NFL Conference Championships: Preview

A look ahead as the Packers meet the Seahawks and the Patriots host the Colts

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And then there were four. The Indianapolis Colts’ 24-13 win over the Denver Broncos sealed the lineup for this season’s Conference Championships, although the Dallas Cowboys may feel that the Green Bay Packers are undeserving of their place.

Not because the Packers were bad - their defence held Tony Romo to under 200 passing yards and Aaron Rodgers threw for 316 yards and three touchdowns - but because a refereeing decision went against them late in the fourth quarter.

After Dez Bryant’s ‘catch’ (which, if ruled a completion, would have put the Cowboys on the 1-yard line with four-and-a-half minutes remaining) was ruled an incomplete pass, the Packers eased to the NFC Championship game while the rest of the world went into a frenzy.

Green Bay now face the dreaded trip to Seattle, who clinched their second consecutive NFC title appearance by defeating the Carolina Panthers.

Mike McCarthy's Packers will attempt to become the first team to win a play-off game at CenturyLink Field since the St Louis Rams did so in 2004. Their hopes rest on the fitness of Rodgers, who has a niggling calf injury.

The MVP candidate believes he can perform for another two games, but to do so the Packers’ offensive line must keep Rodgers upright. They did a good job of that against the Cowboys, allowing just one sack.

Seattle are bidding to become the first team to win back-to-back Super Bowls since the New England Patriots defended their title in 2005. The Seahawks are in a prime position to create a lasting legacy, with Russell Wilson and the Legion of Boom fronting their attempt to build a dynasty.

The victor at CenturyLink Field will contest the Vince Lombardi Trophy against the Patriots or Indianapolis Colts on 1 February.

Andrew Luck has reached the play-offs in all three of his NFL seasons, progressing a stage further each time. The number one draft pick is endeavouring to depose two veteran quarterbacks in the space of eight days after he overcame Peyton Manning last Sunday. The game hinged on the Colts’ ability to frustrate Manning, who was held to just 211 passing yards.

A similar performance from the Colts defence will be needed this weekend against Tom Brady, who is coming off the back of a memorable win against the Baltimore Ravens in which he threw for 367 yards and three touchdowns.

This is Brady’s ninth AFC title game, but if recent games between these two are anything to go by, the 37-year-old may go unnoticed.

In their last two games against the Colts, New England has totalled 480 rushing yards. LeGarrette Blount rushed for 166 yards in last season’s divisional round win and two months ago Jonas Gray caused the Colts problems on the ground, rushing for 201 yards in the Patriots’ 42-20 win.

Many expected Gray to top the Patriots depth chart after that breakout game, but he has only 20 rushing attempts since and didn’t play a single snap against the Ravens. Blount, meanwhile, ran for just one yard in Sunday’s win.

The Patriots dropped back to pass on 81.8 per cent of their plays against the Ravens, but given their recent success on the ground against the Colts expect them to establish a running game early as Bill Belichick’s team attempt to reach a sixth Super Bowl this century.

Three things to look out for:

1) Will Rodgers throw to Sherman?

In week one Aaron Rodgers attempted 33 passes, but not one was aimed at Richard Sherman. The Packers quarterback picked on Byron Maxwell, favouring Maxwell to All-Pro cornerback Sherman. His plan failed though, as Maxwell intercepted one of Rodgers’ attempts and the Seahawks ran out 36-16 winners.

It’ll be interesting to see whether Rodgers throws to Sherman’s side or shies away from doing so. The Seahawks proved in week one that it’s easy to plan against a quarterback who targets just one side of the field.

2) How do the Colts end their torrid run against the Patriots?

Bill Belichick has owned the Colts in recent years, overseeing five wins in their past five meetings with the Patriots averaging 41.2 points per game.

But there is hope for Chuck Pagano’s team. If Indianapolis can establish an early lead against the Patriots, like the Ravens did on Sunday when they were up 14-0 (and then 28-14 in the third), expect to see running back Boom Herron receive plenty of handoffs.

When the Colts led the Broncos 21-13 in the fourth quarter, they proceeded to run the ball down the Broncos’ throats. An eight minute, 14 second drive in the fourth, culminating in an Adam Vinatieri field goal, proved insurmountable for Peyton Manning. There was too little time left.

The Colts stand a good chance of winning if they capitalise on a slow start from the Patriots.

3) Who do we want to see in the Super Bowl?

Tom Brady vs Aaron Rodgers or Andrew Luck vs Russell Wilson? Maybe Luck vs Rodgers is an enticing proposition?

The bookmakers predict a Patriots vs Seahawks Super Bowl, but regardless of which teams make it the season finale will be a fine contest played by two teams worthy of their place in Arizona.