These four teams were probably the four best teams this season. You can make arguments for a few teams here and there (Carolina, for example) but really these three probably are the strongest and not just because they're still standing.
As with last week, I broke down all four teams' weakness at Bleacher Report, but we'll take a look at both games here as well.
Also, as a heads up, I will be in Mobile at the Senior Bowl again this year so next week will see the beginnings of our draft coverage here at CHTV. I'll also have my initial top 10 rankings at my own site later today or tomorrow as I begin to do some more thorough tape work as well.
Anyway, back to the weekend's excitement.
San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks
This is the less hyped of the two games, but it may be the more interesting one, once you drill down into it.
Two of the best defenses in the NFL, with two of the best young quarterbacks, two fantastic wide receivers and two sets of tremendous wide receivers.
Wait a second, back up.
Seattle doesn't have much in the wide receiver department—especially if Percy Harvin is out, a strong possibility considering he was still in the NFL concussion protocol process on Friday. Golden Tate is a fine receiver but it's going to be far easier for the 49ers to cover Tate and the other warm bodies in the offense than for the Seahawks to cover Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin—something the Carolina Panthers found out to their dismay last week.
Yes, the Seahawks secondary is several orders of magnitude better than the Panthers secondary is, but it's still a lot to cover. On top of it, you have to worry about Frank Gore running the ball or, failing all of the above, what quarterback Colin Kaepernick can do as well.
This, to me, seems as if it will be the difference in the game. Can the Seahawks cover the three receivers? Further, can they get pressure on Kaepernick on a consistent basis?
Against Carolina, Kaepernick was sacked just once, and though the Panthers registered six QB hits, most of those were when the quarterback was running.
For the Niners, it's about stopping Marshawn Lynch on offense. Russell Wilson is very good, but he just doesn't have the weapons that. The Seahawks should try to run the ball and control the clock but the downside is, if the Niners get a significant lead Wilson will have to make some remarkable throws to middling receivers.
In the end, I smell an upset coming. A close game, yes, but one which falls San Francisco's way.
New England Patriots at Denver Broncos
If I'm the Broncos, I leave little pot gift baskets in all the Patriots hotel rooms
— Andrew Garda (@Andrew_Garda) January 17, 2014
Now that we have our "it's legal in Colorado" joke out of the way, let's talk football.
Neither of these defenses is anything to write home about. Losing Chris Harris is a huge setback for the Broncos. They're going to struggle even against the so-so receivers the Patriots field. When Quentin Jammer took over in the third quarter, he was terrible.
Jammer was blown up by rookie Keenan Allen and Eddie Royal both on the outside and in the slot.
He's going to have a heck of a time even with Edelman and Amendola. Moving another defensive back into the spot isn't a great solution as Champ Bailey, Kayvon Webster and Tony Carter are all shaky substitutes as well.
For the Broncos, the key will be Shaun Phillips and the defensive front hitting Tom Brady early and often. We've seen Brady struggle when he is hit repeatedly in the pocket and Phillips can definitely deliver a hit. The offensive line for the Patriots has played really well the last few games, but the Broncos will have to find a way.
As will the Patriots defense, because they face the No. 1 offense in the NFL. Peyton Manning is having a season for the ages and Wes Welker, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker are a potent trio. Tight end Julius Thomas can produce a big play, while Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball are a tough backfield tandem.
The Patriots defense ranked No. 26 overall—No. 18 versus the pass and No. 30 against the run. You can bet Bill Belichick will have a few new wrinkles to try and throw Manning off his game, but the Broncos should be able to move the ball on this defense.
Their best bet is actually the plan San Diego couldn't pull off last week—run the ball. LaGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley accounted for all of the touchdowns the Patriots had against the Indianapolis Colts last week. It won't go that way this week—Denver is a much better run defense (No. 7 in the regular season)—but they should work as hard as they can to grind down that defensive front with rough runs.
In the end, I don't expect it will be enough and this game should go according to script: Manning gets the ball with two minutes left and drives down the field for a win.
San Francisco versus Denver? As much as any combination of these four teams would work, that one doesn't sound half bad.