Peyton Manning against Tom Brady and Cam Newton against Carson Palmer both have a nice ring to them, don’t they? Once these matchups were set, the focus went to four of the game's elite quarterbacks and how they were going to outshine each other in the conference title games.
But the saying isn’t that offense wins championships, and while the headlines might be about the offenses in the pair of games this weekend, the games will be decided by what the defenders can do.
With four of the top 10 defenses in the league—in terms of yards allowed per game this season, the Broncos rank No. 1, the Cardinals are No. 5, the Panthers are No. 6 and the Patriots are No. 9—both of the weekend’s contests have the potential to swing on a big defensive stop or two.
Each team has the offensive firepower to make the opposing defense look pedestrian—perhaps with the exception of Denver, depending on how Manning plays—but it won’t be a cakewalk for any of the four teams to score the ball, meaning the stars will have to bring their A-games.
Let’s take a look at each of the title games and see which teams are favored to walk away victorious and make predictions for the final results of the games.
|3:05 p.m. ET||Jan 24||New England||Denver||NE -3||NE 24-20|
|6:40 p.m. ET||Jan 24||Arizona||Carolina||CAR -3||ARIZ 31-28|
Arizona Cardinals vs. Carolina Panthers
The NFC Championship Game features the two teams that were the best in the league during the regular season and finished No. 1 and No. 2 in terms of overall record.
On both sides of the ball, the Panthers and Cardinals are incredibly balanced, with nary a weak point in sight. Sure, one can point to Arizona’s running game as arguably the worst offensive unit in the game, but David Johnson has shown flashes of brilliance and can’t be ignored.
Both Newton and Palmer will likely put up big numbers, as they have throughout the entire season, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see a heavy dose of the run as well, with both teams wanting to keep the game plan balanced throughout.
In a matchup this close, it will probably come down to which unit is the biggest weakness in the game—keep in mind weakness is a relative term; the Tennessee Titans would be happy to have any unit on either of these teams—and that unfortunate title falls to the Panthers secondary.
The Seahawks showed that throwing the ball on Carolina is possible, and with one of the deeper receiving corps in the league, the Cardinals should be able to repeat that feat. As long as Palmer holds on to the ball and doesn’t throw multiple interceptions, the Arizona passing attack will take advantage and carry the underdogs to the Super Bowl.
Prediction: Cardinals 31, Panthers 28
New England Patriots vs. Denver Broncos
While the other side of the bracket has two teams who will be desperately looking for flaws they can exploit—there aren’t many to be found—the AFC title is pitted between two teams defined by their quarterbacks who have glaring holes on their roster.
The entire Broncos offense can be considered a weakness at times, while the defense more than makes up for any deficiencies, and the Patriots running game is typically lacking with the defense easily the weakest of the remaining four.
Although the headlines will be all about Manning vs. Brady, the defenses will be at the heart of the final outcome, perhaps more so than the two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks.
Denver has been outstanding in all facets this year and should head into the game with plenty of confidence in slowing down Brady. The Patriots running game is abysmal and can be suitably ignored by the Broncos, who will likely put all their focus on stopping the pass.
That is easier said than done, though, and if Denver’s offense is put into a position to chase the game, it could get ugly quickly. New England’s secondary isn’t great, giving Manning some leeway. But the veteran has been a shell of his former self this year and keeping up with his nemesis might prove too difficult a task.
The Broncos are a better all-around team, but Brady in the playoffs changes the equation and what is a foregone conclusion on paper is tossed out the window. Denver’s defense keeps it close, but New England should have enough to earn another trip to the Super Bowl.
Prediction: Patriots 24, Broncos 20