Championship Sunday in the NFL boasts no party crashers.
The top two teams in both the AFC and NFC took advantage of a playoff bye followed by home games last weekend to reach their respective conference title games this Sunday. It’s the first time in 11 years that all of the top seeds made it this far.
With little doubt, these are the four best teams of the 2015 NFL season, vying for the chance to play in Super Bowl 50 on Feb. 7. Read on for amNewYork’s predictions for the AFC and NFC championship games.
Patriots (13-4) at Broncos (13-4), 3:05 p.m. on CBS/2
Yes, Tom Brady is as sharp as ever at 38 years old. Yes, Peyton Manning’s skills have eroded as he approaches age 40 in March. If this game was simply New England’s Brady against Denver’s Manning, it would be a laugher in the Pats’ favor. Fortunately for the Broncos, football is team sport.
The Patriots’ overachieving defense is banged up, and top linebacker Jerod Mayo just went on injured reserve. Meanwhile, the Broncos line up one of the most dominant defenses in the league, a unit that was the best in the NFL in sacks and yards allowed.
This is a rematch of the Broncos’ 30-24 overtime victory on Nov. 30 in Denver. Although Manning missed that game, his supporting cast performed well. That’s a trend that should continue Sunday as the Broncos dethrone the reigning Super Bowl champions.
Prediction: Broncos 24, Patriots 20
Cardinals (14-3) at Panthers (16-1), 6:40 p.m. on Fox/5
The top two teams in terms of scoring differential collide in Charlotte, where the Panthers haven’t lost since the 2014 regular season.
Carolina, whose only defeat all season came in Atlanta by a touchdown, had the look of a champion last Sunday when it led the Seahawks, 31-0, at halftime. However, there have to be concerns after the Panthers allowed 24 unanswered points in the second half, holding on to win.
Arizona had trouble of its own, surrendering a Hail Mary touchdown to the Packers on Saturday that forced overtime before scoring a touchdown in the extra period’s opening drive.
While both the Panthers (Cam Newton) and Cardinals (Carson Palmer) boast MVP-caliber quarterbacks, the game is likely to come down to whose defense shines best. That favors the Panthers, who are relatively healthy on that side of the ball, while the Cards are playing without All-Pro Tyrann Mathieu.
Arizona could burn Carolina on big passes, but short of that the matchup is the Panthers’ to lose.
Prediction: Panthers 34, Cardinals 27