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For the first time in 15 years, all four teams in the conference finals have at least 12 regular-season victories, giving them a cumulative mark of 50-14. But that’s still far short of the 55-9 record of the finalists in 1998, the season Denver won the second of its world titles.
This season, only the fifth-seeded 49ers advanced this far through the wild-card round. Don’t get too wrapped up with past results based on scores alone, such as San Francisco’s 29-3 loss in Seattle in Week 2 as a 3-point underdog. Twenty times in league history a team lost by double digits in the regular season at a visiting venue only to return to that site in the playoffs and prevail.
In fact, teams have rebounded after a loss of more than 26 points five times, most notably the Vikings in 1977. After losing to the Rams in LA 35-3, they came back almost exactly two months later to earn a 14-7 postseason victory as a 9-point underdog.
The best revenge match in history famously occurred in the title game in 1940 when the Bears wiped out the Redskins 73-0 in Washington. Three weeks earlier, Bears were 7-3 losers in D.C. Now for a closer look at Sunday’s games. The lines are provided by the Las Vegas Hotel SuperBook. Times are PST.
NFL FOOTBALL – SUNDAY, JAN. 19
New England Patriots (13-4) at Denver Broncos (14-3)
Line: Broncos by 5 (56½)
Weather: Low 60s, sunny
Facts: The Patriots haven’t been this big an underdog since their 2009 JVs were 34-27 losers at Houston as a 7.5-point dog in the regular-season finale... In the 2001 season, the first year the Patriots were Super, New England beat Peyton Manning’s Colts twice as a double-digit underdog.
No team has pulled off two such big upsets in a season against anyone since... Earlier this season, the host Patriots beat Manning’s Broncos 34-31 as a 2½-point dog after overcoming a 24-0 halftime deficit. That’s the only time NE has been a home dog the past eight seasons.
The last time the Patriots played a road playoff game, in 2006, they were 38-34 losers to Manning’s Colts, the season Indy went on to win its sole Super title. Indy rallied from 21-3 down to win... Two seasons ago, the Patriots pulled the rug on Tebowmania with a 45-10 division-round win over visiting Denver, the most lopsided playoff score since the host Jets beat Manning’s Colts 41-0 in the 2002 postseason.
Denver has had a league-best 31 TD drives of 80-plus yards this year, including 86- and 87-yard marches against San Diego last week. The Patriots have had 14 such drives…Unlike college football, which had a 1,000-1 shot in the BCS final (Auburn), the longest shot left on the board from the preseason is the Patriots, who were 10-1.
Analysis: Does three-time Super Bowl champion coach Bill Belichick of New England have an edge over Denver’s John Fox? Maybe, considering that over the past 20 years of conference finals, sideline bosses with a ring are 10-3 vs. non-ringed fellows. Not included is Belichick’s win over Fox’s Carolina Panthers in the 2003 season Super Bowl, 32-29.
Does Belichick’s staff have an edge over Manning? Well, Manning’s passer rating of 70.4 in that loss earlier this season is his worst over his past 31 games and seems extra horrid considering he had Knowshon Moreno running behind him for 224 yards, the most by an RB in any game this season. Not to mention the Patriots are 10-4 against Manning with Tom Brady at the wheel.
Although both teams should move well against depleted defenses ranked in the bottom half of the league (Denver’s 19th, NE’s 26th), if any QB is going to crack, it’s going to be the one from Denver who’s 10-11 in his postseason career and has been known to make dangerous throws in key situations (see film of Saints’ Super victory or previous games vs.NE).
Forecast: Patriots 38, Broncos 28
San Francisco 49ers (14-4) at Seattle Seahawks (14-3)
Time: 3:30 p.m.
Line: Seahawks by 3½ (39½)
Weather: Low 40s, patchy fog
Facts: This is the 49ers’ third straight NFC title game under coach Jim Harbaugh. Last season, in Atlanta, they became only the second team in history to lose in a conference final one year and win it the next season on the road (Rams 1979).
Seattle has held a league-high six QBs to their worst passer-rating day of the year, including SF’s Colin Kaepernick, whose reading of 20.1 in Week 2 (no TDs, three INTS) during the aforementioned 29-3 loss is by far the worst of his two-year career. In fact, five times his rating was 72.0 or worse, with three coming vs. Seattle.
SF is 8-1 on the road this year and is going for an NFL-record-tying ninth win Sunday. Its two year road mark is 14-4, but SF is 0-2 in Seattle... Last season, the 49ers outgained foes by 67.4 yards a game, second best among playoff teams. This year they are at only plus 6.9 a game, third worst. Seattle is at plus 65.4, three years after winning the NFC West and reaching the postseason despite being outgained 70.1 yards an outing.
San Francisco has advanced with road wins over Green Bay and Carolina, but in the regular season was only 2-4 vs. teams that made the playoffs. Only KC had more losses, going 1-5 before losing again in the wild-card round.
Analysis: Both teams have statistically sound defenses, with Seattle’s rated No. 1 and SF’s at No. 5. But both teams should have concerns. San Francisco was in danger of going down 14-6 at Carolina last week after Panthers QB Cam Newton smartly marched them to the goal line a second time. But since Carolina stubbornly was determined to run up the middle, it was no dice. The 49ers were fortunate.
For Seattle, it seemed odd that the league’s premier stop unit struggled mightily late in its 23-15 victory over New Orleans, which wasn’t settled until the Saints’ last play. New Orleans had 13 first downs in the fourth quarter alone, which matched Seattle’s for the whole game.
Offensively, both teams have formidable RBs, in SF’s Frank Gore and Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch. So, that’s a wash. It likely will come down to QBs. And that’s where Seattle’s Russell Wilson, the 16th-rated passer, should have an edge over Kaepernick, ranked 20th. The Seahawks have definitely been the Bicep Kisser’s kryptonite.
Forecast: Seahawks 27, 49ers 16
Last week: 2-1-1 ATS; 4-0 SU
Season total: 134-121-9 (.522) ATS; 160-103-1 (.608) SU
“Popular” Bob Christ has been forecasting NFL games for more than 30 years. His work has appeared in newspapers from coast to coast in Canada and the U.S. Contact him at [email protected].