Which is the better game this weekend?
Love championship weekend, but this year is special. The NFC Championship Game features what are inarguably the two best teams in the conference. And while you could argue the Steelers (when healthy) belong over the Broncos in terms of quality, it's quality viewing to see a championship defense take on the defending Super Bowl champs ... led by perhaps the greatest quarterback in NFL history.
Speaking of great matchups, I asked the Twitter masses in this week's Power Rankings which game should be included in the top postseason contests of the last five years. Check the Packers' blurb for my preliminary list. The overwhelming omission in fans' eyes was a matchup that we also saw this past Saturday ...
Now, let's get to it!
Elliot Harrison went 4-0 on his predictions for the Divisional Round, giving him a record of 158-106 so far this season. How will he fare on Championship Sunday? His picks are below.
Sunday, 3:05 p.m. ET, CBS
All the chatter regarding the AFC Championship Game centers around Tom Brady versus Peyton Manning. Appropriate, given the historical significance of these two going at it ... again. Brady is 11-5 versus Manning-led teams, but interestingly enough, he's lost two of the three AFC title bouts. The one win was significant: 24-14 over the Colts at Foxborough in the 2003 postseason, with Manning throwing four picks, including three to Ty Law. (Why no Hall consideration for that guy?! Conversation for another time.) After the game, Bill Polian, who was Indy's general manager at the time, complained to the league about the Patriot linebackers redirecting Colts receivers, thus inspiring a "reemphasis" of the illegal-contact rule. Enjoy all those automatic first downs, people.
Of which the Broncos are going to need a few. Especially if the run game can't get going. When these two teams faced off in November, C.J. Anderson and Co. were stuck in the mud -- that is, while Dont'a Hightower was in the game. With Hightower on the field, Denver ran 16 times for 46 yards and zero scores. When Hightower departed with an injury, however, Denver went nuts running the ball, racking up 133 yards and three touchdowns on 16 carries. Don't forget that Jamie Collins missed that Week 12 matchup as well.
So with the Patriots' offense at mostly full strength, you know they will be able to at least move the ball on a stout Broncos defense, even if getting much more than 20 points will be difficult. Question is, can Manning carry Denver if Anderson and Ronnie Hillman are stymied? The thinking here is no. #NEvsDEN
Sunday, 6:40 p.m. ET, FOX
Maybe Carson Palmer versus Cam Newton doesn't carry the same juice as Brady v. Manning. This juice has a bit more pulp, though. Palmer throws the deep ball more than almost any quarterback in the league (he had the third-most completions of 20 yards or greater) despite the fact that the Cardinals tapped the brakes in several big wins this season. On the other side, you have a quarterback who has not only hurt opponents down the field, but still is a huge factor in the run game. As Arizona front man Bruce Arians said this week, you don't see a lot of quarterbacks running "Power" for their team. Newton's ability causes the defense to play 11 on 11, because defenses must respect the quarterback's ability to run, whereas the quarterback on most teams is merely the guy who hands off or executes run fakes. Basically, Cam is the anti-Bradford.
Now that we got that squared away, this matchup comes down to how the Cardinals' secondary fares against Carolina's receiving corps. If the Honey Badger-less defense struggled against the Packers' wideouts, how will it fare against the Panthers' group? Any team facing Carolina figures to have an advantage, namely: its DBs > Corey Brown, Ted Ginn Jr. and Co. Yet, Jeff Janis, Jared Abbrederis and tight end Richard Rodgers made a lot of big plays for Green Bay versus the Cardinals -- particularly Janis. When you consider that Carolina tight end Greg Olsen is better than all of these guys, it could spell trouble for Arizona.
» Arizona led all road teams in points per game, yards per game and passing yards per game. I would say that is relevant.
» These two teams finished ranked first and second in takeaways this season. The Panthers, who had the most, also led the league in points off takeaways. This game might come down to which quarterback makes the fewest mistakes.