New England at Denver – Sunday, 3 p.m. EST
1. Can the Broncos slow down the Pats’ RBs? Without most of their top receivers from last season, the Patriots evolved into a power running team in 2013. The Pats put up 43 points on the Colts last weekend without a single passing touchdown from quarterback Tom Brady, rushing for 234 yards and six TDs.
Denver, however, was the AFC’s third-best team this season in rushing yards allowed. Can the Broncos contain the three-headed New England running-back monster of LeGarrette Blount, Stevan Ridley, and Shane Vereen?
2. No more Knowshon? The Patriots rallied from a 24-point deficit at home against Denver in Week 12 for a 34-31 overtime win, largely because they were able to limit QB Peyton Manning to just 150 passing yards. But in that game, New England had to overcome an amazing performance from Denver RB Knowshon Moreno, who torched the Patriots’ D for 224 rushing yards.
With this weekend’s rematch being played in Denver, where the Broncos are 8-1 this season (including last weekend’s playoff win over San Diego), the Pats are unlikely to get away with allowing another 200-rushing-yard performance.
3. Will the Pats miss Gronk? In New England’s Week 12 win over Denver, star tight end and former UA standout Rob Gronkowski caught seven passes for 90 yards and a touchdown. But two weeks later, Gronkowski went down with a season-ending knee injury.
Brady will need a number of receivers to step up, including veterans Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, to overcome a Broncos team that scored more points than any other NFL squad in 2013 by a wide margin.
Prediction: Brady has bested Manning in 10 of their previous 14 career matchups. But Denver is the more balanced team, with a trio of Pro-Bowl-caliber wide receivers in Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, and Eric Decker to complement a talented RB tandem of Moreno and rookie Montee Ball.
The Patriots are just 4-4 on the road this season and are facing one of the most prolific offenses in single-season NFL history. Manning will notch win No. 5 over his rival and earn his third trip to the Super Bowl. Denver 35, New England 28.
San Francisco at Seattle – Sunday, 6:30 p.m. EST
1. Can the 49ers figure out the Seahawks in Seattle? San Francisco won the most recent meeting between the NFC West rivals – a last-second 19-17 win at Candlestick Park in Week 14. But earlier in the season, the 49ers were stomped in Seattle, 29-3, which followed up a 42-13 defeat at CenturyLink Field toward the end of last season.
The Niners have an 8-2 record (including the playoffs) away from home this season – but can they finally turn things around at Seattle with a return Super Bowl appearance on the line?
2. Who will establish the ground game? The Seahawks and 49ers were among the league’s best this season in rushing yards allowed. San Francisco beat Seattle in Week 14 primarily because running back Frank Gore rushed for over 100 yards while the Niners’ defense held Seahawks’ RB Marshawn Lynch to 72 yards on 20 carries.
It won’t be an easy task, but if the 49ers are going to have a shot at knocking off the Seahawks on the road, they’ll need to see similar numbers from both running backs on Sunday.
3. Will Russell Wilson be better? The second-year NFL quarterback was held to just nine completions on 18 attempts for 103 yards in last weekend’s home win against New Orleans. While the running game and defense was enough to get the Seahawks past the Saints, another stat line like that against the defending NFC champions might not be enough to get it done.
Seattle is a run-first team, but Wilson will probably need to approach 200 passing yards in order to keep San Fran’s D honest and open up running lanes for Lynch.
Prediction: As well as the 49ers have played on the road the last two seasons (14-5, including the playoffs), CenturyLink Field seems to be their kryptonite, as they’ve been outscored 71-16 in their last two trips to Seattle. 49ers’ QB Colin Kaepernick has completed less than 50 percent of his passes and thrown for four interceptions in his two meetings with the Seahawks this season.
Seattle boasts the league’s loudest home crowd, and the Seahawks’ so-called 12th Man will once again come in handy this weekend. Look for an epic celebration in the Emerald City on Sunday night after the Seahawks secure their second-ever trip to the Super Bowl. Seattle 20, San Francisco 13.