Previews: NFC Championship nearly a draw

The Seahawks and 49ers are similar teams in so many ways it's hard to give either team an edge. In Denver, Jack Del Rio is faced with the daunting task of taking on Tom Brady again.

For all the noise about, well, the noise, neither the 49ers nor Seahawks have a distinct advantage for Sunday's NFC championship game.

Sure, Seattle is a difficult place to play, with the 12th Man at CenturyLink Field challenging the sound barrier with their cheering. But San Francisco is a strong road team, going 6-2 as part of a 12-4 regular season, and 2-0 in these playoffs.

Certainly the Seahawks (13-4) have a superb defense, the best in the land, ranked first in points allowed, overall yards allowed and yards passing. Guess what: The 49ers are no slouches in that area, third in points surrendered and fifth in total defense.

Each side excels at forcing turnovers.

The Niners have a dynamic young quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, whose ability to escape pressure and ground speed epitomizes the new wave at the position. The Seahawks have Russell Wilson, who is as difficult to trap in the pocket and as creative outside it as anyone in the NFL.

Seattle's Marshawn Lynch is among the most powerful and relentless running backs in the game. So is San Francisco's Frank Gore.

San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh knows all about winning, whether on the college level when he was at Stanford, or in the pros. In his three seasons guiding the 49ers, they have gone to three NFC title games, winning it last year.

Harbaugh doesn't have much on Carroll, who also has overseen a turnaround of a franchise after an even more successful college stint at Southern California that includes two national championships.

And so on …

"They're such a consistent football team across the board that they have many strengths," Carroll said of the 49ers, against whom he is 2-4 since taking over the Seahawks. But two of those victories were in the past two home meetings with San Francisco.

"That's why they've been so successful for the last few years. They have just found this really wonderful core group of guys and they've put them in good positions, they have a good fundamental approach, so there are no weaknesses. You just have to just wear on them and play on them and hope that you can find you edges on game day, and it's been very difficult for teams in the last three years since coach Harbaugh has been there."

Of course, the same can be said of the Seahawks. And 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman obliges when he looks at the Seattle defense.

"They do a great job of taking the ball away," Roman said, noting the Seahawks' league-high 39 takeaways, including 28 picks.

"No. 1, their defense has been really good since we got here, and it didn't take me long to figure that out in that offseason leading up to our first season that these guys had a very talented defense man for man. I think they're very well-coached and I think the consistency of which they do things, they don't do a whole lot on defense, but what they do they do very well, leads to turnovers when people get impulsive."

San Francisco might have an edge in experience at this level, but this also is Seattle's third visit to the postseason in four years.

Maybe the All-Pro team provides a slant toward one side.

Nope: San Francisco has linebacker NaVorro Bowman and Seattle has cornerback Richard Sherman and safety Earl Thomas.

Special teams are experienced and heady on both clubs.

Even the oddsmakers see the NFC title game as something of a toss-up. Seattle was installed as a 3-point favorite, which is usually what being at home — noisy as it is — can be worth.

So let's go.

"It's a championship game, it's a championship opportunity," Wilson said, "and it's the same thing that we've been talking about all year."


Jeremy Mincey has no bitter feelings toward Jacksonville for dumping him late in the season, only big thanks.

After being jettisoned from the Jaguars for chronic tardiness, the defensive end wound up with the Denver Broncos.

He's making the most of his fresh, baggage-free start, playing a big role in getting his new team to the AFC championship game against the New England Patriots (13-4) on Sunday.

Mincey isn't the only former Jaguar turning things around in the Mile High City. There's also defensive lineman Terrance "Pot Roast" Knighton, who signed with Denver as a free agent, and, of course, defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, fired after nearly nine seasons as head coach in Jacksonville.

Their task is now simple: Stop Tom Brady to earn a spot in the Super Bowl.

Well, maybe not so simple.

"We're doing all we can to get ourselves prepared to go out and play our best," said Del Rio, whose 0-7 coaching record against the Patriots includes this year's loss when he was serving as interim for John Fox, and playoff losses in 2005 and ‘07 with the Jaguars. "That's really all that you can do."

Del Rio's no-nonsense approach was one reason Knighton wanted to reunite with him in Denver and why Mincey landed here after his release.

"The same fire he had as a player is the same fire he has as a coach," Knighton said. "When teams score on us, he takes it personally. When people talk bad about our defense, he takes it personally."

Del Rio was a rock for the Broncos (14-3) earlier in the season when Fox was sidelined after undergoing open-heart surgery.

The team went 3-1 with Del Rio patrolling the sideline. About that time, rumors swirled about Del Rio being in the running for the head coaching job at Southern California, his alma mater.

Didn't sidetrack Denver. Didn't deter Del Rio, either.

"He's just a cool and mellow fellow," said Mincey, who played four seasons in Jacksonville with Del Rio as his head coach. "He's a firm guy and believes in hard work and hard workers, and that's good."

Mincey needed a fresh start after things fell apart with the Jaguars. He takes full responsibility for being late to practice that ultimately led the team to release him on Dec. 13.

He was so frustrated by the situation, though, that he was actually contemplating a possible retirement rather than a return to the NFL. He certainly had enough in his life to keep him busy — overseeing a restaurant and a recording studio.

But the Broncos were too good of an opportunity to pass up and he signed four days later.

"I was tolerated in Jacksonville, but not wanted," said Mincey, who had a sack last weekend in a win over San Diego. "Denver put a new battery in me. They welcomed me with open arms."

Now, they're hoping Mincey can wrap his arms around Brady, something the Broncos struggled to do in a 34-31 overtime loss at New England on Nov. 24.

Brady threw for 344 yards and three TDs that night, most of the damage coming in the second half after the Patriots fell behind 24-0.

He's definitely expecting a different look from the Broncos, especially with Mincey in the rotation and cornerback Chris Harris Jr. out with a knee injury.

"Every team has a little different game plan so every week seems to be a little bit different," Brady said. "I'm sure this week will have a different flavor than what last week had."

Last weekend in a 43-22 win over Indy, the Patriots relied less on Brady's arm and more on bruising running back LeGarrette Blount, who rushed for 166 yards and four scores.

At 250 pounds, he's a load for anyone to bring down.

"He's not bigger than me," the 335-pound Knighton proudly claimed.

Few are.

Knighton has been quite a run stuffer for Denver this season, a good fit for a defense run by Del Rio, who likes wide bodies in the middle.

Asked when he knew Knighton could be quite an asset for this defense, linebacker Wesley Woodyard chuckled and said: "When I stood behind him and I saw his hips in the ‘A' and the ‘B' gap."

Knighton insisted he's the same type of player he was while with the Jaguars, but it's showing up more in Denver with a cast that includes Peyton Manning running the offense.

"When you're surrounded with Pro Bowlers and have an offense that stays on the field, it makes it a lot easier for you," Knighton said. When I'm on the field, I don't try to do too much. Sometimes in Jacksonville, I didn't know who was playing behind me. It's hard to trust guys.

"I feel like for five years I've been in the league, I've been one of the premier guys at the position. It's been hidden because of team success. Now that we're winning, people are starting to see it."

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