The NFL conference championship games have a lot to live up to. Last week's divisional round, which sent the top seeds to the semifinals, featured four games decided by six or seven points.
Fans had to endure some brutal football before being rewarded for their patience. The regular season contained clunkers from contenders and pretenders alike, and the opening round didn't differ. When playoff football stands out for a missed field goal and dirty hits, it wasn't a good weekend for playoff football.
Yet the second round redeemed Wild Card Weekend by providing well-played contests with dramatic finishes. As a result, the public has spent the week drooling over the less enticing matchup while ignoring a potential classic on the NFC side.
Before tackling both conference championship bouts, let's examine the schedule and odds, courtesy of Odds Shark.
|New England Patriots||Denver Broncos||NE -3||27-17 NE|
|Arizona Cardinals||Carolina Panthers||CAR -3||28-27 ARI|
Odds courtesy of Odds Shark
New England Patriots vs. Denver Broncos
Let's try something different and preview the AFC Championship Game without focusing on either starting quarterback.
Believe it or not, the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos each roster more than one player. For New England, that includes wide receiver Julian Edelman, who returned from the sidelines to register 100 yards against the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Pats also have probably the best tight end ever in Rob Gronkowski.
In eight career playoff games, Gronkowski has recorded 610 yards and eight touchdowns. As noted by the team's Twitter account, his last score set two major milestones:
He'll face a steep challenge against Denver's top-rated pass defense, but it didn't seem to bother him on Nov. 29. In a 30-24 overtime loss without Edelman, the star tight end caught six of 10 targets for 88 yards and a score. According to Football Outsiders, the Broncos yielded 61.7 yards per game to the position, the league's seventh-highest tally.
The Patriots, who have scored at least 27 points in all 10 games played by Edelman, should be fine if they hit that benchmark. The Broncos haven't scored more than 27 points since besting the Patriots in overtime behind backup QB Brock Osweiler. In six games since, they have averaged 21 points per bout.
Running back C.J. Anderson secured the victory with a 48-yard touchdown, upping his final total to 113 yards and two scores on 15 carries. Ronnie Hillman, on the other hand, turned 14 carries into 59 yards and a touchdown. Welcome to Denver's offense.
Everyone other than Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak realizes that a healthy Anderson represents the superior option. Rotoworld's Evan Silva detailed the growing discrepancy between both rushers:
Rushing lines since #Broncos Week 7 bye: Ronnie Hillman: 157-578-5 (3.68 YPC) C.J. Anderson: 100-612-6 (6.12 YPC)— Evan Silva (@evansilva) January 21, 2016
Nevertheless, both need to flourish against New England's No. 9-ranked rushing defense. Denver simply doesn't have the firepower to win a shootout behind a 39-year-old Peyton Manning. The Broncos have gotten this far by relying on defense, running and a whole lot of field goals. A team with a worse point differential than the New York Jets wouldn't have lasted this long otherwise.
It worked earlier this season, but such a formula provides little wiggle room to upend an elite and healthy passing offense with Tom Brady under center. Since the Chiefs didn't spend the waning minutes of last Saturday's loss injuring the Pats, the Broncos' luck will run out on Sunday.
Arizona Cardinals vs. Carolina Panthers
Comfortable favorites to dispatch the Green Bay Packers at home, the Arizona Cardinals needed a fortuitous touchdown in regulation and a winning coin toss to survive. According to the Arizona Republic's Bob McManaman, head coach Bruce Arians blamed uncharacteristic tepidness for his team's rocky start:
Not to be conservative in the first half when you’re picking your plays. And we talked about it. This was a game where he [quarterback Carson Palmer] picked a lot of shorter completions early instead of going for ’em like we normally do. And I think that was part of, ‘I don’t want to screw this up.' Now that we don’t have to worry about doing that anymore, we can go back to being ourselves.
This is coming from the most aggressive head coach in football. The one who decided to throw late (unsuccessfully) in the fourth quarter when anyone else would have passively ran the clock. The one who, according to ESPN.com's Bill Barnwell, blitzes more than any other team, including on Green Bay's last-second Hail Mary.
Neither gutsy call worked, but his daring practices produced the league's leader in total offense and a plus-176 point differential to close the season. On the other side, Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera regressed into the conservative maestro of old when handed a seemingly insurmountable 31-0 lead over the Seattle Seahawks.
Who wins the NFC Championship Game?
Said advantage abruptly deteriorated over the second half, shrinking to a 31-23 victory. This marks the fourth time a Panthers lead of 17 points or more evaporated into a single-digit win. Whereas Arians will slam the accelerator regardless of the score or the situation, Rivera far too often abandons what works and tames quarterback Cam Newton's offense.
Keep this in mind if an early turnover or two causes a quick Panthers lead. Don't expect this clash to end easily. Considering how evenly these teams are matched, it's unlikely either side jumps to a sizable edge anyway.
Does anyone have a coin? Preferably one that flips? One turnover or penalty could easily decide which team advances to the Super Bowl. Last weekend, the Seattle Seahawks proved that a deep, aggressive passing offense can thrive against Carolina's secondary, so the Cardinals get the slight edge behind big plays from receivers Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and John Brown.