The New England Patriots are anything but a complete team at this point, but they share top honors with the Carolina Panthers as most likely to win the Super Bowl.
The Pats may not be able to run the football with much consistency due to injuries to LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis, but they are plus-200 to defend their Super Bowl title, according to Odds Shark.
The Carolina Panthers, who have played like a runaway freight train throughout the season, are also plus-200 to win Super Bowl 50.
The Arizona Cardinals are the third choice going into the NFC Championship Game at plus-350, while the Denver Broncos are plus-400 as they prepare to host the Patriots in the AFC title game.
The Pats may not have much of a running game at this point after signing veteran Steven Jackson in December, but they have the game-changers in the passing game to dictate the pace against Denver. Slick wideout Julian Edelman returned from a broken foot in the divisional playoff round against the Kansas City Chiefs, and he caught 10 passes for 100 yards.
|New England Patriots||+200|
His presence in the lineup is important to Tom Brady because Edelman excels at getting open quickly and giving Brady the opportunity to release the ball before he takes a hit from the defense. That factor is vital against the Broncos, who had the No. 1 defense in the league this season.
With Edelman contributing at a high level, that also helps tight end Rob Gronkowski, wideout Danny Amendola and receiver Brandon LaFell, who can stretch the defense from time to time.
The Patriots have been at their best when Gronkowski and Edelman are both in the lineup, according to this nugget from ESPN's John Buccigross: "Patriots: 24-3 when Edelman and Gronkowski both play in the last 2 seasons (including playoffs); they are 4-5 with at least one of them out."
The Broncos are much more of a running team. Peyton Manning may be one of the game's all-time greats at quarterback, but he was limited this year by ineffectiveness and injuries. He threw just one TD pass at Sports Authority Field at Mile High this season, and his TD-interception ratio was an un-Manning like 9-17.
The Broncos can win this game and advance to the top of the AFC bracket by establishing their running game with Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson and have the defense consistently pressure Brady.
If the Broncos can break out on top, they should have a better chance to win. If they get down by two touchdowns or more, head coach Gary Kubiak may have to turn to the stronger arm of Brock Osweiler to lead a comeback effort.
Osweiler was in the lineup when the Broncos defeated the Patriots 30-24 in a Week 12 game that was decided in overtime.
The Pats are three-point road favorites in this game according to Odds Shark, and that figure has held steady throughout the week leading up to Sunday's game.
The Panthers are also three-point favorites in the NFC title game.
They will have the benefit of playing on their home field against the Cardinals, and Ron Rivera's team appeared ready for postseason competition as the Panthers raced out to a 31-0 halftime lead over the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional playoff game last week.
While the Panthers allowed much of that lead to slip away in the second half—they held on for a 31-24 victory—they surged at the start of the game and knocked an impressive Seahawks team backward.
Cam Newton is the likely Most Valuable Player after a brilliant season in which he threw 35 TD passes and ran for 10 more touchdowns. Newton and the Panthers got a lift from the return of hard-nosed running back Jonathan Stewart (ankle), who punished the Seahawks with a 59-yard run on the first play from scrimmage.
That play set the tone for the Panthers, who will try to establish their running game against the Cardinals and also attempt to fire the ball downfield to explosive wideout Ted Ginn Jr.
However, Newton's best weapon is tight end Greg Olsen, who caught a team-leading 77 passes for 1,104 yards with seven touchdowns. Not only can he go over the middle and make the tough catch that allows Carolina to keep the chains moving, he is also a fine athlete who can make acrobatic catches in the red zone.
Combine this versatile and underrated offense with a hard-hitting defense led by defensive tackle Kawann Short (11.0 sacks) and linebackers Luke Kuechly (118 tackles, four interceptions) and Thomas Davis (105 tackles, 5.5 sacks), and it's easy to understand how the Panthers went 15-1 in the regular season. Carolina has an excellent chance of advancing to the second Super Bowl in the team's history.
The Cardinals were also impressive in the regular season with a 13-3 record, but their divisional playoff performance against the Green Bay Packers raised issues. The Cardinals survived the game 26-20 in overtime, but they allowed the Packers to tie the game and send it into overtime when the defense gave up a Hail Mary touchdown pass from Aaron Rodgers to Jeff Janis in the final play of regulation.
The Cardinals survived an uneven effort by quarterback Carson Palmer, who threw two interceptions against Green Bay and tossed several other poor passes throughout the game.
Palmer looked somewhat nervous after a brilliant season in which he passed for 4,671 yards and 35 touchdowns. If he can't return to top form against the Panthers, it would not bode well for the Cardinals advancing to the top of the NFC bracket and earning a spot in the Super Bowl.