AFC Championship game – New England @ Denver
The AFC Championship match sees Tom Brady and the New England Patriots travel to Denver to take on the Broncos and Peyton Manning. These were clearly the best two sides in the AFC this season, with the Patriots scoring the third most points in the league behind Brady and the Broncos surviving a below average offense, securing home field advantage on the back of one of the league’s best defences. Their defence conceded the least yards per rush, yards per pass and total yards per play and sacked the opposing quarterback more than any other team.
Injuries may play a part in this game as Broncos cornerback Chris Harris may miss with a shoulder injury. As the likely matchup for Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman, the absence of Harris could rob Denver of their best secondary members. For the Patriots, line-backers Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins are likely to fight through injury but will be severely limited. Should they play and be anywhere near full effectiveness, Manning’s ability to defer to running backs Ronnie Hillman and C.J.Anderson will be hampered.
Manning is an intriguing study this season, having reportedly fought through injury and stumbled his way to being arguably the least effective regular starting quarterback in the NFL. He threw just nine touchdowns and 17 interceptions, and Pittsburgh chose to dare him to throw at distance in last week’s AFC showdown. In the past this would have been committing defensive suicide, but the 2016 version of Manning could not take advantage and was bailed out by a strong defensive effort and a crippled Pittsburgh offense which was unable to take its chances.
Brady on the other hand controlled the game against Kansas City as the Patriots abandoned their running game against the NFL’s in-form defence. New England rushed for just 38 yards but Brady threw for 28-of-42 passes for 302 yards and two touchdowns, both to tight end Rob Gronkowski. When these teams clashed in Week 12, Manning was injured but Anderson and Hillman combined for three rushing touchdowns as the Broncos dominated the running game despite Brady throwing for three touchdowns. This was Denver’s second highest scoring game for the year and they will be heavily reliant on reproducing that this week.
Gronkowski averaged 15.9 yards per catch this season and has scored touchdowns in his last four playoff games and joins Edelman in a lethal passing offense; New England are 10-0 with Edelman in the line-up and Brady will be confident of exploiting the Denver defence and getting a score that Denver may not be able to match. Denver’s main chance seems to be rushers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware getting to Brady and forcing him into quick decisions, but while the New England offensive line has been struggling they provided enough protection last week to enable Brady to control the game.
Denver has an advantage playing at home and at altitude, and New England have traditionally struggled in this stadium. But with Manning largely ineffective and Denver’s running backs inconsistent, it doesn’t seem likely their defence can hold New England to a manageable score. The defending SuperBowl champs will progress and earn the right to defend their title on February 8
Prediction – New England 27, Denver 17
NFC Championship game – Arizona @ Carolina
The Cardinals and Panthers advanced to the NFC championship game in contrasting circumstances last weekend, with the Arizona needing overtime to defeat the Green Bay Packers while Carolina jumped out to a 31-0 lead and held off a frantic Seattle Seahawks comeback to advance to just their second ever championship game.
These two teams dominated the NFC in the regular season and are the league’s best two offences, both averaging more than 30 points per game but doing so in far different ways. Carolina rely on the best rushing game in the NFL, rushing on more than half their plays and leading the league in total rushes and rushing touchdowns per game. Between quarterback Cam Newton and running back Jonathan Stewart they have 18 rushing touchdowns, the most by a pair of teammates in the league. Arizona’s rush defence is their strength, allowing the third-least rushing attempts per game and the sixth-least rushing yards per game. However this rushing defence has been shaky of late having allowed 381 yards in its last three games.
On the other side of the ball, Carson Palmer struggled at times last weekend but still threw for three touchdowns including the game winner to Larry Fitzgerald and will look to utilise ‘Fitz’, John Brown and Michael Floyd against a Carolina secondary that relies heavily on star Josh Norman but drops away beyond him. This secondary has been placed under pressure all season with the Panthers having conceded the most pass attempts and highest passing play percentage in the NFL but has limited opponents to the second-least yards per pass and racked up the second-most interceptions.
Carolina rank second in the league in time in possession and if they can control the game through their rushing offence they will make it particularly difficult for Palmer to move the ball and score. Alternatively, Arizona have been most effective when combining Palmer’s passing game with a top 10 rushing offence led by rookie David Johnson and will looking to improve on last week’s dormant effort against Green Bay.
If Arizona can control the Carolina rushing game and force Newton to throw the ball, it will place immense pressure on right end Greg Olsen. He has been among the league’s best in that position this season, but should he be kept under control the Panthers are reliant on the inconsistent Ted Ginn Jr and Jerricho Cotchery. Arizona allowed just 807 total yards and five touchdowns to opposing tight ends and with cornerback Jerraud Powers and safeties Deone Bucannon and Tony Jefferson lurking, it is likely to be tough for Olsen to make an impact.
The football world has been doubting Newton and the Panthers all season and they have continually found a way to answer the critics, and their first 25 minutes against Seattle last weekend was quite simply outstanding offensive football. There is a worrying trend with the fact they are slowing in games; some would argue that they are winning and that it is irrelevant how they do it, but against this Arizona offense they will not be afforded the luxury of any downtime.
Palmer has more weapons at his disposal and should Johnson have an impact in the rushing game the Cardinals may have a little too much for a one-dimensional Panthers offence.
Prediction – Arizona 34, Carolina 31