Last weekend’s Divisional Round served as a testament to how exciting playoff games can be, as well as a reminder as to how playoff teams can look quite different from their regular-season selves. The week was also a hard dose of reality for our playoff picks, as all games were decided by a touchdown, and the picks went a ghastly 0-4 by virtue of Green Bay’s miraculous cover and Pittsburgh’s meaningless kick to lose only by 7. In fact, the week was unique when we consider that all teasers, regardless of the team selected, were able to cover.
Now as we stand just a couple of matchups from the Super Bowl, seems like the perfect time to right the ship and get the picks back to .500, with the hope that the Championship Sunday can be just as good as what we’ve seen in the playoffs.
After almost 15 years of intense rivalry and comparisons, we may be on the verge of seeing the last ever Brady-Manning battle, and it couldn’t be on any other stage than the playoffs. Even as the elder Manning has actually been more successful in AFC Championship games against Brady, there is still no way to deny that New England’s QB has held the upper hand in their storied set of meetings, and this following game with the Super Bowl on the line will be yet another chance to add to their respective legacies.
On the visiting side, the Patriots were able to demonstrate what they are capable of doing when healthy. The return of Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola were more than enough to knock out the Chiefs, who were forced to follow an unlikely game plan and only came within a score by virtue of a late touchdown. While we could also attribute a big chunk of the explanation to the mismatch between Bill Belichick and Andy Reid, there is a reason why the Pats are road favorites in this game.
On the other side, the Broncos were probably a weak #1 seed, but they are taking all the advantage they can have by hosting the AFC title game for the second time in three years. However, the Broncos are only a modest 3-2 in home playoff games under Manning, and yet they won their previous AFC Championship appearance against the same Patriots. By itself, the current matchup should be a dandy, with Denver boasting the league’s best pass defense, and one that seems well suited to slow down whatever Brady and Belichick have to offer.
Of course, last week’s game showed what the Broncos offer at this point. A dominant defensive effort was enough to limit the Steelers to 20 points and short drives, but the offense was far from steady in the return of Peyton Manning. In fact, it is easy to wonder how the game could have gone if not for the Steelers fumbling the ball on a key drive. If they are to have any chance to play in Santa Clara, the Broncos need Manning to rediscover at least part of his better side to give New England a scare.
Going by point differential, the Broncos should have been a 10-win playoff team, but have ridden a large number of close calls to get to this point. On the other hand, it is hard to envision another AFC team being able to match what the Patriots are at this point. Maybe the Chiefs seemed like a solid threat, as it did for a potential healthy Steelers squad, but a team with so many question marks at quarterback doesn’t appear to be enough to stop a seventh trip to Super Sunday for Brady and Belichick.
Despite the regular-season win that the Broncos had at home versus the Patriots, the game was full of unlikely bounces that led Brock Osweiler to lead a comeback. Come playoff time, we know that Belichick will take chances and use his full playbook, while Gary Kubiak is just not at the same level of confidence. It wouldn’t be shocking for the Patriots to overwhelm Manning and do just enough on offense to advance comfortably. So be prepared for a familiar Super Bowl party, as the Patriots are going back to the final game.
The Pick: New England -3
For most of the year, these two teams were the unquestioned alpha dogs in the NFC, with only a few late-season blips making us question their chances to make a deep playoff run. The same principle was applied to their Divisional Round wins, as both squads needed late holds to ensure what seemed like a sure win for large chunks of their games. The situation was especially troubling for Carolina, who stormed to a 31-0 lead in the first half only to see the Seahawks creep up to a 31-24 final score. The Cardinals needed a different type of response, as they allowed a miracle Hail Mary to the Packers in the game’s final play and required overtime to advance.
A similarly cardiac game would be a welcome development this Sunday, especially considering that we will see the two quarterbacks who should be voted #1 and #2 in the MVP race. Also, we are getting the best two teams in terms of scoring offense, so points should come plenty and often in this game. While the AFC has been a model of consistency in terms of Super Bowl contenders, the NFC will feature a brand new matchup, as the Cardinals are in their first NFC title game since 2008, while Carolina hadn’t made it this far since 2005.
This is also a rematch from last season’s playoffs, when the Cardinals, down to their third-string quarterback, were dismantled by the 7-8-1 Panthers at home. For obvious reasons, the upcoming game is a completely different animal, as both teams appear to be healthy and ready for the challenge of facing quarterbacking legend in the Super Bowl. The matchup is so close that every detail and break could be the deciding factor, with both teams featuring savvy coaches and talent from top to bottom.
Carolina was 8-0 at home during the regular season, while the Cardinals were a surprising 7-1 on the road. Both of them finished in the top 10 in scoring defense, rushing, rush defense, and turnover differential, so it is hard to try to find a differentiating factor for this Sunday. In fact, I am convinced that picking this game will fall into everybody’s personal preference and what they consider relevant. Will Cam Newton complete a dream season with a trip to the Super Bowl? Can Bruce Arians fulfill his destiny? How big will home-field advantage be?
In answering these questions, I drift back to how impressive the Panthers looked for 30 minutes last week. While the Cardinals battled back and forth with an inferior squad and allowed a miracle comeback, the Panthers were a bulldozer against the two-time defending NFC champs. While letting the Seahawks come back was disappointing, it was probably normal to relax a bit. That shouldn’t be the case this weekend, as Carolina will face its toughest task of the season. In what will be a great game, I see Cam and his joyous crowd celebrating a trip to the Super Bowl.
The Pick: Carolina -3