In the Wild Card round, all four road teams won. In the Divisional Round last week, all four home teams won. So, what will happen this week? One home team and one away team?
Perhaps. Here’s how I see the Conference Round games.
New England Patriots at Denver Broncos
Last week, the Patriots hosted the Chiefs, who had won eleven games straight. Although the final score add the game appear close, in truth the Patriots were never really threatened.
The key for the Patriots was that Tom Brady was able to throw quickly, often to Julian Edelman, but also to Rob Gronkowski, and so the Chiefs’ pass rush was nullified. The Patriots didn’t really bother to run the football much. Once the Chiefs were behind, they were always going to find it hard to come back to win.
The Broncos really struggled to get past a Steelers team with an injured quarterback which was also missing its top wide receiver and top two rushers. Trailing for most of the game, the Broncos ground out a result in a game they deserved to lose. Was it the offense that won them the game? No, it was a turnover.
And this is what today’s game comes down to, for me. Denver have shown no ability to generate consistent offense with Peyton Manning as quarterback this year. He has a bad record in the playoffs and a terrible record against Brady’s Patriots (although less so in the playoffs, for the record).
The Patriots don’t turn the ball over much. Fumblers are treated harshly and an Tom Brady interception which isn’t the result of a tipped ball, or that hasn’t been thrown up into the air by a receiver, is headline news. If Denver are going to win today, they need a better gameplan than to wait for the Patriots to turn the ball over. It may happen, but the statistics are against you.
The ratings give this to the Broncos (2.04 to 1.51), but that’s misleading. The Patriots were back to their best last week, and Matt Patricia’s defense will expect to force Peyton Manning into throwing picks. Expect them to goad him into throwing long and taking their chance at picking up the pieces.
Peyton Manning has one touchdown pass at Mile High this season. Tom Brady has three.
Arizona Cardinals at Carolina Panthers
Arizona won against the Green Bay Packers last week in a thrilling overtime victory. The game was a tight affair until the final quarter, when most of the points were scored. However, despite Aaron Rodgers throwing two exceptional lucky throws at the end of the game, an improvised throw to Larry Fitzgerald on the run in overtime resulted in a huge play, and ultimately, a touchdown, to end the game.
Carolina’s route to the Conference Round was equally eventful, as they led 31-0 at halftime and then let Seattle come back to 31-24 by the end of the game. That’s the second time this season Carolina have taken a huge lead and then let a team come back into the game, although in Seattle’s case, it always seemed like a false hope, from my perspective at least.
So what’s the key in this game? Well, Carolina need to stop Arizona running the ball, and also need to take Larry Fitzgerald out of the game. Arizona need to keep Cam Newton in the pocket and force him to make plays without breaking free.
I was perhaps rash in giving Arizona no chance in this game, but I do still favour the Panthers. Carolina did, however, intercept Russell Wilson twice early on last week, so Arizona need to be careful. The Cardinals’ defense may have a fierce reputation, but the Panthers’ defense is no slouch either. In fact, all four teams left in the playoffs have defenses worth writing home about.
The ratings give this to Carolina (2.42 to 2.41) – it’s the number one home team against the number one road team, and it’s officially too close to call.
Unofficially, this is a matchup of two well-rounded teams, rather than teams littered with stars (although they probably have one each in Cam Newton and Larry Fitzgerald). I’m picking Carolina to win because I think Cam Newton has enough to guide the Panthers home, and it’d be no less than he deserves for his career in the NFL so far.
For reference, the following table shows the rankings for each of the teams in the playoffs as of the Divisional Round, with their playoff seeding, home and road rankings.
|New England Patriots||2||2.11||1.51|
|Kansas City Chiefs||5||2.04||1.70|
|Green Bay Packers||5||1.79||1.79|