There is a good chance that Brady-Manning XVII will be the final showdown between the two legendary quarterbacks that have stood above and beyond the rest of their peers over the better part of the last 16 years. Tom Brady has an overall advantage in head-to-head meetings 11-5, with the two splitting the four games that meant the most in the playoffs. Since 2007 the home team has had the edge as whoever was home for the game won every game since the Patriots went into Indianapolis in 2007 to beat Peyton Manning’s Colts. Denver has also been a house of horrors for Tom Brady as no place has he had more struggles than at Sports Authority Field @Mile High, losing six of eight games in the thin crisp mountain air.
While the potential last meeting of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning is the headline of the AFC Championship Game it is no longer the story. Truth be told this is no longer a great match up head-to-head. Tom Brady is still a top level quarterback having a MVP type season with 36 touchdowns and seven interceptions, while Peyton Manning looks every bit of a 39-year quarterback with little left in the tank. Manning had the worst season of his career with just nine touchdowns and 17 interceptions as he missed six games with a foot injury.
The Broncos now rely on defense and a strong running attack to win games. The Broncos defense was the best in the NFL this season, which has been the best in the NFL all season, allowing the fewest yards per game while allowing just 18.5 points per game. The Broncos defense was key in their Week 12 win in the snow over the Patriots as they were able to put enough pressure on Brady to keep their offense off balance.
The Broncos run game was also key in their regular season win, as C.J. Anderson rushed for 113 yards, including a game winning 48 yard run in overtime. If the Patriots are going to win this game and reach a second straight Super Bowl, they will need to shut down the Broncos rushing attack and put the game on Peyton Manning’s aging shoulders. At the same time the Patriots will need to get their run game going, as they can’t afford to continue to be one dimensional if they are to win a second straight Lombardi Trophy. Unlike Manning, Brady can handle the load, but if the Broncos got to a heavy nickel package and take away the slant pass to Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski the Patriots will have trouble just getting on the scoreboard.
Judging on the Patriots lack of success in Denver, the Broncos top ranked defense and the Patriots inability to balance their offense attack the Broncos have several advantages. The key is to not make any costly turnovers and that means Peyton Manning needs to resist the urge to out gun Tom Brady. Manning just needs to play with in his no limited abilities and manage the game. Let the Broncos rushing attack and defense win the day and the Broncos will slip by with a win by a Field Goal.
While the Broncos and Patriots battle for the AFC Championship the best game on Championship weekend is in the NFC with the 15-1 Carolina Panthers hosting the 13-3 Arizona Cardinals. Each team had their own scares last week with the Arizona Cardinals needing overtime to dispatch the Green Bay Packers, while the Panthers after jumping out to a 31-0 lead had to hang on at the end with the Seattle Seahawks scoring 24 unanswered points in the second half.
There is no doubt these are the best two teams in the NFC as they are strong on both ends of the ball, with Cam Newton being the likely NFL MVP leading the Carolina offense, while Luke Kuechly leads the defense. The Cardinals meanwhile are led by a strong secondary led by Patrick Peterson, while Carson Palmer drives the offense coming off perhaps the best season of his career. The Panthers also have a solid secondary led by Josh Norman, but he will likely have his hands full with the Cardinals deep receiving corps led by Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd. Both teams have solid rushing attacks too which helps give their offense much need balance. The Panthers rushing attack is led by Jonathan Stewart who helped set the tone in their Divisional Round win over Seahawks, rushing 106 yards with two scores after returning from a sprained foot. The Cardinals meanwhile rely on rookie David Johnson who was a major find late in the season.
While both teams have plenty of strengths, they also have their vulnerabilities. The Cardinals biggest worry is Quarterback Carson Palmer who has often struggled in big games. Carson had a nearly crushing interception in the end zone in the fourth quarter against the Packers early in the fourth quarter. On the next drive in which the Cardinals would take the lead Carson Palmer nearly had another pass picked off in the end zone, but was dropped by Sam Shields. A few plays later when Michael Floyd caught the go ahead score the pass was deflected and could have just as easily landed in the wrong hands. If the Cardinals are to win they will need Carson Palmer to deliver a much sharper performance.
The Panthers weakness seems to be an occasional loss of focus. Take last week when they jumped out to a 31-0 lead against the two time NFC Champion Seahawks. A bounce here and there and the Seahawks could have tied that game, as they scored 24 unanswered points in the second half. This was not the only time the Panthers nearly blew a big lead this year; against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 8 the Panthers blew a 17-point lead in the fourth quarter and against the New York Giants in Week 16 they blew a 28-point lead. Of course the Panthers responded to win both games, but the propensity to drift in games has to be a big concern as they approach the NFC Championship Game.
When both teams are equal, I believe the Arizona Cardinals have more weapons. The way they responded after Aaron Rodgers twin Hail Marys last week should be a sign the Cardinals are a team of destiny, especially with that 75-yard pitch and catch to Larry Fitzgerald which was followed by a dump off to Fitzgerald for the winning score in overtime.