New England Patriots @ Denver Broncos
3:00 PM EST, CBS – Line: New England -3, Over/Under: 44.5
The first of todays pairing of Conference Championship Games has by far the most fan fare, as the New England Patriots travel to Mile High to face the Denver Broncos in the seventeenth, and in all likelihood final installment of the Tom Brady/Peyton Manning Saga. For New England (12-4, 1st in AFC East), their appearance in Sunday’s AFC Championship Game will mark the fifth consecutive season in which they have advanced to this position, becoming the first franchise since the 1970’s Oakland Raiders to achieve said feat. However, when you’re the Patriots, you’re judged by Super Bowls, not Conference Titles. Bill Belichick and his charges fended off a late rally from the Kansas City Chiefs in last Saturday’s contest at Gillette Stadium, securing a 27-20 victory, despite being outgained 378-340. If not for some bumbling clock management by the Chiefs’ Andy Reid, there could have been a very different outcome; Kansas City owned the ball for virtually the entire game, holding possession for a staggering 37:51 of play, by virtue of their solid rushing attack (135 yards on 32 carries), and Alex Smith’s judicious play from series to series (29-of-50, 246 Yards, 1 TD, 9 Carries, 44 Yards). In fact, the visiting side managed to put together four separate drives of eleven or more plays, including a marathon-esque seventeen-play drive to open the game, and a sixteen-play series to conclude it. However, if you’re going to effectively shorten the game like that, you must score touchdowns, particularly when playing the Patriots, but that just wasn’t the case for Reid and Co., who were relegated to a pair of Field Goals on said lengthy drives, with a critical lost fumble on their first series after Halftime, which punctuated a ten-point swing for the hosts. For their part, New England did a great job maximizing the little time that they had the ball, while managing to counter the Chiefs’ vaunted pass rush; Brady was 28-of-42 for 302 yards and a pair of touchdowns, getting the ball out of his hands so quickly that his opponents’ barely touched him, sustaining zero sacks. As expected, the return of Julian Edelman was a boon to their offense, as the shifty Receiver looked to be 100% after rehabbing a broken bone in his foot, with ten receptions on sixteen targets for 100 yards. Defensive End Chandler Jones, who made news for all the wrong reasons earlier last week, made a helluva impact on the opposite side of the ball with a sacks and the aforementioned forced fumble that swung the momentum in the Pats’ direction towards the end of the Third Quarter. It’s fitting that the opposing Quarterback standing in their way towards advancing to a seventh Super Bowl since 2001 is Manning; Brady is 11-5 all-time against his fellow future Hall of Fame contemporary, including the Playoffs, with a 2-2 mark in the postseason. Of course, when they last met in the AFC Championship Game it was back in 2013, in which Manning’s Broncos dominated Brady’s Patriots in a 26-16 victory that wasn’t nearly as close as the score would indicate.
With that said, No. 18 was not present for his team’s clash with New England this season, nursing a torn Plantar Fascia that ultimately sidelined him for ten consecutive games, before returning midway through the Regular Season Finale. In his first start since November 15th, Manning was a proverbial mixed bag; the 39-yaer old completed 21-of-37 passes for 222 yards, with nary a touchdown or interception in a game in which he struggled to sustain drives (3-of-15, 20.0% on Third Down). Fortunately, neither could the Steelers, who were relegated to a scant 2-of-12 on Third Down (16.6%) in the 23-16 Broncos’ victory. The key however, was the emergence of the running game, which churned out an inglorious 109 yards on thirty-three carries, to keep the Steelers’ nasty Pass-Rush off of the aging Manning, who was sacked just once for a loss of seven yards. Tailback C.J. Anderson carried the load with seventy-two yards and a touchdown on fifteen carries, while Ronnie Hillman chipped in thirty-eight more yards on sixteen carries. Expect Kubiak to continue to show commitment to the ground game, which is not something that he has been able to do this season with Manning under Center; Denver (12-4, 1st in AFC West) averaged just 86.0 yards per game via the run in the nine games that Manning started, but with Brock Osweiler taking snaps that figure increased to a far more respectable 134.9 yards on the ground, including a staggering 179 rushing yards in a 30-24 overtime win against the Patriots back on November 29th. Of course, after watching the success of division rival Kansas City last Saturday in controlling the clock courtesy of the run, you would have to think Kubiak would follow suit. This would afford their defense the luxury of some rest, which hasn’t always been the case in 2015, but you wouldn’t think they were any worse for wear after checking out their resume’. The job that Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips has done in his return to the Mile High simply can’t be expressed enough, for the Broncos have dominated this season across the board; Denver leads the league in Total yards Allowed (283.2), Passing Yards Allowed (199.6), Net Yards per Attempt Allowed (5.1), and Net Yards per Carry Allowed (3.3), while also pacing the league in sacks as well (52). Furthermore, their twenty-seven takeaways ranked eighth overall, with their nineteen passing touchdowns relinquished representing the third0fewest total in the NFL. Ranking so highly in so many significant categories is favorable against a New England Offense that has become more and more one-dimensional as the season has progressed; Brady and Co. averaged a mere 87.8 rushing yards per game this season, including a dreadful 64.0 yards over the past four outings dating back to the regular season, with only thirty-eight in their victory over the Chiefs. Oh, and in case you were wondering, Von Miller and the rest of the defense snuffed out their ground game in their previous meeting this year, permitting a whopping thirty-nine yards in game that needed an extra 1:09 to decide a victor.
Arizona Cardinals @ Carolina Panthers
6:40 PM EST, FOX – Line: Carolina -3, Over/Under: 47.5
Meanwhile, the latter half of Sunday’s double-header carries far more entertainment value as the Carolina Panthers host the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Championship. Simply put, 2015 has been a magical ride for the Panthers (15-1, 1st in NFC South), who dating back to the final four games of the previous campaign have won a staggering twenty-one out of twenty-three including the postseason. That’s quite a run for Ron Rivera and his charges, considering that it very nearly went up in smoke in the second half of last Sunday’s 31-24 victory over Seattle in the Divisional Round; Carolina exploded out of the gate, scoring fourteen unanswered points in the first 3:22 of play, thanks to a 59-yard Jonathan Stewart romp on the game’s first play, and a Luke Kuechly Pick-Six on the Seahawks’ second play of their ensuing drive. By Halftime, the hosts held a commanding 31-point lead, completely and utterly dominating the two-time defending NFC Champions. However, there were a final thirty minutes left to play, and a furious Seattle rally nearly brought the faithful at Bank of America Stadium to their knees; Russell Wilson engineered back-to-back touchdown drives on his first two possessions after the Half, adding another one midway through the Fourth Quarter, as the Panthers’ Offense went abruptly silent. A 36-yard Steven Haushka Field Goal with 1:12 to play cut the lead to just seven points, but the hosts finally managed to halt the comeback by recovering an Onside Kick. At the end of the day, Quarterback Cam Newton was a modest 16-of-22 for 161 yards and a touchdown, while the aforementioned Stewart accounted for 106 of his team’s 144 rushing yards. The 295 total yards was a bit misleading considering Kuechly’s Interception Return coupled with a Cortland Finnegan Pick that set up a second Stewart touchdown from the 1-yard line. With that said, the matter of blowing huge leads is a real matter of concern for Rivera and his Staff, for as we’ll get into in a bit, the Cardinals can score quite a few points. As good as they’ve been defensively this season, Carolina has blown a twenty-point lead on four different occasions thus far, though in each case they managed to cling to victory. So what’s the issue, you ask? Well, Josh Norman’s ridiculous season aside (4 INT, 18 PD, 2 TD), the Secondary has some glaring holes, which are only more pronounced with the season-ending injuries to veteran Cornerback Charles Tillman (Knee) and his teammate Bene Benwickere (Leg). Safeties Roman Harper and Kurt Coleman have been opportunists (7 INT between them), but lack the foot-speed and lateral quickness to cover opposing Receiver for long stretches, which they’ve had to do more given the absence of Tillman and Benwickere. Linebackers Thomas Davis and the aforementioned Kuechly are excellent in Short Zones, but teams with Quarterbacks who can stay upright long enough find a favorable matchup against their thin Secondary have oftentimes been able to exploit them. To Carolina’s credit, they’ve been able to compensate for that with a league-high thirty-nine turnovers.
Looking to take advantage of those holes in their Secondary is Carson Palmer, who after earning the first Playoff Victory of his twelve-year career. It was a long time coming for Palmer, who missed last year’s postseason meeting with the Panthers, sidelined with a torn ACL. The Cardinals (13-3, 1st in NFC West) hosted the Packers in a rematch that was a helluva lot closer than the 38-8 debacle that was their December 27th encounter. This time, Green Bay came prepared, capitalizing on a number of Arizona mistakes, mostly due to Palmers injured index finger on his right throwing hand; clearly compromised, the former Bengal was picked off twice (once in the Red Zone), and very nearly two more if not for Packers’ Defensive Backs narrowly dropping potential interceptions, as he struggled to convert on Third Down (5-of-13, 38.5%). In fact, the league’s second-highest scoring offense (30.6 points per game) could muster just ten points midway through the final stanza. However, eventually he began to make plays, finding Receiver Michael Floyd for a go-ahead 9-yard touchdown with 3:44 left to play, followed shortly after by a Chandler Catanzero 36-yard Field Goal with 1:55 remaining. From that point, it was nothing but madness… With no timeouts, the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers engineered a miraculous 86-yard drive culminating in a unbelievable 41-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass to Jeff Janis as time expired to send the contest to Overtime. After a bizarre Coin Toss gave the hosts the football, Palmer found Larry Fitzgerald for a cross-field pass that the veteran Receiver took seventy-five yards to Green Bay’s 5-yard line, concluding with a 5-yard Shovel Pass to the Franchise’s all-time leading pass-catcher for a triumphant touchdown. And that will be the matchup to watch Sunday, as Palmer looks to take advantage of the holes in Carolina’s Secondary; Fitzgerald (1,215 Yards, 9 TD) and John Brown (1,003 Yards, 7 TD), along with the aforementioned Floyd (849 Yards, 6 TD) are adept at wrecking havoc downfield, where the Cardinals led the NFL with a staggering 7.8 net yards per pass. After all, Norman can only cover one of those guys at a time, which will put those Safeties in some precarious positions. With that said, it should be noted that Arizona has struggled to run the football in these latter stages of the campaign, averaging just 33.5 yards on the ground over the last two outings, including a mere forty against the Packers. Ironically, leading rusher Chris Johnson (814 Yards, 3 TD), who was placed on Sort-Term Injured Reserve after breaking his leg at the end of November, is apparently healthy enough to play Sunday, but isn’t eligible to return from IR unless the Cardinals advance to the Super Bowl. Rookie Tailback David Johnson (1,038 Total Yards, 12 Total TD) has performed admirably in his stead, but struggled down the stretch with more reps. Head Coach Bruce Arians will need Johnson to bring some semblance of balance to an offense that has sorely lacked it of late, to keep the league’s most opportunistic defense honest as Palmer (4,671 Yards, 35 TD) attacks them downfield.
So when the dust settles Sunday Night, who will advance to Super Bowl XLX? Will the Patriots earn the right to defend their crown? Or will Peyton Manning invoke his inner John Elway and end his illustrious career hoisting a second Lombardi Trophy? Will the Panthers continue their magical run into San Francisco? Or will the Cardinals manage to slay goliath en route to Levi’s Stadium? Fret not, my friends, for I, THE ORACLE HAVE ALL THE ANSWERS!!!!