It’s hard to believe, but just three games remain in the NFL season. But despite the small amount of football left, there are plenty of storylines to go around. In the AFC, a 4th championship bout between legends awaits, while over in the NFC two teams continue on hoping to win the first Super Bowl title for their respective franchises. Let’s take a deeper look at each matchup:
Patriots (-3.5) at Broncos
Another year, another Manning-Brady AFC Championship game. This should not leave us surprised by any means. Since the 2003-2004 season, only four quarterbacks have represented the AFC in the Super Bowl: Brady (5), Manning (3), Roethlisberger (3) and Flacco (1). Back that up to the AFC Championship round, and you only add four more names, as Brady (8), Manning (4), Roethlisberger (4) and Flacco (3) are joined by Andrew Luck (’14 season) Mark Sanchez (back to back appearances in ’09 and ’10), Philip Rivers (’07) and Jake Plummer (’05).
But this matchup feels much different, as indicated by Vegas labeling the Patriots as favorites on the road. Peyton Manning’s struggles this season have been talked, written and speculated to death, so I won’t elaborate much on the topic. But more than likely, this matchup will be determined by the Broncos Defense and their ability to slow down Tom Brady and the Patriots, who, when finally healthy last week, showed just how efficient their offense can be.
Diving into the Broncos D vs Pats O matchup should get any NFL fan excited. The offense that scored the 3rd most points against the offense that allowed the 4th fewest. The 5th best past offense (by total yards) against the best past defense. Their regular season match-up was a close game as well, with the Broncos ultimately winning in a (some-what controversial) over time bout by a final score of 30-24, where the Broncos “held” Brady to a stat line of 23/42 for 280 yards, 3 TDs and 0 INTs, which surprisingly equates to a sub-100 QB Rating (99.3). This stat line largely represents Brady and Bellichick’s affinity for short passes, as Brady’s average yard per attempt was only 6.7, lower than his season average of 7.45.
So what does all of this mean? To me, it means Denver’s defense is one of the few that has a chance to cause problems for the Patriots offense. The way to beat Tom Brady (outside of Ed Reed’s telling you to “pray“), typically involves getting to Brady with a four man pass rush. If you send blitzes at Brady, he is smart enough to diagnose the play and get the ball out before you can get to him. But the Broncos have a fantastic four man pass rush led most notably by Von Miller and Demarcus Ware, and the Broncos were able to sack Brady three times in their regular season matchup.
As a Ravens fan, I’m a believer that defense wins championships. But that’s why I’m picking New England. Gotcha!
I do believe Denver’s defense will slow down the Patriots, and keep their point total in the 20’s. But the Patriots defense is much better than most people think, cracking the top 10 in the regular season in points allowed, total yards allowed and rushing yards allowed. They were only average in defending the pass (17th in passing yards allowed), but as I mentioned earlier, Peyton Manning is no longer a game wrecker. Ultimately I think the Broncos will be lucky to score 21 points in this game barring some big plays on special teams, or atypical turnovers from the Patriots offense. So while there is certainly a recipe for a Denver victory that’s not too unimaginable, I’ll take the Patriots 24-17.
Cardinals at Panthers (-3)
Over in the NFC, we have some fresh faces. Two quarterbacks at vastly different points in their careers, Carson Palmer and Cam Newton both head to their first ever Conference Championship game. Let’s take a look at how they each got there.
Carson Palmer enters his first championship bout after his first career playoff victory. And boy what a way to get the first one out of the way. Survive two hail mary’s on one drive, win the strangest coin flip in NFL history, and then be fortunate enough that Larry Fitzgerald plays for your team. Certainly not the way Carson Palmer dreamed of this moment as a child.
But lamenting on this victory as Carson Palmer’s first playoff win is a bit unfair; multiple times during his career he has suffered devastating injuries that have prevented him from starting or completing playoff games. And up until about week 16 or 17, he was deservedly in the thick of the MVP race for his outstanding performance leading a dynamic offense built around a high powered aerial attack.
On the other side of the field stands the all-but-guaranteed MVP, clearly entering the prime of his career. I’ve talked at length this season on the podcast about how I feel that we’ve never seen a quarterback like Cam before. One that can not only beat you with his arms and feet, but one who can physically wear you down like an Adrian Peterson. Before this season most people wrote off the Panthers due to their lack of playmakers on offense. We didn’t know Cam was the only one they needed to win 15 regular season games.
Over in the AFC I talked about defenses. And both of these defenses are tremendous. Arizona finished 20 yards ahead of Carolina to claim 5th best defense to Carolina’s 6th, while Carolina allowed 5 fewer points to claim 6th to Arizona’s 7th. Both teams have tremendous, all-pro play makers on the field from Patrick Peterson to Luke Keuchly, and both teams are capable of completely dominating a game with their defense, as each held opponents to 10 points or fewer on four occasions in the playoffs.
So as you can imagine, I’m torn on this game. I think that Arizona may be the most well-rounded team in the NFL, and their trio of explosive WRs coupled with an elusive set of RBs makes them a hard team to pick against, even on the road. But no matter what gets thrown at Carolina this season, they seem to find a way to win, and the MVP is on their side. I feel like the coin from Arizona’s over time game last week, stuck in mid-air, unable to make a decision. But I’ll go with the MVP and a Super Bowl rematch: Carolina 27, Arizona 24.
By Aaron Gillette