Superbowl XLVIII Preview: Seattle Seahawks v Denver Broncos

Denver QB Peyton Manning will face Seattle’s top rated pass defense in Superbowl XLVIII

The Match-Up

Seattle Seahawks (13-3) v Denver Broncos (13-3)

Met Life Stadium, New Jersey

6.30 PM (ET) Kick Off

After a season packed with drama, exceptional performances, injuries and upsets the Superbowl is finally upon us. For the first time in a long time the two number one seeds from each conference will square off in America’s biggest sporting event, held outside in a cold weather city for the first time ever this coming Sunday. Met Life Stadium in New Jersey is the venue and although concerns still exist over the anticipated cold weather recent reports suggest the temperature on Sunday night will be mild and the weather won’t have too much of a bearing on the outcome. Both John Fox and Pete Carroll, head coaches of the Broncos and Seahawks respectively, are searching for their first NFL title although Carroll won three national championships in college with the University of Southern California and Fox was the coach of the Carolina Panthers when they lost to the New England Patriots in Superbowl XXXVIII by a mere three points.

Seattle are one of the more outspoken teams in the NFL and while Richard Sherman’s post-NFC Championship game outburst made headlines the lack of verbals from Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch was one of the main talking points from the annual pre-Superbowl media day featuring players from both teams. Seattle’s number one defense takes on the number one ranked Denver offense in a mouth watering clash, with the bad boy ‘hawks more than ready to go nose to nose with one of the most respected players in the NFL, Peyton Manning. Manning is searching for a second Superbowl ring after his 2006 triumph with Indianapolis, a total which would match his brother Eli after his dual successess with the New York Giants in 2007 and 2011. Playing at Eli’s home stadium a legacy cementing victory would be all that much sweeter for Manning, arguably the NFL’s greatest ever signal caller coming off an exceptional season in which he broke the NFL’s single season touchdown mark with an astronomical 55 scoring passes.

When Seattle has the ball..

With ball control an important part of any teams game plan against a Peyton Manning led offense don’t be surprised to see Marshawn Lynch add to his 50 carries so far this post-season. Those carries have come at an average of exactly five yards per play, a healthy number that has enabled the Seahawks offense to not rely on the arm of sophomore QB Russell Wilson a great deal. Nonetheless Wilson played well throughout January and while he has only thrown one touchdown pass he hasn’t thrown an interception, keeping the Seattle defense off the field for long stretches at a time. Wilson has however been sacked seven times in just two play-off games, something Denver will look to exploit even without star pass rusher Von Miller who’s injured.

Broncos linebacker Danny Trevathan has had a stellar post-season and as a force in the middle of the field he’ll be tasked with stopping Lynch and the Seattle ground game. Defensive tackle Terrance Knighton has also played well and if he can clog up running lanes in the middle and keep Trevathan free it’ll help the Denver defense greatly in their efforts to make Wilson shoulder more of the offensive burden for the Seahawks. Should that be the case then Percy Harvin’s return from a concussion could be pivotal for Pete Carroll’s men. Harvin missed 15 of 16 regular season contests with a hip injury, something he should be over now though a fair amount of rust could remain. Fellow receiver Doug Baldwin should compliment Harvin in the passing game, with speedy Broncos corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie likely to draw Baldwin in coverage with veteran Champ Bailey taking Harvin or Golden Tate. In an effort to restrict the time Wilson has in the pocket Denver will look towards outside linebacker Shaun Phillips, who’s two sacks so far during the play-offs lead the team.

When Denver has the ball..

After yet another record breaking season Peyton Manning is the man Seattle will have to stop if they are to earn the first Superbowl title in franchise history, with the best passing offense in the NFL going up against the best pass defense in the league. After recording 28 interceptions during the regular season Manning will be aware of the Seahawks secondary’s ball hawking ability, led by cornerback Richard Sherman who will likely be isolated in one on one coverage for the majority of Sunday’s game. Demaryius Thomas is the biggest deep threat the Broncos possess so he could be the guy Sherman is assigned to cover, however Wes Welker and Eric Decker are also potent threats in the passing game so Sherman’s fellow corner Byron Maxwell will also have to be at the top of his game to prevent Manning moving the football through the air. Seattle safeties Cam Chancellor and Earl Thomas will also have to excel in coverage, either covering the slot receiver or tight end Julius Thomas, a physical specimen who has emerged as one of Manning’s favourite weapons.

Knowshon Moreno is a solid running back for Denver as is Monte Ball and while neither is expected to have a big game they’ll be counted on to provide a change of pace in addition to keeping Manning upright in pass protection. Expect Seattle linebacker Bobby Wagner to blanket Moreno and Ball on the ground, with Wagner looking to add to his impressive total of 24 tackles in two play-off games thus far. Defensive ends Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril will pose the Denver offensive line with a challenge greater than any they’ve faced so far this season, although it’s worth mentioning that Manning was the least sacked quarterback in football this past year. With the Broncos offense mainly focused on short to intermediate throws down the field it would figure that the Seahawks defense will play a physical game and attempt to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage and beyond – whether the officials let them get away with any suspect contact remains to be seen and could be crucial to the outcome of the game.

Special Teams

Matt Prater had an excellent year for Denver and is used to kicking in cold weather, so that shouldn’t be an issue for the man who holds the record for the longest field goal in league history. Seattle kicker Steven Hauschka also had a good year and made 14 of 15 kicks from over 40 yards and hasn’t missed yet this post-season, however he doesn’t quite possess Prater’s leg strength.

The return of Percy Harvin should help aid a subdued Seahawks return game, while Eric Decker has emerged as a potentially game changing weapon for the Broncos fielding punts.

Injury Report

Aside from players already on injured reserve, such as Seattle’s Sidney Rice and Denver’s Von Miller, both teams are at pretty much full strength. Percy Harvin has been a full practice participant this week for the Seahawks after missing the NFC Championship game against San Francisco.

Weather

According to Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com the conditions at kick off should be perfect for football, with cloudy skies and a temperature of around 45 degrees expected despite initial fears the game could be significantly affected by the elements.

Remember you can listen to the American Football Focus Superbowl special podcast here, plus don’t forget to vote for who you think will win Superbowl XLVIII

 
 

American Football Focus Podcast – Superbowl Special 30/01/14

Superbowl XLVIII will be the first one ever to be held outdoors in a cold weather climate

This weeks episode of the American Football Focus podcast can be found here, and it’s a Superbowl special featuring myself and Scott Taylor. We preview the big game at MetLife Stadium between the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos plus look back at the AFC and NFC Championship games, as well as discussing the Cleveland Browns hire of Mike Pettine as head coach and the new Pro Bowl format which was on display last Sunday.

Have your say on Superbowl XLVIII in the comments, on twitter (@fredjstanley) and by voting in the poll in the top right corner of the blog.

Superbowl Matchup Sees Clash of Quarterback Style, Pedigree

“Which way’s New Jersey, Russell?”

When the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos take each other on next Sunday in New Jersey the two men under centre, Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson, will be crucial to the outcome. More often than not the Superbowl Most Valuable Player award has gone to the winning teams quarterback and that only serves to highlight the importance of the position in any game of football. When next week rolls around the two most important people on the field will find themselves in identical positions on opposite sidelines, however their paths to that point have been incredibly varied and their respective styles of play even more so.

Widely regarded as the best quarterback in the modern era, Peyton Manning grew up with his father already a household name in the NFL. Archie Manning had been a successful quarterback with the New Orleans Saints and much was expected of Peyton, who excelled at Tennessee University before being selected first overall by the Indianapolis Colts in the 1998 NFL draft. Manning had always been well known in football circles even before his NFL debut, and although his work ethic and determination to succeed was excellent he never had to battle too hard to earn a college scholarship. In fact Manning’s services were fiercely fought over once he left high school, and his decision to attend Tennessee surprised many who expected him to head to Ole Miss, as his father had done. Little brother Eli (and future two time Superbowl MVP) did however make the decision to attend Ole Miss. After a stellar college career Peyton was considered a shoo in to be drafted in the first two picks of the 1998 draft and while Indianapolis did consider taking Ryan Leaf number one overall they eventually settled on Manning, in the process giving him instant recognition as the top prospect in football and the keys to a franchise that had weapons such as Marshall Faulk and Edgerrin James already in tow.

One of the primary reasons Manning was such a highly touted prospect, along with his throwing arm and intelligence, was his size. Standing tall at six feet five inches Manning had the ideal frame for a quarterback, tall enough to carry a large amount of muscle as well as see the field clearly over the line of scrimmage. Russell Wilson wasn’t afforded that luxury, however, and at just five feet eleven inches tall and a shade over 200 pounds the former Wisconsin QB was at a disadvantage immediately heading into the 2012 draft process.

Wilson’s college career had been decorated prior to the 2012 draft, however it also had it’s complications. One of the quarterback’s main strengths on the football field is his agility, speed and acceleration; all of which enable him to make plays that a lot of other QB’s simply cannot. This athleticism enabled Wilson to excel at baseball as well as football and in 2010 the Colorado Rockies selected him in the fourth round of the Major League Baseball draft, which prompted Wilson to attend spring training with the team the following year. In turn this decision encouraged Wilson’s college, North Carolina State, to cut ties with him after his third year as they were dissatisfied with his commitment to the schools football program. Following this unfortunate event Wilson transferred to Wisconsin, whereupon he posted excellent numbers including the FBS record for passing efficiency.

After his roundabout college journey Wilson was eventually picked in the third round (75th overall) by the Seattle Seahawks, a decision they wouldn’t regret. Heading into training camp that summer Wilson sat behind both Tavaris Jackson and free agent addition Matt Flynn on the depth chart and was only able to earn his spot on the field by performing admirably during pre-season contests that preceded the regular season. To his credit Seahawks coach Pete Carroll immediately saw that Wilson had what it took to be a star quarterback in the NFL and the franchise hasn’t looked back since, reaching the play-offs in the first year of his reign (something Manning didn’t do) and the Superbowl in year two, something that Manning wasn’t able to do until his ninth year in the NFL.

Of course that doesn’t mean to say that the Broncos gun slinger isn’t an exceptional player. His statistics and record speak for themselves and his breaking of the single season passing touchdowns mark attests to that. However at 37 years of age and having endured two neck surgeries Manning has had to adapt his game in recent seasons, in full knowledge that the clock is ticking if he’s to double his tally of Superbowl titles. His arm isn’t what it once was and Seattle corner Richard Sherman has even described his passes as “ducks” with regards to the tight spiral, or lack of it, that Manning is able to throw the ball with nowadays. Yet he makes up for this with pinpoint accuracy, an instantaneous release and nimble footwork in the pocket. Those last two skills enable him to avoid sacks and big hits, while the first attribute is what has helped Manning turn average receivers into good ones and good ones into greats for a decade and a half.

While Wilson shares many of Peyton’s abilities, including exceptional mechanics and a coolness under pressure, he also differs in many areas. While a deft sidestep is Manning’s main method of avoiding the rush Wilson is far more likely to spin out of trouble or even run around an approaching defensive end, extending plays and giving his receivers ample time to get open and make plays deep down field. He demonstrated this ability perfectly last week against San Francisco when he connected with Doug Baldwin for a 51 yard gain having avoided multiple 49ers defenders. Wilson also probably has more arm than the current version of Manning, although his lack of height often means that he’s unable to fire balls over lineman into the middle of the field in the same way Payton can.

Sunday night is about more than just these two men but if Seattle or Denver hopes to win the big one they’ll have to get good play from the quarterback position, that’s for sure. One is young and just embarking on a career in the NFL, while the other has already rewritten the league’s record books. One can run the 40 yard dash in 4.55 seconds; the other might struggle to run it in 45.5 seconds. Yet despite their differences both Russell Wilson and Peyton Manning have one thing in common during their short and long careers in the NFL, respectively: they both know how to win.

Juan Mata: The Man With a Past and a Future But No Present

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Juan Mata is set to give his switch to Old Trafford the thumbs up

 

Chelsea midfielder and twice reigning player of the season Juan Mata looks set to complete a £37 million move to arch rivals Manchester United tomorrow, finally ridding Blues manager Jose Mourinho of a player whom he clearly does not rate and giving the Red Devils the attacking play-maker so desperately needed by under fire boss David Moyes.

Should it go through the transfer will see a high profile player, not to mention a large sum of money, change hands between two of the biggest clubs in England. Between them Chelsea and Manchester United have combined to win every league title but one since the 2004/5 season in addition to a Champions League trophy each, a staggering haul especially when taking into account the frequency with which Chelsea have changed managers during that period. However at present it’s United who are struggling to come to terms with a new man in charge, prompting a club record bid for Mata despite the fact that the Spaniard has struggled to crack Mourinho’s starting lineup all season. While on occasion top class talent has moved from one top four club to another, for example Robin Van Persie’s transfer from Arsenal to United and Ashley Cole’s move from Highbury to Stamford Bridge, it is highly unusual to see a player who has been so instrumental to his sides success in recent seasons move to a direct competitor, albeit one who sits far further down the table than is normally the case.

As the player at the centre of this all Juan Mata must be wondering what he did to be so publicly eschewed by Mourinho as soon as ‘The Special One’ arrived at the Bridge for the second time. In his two and a half seasons with Chelsea Mata has twice won the clubs player of the year award, winning the Champions League in year one and the Europa League in year two, before being relegated to the bench for the first half of the present campaign. A lively creative influence, Mata is adept at playing both in the classic ‘number 10’ position behind the main forward or on the left flank, where he can use his wand of a left foot to great effect. Having made his Valencia debut in 2009 he quickly established himself as one of the brightest young talents in Spanish football, not an easy task thanks to the other young stars who have emerged during their era of world footballing dominance. 129 leagues appearances and 33 goals later Mata was off to England and Chelsea, the Blues beating a host of other top European clubs to his signature. During his first season in England Mata scored 12 goals and created a further 20, highlighting his ability to both find the net and spot a pass. His second season was even more prolific; 20 goals and 35 assists. A nomination for the PFA Players Player of the Season award was well deserved and although Mata would lose out to Gareth Bale in that category it was clear for all to see that the Spanish maestro was one of the Premier League’s elite performers.

Mata’s international career is equally as decorated as his domestic portfolio and he currently has both a World Cup and European Championships winners medal to his name. At just 25 years of age he’s already achieved more than most footballers achieve during their career, so what does the future hold in store for the soon to be Manchester United man? One thing it won’t feature for at least the next few months is Champions League football. Having played twice for Chelsea during the group stages of this years competition Mata is cup tied should his move to Manchester go through, and with United also out of the Carling Cup and F.A Cup he’ll see action exclusively in the league for the rest of this campaign. His brief hiatus from European footballs top competition could lengthen, however, if his arrival at Old Trafford doesn’t signal a change in fortunes for David Moyes men, who sit three places and six points out of fourth place with just 16 games remaining. It’s more likely that Mata will be showcasing his talents in the Europa League than the Champions League next season and as United embark on their first true rebuilding phase for more than two decades Mata may have to sit and watch and both England and Europe’s top clubs battle it out for silverware.

With the next few months and potentially seasons unlikely to be hugely successful for Mata, Moyes and Manchester United (#alliteration) on the surface the move doesn’t make much sense for any of the involved parties. Yet if you look beyond the here and now the logic behind the transfer becomes much clearer. It’s been said a thousand times this season and it’s true – Manchester United are a team in transition. The core of the last great team built by Sir Alex Ferguson is over the hill and falling fast. Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, Michael Carrick, Ryan Giggs, Patrice Evra and Robin Van Persie are all the wrong side of 30. Wayne Rooney turns 29 in October and with his iffy fitness record you would figure he doesn’t have a great deal of time left at the top of his game. If United are to rise again they’ll need the likes of Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Adnan Januzaj and Tom Cleverly to fulfill their potential. Developing players is a long and arduous process but it can be accelerated by surrounding these fledglings with proven quality. Quality such as Juan Mata. Before Ferguson won his first title with United he brought in the mercurial Eric Cantona to Old Trafford and built his team around the Frenchman. Jose Mourinho might think he can get away with selling Mata to Manchester United, a team he believes poses no threat under David Moyes. Yet he’s failed to account for the fact that Juan Mata will be far more valuable to Manchester United, a beacon of hope for the future and a player to build a team around, than he was to Chelsea, the Premier League’s most talented (and expensive) impact sub. It’s believed one of the key reasons Mourinho wasn’t targeted by the Manchester United board was his lack of vision and propensity for short sightedness. That very same dearth of planning could see Juan Mata come back to haunt him in years to come.

Seahawks, Broncos to contest Superbowl XLVIII After Seeing Off Rivals

Copyright LA Times

Yesterday’s two Championship games produced worthy winners after close fought contests, ultimately pitting the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos against each other in Superbowl XLVIII in New Jersey in two weeks time. The Broncos were able to control the ball for much of the game against New England, keeping Tom Brady off the field and prevailing 26-16 thanks to yet another stellar performance from quarterback Peyton Manning. Seattle meanwhile relied on the leagues best defense to triumph over the hated 49ers by a score of 23-17, in large part thanks to three fourth quarter turnovers including two Colin Kaepernick interceptions.

The early game was held in the sunshine at Sports Authority Field at Mile High and Manning took full advantage of the conditions by throwing for exactly 400 yards and two touchdowns against the Bill Belichick led Patriots defense, who lost cornerback Aqib Talib early on after a contentious hit from Broncos wide-out and former Patriot Wes Welker. Belichick wasn’t happy with the hit and described it as ‘deliberate’ after the game, however it wasn’t called by the referees on the field and the loss of Talib severely dented an already struggling New England secondary. Demaryius Thomas proved to be Manning’s receiver of choice this week, catching seven balls for 134 yards and a score as he picked on undersized Patriots corner Alfonzo Dennard, who gave up four inches in height to the big Broncos receiver.

Having scored four touchdowns a week ago against Indianapolis LeGarrette Blount was expected to at least offer Brady a reliable rushing option yesterday, however he could muster all of six yards on five carries as the Denver defense stepped up to the task. Brady himself played efficiently if not as flawlessly as Manning and his overthrow of Julian Edelman in the first half was crucial as New England missed out on the chance to put at least three additional points, and possibly more, on the board. Denver were able to run out to a 13-3 lead at the half and a 20-3 advantage by the end of the third quarter, putting themselves in a near impregnable position before the Patriots offense made a belated charge late on. For Brady this may have been his last chance to reach a Superbowl with the Patriots roster gradually aging and losing talented players to free agency over the past few seasons and with very little offensive prowess (himself excluded) on board.

Following the conclusion of the Broncos win Seattle and San Francisco squared off in a heated encounter at CenturyLink Field, where the on field action was somewhat overshadowed by some controversial post game comments from Seahawks corner Richard Sherman. Sherman had effectively won the game for Seattle by tipping a late Colin Kaepernick pass into the hands of fellow defender Malcolm Smith, prompting him to target 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree in his post match interview by calling him a ‘sorry ass receiver’. That incident aside the game was fiercely competitive and there were a few bumps and bruises picked up along the way, including a gruesome looking leg injury to San Francisco’s star linebacker Navarro Bowman, who had been in the thick of things all afternoon by recording fourteen tackles, a sack and a forced fumble. Aldon Smith himself forced a Russell Wilson fumble on the first play from scrimmage with a strip sack and recovery but Kaepernick and the niners offense had to settle for a field goal; nonetheless Jim Harbaugh’s men went into the locker room at half time with a 13-3 lead and in control of the game.

However Seattle stepped things up a gear in the second half and Marshawn Lynch recorded a breathtaking 40 yard touchdown run, before the Seahawks took the lead for good with Wilson’s 35 yard strike to Jermaine Kearse on a key fourth-and-seven play in the fourth period. Kaepernick had made several plays early on with his legs and finished with 130 yards rushing on the day, unfortunately for him and his teammates his two picks and fumble in the second half were terminal to the 49ers Superbowl aspirations as he struggled to connect with open targets down field.

While the Superbowl is still two weeks away it’s never too soon to look at the potential match-ups on show, and Peyton Manning versus the studly Seattle secondary should make for fascinating viewing. Russell Wilson continues to make just enough plays to win games and he’ll probably be asked to make more than a few clutch throws as the Seahawks attempt to keep pace with the prolific Denver attack, although the elements in the first ever cold weather Superbowl could have a greater impact than Roger Goodell and the owners could possibly have imagined when they awarded New Jersey the leagues 48th Superbowl.

NFC Championship Game Preview: San Francisco at Seattle

NaVarro Bowman and Patrick Willis are the most feared linebacker tandem in the NFL

The Match-up

San Francisco 49ers (12-4) @ Seattle Seahawks (13-3)

CenturyLink Field

6.30 PM (ET) Kick Off

These two fierce division rivals square off in the north west as the 49ers look to end their recent jinx at CenturyLink Field. After two heavy defeats there in recent years Colin Kaepernick and co will have taken heart form beating the Seahawks at Candlestick Park in week 14, although they’ll be well aware that winning in Seattle is an entirely different challenge. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll has multiple college national championships to his name however he’s yet to grace the Superbowl as a coach and this is as good an opportunity as he’ll get with Seattle having comfortably securing the number one seed in the NFC. San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh has led the niners to three consecutive NFC Championship games including last years in Atlanta which they won to progress to the Superbowl. After losing to his brother John and his Ravens in New Orleans Harbaugh will be desperate to get back to the big game and earn his family’s second Championship ring.

When San Francisco has the ball..

49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has earned himself a reputation as a cold blooded killer in the play-offs and rightfully so after some superb performances both this year and last. A threat with his legs, Kaepernick also possesses elite arm strength and can make all the throws despite some slightly flawed mechanics. The read option is a big part of the San Francisco offense and Kaepernick is the perfect man for the role, having orchestrated a similar attack while in college at Nevada.

Frank Gore has carried the bulk of the rushing load for the 49ers for a few years now and the powerful runner once again topped 1,000 yards in 2013. Kaepernick himself rushed for 524 yards and between the two of them Kaepernick and Gore scored 13 touchdowns on the ground. Anquan Boldin was a fantastic addition in the off-season and his 85 receptions and 7 touchdowns justified Harbaugh’s faith in the former Cardinal and Raven. Michael Crabtree is another weapon in the passing game and although he missed the majority of the regular season he’s back and healthy just in time to help the 49ers during their play-off run. Tight end Vernon Davis might actually be the fastest player on the offense and his presence helps make opposing defenses respect the deep ball.

Richard Sherman talks a good game and the Seattle corner has backed up his words with stellar play in the last couple of seasons, blanketing opposing receivers despite often being marooned in one on one coverage. Safety Earl Thomas is a hard hitting tackler and he could well draw Davis in man coverage, while linebackers Bobby Wagner and Cam Chancellor will be tasked with keeping Kaepernick in the pocket and not allowing him to make too many plays with his legs. On the whole the entire Seattle defense has star quality and co-ordinator Dan Quinn has done a great job of carrying on where his predecessor and current Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley left off.

When Seattle has the ball..

Russell Wilson has taken the league by storm since he was promoted to start at quarterback by coach Pete Carroll before last season, although it’s worth noting he’s rarely asked to win games with his arm. He’s afforded that luxury because Marshawn Lynch is one of the most punishing and durable backs in football and Lynch was able to tote the rock 301 times during the regular season for over 1,200 yards and 12 touchdowns. Lynch had a further 28 carries last week against New Orleans and his 140 yards and two scores were crucial to the Seahawks victory and progression to face the rival 49ers. He’ll have even more work to do tonight with receiver Percy Harvin ruled out with a concussion.

The San Francisco defense is based around the sideline to sideline tackling ability of inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVarro Bowman, who had 249 tackles, eight sacks and six forced fumbles between them during the regular season. Donte Whitner is another punishing tackler on the 49ers defense and rookie safety Eric Reid has shown the ability to play centre field against the pass. While it may sound simplistic this game could come down to how well Willis and Bowman can contain Lynch and if they do whether or not Wilson can carry the Seahawks and win the game with his arm and legs.

Special Teams

San Francisco kicker Phil Dawson has been one of the steadier kickers in the NFL for a while now, although he lacks the necessary leg strength to nail kicks from much more than 50 yards. The 49ers also have one of the better punters going in the form of Andy Lee.

Seahawks kicker Steven Hauschka had a great year in 2013, making 14 of 15 field goals from over 40 yards although Seattle punter Jon Ryan was less reliable and had two punts blocked during the regular season. One more stat for you: neither team returned a punt or kickoff for a touchdown nor had one returned against them for a score during the season.

Injury Report

49ers cornerback Carlos Rodgers (hamstring) and fullback Will Tukafu (knee) are questionable, while linebacker Ahmad Brooks (illness) is probable to play.

Seahawks receiver Percy Harvin (concussion) is out. Linebacker K.J Wright is probable to play after recovering from a broken foot, according to head coach Pete Carroll.

Weather

The forecast is for overcast skies with a slim chance of rain and a temperature of around 48 degrees.

AFC Championship Game Preview: New England at Denver

Tonight’s AFC Championship game could be better known as Tom Brady v Peyton Manning XV

The Match-up

New England Patriots (12-4) @ Denver Broncos (13-3)

Sports Authority Field at Mile High

3.00 PM (ET) Kick Off

The AFC Championship game sees Tom Brady and Peyton Manning square off for the fifteenth time in their NFL careers and for the fourth time in an AFC Championship game. The two teams who finished the regular season with the best records in the conference have made it to this point, which should ensure the quality of the game is of the highest level. Broncos coach John Fox will be looking to make it back to the Superbowl after his one and only appearance to date in 2004, ironically against these same Bill Belichick led Patriots. It was Belichick who triumphed on that day against the Carolina Panthers to earn his second Championship ring, time will tell if Belichick Fox in the play-offs once more tonight.

When New England has the ball..

As the season has progressed the Patriots have moved away from the passing game to become a team who specialise in moving the ball on the ground, in no small part thanks to the exploits of LeGarrette Blount. Blount scored seven touchdowns during the regular season, a total he more than halved with four scores last week against Indianapolis. Stevan Ridley is another threat on the ground for New England and Ridley himself scored seven times on the ground in 2013.

With Rob Gronkowski done for the season and Aaron Hernandez in jail Belichick and Brady have had to adjust their approach on offense after their success over the past couple of years out of two tight end sets. Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman have stepped up at wide receiver and Edelman has been the perfect replacement for Wes Welker, now with Denver of course, by catching 105 balls during the regular season. He caught six more last week against the Colts and although he doesn’t have a great deal of size or speed he appears to have become Brady’s favoured option in the passing game.

Denver have had to cope with key injuries of their own on defense, with cornerback Champ Bailey for one missing most of the season – though he’s back in action and near full fitness after a cameo last week against San Diego. Von Miller hasn’t been quite so fortunate and the Broncos will have to cope without their star pass rusher against New England and in the Superbowl, should they get that far. Shaun Phillips assumes the role of pass rusher in chief and the former Charger was able to record two sacks last week against his former team. Corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is one of the fastest players in the NFL and will likely be assigned the task of keeping the fleet of foot Amendola in check.

When Denver has the ball..

Peyton Manning has a poor record against Bill Belichick led defenses, going just 4-10 against the defensive guru in his career. However he may be playing the best football of his life and threw an NFL record 55 touchdowns this season, breaking Tom Brady’s record which had stood since 2007. Knowshon Moreno and Monte Ball combine to provide Manning with a reliable rushing attack with the diminutive Ball is more of a threat as a receiver out of the backfield than Moreno, while the latter tends the shoulder most of the load rushing the football.

While Ball and Moreno are serviceable players it’s out wide where Manning really does have an embarrassment of riches, from the likes of Welker to Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas. The trio had 10, 11 and 14 touchdown receptions on the year respectively and while none are what you might consider elite players at the position all have good hands and are also intelligent route runners. Patriots corner Aqib Talib is a physical defender who can lock up one side of the field, however New England’s quality behind him is debatable beyond Alfonzo Dennard, who recorded two interceptions against Andrew Luck and the Colts last weekend. The Patriots defense is greater than the sum of its parts, thanks in large part to Belichick, and seems to revel in it’s relative ‘underdog’ status.

Special Teams

Pats kicker Stephen Gostkowski is one of the leagues most consistent players at his position and missed just three field goal attempts all season (all from over 40 yards). However his opposite number Matt Prater was even better in 2013, missing just one kick all year and hitting a 64 yard field goal to break the NFL record.

In the return game Denver appear to have the edge, as Trindon Holliday more than makes up for his lack of size with his game changing speed and the mighty mite managed to take both a kick and punt return back to the house during the regular season. The Broncos did have two punts blocked during the year, so there might be a weakness there New England looks to exploit.

Injury Report

New England wide receivers Kenbrell Thompkins (foot/concussion) and Aaron Dobson (foot) are both questionable to play, as is punter Ryan Allen (shoulder).

Denver wide-out Demaryius Thomas (calf) is listed as probable for the game.

Weather

Partly sunny skies and temperatures around an unseasonal 60 degrees are forecast at kick off time in Denver tonight.