Each NFL Team's Key to Victory on Championship Sunday
One week after all the road teams had their way in the Wild Card Round, all four home teams held serve in the NFL's divisional playoffs.
So what does that mean for Championship Sunday? For the first time since 2004, both conference title contests are matchups between the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds.
When it comes to winning on Sunday, what should we look for from the New England Patriots, Denver Broncos, Arizona Cardinals and Carolina Panthers? The answers look pretty simple. Execution is the key.
The home teams are a perfect 4-0 in this round in each of the previous two years, but in the 2012 playoffs, both road teams came out on top. That's just one more thing to ponder.
Note: Win-loss records include this year’s postseason.
New England Patriots (13-4): Stop the Run
Back in Week 12, the New England Patriots sported a 10-0 record heading into a Sunday night showdown with the Broncos in Denver. They left the Mile High City with a 30-24 overtime loss despite owning a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter.
The Broncos finished the game with 179 yards rushing on 32 carries, 48 of those yards coming in running back C.J. Anderson’s game-winning score in the extra session. It was a play Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower wasn’t around for because he got injured earlier in the game. He hopes to make amends in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday.
“That’s the No. 1 thing I take pride in is being an aggressive, downhill run-stopper,” said Hightower to Doug Kyed of NESN.com. “That’s what I do, that’s what I take pride in. It means a lot to me, but as far as the stats and stuff, I’m not big on that. As long as we win, we do what we do, we get the W, that’s all that matters to me.”
To get the win, the Pats can’t afford to let Peyton Manning and the Denver offense control the clock. With Hightower in the lineup in the divisional round, the Patriots allowed 135 rushing yards on 32 attempts—23 carries for 91 yards by the running back combination of Charcandrick West and Knile Davis.
Keeping Anderson and Ronnie Hillman in check this time around will be vital for Matt Patricia’s defensive unit.
Denver Broncos (13-4): Stay Patient
For three quarters in the divisional round, the Pittsburgh Steelers looked like a better team than the Denver Broncos.
Then came the run by the Steelers’ Fitzgerald Toussaint, the forced fumble by Broncos cornerback Bradley Roby and the recovery by linebacker DeMarcus Ware. What followed was a 13-play, 65-yard touchdown drive that took up six minutes, 52 seconds of the clock. The end result would be a 23-16 victory by a Denver team that is preparing to host the New England Patriots in the AFC title game for the second time in three years.
Gary Kubiak’s team must exercise the same kind of patience it did against the Steelers. Controlling the football via the running game is vital. Error-free football from veteran quarterback Peyton Manning (which he has done in terms of turnovers since returning to the lineup in Week 17) is imperative.
Getting Tom Brady and the Pats to turn over the football won't be easy. Getting to Brady could be the key to forcing a mistake or two. Of course, in 17 total outings this season, the Patriots have only coughed up the football 14 times.
Then again, no team was better at getting to opposing quarterbacks this season than the Broncos, who totaled an NFL-high 52 sacks in the regular season and three more in the divisional-round win over the Steelers.
It may take some time, as was the case when the Broncos rallied back in November from that 21-7 deficit, but don’t be surprised if a play by the defense in the fourth quarter opens the door for a return to the Super Bowl.
Arizona Cardinals (14-3): Attack Downfield
It took the Arizona Cardinals a little while to shake off the cobwebs in their divisional-round match with the Green Bay Packers. By the end of overtime, the franchise was getting ready for its first NFC Championship Game appearance since the 2008 playoffs.
The league’s second-highest-scoring team, one with an offensive unit that produced 51 touchdowns during the regular season, must be in attack mode against a Carolina Panthers team that led the NFL with 500 points and totaled 54 offensive touchdowns.
It has all the makings of one wild Sunday evening in Charlotte, North Carolina, and if the Cards want to pull off the mini-upset, quarterback Carson Palmer and a deep wide receiving corps may have to push the envelope. That shouldn’t be hard, considering the way this team has aggressively played this season on both sides of the ball. And you can expect Palmer to be much more efficient after looking a little rusty in the early stages against the Packers.
Building an early lead could take the Panthers out of their ground attack, which ranked second in the NFL this season and racked up 144 yards on 41 carries in its divisional-round win over the Seattle Seahawks. The Carolina secondary will have its issues with wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and John Brown. And if the Arizona offense can strike big sooner than later, this could shape up as quite the encounter.
Carolina Panthers (16-1): Close the Deal
They say all’s well that ends well, and they are not incorrect—whoever they are.
Following their 31-24 victory over the Seattle Seahawks last time out, Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera was apparently asked whether the team’s penchant for blowing substantial leads over the course of the season was something to worry about.
"If this was someone that was 2-14 that did this to us, then I’d be really concerned," said Rivera to ESPN.com’s David Newton earlier this week. "But it wasn’t. Am I concerned? Yeah. But are these things correctable and fixable? Most certainly."
He continued: "Let’s stay focused on what we did. We made some things happen. And we won the football game."
Obviously that’s the goal. But Sunday's opponent, the Arizona Cardinals, scored 489 points this season, second only to Carolina’s 500. Quarterback Carson Palmer threw just as many touchdown passes (35) as Cam Newton. The Cardinals defense is ranked fifth in the NFL in fewest total yards allowed. The Panthers are sixth. It adds up to a pretty even matchup for the right to reach Super Bowl 50.
So what can we expect? The Panthers jump out to a 45-0 lead and hold on for a 45-44 win? That may be extreme. But if the Carolina running game or Rivera’s defense can’t shut the door Sunday in Charlotte, a 15-1 regular season could go by the wayside in about three hours.