Predictions for the Conference Championship Games

NFC Championship

 

I live in Ohio, so I used to see a lot of Carson Palmer’s games when he played for the Bengals. He always would throw high and behind his receivers. I can’t tell you how many times I’d see some Bengal receiver have to reach up and catch the ball right over his helmet.

I tuned in to the Arizona/Green Bay game last Saturday, and it was the same story. Palmer doesn’t lead his receivers. It caused an interception in the end zone on one drive.

Palmer is a decent journeyman, but he is not the kind of guy who can carry a team. Cam Newton is. The fact that Carolina’s defense shut down Russell Wilson last week only makes me less optimistic about the Cardinals’ chances. It’s too bad, because I’d love to see the great Larry Fitzgerald get a Super Bowl ring.

Panthers: 34
Cardinals: 17

 

AFC Championship

 

Fascinating matchup, this. Most writers seem to think the Patriots should win easily. “Sure, the Broncos beat them back in November, but the Patriots had so many injuries–with Edelman, Amendola, and Gronkowski back, they are bound to win”, goes the thinking.

Sounds good, on paper. But Denver still has the best defense in the NFL. When a strong defense meets a strong offense, the defense usually wins. Denver knows this all too well–they learned it two years ago when Seattle annihilated them. After that, Elway committed to building a strong, hard-hitting defense so that wouldn’t happen again.

Of course, that same Seattle defense got picked apart a year later by these Patriots and their short passing game. So defense alone isn’t always enough, at least not when you are going against a master of the surgical, precise pass like Brady.

Against the Steelers last week, the Bronco defense shutdown the Pittsburgh running game and the short pass. The only way the Steelers could move the ball was when Roethlisberger bought time for his receivers to get open, and then let them get yards after the catch. The Steelers got five or six big gains doing that, and it almost got them an upset victory.

Brady can’t withstand pressure like Roethlisberger can, though. If Denver can keep his receivers covered, they are going to have a chance. The only reason Brady was able to move the ball against Seattle’s defense in the Super Bowl was that he could get the ball out quickly. If they neutralize that, he’s in trouble.

If I were coaching the Broncos, I’d blitz Brady early and try to make him get nervous in the pocket. Yes, I know Brady is great at reading the blitz and making a quick pass, but let’s face it: he’s going to get his share of completions no matter what. Better to at least rattle him early in the game while he does it, and then he may start to imagine pressure as the game goes on.

Then you’ve got the matchup on the other side: the offensive-coordinator-on-the-field, Peyton Manning vs. his arch-nemesis, Bill Belichick, the wily defensive genius. Belichick used to own Manning in the playoffs, but Peyton has won their last two post-season encounters.

People are saying Manning is a ghost of his former self. Even I was saying that last year. And it’s true that his arm strength is pitiful. But the thin Denver air mitigates that to an extent; as does Manning’s skill at the short pass. Manning played a decent game against Pittsburgh, and his stats would have been much better if not for a bunch of dropped passes.

The Steelers seemed to be doing their best to pressure Manning with blitzes from unexpected directions. It almost worked; they were close to sacking him more than once. But blitzing has never really been Belichick’s game–he prefers to use coverage to confuse the quarterback. But Manning is tough to confuse. He’s still got the mental game mastered, even if he is physically barely able to play.

I haven’t really mentioned the running game much. That’s because, as far as I can tell, neither team has one. I do expect the Patriots to try lots of screen passes to James White. They also have Steven Jackson, but he looked slow to me in their game against Kansas City. As for the Patriots run defense, I think they will take away Denver’s rushing attack and force Manning to beat them with his arm.

As I said above, it seems like the national sports press isn’t giving Denver much of a chance in this thing–possibly to set up a “Manning upsets the Mighty Patriots” narrative, possibly just because they are lazy–but this game has a very odd vibe to it. New England is good, but they are also worn down. The fact that the game is in Denver, where they historically struggle, only adds to their problems. (If the Patriots just hadn’t tried a punt right before halftime of their game against the Eagles, they might well be playing in New England.)

The Patriots deserve to be favored, and I was tempted to follow the crowd and pick them, but I keep hearing this nagging voice in my head telling me the Football Fates have something really weird in store for this game. Denver got to be the number one seed for a reason, and I predict they will show us why in a tough, strange game.*

Broncos: 22
Patriots: 20

*Take heart, Pats fans: I also had a feeling about the Steelers last week, and that came to nothing.

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