The AFC and NFC Championship games hit the ground running on Sunday, where we will finally learn what the stage will look like for Super Bowl 50.
On the AFC side, we get the New England Patriots versus the Denver Broncos. For the 17th (and perhaps final) time, we get Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning. These two teams faced-off back in Week 12, with Denver slipping past New England 30-24 in overtime. Of course, those were hardly the same teams we’ll see come Sunday.
Brock Osweiler was under center for the Broncos with Manning sidelined due to injury, while a slew of the Patriots’ key offensive cogs also sat out. Neither Julian Edelman or Danny Amendola played, while Rob Gronkowski left the game late with a knee strain. All four players will be in action this time around, which could change things considerably.
It wasn’t pretty, but the Broncos were able to get by a severely undermanned Steelers team a week ago in the divisional round. If they are to pull the upset Sunday afternoon, they’ll likely do so on the shoulders of their defense. Denver ranked first in the league in total defense (allowing 283 yards per game), first against the pass and third against the run. The offense that was so potent during the John Fox/Adam Gase era that it is beyond obvious that it has stagnated considerably under the watch of first-year head coach Gary Kubiak. Combine a more conservative system with a quarterback in clear decline and you’ve got yourself a struggling offense.
As for New England, they’re favored to win despite playing on the road and having a worse regular season record. There were some white-knuckle moments for them late in last week’s win over the Chiefs, but it appeared as though they just took their foot off the gas. It’s hard to imagine them not earning their second consecutive Super Bowl appearance after this one.
Prediction: New England 24, Denver 17
For the nightcap, we’ll see the Arizona Cardinals head to snowy Charlotte to take on the Carolina Panthers in the NFL title game. The Panthers held on to defeat Seattle last week 31-24 despite holding a 31-0 halftime lead. As was the case with the Patriots, it appeared as though the Panthers just assumed victory was theirs and tried to coast to the finish line.
Carolina, of course, is led by presumptive league MVP Cam Newton. The fact that this team has an above average offense even without top target Kelvin Benjamin is a testament to Newton’s unbelievable play throughout the year. With his combination of a rocket arm and gargantuan physical stature, he’s become the NFL’s premier dual threat quarterback. Newton threw 35 touchdowns with only 10 interceptions while also rushing for 10 more. His 10 rushing TDs tied for fifth in the league among all players.
The Cardinals are coming off a crazy win of their own. Despite being victimized by the Packers’ (seemingly patented) Hail Mary play at the death of regulation, Arizona was able to capitalize with a touchdown on the first possession of OT. They have more offensive firepower than does Carolina, but this one’s expected to be a defensive struggle.
Arizona ranked No. 5 in the league in total defense this season, while Carolina came in at No. 6. Both ranked in the top-10 against the run, but they also each ranked in the bottom-10 in defending the pass. Given their aerial advantage, this is an area that the Cardinals can do some damage, and it could be the difference in the game.
Prediction: Arizona 21, Carolina 14