NFL Conference Championship previews: Tom, Peyton meet again

And then there were four. The NFL Playoffs divisional round saw some close calls and wild finishes, but eventually went the way of chalk with the top two seeds in both the AFC and NFC advancing to their respective conference … Continued

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SiriusXM Editor
January 20, 2016

And then there were four.

The NFL Playoffs divisional round saw some close calls and wild finishes, but eventually went the way of chalk with the top two seeds in both the AFC and NFC advancing to their respective conference championship games. It’s easy to be sad that there are just three football games left from now until September, but your excitement over these match-ups should outweigh any feelings of despair. Listen to the national call for each game on SiriusXM NFL Radio. For home and away broadcasts, visit the SiriusXM NFL schedule.

AFC Championship

New England Patriots at Denver Broncos, Sunday, Jan. 24 at 3:05 pm ET

Skip all the extra “New England Patriots vs. Denver Broncos” stuff for now. This game is all about Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning. We’ve seen this movie about 100 times before, and yet it still feels just as exciting as the first time. This is actually the 17th meeting between Brady and Manning, and the fifth time they will meet in the playoffs, more times than any two quarterbacks in NFL history. They split their four previous postseason games.

As both Brady and Manning continue to get older, this might be the final time we get to see these two legends play with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. This might be the final chance for one of them to earn playoff bragging rights. Depending on the outcome, depending on injuries, depending on their desire to continue to compete as age catches up with them, this might be the final chance to see Tom Brady and Peyton Manning face each other. Ever.

Unfortunately, we won’t be seeing the two best quarterbacks of our generation at the top of their games. Brady is still Brady and looks like he can play for another 10 years, but injuries and age have Manning looking like he’s one hit away from a retirement home. In the divisional round, Manning went 21-for-37 for 222 yards, no touchdowns and a passer rating of 74.4 in Denver’s 23-16 win over Pittsburgh. In New England’s 27-20 win over Kansas City, Brady went 28-for-42 for 302 yards, two scores, a rushing touchdown and a passer rating of 103.5.

The Patriots have lost their last two road conference championship games, both of them to a Manning-led team. Denver also beat New England earlier this season 30-24 in overtime – but it was Brock Osweiler, not Manning, under center. Brady threw for 280 yards and three touchdowns, doing so with top wide receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola sidelined due to injury. If anything, that game tells us Brady will have the advantage on Sunday with both Amendola and Edelman back in the lineup.

The Broncos relied on the run game in their regular-season win, rushing for 179 yards. C.J. Anderson led the way, totaling 113 yards on 15 carries. Denver needs a duplicate performance on Sunday, mainly because it’s hard to be confident when relying solely on Manning to win with his arm, something he hasn’t done in his limited action this season. The Broncos are 7-0 in games where they rush for 130 yards or more. With their vaunted defense, they can control the tempo of the game if their rushing attack is able to get going.

The Patriots defense has improved since that November game, so the Broncos might have a harder time racking up yards on the ground. On offense, Edelman opens up a new world for New England; he finished with 100 yards on 10 catches against the Chiefs. The Patriots’ rush offense was nonexistent against Kansas City with 38 yards on 14 carries. (They had similar issues in their regular-season match-up with the Broncos, compiling 39 yards on 16 carries.) But the Patriots aren’t strangers to over-reliance on Brady’s arm, so a nonexistent run game usually isn’t a problem for them.

The Broncos need to make the game ugly – their top-ranked defense needs to wreak havoc on Brady, and their run game needs to be efficient. The Patriots are always dangerous, but they have trouble catching up if they fall behind early. In the end, Denver’s defense holds up, and Manning takes the bragging rights in a thriller.

Prediction: Broncos 28, Patriots 27.

NFC Championship

Arizona Cardinals at Carolina Panthers, Sunday, Jan. 24 at 6:40 pm ET

The Panthers are for real! At least for half a game, that is. Carolina defeated Seattle 31-24 after jumping out to a 31-0 lead at halftime, then holding off a furious comeback by the Seahawks. For as good as the Panthers looked on both sides of the ball in the first half, it’s hard to believe they couldn’t maintain that level of play.

Cam Newton was an efficient 16-for-22 for 161 yards and a touchdown, and Jonathan Stewart rushed for 106 yards and two scores on 19 carries in his first game back from a foot injury. Carolina’s defense also made huge plays, intercepting Russell Wilson twice, with Luke Kuechly returning his for the first defensive touchdown in Carolina playoff history. The game also marked the first time the Panthers have ever scored 30 or more points in a playoff game.

For the Cardinals, it took some magic by Carson Palmer and “old reliable” Larry Fitzgerald to advance past the Green Bay Packers, 26-20, in an instant classic. After Aaron Rodgers forced overtime with an incredible 41-yard Hail Mary pass in the final seconds, Palmer found Fitzgerald for a 75-yard hookup on the first play of extra time. Two plays later? Palmer with a sweet shovel pass for the win. Relive these moments, because they are awesome:

Palmer threw for 349 yards and three touchdowns, but also had two interceptions. Fitzgerald had eight receptions for 176 yards and a score. Arizona managed just 40 yards on the ground. The Cardinals’ heralded defense managed just one sack on Rodgers after getting to him nine times when the teams met in the regular season. It wasn’t the team’s best performance by far, but Arizona had to show its resiliency just like Carolina did, and both teams will be better for it – which is great news for the audience hoping for another incredible game.

The Panthers have a 12-game winning streak at home dating back to last year, so they are already at an advantage. Carolina ranked fourth in run defense, so if Arizona had trouble running against Green Bay, it’s going to be even tougher against Kuechly and company. In that case, the burden will fall straight onto Palmer’s shoulders. The Cardinals defense will have to be at the top of its game to alleviate some of the pressure from Palmer. If Arizona can make things uncomfortable for Newton, bad decision-making may ensue.

This will be the first time in Super Bowl era that Heisman trophy-winning quarterbacks will face off in a playoff game. Newton and Palmer will both be facing tough defensive fronts. This game will come down to which defense can duplicate its regular-season performance and shut down the other team. Newton has more ways to break through Arizona’s defense and should get loose for a couple dabs. The Panthers will be dancing to the Super Bowl.

Prediction: Panthers 17, Cardinals 12.