By Andy Backstrom, Co-Editor-in-Chief
Championship Sunday—home to two of the last three match-ups of the 2015-16 NFL season. Even though the remaining teams in both conferences hold the top two seeds, respectively, postseason play has been nothing close to predictable up to this point. With Super Bowl 50 within reach, the possible storylines yield excitement. Will Peyton Manning get one more shot at a second Super Bowl victory, or will Tom Brady clinch a seventh Super Bowl appearance? What about Cam Newton, will his MVP-like season continue, leading Carolina to its first Super Bowl since 2003, or is it finally Carson Palmer’s time?
No matter how the coin flips, there will be stories to be told. Here are my predictions for the conference championship round.
Andy’s Record: (6-2)
New England Patriots (12-4) at Denver Broncos (12-4): 3:05 ET Sunday CBS
Prediction: Patriots 23 Broncos 10
This marks the 17th, and most likely final, contest between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. While Brady has proven to be superior in these match-ups, Manning seems to have the edge in conference championships, winning three out of four versus Brady. However, New England will help Brady balance that record in this game. The Broncos’ quarterback no longer can carry his team. It is the Denver defense that has brought the team to this point. If they want any chance to win, they will have to maintain a balanced running attack with C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman. But I believe Manning will be throwing more often than Denver fans would like, as the Broncos will be trailing right from the beginning of the game. Brady will only throw for one touchdown, finding Julian Edelman, but will run for another. Denver’s offense will stutter and struggle to gain yards on first and second downs, as New England will virtually eliminate the run game. After turning the ball over twice, Manning will connect with Demaryius Thomas for a touchdown in the second half. Quickly retaliating, Steven Jackson, will sneak his way into the endzone, tacking on to the Patriot lead. Manning’s brilliant career should not be overshadowed by his inconsistent playoff performances. Sometimes the “Patriot Way” is too much; it will be again this Sunday.
Arizona Cardinals (13-3) at Carolina Panthers (15-1): 6:40 ET Sunday FOX
Prediction: Cardinals 31 Panthers 27
Like the AFC Championship, this is a rematch; a rematch, but on a much smaller scale. Carolina defeated Arizona in the wild card round last year, in which Carson Palmer and a number of other Cardinals were injured. And on the other side, for some of the remaining Panthers from their 2008-09 team, such as running back Jonathan Stewart, this game could be thought of as revenge against Arizona, who throttled the number one seeded Panthers in Carolina en route to Super Bowl XLIII. Both Palmer and Cam Newton are in the MVP conversation, and rightly so. Their play today will be no different. Carolina will start fast with a their dual-threat rushing game (Newton and Stewart). Stewart will find his way into the endzone, drawing first blood. Unlike their performance versus Green Bay, the Arizona offensive line will protect Palmer from the Panthers’ defensive line for the most part. Look for Palmer to fire back on the Cardinals’ opening drive with a touchdown pass to Jermaine Gresham. The two teams will play it even, entering the half with Carolina leading 17-14. Deone Bucannon will limit Greg Olsen’s production in the middle of the field, forcing Newton to target Ted Ginn Jr. and Corey Brown frequently. Early in the fourth quarter, the Panthers will take a 27-24 lead, as a result of a Newton rushing touchdown. Quickly, the Cardinals will compose a touchdown drive of their own, with none other than Larry Fitzgerald as the recipient of a Palmer pass. Newton will attempt to complete one more dazzling comeback, but will be intercepted, and Arizona will advance to their second Super Bowl in franchise history.
Andy Backstrom can be reached at email@example.com.