The Conference Championships feature polar opposite matchups as far as familiarity goes, but each matchup will showcase the best each conference has to offer with each of the No. 1 seeds facing off against the No. 2 seeds.
Tom Brady vs Peyton Manning part 17 kicks off Sunday, and it could be the last time we see these two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks square off. Especially because one has maintained his level of success while the other has fallen off considerably this season. However, this game could be decided by more than these great quarterbacks.
The Panthers and Cardinals haven't met since the Panthers knocked the Cardinals and Ryan Lindley out of the playoffs last season. Both of these teams have been on fire almost all season long. The Panthers have only lost one game this season, but the Cardinals are coming in with more momentum, considering the Panthers were held scoreless in the second half against the Seahawks last week. The Cardinals survived near elimination against the Packers last week due to some overtime heroics from Larry Fitzgerald. Will the Panthers be able to get back on track when the Cardinals come to town Saturday?
New England Patriots at Denver Broncos
Where: Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver
When: Sunday, January 24, 12:05 p.m. PT
Announcers: Jim Nantz, Phil Simms
Radio: Patriots Radio Network | Broncos Radio Network
Online Streaming: CBS Sports
Patriots blog: Pats Pulpit
Broncos blog: Mile High Report
It seems like a story as old as the NFL, and the fact that it's only the 17th meeting between Brady and Manning seems surprisingly low. This game is about far more than these two though. One of the biggest keys to the game is whether the Patriots offensive line can hold up against the Broncos' pass rush, led by Von Miller, and keep Brady upright. They did a good job last week, but that was with Justin Houston only playing eight snaps. If New England hopes to go into Denver and escape with the win, they'll need to give Brady time to get the ball out to Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski. Gronkowski is especially important because he can take advantage of T.J. Ward in coverage down the field, and that seems to be the Patriots' best shot in moving the ball against the Denver defense.
The Broncos are depending a lot on Manning. Last week Manning only had to manage the game, but this week they need him to go and win it, and that starts with them scoring touchdowns instead of settling for field goals. Last week the Broncos got by with 5 field goals and a single touchdown, but it will be hard to imagine that the Broncos defense can hold the Patriots to less than 23 points this week. Another key for the Broncos is to run the ball efficiently. Something they did very well when they beat the Patriots earlier this season, with Brock Osweiler, was running the ball. C.J. Anderson rushed for over 100 yards including a 48 yard touchdown run in overtime to win that game. If Denver approaches the game with the methodical approach and they wear down the Patriots defense with the run, they could have some big plays waiting for them in the fourth quarter.
Odds: New England is a 2.5-point favorite
Prediction: New England 24, Denver 20
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Arizona Cardinals at Carolina Panthers
Where: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, NC
When: Sunday, January 24, 3:40 p.m. PT
Announcers: Joe Buck, Troy Aikman
Radio: Cardinals Radio Network | Panthers Radio Network
Online Streaming: FOXSportsGo
Cardinals blog: Revenge of the Birds
Panthers blog: Cat Scratch Reader
This game is going to be fun to watch. Both of these teams are extremely talented; Carson Palmer and Cam Newton have played like MVPs and these defenses have routinely shut down opposing offenses.
The Panthers seemed to be in the backfield with Russell Wilson as the Panthers jumped out to a huge lead against the Seahawks, and if the Cardinals can't protect Palmer any better than that then Arizona will be in real trouble. Another thing the Cardinals will need is for their offensive line to open up some holes for David Johnson, so they can keep the offense balanced and keep the Panthers from pinning their ears back to rush the passer. Expect a few screens and draws early to keep the defense honest. On the other side of the ball, the Cardinals' defense has been one of the best at containing quarterbacks in the pocket, as evidenced by how they kept Aaron Rodgers in check last week. They will also need to keep Jonathan Stewart from getting the offense into third and short, where the Panthers are nearly unstoppable in facing. This of course is easier said than done, and by staying on the field the Panthers can tire out the Cardinals defense.
The Cardinals' offense looked rough last week, and the Panthers will look to keep up what the Packers did during regulation. The Cardinals saved their postseason in overtime last week and the Panthers' defense is more than capable of getting to Palmer, and if they do they can force him into turnovers like they've done all season. The Panthers might need more from their receivers this game. The Carolina wide receivers combined for six catches and 56 yards last week. Obviously they were hurt by Carolina's conservative play calling in the second half, but with Arizona surely prepared to take away Greg Olsen and the running game, the receivers will have to come up with some big plays.
Odds: Carolina is a 4-point favorite
Prediction: Carolina 27, Arizona 16
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