National Football Conference Championship Game
2 Arizona Cardinals (14-3) vs. 1 Carolina Panthers (16-1)
When: Sunday, January 24, 5:40 CST
Where: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, North Carolina
Where To Watch: Fox
It’s the first time in NFL Playoff history that two former Heisman-winning quarterbacks will start against each other, as Cam Newton (2011) faces Carson Palmer (2002). While the Cardinals’ offense looked like what they’ve been all season in the final two quarters of that game, they heavily struggled against a Packer team they were supposed to blow out like they did three weeks previously. The Panthers, on the other hand, started off in the best way possible against Seattle’s defense, scoring 31 points in a quarter and a half, but failed to produce any offense in the midst of a near complete collapse. In addition, while statistically Carson Palmer has looked like the MVP front-runner this season, he did not look like that last week in his first career playoff win, throwing two and what could’ve been four or five interceptions. Newton, who has been the MVP front-runner based on how much he means to a team that has only lost one game, made no mistakes in a pedestrian game in which he only threw for 161 yards, a touchdown and only three rushing yards. It was the defense who had the first-half shutdown that included a pick-six and running back Jonathan Stewart, who scored two touchdowns and had 106 yards rushing, that allowed the Panthers to play rather conservatively in the second half. It is a game where both teams have almost parallel positives and negatives and what makes it better is the NFC Title game has proven to be a must-watch in recent years (though maybe not for Packers fans last year), as the previous eight title games have ended as a one-possession game.
Prediction: Carolina 28 – Arizona 21: The Panthers are the real deal this year and a complete playoff-prepared football team, even without star power at the receiver position. Yes, they almost gave up one of the biggest leads in NFL history, but they were truly playing conservative in the second half to preserve Newton, tight end Greg Olsen and their offensive line. Jared Allen, who still brings a ferocious pass rush, will not play, but the Panthers’ defense and the pass rush was already top-ranked before Allen was acquired midway through the regular season. In addition, the Panthers are at home, where they are undefeated presumably in snowing conditions against an Arizona team who likes to throw deep and Carson Palmer, who is a much different quarterback in the playoffs. Watch for how the Cardinals’ passing game is affected by the weather and Carolina’s defensive backs. Also watch for how the Panthers execute their running game, either with Newton or Stewart against Arizona’s defense.
American Football Conference Championship Game
2 New England Patriots (13-4) vs. 1 Denver Broncos (13-4)
When: Sunday, January 24, 2:05 CST
Where: Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver, Colorado
Where To Watch: CBS
Tom Brady and Peyton Manning play each other for the sixteenth time in their careers. Since neither are ever on the field at the same time why does this really matter? The answer: people really like quarterbacks. One of those quarterbacks is having another MVP-caliber season, once again winning games with limited or injured talent, and that quarterback is Tom Brady. Peyton Manning, on the other hand, is past the point of playing, leading the league in interceptions, seriously lacking arm strength and missing the last half of the season with foot problems. What both guys share is the addicting desire to win; Brady wanting to bring another championship to the New England area while adding more to his resume and Manning, who possibly wants to ride off into the sunset with a happy ending. If Manning wants that to happen, his defense which leads the league in scoring must almost be perfect because Manning is not going to outshoot Brady. In their regular season win in overtime, the Broncos managed to score 30 points, but that was with a young, spry Brock Osweiler as their quarterback. The Patriots seemed to almost win that game until tight end Rob Gronkowski left the game late in the fourth quarter with an injury that he’s still playing through. Gronkowski was a major key to success for the Patriots last week against the Chiefs as he’s been all season. The Patriots also appeared to have an improved offensive line which has been their biggest issue all season, as Brady was able to get his passes off against the Chiefs’ pass rush. Manning will have to play his best game in over two years and, given that it’s the AFC title game in Denver, he very well can since the Patriots are a totally different team on the road.
Prediction: Denver 24 – New England 20: I’m going with the home team and old-man Peyton. It will be close, competitive, and defensive but I think Manning has and wants that one or two big wins to call it a day. New England is the better AFC team but their defense isn’t as good as Pittsburgh’s last week and Denver’s defense is better than Kansas City’s. Obviously watch for the play of both quarterbacks, especially Manning, as I think he’s going to surprise people. Also watch for how Denver’s defense handles Brady’s weapons such as Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola.