Dan Caesar’s NFL conference title game capsules and picks

Broncos, 49ers favored to reach Super Bowl
Jan 18, 2014

 

PATRIOTS AT BRONCOS

When: 3 p.m. EST on Sunday

Line: Broncos by 5½.

Weather: Sunny, temperature in the 50s, light wind.

Synopsis: A classic matchup featuring marquee QBs. Peyton Manning leads Denver’s top-rated passing attack and No. 1 overall offense. And although New England’s Tom Brady is down statistically this season as the Pats have evolved into more of a ground-oriented team because of personnel issues, he has guided the team to No. 3 in the NFL in scoring (27.8 points per game). So defense probably will be the key here, and Denver’s unit (No. 19) was better than New England’s (No. 26) in the regular season. The Broncos are No. 8 vs. the run but just 27th against the pass, so look for Pats coach Bill Belichick to move away from the ground game that last weekend ripped Indy (26th vs. the run) and have Brady throwing more, especially with injured Denver starting cornerback Chris Harris Jr. out. Conversely, New England’s defensive weakness is vs. the run, as it ranks 30th. So look for Manning to be handing off more often than usual in this one, at least until the Pats can prove they can stop the ground attack.

Bottom line, pick: Belichick has done a great job this season by getting his team to overcome the loss of many key players, but the magic runs out here as the patchwork defense finally gives out against the high-powered Denver attack — which this time shouldn’t have its passing attack bothered by gusty wind, as it was last week.

BRONCOS 37, PATRIOTS 31.

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49ers at SEAHAWKS

When: 6:30 p.m.

Line: Seahawks by 3½.

Weather: Cloudy, temperature in the upper 40s, light wind.

Synopsis: While the focus in the AFC game is on the quarterbacks, the defenses are the centerpiece here. Seattle ranks No. 1 in the NFL in terms of yards allowed (273.6 per game) and San Francisco is No. 5 (316.9). Neither team is worse than No. 7 in any of the major statistical categories (points, yards, passing yards and rushing yards) allowed. On the other side, they are similar offensively, too — SF is third in rushing and Seattle is fourth, both passing games are weak and their total yardage is in the middle of the pack. The difference here could be how the teams are trending. After a midseason four-game spurt in which the Seahawks averaged 33.8 points, they have dropped to 20 in their last five outings while SF has been more than a TD better in that span (27.1). Seattle QB Russell Wilson has thrown for an average of just 156.4 yards in the club’s last five games — a bad sign if SF shuts down Seattle’s potent Marshawn Lynch-led ground attack . Conversely, SF’s Colin Kaepernick has averaged 226.1 in the same stretch and seems more dangerous at this stage than Wilson.

Bottom line, pick: The deck seemingly is stacked against San Francisco. Seattle has lost just once at home in the last two seasons, including two victories over SF by a combined score of 71-16. And the 49ers face the monumental task of having to win four road games in a row, after eking out a victory at Arizona in their regular-season finale then prevailing in the playoffs at Green Bay and Carolina. However, SF seems to be peaking while Seattle is having its struggles offensively.

49ers 20, SEAHAWKS 17.

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CAESAR’S RECORD, TOP PICKS

STRAIGHT UP

Last week: 4-0. Postseason record: 5-3.

Pick of the week: BRONCOS. Last week: Right. SEAHAWKS. Postseason: 1-1.

vs. POINT SPREAD

Last week: 2-1-1. Postseason: 3-2-3.

Pick of the week vs. spread: 49ers (+3½).

Last week: Wrong. (Colts +7). Postseason: 0-2.

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