Out of the 32 teams in the National Football League, only four teams are still playing. Twenty teams saw their seasons end without making it to the playoffs and eight teams were eliminated from playoff contention this past weekend. After next Sunday, that number will drop to two and we will have our Super Bowl matchup.
The defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots defeated the Kansas City Chiefs at home 27-20 to advance to their fifth AFC Championship game in a row. The return of Julian Edelman for the Patriots was a huge factor as the absence of Edelman with a broken foot hurt the Patriots’ offense in the latter half of the season. The Patriots defense played well as did the offense, converting on many 3rd downs which allowed them to extend drives into points. The Chiefs seemed overwhelmed defensively trying to slow down Tom Brady and that lead to 27 points which the Chiefs could not match.
Another matchup was the Arizona Cardinals versus the Green Bay Packers in Arizona. The game was absolutely wild with Aaron Rodgers throwing one pass about 50 yards to set up the hopeful Hail Mary pass which was then caught for a touchdown as time expired to send the game to overtime. The first pass for the Cardinals offensive was caught by Larry Fitzgerald and run for 75 yards down to the three-yard line. The run set up Fitzgerald for a touchdown and a trip to the NFC Championship game. Arizona’s defense fooled Rodgers and the Packers offense by disguising coverage and forcing turnovers. Carson Palmer, Arizona’s quarterback, played poorly from everything I saw, missing elementary throws and just making too many mistakes. But Rodgers’ mistakes helped Palmer by giving him chances to score and the Cardinals ultimately pulled out the win to advance.
The next game was easily the most intriguing matchup as it was the Carolina Panthers hosting the Seattle Seahawks. The Seahawks represented the NFC in the Super Bowl the past two seasons but the Panthers only lost one of 16 regular season games. The Panthers were winning 31-0 and in absolute control of the game, but let their guard down and the Seahawks made a major comeback. All the Seahawks troubles in the first half consisted of poor run defense and bad blocking by Seattle’s offensive line. In the second half, both were fixed and in fact thrived resulting in the Seahawks down 7 and going for an onside kick with just over a minute left in the fourth quarter. A great kick by Steven Hauschka gave Seattle a chance to get the ball but an even better catch by Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis sealed the win for the Panthers.
Lastly, the Pittsburgh Steelers traveled to Denver to take on the Broncos. Without Antonio Brown, the Steelers star wide receiver, the odds were not in Pittsburgh’s favor. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger also was playing through a shoulder injury. Denver’s defense is its strongest unit and it showed as it held a top-three offense in Pittsburgh to a dismal 13 points. Broncos QB Peyton Manning managed the game well as he always does and led their offense to enough points to secure the win.
Now that the conference championship games are set, here are my predictions for the winners and why. From the AFC, the Patriots will win in Denver 28-24. The most prolific offense in football is the New England offense. There’s not a team that can cover the best slot receiver in Julian Edelman and the best tight end in Rob Gronkowski as well as stopping the best quarterback in league as well. Most likely this will be the last Manning versus Brady game, which is definitely one to watch as it’s a historic rivalry coming to an end.
The NFC Championship game is obvious in my mind, with Carolina beating Arizona 35-21. Arizona’s Carson Palmer struggled against the Packers man to man largely. Carolina plays a lot of zone defenses so Palmer should play better than he did against the Packers as decision-making is much easier against a zone. Still, I don’t think Arizona will be able to pull off the win. Carolina’s Cam Newton will be the NFL MVP for the 2015-16 season and is playing at too high of a level for the Panthers’ season to end.
The AFC championship game can be seen Sunday on CBS at 3:30. The NFC championship is at 6:40 on FOX.