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Pudge’s Picks – Conference Championship Weekend

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Tight end Julius Thomas could be a major difference maker for the Broncos

Picking winners in the playoffs is easier when compared to the regular season. Thanks to having teams that are bit more consistent at the things they do well, it’s easier to evaluate the matchups. It’s also easier since you have a much larger sample size of previous games to evaluate.

Due to that lessened hardship, I had a clean sweep last week with picking all the winners correctly, going 4-0. Did not however get all the spreads right as I went 3-0-1 due to the Seattle Seahawks winning by eight points and pushing. That brings my playoff total to 7-1 picking games straight up and 6-1-1 when picking against the spread.

Before the season in my predictions post, I tabbed the Seahawks to square off against the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. I initially picked the Broncos to win that game, although if that matchup does ultimately come to fruition, I’d probably switch allegiances at this point. For these picks because I had initially expected it, I’m going to pick that Bronco-Seahawk matchup to come true.

I’m personally excited by the potential that I nailed both Super Bowl teams, although I don’t think that particular matchup was that difficult to see coming. The Broncos were far and away the best team in the AFC going into the season. And I suspect most people that didn’t have loyalty to a particular NFC team (like my fellow Falcon fans) picked the team they figured would win the NFC West: Seattle or San Francisco.

But overall, I like the fact that this could make two years in a row in which I got at least one of the Super Bowl teams right. Last year, I correctly predicted the Baltimore Ravens to wind up in the Super Bowl before the season started.

But enough patting myself on the back, here are this weekend’s picks:

New England Patriots (13-4) at Denver Broncos (14-3)
Sunday, January 19 at 3 pm ET on CBS

*Line: Broncos (-5.5)

Although I’m taking the Broncos, I’m very worried about this game. The Patriots obviously beat the Broncos earlier this season in Denver. It was a game in which early turnovers really caused the Patriots to get behind, although they looked like the better team overall.

The Patriots turned the ball over on their first three series, leading to 17 Bronco points before going down 24-0 at halftime. But the Patriots roared back in the second half, scoring on their first five second-half possessions, and forcing a pair of Broncos turnovers and several defensive stops to take a 31-24 lead midway through the fourth quarter. Then Peyton Manning was able to turn things on to tie the game at the end to send it into overtime. Then neither team was able to score on a pair of possessions in overtime, until Wes Welker muffed a punt deep in Bronco territory, which led to an easy game-winning Stephen Gostkowski field goal and a Patriot win.

My biggest takeaway from that game was that the Patriots were the better team, and if not for those early turnovers that got them into a big hole early, they looked like a team that probably could’ve beaten the Broncos by a lot more. It was sort of the reverse of the Falcons-Broncos game in Week 2 of 2012, where the Broncos got into a hole, but over the last three quarters looked like a much better team than the Falcons. But the Falcons were able to outlast the Broncos with one or two more key drives in the second half to prevent the comeback.

Certain players that played in that previous Patriots-Broncos game such as Rob Gronkowski, Brandon Spikes and Von Miller, will not be playing in Sunday’s game. And certain players that did not play in that game, such as Julius Thomas, will be playing this week. How that changes the matchups, I don’t know.

But it will be tougher on the Patriots defense to stop the full smorgasboard of Bronco weapons. The Patriots back seven will need to play the game of their lives. Aqib Talib will likely draw Demaryius Thomas, but rookies like Logan Ryan and Jamie Collins will have to do their best against the likes of Eric Decker, Welker, and Julius Thomas. Devin McCourty, Kyle Arrington, Dont’a Hightower and Steve Gregory will also have to step up their games. Another key is getting some pressure on Manning with players like Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich having to also play at a high level.

Because of that, I have the feeling that the Broncos will find a way to prevail because they simply have too many weapons that even a genius coach like Bill Belichick will struggle to stop. But I have no confidence that the Broncos defense is going to get very many stops with cornerback Chris Harris being out, even against the lesser Patriot receivers. So I think in the end, the Broncos will have to win in a similar manner as they nearly did before, which is get an early lead and outlast the Patriots.

Spread Pick: Patriots
Straight Pick: Broncos

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Rookie guard Michael Bowie could be the biggest key in a Seahawks win

San Francisco 49ers (14-4) at Seattle Seahawks (14-3)
Sunday, January 19 at 6:30 pm ET on FOX

*Line: Seahawks (-3.5)

Because I’m so worried about the winner of the AFC Championship, my luck this season with picking games dictates that this will be in fact the game I get wrong. Because I’m not that worried about the Seahawks beating the 49ers.

I think the Seahawks are a much better team than the 49ers, particularly at home. I’ve been surprised by the number of people that believe the opposite, even with Seattle icoming off an unimpressive win over the New Orleans Saints, while the 49ers have built some momentum with two road wins over the Green Bay Packers and Carolina Panthers

But Seattle is just a different animal than either of those teams. Even though they may lack a dynamic offense, they are still a solid enough offense that can score when they need to. Their key to success has been that they haven’t needed to score a lot of points because their defense is so good.

I think that is the underrated aspect of the Seahawks, which is nearly unfathomable because their defense is great. They are the one team that won’t be out-muscled by the physical 49ers receivers, because their corners are just as physical. They also have a much better pass rush than the 49ers do. While Aldon Smith is showing strides, he along with Ahmad Brooks just haven’t been forces to be reckoned with. I think players like Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril could fare much better against that 49ers line and create that pressure that has proven bothersome to 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in the past.

An interesting matchup I’m looking forward to is rookie Michael Bowie squaring off against Justin Smith. The Seahawks made the switch to Bowie at guard in the playoffs after he spent most of the season as the injury replacement at right tackle. If Bowie holds his own, then I don’t see how the 49ers will win because they need to exploit that matchup in the hopes of slowing down Marshawn Lynch and creating turnovers.

Kaepernick has struggled in his last two trips to Seattle due to the crowd noise and facing a top-level defense. He has been so-so thus far through the playoffs, and the 49ers are going to really need him to step up his game. I don’t believe the Seahawks need quarterback Russell Wilson to really step up his play to a significant degree. But if they do, I’m a lot more confident that Wilson will make the plays he needs to in order to pull off the win.

Spread Pick: Seahawks
Straight Pick: Seahawks

* All lines come from ESPN.com.

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Author: Aaron Freeman

Aaron is the founder of FalcFans.com.

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