NFC: Carolina Panthers (16-1) vs. Arizona Cardinals (14-3)
This is the matchup we’ve wanted all season: the two highest scoring offenses, two of the top MVP candidates and, quite frankly, the two hottest teams in the NFL going at it for a spot in the Super Bowl.
The Panthers got out to an impressive 14-0 start behind MVP frontrunner QB Cam Newton. Newton is one of the premier athletes and competitors in the league, responsible for over 4,400 total yards and 45 touchdowns. Running back Jonathan Stewart also adds a running threat, just missing the 1,000 yard mark and accounting for seven touchdowns. On the other side of the ball, linebacker Luke Kuechly and cornerback Josh Norman are having career years, having shut down many of the league’s top threats.
The Cardinals ended the season at 13-3 thanks to QB Carson Palmer is having the best season of his career, averaging over 280 yards and two touchdowns per game. Additionally, rookie RB David Johnson and WRs Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd have provided production at the skill positions. Another one of the Cardinals’ strengths is their secondary, anchored by CB Patrick Peterson and the emergence of strong safety Deone Bucannon.
The Pick: Panthers 38 Cardinals 33 After a high scoring, back and forth game, the Panthers turn to Cam Newton to architect a game winning drive with several minutes left. A Cardinals turnover thanks to Kuechly or Norman will seal the deal, and send Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers dabbing into Super Bowl 50.
AFC: New England Patriots (13-4) vs. Denver Broncos (13-4)
Who would have ever guessed? After 18 weeks of football, it all comes down to Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning for the AFC Championship.
The Patriots may have faced the most adversity this season, having lost their top two running backs to injury.
Moreover, the Patriots offensive line reminded me of a jigsaw puzzle this year, using 18 different O-line personnel combinations. But if there’s any consolation, the Patriots have potentially the greatest QB/coach combo of all time. The Brady/Belichick combo has won almost 80 percent of its games and four super bowls.
The Broncos are the outlier of the four teams because they have won with lock-down defense. Led by LB Von Miller, CB Aqib Talib and DE DeMarcus Ware, the defense has compensated for an underwhelming offensive season. Even with receiving threats Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, the Broncos’ quarterback Peyton Manning has been horrendous. Manning’s QBR of 67.9 ranks behind who? Try Johnny Manziel, Colin Kaepernick and Matt “The walking pick-six” Schaub.
The Pick: Patriots 31 Broncos 17
I don’t care that the Patriots can’t run the ball. I don’t care about the altitude. I’m not picking against Tom Brady in his fifth straight and tenth overall AFC championship game. Expect four TD passes from Brady, at least two of which will be Gronk-Spiked into the mile-high turf.