So the top three and four of the top five teams in the final AP Pro32 power rankings have made the NFL’s Final Four. Nothing surprising about that. As for the outcomes in the conference title games, well, read on. And remember, Pro Picks went 4-0 in the divisional round, 3-1 in the wild-card round for picking outright winners.
No. 5 New England (plus 6.5) at No. 2 Denver
Ah, the classic rivalry: Manning vs. Brady.
That’s the juiciest of the matchups here, but there are many others. First, let’s focus on Peyton vs. Tom Terrific.
Brady holds a big edge in their 14 head-to-head meetings, 10-4, but they have split two AFC championship faceoffs.
Manning has had, by far, the more dynamic season, the best statistically of a 16-season pro career, what with the 55 TD passes and the 5,477 yards passing. Not to mention a 14-3 record.
He’s also had a lot more support on his side, particularly at the wide receiver and tight end positions.
"I really think the team needs to be commended for even getting to this point," Manning says. "There are a lot of teams that had disappointing losses last year: Atlanta, Washington. Everybody says in that locker room, ‘Let’s get back next year.’ It just doesn’t happen. It’s hard to get back." New England has built a 13-4 mark in part on Brady’s brilliant leadership and adaptability. He’s made Julian Edelman into a consistent offensive threat (105 catches, 1,056 yards), and has turned to the ground game because the rest of his receivers are new or inexperienced.
"We keep handing it off and those guys just run so hard and do such a great job running and finding the holes where they can just slice through there and gain as many yards as they can," Brady says.
The defensive matchups seem to favor the improving Patriots rather than the up-and-down Broncos. New England might have a better idea on how to slow former Patriots star Wes Welker more than Denver knows how to deal with Edelman, for example.
And there’s the coaching battle between Bill Belichick and John Fox, one that Belichick won a decade ago in the Super Bowl, when Fox was at Carolina.
For the folks who are tired of seeing the Patriots in the big game, Pro Picks apologizes ...
UPSET SPECIAL, BEST BET: PATRIOTS, 30-28
No. 3 San Francisco (plus 3)
at No. 1 Seattle
The coaching tussle here is even more intriguing because Seattle’s Pete Carroll and San Francisco’s Jim Harbaugh don’t exactly spend quality time together. In fact, there’s a spicy feud dating back to their college days. So the satisfaction of getting to New Jersey in two weeks will be increased for either coach by beating the other.
The 49ers also have the added incentive of coming so close last year at New Orleans before losing the Super Bowl to Baltimore. Don’t be fooled -- that has driven them this season.
"We want to win. We’ll do whatever it takes," running back Frank Gore says. "We have that Super Bowl feel, we didn’t finish like we wanted to, and we have a chance to get back."
A third meeting in one season means there will be few if any secrets for either side to bring into this one. Look for a knockdown, drag-out contest between the fiercest and most efficient defenses in the league.
Also look for the Seahawks to prevail.
2013 RECORD: Against spread: 3-1 (118-125-7). Straight up: 4-0 (163-98-1).
Best Bet: 10-9 against spread, 16-3 straight up.
Upset special: 8-10 against spread, 5-13 straight up.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org