This Sunday is conference championships, the final step toward Super Bowl 50. It’s a Sunday of quarterbacks. We have the undeniable Hall of Famers in Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. We have Carson Palmer, who led the NFL in both yards per attempt and yards per completion through the regular season. And there is Cam Newton, the leading QB on the ground with 636 yards and 10 scores.
I’m a firm believer in the fact that the quarterback is just one of the many facets of a team, but in the case of these conference championships, the outcomes of the games will be heavily dependent on which quarterbacks show up to play.
AFC CHAMPIONSHIP, PATRIOTS AT BRONCOS: Both the Patriots and the Broncos come into the game with 12-4 season records. Denver received home field advantage due to their exciting 30-24 overtime win against New England in Week 12.
Both teams were missing key offensive assets in the Nov. 29, 2015, match on the gridiron. The Broncos played without Manning, putting Brock Osweiler under center, and the Patriots played without wide receiver Julian Edelman, who showed exactly what kind of impact he has in the divisional playoff game.
The Broncos are coming off a not-so-pretty win against an injury-heavy Pittsburg Steelers. Denver had to rely on kicker Brandon McManus to pull off the win. McManus kicked five field goals to put the Broncos over the Steelers, 23-16.
In their divisional playoff, the Patriots beat the Kansas City Chiefs by a touchdown, 27-20. After going 4-2 in the final six games of the regular season, the New England team from the first half of the season looks to be making its return. Edelman, who suffered a broken foot in Week 10, made his return against the Chiefs. He was targeted a team-high 16 times and had a team-high 10 receptions and 100 yards.
New England is the three-point favorite going into Sunday, according to Odds Shark. Sixty-seven percent of bets are being placed on the Patriots. I don’t think I can make a solid argument against either case.
This season Manning has a touchdown-interception ratio of 9-17 with only one touchdown pass at home. Brady is 36-7. The Broncos have been dealing with a shaky offense for awhile, and if it wasn’t for their No. 1 defense, I don’t think they’d even be in the postseason. Denver will need its defense to pull out all the works against New England doing everything possible to stop Brady and his support staff of Edelman, Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola. The Broncos look to linebackers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware to lead the charge. Miller has a team-high 11 sacks this season, and Ware has 7.5 of his own.
While it may not be the No. 1 defense in the league, the Patriots are ninth overall in yards allowed this season, which will pose some issues for a Bronco team that already has issues getting to the red zone. One thing Denver has going for it is that Patriots linebacker Jared Mayo has been placed on injury reserve with a hurt shoulder and won’t be playing Sunday.
If New England takes the win, this will be the seventh bowl appearance for the Brady and Bill Belichick team. The Patriots are 0-3 in postseason games in Denver.
NFC CHAMPIONSHIP, CARDINALS AT PANTHERS: The Arizona Cardinals (13-3) will travel to Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina, to take on the Carolina Panthers (15-1) in the NFC Conference championship. This will be the first meeting of the season between these two teams.
The Panthers are coming off a big 31-24 win over Seattle in the divisional playoff. Carolina had a nearly perfect — I don’t like the word perfect — first half, outscoring the Seahawks 31-0. But then the Panthers let 24 Seahawk points go unanswered in the second half. While I don’t think that is a need for alarm, it does make me wonder if Seattle could have pulled off the upset if there was just a little more time.
Although it won the NFC West with relative ease, Arizona is coming off quite the win against Green Bay. The Cardinals were winning 20-13 with less than two minutes to go. With the game on the line, Green Bay went for it on fourth and 20 with a 60-yard throw to Jeff Janis. An illegal motion put the Packers at first and 15 with 12 seconds remaining on the Cardinals’ 41-yard line.
With no other options left, Aaron Rodgers went for the Hail Mary and connected with Janis to send the game into overtime. However, OT belonged to Larry Fitzgerald, who led Arizona to the win with a 75-yard catch and run to get inside the 10-yard line, followed by a shovel pass from Palmer to reach the end zone.
Like in the AFC, the NFC championship is predicted to come down to a field goal with the Panthers being the three-point favorite, according to Odds Shark.
Newton is the leading quarterback on the ground with 636 yards rushing and 10 scores on the ground. He also threw 35 touchdown passes in the regular season. Newton’s support staff makes the Panther offense what it is. Running back Jonathan Stewart has 989 yards rushing, tight end Greg Olsen had 1,104 receiving yards with seven touch downs and wide receiver Ted Ginn has 10 touchdown catches on his 2015-16 resume. Carolina’s offense is the reason it went 15-1 this season with the only loss coming from division rival Atlanta.
Palmer was one of the top passers in the league through the regular season, leading the NFL in both yards per attempt and yards per completion, but that quarterback didn’t really show up in the divisional playoff. Palmer threw two interceptions and struggled against the defense against Green Bay.
Palmer will need to shake off the postseason nerves and be at his best if the Cardinals want to pull off the win. Palmer threw for 4,671 yards and 35 touchdowns in regular-season play.
If the Panthers win, this will be Newton’s first trip to the Super Bowl since entering the NFL in 2011.
BETTING AGAINST THE ODDS?
I don’t disagree with the Patriots being the favored team in the AFC championship, but it’s going against a lot of the odds that some are using to bet against the Cardinals.
No road team has won a conference championship since 2012, the year when two road teams made it to the Super Bowl” the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers. Spanning the last 20 seasons, road teams are 15-25 in the conference championship.
My only argument with the odds in the AFC matchup is that I think the Patriots will win by more than three points. They have the stronger offense and a solid defense to match. New England won’t be relying on field goals to pull off this win.
The NFC championship I believe will be the more exciting of the two games. It will pit offense against offense and I look forward to seeing what these two teams are able to bring forward. I expect touchdowns to be scored and I believe the betting odds are correct: it will be a fight till the very end.
AFC PREDICTION: New England
NFC PREDICTION: Carolina