The NFL’s 32 teams have been chiseled down to four. And a fitting final four they are, with the top two seeds in each conference playing each other. And while the semifinals are white with chalk, there are plenty of numbers to peruse on the blackboard.
New England Patriots (13-4) at Denver Broncos (13-4)
When the wise guys opened this game at Patriots -2.5, the entire football cognoscenti scratched its head. Tom Brady is sizzling, and now has Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski at their pass-catching best.
The Broncos struggled to beat the Steelers, with a hobbled Ben Roethlisberger missing his two best weapons in Antonio Brown and DeAngelo Williams. Meanwhile the Patriots beat the Chiefs, the hottest team in the sport, a little more handily than the 27-20 score indicated.
And since offense is often the firewall between winning and losing, everything points to the Pats.
Not only is Brady 11-5 against Peyton Manning, he moved the ball with ease against the Broncos in their 30-24 overtime loss at Denver in November, a game Manning didn’t start. Perhaps it’s telling, if not haunting, that Denver dropped 30 on the Pats with Brock Osweiler, and he’s not playing this weekend.
Peyton Manning seems to have won the starting job by default. You just can’t play this game, and lose this game, with Manning on the bench, which is equal parts public relations and passing projections. The iconic QB will leave the game with almost every salient passing record. But it doesn’t take a QB guru to see his obvious decay.
Manning has thrown one — yes, one — touchdown at home this season. Tom Brady has thrown more TD passes (3) in Denver than Manning did in 2015.
Last week against the Chiefs, a far more rugged defense, Brady completed 28 of 42 passes, for 302 yards and two touchdowns. Against the Steelers passing defense, ranked 31st in the NFL, Manning completed just 22 of 37 passes for 222 yards and zero scores. That’s a pretty good referendum on the current state of the two QBs.
What does Manning have going for him? An ornery defense that allowed a league-low 283.1 yards per game, home-field advantage and two wonderful wideouts in Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. But there’s little to suggest he can get them the ball beyond 15 yards.
Manning is 2-1 in AFC title games against Brady. And Denver is 3-0 all-time against the Patriots.
Will that be enough?
Probably not. According to The Denver Post, the Broncos have a total of 206 playoff games played by 45 active players on the roster. Between that, their natural ability and the paper-thin air of the Rockies, the game should be close.
Only one team has scored 30 points on the Broncos this season, and that was the Steelers, in Pittsburgh, with Big Ben at full strength, throwing the ball to a healthy Brown and handing it to a healthy Williams. Not even New England has that kind of firepower.
But not only is Brady exponentially healthier than Manning, he’s just much better at this point. If this were two years ago — when Manning vaporized the Patriots on their way to the Super Bowl — then the pick would be different.
Brady needs two seconds to get rid of the ball. Von Miller says he needs just one second to sack Brady. It’s hard to imagine Brady and Belichick not being prepared to block someone for two seconds.
If this is to be Manning’s mile-high swan song, it’s fitting that it comes at the hands of his only peer, his greatest foe and his good friend, Tom Brady.
Prediction: Patriots, 24-17
Arizona Cardinals (14-3) at Carolina Panthers (16-1)
The last eight NFC title games have been decided by a touchdown or less, including four in overtime. In all the conference title games prior to 2007 (but since the AFL-NFL merger), there had only been two such games bleeding beyond the fourth quarter.
Throw away the results of last year’s playoff game between these teams, which Carolina won, 27-16. The Panthers pounded a Cardinals club playing not only without Carson Palmer, but also his backup. It was the NFL playoffs at its poorest. If nothing else, the Cardinals fly to Charlotte at nearly full strength.
If you think finishing 15-1 makes you a team of gridiron destiny, think again. While the 1984 49ers and ’85 Bears were monolithic clubs that steamrolled their way to the world championship, the ’98 Vikings, 2004 Steelers and 2011 Packers all failed to reach the Super Bowl.
Since all NFL football these days seems to come down to QB, do you pick the better player, in Cam Newton, or the player with better weapons, in Carson Palmer?
The top-two scoring offenses are playing each other, so maybe it’s just a matter of who gets the ball last.
Carolina led the league in scoring (31.2 PPG), were second in rushing (142.6 YPG) and were first in red-zone efficiency, scoring a TD on nearly 70 percent of their trips inside the 20 yard line (including 10 rushing TDs by Newton).
Though he’s likely to play, RB Jonathan Stewart will be running on a bad ankle. His ability to loosen up Arizona’s defense for Carolina’s passing game could be key. But Newton has another safety valve in TE Greg Olsen, who averaged 69 yards per game and 14.3 yards per reception during the regular season. Olsen also scored seven touchdowns, the second-most of his career.
Arizona can move the ball as well, averaging 30.6 points and 408.3 yards per game. And Palmer is throwing to easily the best playoff receiver in the tournament. In just eight playoff games, Larry Fitzgerald has caught 53 passes for 912 yards, and 10 TDs, averaging a robust 17.2 yards per reception.
Josh Norman fancies himself the best cornerback in football. But will he even cover Fitzgerald, who often lines up in the slot, a place Norman rarely finds himself?
David Johnson was a revelation in 2015, but was awful in his first game of 2016, rushing the ball 15 times for a paltry 35 yards. He will need a better showing in his second playoff game. Carolina has the league’s fourth-best rush defense, surrendering 88.4 yards per game. They yielded just 78 yards on the ground last week to the Seahawks.
If turnovers are the main metric, then either team could win this game. Carolina led the NFL with 39 takeaways, while the Cardinals were second with 33. If it matters, Arizona was tied with the Kansas City Chiefs for the most defensive scores, at six.
But it’s hard to pick against the surefire league MVP. Not only did Newton score 45 total touchdowns in 2015, he beat the Seattle Seahawks, the team many thought were destined for a three-peat Super Bowl appearance.
Only one top seed since 1999 has emerged from the NFC and won the Super Bowl. But more than one got there. This is just Carolina’s time.
Prediction: Panthers, 27-23
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.