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NFL Picks For Championship Weekend: Broncos Running Out Of Gas, 49ers Riding Playoff Experience Into Seattle

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
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Peyton Manning (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

Peyton Manning (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

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Football

 

BOSTON (CBS) — What makes a winner and what makes a loser is often the same thing. Mostly, it’s a bunch of nonsense.

Sure, some players are unquestionably far superior athletes to others, and over the course of a career, we’re able to glean certain traits and characteristics about players. But we often put too much stock into mythology and theory as much as anything tangible in the world.

I say this as we all prepare to watch Tom Brady, the greatest winner of them all, face off against the Denver Broncos and Peyton Manning, Sir Chokes-A-Lot.

Do we have evidence from the past 13 years that tells us those labels are somewhat accurate? Yeah, but only to an extent. Think back to Brady’s first Super Bowl victory. He never would have had the chance if Drew Bledsoe hadn’t stepped into the AFC Championship Game in Pittsburgh to throw a touchdown, if Troy Brown hadn’t returned a punt for another score, and if Brown hadn’t lateraled a block field goal to Antwan Harris for yet another touchdown. If the Patriots lost that game in Pittsburgh, who knows what Brady’s “legacy” would be today. It probably wouldn’t involve three Super Bowls, though.

More recently, Brady “won” the 2011 AFC Championship Game against the Ravens on a day when he threw zero touchdowns and two interceptions, while “loser” Joe Flacco threw for 306 yards (67 more than Brady), two touchdowns and just one interception. But because his coach didn’t call a timeout and because his kicker missed a relative chip shot, Flacco was a loser. The next year in Denver, Flacco instantly became a winner because he handed the ball to a running back on four straight plays to beat Manning and the Broncos in double overtime.

Manning has, of course, had his fair share of ugly moments under the game’s brightest spotlight, and if he throws a pair of back-breaking interceptions on Sunday, few of us will be totally stunned. But this is also a man who set NFL records for passing yards and touchdowns this season, and he’s someone who may throw four touchdowns this weekend. And he still might lose the game.

This is all to say one simple thing: Sports are freaking crazy. No matter what we know (or think we know) about anyone or anything really has little to no impact on what will happen next. We’ll use everything we observed in their careers to make our judgments once they’re over, but for now? The winners and losers this week are going to be determined by a whole lot more than the ideas we’ve created about the starting quarterbacks.

(Home team in caps; Thursday lines)

New England (+5.5) over DENVER
If you’re going up against the Broncos, are you supposed to be scared?

The Broncos built their reputation as a dominant team through the first half of the season, when they stormed out of the gate with a 7-1 record, outscoring opponents 343-218 (an average score of 43-27) in the process. They were unstoppable.

Then, things got a bit difficult. Peyton Manning fought with an ankle injury, and the defense — which was pretty bad to begin with — continued to lose bodies. They fended off the Chiefs and beat the teams they were supposed to beat, but losses to New England and San Diego showed chinks in the armor. Even after their first-round bye, they nearly fizzled out late last week against the Chargers.

The Broncos, simply, are running out of gas.

The Patriots, on the other hand, have just found their stride. LeGarrette Blount averaged a whopping 36 yards per game through Week 15, before the Patriots realized what they had and started feeding the football to him. He’s since averaged 144 yards per game (not a typo) while scoring eight touchdowns (also not a typo) in the last three games. He’s helped change the team’s offensive identity, and he’s helped open up some opportunities for Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola in the passing game.

These two teams are trending in opposite directions. In fact, since Week 9, the Patriots have actually scored more points (308) than Denver (287). Surprising? Only if you’re basing your impressions of the Broncos off the first half of their season.

With Chris Harris gone, Tom Brady will have his passing opportunities. And on the other side, Peyton Manning has had his struggles against Bill Belichick. Manning’s 150-yard output in Foxboro this season was by far his lowest of the season, and that was only partially due to the weather.

The elements won’t be a factor for this one, of course, but I remain unconvinced that the Broncos are a better team than the Patriots right now. Certainly, they’re not five points better.

San Francisco (+3.5) over SEATTLE
I made a grave error last weekend when I picked the Panthers over the 49ers, and I hope to make amends for it this week. I underestimated the value of playoff experience, and I saw it lead the Niners to a very convincing win in Carolina.

Admittedly, the task is a lot harder this week, as the Seahawks at home present perhaps the biggest challenge there is in the NFL right now. When you factor in how poorly the 49ers have played in their last two trips to Seattle (a 29-3 loss this year, a 42-13 beating last year), picking San Francisco seems all the more outrageous.

But the Niners stomped all over the Panthers, who might be every bit as cocky as these Seahawks, which reinforced an already confident team. The Seahawks are still led by Pete Carroll, and Pete Carroll is a man I watch every week, waiting to see him badly screw things up. And it nearly happened last week, as the Saints put up 15 points in the fourth quarter and would have had a pretty good chance of adding more if Marques Colston didn’t decide to heave a football forward after catching it.

Alas, Colston bailed out the Seahawks, but I’m too scarred by Pete’s timeout last year in Atlanta to think the coach suddenly has it all figured out.

In non-coaching matters, the Niners’ run defense ranked fourth in the NFL in run defense and kept the Panthers in check last week, so they match up well with Seattle’s biggest weapon in Marshawn Lynch. While Colin Kaepernick’s shown to have his troubles at CenturyLink Field, he’s clearly been able to limit his mistakes in two road playoff games already, and he did enough to beat the Seahawks (albeit in San Francisco) late in the season.

And should this game end up being a tight one late in the fourth quarter as it should be, I’m putting my faith in the 49ers’ experience from playing in seven playoff games in the past three seasons shining through.

(You can stop reading here. No need to go on. There’s nothing interesting at the bottom of this post. Maybe turn off your computer and head outside. It’s a nice day outside, I hear. Yeah, go outside. Or stay inside. Definitely don’t scroll down, though.)

Last week: 0-3-1
Playoffs:
2-4-2
Regular season:
114-132-10

Read more from Michael Hurley by clicking here, or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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