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What to watch for: Championship Games primer

There were no upsets on Divisional Round weekend. And there are no truly big upsets possible for the rest of this NFL season. The remaining teams are too good.

This was a top-heavy season in the NFL, so perhaps we shouldn't be surprised to see the Panthers, Cardinals, Broncos and Patriots all still standing. These were the four power teams throughout the season. We have the three best quarterbacks from the season, and one of the best quarterbacks of all time in what could be his final season.

We'll have all week to dive into Brady-Manning XVII and Panthers-Cardinals, but here's a quick first look ahead at the conference title games, with an unstoppable performer from each one:

New England Patriots at Denver Broncos, 3:05 pm ET (CBS)

  1. There will be a lot of comparing Brady to Manning this week, but that's not a close debate anymore. Brady was one of the three best quarterbacks in the league all season, and is coming off one of his best games against Kansas City. Manning played the "game manager" role against Pittsburgh, avoiding big mistakes while letting his defense do the rest.

But this is not about Brady vs. Manning. It's about one of the league's best quarterbacks against the NFL's top defense. Manning only has to ply his trade against a Patriots defense that struggled to rush the passer against Kansas City, giving up 378 total yards. Those matchups are a lot tougher to handicap.

  1. Denver's defense was not dominant against Pittsburgh, but it proved excellent at situational football. One area for concern is the health of cornerback Chris Harris. He struggled with a shoulder injury throughout the game and did not play in the team's base defense, only covering the slot in the team's nickel package. He would normally be lined up against Julian Edelman, who led the Patriots with 16 targets against Kansas City.
  1. The Broncos need to consistently get more out of their pass rush. Von Miller has been atypically quiet of late. DeMarcus Ware finally looked healthy after the team's bye, and helped close out the game against Pittsburgh with two big hits late. Tom Brady gets rid of the ball so fast that it will be a challenge for Denver to bother him.
  1. Denver beat the Patriots in Week 12 with Brock Osweiler at quarterback, but it was the running game that made the difference. Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson combined for 172 yards, including Anderson's game winner. Look for Anderson, who closed out the Steelers well, to get the ball earlier against New England.

Unstoppable performer: Linebacker Dont'a Hightower had a nice game in the Divisional Round and could be even more crucial to the Patriots' defense if Jamie Collins is out because of injury. The Patriots will move Hightower around to disrupt what has been a sometimes-shaky Broncos offensive line.

Arizona Cardinals at Carolina Panthers, 6:40 pm ET (FOX)

  1. These have been the two best teams in the NFL all season and this is the NFC title game we deserve. Both teams know they have things to improve coming off the Divisional Round. The Panthers have a nasty habit of allowing big leads to fritter away, like they did with their 31-0 halftime lead over Seattle. Things also got uncomfortable in similar situations against the Colts, Packers and Giants. The plus: They still always finish what they started.

The Cardinals, meanwhile, want to get back to their explosive offensive ways. Entering the fourth quarter against Green Bay, Carson Palmer had led his offense to only 16 points in his previous five quarters. Perhaps Palmer got his "off day" out of his system.

  1. Palmer will have to watch out for pressure coming up the middle. Carolina's defensive tackles Kawann Shortt and Star Lotulelei both had big games against Seattle, and Carolina can also sneak in blitzes with their talented linebackers. Arizona has not done a great job protecting Palmer in his last two games, which has been a big part of the offensive stagnation.
  1. Who will Patrick Peterson cover? The Cardinals shutdown cornerback usually tracks the team's best opposing wide receiver, although the Panthers don't really have a No. 1. Or a No. 2. Could Peterson wind up tracking Panthers tight end Greg Olsen instead?
  1. Cam Newton and the Panthers running game remains the hardest group to defend in the league. They have an extraordinary amount of "base" running plays and can execute them all with precision. Arizona's penchant for mad blitzing will be tested by Carolina's running game. There is a risk of being too aggressive and giving up big plays to Newton and Jonathan Stewart.

Unstoppable performer:Larry Fitzgerald is coming off an epic playoff performance and he is set up for another one. The Panthers' cornerback depth took a hit because of injuries and replacement slot cornerback Cortland Finnegan has struggled. Finnegan will get tasked with covering Fitz when he's in the slot.

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