In the exciting Divisional Round, the Panthers made sure the Seahawks will not play in the Super Bowl for the third straight year, the Packers gave us an incredible last second catch to force overtime against the Cardinals, the Chiefs were dismantled by the Patriots and a Steelers last minute fumble cost them a chance to beat the Broncos at home. On to the conference championships!
The Arizona Cardinals and Carolina Panthers will face each other for the first time in the Conference championship, the winner representing the NFC. In the AFC, fans will be treated to what’s sure to be the final battle between two great quarterbacks in Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. The Panthers and Patriots are the favorites to meet in the Bowl, but the Broncos and Cardinals boast better total defenses statistically. Here are our picks.
Arizona Cardinals at Carolina Panthers
Quarterback & Offensive Line – Carson Palmer stayed healthy all season, and had an MVP caliber year, making the plays he needed to in the divisional round to get his first playoff win. Cam Newton has always had the legs to carry him, but now has matched that with precision passing from the pocket. Carolina’s offensive line also benefits from the plethora of running plays in their playbook, keeping the defense off balance.
Receivers and Tight-ends – Ted Ginn Jr. has resurrected his career with the Panthers and Greg Olsen is as reliable a Tight-end as you can get but Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd are bigger, stronger and faster than anyone in Carolina’s receiving group.
Running Backs – The Cardinals Andre Ellington and David Johnson have done a decent job filling in for the hurt Chris Johnson all year, but failed to total over 100 yards collectively against the Packers defense. Johnathan Stewart shredded the Seahawks vaunted defense for over the century mark and two touchdowns. Mike Tolbert and Cam Newton’s carries give Stewart enough relief and bang in short yardage situations.
Defense – Arizona statistically has a slightly better total defense but Carolina’s defense looked exceptional in the first half against the Seahawks. Both have a great secondary and linebackers who cover well. Whichever Defensive Line plays better will have an impact.
Intangibles: With two very stout defenses, it’s very likely the game will come down to special teams play. Kicker Graham Grano of the panther kicked more Field Goals over 40 yards than his counter-part Chandler Catanzaro of the Cardinals, who was 0-2 in kicks over 50 yards. David Johnson of the Cardinals was one of only six players to return a kick for a touchdown this year, but this game could come down to a game of kicking.
Pick – Carolina 34 – Arizona 20 – Cam Newton proves to be too much for Arizona’s defense and the Panther’s Defense will limit Carson Palmer, sending them to their second Super Bowl ever.
New England Patriots at Denver Broncos –
For Peyton Manning, this very likely will be his last run at the Vince Lombardi trophy. Which means this match-up against Tom Brady and the Patriots could be his last. Even though his teammates dropped some balls, his play looked eerily similar to the regular season: average. Tom Brady on the other hand threw for over 300 yards with virtually no help from his running game, and their team health has come together at the right time. The Patriots still have the motivation of losing their first game in Denver earlier this year. Brady has the overall edge head to head 11-5 but they split wins in the playoff with each QB winning two games each.
Quarterbacks & Offensive Line – Both historic QBs have had shaky offensive lines this year. The Patriots did an exceptional job against the great D-Line of the Chiefs but Denver’s line proved to be tough when running the ball last week. Bottom-line is Brady shows up bigger than Manning in the history of the playoffs.
Receivers and Tight-ends – Obviously Rob Gronkowski is the best target either team has, but Demaryius Thomas still had over 1,300 yards and plays better with Manning at home. Julian Edelman and Emmanuel Sanders basically cancel each other out, so the edge will come from the Patriots Danny Amendola or the Broncos Owen Daniels.
Running Backs – The Patriots virtually threw the ball last week against the Chiefs, and have had one of the lowest ranking run games of anyone in the playoffs. C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman proved to be the difference against the Steelers and will need to have a big game for the Broncos to win.
Defense – Since week one against the Ravens, the defense of the Broncos has carried the team. Even though they only managed three sacks against the Steelers, it was the fumble caused by Brandon Roby late in the final quarter that ushered the team to victory. The Patriots Defense is stout, but statistically not the same as the Broncos, giving up over 100 yards to C.J. Anderson including the game winning run in their last meeting.
Intangibles – Both teams have strong leg kickers, so it could come down to the weather. If any team benefits from a cold winter game, it would be the Patriots, due to Manning’s losing record in below freezing games. Sunday he won his first game in cold weather, giving him a record of 1-5.
Pick: Denver 27 – Patriots 26 – Peyton Manning has been the weakest link on a defensive team all season and will need to be a game-manager. The Broncos need to give running back Anderson more than 15 carries this time around. The Patriots game-plan well against Manning, but the Broncos Defense and running game play better at home and will be the difference, with the game coming down to a last minute Field Goal.