I predicted a Broncos-Seahawks Super Bowl as early as week three of the season, and that collision course came a couple steps closer to fruition during the divisional round of the NFL playoffs. Denver and Seattle both stymied late rallies to advance to their respective conference championships.
Steven Hauschka helped the Hawks methodically pull away from the Saints on Saturday, booting three first-half field goals, including a 49-yarder, to put his team up 16-0 at intermission. After New Orleans cut the lead in half on a Khiry Robinson one-yard plunge and subsequent Mark Ingram two-point conversion, Marshawn Lynch all but iced it with a 31-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. The Saints would score again with just 26 seconds left; they recovered the ensuing onside kick and may have had a shot at the end zone if not for some razzle dazzle gone horribly wrong. (Last time I checked, you only get one forward pass per snap.)
Russell Wilson did not have a big day, but he threw Doug Baldwin open on a perfectly executed third down, back shoulder pass for a 24-yard gain to set up Lynch's second TD. Lynch, who gained 140 yards on 28 carries, had a 15-yard score in the second quarter. Wilson, with the Hawks gaining an early advantage, unfurled just 16 passes, completing eight for 103 yards. He also ran three times for 16 yards. J.R. Sweezy was among the first to greet Lynch in the end zone after his second score; the Seattle offensive line paved the way for 174 rushing yards in the 23-15 final.
The Seahawks will get the 49ers, who dismantled the Panthers 23-10, for the third time this season for the right to visit picturesque East Rutherford, NJ on February 2nd. San Fran clipped the Hawks at home, 19-17, in their last meeting, but the Hawks have won the last two in Seattle by a combined score of 71-16. Wilson is 16-1 at home in his young career.
Philip Rivers and the upstart Chargers made things interesting in Denver, but they ultimately could not overcome an early deficit. It was a hole that could have been avoided, as a San Diego DB dropped an easy interception a couple snaps before Denver's first score, and Nick Novak slipped on a failed field goal attempt. That sequence of events probably made the difference between a 7-3 or 14-0 halftime deficit. The Bolts were left in the latter position and went down 17-0 on Matt Prater's third-quarter field goal before finally coming to life in the final frame.
Rivers hooked up with impressive rookie (and North Carolina native) Keenan Allen for a 16-yard score to put the Bolts on the board at the 12:59 mark of the fourth quarter. A second 16-yard strike to Allen made it 24-14 with 5:43 left, and Novak made it a one-score game less than two minutes later after San Diego recovered an onside kick. But the Bolts could not wrest the ball back from the clock-killing Broncos to get a chance at the equalizer.
Allen, who had over 1,000 yards receiving in his first season, caught six balls for 142 yards in the loss. Rivers completed 18 of 27 passes for 217 yards and a solid 115.8 passer rating despite playing in gusty winds and behind a patchwork line that allowed four sacks. Peyton Manning's passer rating (93.5) lagged well behind his counterpart's mark, but the Broncos more than doubled the Bolts' output on the ground (133-65). Thousand-yard rusher Ryan Mathews, who gashed Denver for 127 yards in the teams' last meeting, a 27-20 San Diego win, was limited to just five carries for 26 yards due to a bum ankle.
Nate Irving made three stops for the Broncos, including one stuff for no gain.
Denver will host New England, 43-22 winners over the Colts (and practice squad member Zach Allen), for the right to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. The Patriots have won six of seven, including a 34-31 overtime win over the Broncos, but that game was in Foxboro.
The predicted Broncos-Seahawks matchup would be the best-case scenario for a Pack in the pros Super Bowl, as Seattle boasts three Pack alumni and Denver has Irving. The worst-case scenario would be 49ers-Patriots, as San Fran is sans Pack flavor and the Pats have but one, former all-pro Adrian Wilson. Wilson has languished all season on the injured list and will not be in uniform.