And then there were four! We’ve reached the penultimate weekend of action in this years NFL. The Denver Broncos will take on the New England Patriots for the AFC Championship while the Carolina Panthers face the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Championship with the winners advancing to SuperBowl 50 in Santa Clara in a fortnights time. both games will be screened live on Sky Sports with the action kicking off at 8 p.m.
New England Patriots -3@ Evens Vs Denver Broncos (2000 KO)
Last week we were treated to a battle between the elite of the new brand of dual threat Quarterbacks as Cam Newton and Russell Wilson squared off in the divisional round. This week we get another epic Quarterback battle as two decidedly more old school Quarterbacks, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning square off for the 17th and possibly final time. In the head to head Brady leads 11-5 while this is the 5th time they have faced each other in the playoffs, an NFL record. Their previous four playoff matchups are evenly split, two apiece.
Manning and his Broncos team can count themselves fortunate to still be involved as its fair to say the Steelers were the better side in their meeting last weekend. They were leading in the 4th quarter and driving at the Broncos 35 yard line when a forced fumble swung the momentum of the game. That shouldn’t come as a surprise though as the Broncos have leaned heavily on its defence all season on its way to the number one seed in the AFC. This isn’t the same Broncos team that marched to the SuperBowl a couple of years ago. Offensively they’ve been patchy all season and again last week they had way too many dropped passes. If this game develops into a shootout there will only be one winner. Therefore they’ll be hoping to protect the ball well here, something they haven’t done this season with Manning having 17 interceptions. If Manning can remain error free this is a defence which can create turnovers and win this game themselves.
The key to victory however may come down to just how well they run the ball. The success of this offence in relation to how well they run the ball cannot be overstated. In games this year where they have managed 130 yards or more on the ground they are 7-0.
The Patriots meanwhile reached the divisional final by dispatching of another fine defence in the Kansas City Chiefs. In last week’s preview I’d said that while I thought the Patriots would ultimately win the game, Kansas would possibly keep it close enough to cover the spread. This was mainly down to concerns over the health of both Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski. The worries were unfounded as the two tormented the Chiefs defence all day. Edelman especially looked completely healthy and I have a feeling Bill Belichick may have been simply holding him out the last couple of weeks in order to have him 100% for the playoffs. While Kansas did come close to covering on the spread in truth the 7 point victory for New England was more one sided than the scoreline suggested. Their underperforming ground game was abandoned running the ball just 7 times while the much vaunted Kansas pass rush(similar to that of Denver’s) was completely nullified by Brady’s methodical slice and dice passes.
When these two met at mile high stadium earlier this season the Patriots, with a perfect 10-0 record at the time, blew a 21-7 lead and went on to lose the game in overtime. However it’s hard to read too much into the victory. In that game, receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola were both missing while Rob Gronkowski was forced off before overtime. Linebacker James Collins was also out injured and his partner in crime Dont’a Hightower was also forced off.
All 5 will be available for this game and will make the Patriots a completely different animal. Meanwhile for the Broncos cornerback Chris Harris, who is set to line-up opposite the red-hot Edelman, is struggling for this one. If he misses out or is not 100% it will have a serious impact on the Broncos chances of slowing down this offence.
As much as it pains me to say it as he is one of the all time greats at the position its clear now that Peyton Manning is no longer the quarterback he once was. His playoff record is sometimes unfairly criticised mostly because his career has run parallel Brady’s and the comparisons are going to be inevitable. In reality his record stands up quite well especially considering Brady has often worked with better teammates (as well as a better Coach!) In his favour for this one he has only ever lost 4 games for the Broncos at home while he is 2-0 at home to the Patriots in AFC championship games. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that he leads the Broncos to victory in this one but I do think though that his margin of error in this game is very small.
The best way of beating the Broncos is to go underneath. This suits New England as it is their natural gameplan anyway. They will move the chains and pick up their scores. In typical Bill Belichick fashion he will likely take his opponent’s best weapon out of the game and here that will be Demaryius Thomas. When the side met back in November, Thomas had just one catch on a staggering 13 targets! I also expect he will also load the box and try to force Manning to win the game through the air. If that is the case and based on the Peyton we’ve seen so far this season his hunt for a second SuperBowl ring is destined to end in failure. Patriots by more than 3.
Arizona Cardinals +3 @ 20/21 Vs Carolina Panthers (2340 KO)
From a battle of two of the greatest quarterbacks of all time to a battle of the two best quarterbacks of this season as Carson Palmer and the Arizona Cardinals travel to Carolina to face Cam Newton’s Panthers.
Incidentally it’s the first ever meeting between heisman trophy winning QBs in the playoffs. These two sides have led the pace in the NFC all season so it’s fitting that it ends with them facing off for a place in SuperBowl 50. While Brady – Manning will dominate the headlines to me this is the game of the weekend. I can almost guarantee that staying up for this one will make it worth sleepwalking your way through work on Monday!
Carolina got off to a flyer last weekend leading 14-0 before Newton had even thrown a pass and afterwards took a 31-0 lead into halftime. However in a remarkable second half collapse they allowed Seattle to rattle off 24 unanswered points to leave them clinging on at the end. It’s something that’s becoming a nasty habit for this team as they have had a similar pattern in games with the Packers and Giants. Arizona had a scare of its own as Aaron Rodgers Hail Mary pass with time expiring brought the game to overtime before they eventually came through thanks to a Larry Fitzgerald TD. The Cardinals and especially Palmer looked rather shaky and will have to perform better against a ball hawking Panthers defence. Carolina has gone undefeated at home all season while Arizona has won 7 out of 8 on the road. Something has to give!
Cam Newton has been electrifying this season on his way to 35 passing TDs and 10 with his feet. The feat is even more impressive considering his number one target in the passing game was Ted Ginn Jr. However this Panthers team are still a run first offense and were boosted last weekend by the return of Jonathon Stewart who rushed for over 100yds and two scores. Both he and Newton will look to establish the run but don’t forget this is a tough Arizona run defence. They may not be able to shut it down completely but can slow it up enough that Newton has to throw. This is something this Arizona D is well equipped to handle.
However what swings this game for me is the Carolina secondary. Injuries have struck at the worst time with Charles Tillman done for the year. They have had their struggles against precision passers and despite an indifferent couple of games Palmer is exactly that. While Josh Norman may be the best in the league, their other cornerback Cortland Finnegan leaves a lot to be desired. Theres a reason this guy hasn’t been on a NFL roster in a couple of seasons and it’s a matchup Palmer will try to exploit. With perhaps the best weapons at wideout in the league in Larry Fitzgerald, john Brown and Michael Floyd somebody is going to end up with a tasty matchup here.
This really is a game where it’s easy to make a case for both teams and it should come down to the wire but ultimately I think the Cardinals just match up so well against the Panthers in a number of areas and have the edge in coaching with Arians over Rivera. Provided Palmer can shake off his mini slump it should be enough to get them over the line here. I was very tempted to go with Arizona outright at odds of almost 6/4 but i’m going to stick with the safer option and take them plus a field goal at around evens.
Best of luck