Jan 23 2016

NFL 2015 Conference Championships Gameplan

I got off to a roll in the Wild Card round, calling all four road teams winning.

Things didn’t go so well on my end in the Divisional round. I had three more road teams winning this past weekend: Kansas City, Seattle, Pittsburgh. All three lost, along with the Green Bay Packers, who at least forced overtime.

For the first time since 2004, the top two seeds in both the AFC and NFC will play against each other in the Conference Championships. For the first time since 2003, all four divisional games were decided by 7 points or fewer. 1 And all four road losers actually outgained their opponents.

Offensive lines had a major role in determining who won and lost last week:

– New England QB Tom Brady wasn’t sacked and was only hit once vs. Kansas City, despite dropping back 42 times.

– Arizona QB Carson Palmer was sacked three times in the 1st half vs. Green Bay and held to 74 pass yards, but he wasn’t sacked after halftime as he racked up 275 pass yards in the 2nd half and overtime – and he spun out of a potential sack before finding WR Larry Fitzgerald for what turned out to be a 75-yard completion in OT, the longest play of the game.

– Carolina QB Cam Newton was sacked (and hit) only once all game, while Seattle QB Russell Wilson was sacked five times and hit 14 times overall.

– The Broncos sacked Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger three times, with the last coming inside of 2:00 left in the 4th quarter on 4th down by OLB DeMarcus Ware, setting up a FG that would give Denver an insurmountable lead.

I’m going to wait a couple of weeks to release new Super Bowl picks – obviously, the Seattle Seahawks won’t make it back a 3rd year in a row to capture what would have been their 2nd championship. Instead, I expect to see Super Bowl 50 come down to the Arizona Cardinals and Denver Broncos – which would be the worst possible Super Bowl matchup of the four, but that’s the way it’ll be after Sunday night:

AFC Championship:
For the 17th time (and 5th in the postseason), it’s Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning. Hopefully, it’s the very last time. Quarterbacks don’t go one-on-one. They’re not on the field at the same time. Brady isn’t going to beat Manning, and Manning won’t beat Brady. It’s the Patriots vs. the Broncos.

That said … the Broncos won this game two years ago, and they’re going to win it again. Brady enjoyed great protection against what had been a fierce and larcenous Kansas City pass rush, but the Broncos have an even better pass rush – and Brady’s M.A.S.H. group of offensive linemen will be in a hostile road territory. Brady also isn’t getting any support from his run game. So while Brady will have success against Denver’s low blowing pass defense, he’ll have to do it while scraping himself off the turf multiple times.

On the flipside, the Patriots are going to be ready for Manning, but they lost in Denver due to two major factors: stopping the run and special teams. Denver RB C.J. Anderson had a season-high 113 rushing yards and two TDs against the Patriots in November, including a 48-yard TD run in overtime, the longest run allowed by the Patriots this season. New England will be without LB Jerod Mayo, while LBs Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins are less than 100 percent. New England WR Matthew Slater, a Pro Bowl special teamer, also is less than 100 percent against a strong Denver special teams. New England head coach Bill Belichick has a losing record at Denver as New England’s head coach 2, and that will continue when his team is outrushed by 100 yards Sunday afternoon.

NFC Championship:
For the first time ever in the playoffs, two Heisman Trophy QBs will start in the same game. In addition to their Heismans, Arizona QB Carson Palmer and Carolina QB Cam Newton are both former No. 1 overall picks. Of course, Palmer is on his 3rd NFL team, while Newton already has more playoff wins than Palmer despite being ten years younger.

Both QBs played like trash when they were last on the same field against each other. The Cardinals were at home, blowing out the Panthers 22-6 in Week 5, 2013. Palmer and Newton both threw 3 INTs, while Newton was also sacked a whopping seven times. Palmer missed last year’s Wild Card game in Carolina, where the Panthers held the Cardinals to an embarrassing 78 total yards in a 27-16 win.

Expect Palmer to come out attacking Carolina’s vulnerable secondary to take an early lead – since placing CB Bene Benwikere on injured reserve after Week 14, the Panthers have allowed a passer rating of 90.3, which is just about league average. 3 The Panthers will also be without a key pass rusher in DE Jared Allen, who had three QB hits vs. Seattle last week. Newton is the CaM.V.P., but this may be the first game he has multiple turnovers since early November, and I don’t see his run game and special teams unit helping him pull this close game out.

It's a safe bet that either Arizona head coach Bruce Arians or Carolina head coach Ron Rivera will win Coach of the Year - Rivera won it in 2013, while Arians won it last year and in 2012. (PC: MCT/ZUMA PRESS)

It’s a safe bet that either Arizona head coach Bruce Arians or Carolina head coach Ron Rivera will win Coach of the Year – Rivera won it in 2013, while Arians won it last year and in 2012. (PC: MCT/ZUMA PRESS)

Show 3 footnotes

  1. All four would have been decided by exactly 7 points if Arizona’s secondary didn’t allow 101 yards to Green Bay WR Jeff Janis on the final drive of regulation.
  2. Patriots are 3-6 in Denver since 2000, including 0-2 in the postseason.
  3. For the season, Carolina had the best passer rating allowed at 73.5. The NFL average passer rating allowed in 2015 was 90.2.

1 ping

  1. NFL 2016 Conference Championships Gameplan »

    […] only get around to discussing teams I generally don’t like during this weekend it seems. Last year, I made it quite clear that I wasn’t a fan of the Denver Broncos – but I respected them […]

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