Patriots-Broncos. Cardinals-Panthers. It all comes down to the NFL conference Cchampionships this weekend—the winners are off to Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara, and the losers head home.
I’m a bit old-school when it comes to the NFL playoffs, in that I love it when we have a conference-final Sunday that features the top two seeds squaring off in both the AFC and NFC. The four teams that have been the best all season have survived to give us these glamor matchups, and the last time we had a No. 1 versus No. 2 twinbill in the AFC and NFC Championship Games was in 2004, when New England won on the road in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia held serve at home against Atlanta, finally snapping its NFC title game losing streak.
This time around, I’m going with both the No. 2 seeded road teams, a scenario that has never occurred since the NFL went to a 12-team playoff field and started seeding the postseason in 1990. A Patriots-Cardinals Super Bowl pairing would be the first ever of No. 2 seeds, and the first time time a pair of road teams won in the conference title round since 2012, when both Baltimore and San Francisco prevailed.
Road teams swept in the wild-card round. Home teams swept in the divisional round. Time for the pendulum to swing once more in favor of the visitors. Now on to this week’s picks:
• Last week: 4–0; Season: 166–98 (.629).
• Best pick in divisional round: Arizona 31, Green Bay 24 (Actual score: Cardinals 26–20, in OT).
• Worst pick in divisional round: No misses last week, but in terms of point spread, Carolina 23, Seattle 20 (Actual score: Panthers 31–24).
The marquee may read Brady-Manning XVII, but don’t be fooled into thinking this is a matchup of elite quarterbacks—that statement’s only half right. In Peyton Manning’s case, if it comes down to him having to throw the ball to beat the defending Super Bowl champions, New England will be in fine shape. But that doesn’t mean Manning couldn’t still lead the Broncos to the upset victory. It’s just much more likely he’ll have to use his mind, his eyes and his wealth of experience rather than his aging passing arm to get the job done.
The Broncos should control the tempo with its running game and underneath passing attack, and that’s where No. 18 will be asked to call the right play at the right time, exploiting whatever hole or matchup he recognizes in the Patriots defense. But the onus will be on the Broncos pass rush to disrupt and pressure Tom Brady, forcing him off his spot and making his life much more difficult than the Chiefs defense managed last week. I think New England’s offense will be ready to roll again with Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski both in damage-infliction mode, and the shoulder injury to top Broncos cornerback Chris Harris swings the advantage even more so toward the Patriots’ high-octane passing game. A remarkable seventh Super Bowl berth in the Brady-Belichick era is on the way, as New England wins its first AFC Championship on the road since 2004.
The Panthers have met every challenge this season and done so in supreme style, but Carolina hasn’t faced a team as good as the Cardinals when everything is clicking. Clearly everything was not clicking for Bruce Arians’s talented club last week at home against Green Bay, when it struggled to put away the plucky Packers after routing them by 30 points just three weeks earlier. But I’m convinced the Cardinals and quarterback Carson Palmer will both return to their aggressive, go-for-the-throat style of offense and play a much more relaxed and looser game now that they have a playoff win under their belt and are in the game we’ve wanted to see all season: the two best teams in the NFC squaring off with a trip to Super Bowl 50 on the line.
The Panthers have showed they can keep both teams in the game at all times, with the ability to both build huge leads and then nearly squander them. But that won’t be the case this week, because I foresee a back-and-forth game with these two high-powered offenses slugging it out and trading big plays. The state of the Bank of America’s well-worn turf and perhaps even the winter weather will be a pre-game sub-plot, but the resilient Cardinals will overcome all obstacles and end Cam Newton and the Panthers’ magic carpet ride, giving us an intriguing Arizona-New England Super Bowl matchup.