NFL Playoff Predictions: Bleacher Report's Conference Championship Picks
And then there were four.
After last week's divisional round, four teams remain in the race to reach Santa Clara, California, and Super Bowl 50.
There won't be any Cinderellas at this year's big ball either. Whereas the road teams won all four games on Wild Card Weekend, the home teams swept last week's action.
That leaves us with a pair of No. 2 seeds hitting the road to battle the top seeds in each conference.
Will it be the New England Patriots or Denver Broncos representing the AFC? Will they square off against the Arizona Cardinals or Carolina Panthers from the NFC?
We asked the National Lead Writers, National Columnists and NFL Analysts here at Bleacher Report that very question.
Here are their picks for the winners of the Halas and Hunt Trophies this year.
There's an old saying that two heads are better than one.
Apparently that holds true with eight heads as well.
Yes, there were some dissenters in each case, but the majority ruled in the divisional round.
Not only did the consensus get all four games right, but National Lead Writers Matt Miller (the regular-season picks champion) and Mike Tanier also picked all four winners.
There won't be any tables getting run, however. National Lead Writer Mike Freeman, who correctly forecasted all four wild-card games, hit on only two in the divisional round.
Of course, there's another old saying...
Gary Davenport: NFL Analyst 3-1 (5-3)
Mike Freeman: NFL National Lead Writer 2-2 (6-2)
Brad Gagnon: NFL National Columnist 3-1 (6-2)
Matt Miller: NFL National Lead Writer 4-0 (7-1)
Ty Schalter: NFL National Lead Writer 3-1 (5-3)
Brent Sobleski: NFL Analyst 3-1 (6-2)
Mike Tanier: NFL National Lead Writer 4-0 (7-1)
Sean Tomlinson: NFL Analyst 3-1 (6-2)
Consensus: 4-0 (7-1)
No. 2 New England Patriots (12-4) at No. 1 Denver Broncos (12-4)
When: Sunday, January 24, 3:05 p.m. ET
Where: Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver, Colorado
Line: Patriots (-3)
Here we go again.
If familiarity really does breed contempt, then Peyton Manning and Tom Brady must loathe one another. When the two meet in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday, it will mark the 17th time they have locked horns on the football field.
Brady holds the overall lead in the series 11-5, but they have split the last 10 meetings. Sunday's game will also mark the fourth time Manning and Brady have battled with the Hunt Trophy and a Super Bowl trip on the line.
It's Manning who holds the edge there, having won two of three AFC Championship Game contests.
Most of the hype surrounding Sunday's game will no doubt center on Brady and Manning, but the latter superstar told Bob Glauber of Newsday that Sunday is about much more than the latest duel between two future Hall of Famers:
It will be the Broncos vs. the Patriots. To quote Bill Belichick, ‘We’ll be on to New England.’
I think our defense is guiding us, let’s make that clear. I am honored to be a part of it and looking forward to playing next week in the AFC Championship Game.
At least Manning is being honest. Manning is a shell of the quarterback who rewrote the record books two years ago en route to downing the Patriots in the 2014 AFC Championship Game and earning a trip to play in Super Bowl XLVIII.
The Patriots may well have the edge under center, but Manning was spot-on about the defense, as the Broncos (who ranked first against the pass, third against the run and fourth in scoring defense this season) have their own edge there.
This has also been a series that has heavily favored the home team. In fact, it's been nearly a decade since the road team won.
Can Manning and the Broncos earn the forehead one last shot at Super Bowl ring No. 2?
Or will Brady's Patriots prevail, sending the Golden Boy to a staggering seventh Super Bowl appearance?
The Pick: New England Patriots (6-2)
In the opinion of our experts, it's lucky No. 7 for Brady and quite possibly the end of the line for Manning.
Mind you, this isn't to say that the Broncos have no chance. They've shown quite recently that they can beat the Patriots, having won an overtime matchup with the Pats in Denver back in Week 12.
Of course, the circumstances of that game were significantly different. The Patriots were without top wideout Julian Edelman, and superstar tight end Rob Gronkowski suffered a knee injury in the fourth quarter that kept him out for the rest of the game. The Broncos were without Manning, who was watching from the sidelines thanks to an injured foot.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick told Lorenzo Reyes of USA Today that the change in quarterbacks for the opposition won't do much to change New England's game plan:
At some point you’ve got to line up and play what you’re going to play. Look, just cause they know you’re in something isn’t the worst thing in the world. All good teams have tendencies. All good players have tendencies. That’s not a bad thing. It’s a good thing. It means you’re doing something well. At some point, it’s going to come down to playing well and doing what you do better than what they try to do against it.
If you actually believe that, then I can make you a smoking deal on some waterfront property in Yuma.
Tom Brady, for his part, heaped praise on Manning while speaking with ESPN.com's Mike Reiss: "There’s nobody that has more respect for Peyton than me, outside of probably his parents and his brothers. If anybody can appreciate what he’s accomplished it’s me, so he’s just been remarkable in every part of his career. He’s been a tremendous player."
The problem is that while Manning may have been tremendous, he isn't at the moment. Father Time spares no one, and he appears to have his claws sunk deep into the five-time NFL MVP. In the regular season, Manning threw nearly twice as many interceptions (17) as touchdown passes (nine). His 67.9 passer rating was a career low.
The Patriots, on the other hand, are getting healthy at the right time. Both Edelman and Gronkowski should play Sunday, and New England's front four is more than capable of pressuring a Denver offensive line that has struggled this year.
Throw in that the supposedly stout Denver defense gave up almost 400 yards last week to a Pittsburgh Steelers team that was without both its top wide receiver and starting tailback, and things just don't look good for the home team.
According to our voters, the Patriots are on to Santa Clara, while the Broncos face a deflating defeat.
Aw come on...you gotta let me have one.
Patriots: Freeman, Miller, Schalter, Sobleski, Tanier, Tomlinson
Broncos: Davenport, Gagnon
No. 2 Arizona Cardinals (13-3) at No. 1 Carolina Panthers (15-1)
When: Sunday, January 24, 6:40 p.m. ET
Where: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, North Carolina
Line: Carolina (-3)
Just as in the AFC Championship Game, the big story in the NFC title tilt is the battle between quarterbacks Cam Newton of the Panthers and Carson Palmer of the Cardinals. It's a good bet they will finish one-two in voting for the NFL MVP this season, with Newton bringing the award home.
It also marks the first time in NFL history that both signal-callers in a conference championship game are former Heisman Trophy winners.
In the opinion of Alex Marvez of Fox Sports, it's the Panthers who have the edge at football's most important position:
Remarkably, this is the first time Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks have squared off against each other in a conference title game. Palmer, who captured the honor in 2002, needs a better all-around performance against the Panthers than the one he had against Green Bay. Newton's strength against Seattle was efficiency. Newton, the 2010 Heisman winner, completed 72.7 percent of his passes (16 of 22) for 161 yards and one touchdown without committing a turnover. That's something to dab about.
The quarterbacks may be getting the ink and hogging the glory (don't they always), but Bleacher Report NFL Analyst Brent Sobleski credits the offensive line with being a huge factor in the Panthers' success this season:
Of course, Newton's ascension to an MVP-caliber quarterback deserves plenty of praise, but his unheralded offensive line continually did the dirty work and set the tone up front.
After all, the Panthers finished second overall in rushing offense during the regular season. Newton is part of that production, but offensive coordinator Mike Shula regularly concocts run-heavy game plans to suit his personnel. The talent starts up front with a physical offensive line, which offset some of the team's issues at wide receiver and running back in 2015 that arose due to injuries.
This is the first conference title game between former Heisman Trophy winners, but it isn't the first time these teams have met in the playoffs.
Just last year the Panthers manhandled a short-handed Cardinals team in the wild-card round. That afforded the Panthers a measure of revenge for the 2009 divisional round, when the Redbirds rolled into Charlotte and knocked off the top-seeded Panthers 33-13.
Who will win the rubber match?
The Pick: Arizona Cardinals (6-2)
The road warriors ride again.
Make no mistake, this one has the makings of a great game. The NFL's two highest-scoring offenses. Two of the league's top eight scoring defenses. The teams with the two best records in football this season. And two of the NFL's best coaches in Bruce Arians of Arizona and Carolina's Ron Rivera.
Rivera and Arians have captured each of the last three Coach of the Year awards. There's a very good chance it will be four straight years when the dust settles at this year's NFL Honors ceremony.
Carson Palmer struggled a bit during last week's win over the Green Bay Packers, but Arians told the team's website (via Jared Dubin of CBS Sports) that the training wheels will be off the Arizona offense on Sunday night:
He picked a lot of shorter completions early instead of going for them like we normally do. I think that was part of ‘I don't want to screw this up.' Now that we don't have to worry about that anymore we can go back to being ourselves.
It was a time to trust his feelings. That's one of those things that I know when to stop trying to talk him into a play, because he's not going to do what I want on that play anyway.
Meanwhile, Rivera told Jonathan Jones of the Charlotte Observer that he isn't concerned that the Panthers let the Seattle Seahawks back in last week's game after opening a 31-0 lead:
I’ll be honest, I get it, I understand. But shoot, we won those football games, and look who we played against. If this was someone that was 2-14 that did this to us, then I’d be really concerned. But it wasn’t. Am I concerned? Yeah. But are these things correctable and fixable? Most certainly.
Let’s stay focused on what we did. We did some really good things. We made some things happen. And we won the football game.
The Panthers draw another elite quarterback in Palmer on Sunday—one who has pushed the ball vertically down the field more than any passer in the league this year.
And that's where the Panthers may be in trouble. Yes, cornerback Josh Norman has enjoyed a breakout season in 2015, but he can't cover Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and John Brown all at once. And outside of Norman, the Carolina secondary is pretty beat up at the moment.
On the flip side, whether it's cornerback Patrick Peterson or safeties Rashad Johnson and Deone Bucannon, the Cardinals have the talent and depth in the secondary to bracket Panthers tight end Greg Olsen.
And as Olsen goes, so goes the Panthers passing game.
I wrote over a month ago that if these two teams met in the NFC title game, my money was on Arizona:
If these two teams meet in the NFC title game—even if that game is in Carolina—my money is on a repeat of 2008, when a lower-seeded Arizona team bumped off the home-favorite Panthers. I trust the Arizona defense more than the Carolina passing game. Trust the Cardinals' ability to weather storms after a brutal second-half schedule.
Nothing has happened over the past month to lead me to change my mind.
Per the pigskin pundits predictions here at Bleacher Report, Super Bowl 50 will feature a battle of No. 2 seeds, with the Arizona Cardinals "traveling" to meet the New England Patriots in Northern California.
Will it mean more NFL history for Tom Brady, or the Cardinals' first NFL title since 1947?
For that prediction, you'll have to check back in a couple of weeks.
Cardinals: Davenport, Miller, Schalter, Sobleski, Tanier, Tomlinson
Panthers: Freeman, Gagnon
All odds courtesy of Odds Shark unless otherwise noted.