It’s late January, a time officially reserved for one of three quarterbacks. Since three is a crowd, Ben Roethlisberger will watch from his couch as Tom Brady (10th appearance) and Peyton Manning (fifth appearance) square off in yet another AFC Championship Game.
A dozen years ago, Brady’s Patriots knocked off Manning’s Colts to punch their ticket to Super Bowl XXXVIII, where they met the Carolina Panthers. History, as they say, is bound to repeat itself.
Cam Newton’s Panthers of 2015 will take on Carson Palmer’s Cardinals, with both signal-callers making their first title game starts. That is no surprise; since that ’03 season, only eight different quarterbacks have started an AFC Championship Game; in the NFC, 17 different QBs will have started under center.
The disparity in parity has not budged one bit, but that doesn’t mean we can’t look forward to an entertaining — albeit overly dramatic — championship weekend and a barnburner of a Super Bowl. A look now at the two matchups this Sunday:
New England at Denver, 3 p.m., CBS
Let’s establish something right off the bat — the oddsmakers often know what they’re talking about. New England is a 3.5-point favorite, a favorable position considering that in the past 11 years, favorites are 17-5 in championship games. So there is a reason the defending Super Bowl champs are favored, even in Denver.
All the numbers seem to point towards Brady, the consummate Mr. Postseason, knocking off Peyton, the ultimate January Heartbreak Kid. Manning has actually won the last two playoff meetings, both in championship games, and Brady is 4-6 against QBs named Manning or Flacco and 18-2 against everyone else. Still, the Pats are out for revenge after losing the 2013 AFC title game in Denver and losing in late November of this season to the Brock Osweiler-led Broncos. And a road team is itching to break through, as both No. 1 seeds have won at home each of the past two years in this round.
Denver has eternally been tough at home, and a home team with the league’s top-ranked defense is always tough to pick against. But Brady is even tougher to pick against, especially when you consider that New England’s playoff record is virtually unblemished when the trio of Brady, Rob Gronkowski, and Julian Edelman are all healthy.
Manning has transitioned to more of a game-manager, so it’s fair to wonder if he would be able to lead a winning scoring drive if called upon to do so. The Patriots don’t run it, but they don’t have to. The feeling is that Manning makes one key mistake late, with the oft-forgotten Patriots defense having the final say in a game dominated by talk of “The Rivalry” in perhaps its final chapter. Prediction: Patriots 21, Broncos 17.
Arizona at Carolina, 6:45 p.m., Fox
These are two franchises with one Super Bowl appearance apiece and no Lombardi trophies. The proverbial challengers to our de facto champs over in the AFC.
Both of these teams, who did not face off during the regular season, had inauspicious second-half performances last week. Arizona was forced into overtime after Aaron Rodgers completed yet another Hail Mary, while Carolina saw a 31-point halftime lead whittle down to a touchdown late against Seattle.
It’s fair to question the Panthers’ ability to close out games, but this team is 16-1 for a reason. They have a dynamic quarterback, a fast, playmaking defense, and sound special teams. Arizona has all of those things, at an ever-so-slightly less potent level. That ultimately should prove to be the difference.
Carolina has never hosted an NFC title game, and like last week could jump out early behind a rabid crowd. But again, because the NFL loves drama and we can’t escape it, Arizona will surge back, forcing the Panthers into another fight. A week after the defense nearly suffered an epic collapse, here’s predicting that they, not Newton, come up with the decisive play to send Carolina to San Francisco. Prediction: Panthers 27, Cardinals 21.