AFC: New England Patriots at Denver Broncos
Last weekend, the No. 1 seeded Denver Broncos managed to slide past a crippled Pittsburgh Steelers team missing its two best players. Rather than the dominating victory normally seen under future hall-of-fame quarterback Peyton Manning’s tenure, the game raised more questions than answers. The normally stout Denver defence allowed over 300 yards against a Ben Roethlisberger whose arm is held together with tape at this point. The Bronco’s offence looks even worse with a 39-year-old Manning whose play makes noted draft bust Blaine Gabbert look like a MVP. On the other side of the field, this is the best the Patriots offense has been in weeks. Number one receiver Julian Edelman is back and tight end Rob Gronkowski is getting healthier every week. Their running game is still an issue, but Head Coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady have no qualms passing the ball on upwards of 50 plays per game, as shown by their victory over the Buffalo Bills in which Brady threw 59 times.
Defensively, the Patriots have the personnel to go toe to toe with the Broncos offence. Corners Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan are both having solid seasons, the defensive line did not regress after losing Vince Wilfork and the linebacker corps is deep in talent. While they may not get the same recognition as Arizona or Seattle, the Patriots present a solid defence week in and week out. Unless Manning borrows Michael Jordan’s secret stuff from Space Jam, the Broncos offence has no chance of putting up more than 13 points. That’s just not enough against New England.
Prediction: Patriots 28 – Broncos 13
NFC: Arizona Cardinals at Carolina Panthers
The NFC Conference Championship game should be one of the most exciting football games in years. It features two high flying offenses and turnover hawking defenses. The Panther’s offence relies on quarterback Cam Newton’s ability to take over as both a runner and a passer. To win this match, Newton needs to have his best game yet. The Arizona Cardinals' defence is extremely disciplined—penalized the second least in the NFL—a result of Head Coach Bruce Arians’ meticulous game planning. Newton shouldn't be able to run or break the pocket as much against Arizona as with other teams. The Cardinals know their assignments and will rarely over-pursue during read options and roll outs, taking away a major part of the Panthers offence. Last week against the Green Bay Packers, Arizona managed to keep quarterback Aaron Rodgers in the pocket for most of the game and the team will probably adopt a similar strategy here. This puts more pressure on the receivers who need to beat the Cardinals defensive backs and get separation, something they are pretty terrible at doing considering their No. 1 receiver is a kick returner. The Cardinals play very aggressively which usually leaves every receiver single covered. The only Panthers player that may be able to get open on a consistent basis is tight end Greg Olsen, who will need to do his best Gronk impression and take over the game.
Defensively, the Panthers may meet their match against the Cardinals. This is a team built on deep passing with an elite quarterback in Carson Palmer who can make every single throw on the field. The Panthers have no one besides Josh Norman who can keep up with any of Arizona’s first five wide receivers. If Norman covers Larry Fitzgerald, that leaves Michael Floyd, John Brown, and JJ Nelson against an overmatched opposition. Expect Arizona to play a lot of five wide formations and use running back David Johnson as a pass catcher more often than as a runner. The overwhelming firepower of the Arizona offence might be too much for Carolina to handle, and will propel them to a victory.