(Peyton Manning photo courtesy of the Denver Broncos)
(Tom Brady cover photo courtesy of the New England Patriots)
By Clark Judge
Talk of Fame Network
AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
NEW ENGLAND @ DENVER, 3:05 p.m. (EST)
The line: Patriots by 3
The story: This Brady-Manning XVII, but it’s not about Tom Brady. It’s more about Peyton Manning and his legacy. He’s 12-13 in the playoffs and 5-11 vs. Brady, and a loss here completes the narrative: Great quarterback who couldn’t beat Brady and couldn’t measure up in the playoffs.
But a win? That would narrow the gap. And a Super Bowl win would make the margin even slimmer.
So this is bigger for Manning’s legacy than it is for Brady, who has four Super Bowl wins, six Super Bowl appearances and 10 conference-championship game appearances. His legacy would only be enhanced with another Super Bowl appearance. And he can get there … if he’s protected and commits few mistakes.
And, trust me, turnovers determine the winner here, as they did in Denver last weekend.
That was the first game since last season where Manning didn't throw an interception, and that was critical. But it wasn't the story. This was: While Manning wasn't exceptional, he was good when he had to be – which was on the game-winning drive. Look for the Broncos to take the ball out of his hands and lean on a rushing attack that shredded New England for 179 yards and three TDs when the two teams met in November.
The goal there is twofold: A) Eliminate potential Manning miscues and B) keep Brady and the New England offense off the field.
And it makes sense, mostly because New England’s linebackers are hurting. Jarod Mayo is out, and Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins showed up on this week's injury report. The hope for Denver is that neither is at full strength and that it can take advantage with a heavy dose of C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman mixed in with short crossing patterns and bubble screens.
That's not exactly news to New England, which will stack the box, defend the middle of the field and force Manning to try to beat them outside the numbers with his arm. The Patriots are betting he can’t do it, and that’s a fair assessment at this stage of his career. But think about that for a minute: You go into a game vs. Peyton Manning daring him … not his rushing attack … to beat you because you think he can’t.
But that’s what happens when you’re 39 and last among the league’s 35-ranked quarterbacks.
Brady, of course, isn't far behind at 38, but what a difference. He’s accurate, he’s reasonably healthy and he’s not the guy you dare to beat you … because he will. Denver must hope it can get to him before he gets the ball to guys like Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, James White and Danny Amendola. Brady will get the ball away quickly on short routes to any and all of them, and that is a problem for a Denver defense that ranked first overall, first vs. the pass and first in sacks with 52.
The Broncos won't have safety Omar Bolden (he's on IR), and cornerback Chris Harris is playing with a bad shoulder. Brady can dissect the Broncos’ secondary if he has time to throw … which means … yep, the job for the Patriots’ offensive line is similar to what it was a week ago: Keep Brady standing. It did then, with Brady not sacked as he found Edelman with 10 passes, and you saw what happened. If he’s as clean as he was vs. Kansas City, this one’s over.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: Brady is 2-6 in Denver, with 15 touchdown passes and seven interceptions. He has not, however, thrown an interception there since January, 2006, and in his last nine games vs. the Broncos – in Denver or New England -- has 23 TDs and two interceptions.
(Carson Palmer photo courtesy of the Arizona Cardinals)
NFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
ARIZONA @ CAROLINA, 6:40 p.m. (EST)
The line: Panthers by 3
The story: If they can end this game at the half, the Panthers are home free. They’re the best team in the NFL, and the best first-half team anywhere … as Seattle discovered last weekend. But the second half? Not so much. And that’s where this game could be won. Arizona is a fast finisher, outscoring opponents 269-166 after intermission, including 145-69 in the third quarter, and it has the vertical passing attack to keep Carolina honest. What it doesn’t have is momentum or a home-field advantage, and those factors – plus Cam Newton and a stifling defense – make the Panthers the pick.
Newton is the prohibitive favorite as league MVP, and for the Cardinals to succeed they must keep him within the pocket and force him to beat them with his arm, not his legs. Yeah, I know, Newton just had his finest passing season ever, but he can be erratic, and I’ll take my chances with him throwing from the pocket vs. running over my secondary -- especially if there's weather and a sloppy field. I’m not sure why nobody figured out how to cover tight end Greg Olsen, but the Cards might want to try with a cornerback … something, anything, to keep him in check and force Newton to go to a Ted Ginn … or Jericho Cotchery … or Devin Funchess.
Because if I'm Arizona, I’ll take my chances with them, too.
The Panthers not only are white-hot; they’re the only team this season not to lose at home. But Arizona’s not far behind. The Cards dropped just one of their last 11 and are a franchise-best 7-1 on the road. Nevertheless, they looked shaky, nervous, vulnerable … you name it … last weekend in that overtime defeat of Green Bay. They were lucky to survive, and they did it without a running game, with a secondary that surrendered a raft of big plays to no-name wide receivers and a quarterback who looked as if he warmed up listening to Archie Bell and the Drells.
That must change, or the Cards are toast.
I don’t know if David Johnson becomes a factor, but my guess is the Cards use their passing game to up the rushing attack – and they have the weapons in Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown and Michael Floyd to back off a Carolina secondary that lost Charles Tillman and Ben Benwikere this season and surrendered big second-half plays to Seattle. Remember, people, Arizona was the top-ranked offense in the NFL and was second only to – who else? – Carolina in points scored. The Cards are also balanced, ranking in the top five in offense and defense.
Protecting the immobile Palmer against a pass rush that ranked sixth in sacks (44) but is without Jared Allen is critical. If he has time, Palmer can beat Carolina with the deep pass (attention: Robert McClain). If not, he and the Cardinals are in trouble. Carolina simply has more playmakers on both sides of the ball. Oh, and one more thing: I know we always preach ball security, but nowhere is that more important than it is here. Carolina led the league this season with 40 takeaways, while Arizona was second with 33.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: Arizona was a franchise-best 5-0 in prime-time games this season.
FIVE GUYS ON SUNDAY’S HALL-OF-FAME RADAR
Arizona WR Larry Fitzgerald. In eight playoff games, he has 53 catches for 912 yards and 10 TDs. His 10 touchdowns rank third best in playoff history.
New England TE Rob Gronkowski. In nine career playoff games, he has 44 catches for 610 yards and 8 touchdowns.
Carolina QB Cam Newton. He’s the only quarterback in NFL history with 30 or more touchdown passes (he had 35) and 10 or more touchdown runs (he had 10) in one season.
Denver LB DeMarcus Ware. He has five sacks in six career playoff games.
Arizona LB Dwight Freeney. He has 10 postseason sacks, including one last weekend. Only seven players in league history have more.
HALL OF NOTES-WORTHY
The last eight NFC championship games have been decided by seven or fewer points – with four of them going to overtime. Carolina had seven games this year decided by seven or fewer, while Arizona had five.
Denver is 3-1 vs. New England in the playoffs, including 3-0 at home.
The Patriots can become the 13th team in NFL history to reach the Super Bowl a year after winning it. Seattle was the 12th last season.
Arizona tied Kansas City for most defensive touchdowns this year with six. Carolina, Denver and Indianapolis tied for third with five each.
Denver is 10-3 this season in games decided by seven or fewer points, including three overtime wins.
Including the playoffs, Arizona is 26-6 vs. non-division opponents under Bruce Arians.
With a victory over Denver, New England surpasses Dallas and Pittsburgh for most Super Bowl appearances with nine. Denver has been to seven.
With a defeat of Denver, Bill Belichick becomes the first head coach to lead his team to seven Super Bowls. He and Don Shula hold the record with six apiece.
Denver is one of only two teams this season to have two running backs with 700 yards rushing apiece.
Under Bruce Arians, has an NFL-best 16-5 record in one-score games (2013-15). Carolina is second at 17-5-1 (2013-15).
Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have an NFL-best 22 playoff wins together, eight more than Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw (14).
Carson Palmer and Cam Newton are the first Heisman Trophy winning quarterbacks to face each other in the playoffs.
This was the first time in his 24-year career as a defensive coordinator that Wade Phillips had his unit ranked first in yards allowed.