in passing offense (both finishing 22nd) in the regular season prior to them winning Super Bowl XXXV and XXV, respectively.

47: Total yards of offense produced by Percy Harvin this season
When Seattle acquired Harvin from Minnesota in March for three draft picks, many expected the all-purpose dynamo to serve as missing piece for the Seahawks’ offense. Besides the three draft picks, Seattle also signed Harvin to a six-year, $67 million contract. The early return on the Seahawks’ investment has been next-to-nothing, however, as Harvin had hip surgery on Aug. 1 to repair a torn labrum. He didn’t return to the field until Week 11 when he caught one pass for 17 yards against the Vikings. Unfortunately, he aggravated his surgically repaired hip in that game and didn’t play again in the regular season. In the Divisional round against New Orleans, Harvin suffered a concussion in the second quarter and didn’t return. He was unable to clear the mandatory concussion protocol in time to play in the NFC Championship Game against San Francisco, but is expected to be on the field Sunday. So far this season, Harvin’s contributions have consisted of one rush for nine yards, four receptions for 38 yards and one kickoff return for 58 yards. The opportunity is clearly here for Harvin to help his team win a world championship, but is it too much to ask of someone who has been on the field a total of 38 offensive plays this season?

+25: Seattle’s turnover differential compared to Denver’s this season
The Seahawks led the NFL with a plus-20 (39 takeaways, 19 giveaways) turnover margin during the regular season. The Broncos tied for 13th with a zero turnover margin (26 of each), yet still tied Seattle for the league’s best record at 13-3. The Seahawks have forced four turnovers and committed just one miscue in their two playoff wins, while Denver has no takeaways and two giveaways in its two victories. Combined, Seattle is plus-23 in turnover differential entering Super Sunday with Denver coming in at minus-two. For what it’s worth, the record of the team with fewer turnovers in the Super Bowl is 35-3 all-time.

53: Previous meetings between Denver and Seattle
Sunday will be the 54th all-time matchup between the Broncos and Seahawks with most of the games happening when the two were in the AFC West from 1977-2001. Denver leads the all-time series 35-18, which includes one playoff game. Seattle beat its division rival 31-7 in a 1983 AFC Wild Card game that was played in the since-demolished Seattle Kingdome. The last time these two teams played was during the 2010 season when the Broncos defeated the Seahawks 31-14 at home.

38°: Projected high temperature for East Rutherford, N.J. on Super Sunday
As soon as the announcement was made in May 2010 that Super Bowl XLVIII would be played at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., the weather became a storyline. The first outdoor, cold-weather Super Bowl in the event’s 48-year history, fears of not-so-ideal conditions escalated last week when pictures of the field buried under a foot of snow hit the airwaves, Internet and social media. Less than a week out, however, it looks like the weather won’t be too much of a factor, other than it being really cold for the 82,500 in attendance. According to weather.com, Sunday’s forecast for East Rutherford, N.J., calls for a high temperature of 38 degrees, a low of 24 and no more than a 20 percent chance of precipitation (presumably snow/wintry mix) during the day. It also doesn’t look like the wind (5-7 mph) will be much of a factor either. NFL officials are prepared should the forecast change dramatically, but the game is expected to kickoff at 6:25 p.m. ET on Sunday and is pretty much guaranteed to be the coldest Super Bowl ever played. The current holder of this distinction is Super Bowl VI back on Jan. 16. 1972 when the temperature at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans was a frigid 39 degrees.

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With the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks, the No. 1 seeds in their respective conferences and the NFL's No. 1 offense (Broncos) and defense (Seahawks), set to face off in Super Bowl XLVIII there is no question that the best two teams will be playing on Super Sunday. This however has not always been the case when it comes to the biggest game of the season. Here is Athlon Sports’ list of the worst teams to ever play in a Super Bowl in the game’s 48-year history. It probably goes without saying that each of these teams ended up on the short end of the scoreboard, right?

1. 1985 New England Patriots
Super Bowl result: Lost 46-10 to Chicago in Super Bowl XX

New England went 11-5 in the regular season to earn a Wild Card berth, getting hot at the right time. The Patriots won eight out of nine during one stretch and then rode its defense late in the season and in the playoffs. New England forced 16 turnovers in its three postseason victories, including six against Miami in the AFC Championship game. An opportunistic defense carried an inconsistent offense all season long, at least up until the Super Bowl.

Despite taking an early 3-0 lead, Chicago scored 44 straight points and thoroughly dominated New England in posting the biggest victory in Super Bowl history at the time. For the game, the Patriots managed 123 total yards on offense, including just seven yards rushing, turned the ball over six times and gave up seven sacks.

2. 1979 Los Angeles Rams
Super Bowl result: Lost 31-19 to Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XIV

Credit Los Angeles for taking full advantage of its schedule and division, as the Rams (9-7) won the NFC West even though they beat only two teams that finished with a winning record. The offense was marginal, as their quarterbacks combined for a 19:29 touchdown-to-interception ratio in the regular season, and the team finished with a -8 turnover differential.

In the postseason, Los Angeles downed Dallas 21-19 in the Divisional round thanks to a tipped pass that resulted in a 50-yard touchdown with 2:06 remaining. In the NFC Championship game against Tampa Bay, the Rams' offense managed just three field goals, but that was more than enough thanks to a stifling defensive effort that held the Buccaneers to zero points, just five completed passes and seven first downs.

The first team to make the Super Bowl having won just nine games in the regular season, Los Angeles hung with defending world champion Pittsburgh for the first three quarters of Super Bowl XIV. The NFC champion Rams held a three-point lead at halftime and went ahead by two in the third quarter, only to watch the Steelers score two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to pull away for a 31-19 win. If not for three interceptions by Pittsburgh quarterback Terry Bradshaw, this game may not have ended up as close as it did.

3. 2003 Carolina Panthers
Super Bowl result: Lost 32-29 to New England in Super Bowl XXXVIII

This Carolina team mastered the art of winning the close one. Champions of the NFC South with an 11-5 record, the Panthers won just two games in the regular season by more than six points. Seven of the victories were by three points or fewer, as the team’s point differential was +21, or 1.3 per game. The Panthers out-rushed their opponents, but this was mainly due to the fact they had nearly 100 more rushing attempts. Still the ground game produced just nine rushing touchdowns (opponents had 10), while quarterback Jake Delhomme posted a 19:16 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

The Panthers seemed to get all of the breaks in the postseason, starting with a 29-23 double overtime victory in St. Louis in the NFC Divisional round. Carolina squandered an 11-point fourth quarter lead to the Rams that included St. Louis head coach Mike Martz opting to hold the ball for a game-tying field goal even though the Rams were inside the 20 with less than a minute remaining and still had one time out. Both teams missed field goals in the first overtime session, as John Kasay made his 40-yard attempt only to find out it didn’t count due to a delay of game penalty on the Panthers. He then missed the subsequent 45-yard attempt. Delhomme took matters into his own hand at the start of the second overtime period, hitting Steve Smith for the game-winning 69-yard touchdown only 10 seconds into it. Carolina’s defense came up big on the road in the NFC title game against Philadelphia, injuring Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb and picking off four passes in the 14-3 win.

Carolina’s reward for earning the franchise’s first NFC crown was a Super Bowl XXXVIII matchup with New England. The game was scoreless until 3:05 left in the second quarter, when the teams combined for 24 points, including a 50-yard Kasay field goal that cut the Patriots’ lead to 14-10 at the half. All the other scoring took place in the fourth quarter, including Delhomme’s game-tying touchdown pass to Ricky Proehl with 1:08 left, but Kasay proceeded to kick the ball out of the bounds. Tom Brady got the ball on the 40-yard line and six plays later, Adam Vinatieri kicked the game-winning 41-yard field goal with just four ticks remaining. While the final score may have been close, New England dominated the box score, out-gaining Carolina by nearly 100 yards (481-387) and nearly doubling the Panthers in first downs (29 to 17).

4. 2008 Arizona Cardinals
Super Bowl result: Lost 27-23 to Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XLIII

The greatest season in Arizona Cardinals franchise history is largely the product of great timing and having all of the breaks go your way, at least up until the game that counts the most. Arizona won the NFC West with a 9-7 record that included a spotless divisional mark (6-0) thanks to one of the top scoring offenses in the league at 26.7 points per game.

The flip side of this, however, is the fact that the rest of the Cardinals’ division went a combined 13-35, as they beat just two teams in the regular season that finished with a winning record and stumbled into the postseason losing four of their final six games. A suspect defense (team finished with +1 point differential in regular season), caught a break in the Wild Card round when it got to face Atlanta rookie quarterback Matt Ryan making his first career playoff start on the road. The Cardinals then got plenty of help from Carolina’s Jake Delhomme, who tossed five interceptions at home in their  Divisional matchup. Arizona claimed its first conference championship with a 32-25 home victory over No. 6 seed Philadelphia, thanks to a late Kurt Warner touchdown pass and despite being out-gained by the Eagles (454 to 369).

In the Super Bowl, Arizona had its chance to completely cash in on all of its good fortune, fighting back from a 13-point, third-quarter deficit against Pittsburgh to take a 23-20 lead on a 64-yard touchdown pass from Warner to Larry Fitzgerald with less than three minutes remaining. Alas, it was not meant to be, as Ben Roethlisberger found Santonio Holmes in the end zone with 42 seconds left for one of the more memorable plays in Super Bowl history, much to the chagrin of the Cardinals and their fans.

5. 1994 San Diego Chargers
Super Bowl result: Lost 49-26 to San Francisco in Super Bowl XXIX

San Diego won the AFC West with an 11-5 record, and its losses were by seven or fewer points except for one. That one game, you ask? It was a 38-15 loss to San Francisco in Week 15. Foreshadowing perhaps? This was not a powerful team by any stretch, as the Chargers’ point differential was +75, an average of less than five points per game, and the ground game averaged less than four yards per carry.

San Diego's defense carried the team throughout the season, and especially in the playoffs. The Chargers came back from a 21-6 halftime deficit to Miami in the AFC Divisional round, winning the game 22-21 on a touchdown pass with 35 seconds left followed by a missed 48-yard field goal by the Dolphins with one second on the clock. In the AFC Championship game, San Diego trailed Pittsburgh 13-3 at one point only to take a 17-13 lead with 5:13 remaining. The Chargers needed one final goal-line stand with just over a minute left to finish the job, despite being out-gained by a wide margin (415 to 226) and having the ball less than 23 minutes.

San Diego entered Super Bowl XXIX against San Francisco as the biggest underdog ever (18.5 points) and lived up to that billing. Steve Young threw four of his Super Bowl-record six touchdown passes in the first half, as the closest the Chargers ever were to the 49ers in this one was 14-7 late in the first quarter. The 49ers led 42-10 with less than five minutes left in the third quarter before the Chargers scored two meaningless touchdowns. This game still holds the records for most combined points (75) and total touchdowns (10) in Super Bowl history, with the majority of the damage (49 and 7) done by game MVP Young and his 49ers.

6. 1987 Denver Broncos
Super Bowl result: Lost 42-10 to Washington in Super Bowl XXII

Denver took full advantage of a strike-shortened season, not to mention three games played with replacement players, to win the AFC West with a 10-4-1 record. Quarterback John Elway led one of the more productive passing offenses in the league, but the Broncos' rushing offense (3.9 ypc) lagged behind. The Broncos needed another miracle (see No. 8 below) to get past Cleveland in the AFC title game, this time at home. And just like what took place the previous season with "The Drive," the Browns delivered once again, as a late fumble sealed the Broncos’ 38-33 win and return trip to the Super Bowl. Unfortunately, Denver's third Super Bowl trip was anything but a charm. The Broncos jumped out to a 10-0 lead on Washington in the first quarter, only to watch the Redskins storm back with 35 points in the second quarter. Washington finished with a Super Bowl-record 602 total yards, including a record 280 yards rushing, in the rout. Denver was out-gained by its opponent in all three of its playoff games, so perhaps the end result against Washington wasn’t all that surprising after all.

 Check out Athlon Sports' special Super Bowl section for more coverage on the Broncos vs. Seahawks and the history of the big game. 
7. 1996 New England Patriots
Super Bowl result: Lost 35-21 to Green Bay in Super Bowl XXXI

Before the Bill Belichick and Tom Brady reign began in New England, the head coach-star quarterback pairing was Bill Parcells and Drew Bledsoe. However, this Patriots team relied more on defense than offense, as it won the AFC East with an 11-5 record. Bledsoe did throw for more than 4,000 yards and 27 touchdowns in the regular season, but the defense allowed over 4,000 through the air as well. The defense was much more stout against the run, giving up less than 94 yards rushing per game, but their own ground attack fared even worse (92 ypg).

New England got a major break in the playoffs when Jacksonville upset top-seeded Denver (13-3) at home in the Divisional round. The Patriots then dispatched of the upstart Jaguars 20-6 at home to earn the franchise’s second AFC championship. Even though the offense sputtered against Green Bay in Super Bowl XXXI, the Patriots hung around until the Packers scored 17 unanswered points in the second quarter. Bledsoe threw four interceptions and the Patriots finished with a grand total of 43 yards rushing, as the Packers sealed the deal with MVP Desmond Howard’s 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the latter part of the third quarter.

8. 1986 Denver Broncos
Super Bowl result: Lost 39-20 to New York Giants in Super Bowl XXI

Denver got off to a 6-0 start to the season, but finished just 5-5. Still the Broncos’ 11-5 record was good enough to win the AFC West, thanks to a defense that led the conference in rushing yards allowed. The problem for the Broncos’ offense, however, was that it only generated 27 more yards on the ground than their defense gave up. After getting by New England 22-17 at home in the Divisional round, quarterback John Elway orchestrated “The Drive” late in the fourth quarter in Cleveland to get the Broncos to their second Super Bowl. Unfortunately, this one ended like the franchise’s first big game appearance (versus Dallas in Super Bowl XII in 1978), as the Broncos managed just 52 yards rushing and Elway got sacked four times (one went for a safety) in a game that wasn’t as close as the score indicated.

9. 1992 Buffalo Bills
Super Bowl result: Lost 52-17 to Dallas in Super Bowl XXVII

This Buffalo team maintained the Bills’ run in the AFC, capturing the East division title with a 11-5 record, powered by the NFL’s top rushing offense and third-ranked scoring offense (23.8 ppg). The defense was average in terms of where it ranked in points allowed, but generally got the job done. A third straight trip to the Super Bowl almost didn’t happen, however, as Buffalo trailed Houston 35-3 early in the third quarter of its Wild Card game. Backup quarterback Frank Reich, filling in for an injured Jim Kelly, orchestrated what became known as “The Comeback” with the Bills pulling out a 41-38 victory in overtime.

Buffalo then easily defeated Pittsburgh and Miami by a combined score of 53-13 to reach their third straight Super Bowl, this time against Dallas. The Bills held a 14-10 lead in the second quarter, only to watch the Cowboys score the next 17 points and pile on 21 more in the fourth quarter. As talented and good as this Dallas team was, Buffalo could ill afford to give them many breaks, which they certainly did. The Bills turned it over a Super Bowl-record nine times, including five fumbles, which led to 35 of the 52 points the Cowboys scored.

10. 2000 New York Giants
Super Bowl result: Lost 34-7 to Baltimore in Super Bowl XXXV

After losing two games in a row in early November, New York’s record stood at 7-4. Undeterred, head coach Jim Fassel guaranteed that this team would not miss the playoffs. He made good on that promise as the Giants won their last five, albeit just one of those victories came against a team that finished with a winning record, to capture the NFC East title.

Similar to Baltimore, their eventual opponent in the Super Bowl, this Giants team was built around defense. The G-Men held opponents to 15.4 points per game and less than 1,200 yards rushing total (72.3 ypg) during the regular season. This was especially the case in the playoffs, as the Giants yielded a total of 10 points in wins over Philadelphia and Minnesota, including shutting out the Vikings in the NFC Championship game by holding them to 114 total yards and forcing five turnovers.

The problem for the Giants, however, was their offense and this was especially the case in Super Bowl XXXV against the Ravens. Baltimore’s defense, considered one of the best in the history of the game, kept the Giants’ offense scoreless, as their only points in the game came on a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Ron Dixon in the third quarter. For the game, the Giants’ offense mustered a total of 152 yards and quarterback Kerry Collins was responsible for four (all INTs) of the Giants’ five turnovers.

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The entire nation, if not the entire world, will be focused on MetLife Stadium on Feb. 2 when the Denver Broncos take on the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII. While the weather will certainly be one of the main storylines, especially if it takes a turn for the worse, this matchup between the champions of the AFC and NFC will be decided on the field by the 11 players from each team that will line up on either side of the football.

Here are five reasons why the Broncos will win the franchise’s third Lombardi Trophy on Super Sunday:

1. Peyton Manning’s Pinnacle
Win or lose, Manning’s 2013 season will go down as one of the greatest in the history of the NFL. He already has rewritten the NFL record books, adding the single-season marks for both yards passing (5,477) and touchdowns (55) to his resume. He’s all but a lock to receive his record fifth MVP trophy and he’s entered exclusive company just by getting the Broncos back to the Super Bowl.

When he takes his first snap Sunday night, Manning will become just the 12th quarterback in the history of the game to start in three Super Bowls. Among those in that group, eight (Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana, Troy Aikman, Tom Brady, John Elway, Bob Griese, Ben Roethlisberger and Roger Staubach) have each won multiple Super Bowls. This is the next accomplishment Manning has lined up in his sights and should he be successful, it not only would cement his legacy as one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game, it also would put the finishing touches on what is arguably the greatest season ever by a signal-caller.

Much has been made about Manning’s performance in the postseason, but a victory over Seattle would move his all-time playoff mark to 12-11 and would give him a second Super Bowl ring. The comparisons between Manning and Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway are unavoidable if not for the connection they now share. After leading the Broncos to back-to-back Super Bowl wins at the end of his career, Elway is now the man in charge of the franchise and was responsible for bringing Manning to Denver after Indianapolis released him in March 2012.

In two short seasons with the Broncos, Manning has reestablished himself as one of the game’s elite quarterbacks and led his team back to the Super Bowl. Elway walked away from the game after winning a second straight Lombardi Trophy in Super Bowl XXXIII. Could Manning do the same 15 years later? With him set to turn 38 years old in March and the lingering questions about his health less than three years removed from multiple neck surgeries, I suppose anything is possible. But whether this does end up being Manning’s final game or not, it only seems fitting that No. 18 walks off the MetLife Stadium turf Sunday night with the Lombardi Trophy in tow.

 Check out Athlon Sports' special Super Bowl section for more coverage on the Broncos vs. Seahawks and the history of the big game. 
2. Experience Matters
Considering there are 12 years separating the two starting quarterbacks, it should surprise no one that Denver is an older team than Seattle. According to Pro-Football-Reference.com, the Broncos’ average age is 26.3, while the Seahawks’ is 25.3. Now that one-year difference may not seem like a big deal, but entering the season Denver was the fifth-oldest team in the NFL, while Seattle was the fourth youngest, according to research compiled by ESPN.com NFL Insider Mike Sando.

The Broncos’ roster features eight players who have been in the NFL at least 10 years, while the Seahawks have one. Peyton Manning (16 seasons) is the oldest player on either team, but with age comes experience. Manning has played in two previous Super Bowls and 20 other postseason games. Contrast that to his counterpart, Russell Wilson, who has played in a total of four playoff contests.

Manning, 37, is set to become the second-oldest starting quarterback in Super Bowl history while Wilson will be the sixth quarterback to play on Super Sunday in his first or second season as a starter. Overall, the older quarterback holds a 26-21 edge in the Super Bowl, although the younger signal-caller has been on the winning side in 10 of the past 12.

That said, Manning and several of his teammates have been around the block more than one time. While Manning is looking for his second Super Bowl ring, guys like Champ Bailey (15 seasons), Quentin Jammer (12) and Shaun Phillips (10) are all looking for their first. Even Wes Welker, who went to two Super Bowls during his six seasons with New England, has yet to hold the Lombardi Trophy in his hands. And then there’s head coach John Fox, who led the Carolina Panthers to Super Bowl XXXVIII, only to lose to the Patriots by just three points.

There’s no question that the Seahawks are hungry and want to win this game. However, they also are fairly young as this is entirely new territory for the majority of this team, especially the quarterback and head coach. On the other side, Manning, Fox, Welker and a few other Broncos have already experienced this stage and know full well what it will take to finish the job next Sunday night. 

3. Broncos’ Defense Peaking at Right Time
Seattle’s defense will garner a lot more attention entering Super Bowl XLVIII and understandably so. Not only were the Seahawks the No. 1 defense during the regular season, this unit is faced with the task of slowing down Peyton Manning and the highest-scoring offense in the history of the NFL.

However, this does not mean that Denver’s defense should be overlooked. For one, the Broncos have put up better statistics than the Seahawks so far this postseason. Denver has given up an average of 289.5 yards per game in its two playoff contests compared to the 358.5 surrendered by Seattle. The points allowed (16.5 ppg for Denver, 16 for Seattle) are similar, but if there’s one area that’s been totally different it’s rushing defense. The Broncos have yielded a total of 129 yards rushing while the Seahawks have given up 269. Seattle’s offense is built around the running game (136.8 ypg in regular season, 4th in NFL), so it’s critical that Denver’s defense continues its strong play against the run.

What’s even more impressive about the Broncos’ recent defensive surge is that this unit is doing it without the services of All-Pro linebacker Von Miller, defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson and, for the most part, cornerback Chris Harris. Harris tore his ACL in the Divisional round win against San Diego, yet Denver still held Tom Brady and the Patriots to 320 yards of total offense and just 16 points in the AFC Championship Game.

I’m not saying that Denver’s defense is better than Seattle’s. There’s no question the Seahawks have more talent across the board, especially given the injuries the Broncos have suffered. However, Denver’s defense doesn’t have to stop Manning and company, Seattle does. The Broncos’ defense just needs to do its job against the Seahawks’ offense and lately that hasn’t been an issue for this unit.

4. Denver’s Stable of Weapons
Seattle’s defense finished the regular season tops in the league in both yards (273.6 ypg) and points (14.4 ppg) allowed. The Seahawks are also were No. 1in passing defense (172.0 ypg) in large part thanks to the efforts of their secondary, also known as the “Legion of Boom.”

Headlined by first-team All-Pros cornerback Richard Sherman and safety Earl Thomas, Seattle’s secondary also includes safety Kam Chancellor, who was a second-team All-Pro. Besides being athletic and physical, the Seahawks’ defensive backfield features decent size with Sherman and Chancellor both measuring at 6-3.

Seattle’s defense has had its way with pretty much every team it has played, but the Broncos represent an entirely different challenge. For one, Peyton Manning is enjoying the best statistical season of his Hall of Fame career as the Broncos set a new benchmark for scoring (606 points) in the regular season. Then there’s the stable of weapons Manning has to throw to starting with wide receivers Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Eric Decker, but also including tight end Julius Thomas and running backs Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball.

Besides a track record of production, Denver’s pass-catchers bring some size of their own, as Demaryius and Julius Thomas and Decker all stand at least 6-3. This by itself could be a factor when it comes to winning one-on-one matchups with Seattle’s secondary. In addition, offensive coordinator Adam Gase has done a fine job of putting together effective game plans for Manning to execute on the field throughout this season and there’s little reason to expect anything different for this game, especially with two weeks to prepare.

This Super Bowl is somewhat unique in that it will be the first one in more than 20 years to feature the No. 1 scoring offense versus the No. 1 scoring defense. As good as Seattle’s defense has been, it has yet to face anything quite like Denver’s offense. Of the 18 games the Seahawks have played, half of them have been against teams that ranked 26th or lower in the NFL in total offense during the regular season. New Orleans (4th) was the only team among the top 10 offenses that Seattle played and Denver averaged nearly 60 more yards and 12 points more per game than the Saints.

Defense may win championships, but there has never been as explosive and productive an offense as the Broncos, who may have too many weapons for even the mighty Seahawks to contain.

5. The Broncos' Unfinished Business
Denver has been working towards this game since last Jan. 12 when its 2012 season came to a crushing end following Baltimore’s 38-35 double overtime victory in the Divisional round. Not only did the Broncos lose at home, they were forced to sit back and watch the Ravens accomplish what they were hoping to – win Super Bowl XLVII.

A year later, the collapse against Baltimore is all but a memory, as Denver took care of San Diego and New England at home for the right to face Seattle next Sunday. While the Broncos certainly celebrated with their fans at Sports Authority Field at Mile High following the 26-16 win over the Patriots, the Lamar Hunt Trophy, which goes to the AFC champions, is not the hardware this team has been aiming for since the start of training camp back in the summer.

Just like John Elway 15 years ago, this Denver team wants to do all it can to ensure that Peyton Manning gets his second Super Bowl ring. Are you going to bet against a motivated herd of stampeding Broncos?

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Division archrivals are set to face off for the first time ever in the playoffs when the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks meet in the NFC Championship Game at 6:30 p.m. ET on FOX. Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers (14-4) defeated division winners Green Bay and Carolina on the road to earn a trip to their third straight conference title game. All that’s standing in their way of a repeat trip to the Super Bowl are Pete Carroll and the Seahawks (14-3), who won the NFC West and claimed the No. 1 seed behind the NFL’s No. 1 defense and a punishing running game.

Even though San Francisco was a wild card team, this is a matchup of teams that finished with the best records in the NFC (Carolina and San Francisco both went 12-4) during the regular season. The 49ers and Seahawks split their two earlier meetings, with the home team holding serve on their field.

This will be the first-ever playoff game between these two teams, who have split their 30 regular-season matchups. San Francisco and Seattle have both been in the NFC West since the 2002 season.

4 Things to Watch

Recap of Rounds 1 and 2
San Francisco and Seattle split their regular-season meetings, with the home team winning on their respective field. Although the Seahawks outscored the 49ers 46-22, a closer look at the statistics paints a different picture. Just 29 yards separated the two teams in terms of total offense (554 for Seattle, 525 for San Francisco) in the two games, with the discrepancy in first downs (32 to 31), rushing yards (258 to 263), total drives (24 to 23) and total plays (120 to 115), as well as sacks (6 to 7) being even smaller. Both offenses struggled on third down (10 of 28, 35.7 percent for Seattle; 8 of 25, 32 percent for San Francisco) and while Seattle won the time of possession battle (64:15 to 55:45), both teams averaged 4.6 yards per play. If there was one area that wasn’t particularly close, it was turnovers. The Seahawks forced seven takeaways, while the 49ers had just two. In fact, turnovers played a huge part in Seattle’s dominating 29-3 win back in Week 2, as San Francisco’s offense was short-circuited by five costly miscues, four of them by quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The first points of this game came via a safety by the Seahawks, who set the tone early and ran over the 49ers (172 yards rushing) in the win. San Francisco returned the favor in Week 14, outgaining Seattle 163 to 86 on the ground and riding Phil Dawson’s leg (four field goals, long of 52 yards) to victory. This one was much more of a back-and-forth affair, as the teams traded scoring drives in the second quarter, which ended with the 49ers holding a slim, two-point (16-14) lead. The defenses took over from there as the only points scored over the final 30 minutes were via field goals. Dawson’s 22-yarder with 26 seconds left put San Francisco on top for good, 19-17. Neither Kaepernick nor Wilson played all that well in either game, which is not surprising considering the Seahawks finished the regular season first in the league in total defense with the 49ers coming in at No. 5. Will the rubber match follow the same script as the first two or will tonight’s game feature a few more offensive fireworks?

71-16
The 49ers are the hottest team in the NFL right now, winners of eight in a row overall, five of those coming on the road. Over its last two seasons, San Francisco is 12-5 on the road, including playoff games. Unfortunately, none of these wins have come in Seattle, as the 49ers have lost their last two trips to the Pacific Northwest by a combined score of 71-16. The Seahawks won 42-13 in Week 16 of last season and 29-3 back on Sept. 15. Some common themes in these games are running the ball, turnovers and poor quarterback play by Colin Kaepernick. Seattle has outgained San Francisco 248 to 182 on the ground over the last two games at CenturyLink Field. Marshawn Lynch has outrushed the 49ers by himself, picking up 209 yards on 54 carries (3.9 ypc), along with three touchdowns. This postseason, San Francisco has given up a total of 217 yards rushing in two games, and this defense knows how important Seattle’s ground game is to its offense. The 49ers also need to do a better job protecting the football, as they have coughed it up seven times in their last two trips to Seattle, compared to just two miscues for the home team. Kaepernick is responsible for five of these (four INTs, fumble), which pretty much sums up how poorly he has played at CenturyLink Field. In two games in Seattle, Kaepernick has completed exactly half of his passes (32 of 64) for 371 yards, one touchdown and four picks. He has been his team’s leading rusher in each of these contests, but his totals of 16 carries for 118 yards (7.4 ypc) only serve to reinforce the discrepancy between the two offenses in this area. The 49ers enter this game with plenty of momentum, but the Seahawks have thoroughly dominated their divisional foe at home recently. Which trend will continue tonight?

Offensive Momentum
Neither San Francisco nor Seattle is an offensive juggernaut, coming in at 24th and 17th, respectively, in total yards per game in the regular season. However, the 49ers appear to have a little more momentum on that side, as their offense has shown better results recently. During their eight-game winning streak, which includes a Week 14 home win against Seattle and two postseason contests, the 49ers have averaged 348.3 yards per game. Contrast that to the Seahawks, who have averaged 246 yards of offense over their last three home games, including last week’s win against the Saints. San Francisco’s offense has been re-energized since the return of wide receiver Michael Crabtree from a torn Achilles tendon. In seven games, including the first two playoff wins, Crabtree has caught 30 passes for 435 yards (14.5 ypr) and a touchdown. Now while those numbers may not seem huge, Crabtree is Colin Kaepernick’s most trusted target, which has helped the quarterback’s confidence in the pocket, and his presence means that defenses can’t solely focus on fellow wideout Anquan Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis. Russell Wilson doesn’t have the weapons in the passing game that Kaepernick does, especially considering wide receiver Percy Harvin played in just one game in the regular season after undergoing offseason hip surgery. He returned last week against New Orleans, but suffered a concussion early in the game and has already been ruled out for tonight's contest. That leaves fellow wideouts Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin as Wilson’s top two targets. The concern there is that their combined production (114 rec., 1,676 yds., 10 TDs) in the regular season was similar to the numbers put up by Boldin and Crabtree (104 rec., 1,463 yds., 8 TDs), even though Crabtree played in just five games. At tight end, there’s no comparison between Davis (52-850-13) and the Seahawks’ committee of Zach Miller, Luke Wilson and Kellen Davis, who have combined for 56 receptions for 691 yards and seven scores. Offensively speaking, the numbers have been very similar between these two teams over their first two meetings. However, San Francisco’s unit appears to be peaking at just the right time, while Seattle’s is in the midst of a mini-slump of sorts. With the defenses getting most of the attention, the opportunity is there for either offense to make its own statement or come up short at the absolute worst time possible.

Gene Steratore
An NFL official since 2003 and a referee since ’06, the 50-year-old Steratore will head up the officiating crew for the NFC Championship Game. Considering the physicality of these two teams and their utter dislike of one another, how much on-air time Steratore gets, particularly after a yellow hanky has been thrown, could be a key factor in this game. In the first two meetings, San Francisco and Seattle had a total of 38 penalties for 360 yards called on them. Each team was responsible for 19 penalties with the flags thrown on the 49ers accounting for more than half (191) of the yardage. Nine of the 63 total first downs gained by both teams in these two games were gained via penalty. As it relates to Steratore, he and his crew finished in the middle of the pack in terms of total penalties called (210) during the regular season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. For comparison, Jeff Triplette’s crew led the way with 244. In the regular season, the Seahawks led the league in total penalties (128) with the 49ers coming in at 12th with 103. Last week, San Francisco benefited from a few personal foul calls against Carolina, while Seattle was flagged just six times compared to New Orleans’ eight. There’s no question that this game will feature some dirty laundry. But how many flags are thrown and which team benefits and/or is hurt most by these infractions is certainly something worth keeping an eye on.

Key Positional Matchup: QB Colin Kaepernick vs. QB Russell Wilson
In a game that features two of the top five defenses during the regular season, it sort of goes without saying that quarterback play will be key. However, that is especially the case for this game considering one quarterback has struggled mightily in this venue while the other has not been at his best recently. Kaepernick is 0-2 at CenturyLink Field with both games ranking among the worst performances in his young career. He has completed just half of his passes with more turnovers (five) than total touchdowns (one). Wilson (right) has posted a 5:2 TD:INT ratio in these two games, but his completion rate (57.5) and yardage total (313) leave something to be desired. With Wilson, however, the concern is more related to how he has performed over the past month. Since Week 14, the Seahawks are averaging just 144.2 yards passing per game. That’s a big reason why they have scored just 20 points per contest during this stretch of five games and have gone a mediocre 3-2. Third down in particular has been an issue for Wilson. According to ESPN’s Stats & Information, Wilson has posted a 70.1 passer rating and just one first down on three rushes on third down over his last five games. In comparison, Kaepernick has produced a 101.6 passer rating along with six first downs on 11 rushes during the same span. Wilson is 16-1 in his career at home, including last week’s win over New Orleans. Kaepernick is 3-0 in his career in road postseason games. As the saying goes, something’s gotta give.

Final Analysis

Longtime division rivals who absolutely despise each other get together for the first time in the playoffs with a spot in the Super Bowl on the line? It doesn’t get much better than this. For one, the rivalry goes beyond the players, as both coaches have established history with each other that goes back to their time matching wits in the Pac-12.

In nine career matchups, Jim Harbaugh is 6-3 against Pete Carroll, including a 4-2 mark in their San Francisco vs. Seattle clashes. Harbaugh also has enjoyed more success than Carroll, as this is his third straight NFC Championship Game appearance in as many seasons while Carroll is in his first in four campaigns with the Seahawks. Familiarity certainly hasn’t resulted in friendship either, as both have taken their share of veiled (and some not-so-veiled) shots at the other’s team.

So it’s only fitting that these two franchises will “settle” things on the field, as they spilt their regular-season meetings. Seattle has been near unbeatable at home this season and has thoroughly dominated San Francisco in its last two trips to CenturyLink Field. This 49ers team, however, is battle-tested and has won its last three true road playoff games.

So what should one expect in this clash of NFC titans? Once again, the defenses will more than likely dictate the proceedings, but this is not the same 49ers offense that the Seahawks manhandled back in Week 2. Yards and points will be tough to come by for either unit, but in the end I think Colin Kaepernick is a little more productive than Russell Wilson because he has better weapons in the passing game.

Marshawn Lynch does his best to carry Seattle to the Super Bowl, but Wilson’s late-season struggles finally catch up to him and the offense. Harbaugh’s playoff-savvy squad controls the second half, propelling the 49ers back to the Super Bowl.

San Francisco 20, Seattle 17

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It’s No. 1 vs. No. 2 when the Denver Broncos host the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game at 3 p.m. ET on CBS. John Fox’s Broncos (14-3) erased last season’s playoff disappointment by beating the Chargers in the Divisional Round, presenting Peyton Manning with a shot at getting back to the Super Bowl. The Patriots (13-4) ran roughshod over the Colts last week and need just one more win for their sixth Super Bowl appearance in the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era.

Besides this representing the 15th head-to-head matchup between future Hall of Fame quarterbacks, this also serves as a rematch of the teams’ Week 12 showdown. That game was won 34-31 by the Patriots in overtime in Foxboro and was one of the more thrilling contests during the regular season. The Broncos are hoping for a different result at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, where they have gone 8-1 this season.

5 Things to Watch

Brady-Manning Bowl XV
Let’s just go ahead and get this one out of the way shall we? Any informed football fan knows that this will be the 15th head-to-head encounter of two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks. Tom Brady holds a comfortable 10-4 edge over Peyton Manning in these games, including a 2-1 mark in the playoffs. This also represents the third time that Brady and Manning will meet in the AFC Championship Game, a feat that has happened just three other times since the NFL-AFL merger of 1970. They have split the title game matchups, with Brady winning in the 2003 playoffs at home and Manning returning the favor in ’06. Both times the winner of the AFC Championship Game went on to win the Super Bowl and be named the MVP. From a numbers standpoint, Brady has performed much better in their postseason encounters than Manning. Brady has completed 61 of 98 passes (62.2 percent) for 613 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions along with a rushing score. Manning has connected on 77 of his 136 attempts (56.6 percent) for 824 yards, but just two touchdowns compared to six picks. He also has scored on the ground. As far as this game goes, Manning will enjoy the comfort of playing at home and he’s also coming off of the most prolific regular season of any quarterback in NFL history. Manning has five different targets who have caught at least 60 passes this season, while Brady has just one. He also won’t have tight end Rob Gronkowski, who played a big part in the Patriots’ regular-season win over the Broncos, to throw to. Neither Brady nor Manning put up huge numbers last week, but any informed football fan knows well that No. 12 and No. 18 will have plenty to say in the outcome of this afternoon’s game before all is said and done.

What Happened Back in November
It was a tale of two completely different halves when Denver traveled to New England for a Week 12 primetime showdown. The Broncos sprinted out to a 17-0 first-quarter lead behind a 60-yard fumble return by Von Miller and a short Knowshon Moreno touchdown run. Peyton Manning stretched that lead to 24-0 with a touchdown pass to Jacob Tamme in the second quarter. Seemingly down for the count, the Patriots responded with a touchdown on the opening possession of the second half and then scored again after recovering a Montee Ball fumble in Denver territory. Tom Brady found Rob Gronkowski in the end zone on their next possession to cut the lead to just three points headed into the fourth quarter. An interception of Manning set the Patriots up deep in Broncos’ territory once again and Brady connected with Julian Edelman three plays later to make it 28 unanswered points by the home team. A Stephen Gostkowski field goal staked New England to a seven-point lead before Manning and the Broncos responded with a 13-play, 80-yard drive that culminated with a Demaryius Thomas touchdown catch and a tie game with 3:06 remaining. Neither team got into scoring range after that, sending the game into overtime. In the extra period, both teams struggled to sustain drives turning the game into a battle of field position. That was until the Patriots punted with a little more than three minutes on the clock. With former New England star Wes Welker awaiting the Ryan Allen punt, the kick landed short and hit the Broncos’ Tony Carter. The Patriots fell on the ball at the Denver 13-yard line and Gostkowski sent the home crowd happy one play later with a game-winning 31-yard field goal, completing the improbable comeback. Brady torched the Broncos’ defense, especially in the second half, for 344 yards and three touchdowns, while Manning was held to season lows in both yards (150) and completion percentage (52.8) with two touchdowns and an interception. Knowshon Moreno picked up the slack and then some, rushing for a career-high 224 yards and a score on 37 carries, but Denver’s season-high 280 yards rushing weren’t enough to hold off Brady and overcome four turnovers. Once again, Manning came up short against Brady and Bill Belichick, as the Patriots got to within one game of the Broncos for the top spot in the AFC.

Denver’s Defensive Depth
After the disappointing loss in New England, Denver bounced back to win four of its final five games to claim the AFC West title and No.1 seed in the playoffs. Unfortunately, the Broncos have lost two key pieces of their defense in getting to this point. All-Pro linebacker Von Miller, who opened the scoring in the first game against the Patriots with a fumble return for a touchdown, tore his ACL in the Week 16 win in Houston, ending his season. After missing the first six games due to suspension, Miller returned and helped reinvent a Denver defense that had been struggling some without him. In nine games, Miller registered five sacks and forced three fumbles, and his absence puts even more pressure on starting linebackers Wesley Woodyard and Danny Trevathan, as well as defensive end Shaun Phillips, the Broncos’ main pass-rushing threat. As bad as Miller’s injury was, the bigger blow could end up being the loss of cornerback Chris Harris, who tore his ACL in last week’s win against San Diego. Up until his injury, Harris had played the most snaps of any Denver defender and his importance can’t be overstated. According to ESPN Stats & Information, when Harris was on the field the Broncos allowed a QB Rating of 43.6. When he was not on the field, that number ballooned to 93.0. Harris’ absence has resulted in some shuffling in Denver’s defensive backfield. Champ Bailey, who has played in just six games this season because of a foot injury, is expected to slide over to take Harris’ spot at cornerback. Veteran Quentin Jammer got the call last week, but struggled trying to contain San Diego rookie wide receiver Keenan Allen, who caught two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter. The team also signed former Patriot Marquice Cole this week to shore up its cornerback depth. Tom Brady had his way with Denver’s pass defense in the first game (344 yards, 3 TDs) and the Broncos’ secondary will definitely have its work cut out this afternoon with Harris sidelined.

New England’s Next Man Up
If there’s any silver lining to the challenge facing Denver’s patchwork defense, it’s that it won’t have to worry about All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski. In the first game, Gronk caught nine passes for 90 yards and a touchdown, but his injury-plagued season came to an abrupt end in December when he tore his ACL in Week 14 against Cleveland. Michael Hoomanawanui has taken over as the starting tight end, but he is nowhere near the factor in the passing game (12 rec., 136 yds., TD) that Gronk was. On the other side of the ball, New England’s defense has been devastated by key injuries, as All-Pros Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork, along with starters Tommy Kelly and Adrian Wilson all went down before the Patriots even hosted the Broncos in Week 12. New England lost another starting linebacker before the playoffs started when Brandon Spikes went on injured reserve because of a knee injury. Spikes had nine tackles in the first game against Denver and had replaced Mayo as the leader of this unit. Now that role falls to second-year man Dont’a Hightower, who along with rookie Jamie Collins and veteran Dane Fletcher, man the middle for the Patriots. Fortunately, this group played very well, in particular Collins, in last week’s win against Indianapolis, but going up against Peyton Manning and the NFL’s No. 1 offense at home represents an entirely different challenge.

Gaining Ground or Running in Place?
Back in Week 12, Denver rushed for a season-high 280 yards with Knowhson Moreno picking up 224 of those. New England had 116 yards on the ground, but still won the game in overtime thanks to Tom Brady’s right arm and one timely turnover. Since that game, the Broncos have relied less on the running game, while the Patriots have leaned heavily on theirs. Denver has averaged 25.8 rushing attempts over its last six games, including 34 in its win over San Diego. New England has carried it 32.2 times per game over the same span, highlighted by the 46 attempts last week against Indianapolis. The main catalyst behind the Patriots’ running game has been LeGarrette Blount. After posting just two carries for 13 yards against the Broncos, Blount has averaged 15.8 attempts over the last five games and has totaled 355 yards and six rushing touchdowns in his last two contests alone. As good as Moreno and Blount have been, they aren’t the only productive ball carriers in their respective backfields either. Denver’s Montee Ball is averaging 6.3 yards per carry over his last six games, while Stevan Ridley led New England in rushing during the regular season and had two rushing touchdowns last week. The Broncos have done a good job against the run this season and limited the Chargers to just 65 yards on the ground last week, but this defense will be missing three key run-stoppers this afternoon in linebacker Von Miller, defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson and cornerback Chris Harris. The Patriots’ defense is equally thin up front without defensive linemen Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly as well as All-Pro middle linebacker Jerod Mayo. This is a big reason why this unit struggled to stop the run during the regular season (134.1 ypg, 30th in the NFL). New England’s defense did hold Indianapolis to just 69 yards rushing last week, but an early 14-0 lead had a lot to do with the Colts throwing the ball 41 times compared to just 21 rushing attempts. Hall of Fame-bound quarterbacks aside, this game could end up being won or lost in the trenches.

New England Key Players: Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower, LBs
If healthy, the Patriots’ top linebackers are All-Pro Jerod Mayo and running mate Brandon Spikes. Unfortunately, Mayo played in just six games before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury while Spikes joined him on injured reserve (knee) the week after the regular season ended. With these two sidelined, the middle of the defense will most likely be manned by Collins and Hightower (right), who both got the start in the first game against Denver. A rookie, Collins was the team’s second-round pick in April and recorded a season-high 10 tackles in the Week 12 win over the Broncos. He had an even bigger impact last week when he picked up his first career sack and interception against the Colts. Hightower was the 25th overall player taken in the 2012 NFL Draft and finished as the team’s leading tackler with 97 stops in the regular season. He also picked off Andrew Luck last week and has stepped up his game in the absence of Mayo and Spikes. If the Patriots stick with their five-defensive back alignment this afternoon against Denver, Collins and Hightower figure to have their hands full yet again. Not only with run support, but also in pass coverage as the Broncos use a lot of screens in their passing game and also like to employ their running backs as receivers out of the backfield. The duo of Collins and Hightower held up quite well the first time it faced off against Peyton Manning and company. Can the tandem do so again, this time on the road and with a spot in the Super Bowl on the line?

Denver Key Player: Wes Welker, WR
Peyton Manning isn’t the only Bronco who enters this game with something to prove. Tom Brady’s favorite target in his six seasons with New England, Welker went 0-2 in Super Bowls with the Patriots. To see if the third time’s the charm, Welker first has to beat his former team, something that didn’t happen back in Week 12. In that game, Welker’s contributions as a receiver were limited to just four catches for 31 yards He also returned two punts for a modest 13 yards, but it was the one he didn’t catch that ended up being the biggest play of the game. After forcing New England to punt with a little more than three minutes to go in overtime, Welker didn’t try to field Ryan Allen’s kick, which bounced well short of where Welker was standing. Welker waved his hands to signal his teammates to stay away from the ball, but Tony Carter either didn’t get the message or simply lost track of where the ball was, as it bounced up and hit him. The Patriots pounced on the live ball deep in Denver territory and won the game two plays later on a short field goal. After the game, Welker accepted the blame for not communicating properly to his teammates. Whether Welker ends up returning punts this afternoon remains to be seen, but there’s no doubt he’s itching to redeem himself on the field this afternoon.

Final Analysis

While this may be a rematch of their regular-season meeting, don’t be a bit surprised if this game ends up looking very little like the one that took place back on Nov. 24. For one, the venue is different with Denver being the home team. Outside of San Diego, no team has been able to slow down the Broncos’ offense at home.

Another reason is it was quite cold that night in Foxboro, Mass., which not only impacted the players (total of six lost fumbles), it also caused both the game and play clocks to go out at one point early on. The forecast for this afternoon calls for temperatures to be comfortably in the mid to upper 50s. Then there’s the matter of some key players who won’t be playing today, such as All-Pros Rob Gronkowski and Von Miller as well as key defenders Chris Harris and Brandon Spikes.

The Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning angle is without a doubt one of the main storylines for this game, as the former is looking to maintain his head-to-head success against No. 18 while the latter is looking for a measure of redemption following the greatest statistical season produced by a quarterback in NFL history. And with neither defense anywhere close to full strength, both signal-callers should get their share of scoring opportunities, especially if their ground games are clicking.

And in the end, I think this game will come down to which team fares better in the running game, on both sides of the ball, compared to what happens under center. Although the Patriots have been running over people with ease lately, I think they will find the yards a little tougher to come by against a motivated Broncos defense. Denver’s running game can be productive in its own right, and look for Manning to make the right audibles at the line to take advantage of a depleted New England defense that finally feels the pinch of a stretched depth chart.

Brady may still hold a sizable edge on the overall scorecard, but when Round 15 comes to an end, Manning will be the one holding the Lamar Hunt Trophy aloft.

Denver 27, New England 24

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Division rivals meet for the third time this season when the San Diego Chargers take on the Denver Broncos in this afternoon’s AFC Divisional Playoff game at 4:40 p.m. ET on CBS. Philip Rivers and the Chargers (10-7) upset the Bengals in last week’s Wild Card win and now look to beat the AFC West champions on their home turf for the second time in a little more a month. Peyton Manning and the Broncos (13-3) are coming off of a bye that allowed them to get some rest and healthy and some payback against the only team to beat them at home this season.

San Diego earned the final wild card spot in the AFC on the strength of a four-game winning streak to end the regular season. One of those wins was a 27-20 upset of the Broncos in Denver in Week 15. The Chargers continued their strong play on the road last week, overcoming a 10-7 halftime deficit and outscoring the Bengals 20-0 in the final two quarters to win their Wild Card game 27-10. The loss also was Cincinnati’s first at home all season.

Denver, the top seed in the AFC, will try and avoid becoming the fourth division champ in these playoffs to lose at home in their first game. Besides Cincinnati (AFC North), Philadelphia (NFC East) and Green Bay (NFC North) also came up short at home in their respective wild card matchups. The Broncos also would like to finally move past last season’s playoff collapse against Baltimore in the Divisional round.

3 Things to Watch

The Rubber Match
San Diego and Denver split their two regular-season meetings with each team winning on the other’s home field. The Broncos won 28-20 in San Diego in Week 10 in their first game without head coach John Fox, who underwent emergency heart surgery in early November. Peyton Manning threw for 330 yards and four touchdowns as Denver jumped out to a 21-6 halftime lead and never looked back. San Diego had more rushing yards (131 to 84), but Philip Rivers had just 218 yards passing and the offense managed just two field goals despite being on the edge of the red zone on three of their first four possessions. The rematch came a month later with the Broncos a heavy favorite at home, where they were averaging nearly 480 yards of offense and more than 42 points per game in their first seven at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Someone apparently forgot to pass this on to the Chargers, however, as the defense held the NFL’s No. 1 offense to a season-low in both yards (295) and points (20). Rivers and company did their part too, scoring three straight touchdowns to turn a 10-3 deficit into a 24-10 advantage entering the fourth quarter. San Diego’s defense held, giving the Chargers an improbable 27-20 victory that kept their late-season momentum going. Once again, San Diego enjoyed much more success running the ball, outgaining Denver 177-18 on the ground behind Ryan Mathews’ 127 yards rushing. Manning threw for 289, but needed 27 completions and 41 attempts to get there, as Denver’s longest play from scrimmage was just 22 yards. Rivers completed just 12 passes, but two of them went for short touchdowns to rookie wide receiver Keenan Allen, and he didn’t turn the ball over. The Broncos were without Wes Welker, who missed this game as well as the next two because of a concussion, and it was apparent that the normally high-scoring offense wasn’t the same without him. The Chargers left the Mile High City with a bunch of confidence, which carried over to their final two games of the regular season and last week’s Wild Card win, while the Broncos were left scratching their heads wondering what had happened. Denver did bounce back, winning their final two games to close things out, and now has a chance to take out two birds with one stone thanks to San Diego’s upset of Cincinnati last week.

Pressure on Peyton
Peyton Manning is all but assured of winning his fifth MVP award after setting new single-season records for both passing yards (5,477) and touchdowns (55), as Denver scored the most points (606) in a single season in NFL history. He also completed better than 68 percent of his passes with just 10 interceptions, finishing second in the league in passer rating (115.1). After leading the Broncos to the AFC’s best record at 13-3, Manning brought his regular-season victory total to 167 in his career and he also picked up his 10th division title. He was the only unanimous first-team All-Pro selection (seventh time overall) and he also earned his 13th Pro Bowl invitation. All of these numbers have one thing in common – they are related to the regular season. As far as the playoffs go, the number that matters most when it comes to Manning is 9-11. That is his career record in the postseason, the only real blemish to his otherwise sterling Hall of Fame resume. Manning has one Super Bowl ring in tow, but he’s also lost in the big game once and his sub-.500 career playoff mark includes eight one-and-done appearances. Manning’s last playoff victory came in the AFC Championship Game following the 2009 season when he was still with Indianapolis. At 37 years old and less than three years removed from multiple neck surgeries, Manning knows he’s nearing the end of his career. Nothing would be sweeter for him than to prove all the naysayers wrong by leading his team to another Lombardi Trophy, especially given all that he’s gone through in the last three years. However, Manning also knows that all eyes are on him and even though this is a team sport (and he doesn’t play defense), that Denver’s Super Bowl aspirations are riding on his right arm. Manning is as competitive as they come, but even he can’t dispute his postseason resume. The 9-11 record speaks for itself, but there’s also the 32:21 touchdown-to-interception ratio in playoff games, a number that looks rather pedestrian compared to his 491:219 career mark in the regular season. But there are also the gut-wrenching, game-deciding interceptions, such as the one he threw late in the first overtime against Baltimore in last season’s Divisional Playoff game, which set the Ravens up for Justin Tucker’s game-winning field goal early in the second extra period. No matter that the game went to overtime in the first place because the Broncos’ defense gave up a 70-yard “Hail Mary” touchdown with just 31 seconds left to tie the score. The buck begins and ends with Manning, that’s just the way it works when it comes to being one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game. And this also is why Manning is faced with yet another defining moment this afternoon. If he and the Broncos take care of business at home then he won’t have to deal with any one-and-done questions for at least another season. If Denver comes up short at home again, regardless of how well Manning plays, all of the talk will be focused around two numbers – 9-12 and what that means as far as No. 18’s status among his peers. Is Manning ready to silence some of his critics or give them more reason to sound off?

What’s the Rush?
In two games against Denver, San Diego has rushed for 308 yards or 154 per game. In the Chargers’ 15 other games, including last week’s Wild Card win over Cincinnati, they have averaged 123.5 rushing yards per game. San Diego’s ground dominance was a big reason why the Chargers split their two games against the Broncos and also played a part in holding the highest-scoring offense in NFL history to just 23.5 points per contest, which was more than 14 points below their average (37.9). The Chargers really had their ground game going last week against Cincinnati, gashing the Bengals for a season-high 196 yards on the ground on 40 carries (4.9 ypc) and would no doubt love to continue that success this afternoon. They did much of this damage with leading rusher Ryan Mathews sidelined because of a lingering ankle injury, which has him listed as Questionable on the injury report. Mathews rushed for 186 yards and two touchdowns in the first two games against Denver, so if he is limited or can’t go, it will fall to Danny Woodhead and Ronnie Brown, who sealed last week’s win with a 58-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter, to pick up the slack once again. The Broncos are just as capable of running the ball successfully, as Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball have combined for nearly 1,600 yards and 14 rushing touchdowns. Denver didn’t have much success against San Diego in this department, however, posting a total of 102 yards rushing in two games. This needs to change, as the run not only helps set up the play-action passing game, but it could help keep the Chargers’ offense off of the field longer, something a beleaguered Broncos defense would definitely appreciate. From a defensive standpoint, Denver finished the regular season tied for seventh against the run (101.6 ypg), while San Diego wasn’t too far behind in 12th place (107.8 ypg). The Chargers surrendered 113 yards on the ground to the Bengals last week, but limited them to just one touchdown. After getting gashed by San Diego for a season-worst 177 yards rushing in Week 15, the Broncos yielded a total of 151 in wins over Houston and Oakland to close out the regular season. Quarterback play is obviously important, especially with Peyton Manning on one sideline, but whichever team controls the line of scrimmage and does the most damage on the ground will more than likely end up being victorious.

San Diego Key Player: Philip Rivers, QB
While most of the attention will be on Peyton Manning, and understandably so, his counterpart also has an opportunity to beef up his postseason resume. Rivers evened his playoff record to 4-4 following last week’s Wild Card win in Cincinnati and is looking to earn his second trip to the AFC Championship Game in 10 seasons with the Chargers. Rivers wasn’t asked to do a lot last week, as San Diego controlled the clock and the flow with a dominant running game, but he was solid nonetheless. He completed 12 of 16 passes for 128 yards and a touchdown and didn’t turn the ball over. Turnovers have been a bit of a bugaboo for Rivers during his career, but he’s thrown just 11 interceptions and lost just two fumbles this season compared to his 32 touchdown passes. He is 10-7 in his career against Denver and 5-4 in head-to-head matchups against Manning. Rivers holds a 2-0 edge over the future Hall of Famer when it comes to playoff games, however, as the Chargers beat the Colts in a 2007 Divisional Playoff game in Indianapolis and in the ’08 Wild Card game at home. Manning has come out victorious in three of the four meetings since coming to Denver, but there’s no doubt which quarterback is under more pressure and scrutiny entering this one. The Broncos’ defense, especially its pass rush, hasn’t been the same since Von Miller suffered a knee injury. Can Rivers take advantage of this and embrace the underdog role to pull of another big upset?

Denver Key Players: Defense
Just because most of the focus will be on Peyton Manning, it doesn’t mean that the Broncos’ defense is off the hook. After all, Manning staked his team to a seven-point lead with 1:09 remaining in last season’s Divisional Playoff game against Baltimore. It was the defense that allowed the Ravens to go 77 yards in three plays to tie up the score before going on to win in double overtime. It also is the defense that finished 27th in the NFL against the pass this season, giving up 254.4 yards per game. This defense has had its moments and produced 26 takeaways, but it’s also given up 440 yards or more on four different occasions. In the postseason, the margin of error is so small (as in inches, right Rahim Moore?), and it’s too much to expect Manning and company to produce like they did in the regular season. This defense is capable of giving opposing offenses fits, but its task will be a little tougher without All-Pro linebacker Von Miller around to apply pressure and make some big plays. With Miller sidelined because of a knee injury, it falls to Shaun Phillips to lead the charge in the pass rush. The rest of the defensive line needs to disrupt things up front and make some plays in San Diego’s backfield, while linebackers Wesley Woodyard and Danny Trevathan clean up the leftovers and protect the middle of the field. The group that’s under the most pressure, however, is arguably the secondary, especially considering last season’s playoff collapse. The Chargers have been more content to run the ball than throw it lately, but Philip Rivers will take his chances. This means the likes of Champ Bailey and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie need to do their job in coverage, especially on rookie wide receiver Keenan Allen and veteran tight end Antonio Gates, as well as limit the big plays and bad mistakes. Manning will no doubt play a huge role in how this game turns out, but the fate of the Broncos’ season does not entirely lie in the hands of No. 18. There are 11 guys on the other side of the ball who need to do their job too.

Final Analysis

Denver is the top seed in the AFC playoffs, went 7-1 at home this season and is feeling all of the pressure entering this one. The memory of last season’s playoff collapse against Baltimore lingers and Peyton Manning doesn’t want to go one and done in the postseason for the ninth time in his career. San Diego is relishing its underdog role, as the Chargers handed the Broncos their only home loss so far and are riding high after last week’s Wild Card win in Cincinnati.

San Diego has done a better job than other team this season of limiting the highest-scoring offense in NFL history, but you can’t help but wonder if Denver offensive coordinator Adam Gase and Manning used the bye last week to come up with some new wrinkles. The bottom line is that the Broncos know they need to figure out a way to find some things that work against a defense that’s obviously benefitted from first-year head coach Mike McCoy’s familiarity with his former team.

There’s obviously a lot at stake in this rubber match, but I have a hard time seeing Manning and his teammates coming up short this time. There were several things that happened in last season’s loss to Baltimore that could only be defined as “fluky.” Also, it’s fair to say that the weather (13 degrees at kickoff) was a factor, as Manning just didn’t look comfortable throwing in those conditions. He’s already posted some pretty big numbers in less-than-ideal conditions this season and also it looks like the only weather that could be in play this afternoon is the wind.

For this one, I am expecting Denver to look more like the team that rolled up 480 yards of offense and 42 points in its first seven home games than the one that was held to just 295 and 20 by San Diego in December. I also think the defense will pull together and put forth one of its stronger performances this season, as the Broncos take care of business at home to set the stage for another Manning vs. Brady AFC Championship Game next week.

Denver 31, San Diego 23

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The San Francisco 49ers take their road show to Charlotte where they will face the Carolina Panthers in this afternoon’s NFC Divisional Playoff game at 1:05 p.m. ET on FOX. The 49ers (13-4) won their Wild Card matchup with the Packers last week and look to extend their seven-game winning streak with their fourth straight victory away from home.  The Panthers (12-4) are in the playoffs for the first time since 2008 after winning the NFC South. Ron Rivera’s team is 7-1 at Bank of America Stadium this season and also beat San Francisco on the road in Week 10.

Jim Harbaugh’s squad is looking to duplicate the success it had in Green Bay last week, as Colin Kaepernick tormented the Packers for a third time in a little more than a year. Kaepernick is now 3-1 in the playoffs in his young career, while his counterpart, Cam Newton is playing in his first postseason game. Kaepernick is hoping to lead his team to a third straight NFC Championship Game, while Newton would like to lead his team one step closer to the Super Bowl with a second win against the 49ers this season.

3 Things to Watch

Another Defensive Struggle?
Round 1 back in Week 10 was won by Carolina. The Panthers beat the 49ers 10-9 in Candlestick Park in a game that was dominated by defense. Carolina entered this game on a four-game winning streak and stayed hot, holding San Francisco to just three Phil Dawson field goals, all of them coming in the first half. The Panthers managed just two scoring drives of their own, but DeAngelo Williams’ 27-yard touchdown run with less than two minutes left in the second quarter accounted for the only trip to the end zone. Graham Gano kicked a 53-yard field goal with 10 minutes left in the game, which ended up being the deciding score. Neither offense was that effective, but Carolina did outgain the home team 250-151 as Colin Kaepernick finished 11-of-22 passing for just 91 yards and an interception. He also was sacked six times. Cam Newton didn’t fare much better (16-of-32, 169 yds., INT), but the Panthers made the most out of Williams’ TD run, the longest play from scrimmage in the game, and bottled up the 49ers’ offense just enough to secure the huge road win. Carolina kept things rolling after this game, winning six of their last seven to overtake New Orleans for the NFC South division title. San Francisco lost its next game, in New Orleans, but hasn’t lost since, ratting off six straight victories to close out the regular season and then taking down Green Bay, 23-20, in last week’s Wild Card game. As far as the encore goes, the defenses are pretty much intact with one large exception. All-Pro linebacker Aldon Smith saw limited snaps in the first game, which was his first action after he missed five games to deal with some personal issues. He has slowly worked his way back into the rotation and has 3.5 sacks in his last four games, including 1.5 in the Wild Card win over the Packers. Both defenses feature plenty of Pro Bowlers and finished among the top seven units in the four major categories (total, scoring, rushing, passing) in the regular season. Don’t be surprised to see another low-scoring affair this afternoon.

QB Playoff Experience
Cam Newton, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2011 NFL Draft, has 48 games worth of experience under his belt, all of them starts. Colin Kaepernick, taken 35 picks later, has played in 35 career games, 26 of those starts. The difference, however, lies in the postseason. Kaepernick is 3-1 in the playoffs, with his only loss coming in Super Bowl XLVII last season, while Newton is making his postseason debut. Kaepernick has been productive in the playoffs, throwing for 1,025 yards and rushing for another 362 in those four games. He has accounted for eight total touchdowns (five pass, three rush) and just three interceptions. He’s been especially effective as a rusher, averaging 11.3 yards per carry and gashing Green Bay last season for a quarterback-record 181 on the ground. Kaepernick has been up and down for most of this season, and his first game against Carolina was one of the worst performances in his young career. He was just 11-of-22 passing against the Panthers in the Week 10 loss, tossing an interception, getting sacked six times and rushing for only 16 yards. Kaepernick knows he needs to play better, especially on the road, against this defense, but at least he has previous postseason experience and success to lean on. The same cannot be said for Newton, however, who needed three seasons to lead his team to the playoffs and will be under the microscope every snap against San Francisco. Even though Newton won the first matchup against Kaepernick and the 49ers, he didn’t exactly play lights out. He completed just half of his passes (16 of 32) for 169 yards and an interception, along with just 15 yards rushing on eight carries. The Panthers are coming off of a long layoff while the 49ers beat Green Bay at frigid Lambeau Field last week. Newton also may not have his full arsenal of weapons (see below), while Kaepernick’s corps is finally healthy and clicking at just the right time. The defenses are the focus of this game, and deservedly so, but someone is going to have make some plays on offense at some point. That’s where the quarterbacks come in. Will Kaepernick continue his postseason success or will Newton rise to the occasion in his first playoff game? Don’t forget, Kaepernick was in this exact position last season. Things worked out pretty well for him, right?

Progress in the Passing Game?
The first time these two teams played, Carolina and San Francisco combined for a 50 percent completion rate (27 of 54), 260 yards passing and two interceptions. Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick were sacked a total of nine times and also were held to a combined 31 yards rushing (on 12 carries). So what will be different this time around? For one, Steve Smith, the leading receiver in the first game (6 rec., 63 yds.), is dealing with a knee injury. He has been limited in practice and hasn’t been too optimistic about the condition of his knee. There’s little reason to expect Smith to miss this game, but it is pretty apparent he will not be close to 100 percent. Even though Smith’s numbers have been down, he remains Newton’s top target. A limited Smith will put even more pressure on fellow wideout Brandon LaFell and tight end Greg Olsen, to name a few, to produce in the passing game. That’s a tall order against the seventh-ranked passing defense (221.0 ypg) in the regular season. Meanwhile, the 49ers figure to be at full strength in their passing game, something they weren’t in the first meeting. Wide receiver Michael Crabtree didn’t play and tight end Vernon Davis sustained a concussion in the Week 10 home loss, which limited Kaepernick’s options even more. Since his Week 13 return from a torn Achilles, Crabtree has caught 27 passes for 409 yards and a touchdown. This includes the 125 yards he had on eight catches in the Wild Card win in Green Bay. Not surprisingly, Kaepernick’s passing numbers have improved since Crabtree’s return. The quarterback is averaging 231.2 yards through the air over the last six games, compared to 185.2 in his first 11. Crabtree’s presence only makes Davis and fellow wideout Anquan Boldin that much tougher to cover, which is something the Panthers’ sixth-ranked passing defense (214.3 ypg) will try and solve once again. For both offenses, it looks like their passing attacks may function differently this time around. Which team benefits the most from these changes remains to be seen.

San Francisco Key Player: Anquan Boldin, WR
Michael Crabtree is back and making an impact for the 49ers in the passing game. Vernon Davis posted a career-high 13 touchdowns and has been highly productive in the playoffs. However, the workhorse of this aerial attack is Boldin. The 11-year veteran is equally capable of making the tough catch across the middle or in tight coverage, as he is breaking off a long play. Of his 85 catches in the regular season, 62 of them resulted in a first down and he’s averaging nearly 14 yards per reception. He had 22 grabs for 380 yards and four touchdowns in the Baltimore’s Super Bowl run last season, including 10 for 104 against the 49ers in the big game. Boldin had just five catches for 23 yards in the first meeting with Carolina and only six for 38 in last week’s Wild Card win. If anything, he should find more space to operate in with the Carolina defense having to worry about Crabtree in addition to Davis, and I have little doubt Boldin has another big playoff performance in him.

Carolina Key Player: Cam Newton, QB
It may seem rather simplistic, but if the Panthers are going to win this afternoon they need their quarterback to make plays. Carolina’s defense is certainly capable of beating the 49ers, but someone will need to put some points on the board. This is Newton’s first playoff game, but franchise quarterbacks don’t get the benefit of the doubt in these cases very often. Even when their top wide receiver (Steve Smith) will be at less than 100 percent on the field. Newton has risen to the occasion more than once this season, but the slate has been wiped clean and all that matters now is what he does this afternoon. Every starting quarterback playing this weekend has at least one playoff win to his credit. Will Newton join the club?

Final Analysis

Carolina already has beaten San Francisco once this season, on the road no less, but this is the Panthers’ first playoff game since 2008. The 49ers are the defending NFC champions, have won seven games in a row and already have a road victory (Green Bay) this postseason. Cam Newton is making his playoff debut, while Colin Kaepernick already has three postseason wins on his resume.

Carolina is the division champion and the No. 2 seed, but this is Ron Rivera’s first rodeo as a head coach in the postseason while Jim Harbaugh has gone three-for-three in his San Francisco tenure. The 49ers not only have a clear edge when it comes to experience on this stage, they should be at near full strength on both offense and defense. The Panthers’ passing game could feature its top receiver at less than 100 percent health.

Carolina’s defense will do its part to keep this a close game, but I just think San Francisco has too much experience, depth and momentum for the Panthers to overcome. Harbaugh and company keep things rolling with their eighth straight victory, earning their third straight trip to the NFC Championship Game and keeping their goal of a return to the Super Bowl very much alive.

San Francisco 20, Carolina 17

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The Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots will renew their rivalry when they meet in the AFC Divisional Playoff game Saturday night at 8:15 p.m. ET on CBS. The Colts (12-5) staged the second-largest comeback in playoff history last week in their Wild Card win over the Chiefs. The Patriots (12-4) meanwhile got last week off and now have their sights set on a third straight AFC Championship Game appearance.

These two teams met in 10 straight regular seasons from 2003-12, a span that also included three playoff matchups. In the 2003 and ’06 playoffs, the Colts and Patriots faced off in the AFC title game, with the home team coming out victorious each contest. This game is at Gillette Stadium, where the Patriots went 8-0 during the regular season and have gone 9-5 in the postseason during Bill Belichick and Tom Brady’s time together.

The difference with this matchup is that Andrew Luck, not Peyton Manning, will be under center for Indianapolis. Much has been made of Brady’s 10-4 record against Manning in career head-to-head matchups, but this is just the second time Luck has played against his predecessor’s long-time foil. The first meeting didn’t go well, as the Patriots destroyed the Colts 59-24 last season. Luck and his teammates, however, are entering this one with plenty of confidence having pulled off the 28-point comeback against Kansas City last week.

3 Things to Watch

Captain Comeback vs. Tom Terrific
So it’s not Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady for the 15th time, not yet anyways, but it’s not like Andrew Luck vs. Tom Brady is a horrible consolation prize. The No. 1 overall pick of the 2012 draft, Luck has clearly established himself as the current face of the Colts franchise and the unquestioned leader of this team. He’s won more games (22) than Manning (16) in their first two regular seasons and has led the Colts to back-to-back playoff berths. Last week Luck won his first career postseason game in just his second attempt (Manning needed four), and he did so in historic fashion. Trailing Kansas City 38-10 early in the third quarter at home, Luck sparked the second-largest comeback in playoff history. Even though he finished the game with three interceptions, Luck had 443 yards passin and four touchdown passes and he also recovered a fumble for a score in the Colts’ improbable 45-44 victory at Lucas Oil Stadium. Comebacks are nothing new for Luck, who has orchestrated 11 game-winning drives since entering the league in 2012. Those are the most of any quarterback over the last two seasons and eight of these were in the fourth quarter. Whether Luck will have the opportunity to add to his total will come down to the play of his counterpart, Brady. Between the offseason departure of Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez’ legal issues and a rash of injuries to his other weapons, namely Rob Gronkowski, this has not been a typical season for Brady. His passer rating of 87.3 is his lowest in a full season since 2003 and his 25 touchdown passes are his fewest since 2006. That said, much of Brady’s Hall of Fame legacy is a result of what he’s done in the playoffs, as his 17 postseason victories are the most in NFL history and he has won three Super Bowl rings. Brady has gotten the better of Manning in his career and he’s 1-0 against Luck. However, Luck has already done several things that his legendary predecessor didn’t accomplish in his Colts tenure at a much earlier age. Will this success carry over against the Patriots? Or will the grizzled Brady run his career record against the Colts to 11-4?

When Luck and Brady Don’t Have the Ball
Neither team really wants their quarterback to have to drop back and pass the ball 40-plus times, as Andrew Luck did last week, which means each offense will need to run the ball effectively. New England has been able to do just that recently, as the Patriots have averaged 204.5 yards rushing per game over their last two. LeGarrette Blount has been the main catalyst, with more than half (265) of those yards, including 189 on 24 carries (7.9 ypc) in the regular-season finale against Tampa Bay. Stevan Ridley still leads the team in rushing with 773 yards and could still be factor on Saturday, although his issues with ball security (four lost fumbles) are why Blount has been getting the majority of the carries. New England is dealing with some injury issues along its offensive line, but still needs to find a way to run the ball against an Indianapolis defense that finished 26th against the run (125.1 ypg) during the regular season. Last week, even with Jamaal Charles exiting after sustaining a concussion in the first quarter, Kansas City finished with 150 yards rushing on 32 carries against the Colts. Indianapolis also has employed a committee approach in its backfield for most of the season, as Trent Richardson (2.9 ypc) just hasn’t gotten the job done since being acquired by the Colts from Cleveland. Donald Brown has stepped up, averaging 5.3 yards per carry in the regular season and contributing 55 yards and two touchdowns (one rush, one receiving) in the Wild Card win. Luck also is capable of making plays with his legs, as he picked up 45 yards against the Chiefs. The Colts have averaged nearly 117 yards rushing over their last four games, and will need to maintain this balance to help open things up for the passing game. The Patriots fared even worse against the run (134.1 ypg) in the regular season than the Colts, so don’t be surprised if this game ends up being more of a ground-based encounter rather than an aerial one.

Patchwork Defenses
It’s been a rough season for New England’s defense with All-Pros Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork lost earlier due to injuries, along with fellow starters Tommy Kelly and Adrian Wilson. Unfortunately, the hits keep coming, as linebacker Brandon Spikes (knee) joined them on injured reserve this week. This means that the Patriots will be without two-thirds of their starting linebackers, as veteran Dane Fletcher and rookie Jamie Collins join Dont’a Hightower in the middle. This also means that the depth chart at the position has been stretched pretty thin, with Ja’Gared Davis added from the practice squad to take Spikes’ roster spot. Starting safeties Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory also appear on the injury report, as they have been limited in practice this week. Indianapolis is dealing with some bumps and bruises of its own on that side of the ball, as starting cornerback Greg Toler and defensive end Fili Moala both were placed on injured reserve this week. The Colts had already lost linebacker Pat Angerer to injuries earlier and their other starting cornerback, Vontae Davis, has been hampered by a groin injury. Additionally, safety LaRon Landry sustained a concussion in the Wild Card win last week and will need to be cleared by the league before he can play. The bottom line is both teams have had to dig deep into their rosters to fill out their defenses. Some of these players have near been in a pressure-packed situation like this before. Come playoff time, it’s survive and advance and both defenses will more than likely need some “new” faces to step up to do just that.

Indianapolis Key Player: T.Y. Hilton, WR
Hilton came up big last week against Kansas City, to the tune of 13 catches for 224 yards and the game-winning 64-yard touchdown. The receptions and yards set new Colts franchise records for a playoff game, meaning Hilton has done something that neither Reggie Wayne nor Marvin Harrison accomplished. Hilton has been huge since Wayne, his teammate and mentor, was lost for the season after tearing his ACL in Week 7 at home against Denver. Even though Andrew Luck and the passing game struggled at times, Hilton was reliable, as he finished the regular season among the top 20 in both receptions (82) and yards (1,083). Hilton had just five touchdown catches, but his importance to the Colts’ offense can’t be overstated. No reliable, consistent secondary option has emerged behind Hilton, which means he will need to continue to have success against New England’s cornerback tandem of Logan Ryan and Aqib Talib. Hilton posted six catches for 100 yards and two touchdowns last season against the Patriots, but that was with Wayne on the field with him. Even though he stands just 5-9, there’s nowhere for Hilton to “hide” on the field this time around.

New England Key Player: Danny Amendola, WR
Following Wes Welker’s departure to Denver, the Patriots signed Amendola to a five-year, $31 million free-agent deal to essentially replace the productive wideout. Unfortunately, Amedola’s first season with the Patriots has not gone according to plan. After getting off to a great start (10 rec., 104 yds.) against Buffalo in Week 1, Amendola injured his groin late, which caused him to miss the next three games. A concussion later in the season cost him another game, which only reinforced the injury-prone label that’s already been attached to him. Whether it was injury or getting comfortable in a new system, Amendola’s impact was limited to just 54 catches for 633 yards and two touchdowns. The time missed also hurt Amendola’s chemistry with Tom Brady, who turned to Julian Edelman in the wake of Amendola’s and Rob Gronkowski’s injury issues. Edelman responded with a career year (105 rec., 1,056 yds., 6 TDs), but he can’t do it alone. With rookies Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins dealing with their own injuries, there’s no better time than now for Amendola to step up and produce like the receiver the Patriots thought they were getting when they signed him. The opportunities should be there for Brady to make some plays, as the Colts are already down one starting cornerback (Greg Toler) and have two other defensive backs (Vontae Davis and LaRon Landry) dealing with injuries. Remember this is the same secondary that gave up 378 yards passing and four touchdowns to Alex Smith and the Chiefs last week. There’s no question that Brady is a better quarterback than Smith. The question is can Amendola help his signal-caller make plays against the Colts?

Final Analysis

Andrew Luck had some pretty big shoes to fill when he replaced Peyton Manning as quarterback of the Colts. However, in just two seasons, the 2012 No. 1 overall pick has already done several things that the future Hall of Famer didn’t accomplish during his time in Indianapolis. The latest of which was winning his first playoff game in just his second try, while orchestrating the second-biggest comeback in postseason history in the process.

The scene now shifts to New England, where Luck will try to do something else Manning hasn’t done – win a road playoff game against Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. Manning is 0-2 at Gillette Stadium in the postseason and just 4-10 against Belichick/Brady in his career. Luck lost his first head-to-head meeting against this duo last season, but the Colts are riding a ton of momentum entering this one following last week’s furious and historic comeback.

However, there’s a reason that Brady has the most playoff wins (17) of any quarterback in history and Belichick trails only Tom Landry and Don Shula with 18 postseason victories. The Patriots went 8-0 at home this season and I think they just have too much playoff experience, both on the roster and coaching staff, for the young, upstart Colts to overcome. Indianapolis puts up a good fight, thanks in large part to New England’s depleted defense, but in the end Brady does to Luck what he did to Manning twice before — sends the Colts home with a loss.

New England 27, Indianapolis 20

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Fresh off of their first road playoff victory in franchise history, the New Orleans Saints will go for two in a row when they take on the Seattle Seahawks in Saturday’s NFC Divisional Playoff game at 4:35 p.m. ET on FOX. Sean Payton’s Saints (12-5) defeated the Eagles 26-24 a week ago in Philadelphia, setting up a rematch in Seattle against Pete Carroll and the NFC West champion Seahawks (13-3).

Seattle handed New Orleans its worst loss of the season, dominating the Saints 34-7 on “Monday Night Football” to close out Week 13. The Seahawks were near unstoppable at home this season, going 7-1 at CenturyLink Field. The Seahawks also have won their last five home playoff games, including a memorable 41-36 victory over the then-defending Super Bowl champion Saints in the Wild Card game following the 2010 season.

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Third Time’s a Charm?
New Orleans’ past two trips to the Pacific Northwest have not gone well. Three years ago, the defending Super Bowl champion Saints lost 41-36 to the Seahawks in an unforgettable Wild Card matchup. A little more than a month ago, Sean Payton’s team fared even worse at CenturyLink Field, as the Saints were dominated 34-7 on “Monday Night Football.” In the Wild Card game, New Orleans kept pace with Seattle thanks to a big game from Drew Brees (finished with 404 yards passing, 2 TDs), trailing just 24-20 at halftime. The Seahawks, with Matt Hasselbeck under center, scored 10 points in the third to take a 14-point lead, but the Saints answered with 10 straight of their own in the fourth to make it a four-point game. That was until Marshawn Lynch rumbled 67 yards, breaking six tackles and escaping from eight would-be tacklers on his way to the end zone. Not only did the highlight-reel run put the Seahawks away for good, it also introduced the NFL to “Beast Mode.” While the playoff game featured plenty of offense, New Orleans found the going much tougher in December when Seattle held Brees and company to one single touchdown and 188 total yards of offense. The Seahawks’ defense dominated the highly touted matchup of division leaders from the start, jumping out to a 17-0 lead in the first quarter, thanks to a fumble return for a touchdown and a scoring strike from Russell Wilson to tight end Zach Miller. Brees attempted 38 passes on the night, but completed just 23 of them for 147 yards and one touchdown. He didn’t throw an interception and was sacked just once, but he still was held to the third-fewest passing yards in a game in his eight seasons with the Saints. As a team, New Orleans totaled just 44 yards rushing on 17 carries (2.6 ypc), and the 188 total yards represented the fewest by the Saints since Sean Payton became head coach in 2006. CenturyLink Field has certainly been a house of horrors for the Saints recently, but with the road playoff monkey finally off of their backs following last week’s win, perhaps this time will be different?

Seattle Slump?
The Seahawks went 7-1 at CenturyLink Field this season, feeding off the frenzied support of their home fans, also known as the 12th Man. One of the loudest home environments, the 12th Man set a new Guinness World Record for crowd noise when the 68,387 in attendance for the Week 13 “Monday Night Football” win over New Orleans were measured at 137.6 decibels. Not surprisingly, Seattle won easily, 34-7, a common theme this season. Buoyed by their loyal home crowd, the Seahawks outscored opponents 233-110 in their eight home games. Seattle owns home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, something that should not be overlooked. That said, the Seahawks were not at their best in their last two home games. In Week 16, Seattle lost to Arizona, 17-10, snapping their 14-game winning streak at home. The Seahawks did close the regular season out with a win the following week, but weren’t particularly impressive in defeating St. Louis 27-9. Against the Cardinals, the Seahawks were outgained 307-192 on offense, as Russell Wilson threw for just 108 yards and was sacked four times. Seattle also was flagged nine times for 102 yards. The defense did pick off Carson Palmer four times, but a 31-yard touchdown pass to Michael Floyd with 2:13 left and a two-point conversion by Rashard Mendenhall ended up being the difference in the game. Against the Rams, the defense again did its part, scoring the first points of the game on an interception return for a touchdown and completely shutting down the running game (13 yards). For the second straight contest, however, the offense struggled. Wilson went just 15-of-23 passing for 172 yards and was sacked four more times, while the team converted just four of 13 on third down. Seattle opened December by thoroughly dominating New Orleans on both sides of the ball, as Wilson (310 yards, 3 TDs) had arguably his best game of the season. However, the slippage at home at the end does give some pause for concern, especially considering the Seahawks worked so hard during the regular season to put themselves into this exact position. As long as the home team takes care of business on Saturday, the road to the Super Bowl will go through CenturyLink Field. There’s no doubt the 12th Man will be ready to go. The question is will Pete Carroll’s team give them a reason to get really loud?

New Orleans’ New-Look Offense?
The No. 4 passing offense in the regular season, the Saints went with a different game plan last week, and it paid off. New Orleans rushed for 185 yards on 36 carries in its Wild Card win over Philadelphia, the first road playoff victory in franchise history. Led by Mark Ingram’s 97 yards, the Saints’ rushing total was the second-highest this season, surpassed only by the 242 they racked up at home against Dallas in Week 10. Besides running the ball successfully against the Eagles, the Saints also held the league’s No. 1 rushing attack to just 80 yards, as rushing champion LeSean McCoy managed just 77 on 21 carries (3.7 ypc). Drew Brees threw for 250 yards, but he attempted just 30 passes, his fewest of the season, and had more interceptions (two) than touchdowns (one). New Orleans’ ability to dominate the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, not only allowed the Saints to control the clock (had the ball for nearly 35 minutes), but also overcome Brees’ two miscues and Philadelphia’s fourth-quarter rally. One of the keys to winning in the postseason is running the ball and it looks like the Saints are peaking in this department at just the right time. The defense is giving up less than 80 yards rushing per game over the last three contests, while the offense is averaging 136.3 yards on the ground during that same span. Continuing this success will be crucial if the Saints want to put up a better fight in their second trip to the Pacific Northwest in a little more than a month. In Week 13, Seattle manhandled New Orleans 34-7, as the Seahawks outrushed them 127 to 44. The Saints’ defense actually did a good job containing Marshawn Lynch (16 att., 45 yds.) in that game, but Russell Wilson and backup running back Robert Turbin combined for 81 yards, while New Orleans’ top ground-gainer was Mark Ingram with a total of 22 (on eight carries). Leading rusher Pierre Thomas missed last week’s game because of a chest/back injury, but Ingram and undrafted rookie Khiry Robinson (8 att., 45 yds.) picked up the slack and then some. Seattle’s defense was No. 1 in the NFL for a reason and the Saints found out firsthand in December. However, some teams enjoyed success running against the Seahawks, something New Orleans would like to duplicate. Any semblance of a running game on Saturday should only help open up things for Brees and the likes of Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston and others, especially if the Saints are able to contain Seattle’s ground game like they did in Philadelphia last week.

New Orleans Key Player: Drew Brees, QB
The Saints earned their first road playoff win in franchise history last week against the Eagles due in large part to their success running the football and holding the NFL rushing champion in check. But make no mistake; this team will only go as far as Brees’ right arm will take it. The diminutive signal-caller has already established himself as one of the greatest to ever play and he has the statistics and Super Bowl ring to back this up, but he has not enjoyed much success in the postseason on the road. The Saints’ first playoff win away from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome also was Brees’ first, as he’s now 1-3 on the road in his career. In these four games, Brees has averaged an impressive 367.5 yards passing per contest, but his completion percentage (62.4) is lower than his career mark (65.9) and he’s had nearly as many total turnovers (seven) as touchdowns (nine). He also played one of the worst games of his career (23-38, 147 yards, TD, fumble) in the first meeting with Seattle in December, which led to the Saints’ worst loss of the season. Regardless of how well the Saints run the ball or fare on defense, they will need Brees to contribute if they want to make it two road playoff wins in a row.

Seattle Key Player: Marshawn Lynch, RB
New Orleans is already familiar with Lynch in the playoffs, as the Saints were the first victim of the burly running back’s “Beast Mode.” In the Seahawks’ Wild Card win over the then-defending Super Bowl champs three years ago, Lynch sealed the deal with an electrifying 67-yard touchdown rumble that featured six broken tackles, eight flailing would-be tacklers and one powerful stiff arm on his way to the end zone. Lynch finished that game with 131 yards on 19 carries, but followed it up with just four yards on two attempts as Seattle lost in Chicago 35-24 in the Divisional round. Last season, Lynch came up big once again, this time racking up 132 yards in the Wild Card win in Washington, before stumbling to just 46 in the Divisional round loss in Atlanta. In the regular season, Lynch finished sixth in rushing with 1,257 yards, but he didn’t post more than 97 in each of his last six games, including only 45 in the first meeting against New Orleans. Russell Wilson has been near unbeatable at home in his career, but he will need Lynch’s help if he wants to keep things going in the postseason. The Saints’ defense held LeSean McCoy, the league’s rushing champion, to just 77 yards last week. Can Lynch be beastly against the Saints again or will the visitors continue their dominance on the ground this postseason?

Final Analysis

Give credit to New Orleans for finally getting that first road playoff win. The Saints dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball against the Eagles, which allowed them to use their running game to control the clock and put them in position to kick the game-winning field goal as time expired. The road gets much tougher from here out, however, and no one knows that better than Sean Payton’s team.

Seattle went 7-1 at home and enjoys one of the best home-field advantages that exist in all of sports, let alone the NFL. The Seahawks have waited for this opportunity for a while and I fully expect Pete Carroll’s team to capitalize on playing in front of the 12th Man at CenturyLink Field.

The Saints will put up much more of a fight than they did back in December, but in the end the Seahawks’ defense is just too much for Drew Brees and company to overcome. Russell Wilson shakes off the rust from the long layoff, as he and the rest of his teammates take care of business at home and earn a trip back to the NFC Championship Game for the first time in eight seasons.

Seattle 24, New Orleans 17

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The Cincinnati Bengals will try and snap a 23-year playoff victory drought when they host the San Diego Chargers in the AFC Wild Card game at 1:05 p.m. ET on CBS. The Bengals (11-5) won the AFC North and are in the playoffs for the third straight season for the first time in franchise history. The Chargers (9-7) earned the final wild card spot last week by beating Kansas City 27-24 in overtime at home. These two teams met in Week 13 in San Diego, a game the Bengals won 17-10.

This is the first playoff game Cincinnati has hosted since losing to the Jets in the 2009 AFC Wild Card game. The Bengals haven’t won in the postseason in more than two decades, going all the way back to a 41-14 victory over Houston in the 1990 AFC Wild Card game, which was played at old Riverfront Stadium.

San Diego is in the playoffs for the first time since the 2009 season. The Chargers lost to the Jets 17-14 at home in the Divisional Round that season. This is just the second time these two teams have met in the playoffs. Cincinnati defeated San Diego 27-7 in the AFC Championship Game in 1982, as Ken Anderson out-dueled Dan Fouts in one of the coldest games in NFL history. The game-time temperature was minus-six degrees with a 24 mph wind making the wind chill a frigid minus-32.

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Week 13 Recap
Cincinnati made the trek west in Week 13 to take on a San Diego team that had just upset AFC West division rival Kansas City on the road. The Bengals brought the Chargers back to reality, however, beating the home team 17-10 in a game that was fairly even, statistically speaking. Only 20 yards separated the two teams (354 for CIN, 334 for SD), as both had the same number of first downs (19) and time of possession was basically split. The Chargers had the edge in passing production (243 to 190), but the Bengals out-rushed San Diego164 to 91 and had one fewer turnover (2 to 3). Andy Dalton hooked up with A.J. Green for a 21-yard touchdown in the third quarter that ended up being the deciding score. It put the Bengals up 14-7, as the teams traded field goals in the fourth quarter and Cincinnati ran out the clock to seal the key road victory. With the win, the Bengals moved to 8-4, maintaining a two-game lead in the AFC North. Cincinnati went 3-1 down the stretch, winning its division by three games and capturing the No. 3 seed in the AFC playoffs by virtue of a Week 14 home win over Indianapolis. San Diego meanwhile sat at 5-7 following the home loss, seemingly out of the postseason chase. The Chargers rebounded strong, however, winning their final four games, including one on the road against Denver. San Diego also needed some help and got it, as teams in front of them like Miami and Baltimore couldn’t take care of business, setting the stage for the Chargers’ dramatic overtime victory over the Chiefs in the regular-season finale, which rewarded them and first-year head coach Mike McCoy with the final wild card spot.

Welcome to “The Jungle”
Cincinnati calls Paul Brown Stadium home, but it’s more affectionately known as the “The Jungle.” Whatever you want to call it, the Bengals have been beastly there this season, posting a perfect 8-0 record. Among the victims this season were division winners Green Bay, Indianapolis and New England, as well as the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens and fellow AFC North foes Pittsburgh and Cleveland. Cincinnati outscored opponents 275-134 at home, or an average of 17.6 points per game. The defense, which finished the regular season third in the NFL in yards allowed (305.5 ypg) and tied for fifth in points allowed (19.1 ppg), was even stingier in “The Jungle.” In eight games at home, the Bengals’ D yielded just 289.4 yards and 16.8 points per contest. The offense also did its part, putting up an average of 364.9 yards per game, including five games with at least 390 yards. This is Cincinnati’s third straight playoff appearance, but their first at home in five seasons. Having lost in Houston each of the past two seasons by a combined score of 50-23, this is no doubt what Marvin Lewis’ team has been waiting for. San Diego on the other hand, was 4-4 on the road in the regular season, but three of those four were against playoff teams – Denver, Kansas City and Philadelphia. The Chargers have shown they can beat good teams on their turf, but the Bengals have no intention of letting them feel at home in “The Jungle.”

Quarterback Quality
Philip Rivers enjoyed quite the bounce-back season with first-year head coach Mike McCoy calling the shots. Rivers finished fifth in the NFL in passing with 4,478 yards and led the league with career-best 69.5 completion percentage. He tossed 32 touchdowns passes, his most since 2008, leading his Chargers back to the postseason and earning his fifth Pro Bowl invite in the process. Andy Dalton has taken his Bengals to the playoffs in each of his first three seasons as his numbers continue to rise. Dalton posted career bests in completions, yards, touchdown passes and passer rating this season. He was third behind only Peyton Manning and Drew Brees with 33 touchdowns and also was top 10 in yards and completions. Statistically similar this season, these two quarterbacks also share something else in common – a tendency to turn the ball over too much and a lack of success in the postseason. Last season, Rivers led the league with 22 turnovers (15 INTs, 7 fumbles), as the Chargers stumbled to 7-9 resulting in the dismissal of head coach Norv Turner. This season Rivers has just 13 giveaways with 11 picks and only two lost fumbles, but he hasn’t always been at his best come playoff time. In seven postseason games, Rivers is 3-4 with more interceptions (9) than touchdowns (8) and averaging just 260 yards passing per game. Cincinnati’s defense was second only to Kansas City in the AFC in takeaways with 31, and 21 of those have come at home. Unfortunately, the Bengals have been careless with the ball at times, as their 30 giveaways are four more than any other team in the playoffs (Denver, 26). Dalton has been the main culprit, throwing 20 interceptions and losing three fumbles. His 20 picks were the fifth-most of any quarterback in the league and he was particularly sloppy with the ball last week, tossing four interceptions against Baltimore. He also has four picks in two playoff games with no touchdowns. Those first two postseason contests were on the road in Houston, so Dalton should feel more comfortable at home. But he still has to make good decisions when he does drop back to throw, especially if the Bengals’ defense does its job by making Rivers uncomfortable in the pocket. Whichever quarterback takes better care of the football this afternoon can at least walk off of the field knowing they did their job.

San Diego Key Players: Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead, RBs
The Chargers’ backfield is powered by the duo of Mathews and Woodhead. The leading rusher, Mathews (right) has posted 99 yards or more in each of his last four games, including a season-high 144 in the wild card-clinching, overtime win against Kansas City last week. Mathews has been dealing with an ankle injury, but it didn’t slow him down at all last week and shouldn’t be a factor entering this game. Mathews needs to be at his best considering Cincinnati finished fifth in the NFL in rushing defense at 96.5 yards per game. While Mathews has been the main ground gainer, Woodhead has had a major impact as a receiver in his first season with the Chargers. An all-purpose threat during his tenure in New England, Woodhead is second on the Chargers with 76 receptions, which have gone for 605 yards and six touchdowns. Mathews also is capable of catching the ball out of the backfield (26-189-1), while Woodhead has rushed for 429 yards and two scores. This versatility will be important against the Bengals’ defense, as yards and points have been hard to come against this unit, especially at home. Whether it’s Mathews or Woodhead or a combination of the two, the Chargers need some plays out of their backfield to help take pressure off of Philip Rivers and the passing game.

Cincinnati Key Players: Giovani Bernard and BenJarvus Green-Ellis, RBs
The Bengals feature more of a speed-power combo in their backfield in the form of Bernard and Green-Ellis. The first running back taken in April’s draft (2nd round, 37th overall), Bernard has made a number of highlight-reel plays this season, using his speed and explosiveness to rack up the yards. He scored eight total touchdowns, as he averaged 4.1 yards per carry and 9.2 yards per reception. Green-Ellis is the veteran and leads the way with 756 yards on the ground and seven touchdowns. His job is to get the tough yardage, especially on third down and near the goal-line, as his 48 first downs can attest. Together this duo has accumulated close to 2,000 yards of total offense and 15 total touchdowns. The Bengals have been more of a passing offense this season, but the running game still needs do its part. San Diego fared pretty well against the run (107.8 ypg) during the regular season, so any real estate Bernard and Green-Eillis can claim this afternoon should make Andy Dalton’s job that much easier.

Final Analysis

After decades of futility, Cincinnati has seemingly found its stride under Marvin Lewis. The Bengals won the AFC North and are in the playoffs for a third straight season for the first time in franchise history. All San Diego head coach Mike McCoy did in his first season was lead the Chargers back to the postseason for the first time since 2009. The Chargers won their last four games to get here, but have a tall task ahead of them as the Bengals went a perfect 8-0 at home.

Cincinnati hasn’t won a playoff game in 23 years, but its last two losses came on the road, in Houston. The Bengals’ hard work during the regular season has paid off, and I fully expect this team to be fired up and ready to go on their home turf, Paul Brown Stadium, aka “The Jungle.” Cincinnati’s defense was one of the best in the NFL during the regular season and I think it will be too much for Philip Rivers and company to overcome. Andy Dalton makes just enough plays through the air and minimizes his mistakes, as the Bengals snap their long playoff victory drought with a well-rounded effort.

Cincinnati 27, San Diego 17

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The San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers, two of the winningest franchises in NFL history, will go head-to-head in the playoffs for the second straight season when their NFC Wild Card game kicks off at 4:40 p.m. ET on FOX. The 49ers (12-4) tied with Carolina for the second-best record in the NFC, but are the road team this afternoon against the NFC North champion Packers (8-7-1). The Lambeau Field turf will indeed be frozen with temperatures expected to be below zero at the start of the game and to drop further as the night continues.

This represents the fourth meeting between these two teams in the last two seasons, with the 49ers winning the previous three. San Francisco and Green Bay have opened each of the past two seasons against each other and the 49ers also beat the Packers 45-31 in last year’s NFC Divisional Round out in San Francisco in a game that saw Colin Kaepernick rush for a quarterback-record 181 yards and two touchdowns.

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Rusty Rodgers?
If there was every any doubt regarding Rodgers’ importance to the Packers, then look no further than how the regular season played out. Entering its Week 9 Monday night matchup with Chicago, Green Bay was 5-2 and in its customary position atop the NFC North. However, a first-quarter sack of Rodgers by the Bears’ Shea McClellin changed everything, as the 2011 NFL MVP left the game with what was eventually diagnosed as a broken collarbone. Not surprisingly, the Packers fell to the Bears at home, 27-20, and then proceeded to go 2-4-1 without No. 12 under center. With Green Bay’s postseason hopes on the line, Rodgers returned last week for the finale in Chicago and after a shaky first half, bounced back strong and connected with Randall Cobb on a go-ahead, 48-yard touchdown pass to give the Packers a 33-28 lead with just 38 seconds remaining. The defense picked off Jay Cutler’s desperation heave into the end zone, securing Green Bay’s third straight division title and their fifth consecutive playoff appearance. Now the attention focuses to this matchup with San Francisco, which figures to be a much tougher test than Chicago, especially from a defensive standpoint. The 49ers finished the regular season fifth in the NFL in yards allowed (316.9 ypg) and third in points (17.0 ppg). Rodgers has had success in his career against the 49ers, averaging 319.5 yards passing and posting a 10:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio in four regular-season games, but he’s just 2-2 in those contests and also lost to San Francisco in last year’s playoffs. What’s more, Rodgers has played one full game in the past two months and even his practice time has been limited during his recovery. The rust was pretty evident early on against Chicago, and even though he was able to get the job done, Rodgers knows the margin for error is even smaller in the playoffs, especially against a defense like the 49ers. The Packers wouldn’t even be in this position if not for their quarterback. The question is which one will show up this afternoon – the one that threw two interceptions in the first half last week or the one that carved up the Bears in the third and fourth quarters?

Kaepernick’s Track Record vs. Packers
It’s a very small sample size (two games), but Colin Kaepernick has certainly enjoyed playing Green Bay. He’s 2-0 against the Packers and has gotten the job done with both his arm and his legs. In last season’s Divisional Round win, Kaepernick set an NFL single-game record for rushing yards by a quarterback when he gashed Green Bay for 181 on 16 carries (11.3 ypc) and two touchdowns. He also threw for 263 yards and two scores as the 49ers overwhelmed the Packers 45-31 on their way to Super Bowl XLVII. The two teams met again to open this season, and this time Kaepernick did the damage with his arm, throwing for a career-high 412 yards and three touchdowns in a 34-28 win. Aaron Rodgers threw for a combined 590 yards and five touchdowns of his own in these two games, but it’s clear that Green Bay’s defense has not figured out how to slow down, let alone stop, San Francisco’s dynamic dual-threat. On the whole, Kaepernick’s 2013 season has been very uneven, as the Week 1 performance against the Packers was far and away his best game. However, he has been playing more consistently lately, as his 10:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio over the past six games, all wins, will attest. This also will be Kapernick’s first game against the Packers in Lambeau Field, as the previous two took place out in San Francisco. Ironically enough, Kaepernick was born in nearby Milwaukee, but he went to high school in California and starred at Nevada before getting drafted in the second round of the 2011 draft by the 49ers. How will this West Coast product fare in wintry Green Bay? It remains to be seen, but you know just seeing the Packers on the other side will bring a smile to his face.

Backfield Battle
It’s the classic young vs. old matchup in the backfield as Green Bay’s Eddie Lacy and San Francisco’s Frank Gore figure to be the primary ball carriers. Lacy has had quite the debut, as the second-round pick finished eighth in the league with 1,178 yards and 11 rushing touchdowns. Gore was right behind him with 1,128 yards, making it the third straight time and seventh in his career that he rushed for more than 1,000 in a season. Gore also found the end zone nine times and perhaps most importantly, he has played in five more postseason games than Lacy. Gore boasts a 5.2 yards per carry average in the playoffs and he could find some room this afternoon against a Packers defense that gave up 125 yards rushing per game (25th) in the regular season. Seven different running backs rushed for more than 100 yards against Green Bay, including two such efforts by Chicago’s Matt Forte. Lacy may have the younger legs with considerably less mileage on them, but he’s going up against a San Francisco rushing defense that surrendered just 95.9 yards on the ground per game and no back broke the century mark against this unit. Even with explosive playmakers like Aaron Rodgers and Colin Kaepernick at quarterback to win in the playoffs you have to be able to run the ball successfully. There are seven years and 8,789 career rushing yards separating Lacy and Gore. So which one will gain the upper hand on the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field?

Ice Bowl II?
In 1967, the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers met on Dec. 31, 1967 to play for the NFL Championship with the winner going to Super Bowl II. This game was played at Lambeau Field and would later be known simply as the Ice Bowl, as the game-time temperature was about minus-15 degrees with an average wind chill around minus-48. The Packers wound up winning, 21-17 on a late rushing touchdown by Hall of Famer Bart Starr, and the Ice Bowl is considered one of the greatest games ever played. Now while there’s no way to tell if today’s contest will even come close to matching up with the Ice Bowl, one way in which it will be similar is when it comes to the mercury, or lack of, in the thermometer. The temperature at kickoff (4:40 p.m. ET) is expected to be well below zero with one forecast projecting the wind chill to drop to as low as minus-51 degrees. In other words, this could be the coldest game ever played in NFL history, so one way or the other; the weather will be a factor. And while Green Bay is certainly more accustomed to playing in wintry conditions than San Francisco, it’s safe to say that few, if any, Packers ever played in sub-zero temperatures like the ones they are expecting. The team needed an extension to make this a sellout, which is all you need to know considering this is Lambeau Field and the Packers we are talking about. Those fans loyal enough to brave these conditions to cheer on their beloved home team should be rewarded, and not just with the 70,000 hand warmers and free coffee and hot chocolate the team has said it will provide. The players meanwhile don’t have an option, although they will have a front-row seat to what could end up being a historic game.

San Francisco Key Player: Vernon Davis, TE
Davis tied his career high with 13 touchdown catches this season, which also tied him for third in the NFL. The big athletic target can be a difference-maker for the 49ers on offense, as he caught a touchdown pass in all but four games of the 15 he played during the regular season. He and Colin Kaepernick clicked in the playoffs last season, connecting on 12 passes for 254 yards and a touchdown in three games. In fact, Davis has been at his best in the postseason with a total of 22 receptions for 546 yards and five visits to the end zone in five games. That’s good for a ridiculous average of 24.8 yards per reception. The 49ers are obviously hoping for similar results in these playoffs, as a productive Davis only makes Kaepernick and the passing game as a whole that much more dangerous.

Green Bay Key Player: Randall Cobb, WR
Aaron Rodgers wasn’t the only welcome sight for the Packers’ offense in Week 17. Cobb, who had been on injured reserve since breaking his shin in Week 6 against Baltimore, also returned against Chicago and caught two passes, both of which went for touchdowns. The biggest was the 48-yarder that gave his team a 33-28 lead with 38 seconds left. The defense picked off the Bears’ desperation heave as time expired, giving Green Bay the NFC North crown and its fifth straight playoff berth. Jordy Nelson may be the Packers’ leading receiver this season, but Cobb’s explosiveness and big-play ability adds another element to this offense. Last season, he led the team in receptions (80) and yards (954) and also posted 1,256 return yards and another 132 on the ground, while scoring nine total touchdowns. He’s yet to really break out in a playoff game, but his mere presence in the lineup deepens a wide receiving corps that’s going up against the NFL’s seventh-ranked passing defense. Rodgers’ return came in just the nick of time for the Packers, but it was Cobb who was on the other end of the eventual game-winning touchdown pass. Can the two repeat this success this afternoon?

Final Analysis

These two teams are pretty familiar to each other, as this is the third time San Francisco and Green Bay will have played in a little more than a year. The 49ers have won the first two, but both games were on their home turf, not the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field. The Packers also come into this game riding high, as Aaron Rodgers returned from his broken collarbone to lead his team to a third straight NFC North crown in exciting fashion last week against Chicago.

Colin Kaepernick has been a nightmare for the Packers’ defense to contain, as he ran wild against them in last season’s playoff win and carved them up with his arm back in Week 1. Green Bay’s defense has had its issues this season and will be without linebacker Clay Matthews, who is the unit’s heart and soul and one of the NFL’s top sack specialists.

And then there’s the weather. It’s going to be brutally cold at Lambeau, perhaps the coldest game in NFL history. With temperatures this frigid, the condition will be a factor for both teams, so don’t be surprised if the offenses struggle to put points on the board.

That’s why I think defense will be the deciding factor in this one and even though Rodgers certainly makes the Packers a threat, the 49ers’ defense is one of the best in the league, as this is basically the same unit that played in last year’s Super Bowl. San Francisco’s talent and experience on that side of the ball will win out, as Jim Harbaugh’s team tames both the elements and the Packers, setting up a potential Divisional Round showdown in Seattle next week.

San Francisco 23, Green Bay 20

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Defensive purists may not want to watch tonight when the New Orleans Saints and Philadelphia Eagles go at it in the opening NFC Wild Card game at 8:10 p.m. ET on NBC. The Saints (11-5) and the Eagles (10-6) are among the top four offenses in the NFL and combined averaged more than 52 points per game during the regular season.

New Orleans is back in the postseason after a one-year hiatus, but the Saints were unable to hold off Carolina for the NFC South crown, meaning they will have to do something they have never done – win a road playoff game – if they want to return to the Super Bowl. Philadelphia meanwhile won the NFC East in Chip Kelly’s first season, putting the Eagles in the playoffs for the first time since 2010. Now Kelly and quarterback Nick Foles will try and win their first career playoff game together by beating the Saints’ Super Bowl-winning duo of Sean Payton and Drew Brees.

4 Things to Watch

Offensive Fireworks
Philadelphia and New Orleans finished second and fourth, respectively, in the NFL in total offense. Both teams averaged about 400 yards per game and also were among the top 10 teams in scoring. Although their offensive approaches are slightly different, there are numerous similarities between these two teams. Both Nick Foles and Drew Brees completed better than 64 percent of their passes, ranked among the top six in passer rating and top 10 in touchdown passes. The veteran Brees finished behind only Peyton Manning in terms of passing yards (5,162) and touchdowns (39), while first-year starter Foles took over for an injured Michael Vick and wound up leading the league in passer rating (119.2) while posting an impressive 27:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Both signal-callers have legitimate No. 1 receivers that caught at least 82 passes and nine touchdowns, along with a host of other reliable options, including running backs. Neither defenses are terrible by any means, but with offensive masterminds Sean Payton and Chip Kelly calling the plays and the likes of Brees, Foles, LeSean McCoy, Jimmy Graham, DeSean Jackson and others executing them, don’t expect this postseason tilt to develop into a defensive struggle.

Philadelphia’s Backfield Edge
Offensive similarities aside, if there’s one position the Eagles have a significant edge at it’s running back. LeSean McCoy not only led the NFL in rushing with 1,607 yards, but he set a new, single-season franchise record and finished with nearly 300 more than the next guy (Matt Forte) on the list. The man known as Shady averaged 5.1 yards per carry and added 52 receptions for 539 yards in his first season in Chip Kelly’s up-tempo offense. McCoy found the end zone a total of 11 times (nine rush, two receiving) and had 17 total plays from scrimmage that went for at least 20 yards. With McCoy leading the way, Philadelphia was tops in the league in rushing offense at 160.4 yards per game. On the flip side, New Orleans, which is known for being a passing team with Drew Brees under center, came in at 25th overall with just 92.1 yards rushing per game. The Saints as a team averaged 3.8 yards per carry and their leading rusher (Pierre Thomas, 549 yards) has already been ruled out for tonight’s game because of a back injury. McCoy had 598 yards rushing in his last five games alone and on the season the Eagles’ first-team All-Pro (Associated Press) has out-rushed the entire Saints team by 134 yards (1,607 to 1,473). To make matters worse for New Orleans, its defense finished 19th in the league against the run, giving up 112.2 yards rushing per game. McCoy has played a huge role in Philadelphia getting this far, so there’s no reason to not expect to see a lot of Shady tonight.

Saints’ Road Woes
For whatever reason, New Orleans is simply a different team away from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The results speak for themselves. The Saints went 8-0 at home this season, averaging a robust 34.0 points per game. On the road, they were 3-5 and scored nearly half (17.8 ppg) as many points. New Orleans got off to a good start this season, winning in Tampa Bay and Chicago to open its road slate, but won just one more away game the rest of the way. In their last three (Seattle, St. Louis and Carolina), the Saints were outscored 78-36. And if that’s not enough, New Orleans is 0-5 all-time on the road in playoff games, including 0-3 with Sean Payton as head coach and Drew Brees as quarterback. The last loss came in the 2011 Divisional Round when San Francisco scored late in the fourth quarter to beat New Orleans 36-32. As the No. 6 seed in the NFC bracket, the Saints already have the deck stacked against them, needing three road victories to get to the Super Bowl. Add in that the Eagles have won four in a row at home and are 3-1 in their past four playoff games at Lincoln Financial Field and it’s clear the Saints have their work cut out for them if they want to get this road monkey off of their backs.

Eagles’ Improving D
On paper, New Orleans’ defense has fared considerably better than Philadelphia’s, and it’s not even close. The Saints finished the regular season fourth in yards allowed (305.7 ypg) while the Eagles were near the bottom (29th, 394.2 ypg). That said, Philadelphia’s D has shown signs of improvement recently, meaning this unit may be peaking at just the right time. Outside of a disastrous showing in Minnesota (455 YA, 48 PA), the Eagles gave up an average of 313 yards and 18.5 points per game in their past five games. Three of these games were at home and the Saints’ road woes were documented earlier. If these two trends continue tonight, then Chip Kelly may not need big numbers from his offense in order to win his first career playoff game as an NFL head coach.

New Orleans Key Player: Jimmy Graham, TE
Philadelphia has the big edge at running back in LeSean McCoy. The same can be said for the Saints when it comes to Graham. A near-unanimous first-team All-Pro as voted by the Associated Press, the tight end led the NFL with 16 touchdowns and finished among the top 15 in both receptions (86) and yards (1,215). A matchup nightmare, Graham posted six 100-yard games and caught at least one touchdown in all but five games despite being hampered by plantar fasciitis for much of the season. The Eagles did a good job against opposing tight ends this season, giving up just three touchdowns, but Graham is no ordinary tight end. He will no doubt draw plenty of defensive attention tonight, but even that may not be enough to slow down the 6-7, 256-pound athletic freak of nature. 

Philadelphia Key Player: Nick Foles, QB
Tonight’s game features a matchup of native Texans as Foles followed in Drew Brees’ footsteps when he played quarterback at Westlake High School in Austin. Ten years younger than Brees, Foles now has a chance to beat his Super Bowl-winning idol in his first playoff game. It has already been a dream season for Foles, who took over for an injured Michael Vick and would up going 8-2 as the starter for the NFC East champs. In 13 total games this season, Foles led the NFL with a 119.2 passer rating, as he threw 27 touchdowns, including a record-tying seven against Oakland, and just two interceptions. He also can make plays with his legs (221 yards rushing, 3 TDs), but the key for Foles tonight is to not try and match Brees throw-for-throw. Unlike Brees, Foles has the NFL’s leading rusher (LeSean McCoy) to lean on, but there will still be times when he will need to make something happen either inside or outside of the pocket. Foles grew up idolizing one of the best quarterbacks the game has ever seen, but tonight is this Texan’s opportunity to stand tall and make a name for himself.

Final Analysis

From an experience standpoint, New Orleans has a clear edge over Philadelphia, as Sean Payton and Drew Brees have posted a 5-3 record in the playoffs together, including a win in Super Bowl XLIV to end the 2009 season. Meanwhile, Chip Kelly and Nick Foles are both playing in their first career postseason game.

That said, the Eagles are the home team and have won four in a row at Lincoln Financial Field, They also boast one of the NFL’s most explosive offenses with Foles, LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson and others taking full advantage of Kelly’s up-tempo system. Then there’s also the Saints’ lack of success on the road, not only this season but also in the playoffs. New Orleans went just 3-5 away from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome this season and is 0-5 all-time in postseason road contests.

Brees and the Saints are capable of putting up some big offensive numbers of their own, especially with weapons like All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham, but the Eagles have much more balance, highlighted by McCoy, the league’s leading rusher. In the end, the Eagles have too much offense for a more one-dimensional Saints attack to overcome, especially one that can’t seem to put it all together when they are the visitors.

Philadelphia 31, New Orleans 27

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The 2013 NFL playoffs will kick off Saturday with a Week 16 rematch when the Kansas City Chiefs and Indianapolis Colts square off in the AFC Wild Card game at 4:35 p.m. ET on NBC. Andy Reid’s Chiefs (11-5) should be at near full strength for the first time in more than a month while Chuck Pagano’s Colts (11-5) appear to be peaking at the right time.

After starting out the season 9-0, Kansas City lost five of their final seven games, including a 23-7 setback at home to Indianapolis just two weeks ago. The Chiefs also haven’t won a playoff game since the 1993 Divisional Round, as their seven-game postseason losing streak is tied with Detroit for the longest in NFL history. Included in this streak are three losses to the Colts, the most recent being a 23-8 home defeat in the 2006 Wild Card game.

Indianapolis won the AFC South with a perfect 6-0 divisional record and also defeated Denver and Seattle, the top seeds in the AFC and NFC respectively, as well as San Francisco during the regular season. After playing uneven to open the second half of their schedule, the Colts finished with a flourish, winning their final three games by a combined score of 78-20. Now Andrew Luck will look to keep the momentum going at home, put an end to Indianapolis’ own three-game postseason skid and earn his first career playoff victory in the process.

3 Things to Watch

Round One
Two weeks ago, Indianapolis, 9-5 at the time, entered its Week 16 game against Kansas City (11-3) as the underdog and in the midst of a six-game stretch in which the Colts traded losses and wins. Meanwhile, the Chiefs had seemingly righted the ship after dropping three in a row (two of those to Denver) at home, beating the Redskins and Raiders on the road by a combined score of 101-41. Back at Arrowhead Stadium, the Chiefs jumped out to 7-0 lead in the first quarter on a 31-yard touchdown run by Jamaal Charles, only to watch the visiting team take over from there. Indianapolis scored the final 23 points of the game, as Andrew Luck threw for 241 yards and a touchdown with no turnovers and Donald Brown scored two touchdowns (one rush, one receiving) to supply most of the offense. On defense, the Colts gave up 155 yards rushing, including 106 to Charles, but limited Alex Smith to just 153 yards passing, sacked him five times and forced a total of four turnovers (three by Smith) to hold the Chiefs scoreless for the final 50 minutes of the game.

Indianapolis’ Momentum
The Colts opened this season strong, winning five of their first seven games, including home contests against Seattle and Denver and on the road against San Francisco. Coming out of their Week 8 bye, however, Indianapolis struggled to find any consistency or rhythm. A road wins against Houston was followed up by a 38-8 home shellacking administered by St. Louis, while a victory in Nashville over Tennessee preceded a 40-11 beatdown in Arizona. This win-then-lose pattern continued for two more weeks until the Colts handily defeated the defending AFC South champion Texans, 25-3, in Lucas Oil Stadium. That was the start of a three-game winning streak to end the regular season in which Indianapolis beat Houston, Kansas City and Jacksonville by an average of 19.3 points per game. Both sides of the ball have been clicking lately, as the offense has displayed balance and the defense has stiffened up. The offense has averaged 359 yards per game during this stretch, its best three-game run since early in the season, while the defense held teams to 292 yards per contest and forced a total of seven turnovers. Put it all together and Chuck Pagano’s team appears to be peaking at just the right time and now gets to face a Chiefs squad it just beat two weeks ago. What’s more, this game will be on the Colts’ home turf, on which they went 6-2 during the regular season, including wins over Denver and Seattle, the top seeds in the AFC and NFC playoffs, respectively. There’s little question that Indianapolis comes into this one with plenty of momentum on its side. The question now is can the Colts capitalize on it to produce a fourth straight win?

Kansas City’s Reinforcements
The Chiefs roared out to a 9-0 start, but limped home with a 2-5 finish due in large part to injuries. That’s the main reason why Andy Reid rested 20 of 22 starters in the regular-season finale in San Diego, a game that the Chiefs had a chance to win on a 41-yard field goal attempt by Ryan Succop at the end of regulation. It was not meant to be however, as Succop’s kick just missed to the right (and the referees missed a penalty on the Chargers that would have resulted in another shot from 36 yards away), giving the Chargers a second chance. San Diego made the most of the extra period, winning the game with a field goal in overtime and snatching the final playoff spot in the AFC from Pittsburgh in the process. While the Chiefs’ postseason berth had been secured two weeks prior, it didn’t take away the fact that Kansas City finished the regular season with two straight losses. The good news, however, is that the Chiefs should be back to near full strength for their rematch with the Colts, as linebackers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali, along with left tackle Branden Albert are all expected to play. Houston (dislocated elbow) and Hali (swelling in the knee) could be difference-makers for a defense that has struggled for the past two months. After allowing just 12.3 points per game in the first seven games, the Chiefs have given up 27.7 over their last seven contests. Houston, who has missed the past five games, and Hali have combined for 22 of the team’s 47 sacks. In the past five games, Kansas City has collected 10 sacks, but six of those came in one game (at Washington), and the defense had just one of Andrew Luck in the Week 16 home loss to Indianapolis. The pass rush has been one of the signatures of this Chiefs defense and it appears it will be closer to 100 percent for the most important game of the season to date. On offense, don’t underestimate the return of Albert either. He has missed the past four games and his presence is even more important now that fellow tackle Eric Fisher, the No. 1 overall pick in April’s draft, injured his groin in practice on Tuesday, putting his status up in the air. The offense needs Albert to help open up space for Jamaal Charles on the ground and to give Alex Smith enough time in the pocket to make some plays. Wide receiver Dwayne Bowe also has been cleared to return after missing last week’s game due to a concussion he sustained in the first meeting against the Colts. Which Kansas City team – the one that started 9-0 or the one that lost five of its final seven games – shows up in Indianapolis remains to be seen, but at least the starting lineup should look more like the former rather than the latter.

Kansas City Key Player: Jamaal Charles, RB
Besides leading the AFC in rushing with 1,287 yards, Charles is the Chiefs’ leading receiver with 70 catches for 693 yards and he led the entire NFL in touchdowns with 19 (12 rush, 7 receiving). Put it all together and Charles is responsible for more than a third (36.6 percent) of Kansas City’s total offense (1,980 of 5,396 yards) and nearly half (46.3 percent) of the team’s offensive touchdowns. Simply put, Charles is the Chiefs’ offense and he needs to put up big numbers against the Colts to take the pressure off of quarterback Alex Smith and the passing game, as well as a defense that’s been reeling lately. In the first meeting against Indianapolis in Week 16, Charles staked Kansas City to a 7-0 lead and finished the game with 106 yards rushing and 38 yards receiving. The biggest problem was that he touched the ball just 18 times, which tied for his second-fewest of the season. Not surprisingly, the Chiefs managed just seven points and posted the third-fewest offensive yards (287) on the season in the home loss. The Colts finished 26th in the league in rushing defense, giving up 125.1 yards per game. Charles averaged 132 total yards per game, so there’s no reason to not expect him to get 20-plus touches this time around, especially if the Chiefs want to put themselves in a position to survive and advance.

Indianapolis Key Player: Andrew Luck, QB
Luck has already done something that his predecessor, Peyton Manning, didn’t accomplish during his tenure in Indianapolis. Luck, the former Stanford star and No. 1 overall pick of the 2012 draft, has led the Colts to the playoffs in each of his first two seasons, posting 11-5 marks both years. Manning went 3-13 in his 1998 rookie campaign before turning that record completely around and winning the AFC East the following season. Now Luck will try and beat Manning to another milestone by winning his first career playoff game in just his second try. Manning lost his first three postseason contests before taking the Colts to the AFC Championship Game in 2003, where they lost to the Patriots. Luck’s second postseason game will come at home, and he knows better than anyone that he must improve on his first playoff effort to put his team in a position to win. In last season’s AFC Wild Card game in Baltimore, Luck completed just 28 of 54 passes for 288 yards with an interception and he also lost a fumble after a sack. The Ravens, who were the No. 4 seed, went on to win Super Bowl XLVII over San Francisco, a path the Colts would no doubt love to copy. The first step is beating the Chiefs for the second time in three weeks. However, as his predecessor will attest to, regular-season success doesn’t automatically carry over to the playoffs. Luck has already demonstrated he’s a quick study, increasing his completion percentage by more than six points (54.1 to 60.2) and cutting his interceptions in half (18 to 9) from his rookie season to this one. Now’s the time to find out if his maturation process carries over to the games that count the most.

Final Analysis

Indianapolis enters this rematch with Kansas City playing its best football of the season. The Colts are at home, where they have already beaten the Seahawks and Broncos, and also have a road win against the Chiefs under their belt. Kansas City struggled to close the season out, but injuries played a big hand in its 2-5 finish and Andy Reid basically treated the finale against San Diego as a bye week. The Chiefs should be close to full strength for this game, and the defense has already shown on multiple occasions that it’s capable of dominating the opposition.

As well as the Colts have played lately, I think one of the keys in this game will be the Chiefs’ re-energized pass rush. Kansas City had 47 sacks in the regular season, and Indianapolis has had its issues with teams that can pressure the pocket. Andrew Luck had little trouble with the Chiefs’ defense in the first game, but Kansas City wasn’t close to 100 percent on that side of the ball. This time, I am expecting Luck to be under more duress, and the Colts don’t have a running back like Jamaal Charles in their backfield to take the pressure off of their quarterback.

In the end, Kansas City returns to the formula that produced a 9-0 start – a heavy dose of Charles combined with a relentless pass rush and opportunistic defense – and make just enough plays in the second half to keep a scrappy Indianapolis team at bay. The Chiefs put an end to their seven-game losing streak in the playoffs while the Colts’ grows to four in a row, as Luck gets a second taste of the postseason disappointment that his predecessor experienced early in his career.

Kansas City 27, Indianapolis 23

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Arkansas State finds itself in familiar territory while Ball State will be looking to make program history in this year’s GoDaddy Bowl. The last bowl before the BCS National Championship Game, the Red Wolves are in Mobile, Ala., in January for the third straight season, while the Cardinals are aiming to cap off this season with their first-ever postseason victory.

Besides playing in its third consecutive GoDaddy Bowl, Arkansas State will be led once again by an interim head coach. Bryan Harsin, who led the Red Wolves to a 7-5 mark in the regular season and a third straight Sun Belt title (co-champions with Louisiana-Lafayette), accepted the head coaching job at Boise State, his alma mater, on Dec. 11. This is the similar path that Harsin’s predecessors, Hugh Freeze (Ole Miss) and Gus Malzahn (Auburn), also took following the 2011 and ’12 seasons, respectively.

The school has hired former North Carolina offensive coordinator Blake Anderson as the new head coach, but he won’t officially take over until after the bowl game. Defensive coordinator John Thompson is acting as interim head coach, the same role he fulfilled last season after Malzahn left for Auburn. Thompson led his team to a 17-13 win over Kent State in last year’s GoDaddy Bowl, the first postseason triumph for the Red Wolves in three tries.

Ball State (10-2) will have Pete Lembo calling the shots in Mobile, but it remains to be seen if that will be the case once the dust finally settles on the coaching carousel. The Cardinals have posted 19 wins over the past two seasons under Lembo and will try and cap off just the third 10-win season in program history with their first bowl victory. Ball State is 0-6 in bowl games as a FBS member, including last season’s 38-17 loss to UCF in the Saint Petersburg Bowl.

This also represents the first-ever meeting between these two schools.

Arkansas State vs. Ball State

Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 5 at 9 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Ball State -7.5

Arkansas State’s Key to Victory: Pound the football
Quarterback Adam Kennedy is fourth in the nation in completion percentage (69.3), but he’s averaging less than 200 yards passing per game. The key to the Red Wolves offense is the ground game, as they are averaging nearly as many yards on the ground (206.0 ypg) as through the air (208.2 ypg). Sophomore running back Michael Gordon is the leading rusher with 717 yards and he’s averaging nearly seven yards per carry. Gordon has scored 10 rushing touchdowns too, but he hasn’t been the only productive ground-gainer for Arkansas State. Two others, including Kennedy, have rushed for more than 500 yards this season, while Kennedy and fellow quarterback Fredi Knighten have combined for nine touchdowns on the ground. All told, the Red Wolves have 30 rushing touchdowns compared to just 13 passing. Arkansas State’s offensive strength has been Ball State’s defensive weakness. The Cardinals are 92nd in FBS in rushing defense, as they have given up 194.8 rushing yards per game. More than half (seven) of the teams Ball State has played this season has posted at least 200 yards rushing, including 363 by Army. In the Cardinals’ two losses, to bowl teams North Texas and Northern Illinois, they surrendered a total of 455 yards on the ground and 5.4 yards per carry. Ball State’s offense has been difficult to stop this season, but Arkansas State’s offense can help out its defense if the Red Wolves are able to run the ball successfully.

Ball State’s Key to Victory: Soar on offense
The Cardinals’ formula for winning 10 games this season has been pretty simple – pile up the yards and points. Ball State enters this game 19th in the nation in total offense with 486.3 yards per game. The Cardinals are just one of 11 teams in FBS averaging better than 40 points per game and the passing attack is ninth in the nation with 333.3 yards per game. Ball State posted at least 420 yards of total offense in all 12 of its games and was held to fewer than 31 points just three times. In those games, the Cardinals still managed 27 points, although they did go 1-2. While much of the damage has been done through the air, Ball State is capable of running the ball and this attack will be a tough test for Arkansas State’s defense. The Red Wolves are 80th in the nation in yards allowed (417.3 ypg), including 234.4 yards passing per game. Against teams that finished with a winning record (Auburn, Louisiana-Lafayette, Missouri, Western Kentucky),  that number jumps to 459.8 yards per game and 6.6 yards per play. For the season, Ball State is averaging 6.7 yards per play. As long as the Cardinals maintain the status quo on offense, it should be another productive night on the field and scoreboard at Ladd-Peebles Stadium.

Key Player: Keith Wenning, QB, Ball State
The key to the Cardinals’ prolific offense is Wenning, who has rewritten the record books during his Ball State career. A senior, Wenning is the school’s all-time leader in virtually every passing category after setting career highs in yards (3,933) and touchdowns (34) this season. He has completed 65.2 percent of his passes and has thrown just six interceptions. Wenning is sixth in the nation with 327.8 yards passing per game and has hooked up with 13 different receivers this season. His main weapons are his wide receiver trio of Willie Snead, Jordan Williams and Jamill Smith, who have combined for 228 catches, 3,300 yards (14.5 ypr) and all but two of Wenning’s 34 touchdown passes. Contrast that to Arkansas State’s passing attack, which has totaled 2,498 yards and 13 touchdowns this season. A four-year starter already with 27 wins, a host of school records and other accolades under his belt, there’s just one thing left for Wenning to do to cap off his impressive Ball State career – lead the Cardinals to their first-ever bowl victory.

Final Analysis

Arkansas State has gone 27-11 over the last three seasons, all of which resulted in a trip to Mobile to play in the GoDaddy Bowl. Ball State has posted 19 wins in the past two seasons, but is still looking for that first postseason victory. Arkansas State is no longer an unknown commodity, as its past three head coaches have left after just one season to take over at Ole Miss (Hugh Freeze), Auburn (Gus Malzahn) and Boise State (Bryan Harsin), respectively. Pete Lembo may not be at Ball State by the time the 2014 season kicks off, but he and the Cardinals have unfinished business to attend to before closing the book on their ’13 campaign. As much success as Arkansas State has enjoyed recently, I think this Red Wolves team will have their hands full, especially on defense, against a potent Ball State offense. The Cardinals have a senior quarterback in Keith Wenning under center, and boast plenty of weapons at receiver and in the backfield. No team has really been able to slow down Ball State’s offense this season and I expect that trend to continue against Arkansas State. The Cardinals just have too much firepower for the Red Wolves to contend with, as Wenning and the rest of the senior class cap off their collegiate careers with a historic win.

Prediction: Ball State 38, Arkansas State 27

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GoDaddy Bowl Preview and Prediction: Arkansas State vs. Ball State
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What happens when one of the nation’s stingiest defenses goes head-to-head with one of the most explosive offenses? We will find out when Virginia Tech and UCLA face off on the gridiron for the first time ever in the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas.

Virginia Tech extended its bowl streak to 21 seasons after finishing 8-4 overall and 5-3 in the ACC’s Coastal Division. With Florida’s postseason streak coming to an end at 22, the Hokies now have the nation’s second-longest active bowl streak, behind only fellow ACC member Florida State (32).

Now in his 27th season at his alma mater, head coach Frank Beamer has won at least eight games in 19 of the past 21 seasons. The Hokies are just 9-11 in bowl games under Beamer, but were victorious in last season’s Russell Athletic Bowl, defeating Rutgers 13-10 in overtime.

UCLA is playing in its third straight bowl, as the Bruins have gone two-for-two in Jim Mora’s brief tenure. The Bruins went 9-3 and finished second to Arizona State in the Pac-12’s South Division with a 6-3 record.

The Bruins are 14-17-1 all-time in bowls, and have lost their last two postseason appearances. Last season, UCLA fell to Baylor 49-26 in the Holiday Bowl.

Both teams have played in the Sun Bowl before, with Virginia Tech losing its only appearance way back in 1947 and UCLA going 2-1 in its previous three (1991, 2000 and ’05) trips. El Paso also holds special significance for Virginia Tech, as the Sun Bowl loss to Cincinnati more than 60 years ago was the Hokies’ first-ever postseason appearance.

Virginia Tech vs. UCLA

Kickoff: Tuesday, Dec. 31 at 2 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: UCLA -7

Three Things to Watch

No. 23 vs. No. 8
These are the respective national rankings of UCLA’s scoring offense and Virginia Tech’s scoring defense. The Bruins are averaging 36.5 points per game while the Hokies are giving up 17.4 points per contest. As the saying goes, “something has to give,” and considering Tech’s own offensive issues (see below), it’s critical that the defense limit the damage done by the UCLA offense. The key there is stopping Bruin quarterback Brett Hundley. The sophomore may not have enjoyed the same statistical success that he did last year, but he is still a force to be reckoned with. Hundley is similar to his Virginia Tech counterpart Logan Thomas, in that both are dual threats who can make plays with their arm and legs. Hundley leads the Bruins in rushing with 587 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground, and also has thrown for 2,845 yards with 22 touchdowns and only nine interceptions. The Hokies are third in FBS in passing defense and eighth against the run, but haven’t faced a quarterback quite like Hundley this season, unless you count practice reps against Thomas. One of the strengths of the Tech defense is its defensive line, which is a veteran group that goes pretty deep, as evidenced by the 37 sacks (tied for ninth) the Hokies have amassed. This an area in which UCLA has struggled, due in large part to an inexperienced offensive line that features three true freshmen starters. If the Hokies can get consistent pressure on Hundley and make plays behind the line of scrimmage, the Bruins will be hard-pressed to reach their season averages on offense.

Can the Hokies Find Their Offense?
Virginia Tech is 96th out of 125 teams in FBS in scoring offense. Of the 70 teams playing in a bowl game, no team has scored fewer touchdowns than the Hokies’ 34. Running the ball, which has been a staple of Tech offenses in years past, has been an ongoing struggle for the past two seasons. This fall the Hokies are averaging 117.8 yards per game on the ground and a measly 3.1 yards per carry. That puts them 111th in the nation in rushing offense. To make matters worse, running back Trey Edmunds, the team’s leading rusher with 675 yards and 10 touchdowns, broke his leg in the regular-season finale against Virginia. With Edmunds out, the leading rusher on the team is quarterback Logan Thomas, who has a total of 295 yards on 159 carries (1.1 ypc). Thomas is capable of making big plays with his legs, but it’s his arm that has been the issue this season. After bursting onto the scene with a scintillating sophomore campaign in 2011 during which he threw for 3,013 yards and accounted for 30 total touchdowns (19 pass, 11 rush), Thomas has seen his numbers decline in each of the past two seasons. The senior is completing 57.3 percent of his passes, but has seen his passing yardage drop to 2,861 (238.4 ypg) and has nearly as many total touchdowns (20) as turnovers (16). Virginia Tech’s defense is among the best in the nation, but unless the offense can put some drives together and score some points, it won’t matter how well the Hokies’ unit fares against Brett Hundley and the Bruins’ offense.

Two-Way Bruins
Even with dynamic dual-threat Brett Hundley under center, UCLA head coach Jim Mora hasn’t stopped looking for impact offensive players, going so far as to employing several of his guys on both sides of the ball. Six Bruin defenders have seen time on offense, as linebackers and defensive linemen have not only caught a pass or carried the ball, several of them have scored.  Those who have done double duty this fall are defensive linemen Kenny Clark (FB), Keenan Graham (FB), Cassius Marsh (TE) and Eddie Vanderdoes (FB), along with linebackers Myles Jack (RB) and Jordan Zumwalt (FB/TE). Marsh, Vanderdoes and Zumwalt have combined to catch three passes for 32 yards and a touchdown (caught by Marsh), while Jack and Vanderdoes have each carried the ball at least once. In fact, Jack has done much more than merely moonlight as a running back. He is fourth on the team with 269 yards rushing and second only to Hundley with seven touchdowns on the ground. A true freshman, Jack didn’t even get a carry until injuries thrust him into backfield duty against Arizona on Nov. 9. Six carries and 120 yards later, he forced the coaching staff to stay with the experiment. He has scored on the ground in four straight games, including four rushing touchdowns against Washington, a new UCLA true freshman record. How effective has Jack been in his new role? Consider that his 269 yards would place him third on Virginia Tech in rushing, and he’s done this in just four games on offense. As versatile as they come, Jack also has posted 70 tackles, 10 pass breakups, two fumble recoveries, an interception and a blocked kick at his “true” position, which is linebacker. An Athlon Sports first-team All-American and All-Freshman all-purpose player, Jack figures to be all over the field against Virginia Tech, as the Hokies will have to account for him on both defense and offense.

Key Player: Anthony Barr, LB, UCLA
Myles Jack may be stealing some of the spotlight due to his two-way exploits, but there’s no question that Barr is the star of the Bruins’ defense. A senior, Barr has seen his NFL Draft stock rocket up the charts this season, which is quite impressive since this is just his second year as a defensive player. A 6-4. 248-pound athletic freak, Barr has already been named the recipient of the Lott IMPACT Trophy, which is named in honor of NFL Hall of Fame defensive back Ronnie Lott and is awarded to the collegiate defensive player having the biggest influence on his team. His statistics speak for themselves, as he has recorded 62 tackles, 20 tackles for a loss, 10 sacks, five forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries. He is ranked in the top five in the nation in tackles for a loss, forced fumbles and fumble recoveries, has received numerous first-team All-American accolades, and was a finalist for the Bednarik, Butkus and Lombardi Awards. Barr is considered a virtual lock as a first-round pick come draft day in May, and this is last opportunity to make a lasting impression on NFL scouts and front office personnel in a game. Virginia Tech’s defense may have the better statistics as a unit, but UCLA has Barr, and this Bruin is capable of causing plenty of damage all by himself.

Final Analysis

Winning seasons and bowl games have become par for the course at Virginia Tech during Frank Beamer’s 27 years as head coach of his alma mater. However, the Hokies saw their lengthy 10-win season streak come to an end two seasons ago and have struggled to find consistent production on offense. The defense is among the best in the nation, which is why this team was able to win eight games. UCLA has won nine games in each of Jim Mora’s first two seasons at the helm, as the Bruins have NFL-caliber talent on both sides of the ball and have seen several freshmen emerge as consistent contributors this fall. Virginia Tech’s defense boasts several pro prospects of its own, and will do all it can to keep the Hokies within striking distance. In the end, however, Tech just doesn’t have enough offense to keep up with the Bruins and UCLA pulls away late to finish the season with 10 victories.

Prediction: UCLA 27, Virginia Tech 17

Teaser:
Sun Bowl Preview and Prediction: Virginia Tech vs. UCLA
Post date: Monday, December 30, 2013 - 10:00
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While Middle Tennessee and Navy will play each other for the first time ever in Fort Worth, Texas, this year’s Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl will have a distinct Tennessee flavor.

Navy is playing in its 10th bowl in 11 years thanks to a record-setting season by sophomore quarterback Keenan Reynolds. A true dual-threat who now holds the single-season mark for rushing touchdowns (29) by a quarterback, Reynolds is from Antioch, Tenn., which is less than 30 miles from MTSU’s campus in Murfreesboro.

The Midshipmen (8-4) won eight games for the second season in a row and 10th in 11 overall on the strength of the nation’s second-ranked rushing attack. The signature triple option, which was first introduced by former head coach Paul Johnson (currently at Georgia Tech) and has been continued by Ken Niumatalolo, has churned out an average of 322 yards rushing per game.

Navy has gone 3-6 during its current bowl streak and has lost its last two postseason games. This also represents the Midshipmen’s fifth bowl game played in the state of Texas and first since the 2009 Texas Bowl in Houston against Missouri. That also was the last bowl game the Midshipmen won, as they beat the Tigers 35-13 in Reliant Stadium.

Middle Tennessee (8-4) is playing in its first bowl game in three seasons after the Blue Raiders posted their second straight eight-win regular season. Despite beating Georgia Tech in 2012 and finishing with eight victories, MTSU was left out of the bowl picture in its final season as a member of the Sun Belt Conference. Now in Conference USA, head coach Rick Stockstill’s team made the most of their new surroundings. The Blue Raiders tied with East Carolina for second place in the East Division with a 6-2 conference mark.

The Blue Raiders have won five games in a row and a victory over Navy would give them their second-most wins (9) in a season since the program moved to the FBS ranks (formerly known as Division 1-A) in 1999. MTSU last played in a bowl game in 2010, when it lost to Miami (Ohio) 35-21 in the GoDaddy.com Bowl in Mobile, Ala.

MTSU vs. Navy

Kickoff: Monday, Dec. 30 at 11:45 a.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Navy -6.5

MTSU’s Key to Victory: Lean on past experience
Last season, the Blue Raiders’ signature victory came when they beat Georgia Tech 49-28 in Atlanta. The Yellow Jackets are coached by Paul Johnson who was at Navy from 2002-07 and introduced the triple option offense to the Midshipmen. That offense is still in place under Ken Niumatalolo, so MTSU does have some experience in defending it. The key to stopping the triple option is limiting the damage done on the ground; something the Blue Raiders did pretty well in that road upset victory last September. Georgia Tech finished with 238 yards rushing but needed 53 carries (4.5 ypc) to get to that total. MTSU used Tech’s own medicine against it, rushing for 264 yards on 44 carries (6.0 ypc) behind a monster game (217 yards, 5 TDs) from Benny Cunningham, who now plays for St. Louis in the NFL. The Blue Raiders will certainly need to muster plenty of offense from quarterback Logan Kilgore (above, right) and its multi-headed ground game, but any hope of victory begins and ends with slowing down the second-ranked rushing attack in the nation. The Midshipmen average 322 yards rushing per game and as a team average 5.5 yards per carry. They have been held under their average just four times and one of those came against a ranked Duke team. MTSU has held up pretty well against the run in its five games versus bowl teams (BYU, East Carolina, Marshall, North Carolina, North Texas), allowing just 218 yards on the ground per contest, but Navy’s triple option is unique. Fortunately the Blue Raiders have played against something very similar not too long ago and maybe that recent experience will pay dividends against the Midshipmen.

Navy’s Key to Victory: Hold onto the ball
It is no secret that the Midshipmen’s game plan is to try and beat you by running the ball early and often. After all, Navy led the nation with 708 rushing attempts or an average of 59 per game. Contrast that to just 139 total pass attempts in 12 games, which is less than 12 per contest. Put it all together and 84 percent of Navy’s total offensive plays were runs. And while the 322 yards rushing per game is certainly impressive, good for second in the nation, what’s even more impressive is the fact that the Midshipmen have lost a total of four fumbles this season. Combine that with four interceptions and Navy’s eight total turnovers are the fewest among the 125 teams in FBS. The Midshipmen forced 20 takeaways on defense and special teams giving them a plus-12 turnover margin, tying them for 10th in the nation. Ball security is obviously critical to any productive offense, but especially a run-centric one like Navy’s. It’s also important in this game because MTSU is right behind Navy when it comes to turnover margin. The Blue Raiders were a little more careless with the football, committing 20 turnovers (13 INTs, 7 fumbles), but they produced 31 takeaways, including 16 fumbles. The fumble recoveries tie them for the third-most in the nation, and the 31 total takeaways tie them for fifth. The overall plus-11 turnover margin puts them one behind the Midshipmen and is just another reason why Navy’s ball carriers will want to make sure they have a good grip on the pigskin.

Key Player: Keenan Reynolds, QB, Navy
A two-time All-State selection when he was at Goodpasture Christian School in Madison, Tenn., Reynolds didn’t stay close to home and go to nearby MTSU. Instead he enrolled at the Naval Academy where he became just the third freshman in program history to start at quarterback. After rushing for 649 yards and throwing for 898 in his first season, Reynolds has taken his game to historic levels this season. A 1,200-yard rusher and 1,000-yard passer, Reynolds has accounted for 37 total touchdowns, including a NCAA-record 29 rushing scores. He has seven games with at least three rushing touchdowns and set another NCAA mark with seven scores on the ground in a three-overtime win at San Jose State in late November. Even though he’s attempted just 121 passes, Reynolds has posted a respectable 8:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio. MTSU has done a decent job against the run this season, allowing 185.8 yards rushing per game, but the Blue Raiders know full well that Navy’s triple option represents a unique challenge. Is MTSU up to the task or will Reynolds cap off a historic season with a big game against his hometown team?

Final Analysis

Navy may appear one-dimensional, but the Midshipmen do that one thing – run the ball – very well. MTSU has balance on offense and made a healthy living off of turnovers, but the Blue Raiders are 1-4 against teams that finished with a winning record. Navy’s defense didn’t exactly shut opponents down and it will be tested by MTSU’s offense, but I think the Midshipmen’s ability to control the clock with its triple option attack will be the key to this one. Tennessee native Keenan Reynolds, the Midshipmen’s record-setting quarterback, also has the added incentive of facing his hometown Blue Raiders. Besides, in the Armed Forces Bowl isn’t it obvious which team you should pick?

Prediction: Navy 35, MTSU 31

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Armed Forces Bowl Preview and Prediction: MTSU vs. Navy
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For the second year in a row, Cincinnati will try and defeat an ACC team with a distinct home-field advantage in the Belk Bowl in Charlotte, N.C. This year the Bearcats’ opponent is North Carolina, as the Tar Heels return to the postseason following a one-year ban handed down by the NCAA.

Cincinnati finished 9-3 in its first season under head coach Tommy Tuberville, finishing third (6-2) in the American Athletic Conference’s (AAC) inaugural season. The Bearcats are aiming for their third straight 10-win season and sixth overall since 2007.

The Bearcats are making their second straight Belk Bowl appearance, defeating Duke 48-34 last season. Cincinnati is playing in its third straight bowl and 11th since 2000 and is looking to run its postseason winning streak to three games in a row.

North Carolina (6-6, 4-4 in the ACC) is back in a bowl game after a one-year hiatus, but only because Larry Fedora’s team rattled off five straight wins. The Tar Heels started off the season 1-5 before making a switch at quarterback and righting the ship to finish at .500. The Heels won five of their last six games with the only loss being a two-point defeat to ACC Coastal champion Duke to close out the regular season.

The Tar Heels are playing in their fifth bowl in the past six seasons, with the only miss a result of last season’s NCAA-mandated postseason ban. North Carolina has gone 1-3 during this span with its only win coming against Tennessee in the 2010 Music City Bowl.

North Carolina is 2-0 all-time against Cincinnati. The last time these teams played was on Sept. 14, 1991 in Chapel Hill, N.C., a game the Tar Heels won easily 51-16.

Cincinnati vs. North Carolina

Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 28 at 3:20 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: North Carolina -3

Three Things to Watch

“Replacement” Quarterbacks
Cincinnati and North Carolina both had to make quarterback changes during the season because of injury and both offenses took off after the switch was made. The Bearcats lost starting quarterback Munchie Legaux in the second game, opening the door for senior Brendon Kay to step in. Kay went 8-2 as the starter, throwing for 3,121 yards and 22 touchdowns, helping the Bearcats reel off six straight wins at one point. Kay has dealt with some injuries of his own, but still managed to become just the fourth quarterback in program history to throw for more than 3,000 yards in a season. He also has played on this stage before, throwing for 332 yards and four touchdowns in Cincinnati’s victory over Duke in last season’s Belk Bowl. North Carolina entered the season with senior Bryn Renner under center. A three-year starter, Renner was poised to completely rewrite the Tar Heel record books coming off of a 2012 campaign in which he threw for 3,356 yards and 28 touchdowns. Renner and the offense struggled out of the gates, leading to more snaps for sophomore Marquise Williams. A true dual-threat, Williams took over as the starter after Renner suffered a season-ending shoulder injury against NC State on Nov. 2. With Williams at the helm, Fedora’s up-tempo offense took on new life, as the more athletic and mobile quarterback made plays with both his arm (1,527-14-6) and legs (team-high 490 yards rushing, 6 TDs) and was a big reason the Tar Heels won five games in a row. In the six games in which Williams saw the majority of the time at quarterback, North Carolina averaged 451.5 yards and 38 points per game. With both firmly entrenched as the leader of their respective offenses, it will be interesting to see which quarterback makes the most noise on the field in Bank of America Stadium.

The Battle in the Trenches
Both offenses average more than 430 yards per game, but lean more on the pass than the run. Cincinnati averages around 170 yards rushing per game, while North Carolina gains a little more than 146 on the ground per contest. Neither team has a workhorse in its backfield. The Bearcats have three running backs with at least 90 carries and 400 yards rushing, but 14 different players have had at least one rushing attempt and seven have scored a touchdown on the ground. The Tar Heels’ leading rusher is quarterback Marquise Williams, but four running backs have posted at least 53 carries and one rushing touchdown. Both teams use the committee approach in their respective backfields, meaning it will fall to the defenses to stop more than one ball carrier. From a defensive standpoint, Cincinnati enters this game ninth in the nation in total defense (313.2 ypg) and fifth against the run. The Bearcats have allowed less than 100 yards rushing per game, while the Tar Heels have been considerably more generous at 183.6. However, North Carolina’s defense has improved as the season has progressed, and the Tar Heels’ up-tempo, spread-oriented offense typically presents a different kind of challenge for opposing defenses. So while both offenses are perfectly capable of slinging the ball all over the field, whichever team gains the most (or gives up the least depending on how you look at it) on the ground will more than likely finish the season on a winning note.

Putting the “Special” in Special Teams
If North Carolina has a clear edge in any aspect of this matchup against Cincinnati, it’s on special teams. The Tar Heels are No. 1 in FBS in punt returns thanks to the explosiveness and play-making ability of freshman Ryan Switzer. A first-team All-ACC punt returner, Switzer also was named Athlon Sports' first-team All-American punt returner and All-Freshman return specialist after leading the country with four punt returns for touchdowns. Switzer is averaging 20 yards per punt return and also has made an impact as a wide receiver, ranking third on the team in receptions (29), receiving yards (319) and touchdown catches (3). Besides their work on punt returns, the Tar Heels are averaging more than 23 yards per kickoff return and running back T.J. Logan has a 99-yard return for a score. Cincinnati needs to be very wary of Switzer when it has to punt since it has struggled in this department. The Bearcats are 113th among 125 FBS teams in punt return defense (12.9 ypr), although they have yet to give up a touchdown on a return. Earlier this season Switzer became just the second NCAA player in history to return a punt for a score in three straight games. That streak may have come to an end, but Switzer would no doubt like to add to his touchdown total in this game. The question is will Cincinnati even give the dynamic freshman a chance to return a punt. And if not, how effective will the Bearcats’ punter be in kicking away from him? Field position always matters, but especially in a game like this with two productive offenses going head-to-head.

Key Player: Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
A 6-4, 245-pound junior, Ebron is a tight end who plays more like a wide receiver. He leads the team in receptions (55) and receiving yards (895) and he is averaging 16.3 yards per catch. He’s caught three touchdowns and has already been named first-team All-ACC, first-team All-America by ESPN.com and second team by both the Associated Press and Athlon Sports. A finalist for the Mackey Award, which goes to the nation’s top tight end, Ebron has already announced he will forego his senior season and enter the 2104 NFL Draft. He is believed by many to be the top tight end prospect available and could end up being selected in the first round. Ebron gives North Carolina’s passing attack something that most teams don’t have – an athletic, large target that can make big plays regardless of where he lines up – and he will pose a challenge for Cincinnati’s linebackers and secondary. Ebron’s mere presence on the field also helps open up things on the outside for wide receiver Quinshad Davis (47-724-10) and others. The Bearcats rank among the nation’s best when it comes to stopping the run, so it will be critical for quarterback Marquise Williams and the Tar Heels to make some plays through the air. So don’t be surprised if Ebron gets a lot of targets in his final game in a North Carolina uniform.

Final Analysis

Cincinnati needs one more victory for its sixth 10-win season in the last seven. The Bearcats have one of the nation’s most explosive offenses supported by one of the stingiest defenses, and had their six-game winning streak snapped in overtime by a ranked Louisville team. North Carolina needed a five-game winning streak just to become bowl eligible and is giving up more than 400 yards per game. However, this is not the same Tar Heels team that started the season 1-5, as both the offense, behind the emergence of sophomore quarterback Marquise Williams, and the defense have made strides. While the Bearcats may have the edge on paper, I think the Tar Heels will feed off of the built-in home-field advantage of playing in Charlotte, N.C., and put together one of their best all-around performances. North Carolina has a lot of talent returning next season and the Tar Heels give a glimpse of what 2014 could hold by finishing off ’13 with a hard-fought, close victory over a solid Bearcats team.

Prediction: North Carolina 34, Cincinnati 31

Teaser:
Belk Bowl Preview and Prediction: Cincinnati vs. North Carolina
Post date: Friday, December 27, 2013 - 08:00
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Washington will try and cap off the program’s most successful season since 2000 with a win over BYU in the Fight Hunger Bowl at AT&T Park in San Francisco. And if the Cougars weren’t enough of a challenge, the Huskies will play this game with an interim head coach on the sideline.

After leading Washington to eight wins and a third-place finish (5-4) in the Pac-12’s North Division, head coach Steve Sarkisian left Seattle to take over at USC. The Huskies hired Boise State’s Chris Petersen as Sarkisian’s replacement, but former quarterback and now position coach Marques Tuiasosopo will lead the team in the bowl game against BYU, which also happens to be Sarkisian’s alma mater.

The Huskies are in their fourth straight bowl game, but have dropped their last two postseason contests. Two years ago Washington was overwhelmed in the Alamo Bowl by Baylor and Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III, as the Bears beat the Huskies 67-56 in the highest-scoring regulation bowl game in college football history. Last season, Washington fell to Boise State 28-26 in the Las Vegas Bowl.

A win over BYU would be Washington’s ninth of the season and the most by the Huskies since Rick Neuheisel’s 2000 team went 11-1, with its only loss being to Purdue in the Rose Bowl.

BYU has enjoyed considerably more success over the past 14 years, as the Cougars have won at least seven games in each of their past eight campaigns. In fact, head coach Bronco Mendenhall has yet to post a losing record in his nine seasons in Provo, Utah, and has led his team to a bowl game every year.

In their third year as a FBS Independent, BYU went 8-4, including a five-game winning streak that included victories over Utah State, Georgia Tech and Boise State. The Cougars’ schedule this season also featured games against five other bowl teams – Houston, MTSU, Notre Dame, Texas and Wisconsin – and they went 6-2 in those contests.

Under Mendenhall, BYU is 6-2 in bowl games and have won its last four. Last season the Cougars defeated San Diego State 23-6 in the Poinsettia Bowl, which was played in San Diego.

Washington and BYU have split their eight all-time meetings, but the Cougars have won the last three. The last one took place in 2010 in Provo, a 23-17 BYU victory.

BYU vs. Washington

Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 27 at 9:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Washington -3

Three Things to Watch

Washington’s Coaching Transition
Huskies athletic director Scott Woodward made a terrific hire in luring Chris Petersen away from Boise State after Steve Sarkisian departed for USC. The problem is it truly won’t be Petersen’s team until after the bowl game, as Marques Tuiasosopo will serve as the interim head coach against BYU. A former star quarterback for Washington, Tuiasosopo served as the quarterbacks coach for Sarkisian, but he has added quite a bit more to his plate. The good news for the Tuiasosopo and the Huskies is that both coordinators – Eric Kiesau on offense and Justin Wilcox on defense – stayed, at least for the bowl game. What changes Petersen makes to the coaching staff after this game remains to be seen, but the coaches, as well as the players who will be back next season, know they are being evaluated by the new head coach. With so much uncertainty in the locker room and the attention already being shifted to 2014, how will this Huskies team and its skeleton coaching staff close out the ’13 campaign?

BYU’s Run Defense vs. Washington’s Ground Game
The third-ranked defense in the country last season, BYU took a few steps backwards this fall. The Cougars are still a respectable 52nd in total defense, but have seen their yards allowed per game rise from 266.1 per game in 2012 to 383.8. Against the run, BYU was No. 2 in FBS last season, giving up just 86.9 yards per game on the ground. This season the Cougars have surrendered 157.4 (56th) per contest and have given up more than that in four of their past five games. BYU will need to tighten up its run defense if it wants to slow down Washington’s potent ground game led by running back Bishop Sankey. The junior enters this game third in the nation in rushing yards per game with 147.9 and is averaging nearly six yards (5.8) per carry. Sankey has been held under 100 yards rushing just three times this season and also has gone over 200 on three different occasions. As a team, Washington is averaging 243.1 yards rushing per game and has scored 33 touchdowns on the ground. BYU’s defense is giving up fewer than four yards (3.8) per carry and has surrendered just nine rushing touchdowns, but this unit has a tough task ahead of it in trying to slow down Sankey and company.

Can the Huskies Force the Cougars to Throw?
As productive as Washington’s running game has been, BYU has posted even better numbers on the ground. The Cougars are 10th in the nation in rushing offense, averaging 274.7 yards per game. Both quarterback Taysom Hill (above, right) and running back Jamaal Williams have rushed for more than 1,200 yards and they will draw plenty of attention from Washington’s defense. The Huskies enter this game giving up about 160 yards rushing per game, but have held four of their past five opponents to 131 yards or fewer. In Washington’s four losses opponents have rushed for an average of 245 yards per game. If the Huskies can make things tough on the Cougars’ running game, it will fall to Hill to make plays through the air. Hill has thrown for 2,645 yards this season, but he’s completed just 54.1 percent of his passes for 19 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Senior wide receiver Cody Hoffman is a legitimate playmaker, but he has just 45 catches for 727 yards and five touchdowns after posting 100 receptions for 1,248 yards and 11 scores last season. BYU is clearly comfortable running the ball, but is the offense too one-dimensional? Can Washington’s defense force Hill to rely on his arm instead of his legs? The Huskies are hoping they get a chance to find out.

Key Player: Kyle Van Noy, LB, BYU
A 6-3, 245-pound linebacker, Van Noy is the senior leader of the Cougars’ defense. His numbers have not been as impressive this season as last season, but he’s still a difference-maker who is capable of changing the direction of a game on any given play. Last season, Van Noy had 13 sacks, along with 22 tackles for a loss, six forced fumbles, two interceptions and two blocked kicks. This season, he has four sacks, two fumble recoveries and two interceptions. He also is no stranger to saving his best for last, as he was named defensive MVP following BYU’s 23-6 win over San Diego State in last season’s Poinsettia Bowl. Van Noy owned the fourth quarter against the Aztecs, scoring two touchdowns, one on a fumble return and the other on a 17-yard interception return, to bring his Cougars from behind for the win. He also had eight tackles, 1.5 sacks and blocked a punt. Many thought that Van Noy might forego his senior season and enter the NFL Draft following that performance but he returned to school and now has the opportunity to post one more impressive postseason stat line to finish out his BYU career.

Final Analysis

Washington is a team in transition with its coaching staff so it would be understandable if the Huskies didn’t bring their “A” game to San Francisco. On top of that, BYU’s offensive strength – running the ball – has been a point of weakness at times for Washington’s defense. That said, I believe the Huskies have been energized by the hiring of Boise State’s Chris Petersen and will look at this game as an opportunity to impress their new head coach. I’m also not convinced that the Cougars will be able to throw the ball consistently against Washington’s defense, which makes their offense a little too one-dimensional. In the end, the Huskies’ running game, led by Bishop Sankey, and the aerial attack orchestrated by senior quarterback Keith Price, will be just enough to outlast the Cougars as Washington ushers in the Petersen era in Seattle with a win to close out 2013.

Prediction: Washington 31, BYU 30

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Fight Hunger Bowl Preview and Prediction: BYU vs. Washington
Post date: Thursday, December 26, 2013 - 07:15
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East Carolina will try and cap off one of the most successful seasons in program history with a victory over Ohio in the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl in St. Petersburg, Fla.

East Carolina went 9-3 this season, including road victories over in-state brethren North Carolina and North Carolina State. Ruffin McNeill’s Pirates posted a 6-2 mark in Conference USA, finishing second in the East Division to Marshall. McNeill has his Pirates in a bowl game for the third time in his four seasons at the helm.

East Carolina has lost its last four bowl games, including a 43-34 defeat to Louisiana-Lafayette in last season’s New Orleans Bowl. A win over Ohio would be just the second 10-win season in school history, topped only by Bill Lewis’ 1991 team that finished 11-1.

This represents Ohio’s fifth straight bowl appearance, as the Bobcats have become one of the most successful programs in the Mid-American Conference (MAC) under the direction of Frank Solich.

Ohio started this season strong, beating bowl teams Marshall and North Texas to jump out to a 6-2 record by end the of October. The Bobcats struggled down the stretch, however, losing three conference games in a row by a combined score of 123-16. They rebounded with a convincing win over UMass in the regular-season finale to finish at 7-5 and 4-4 in the MAC’s East Division.

After picking up the program’s first-ever bowl win two seasons ago, the Bobcats made it two in a row last year with a 45-14 victory over Louisiana-Monroe in the Independence Bowl. A victory over East Carolina would give Ohio five straight seasons of at least eight wins.

These two schools have played twice before with East Carolina winning both games. The last meeting was in 1998 when the Pirates beat the Bobcats 21-14 in Athens, Ohio.

East Carolina vs. Ohio

Kickoff: Monday, Dec. 23 at 2 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: East Carolina -13.5

East Carolina’s Key to Victory: Stick to the script
The Pirates enter this game 30th in the nation in total offense (459.8 ypg) and 10th in both passing (331.5 ypg) and scoring (40.4 ppg) offense. It’s pretty easy to win nine games when you score at least 31 points in eight of them. Quarterback Shane Carden is the key to this offense, as he’s seventh in nation with 322.2 passing yards per game for 32 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions. Carden leads FBS with his 71 percent completion rate, which is impressive considering he’s attempted 504 passes, which ties him for the fifth in the nation. Carden also has 10 rushing touchdowns, so he’s capable of making plays with his legs too. The Pirates run enough (128.3 rushing ypg) to make it harder for opponents to focus on stopping the passing game, and have produced nearly as many touchdowns on the ground (27) as through the air (33). Ohio has had its issues on defense, allowing nearly 27 points per game on the season. The Bobcats really struggled in November, surrendering 427 yards and 36.5 points per game over their last four. As long as the Pirates stick with what has worked so well for them, this offense should be able to move the ball and put plenty of points on the scoreboard

Ohio’s Key to Victory: Remember 2012
Last season, the Bobcats won their first seven games and found themselves well positioned for a possible BCS bowl bid entering the final weekend of October. Ranked 24th in the BCS standings and 23rd in the Associated Press poll, Ohio lost a heart-breaker to in-state rival Miami (Ohio) when it passed on a potential, chip-shot, game-tying field goal late in the fourth quarter before running out of time, and would finish the regular season with three straight defeats. Very few gave Ohio a shot against Louisiana-Monroe in the Independence Bowl, as the Bobcats entered the contest as more than a touchdown underdog to the Warhawks. Someone apparently forgot to tell Ohio it was supposed to lose, however, as the Bobcats jumped out a 24-7 halftime lead and used a balanced offensive attack and stifling defense to post a convincing 45-14 victory. Ohio finds itself in a similar situation this season having dropped three of its last four to end the regular season and entering its bowl game an underdog of nearly two touchdowns to East Carolina. This is a veteran Bobcats team with many of the key players from last season’s improbable win over Louisiana-Monroe now seniors. Proving the naysayers wrong is nothing new to this team, it’s just a matter of remembering what worked so well a year ago.

Key Player: Tyler Tettleton, QB, Ohio
The son of MLB All-Star catcher Mickey Tettleton, Tyler (above, right) is a three-year starter who will be wrapping up his record-setting Ohio career against East Carolina. The holder of numerous school records, Tettleton has thrown for more than 8,900 yards and rushed for nearly 900 in his four seasons under center, although he played sparingly as a freshman. The dual threat has accounted for 72 total touchdowns, including one touchdown reception. He has thrown for more than 2,600 yards in each of the past three seasons and has completed better than 63 percent of his passes during that span. He struggled at the end of this season, averaging just 148.5 yards passing per game and throwing as many touchdowns as interceptions (3 apiece) in his last four contests. However, Tettleton has risen to the occasion more than once, as he has led his team to back-to-back bowl wins. Two years ago, Tettleton scored the game-winning touchdown with just 13 seconds left to propel Ohio over Utah State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl for the Bobcats’ first-ever bowl victory. Last season, Tettleton helped his underdog Bobcats handily defeat Louisiana-Monroe in the Independence Bowl by throwing for 331 yards and two touchdowns. Tettleton has put up his share of big numbers in big games and he will need to do so again against East Carolina if he wants to finish his collegiate career on a winning note.

Final Analysis

Ohio is a well-coached, veteran team that has overcome the odds to win a bowl game before. This stage and the underdog status is nothing new to this team, which is led by a group of seniors who are playing in their fourth straight bowl game. However, East Carolina brings to St. Petersburg, Fla., one of the nation’s most productive offenses. The Pirates have had no trouble scoring this season and have road victories over big brothers North Carolina and North Carolina State to prove it. Ohio has wins over two bowl teams (Marshall and North Texas), but also lost to three others (Bowling Green, Buffalo and Louisville) by a combined score of 128-10. The Bobcats put up a fight, but in the end the Pirates’ offense is simply too much for them to overcome.

Prediction: East Carolina 41, Ohio 28

Teaser:
Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl Preview and Prediction: East Carolina vs. Ohio
Post date: Sunday, December 22, 2013 - 14:00

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