2016 NFL Playoffs: Championship Round Preview

January 24, 2016

As the saying goes, “when you’re good, you’re good”.

That’s just what we’ll get this weekend in the AFC and NFC Championship games. Four teams, the top two seeds in each league. When the playoffs began, I made it pretty clear that I wouldn’t be overly surprised if that ended up happening. These are professionals, after all, and in nearly every other professional setting the best of the best frequently rise to the top.

Plenty of storylines will surround the games this weekend, but it is important to remember that football is a team game, not an individual sport. Reminiscing about past battles between two aging greats at the quarterback position is media fodder at its finest. The teams who will book a trip to San Francisco on Sunday are the best teams, not necessarily the teams with the best quarterbacks.

In a first for the 2016 NFL Playoff preview segment, I’ll be previewing all of the games happening this weekend in one article. Let’s take a look at the matchups.

AFC Championship Game

#2 New England at #1 Denver (Sunday, 3:05 PM ET – CBS)

It had to be clear to anyone who follows pro football who I was referring to in the third paragraph above. Brady vs. Manning XVII is what they’re calling this game. The final chapter to end what has been an epic rivalry between two of the best the game has ever seen play the quarterback position. While those things may be true, that is not what this game is about, or what will decide the ultimate outcome. These teams are far too complex, and too talented, to be dictated by the efforts of one individual.

Last weekend against Kansas City, the dangerous New England team that many have been predicting would end up in Super Bowl 50 returned to the gridiron. Rob Gronkowski may not have been 100 percent healthy, but he was healthy enough to do significant damage in the red zone, where he is the most lethal target in the league. Two touchdown passes from Tom Brady was proof that Gronk needs to be stopped if the opposition has any chance of slowing down the Patriots on offense. But hold on just a second – I’m not done. Julian Edelman needs to be accounted for at all times as well. The sneaky slot receiver had 10 receptions for 100 yards last weekend and is the main reason Brady can get the offense into a position to throw the ball up for Gronk in the end zone. Whereas the play of Edelman and Gronk will be integral to the success of the Patriots, the play of Denver’s defensive backs responsible for covering those two will equally important. The Broncos allowed 164 receiving yards to Martavis Bryant alone last weekend, which isn’t a promising sign for this weekend.

As poorly as Peyton Manning has played for the majority of the season, the Broncos still come into this game only three point underdogs. The defense has been keeping Denver afloat for some time now, and they’ll definitely need to do it again here to win. That being said, this isn’t at its core a battle between Brady and Manning. It’s a battle between one of the more complex and physically intimidating offenses versus a very strong defense. A very good effort by the Patriots offense will win this one, sending Brady to yet another Super Bowl.

My Pick: 27-19 New England

NFC Championship Game

#2 Arizona at #1 Carolina (Sunday, 6:40 PM ET – FOX)

To some extent, both of these teams “survived” their divisional round games last weekend. Carolina managed to stop a furious second half comeback by Seattle after building a huge lead in the first half, while Arizona was the lucky recipient of the ball in overtime after a coin toss gone awry (the toss was redone). A full 60 minute effort and perhaps more will be needed  to win this one, however.

If Cam Newton wills his team to the Super Bowl, I owe him an apology. I have doubted Newton every step of the way during his career since the time he stepped on Auburn’s campus looking to take the Tigers to the national title game in his one year with the program. Newton is the new guard of potentially elite quarterbacks in the NFL – a guy who has the arm strength to make the necessary throws but is athletic enough not to need to be an Exact-O knife against opposing defenses. Arizona will need to find a way to keep Newton contained in the pocket. The more you make him operate like a traditional drop back passer, the less dangerous he becomes. That is not to say the danger is completely gone, however, because Newton has transformed into a very capable passer. On the other side, Arizona will want to turn this game into a track meet. The more points the Cardinals can score, the better. Carolina has been a first half team all season, meaning that if Arizona is within striking distance in the second half it will be in prime position to win.

While Carolina has the best record, the Cardinals have perhaps the best quarterback this season. If Carson Palmer plays well, Arizona should be able to put a lot of points on the board. The higher scoring game this is, the more pressure it will put on the Panthers to perform late in the game, which has been an issue this season. That being said, I think that there will be an extra gear that Carolina hasn’t touched yet allowing the team to dig deep when it matters most. This will be an exciting one that could further elevate Cam Newton’s stardom.

My Pick: 34-30 Carolina

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