So this is it: After 256 regular-season games and eight playoff contests over the last two weeks, we’re down to the final three games of the 2015 NFL season. But before you start filling out your Super Bowl boxes and prepare guacamole football fields for your big party, enjoy Sunday’s double feature.
After all four road teams won in the wild-card round (I didn’t see that coming), and all four home teams won in the divisional round (I did see that coming), we’re left with the top two teams in each conference.
Both spreads are a field goal, so Vegas expects close games. I think only one will be close, and that’s the nightcap in Carolina featuring two former No. 1 overall picks facing off. That game is more of a coin flip — and not the one that occurred in Arizona last weekend! I see the earlier matchup in Denver, the one with a pair of all-time greats squaring off, being more one-sided.
So let’s break down Championship Sunday. Oh, wait, one more thing: I think I speak on behalf of every football fan in the world when I ask the referees for the Patriots-Broncos game to make sure every football is properly inflated. We can’t handle DeflateGate 2.0.
AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
PATRIOTS AT BRONCOS, 3:05 p.m.
TV: Ch. 2; Radio: WFAN (660, 101.9)
Patriots by 3; O/U: 44.5
This game has been billed as Brady-Manning XVII, as legendary quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning meet for possibly the last time. Here’s the thing: Manning is an all-time great, and he seems like one of the nicest guys in the game, but if I was in charge of the Broncos, I would make this game about another XVII. Yep, I would go with Brock Osweiler. (He wears No. 17, in case you haven’t been following this season). Remember, Osweiler had his breakout moment in Week 12 when he led a comeback overtime win against the then-unbeaten Patriots on that snowy night in Denver. In a perfect world, Denver would probably love to have Manning audible at the line and read defenses, then have Osweiler and his stronger arm actually make the throws. When Manning was the best quarterback in the NFL, he struggled against Bill Belichick’s defenses in multiple playoff games. Now, he’s nowhere near that player, and even though the Patriots are dealing with defensive injuries, Belichick’s “next man up” approach will get the job done. Denver’s offense didn’t impress me last week, settling for five field goals and scoring only one touchdown in its win over Pittsburgh. I think the Broncos offense will struggle again this week. What Denver does have going for itself is two big things: 1) The game is in Denver, not an easy place to play, and a place in which Brady has struggled (2-6 overall, 0-2 in postseason); 2) Denver has a dominant defense. Still, the Patriots have a lot of numbers in their favor, especially No. 12, No. 11 and No. 87. Brady didn’t have Julian Edelman for the entire game in Denver this season, and Rob Gronkowski was injured late. With both of Brady’s favorite receiving targets being healthy, I expect big games from them. It also doesn’t help Denver that they started trash-talking Brady and Gronkowski this week. Big mistake. This season started as the DeflateGate Revenge Tour, and we’re only one game away from the possibility of Twitter blowing up when Roger Goodell has to hand the trophy to the Patriots. Let the talk of that scenario begin, because the Patriots will be “on to Santa Clara” after they win by XVII.
The pick: Patriots 30, Broncos 13
NFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
CARDINALS AT PANTHERS, 6:40 p.m.
TV: Ch. 5; Radio: WFAN (660, 101.9)
Panthers by 3; O/U: 48
Now for the game that has the likelier chance of being a thriller. The Cardinals won 13 regular-season games, and the Panthers won 15, so these two were clearly the class of the NFC all season. It feels right that they’re playing with a chance to represent the conference in the Super Bowl. Any other season, a 13-3 record probably would’ve earned Arizona the No. 1 seed. Any other season, Carson Palmer’s numbers probably would’ve earned him the MVP award. But in this season, the first belongs to Carolina, and the second is all but certain to go to Cam Newton. Palmer and the Cardinals won’t care about those two if they can win a Super Bowl. Cardinals-Patriots was my pre-playoff Super Bowl pick, and I know last week was just one week, but considering how uninspiring Arizona looked and how outright dominant Carolina looked, I just don’t see the Panthers losing this game at home. So I’m officially changing my Super Bowl pick to the Panthers. I can’t pick the Cardinals in this game just because I picked them before the playoffs. That wild overtime sequence aside, the Cardinals were outplayed for most of the game, and that scares me. Carolina is 9-0 at home this season. The Panthers led 31-0 over the Seahawks last week, and while some might say I’m overreacting to one game, I’m saying this: That was the most impressive first half of football I’ve seen all season. Simply put, the Panthers have played super football all season, and I expect more of the same in the biggest game of their season. This is Newton’s season, and he’s made everyone around him look like an All-Pro. Luke Kuechly and Carolina’s defense is a step above the Packers’, and Green Bay had two interceptions — nearly three — against Palmer last week. I expect the Panthers to contain Arizona’s big-play offense enough. The Cardinals’ ability to throw deep balls against a sometimes suspect Panthers secondary does give me pause, but not enough, so I’ll fast forward two weeks from now and tell you this: Super Bowl 50 will be a rematch of Super Bowl XXXVIII, the classic between the Patriots and Panthers.
The pick: Panthers 27, Cardinals 20
Staff picks and standings
Regular season: 121-130-5, 9-7-1 best bets
Playoffs: 3-4-1, 2-0
Regular season: 124-127-5, 8-9
Playoffs: 4-3-1, 1-1
Regular season: 131-120-5, 9-7-1
Playoffs: 1-6-1, 1-1
Kimberley A. Martin
Regular season: 119-132-5, 8-9
Playoffs: 5-2-1, 1-1