For every X-factor, every unexpected game-changing player, on the biggest stage in American sports, it can often come down to which superstars play closest to their potential when the lights are on.
Sure, the Patriots' Super Bowl victory last season will be remembered for a play made by unknown—at the time, anyway—cornerback Malcolm Butler. But the team wouldn’t have made it that far without Tom Brady, Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski.
With the Super Bowl edging ever closer, now is the time when legends are made and legacies are defined—as cliched as it might be—and the league’s biggest stars are set to take the field and etch their name into history.
On one side of the bracket is a pair of legendary quarterbacks who are already considered among the greatest of all time—but they wouldn’t mind adding another title to their Hall of Fame resumes. The other game sees two signal-callers coming off their best pro seasons and hoping to capture their first Super Bowl victory.
So which stars will capture the weekend and which will disappoint? Here’s a preview of the weekend's matchups and predictions for the biggest stars in the AFC and NFC title games.
|NFL Playoffs Conference Championship Round Odds|
|3:05 p.m. ET||Jan 24||New England||Denver||NE -2.5|
|6:40 p.m. ET||Jan 24||Arizona||Carolina||CAR -4|
|Odds via http://www.oddsshark.com/nfl/odds|
Tom Brady gets the best of Peyton Manning once again
For the longest time, Peyton Manning managed to stave off the inevitable decay in physical ability that comes with aging. Even after his surgery and move to Denver, the all-time great managed to perform at the highest level.
It was only two seasons ago that Manning had the Broncos in the Super Bowl—let’s forget about the result of that game for a moment—so it was pretty surprising to see things fall off the proverbial cliff this season.
Suffering through injuries, Manning saw his starting job go to Brock Osweiler before he reclaimed the spot just before the playoffs started. In the postseason opener, the veteran went for a decent 21-of-37 and 222 yards, but he looks to have lost a step from seasons gone by.
Tom Brady, on the other hand, has been putting up fantastic numbers this season despite losing weapon after weapon to injury. He looks poised to fight his way back to the Super Bowl the season after the Deflategate case.
The Denver defense is one of the best in the NFL and could be hard to navigate, but Brady has been the much more successful of the two in head-to-head matchups and will manage to pull out yet another win against Manning.
Cam Newton scores at least two touchdowns...
Anyone out there who can figure out how to stop Cam Newton might want to tender a resume for a job as a defensive coordinator in the NFL—because no one else has deciphered it this season.
Seattle gave its best shot, but not everyone can match the Seahawks when it comes to on-field talent. Even if they limited the likely MVP on the stat sheet, it didn’t matter in the scoreline. The Panthers jumped out to a 31-0 lead in the first half before the final score evened out a bit.
With 46 total touchdowns this season—45 in the regular season and one against the Seahawks in the playoffs—Newton has had a knack for getting into the end zone one way or another and should be able to find similar success against the Arizona Cardinals.
The last time these two teams played, in the Wild Card Round last season, Newton finished with two passing touchdowns and he should find similar success this time around.
But it won’t be enough.
...But is outshined by a huge night from Carson Palmer
When the Cardinals and Panthers played in the postseason a year ago, Newton was the starting quarterback for Carolina. But Arizona was forced to roll with Ryan Lindley as its signal-caller, as Palmer and his backup Drew Stanton were injured. The results weren’t much of a surprise, with the Panthers winning comfortably 27-16.
This season, both teams will be significantly improved when they face off in the NFC Championship Game, but the biggest difference won't be in Arizona's quality as a whole. Rather, it is the fact that Carson Palmer will be calling the shots.
If Newton is No. 1 on most MVP ballots, Palmer has to have a case for No. 2. The 2015 season was his best statistically by a pretty wide margin, and the Cardinals have benefited as a result.
Against the Green Bay Packers, Palmer threw for 349 yards and three touchdowns and was a huge factor in the Cardinals' overtime victory—even if he wasn't at his best. The Panthers have a much better defense than the Packers, but Arizona’s veteran quarterback is on a roll and should have another big night, earning his team a spot in the Super Bowl.