NFL Conference Championships: Mike Tanier's Game Previews and Score Predictions

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NFL Conference Championships: Mike Tanier's Game Previews and Score Predictions
Uncredited/Associated Press

Playoff pressure is real. Even old guys who have been around forever have to cope with it. 

Bruce Arians admitted to reporters this week that both he and Carson Palmer entered last week's game against the Packers with an "I don't want to screw this up" attitude. Arians has been in the league for decades but had never won a playoff game as a head coach, Palmer is in Year 12 and had never won in the playoffs, and their combined nerves showed as the Cardinals played conservatively (Arians' own words) and almost screwed it up.

The next day, the Panthers built a 31-0 lead against the Seahawks and then began to play, in Cam Newton's words, with their "butts tight." Ron Rivera lamented that the Panthers got away from their style of football. Like Arians and Palmer, Rivera and Newton were trying to advance to the conference championship round for the first time, and they felt it deep in their cores.

The pressures are different in the AFC, where Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have been meeting in playoff games since your television was low-def and have grown used to Roman numerals sprawling out after their names. The NFC finalists are the better teams, but the AFC has the living legends, and on Sunday they will face the crushing pressures of history, destiny and fate.

How will it turn out?

As always, Game Previews are presented in the order you should read them. All times are Eastern.

New England Patriots at Denver Broncos, Sunday, 3:05 p.m.

Greetings, Bleacher Report readers. I am Fate, the determining cause of all things that happen in the cosmos and a guest columnist for this game preview. The editors at B/R asked me to apply my fickle fingers to a laptop keyboard and explain why I chose to weave yet another Brady-Manning bowl into the rich tapestry of human experience. 

James Hardy/Associated Press

Bringing Brady and Manning together for a 17th time the proper way took a lot of doing. That Week 12 regular-season game simply would not be a worthy stage for such a momentous occasion. So I exacerbated Manning's foot injury, planted him on the bench and allowed Brock Osweiler to lead an overtime victory against the Patriots that gave the Broncos the playoff tiebreakers they needed for home-field advantage in the playoffs while creating the dramatic intrigue that a playoff Brady-Manning bowl deserves. I then took away Osweiler's hot hand and gave Gary Kubiak cold feet in the season finale against the Chargers so Manning could return. I love yanking people's chains that way, because I'm Fate.

I also injured Antonio Brown and DeAngelo Williams to weaken the Steelers. Heck, I brought Wade Phillips to Denver as a coordinator because I knew Manning would need extra defensive oomph this season. My hand was even working the Deflategate puppet strings. You can curse me for that if you like; humans have cursed Fate for thousands of years, and I always have the same response: Deal with it, chumps!

Yes, I work in mysterious ways. In ancient Greece, I had Clotho the Spinner, Lachesis the Allotter and Atropos the Unshakable in my backfield. Now I have Vontaze Burfict the Instigator, Ted Wells the Investigator and Gary Kubiak the Impenetrable doing my bidding. But not Andy Reid. Even ancient lord Chronos wants to distance himself from that clock management. Sheesh.

Being Fate is about more than bringing Napoleon and Josephine together or bonking Isaac Newton on the head with an apple. It's about bringing things to their rightful conclusion, which often means making sure important events come full circle.

Brady-Manning I did not have that much to do with Tom Brady. Oh sure, it was Brady's first start, but he completed just 13 passes in that historic 44-13 victory. Ty Law and Otis Smith returned interceptions for touchdowns. Brady's longest completion of the game was a screen-and-run by Antowain Smith, who provided 152 scrimmage yards and two touchdowns that day.

The young Brady was a system quarterback bulwarked by a great defense and a ball-control offense. I saw something in him, brushed Drew Bledsoe off the stage, whispered some unique interpretations of the rulebook into a referee's ear in the playoffs and set Brady on his path to transcendence.

On Sunday, in what could be Manning's final start, your buddy Fate has turned the tables. Manning now has the defense that provides return touchdowns: five of them this year, plus a punt return touchdown. Manning also has the kicker with semi-divine powers. I didn't need to apply any English to Brandon McManus' pre-halftime sidewinder last week. Just as Brady was a no-name kid who needed the complete support of his teammates in 2001, Manning is the codger who needs to play within a system and let C.J. Anderson, Von Miller, the secondary and the Mile High home-field advantage rise to the occasion to win the day.

Jim Rogash/Getty Images

See how carefully Fate stacked the deck? The Broncos defense is essentially at full strength, except for Chris Harris playing with a bum shoulder. (Brady's receiving corps is also nearly healthy, with Julian Edelman expected back from a late-game injury against the Chiefs. Brady-Manning XVII won't be primarily about injuries.) The Broncos defense is well-suited to stop the Patriots: Football Outsiders ranks them first in the NFL in many categories—but specifically in stopping the short passes Brady uses to surgically eviscerate opponents. Manning gets all the advantages Brady received in 2001, because now he's the one who needs them.

You don't get to be Fate without knowing how to control a narrative, kids.

I've been toying with the Manning family since before Peyton was born. I doomed Archie to life as NFL history's most dignified, respected loser. I gave Eli Super Bowl rings in his brother's shadow but a life sentence in the New York media market. Poor Cooper Manning was relegated to civilian life as a successful businessman and family man instead of getting to spend his autumns being criticized by millions of total strangers. Wait…how is that a punishment? Never mind.

Peyton has always been my favorite. Brady wears greatness the way Alexander the Great did. Manning, great as he is in his own right, is always more interesting when he trips 10 feet from the finish line. How could I resist nudging him into position for one final sprint? It's all I can do to not stick my foot out.

I have played all my hands. Fate doesn't determine the final outcome, folks; I just set up the board and watch like you do. Destiny is not the same thing as fate, and perhaps Manning is destined for one last laugh against Brady, one last opportunity to reshape his place in history. But ol' Fate has a feeling Manning missed his best chance, and that I will have to bide my time for the next decade or so by messing with Cam Newton.

Prediction: Patriots 30, Broncos 24

Arizona Cardinals at Carolina Panthers, Sunday, 6:40 p.m.

Uncredited/Associated Press

The Cardinals gain 38.62 yards on their average offensive drive, the highest figure in the NFL. They allow just 27.62 yards per drive to their opponents, the fifth-lowest total in the NFL. (Drive stats are compiled for Football Outsiders by Jim Armstrong. All stats include regular-season games only.)

NFL Net Yards-per-Drive Leaders, 2015
Team Net Yards per Drive
Cardinals 11.00
Seahawks 5.71
Broncos 5.38
Panthers 5.33
Steelers 4.92

Football Outsiders

That means the Cardinals enjoy a net gain of 11.00 yards per drive over their opponents. That's the highest differential in the NFL by an amazingly wide margin. As the table shows, the Seahawks are in second place, the Panthers third, but the Cardinals net more than twice as many yards per drive as the next-best teams. They spend their games quickly backing opponents against the wall and pinning them there until the final gun.

The Cardinals' yards-per-drive differential is downright historic, as the next table shows. Armstrong and Football Outsiders have tracked drive statistics since 1997. The Cardinals have the sixth-highest figure in recorded history, placing them on a list with teams like the 2007 Patriots and the Greatest Show on Turf Rams.

All-Time Net Yards-Per-Drive Leaders (1997-2015)
Team Year Net Yards Per Drive
Patriots 2007 15.20
Rams 2001 14.14
Broncos 2012 11.57
Broncos 2004 11.26
Rams 1999 11.03
Cardinals 2015 11.00
Chargers 2010 10.86

Football Outsiders

It's an impressive list, though if you look closely you see just one Super Bowl winner. Yes, the 2007 Patriots and 2001 Rams lost Super Bowls by razor-thin margins. But there is also a pair of quirky teams on the table. The 2010 Chargers had some of the worst special teams ever for an otherwise championship-caliber team. They missed the playoffs due to blocked punts and Norv Turner's inability to win close games. The 2004 Broncos were just another very good Mike Shanahan Broncos team. Despite their ability to sustain drives and stymie opponents, they went just 10-6 and lost in the first round of the playoffs due to a minus-nine turnover differential. Jake Plummer threw 20 interceptions that year.

There's more to winning games, particularly playoff games, than moving the ball and keeping the opponent from moving the ball. Namely, there's special teams, turnover avoidance/generation and red-zone efficiency. The Cardinals have a big edge in net drive production, though the Panthers are very good in that category. Do the Panthers have enough other advantages to close that gap?

Special teams: The Cardinals have poor overall special teams. Opponents average 11.8 yards per punt return. Kicker Chandler Catanzaro was 0-of-2 beyond 50 yards this season and delivered many returnable kickoffs. Other than one David Johnson kickoff-return touchdown, they have gotten little from their return units.

The Panthers have allowed kick- and punt-return touchdowns this season but are more consistent in coverage, and Graham Gano is more reliable on field goals and kickoffs. Football Outsiders ranks the Panthers 23rd in the NFL on special teams, the Cardinals 29th. The Panthers have a small edge here.

Turnovers: The Panthers led the NFL in turnover differential with 39 takeaways and 19 giveaways for a net difference of plus-20. The Cardinals generated 33 turnovers but coughed up 24 for a net difference of plus-nine.

Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

When examining turnovers, it's always wise to look at fumbles that did not result in a change of possession, because once that ball is on the ground, anything can happen, and some teams just get lucky pouncing on their own mistakes.

The Cardinals and Panthers each cause a whopping number of total fumbles: 28 for the Panthers (15 recovered by the defense), 31 by the Cardinals (14 recovered by the defense). But the Panthers fumbled on offense 12 times, losing nine of them. The Cardinals fumbled 23 times but lost just 11. Palmer fumbled six times but lost only two of them, Newton five times but lost four. David Johnson has fumbled four times but lost just one. The Cardinals, quite frankly, have enjoyed a little luck in the bouncing-ball department.

Not only do the Panthers have a turnover edge, but they also have a hidden one as well, because the Cardinals are more fumble prone than their giveaway totals suggest. This could be a significant advantage for the Panthers.

Red-zone conversions: According to the official NFL stats at NFLGSIS.com, the Panthers rank second in the NFL in red-zone efficiency and sixth in goal-to-go efficiency. The Cardinals rank 12th and 14th in these categories. Flip over to defense, and the Panthers rank 10th and ninth in the NFL in preventing red-zone and goal-to-go touchdowns. The Cardinals rank 14th and 29th.

Circling back to those drive stats, the Cardinals led the league in yards per drive by a wide margin. But the Panthers led the league in points per drive, with 2.57. The Cardinals were second at 2.54. Considering the Cardinals traveled 11 yards farther per drive, those numbers suggest they have a nasty habit of cruising down the field and settling for a field goal, while the Panthers excel at milking touchdowns out of their possessions.

Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

That's backed up by the tape. The Panthers have an option-flavored offense full of pistol formations, designed quarterback runs, designed fullback touches for bruiser Mike Tolbert and a robust role for tight end Greg Olsen. Near the goal line, they run their complete offense and can power the ball into the end zone a variety of ways.

The Cardinals are built to force your safeties to play 20 yards off the ball. They have no option package, no real fullback, journeyman tight ends and a rookie running back. When the defense can use the back of the end zone as a free safety, the Cardinals just aren't as dangerous.

Stack the advantages atop each other and it becomes clear how close this matchup really is. The Panthers reached 15-1 not just by riding the talents of their marquee stars (Newton, Olsen, Luke Kuechly, Josh Norman), but also by doing dozens of little things very well. The Cardinals blew opponents away with big plays on both sides of the ball, but they are average, at best, in the detail areas that tend to add up in late January.

So one of two things will happen Sunday:

• The Cardinals will score a few long touchdowns by attacking the weak links in the Panthers secondary (every cornerback but Norman) with their five-headed receiving corps, take running and options out of the Panthers playbook, and spark a rout.

• Or the Panthers will peck away at the Cardinals with field position and offensive balance, hold the Cardinals to some field goals, set up short touchdown drives with turnovers and hold on for dear life in the fourth quarter the way they so often do.

Either scenario feels equally likely. Game Previews is going with the second one, but we won't be shocked if the first one unfolds Sunday night.

Prediction: Panthers 26, Cardinals 24

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him at @MikeTanier.

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