NFL Playoff Predictions: Bleacher Report's Conference Championship Projections
It's the penultimate weekend of the 2015 NFL season, the second-to-last taste of competitive NFL football we'll get until next August. After 19 weeks of continuous action, just four contenders for the Lombardi Trophy are still going strong—and some are going stronger than others.
Injuries and attrition have taken their tolls. Rookies have long since hit a wall. Bumps, bruises, strains and sprains will be tested in the achy open air of a January cold snap.
The NFL's final four, so to speak, aren't just four of the most talented, best-coached teams in the NFL. They're the top four seeds. For the first time since 2004, the first- and second-seeded teams in each conference will meet in the conference title games.
Bleacher Report's top eight seeds—our NFL Expert Consensus Panel—have put together their collective knowledge as they have in each of the prior 19 weeks. By plurality vote, they've projected the top quarterback, running back, receiver, tight end and defensive performance of the weekend as well as the top mismatch, sleeper, flop and MVP.
Thanks to their collective wisdom, Bleacher Report readers are privy to as reliable a preview of this year's Super Bowl as there is!
Expert Consensus Projection: Arizona Cardinals wide receivers vs. Carolina Panthers defensive backs—five votes
With the four top-seeded teams in the NFL meeting in the conference finals, there aren't a lot of mismatches. The teams are talented, balanced and skilled on both sides of the ball.
But there's one strength-on-weakness matchup that sticks out like a sore thumb: the Arizona Cardinals wideouts against the Carolina Panthers defensive backs.
Sure, the Panthers led the league in interceptions. Yes, per Pro-Football-Reference.com, they led the league in adjusted net yards per pass attempt allowed. But having lost Bene Benwikere and Charles "Peanut" Tillman, two of their top three corners, in the last month of the regular season, the Panthers are more vulnerable to the downfield pass than they were in the first 13 games of the year.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals passing attack is one of the league's best, tops in adjusted net yards per attempt and stacked with talent. They're primed to score early and often against the usually stout Panthers.
Others receiving votes: Cam Newton vs. "any defense," Denver Broncos defensive line vs. New England Patriots offensive line, Patriots defensive line vs. Broncos offensive line
Top QB Performance
Expert Consensus Projection: Carson Palmer—four votes
Carson Palmer has been unstoppable this season. In the regular season, he led the league in average yards per attempt, adjusted net yards per attempt and total QBR. He also finished in the top few in yards, touchdowns, touchdown rate and passer rating.
Palmer isn't just our experts' pick to have the top quarterback performance this week; there's also a strong case to be made that he's been the best quarterback in the NFL this season.
Opinions and reports vary as to how much a right index finger injury impacted his divisional-round performance against the Green Bay Packers, as in this piece by Adam Green of Arizona Sports, but Palmer's field-reading skills, aggressiveness and confidence were just as impressive as they were in the regular season. Palmer never let up against the Packers, and that relentless drive for excellence will serve him well against the Panthers too.
Others receiving votes: Cam Newton—three votes, Tom Brady
Top RB Performance
Expert Consensus Projection: David Johnson—three votes
It's been the running joke of this postseason: There aren't many great tailbacks playing.
Ha. See? "Running joke." Get it?
It's really not funny. The talent pool is so shallow that NFL Lead Writer Mike Tanier declined to name a top running back. For the second week in a row, more of our experts tabbed versatile Cardinals runner David Johnson than anyone else—but with just three votes out of a field of four running backs, it's hardly a tidal wave of support.
The Panthers' Jonathan Stewart came in second with two votes, and each of the other running backs got one.
Others receiving votes: Jonathan Stewart—two votes, C.J. Anderson, James White, "no standout RBs"
Top WR Performance
Expert Consensus Projection (tie): John Brown, Larry Fitzgerald—three votes
Perhaps the perceptive Bleacher Report audience is picking up on a theme: Our NFL Expert Consensus panel thinks very, very highly of the Cardinals receivers—and especially the damage they'll be able to do against Cortland Finnegan, Robert McClain and all other Panthers defensive backs not named Josh Norman.
Speaking of Norman, whether he shadows Fitzgerald or stays on the left side, he will have his hands full with a Cardinals receiving corps that has plenty of speed, plenty of size and a coach-quarterback combo more than willing to go deep.
Whichever Cardinal Norman isn't covering is in line to have a massive day.
Others receiving votes: Julian Edelman
Top TE Performance
Expert Consensus Projection: Rob Gronkowski—seven votes
Though there are only four teams in play, just four rosters to choose from, our experts have been bitterly divided on nearly every category.
Until "Best TE Performance"—because Gronk.
Rob Gronkowski may not be 100 percent healthy, and he's going up against the Denver Broncos, who boast one of the most talented back sevens in the NFL. Even so, he's the best there is at what he does, and seven of our experts expect him to prove it again in the AFC Championship Game.
One, NFL Analyst Brad Gagnon, went against the grain and took Panthers tight end Greg Olsen. Olsen, no slouch, will surely get plenty of looks as the Panthers try to keep up with the Cardinals offense. But Gronk he's not, so he isn't our expert consensus pick.
Others receiving votes: Greg Olsen
Best Defensive Performance
Expert Consensus Projection: Chandler Jones/Malcom Brown/New England Patriots—four votes
It's my continuing policy to combine votes wherever applicable/defensible/necessary to build a consensus, and I made an executive decision here. Combining Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones, Patriots defensive tackle Malcom Brown and the entire Patriots defense results in a solid four-vote bloc from our experts.
Not only do our experts love the Patriots defensive line against the Broncos offensive line, but the Pats defense as a whole also has a great matchup against a struggling Peyton Manning. If it can pressure him early or force a couple of big mistakes, it can count on its quarterback to build an insurmountable (for Manning) lead.
On the other hand, three of our voters love Broncos edge-rusher Von Miller against that quarterback, Tom Brady, and the Patriots offensive line. Which pass rush does better earlier just might decide the AFC title.
Others receiving votes: Von Miller—three votes, Deone Bucannon
Expert Consensus Projection: James White—three votes
In the most divisive category, our eight experts nominated six different players. But one, Patriots tailback James White, got three votes (the only player to get more than one).
White's out-of-the-backfield playmaking has made him an X-factor week after week. Last week, a 29-yard reception White ripped off late in the third quarter set up a field goal that made it a two-score game. This week, White could get a lot of looks in the screen game as Brady tries to loft it over the relentless Broncos pass rush.
Others receiving votes: Danny Amendola, Brandon LaFell, Peyton Manning, J.J. Nelson, Emmanuel Sanders
Expert Consensus Projection: Peyton Manning—four votes
Peyton Manning is one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play. Despite a lot of revisionist historians out there on the Internet pretending this year's end-of-the-line performance retroactively deletes Manning from the pantheon, he can absolutely stand shoulder to shoulder with Brady—whom he beat head-to-head in the AFC Championship Game just two years ago.
However, the Manning of today is not the Manning of 2004, 2007 or 2009. He's nowhere near the Manning of 2013 or even 2014. Manning's coasting on the fumes of his once explosive physical tools, and half our experts expect his all-but-empty tank will run dry against Brady's Patriots this weekend.
Others receiving votes: Julian Edelman, Panthers receivers, Wade Phillips, Jonathan Stewart
Expert Consensus Projection: Carson Palmer—four votes
He's our projected best quarterback. His tailback is our projected best tailback. His receivers are our projected best receivers. The matchup of his targets against the Carolina secondary is our biggest mismatch.
Carson Palmer, having finally secured his first playoff win at the ripe old age of 36, will face the career-defining moment he's been working toward his whole life: Can he, a former No. 1 overall pick, lead a team to the Super Bowl? Is he a championship-caliber quarterback?
Yes, say four of our experts. After this weekend, Palmer will be an NFC champion, a Super Bowl competitor and the most valuable player of these hotly contested championship games.
Others receiving votes: Tom Brady—three votes, Cam Newton