We are 24 hours away from Championship Sunday in the National Football League. In one corner we have the 17th battle between future Hall of Fame quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. In the other we have the first championship battle between two former Heisman Trophy winners in Carson Palmer and Cam Newton.
The Patriots, Broncos, Cardinals, and Panthers have been the four most consistent teams all season in the NFL, and in this crazy season it is fitting that all four find themselves on this stage with the Super Bowl at stake. What can we expect? Let's delve in.
Patriots @ Broncos - 3:05 p.m. ET/ 1:05 p.m. MT - TV: CBS, Jim Nantz/Phil Simms.
This is a legacy game, pure and simple. If the Patriots win, they head to the Super Bowl for the seventh time in the Brady/Belichick era, the most by any coach/quarterback duo in history. The Patriots succeed by spreading people out with multiple looks on offense, predicated on finding either Danny Amendola or Julian Edelman open on slants. When Brady is able to connect with Edelman, it typically leaves tight end Rob Gronkowski open in one-on-one matchups. Denver missed out on both receivers in the first match-up, which made New England very predictable. Once Gronkowski left that game, the Patriots had nothing offensively and the Broncos focused in on Brady, sacking him three times.
The Broncos defense was ranked number 1 in the NFL this year in just about every category. Their match-up against Brady will be the most intriguing of this football game, and will go a long way in determining a winner.
On the flip side, Manning must have everything go his way if the Broncos are to advance. Which means a great day from C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman. The duo took a lot of pressure off Manning last week against Pittsburgh in that fourth quarter, while Manning struggled to get on the same page with his receivers. It has been an very odd year for Peyton. He's dealt with numerous injuries and is a shell of his former self. Hoping that he can reclaim some of that old zip might be asking a lot, but the Broncos have enough talent to help push him forward.
Prediction: this is a tough spot for Denver. Yes, they are home, but they were lucky to get past the Steelers last week, who were handicapped by injuries to DeAngelo Williams and Antonio Brown. They will be not so lucky this time. The Patriots are healthy, and expect Belichick to have something up his sleeve for Manning in this one. PICK: Patriots 27, Broncos 20.
Cardinals @ Panthers - 6:40 p.m. ET/ 3:40 p.m. PT - TV: FOX, Joe Buck/ Troy Aikman.
What really gets the Panthers ticking offensively, however, is the rebirth of Jonathan Stewart. Stewart had his best year in five seasons, rushing for 989 yards in the regular season. He then gashed the Seahawks for 106 yards last week, the first time in 27 games the Seahawks gave up 100 yards to a single rusher. If the Cardinals struggle stopping him, they will struggle to top Carolina.
The Cardinals won their divisional playoff game taking full advantage of the Packers mistakes, with Larry Fitzgerald playing the lead roll on his 75-yard catch and run in overtime to set up the winning score. The Cardinals could pose a lot of match-up problems for Carolina. 1) the Cardinals are very good at rushing the passer, and 2) when healthy the Cardinals can be a real handful offensively.
However health is something the Cardinals don't have. Tyrann Mathieu, the heart and soul of the Cardinals defense will miss this game and the Super Bowl with a torn ACL that he suffered in the regular season. Missing him has created issues for the Cardinals both in the secondary and against the run, as they lack that hard hitter.
In addition, the Cardinals lack of a running game down the stretch has put added pressure on Carson palmer. With no real running attack to speak of, the Panthers can pin their ears back and go after the quarterback; heck this was a team that was one of the league leaders in sacks.
Prediction: Should be a lot of fun to watch, but I think the Panthers being at home for the first time in a conference championship game, combined with some great plays by Cam Newton and the Panthers pass rush will be too hot to handle for the Cardinals. If Arizona were fully healthy I would like them a lot more in this match-up. PICK: Panthers 31, Cardinals 28.