2014 NFL Championship Sunday: And then there were two

The Star-Ledger-USA TODAY Sports

A shootout between two Hall of Fame quarterbacks never materialized, as Peyton Manning picked apart the Patriots defense on his way to a third Super Bowl appearance. The NFC game was everything it was billed as and maybe a little more, with the Seahawks coming away with the win. Jason Chilton takes a closer look at the Conference Championship games.

SB Nation 2014 NFL Playoff Coverage

New England at Denver

The fourth playoff meeting between Peyton Manning and Tom Brady promised a historic QB showdown, but also hinted at an unpredictable outcome aside from the traditional Hall of Fame shootout. Injuries ravaged both rosters, and a combination of the Patriots' punishing ground attack and Knowshon Moreno's 224-yard effort in the teams' first meeting seemed to augur for more of a ground-and-pound affair.

Those run games failed to deliver in the early going, though, as both the Pats' LeGarrette Blount and the Broncos' Knowshon Moreno were swallowed up by defensive fronts who seemed eager to shut down any notion that they'd be ripe for punishment. As it turned out, though, all the physicality missing from the run games was present between the defensive backs and wide receivers on both sides of the ball. In the game's early going, every release by a wideout signaled the start of a bump and grind affair. Nearly every throw seemed to involve either a grab by a DB or a pick play from a meshing wide receiver that could range from an excuse-me screen to a full-on blow-up of an unsuspecting defender.  A plodding 3-0 affair entering the second quarter, the game's outcome may well have turned on one of those blow-ups as former Patriot Wes Welker detonated current Patriot Aqib Talib. The Patriots' top cornerback was lost for the game with rib and knee injuries, and the New England secondary had just lost the only defender with the physical wherewithal to match up with Denver's monstrous Demaryius Thomas.

Manning didn't go to work on that mismatch right away - instead, he continued to pick New England apart with short crossing routes and swing passes to his backs. The Denver run game finally hit a lick as the drive proceeded, with Moreno ripping off a 28-yard gain to bring the ball to the Patriots' 11-yard line. Rookie runner Montee Ball took over from there, with three punishing runs that set up first and goal at the one-yard line and highlighted just how badly the New England defense had been missing Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo. The Pats predictably bit hard on first-down run action, setting Manning up with a take-your-pick TD toss to Jacob Tamme to put Denver up 10-0.

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New England was able to answer with a field goal drive of their own, but their continued lack of success on the ground augured poorly for their chances. Denver's run defense had endured its own struggles after defensive end Derek Wolfe went down in mid-season, but they continually jammed up the inside running lanes that had been LeGarrette Blount's bread and butter down the stretch. It was on Tom Brady's shoulders to answer, and a lack of both quality weapons and quality pass protection were unfamiliar burdens that were too much to overcome. Brady was able to make some intermittent hay with Julian Edelman, but an Edelman/Amendola/Hoomanawanui troika was always going to be an uphill battle against Thomas/Thomas/Decker/Welker.

That mismatch was enhanced further by the complete disappearance of the New England pass rush as the game moved onward. Manning to Demaryius Thomas was one of the league's most potent weapons this season, but an un-pressured Manning throwing to Thomas running a post-corner-post is completely unfair.

The Broncos were able to counter New England's field goal with one of their own to close out the first half, and then proceeded to all but close out the game with their opening drive of the third quarter.  The fourteen-play, seven-minute drive featured still more meshing wide receivers exploiting the middle of the Patriots' D along with Eric Decker beating up typical dime back Logan Ryan on the outside. The physical DB/WR battles began going more and more to the Broncos, whether they were blocking their New England counterparts on screen throws or winning easy releases off the line of scrimmage. Demaryius Thomas turned one of New England's non-Talib corners every which way but loose on a three-yard route that put Denver up by 17 points.

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The answering Patriots' drive ultimately died out to effectively end New England's hopes, but hope was effectively extinguished on the drive's first third-down situation when, needing a single yard to convert, the Pats lined up in shotgun with an offset back and had Brady throwing off his back foot to Austin Collie. That play converted, but the fact that New England didn't even seek to make Denver honor what had been a tremendously physical ground game signaled that the Patriots would require full-on miracle work from Brady to come out on top.

It was not to be. Defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, playing with a level of effort and achievement that probably had Jacksonville fans looking around for an alien pod, had been the lynchpin of Denver's run defense all day long. Knighton killed the drive by absolutely killing $10 million guard Logan Mankins and sacking Brady on fourth down.

From there, it was all over but the crying. Manning continued to work the ball to Demaryius Thomas with ease, as his #1 receiver racked up a game-high 134 yards in the air. The Patriots kept fighting and managed a pair of late TDs (including a frankly hilarious Brady scramble that will ensure the Broncos' Mitch Unrein two weeks of hell in the film room), but the Broncos kept answering to keep New England at arms' length before sealing the deal with a pretty play action flip to Jacob Tamme that ensured Denver would take the clock to zero on their terms.

49ers at Seahawks

On the heels of the Broncos' beatdown of the Patriots, NFL fans nationwide were hungry for a good game. The kind of hard-fought, back-and-forth, tooth-and-nail affair that Seattle and San Francisco's similarly constructed rosters and mutually nurtured enmity seemed to promise.

And did they ever deliver.

The division rivals' third meeting of the season might have lacked a bit for high-flying style, but it was replete with punishing, trench-warfare substance. The flavor of the game owed much more to the teams' hard-fought Week 14 meeting in San Francisco than either of the 49ers' last two ill-fated trips to CenturyLink. This time the 49ers gave as good as they got, Twelfth Man be darned. Their ferocity quieted the throats of Seattle's renowned fans for much of the first half, and kept their hearts in their throats during a tension-packed final drive. The outcome owed as much to the bounce of the ball as to any stroke of strategic genius, but superlative moments from both sides made this one an instant classic.

It didn't take long to figure out that this meeting wouldn't go all Seattle's way - in fact, it only took until the the game's first play from scrimmage, when Russell Wilson's vaunted legs weren't equal to the task of evading Aldon Smith. Smith got a piece of Wilson and even more of the ball, and completed the Pass Rusher Trifecta by wrestling the resulting fumble away from Wilson to set San Francisco up on the Seattle 15. The Seahawks' defense was equal to the task of keeping the 49ers from fully cashing in thanks to some sure tackling of Kaepernick and Michael Crabtree, but the 49ers were on the board.

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The game quickly settled into the dynamic that would dominate most of the first half - they dynamic of very little dynamism outside of Colin Kaepernick's legs. San Francisco's run defense largely controlled Marshawn Lynch in the first half, as the Niners' down linemen flowed with every zone run and either caused a pileup, prevented blockers from reaching the second level, or simply made the plays themselves. They set up and complemented linebacker NaVorro Bowman, who shot gaps like he'd been in the offensive huddle to snuff out runs. He also took down Wilson on a well-timed blitz to snuff out the Seahawks' final first-quarter drive. Both quarterbacks frequently found themselves on the run, but while Wilson was running for his life in the first half Kaepernick was running with a purpose.

Whether on designed runs or scrambles, Kaepernick was a potent weapon on the ground. He tried his best to put Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright back on the injured list, breaking his ankles twice on consecutive runs that included a 58-yard jaunt to set up the 49ers' first touchdown of the day. Kaepernick logged his second playoff game with 100+ yard rushing, which tied him with the sum total of all other NFL playoff QBs ever. Which is pretty good.

Russell Wilson's legs set up a big play of their own, though this one came through the air. Wilson started right, evaded pressure, looped back and dodged another rusher before firing the ball downfield to slot receiver Doug Baldwin. Baldwin had shaken free from Donte Whitner's coverage during the scramble, and hauled in Wilson's pass for one of several moments that served as a strong argument that Seattle should pony up the cash to bring him back next season. Wilson was sacked on the next play thanks to another of 49er DC Vic Fangio's infrequent but effective blitz calls, forcing Seattle to settle for a field goal that would wrap up the first half scoring at 10-3.

The first drive of the second half looked like we might be in for a low-scoring snoozefest, as Seattle's Michael Bennett dropped Frank Gore for a six yard loss to snuff out the Niners' possession and force a punt.

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But then, the fireworks began in earnest.

Marshawn Lynch laid down a pair of punishing runs before launching a thousand Skittles and ten thousand #BeastMode Tweets with a 40-yard, game-tying run that saw him break through the left side and break a tackle before breaking past Eric Reid's horrendous angle to outrun the Niner secondary to the end zone.

The San Francisco counter-punch was fast and furious. It was a rare quick-strike drive in a hardscrabble contest, as Kaepernick put a 22-yard pass on the money to Michael Crabtree's outstretched hands before eating up 22 more yards of his own on the ground after breaking around the left end. The Seahawks nabbed a scrambling Kaepernick and forced a fumble, but the bounce of the ball let San Francisco keep possession to set up the game's - and probably the postseason's - prettiest throw. On yet another escape to his right, Kaepernick kept his eyes downfield and fired an absolute sniper round in the end zone to Anquan Boldin over All-Pro safety Earl Thomas. Seattle's defense hadn't looked that helpless all year long, and it was a reminder that San Francisco's frequently methodical offense carries plenty of octane thanks to Kaepernick's special skill set.

The Seahawks' faithful found themselves needing something to cheer about, but they only had to wait until the next kickoff until the Doug Baldwin free agency campaign turned in a 69-yard kick return. The drive faltered after one of Seattle's numerous undisciplined penalties on the day, but the Seahawks had answered back to bring the game within four.

Tight coverage helped the Legion of Boom turn away the Niners' next drive, and Seattle took the lead on the next possession as the Seahawks' coaching staff  proved that fortune does indeed favor the bold. Following an intentional grounding penalty on Wilson forced by Ahmad Brooks' fierce pass rush, Seattle found themselves in a fourth-and-seven at the San Francisco 35. A field goal would have brought them within a point, and a punt could have pinned the Niners deep. Instead, Pete Carroll let his second-year QB go for the gusto, and Wilson responded with a perfectly thrown skinny post to Jermaine Kearse that was hauled in over tight coverage to put Seattle up 20-17.

San Francisco's answering drive gained some ground, but the fumble luck that had graced the 49ers' day was about to reverse itself in a big way. First, Seattle's Cliff Avril hauled down Kaepernick to jar loose a ball that was recovered by the Seahawks' Bennett. As Seattle sought to punch in a possibly insurmountable two-score lead, the fumble luck grew even worse for the Niners as Navarro Bowman forced the ball loose from Kearse but got his knee grotesquely bent in the aftermath. Despite somehow hanging onto the ball while falling to the ground for what should have been a clear recovery, Bowman lost the ball in the ensuing scramble and the Seahawks regained possession. Even though Lynch himself coughed up the ball on 4th down to end the Seahawk threat, the damage had been done to the 49er cause as maybe their most dynamic defender was lost.

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They lost the ball again on the next series, as Kaepernick seemed to lose track of box safety Kam Chancellor when trying to fire a sideline ball to Anquan Boldin. Boldin hooked up on a route designed to take advantage of the Seahawks' corners frequently bailing back into 3-deep coverage, but Chancellor undercut the route and had easy pickings on Kaepernick's throw. The game could have been all but over at that point, but one of the game's several botched handoffs (if we're being honest, things had gotten kind of sloppy by this point) helped to stall Seattle's answering drive and forced a field goal that put the Seattle lead at six and left the door open for a dramatic final drive.

Kaepernick and the Niners almost delivered. They marched down the field, with Kaepernick spreading the ball around and lofting a pretty throw to Crabtree on the right sideline to beat the same coverage scheme that had resulted in his earlier interception. Another dart over the middle to Vernon Davis saw the Niners to the Seattle 18 yard line, with plenty of time for a last-second miracle.  But thanks to Richard Sherman, that miracle was not to be. Sherman had good position on Michael Crabtree's hip as Crabtree hugged the right sideline, and used his tremendous athleticism and awareness to leap and deflect Kaepernick's throw into the waiting arms of linebacker Malcolm Smith. Smith fell to the end zone turf as Seattle's fans shook the stadium, and Seattle was Super Bowl bound.

What's Next

It was the Super Bowl matchup that many folks predicted at the start of the season, and in many ways it's the most interesting matchup that anyone could have asked for. The NFL's ultimate old-school quarterbacking legend squares off against a standard-bearer of the game's new wave of dual-threat signal callers. The league's most potent passing attack gets to do battle with one of the stingiest pass defenses in league history. The Seahawks' punishing ground game faces a Broncos' defense that looks equal to the task, and even the kickers are two of the league's best.

It's the kind of strength vs. strength contest that jacks the intrigue through the roof, and the early pick 'em wagering line speaks to just how well-matched these contenders really are.

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