Adelaide forward, and American sports aficionado, Josh Jenkins fills you in on everything you need to know ahead of NFL Conference Championship weekend.
As 28 NFL teams begin their off-seasons, four elite teams remain chasing Superbowl glory.
New England, who escaped old foes Baltimore, will go in as hot favourites at home to the upstart Indianapolis Colts who stunned Peyton Manning and the Broncos last week.
In the NFC, Green Bay will go into sport’s most fearsome venue to face the reigning champions, Seattle.
Equivalent to the AFL’s preliminary final weekend, the conference championship games are the NFL’s purest weekend for true football lovers.
The Superbowl is an event – but these two games loom as pure football spectacles, pitting four elite quarterbacks against each other as well as some of the league’s most explosive playmakers.
Let’s take a look inside the match-ups.
GREEN BAY AT SEATTLE
— Seattle Seahawks (@Seahawks) January 14, 2015
Green Bay were in town as Seattle unveiled the Superbowl trophy to its home fans at Century Link Field in week one of the NFL season.
That day, with the Seahawks fans in full voice, the Packers were hustled and bustled into a loss as Marshawn Lynch rumbled for 110 yards and two mighty touchdowns.
Aaron Rodgers was forced into an interception and was sacked three times, managed just 188 passing yards.
Since beginning the season 1-2, including a lucky escape against the hapless New York Jets, Rodgers told the Packers fans to R-E-L-A-X before leading his squad to 11 wins in the next 13 games.
The MVP favourite can make every throw in the book and has two elite receivers in Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb on the outside making plays, whilst rookie Davonta Adams came to the fore in last week’s win over Dallas, recording seven catches for 117 yards and a touchdown.
It seems there are only two things that can stop Rodgers from leading the ‘Cheese Heads’ to another Superbowl appearance and he faces both those obstacles this weekend.
The first is the might of the Seahawks defence and the second is injury, with his left calf causing him considerable grief throughout games.
His practice time is almost zero and he was visibly unable to move around the field against the Cowboys.
Seattle have overcome some mediocre mid-season form and a couple of in-house issues to march towards this game and with the home crowd ’12th Man’ by their side, are seemingly invincible.
Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas are playing as you’d expect a pair of All-Pro defensive would, whilst Kam Chancellor played the best game by a safety in many years last week.
Chancellor recorded 11 tackles, as well as the game-sealing interception, which he returned for a 90-yard touchdown, sending Century Link Field into pandemonium.
Russell Wilson barely put a foot wrong last week, throwing for 268 yards and three scores.
With Lynch controlling the back field with his rough and tumble style and the feared ‘Legion of Boom’ defence, Wilson sometimes goes under the radar when discussing the Seahawks greatness – overlook Wilson at your peril, Green Bay!
PLAYERS TO WATCH
JORDY NELSON (Green Bay)
Nelson sits comfortably among the NFL’s premier wide receivers and after a sub-par game in the win over Dallas, Nelson is sure to bounce back.
He will face the much-vaunted Seahawks secondary however and with Byron Maxwell expected to re-take his place on the left side, Nelson won’t have an easy reception all day.
The match-up between he and fellow star wideout Randall Cobb against Maxwell and the outspoken Sherman will be worth the price of admission – you just know Rodgers will be looking to fire the ball into his dynamic pass-catchers.
CLAY MATTHEWS (Green Bay)
Matthews’ energy, effort and heart kick-starts this team on so many occasions.
His effort never waivers and his nose for the ball often gives the mediocre Packer defence opportunities to create turnovers.
Alongside Hall of Fame-calibre defensive end Julius Peppers, Matthews should be able to contain Lynch’s rushing numbers as well as pressure Wilson on occasion.
If Matthews (and Peppers) are causing havoc to Wilson whilst shutting out Lynch, Green Bay may well steal this ball game.
AARON RODGERS (Green Bay)
— NFL Network (@nflnetwork) January 14, 2015
What more can be said about Rodgers? 28 touchdowns and no interceptions at home this season, beating the Cowboys basically on one leg whilst firing in three more TD’s.
Rodgers is the best offensive player in the NFL and he will need every bit of his talent and nous to overcome this all-time great defensive unit.
If the offensive line can protect him, Rodgers will have the opportunity to make some plays utilising his play-makers on the outside in Nelson, Cobb and Adams.
KAM CHANCELLOR (Seattle)
When the NFL Pro Bowl rosters were announced, two Seahawks defensive backs were included on the team.
Chancellor was an omission though, as Sherman and Thomas were selected.
‘Bam Bam Kam’ must’ve had a chip on his shoulder for that snub as he played what coach Pete Carroll called, ‘the best all-round game for a free safety,’ that he’s ever seen.
Chancellor is the igniter for the ‘Hawks defence with his brutal tackling and physicality opposed to bigger wide receivers and running backs.
With Nelson and Cobb lurking up and down the Packers sidelines looking to make big plays, Chancellor will need to be ready to impact when Rodgers goes for the home-run play.
RUSSELL WILSON (Seattle)
Wilson never seems to make a mistake. His play against Carolina was flawless as he led two receivers to remarkable touchdowns in the first half.
With only Matthews and Peppers and significant pass-rush dangers, Wilson will again look to make some big plays downfield.
This awesome foursome make for one scary frontline and with a hobbled Rodgers standing between them and another Superbowl appearance, expect Irvin, Avril, Wagner and Bennett to bring the heat early and often.
TIP: Seahawks 34, Packers 23
INDIANAPOLIS AT NEW ENGLAND
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) January 12, 2015
Everyone was looking forward to yet another Peyton versus Brady match-up, but Andrew Luck had other ideas.
Luck’s Colts stormed into the Mile High City and took out the Broncos, meaning Brady, coach Bill Bellichick and company will now need to game plan for the high-scoring Indy outfit.
Indy went into Foxboro earlier in the season and left with their collective tails between their legs as unheralded rookie Jonas Gray rushed for 201 yards and a remarkable four scores.
The following week, such is coach Bellichick’s demand for excellence, Gray was late to a practice and did not receive a minute of playing time.
The pursuit and expectation of perfection is what makes this Patriots organisation so successful and so great.
Bellichick demands it and Brady usually delivers it with the help of the NFL’s most difficult offensive matchup, Rob Gronkowski.
The 6-6″ monster owned the Ravens last week as he overpowered them for 108 yards and a huge touchdown in the third quarter.
ANDREW LUCK (Indianapolis)
When the Colts traded for Trent Richardson and signed Superbowl-winning running back Ahmad Bradshaw, the backfield looked to be settled in Indy as Luck’s progression as a match winner continued to rise.
When Richardson’s form slumped and Bradshaw went down with a season-ending injury, even more load went onto the broad shoulders of Stanford graduate, Luck.
Luck has a unique combination that allows he and his Colts team mates to succeed more often than not.
He is tough, both mentally and physically, and highly skilled with the ability to make every and any pass necessary.
— Indianapolis Colts (@Colts) January 12, 2015
T.Y. HILTON (Indianapolis)
Hilton is among a select few NFL receivers with real and regular deep threat ability.
His speed off the line of scrimmage and ability to contort his body and make big receptions make him a nightmare cover for opposing defenders.
What he lacks in size he more than makes up for with explosiveness and elusiveness and Hilton has been, and will remain, Luck’s number one target against an elite Patriots secondary.
VONTAE DAVIS (Indianapolis)
I recall watching HBO’s ‘Hard Knocks’ series a few years ago and seeing the general manager trade an under performing player.
His name was Vontae and at the time all he wanted to was call his grandmother, perhaps underlying his immaturity.
Last weekend, and for most of the season, Davis has developed into an elite cover corner and a strong tackler when required.
Without an powerful pass rush, Davis will be called upon on many occasions to defend one-on-one when Tom Brady attacks.
TOM BRADY (New England)
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) January 13, 2015
37-year olds are not supposed to be able to compete at the highest levels in sport.
They say father time is undefeated, but Brady’s 2014/15 season is one for the ages.
Without a recognised star at wide receiver and with Gronkowski coming off an ACL reconstruction, Brady has handed his receivers touchdowns on a platter all season long.
After being written off by many early in the season after a loss to Kansas City, Brady has led his side to home field advantage throughout the playoffs. He lies in waiting, preparing for the young, upstart Colts who want to rob him of the opportunity to win Superbowl number four.
DARRELL REVIS – BRANDON BROWNER (New England)
Without a recognised and respected running back crew in Indy, much will be asked of Luck and his receivers, which has been the case during the playoffs so far.
Opposed to those receivers (Hilton, Wayne, Fleener, Allen) will be the cornerback pairing of the 6-4″ Browner and the six-time Pro Bowler Revis.
Revis will likely lock down on the number two receiver whilst Browner and one of the safeties will double-team Hilton, who possesses the big play potential.
ROB GRONKOWSKI (New England)
The toughest matchup in professional football – Gronk!
He knows it and Tom Brady knows it, meaning the Colts will need to send two or three defenders in number 87’s direction.
Since returning from a torn ACL in 2013, Gronkowski has retaken his place as the best tight end in the NFL.
He has 1,124 receiving yards and a dozen TD’s, is a powerful blocker and managed 108 yards, a score and first first-down catches last week against a strong Raven defence.
TIP: New England 30, Indianapolis 27
Love Josh’s writing? Be sure to check out his blog!
Photo via Flickr – Mike Morris