Part of me is happy the AFC game is on first Sunday, but I also feel like…wait, wasn’t this how I started the preview from two years ago? If you were hoping for an update to that one, then you’ll be disappointed. I did not write nearly as much today, though don’t worry. We’ll tackle some of this stuff very soon where anyone can read it.
New England at Denver
Naturally, I already wrote a 5,000-word preview for this game at FO, so please check that out. Read Aaron’s NFC preview here.
As for my personal thoughts on the game, I agree with the Patriots being a slight road favorite, but I really do not buy into the thought that they’re just going to walk all over the Broncos in Denver.
“Given the injuries both teams have had, the Patriots have to feel good about a rematch with Denver — but not so much if that rematch takes place in Mile High, their house of horrors.” – My words after Denver’s Week 12 overtime win. If we know anything about the NFL playoffs, it’s that home field and a top defense matter. That does not mean you win just by showing up, but I have a hard time seeing New England breeze by a Denver team that has three comeback wins from 14 points down this year and went 11-3 in close games. Even down 17-0 in Indianapolis, the Broncos made that 24-24 in the fourth quarter. The defense rarely let down outside of playing Pittsburgh, and that offense is built much differently from this New England attack.
I know it won’t happen, but if I was Wade Phillips, I would shrink the field and dare the Patriots to run the ball and throw deep passes. Focus the attention on Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman. If they beat you with Steven Jackson, James White, Brandon LaFell and Danny Amendola, then hats off to them, but I don’t think they can. Where defenses have problems is with the way the Patriots attack your weaknesses with their best players, getting them in favorable matchups with linebackers and safeties. That’s why I would shadow Edelman with Chris Harris, assuming he’s healthy enough for this matchup. I would use Aqib Talib at times on Gronkowski just to get a better athlete on him. I’d make the ball go elsewhere, and I don’t think the Patriots can do their ultra-pass happy attack on the road as well as they do it at home. I hate Denver’s “IN-COM-PLETE!” chant, but the crowd noise is a factor and the altitude tends to become a factor later in the game. Denver also could use a really huge (legal) hit early in the game on someone like Edelman just to set a tone for the day. Tackling well is going to be key.
We know Peyton Manning is 5-11 in the games against Brady, but nothing would be more satisfying than to retire with a 3-2 playoff record given we’ve heard for the last 12 years how only the playoffs matter. The problem is Manning had to play his ass off in those five wins against Bill Belichick’s defense. He threw for 321, 326, 349, 327 and 400 yards in those games with his teams scoring 40, 27, 38, 35 and 26 points. If you’ve watched Manning since December 2014, he just does not seem capable of having those games anymore. This offense also isn’t good enough to get those types of performances from him anymore, which is why they have to scrap with the running game, take what the defense gives them and protect the ball. This game could only get out of hand with a multi-turnover day.
I compared this to a role reversal of the 2003 AFC Championship game where it’s now Manning leaning on his great defense while Brady leads the prolific passing game. We could see that, or it could be like the 2004 AFC Championship Game, the only time in nine tries that Tom Brady had a great game in this round. That year the Steelers beat New England in the regular season, but Deion Branch and Corey Dillon were out that day. In the rematch in Pittsburgh, those two players were big and Ben Roethlisberger (rookie year) made some costly mistakes early with interceptions. New England won 41-27. Maybe the return of Edelman and some other players out from the Week 12 matchup leads to a similar turnaround, but these teams are both as healthy as they have been in a while.
The Bill Belichick vs. Gary Kubiak matchup just does not sit well with me, and while I expect the Denver offense to be sharper than last week’s sloppy seven-drop effort, I’m not sure it can score enough points without a New England turnover fest. The Patriots have not had more than two turnovers in any game this year while the Broncos have oddly only forced seven takeaways at home (21 on the road). But if the top-ranked pressure defense can get after Brady enough, this one should be close and winnable for Denver like most games this season.
Carolina at Arizona
As nice as a third meeting between Arizona and Seattle could have been, this is the right NFC Championship Game for this season. These teams last met in the 2014 NFC Wild Card, but you can burn that tape since it’s infected with Ryan Lindley disease. These teams are much better than they were that evening.
I was nervous about Arizona more than any other team last week, and sure enough they had a very shaky game against Green Bay, but deserve credit for pulling it out behind a monster effort from Larry Fitzgerald. I hate to say a guy raises his game in the playoffs since it infers he’s not giving full effort the rest of the year, but Fitzgerald’s postseason resume has been incredible. He’ll need to be big again here, but this game really comes down to how well Carson Palmer is protected and his decision making. Palmer and Cam Newton are two of the most blitzed quarterbacks in the league in 2015, but Palmer actually had better stats under pressure and was pressured a little more often than Newton. The problem is he does not have a track record of doing well under pressure like a Ben Roethlisberger does. You saw him throw some really questionable passes last week against Green Bay, and he should have had multiple red-zone interceptions in the fourth quarter alone. His first go-ahead touchdown was a lucky deflection. If you saw the way Carolina’s front seven — and it sucks that Jared Allen got hurt, but I don’t view him as a big-time player anymore — lived in Russell Wilson’s face early last week and forced some big interceptions, I definitely fear for what Palmer might do this week. David Johnson has also been shut down against Seattle and Green Bay, and the Carolina front seven is arguably better than both. Throw in a field that may be crappy and the fact that it’s Palmer’s first road playoff start (and the biggest game of his career), and you could have a struggling passing game.
Fortunately, Carolina has a problem in the secondary after some late-season injuries, and has struggled to keep some big leads this year. As Indy, Green Bay, Giants and Seattle showed, if you have a good quarterback and some receiving talent, you can rally against this defense. The Cardinals have that with the three wide receivers to attack this secondary. Fitzgerald spends a lot of time in the slot, which means he won’t see much of Josh Norman. That’s a great matchup for Arizona to exploit this week, but Palmer must be sharper and they have to get more out of the running game for sure. But even if Carolina goes up big again, don’t count out this offense. It can score in bunches quickly.
On the other side of the ball, this is a matchup where Arizona will really miss versatile safety Tyrann Mathieu. He’s one of the few guys athletic enough to keep up with Newton as a blitzer, and we know Arizona blitzes an NFL-high 45.1% of the time this year (source: ESPN Stats & Info). The Cardinals may want to dial it back this week, though definitely get an athlete like Deone Bucannon after Newton. This is not a deep receiving corps. Patrick Peterson should be able to shut down his assignment, whether it’s Ted Ginn, who may be compromised by a Week 16 injury, or the likes of Jerricho Cotchery and Devin Funchess. Greg Olsen could be a problem, though Arizona ranked 7th against tight ends.
Carolina is the most run-based offense left, and that includes Newton’s rushing contributions. Seattle kept him under wraps pretty good last week, and I would expect the same from Arizona. The problem lately has been standard runs as Christine Michael and Eddie Lacy (should have had more yards) played well the last two weeks against Arizona. You know the Panthers will feed Jonathan Stewart the ball and he just broke a season-long 59-yard run last week against Seattle. I think the weather and field will favor the more physical team, and by no means is Arizona soft, but I think Carolina may just come out more physical after getting pissed about last week’s 24-0 second half from Seattle. This team needs to finish a game strong for a change. We know Arizona can as Bruce Arians is 31-1 in games where he has to protect a one-score lead in the fourth quarter.
Newton can bait a defense with the read-option and play-action, so if Arizona blitzes, they better not hesitate at the mesh point or you might see some receivers running wide open down the field. But I really would not blitz much in this one, making Newton hold the ball and think about it as this secondary should hold up against these receivers. The Panthers are not a high-efficiency passing offense. Newton is looking for big plays and has generally avoided the turnovers this year.
I would pick Arizona on a neutral field, but that’s not how this works.
Another 3-1 week, though I actually nailed the PIT-DEN score.
- Patriots over Broncos, 23-17
- Panthers over Cardinals, 27-21
- Week 1: 10-6
- Week 2: 6-10
- Week 3: 14-2
- Week 4: 11-4
- Week 5: 9-5
- Week 6: 8-6
- Week 7: 10-4
- Week 8: 10-4
- Week 9: 8-5
- Week 10: 4-10
- Week 11: 9-5
- Week 12: 8-8
- Week 13: 11-5
- Week 14: 10-6
- Week 15: 11-5
- Week 16: 9-7
- Week 17: 8-8
- Wild Card: 3-1
- Divisional round: 3-1
- Season: 162-102 (.614)