The top seeds in the AFC and NFC have advanced to their respective conference championship games.
The Carolina Panthers looked very much like the No. 1 seed in the NFC when they hammered the Seattle Seahawks in the first half and built a 31-0 lead by the time the two teams went to the locker room at halftime. While they nearly gave that lead away by the end of the game, they were never in danger of losing to the two-time NFC champions.
The Panthers came away with a 31-24 victory and are clearly a dangerous team with likely MVP Cam Newton at quarterback.
The New England Patriots shook off late-season doldrums that saw them lose four of their final six games heading into the playoffs. Julian Edelman (broken foot) returned to the lineup, and the offense opened up for Tom Brady. The Patriots scored on the opening drive of the game and dictated the pace throughout the majority of their 27-20 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Panthers and the Patriots were far more dominant than the Arizona Cardinals or the Denver Broncos, and they are also ranked as the more likely Super Bowl winners, according to Odds Shark.
However, don't write off the Cardinals or Broncos. A tie game at the end of regulation forced Arizona to go to overtime against the Green Bay Packers, an opponent that it had dominated by 30 points just three weeks earlier. The Cardinals did not get a stellar performance from quarterback Carson Palmer, who threw two interceptions and also made several other questionable throws, but still came away with a 26-20 overtime victory.
Late-game play-calling also worked out in Green Bay's favor. The Cardinals decided to throw the ball late in the fourth quarter, and Palmer's incomplete passes stopped the clock. If they had run the ball and kept the clock moving, it would have been even more difficult for Aaron Rodgers to throw the Hail Mary pass that eventually tied the game on the final play of regulation.
The Denver Broncos came through with a late fourth-quarter touchdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers, and that allowed them to take the lead and eventually beat the injury-plagued visitors, 23-16. The Broncos struggled on offense for the majority of the game, but they will once again have the opportunity to play at home against the Patriots in the AFC title game.
|Conference Championship Point Spreads and Predictions|
|Game||Date, Time (ET)||Line||Over/Under||Selection|
|New England at Denver||Jan. 24, 3:05 p.m.||NE (-3.5)||44.5||New England; Under|
|Arizona at Carolina||Jan. 24, 6:40 p.m.||Car. (-3)||47||Carolina; Over|
|Odds Shark; Silverman selections|
Denver has a 3-0 record in the postseason when hosting the Patriots, and two of those victories have come in the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era.
The past may not be prologue to the future because Peyton Manning has struggled so much at quarterback this year due to injuries and ineffectiveness, but it is never easy for the Patriots when they go to Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
The Patriots are listed as 3.5-point road favorites over the Broncos, according to Odds Shark, while the Panthers are three-point favorites over the Cardinals.
If both favorites win their respective conference championship games, the Super Bowl would feature a classic confrontation between the Panthers and the Patriots. One of the running themes of that game would be the quarterback matchup. Newton is coming off a fantastic regular season (35 touchdown passes and 10 more on the ground), while Brady is clearly one of the game's all-time greats.
Carolina head coach Ron Rivera would have a chance to match wits with Belichick, and that battle could be a classic with Riverboat Ron going up against The Genius.
Should the Broncos use their home field to their advantage and beat the Patriots yet again in the playoffs, they would seem to be at a major disadvantage against Carolina or Arizona. Manning finished with a 9-17 TD-interception ratio this season, and his ability to throw medium- and long-range passes is questionable at this point in his stellar career.
If the Cardinals upset the Panthers and the Patriots also win, that might lead to the most competitive of the possible matchups in the Super Bowl. Arizona had the top-ranked offense in the regular season and the fifth-ranked defense, while the Patriots had the sixth-ranked offense and the ninth-ranked defense.
Head coach Bruce Arians may be the opposite of Belichick when it comes to personality, because he is not hesitant to answer media questions expansively, unlike the normally tight-lipped Patriots coach.
When it comes to game-planning, Arians is just as thoughtful as Belichick, as he proved in overtime against the Packers with the Cardinals' game-winning shovel pass to Larry Fitzgerald.
Cardinals with the old school shovel pass to Larry Fitzgerald for the win pic.twitter.com/GwXui4zhTy— The Cauldron (@TheCauldron) January 17, 2016
That was a play the Packers were not in a position to defend, and it showed how Arians would be a worthy opponent for Belichick.