Everyone always likes to talk about the years when the No. 6 seeds make a shocking run to the Super Bowl and make it seem that once the playoffs start the seeding is largely irrelevant.
Despite the Wild Card Round starting with four wins for the lower seeds, the divisional round righted the ship and saw each of the home teams walk away victorious and advance to their respective championship games.
With the four top seeds set to do battle, tensions are high and storylines abound. Peyton Manning and Tom Brady are set to duke it out once again, Cam Newton and Carson Palmer both look to put exclamation points on fantastic seasons, while all four keep their eyes on two weeks from now and the Super Bowl trophy.
Who comes out on top in the battle of the behemoths, though? Let’s take a look at the odds and predictions for the AFC and NFC Championship Games.
|3:05 p.m. ET||1/24||New England||Denver||NE -3||NE 24-20|
|6:40 p.m. ET||1/24||Arizona||Carolina||CAR -3||ARIZ 31-28|
Denver Broncos vs. New England Patriots
While the NFC matchup is about two teams rising to their potential when expectations weren’t the highest heading into the season, the AFC Championship Game is the battle of two legendary quarterbacks who were expected to be here.
The war between Manning and Brady has defined an entire generation of football, and with the two now easily on the short list for the greatest to ever play the position, this matchup could be one of the best games in their storied history together.
For everything the quarterbacks have meant to the league and their respective teams throughout the years, this season has seen their paths diverge.
Brady has been his usual self—a controversial superstar who finds success no matter who he is throwing the ball to—and has carried the Patriots to victory despite a string of tough injuries.
Missing many of his top weapons at various points in the year, Brady has taken it all in stride and has the Patriots poised to repeat as champions.
Unlike his counterpart and eternal rival, though, Manning has seen time slowly catch up to him this year. Missing part of the season with an injury, this year will be one to forget for the future Hall of Famer, with his production and level of play dropping significantly from the past couple of years.
Denver does have an ace up its sleeve, though. Even if Manning struggles, it is hard to bet against a Broncos defense that ranks among the best in the NFL.
Finishing in the top four in passing yards per game, rushing yards per game and points per game, few have been able to solve the Denver defense this year, giving the team a little wiggle room offensively.
When these two met in the regular season, it was Brock Osweiler who led the Broncos to a shocking win in overtime, but Brady showed he can put up numbers on Denver. If he manages to have another big game, it will likely be too much to overcome, especially if Manning and the offense continue to struggle.
Prediction: Patriots 24, Broncos 20
Carolina Panthers vs. Arizona Cardinals
These have easily been the two best teams in the NFL this season, so this very well qualifies as a dream matchup that is typically reserved for the Super Bowl. Both sides are incredibly balanced, with stout defenses propping up surprisingly successful offenses, so this has the potential to be a fight.
The Carolina Panthers have easily been the biggest story of the season, having only lost once this whole year—a surprising road defeat to the Atlanta Falcons—and have seen their star quarterback, Newton, come into his own.
A former No. 1 overall pick, Newton has been good since his first season in the NFL, but he transformed into one of the best in the league this year, scoring 45 touchdowns in the regular season.
Alongside the likely MVP, the Panthers have seen players like Jonathan Stewart, Ted Ginn Jr. and Corey Brown emerge as unlikely stars this year, while the defense has been the heart of the team, finishing No. 6 in the league in yards and points allowed per game.
On the other sideline stand the Arizona Cardinals, who have seen similar rises in production from unlikely players. Palmer has gone from Cincinnati Bengals outcast to one of the best this season, while Larry Fitzgerald has been the leader for a young, talented group of receivers.
Much like the Panthers, Arizona’s strength lies on the other side of the ball. The Cardinals rank No. 5 in yards allowed per game and No. 7 in points per game.
For everything Newton has done this year, Palmer gets the better of him and takes Arizona back to the Super Bowl.
Prediction: Cardinals 31, Panthers 28