And then there were four. The conference championship matchups take place this weekend as the four remaining sides battle for a place at Super Bowl 50- the New England Patriots, the Denver Broncos, the Arizona Cardinals and the Carolina Panthers.
AFC Title- New England Patriots @ Denver Broncos (Sunday, 8:05pm)
Just in case you have forgotten, just in case it hasn’t been mentioned yet and just in case you have been living in the dark for the past week or so- it is Tom Brady versus Peyton Manning, again.
The legendary quarterbacks come face to face for the 17th time as the New England Patriots travel to face the Denver Broncos.
Sunday’s matchup is a tough one to call. The teams met back in week 12 where the Broncos emerged victorious with a 30-24 win, led by an impressive performance by replacement quarterback Brock Osweiler.
It is difficult to predict how Peyton Manning will perform at the moment- that’s if Gary Kubiak decides to stick with him over the young and determined Osweiler.
The key to New England stopping Manning will be by bettering the attempt by the Pittsburgh Steelers defense to use the blitz to force the quarterback to not only test his deep throwing ability at this stage of his career but also his speed and awareness.
New England cornerbacks Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan will be key in stopping Manning from linking up with receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. The Broncos quarterback and his wide receivers didn’t enjoy a successful outing against the Steelers and will have to be at the top of their game.
The reason they will have to be at the top of their game? Tom Brady has both of his favourite receiving targets on the field- tight end Rob Gronkowski and wide receiver Julian Edelman. Denver could be in trouble if the quarterback finds his range again. He passed for 302 yards against the Kansas City Chiefs, including two touchdown passes to Gronkowski.
It promises to be an exciting battle between Broncos linebackers Demarcus Ware, Brandon Marshall and Von Miller and the Tom Brady led Patriots offense.
Prediction- I have to go for a Patriots win. The feeling is that Manning should be benched for this game, but with it looking likely that he won’t be I believe Brady will outshine him.
NFC Title- Arizona Cardinals @ Carolina Panthers (Sunday, 11:40pm)
Both of these sides played their part in what was an exhilarating weekend of NFL action.
The Cardinals eventually beat the Green Bay Packers 26-20 in overtime after a remarkable Aaron Rodgers Hail Mary pass was caught by Packers receiver Jeff Janis for a touchdown with just seconds remaining, to take the game beyond regulation time.
Later in the day, the Carolina Panthers managed to hold on to beat the Seattle Seahawks after their 31-0 half time lead was responded to with a 24 point second half surge by Seattle.
Arizona have to stop the Panthers run. Carolina running back Jonathon Stewart rushed for 106 yards against the Seahawks, as well as scoring two touchdowns- one of which came from a 59 yard burst on his side’s first play of the game.
Where the Panthers have Jonathon Stewart, the Cardinals have rookie running back David Johnson- who rushed for 581 yards and made 8 touchdowns in the regular season.
As well as focusing on stopping the run, the Cardinals must also stop quarterback Cam Newton from linking up with tight end Greg Olsen as effectively as he did at the weekend. Olsen made six catches for 77 yards and one touchdown- coming from an expertly placed pass from Newton.
On the other side, the Cardinals carry threats of their own. Panthers linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis and cornerback Josh Norman will have to pay close attention to wide receivers Michael Floyd and, in particular, Larry Fitzgerald- who is playing in his 11th season for Arizona. He made eight catches for 176 yards and scored the game winning touchdown in overtime against the Packers. He showed just how big a threat he can be with a 75 yard run, beating man after man before finally being brought down to set up the match winning play.
There has been a lot of talk over Carolina’s vulnerability to the ‘big play’ as evidenced by Julio Jones’s stunning touchdown in Atlanta’s 20-13 win in week 16 and Russell Wilson’s two touchdown passes to wide receivers Jermaine Kearse and Tyler Lockett early on in the second half on Sunday.
The opportunity is there for Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer to take advantage of this with some big passes. Palmer will need to have a better day than he did against the Packers, though. He was intercepted twice, and was extremely fortunate not see that rise to three when Green Bay cornerback Sam Shields failed to keep hold of the ball at the three yard line. Palmer will also have to be wary of a Panthers defense that sacked Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson five times.
Prediction- This is a tough one. I can see the Panthers going all out to ensure their outstanding season doesn’t go to waste. That isn’t to say the Cardinals haven’t had an outstanding season. After seeing Cam Newton and co destroy the Seahawks in the first half last week, I feel they will have enough to go all the way.