Welcome to the finest football Sunday of the year.
I know, I know. There’s a bigger game two weeks from now, one with Super superlatives. More eyeballs will be tuned in. More nachos and chicken wings will be devoured. Our cups will runneth over with beverages and buildup.
The Super Bowl certainly has the glitter. But when it comes to a gritty battle for survival, nothing on the NFL calendar matches Sunday. Two conference championship games played back to back in one afternoon – without the 13-hour pregame show. No one pays the slightest attention to commercials, or cares who performs at halftime.
Championship Sunday is pure unadulterated football. So settle in for a long day in the recliner.
This year the football gods have seen fit to give us four season-long powerhouses with a combined record of 56-12. For the first time since 2005, the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds from the NFC and AFC all made it, leaving Cinderella stuck outside with her pumpkin.
I think the Broncos are a bit stronger. They’ll find a way to win.
NFL veteran Ricky Manning Jr. in picking Denver to upset New England
The only thing amiss about this year’s conference championship games is the NFL giving us the main event before the undercard. Carolina and Arizona are the two best teams left, and the winner probably will be the betting favorite in Super Bowl 50. Still that game lacks the emotional heft of the 17th (and perhaps final) meeting between the two greatest quarterbacks of their generation.
So let’s start there.
AFC Championship: Patriots (13-4) vs. Broncos (13-4)
Line: New England by 3
As much as everyone wants to reduce this game to Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning, it’s really not. More accurately, it’s about Brady vs. Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.
Even though Brady is 11-5 against Manning in their head-to-head meetings (Colts and Broncos combined), other historical trends go against the Patriots. For instance, New England coach Bill Belichick has an 8-12 career record vs. the Broncos, and Brady is 2-6 all-time in the Mile High City.
Of course, those numbers will mean nothing if Manning remains a shadow of his old self. The questions that have dogged the 39-year-old quarterback all season (Is he really healthy? Why are his wobbly passes so frequently intercepted? Should backup Brock Osweiler be playing instead?) have never fully been answered.
Frankly, it’s a minor miracle the Broncos even made it this far. They did so because of Phillips’ stingy 3-4 defense that allowed the fewest yards in the NFL and only 18.5 points per game despite Manning’s 17 interceptions (in nine starts) often providing short fields to Denver’s opponents.
17Interceptions thrown by Denver QB Peyton Manning this season in nine starts
The Broncos’ formidable pass rush and top-notch secondary give them a fighting chance to slow down Brady, who should have receiver Julian Edelman and tight end Rob Gronkowski near full health.
That said, slowing down the Patriots passing attack is a long way from smothering it. As well as Denver’s defense as played, it’s hard to see New England scoring fewer than three or four touchdowns. Which means the Broncos must keep pace.
Does Manning have one more heroic game left in him? Can he flummox Father Time for one more afternoon? Denver had better hope so.
NFC Championship: Cardinals (14-3) at Panthers (16-1)
Line: Carolina by 3
If it wasn’t for Brady-Manning, Carson Palmer vs. Cam Newton would be a quarterback matchup for the ages. Both are former No. 1 overall draft picks as well as former Heisman Trophy winners – the first time that’s happened in an NFL playoff game.
And since Carolina (31.3 points per game) and Arizona (30.6) feature the league’s two highest-scoring offenses, it’s fair to expect a shootout despite recent snowfall that blanketed the East Coast.
If the Panthers play the entire game like they played the first half of last week’s 31-24 victory over Seattle, Arizona should probably just stay home
If the Panthers play the entire game like they played the first half of last week’s 31-24 victory over Seattle, Arizona should probably just stay home. But it’s that second half, in which they were shut out 24-0, that causes lingering doubts.
Did Carolina dial things back and take its foot off the gas, or did the Seahawks make adjustments at halftime that Cardinals coach Bruce Arians will look to emulate? We’ll soon find out.
Because I’m awful at picking games – see The Bee’s Pro Football Challenge for proof – I enlisted the help of someone who knows a lot more than me about Championship Sunday: Ricky Manning Jr.
The former Edison High and UCLA star (and current Fresno State graduate assistant) played in three NFC Championships with the Panthers and Bears, winning two.
Ricky Manning, as you might expect, picked the Panthers to handily beat Arizona but went against the grain in the AFC by predicting the Broncos would knock off New England.
“I think the Broncos are a bit stronger,” he said. “They’ll find a way to win.”
The best day of NFL football is finally here. We’ll find a way to watch.
▪ AFC: New England Patriots (13-4) at Denver Broncos (13-4) – 12:05 p.m. on KGPE (Channel 47.1)
▪ NFC: Arizona Cardinals (14-3) at Carolina Panthers (16-1) – 3:40 p.m. on KMPH (Channel 26.1)