Keys to AFC, NFC Championship games and who will win

By The Sports Xchange   |   Updated Jan. 22, 2016 at 9:36 AM
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New England Patriots (13-4) at Denver Broncos (13-4): AFC Championship preview

Sunday, 3:05 p.m. ET, at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver - TV: CBS

*TV announcers: Phil Simms, Jim Nantz, Tracy Wolfson

*Keys to the game: For the Broncos, it starts with avoiding mistakes and running the ball effectively, as was the case in the Week 12 overtime win over New England. The Broncos ran the ball 32 times for 179 yards in that game to prop up QB Brock Osweiler.

The Broncos played just their second turnover-free game of the season last Sunday against Pittsburgh -- and their first one with Peyton Manning at quarterback. He has nine touchdowns and 16 interceptions and just one touchdown pass in this stadium all season (Tom Brady has three).

How enormous is the turnover margin, which was even in the first meeting? The Patriots are 15-0 in the playoffs and 144-12 overall under coach Bill Belichick when winning the turnover battle, and have won 35 of their past 37 games when doing so. They're also 15-0 in the postseason under Belichick in that scenario.

Drops plagued Manning last week -- seven by the count of the Broncos -- and Denver cannot afford to surrender downs. Their offense has been more efficient with Manning in the past five-plus quarters, averaging 30.97 points per 60 minutes since he relieved Osweiler against the Chargers. But they have struggled in scoring range, and have more than twice as many field goals (seven) as touchdowns (three).

Brady has been a monster in the red zone this season -- 29 touchdowns, three interceptions -- thanks to super-sized TE Rob Gronkowski (13 TDs including playoffs). Without a constant at running back, Brady's quick throws within 5-7 yards of the line of scrimmage serve as New England's running game. The Broncos will blitz to get pressure and have an NFL-high 52 sacks, but primarily Denver relies on Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware to shrink the pocket.

Getting to Brady is a boost for the Broncos, giving CB Aqib Talib (three interceptions) opportunities to make a play on the ball. They recorded pressures on 40 percent of Brady's drop-backs in Week 12, and his completion percentage on those plays was 26.7 percent according to Stats Inc.

The risk is not getting there, and having Brady pick apart the defense with extra receivers, as he did against Kansas City in the divisional playoff win. If the Patriots can build a lead and force Manning to throw to win, New England likes its chances.

*Matchup to watch - Broncos CB Chris Harris Jr. vs. Patriots WR Julian Edelman: Two of the best in the business when healthy, it is debatable whether either is full strength. Harris led the Broncos in snaps played in the regular season (97.6 percent) but was limited to sub packages against Pittsburgh last week because of a bum shoulder.

New England hasn't lost a game in which Edelman has played this season, and its offense is vastly more efficient when he is on the field, scoring 12.45 more points per 60 minutes with Edelman. He caught 10 passes for 100 yards last week, his first game since Nov. 15. If Harris cannot be his usual physical self and Edelman is gaining a free release, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is likely to sit Harris.

*Player spotlight - Broncos LB Brandon Marshall: Unheralded relative to the other defensive players on the NFL's top defense, Marshall and WLB Danny Trevathan key a pass defense that allows less than 200 yards per game by taking away the short-area release valves Brady so often finds in the face of pressure.

*Fast facts: The Patriots are in the AFC Championship Game for the fifth consecutive season, which ties the 1973-77 Oakland Raiders for the NFL record. ... Manning is 2-2 in the postseason against Brady, including 2-0 since 2004. ... Edelman has 36 receptions in his past four playoff games.


Motivated by the mandible muscles of the chatty Broncos, Patriots QB Tom Brady puts on a vintage effort against the NFL's leading defense and a late Denver rally comes up short.

*Our pick: Patriots 26-22

--Jeff Reynolds.

Arizona Cardinals (14-3) at Carolina Panthers (16-1): NFC Championship preview

Sunday, 6:15 p.m. ET, at Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte - TV: FOX

*TV announcers: Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Erin Andrews, Chris Myers

*Keys to the game: QB Carson Palmer's final stat line looked solid enough in throwing for 349 yards and three touchdowns in Arizona's Divisional Playoff victory over Green Bay Packers. But coach Bruce Arians thought Palmer played tentatively in tossing a pair of interceptions and having multiple others come perilously close to being picked.

In fact, the offense struggled as a whole outside of WR Larry Fitzgerald's instant classic of a performance in hauling in eight passes for 176 yards and almost single-handedly carrying Arizona to the overtime victory with a 75-yard catch-and-run followed by a five-yard touchdown on a shuffle pass.

Beyond the numbers, the offensive line isn't creating many running lanes for rookie RB David Johnson and Palmer was under constant duress. Carolina smacked Seattle in the mouth last week with a dominating push into the backfield between the tackles to create long passing situations. Arizona's system is quite different than Seattle's and the Cardinals' deep receiving corps is one of the biggest mismatches on the field.

But Palmer can only take advantage of the Panthers' depleted secondary if he has manageable distances to work with and time to step up in the pocket. Johnson was targeted nine times last week, and underneath passes should factor in heavily again to complement the ground game.

Carolina doesn't try to hide its offensive blueprint and dares opponents to force a change in tactics.

The Panthers ran on nine of their first 11 offensive snaps last week, using four different ballcarriers to dictate the tempo and own the trenches. Outside of a 61-yard scamper by Eddie Lacy, the Cardinals allowed just 3.5 yards per carry to Green Bay after finishing sixth in rush defense during the regular season. RB Jonathan Stewart sat out practice midweek with a sore ankle but expects to be ready for a full workload Sunday.

It's no surprise Arians has identified TE Greg Olsen as a primary concern. He caught all six passes thrown his way against Seattle for 106 yards and two touchdowns, accounting for 73.6 percent of Newton's passing output. "If we take him out of it, that's about 40-some percent of (the Panthers' pass offense)," said Arians. "That's our goal. That's hard to do though."

ILB Deone Bucannon, one of Arizona's key run defenders, will share the responsibilities of tracking Olsen downfield. Expect CB Patrick Peterson to shadow WR Ted Ginn, the drop-prone speedster Newton loves to take vertical shots to when defenses begin to get super-aggressive in attacking the line.

*Matchup to watch - Cardinals WR Michael Floyd vs. Panthers CB Robert McClain: Carolina's kryptonite might prove to be a bunch of street free agents manning the corner spots outside of All-Pro Josh Norman. Whether it's McClain, Cortland Finnegan or anyone else, the Cardinals like the matchup throwing to the 6-4, 235-pound Floyd. Seattle's Jermaine Kearse, who lacks Floyd's size or speed, caught 11 passes for 110 yards and a pair of scores last week.

*Player spotlight - Cardinals S Tony Jefferson: With an increased role since the season-ending knee injury suffered by Tyrann Mathieu, Jefferson is coming off one of his best games as a pro. Playing all 73 defensive snaps and another eight on special teams against Green Bay, Jefferson produced a team-high nine tackles, including two for loss, and a pass defensed. The Cardinals' defensive backs are asked to be versatile, and Jefferson's play near the line of scrimmage will be critical in containing Stewart and Newton in the ground game.

*Fast facts: Fitzgerald has 10 career playoff TDs, tied for third most in NFL history behind Jerry Rice (22) and John Stallworth (12). ... Sunday will mark the 434th day since Carolina last lost at home. Their 12 straight home wins is the longest such streak in the NFL.


Cardinals QB Carson Palmer won his first career playoff game last week, but he was a dropped pick and a fortunate deflection away from being the goat as he struggled with decision making and accuracy under pressure. Carolina's defense will create plenty of uncomfortable situations. Meanwhile, the Panthers' offense is humming with QB Cam Newton continually showing the ability to move the chains in key third-down situations.

*Our pick: Panthers 31-23

--Derek Harper.

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