THE PICKS

January 25, 2016

AFC

CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIPS

PATRIOTS AT BRONCOS

SUNDAY, JAN. 24; 3:05 P.M. ET

THERE WILL BE rabid coverage of these two old QBs, but this game will come down to the Broncos' running backs and the Patriots' linebackers. In the first meeting between these two teams, in Week 12, when Peyton Manning sat with a left foot injury, Denver's C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman rushed a combined 29 times for 172 yards and three TDs in a 30--24 overtime victory. You can chalk that up to blown gap assignments up front by New England, which didn't have its two best backers (Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower) to clean up. Now both are banged up again. If the Pats don't have them on Sunday (Hightower is the key; he's the best run stopper), Manning will get the type of run-game production he needs to be effective—and yet that still won't be enough. Against Denver's top-ranked D, Tom Brady was able to move the ball without receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola (and with Rob Gronkowski out in the fourth quarter). Brady has all those weapons back, and that spells mile-high trouble.

Patriots 42, Broncos 17

NFC

CARDINALS AT PANTHERS

SUNDAY, JAN. 24; 6:40 P.M. ET

I'M CHANGING my pick from the Cardinals. Over the regular season I fell hard for Arizona's deep roster, Carson Palmer's total command of an aggressive offense and coach Bruce Arians's gutsy play-calling. But the bloom is off Palmer and Arians after a 26--20 overtime victory over the Packers in the divisional round. The 36-year-old Palmer was so jittery and unsure of himself down the stretch—I count at least two potential fourth-quarter picks that Packers DBs left on the field—that I grew to suspect he was wearing an old Bengals jersey under his pads. And Arians's admired devil-may-care game management was exposed as smoke-and-mirror shtick; against Green Bay he showed no ability to make the nuanced decisions needed for his team to win. The Panthers turn mistakes into points, and their multiple running game—Jonathan Stewart, Cam Newton, Mike Tolbert—and varied pass rush will be too much for Arizona to handle on the road.

Panthers 34, Cardinals 23

PHOTOCHRIS KEANE FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)