NFL Conference Championship Picks
A majority of the comments I have received over the past few weeks have been about my skewering of Chiefs head coach Andy Reid. My readers pleaded with me about his coaching record, and his playoff appearances, and the success he’s had in Philly and now Kansas City. Well, in response, I refer you to his clock management in the final 3 minutes of last week’s game in New England. For those of you who don’t watch much Chiefs football (who does) this is what Andy Reid does. His schemes or gameplans or personnel moves are not what makes him a bad coach, it’s his damn clock management! He’s done it for years! His excuse after this one: “We didn’t want to leave any time on the clock for the Patriots.” As thankful as I was for Reid’s clock blunder, wouldn’t it have made more sense to score as quickly as possible, and leave that time on the clock for your defense to stop the Pats after you try the onside kick you have a 5% chance of recovering? I can’t believe he still has a job in the NFL. Sorry, just had to get one last Andy Reid crack in before the end of the season. Maybe I’ll somehow sneak another shot at him into my Super Bowl preview. We’ll see. Alright, here are my picks for today’s games:
Patriots (-3) at Broncos
You know those movie series that just go on one movie too long? Rocky V? The Godfather: Part III? I have the same feeling about Brady v. Manning part XVII. That’s 17 for those of you who weren’t sure. Full disclosure, I had to look it up–roman numerals are hard. The first 16 installments of the Brady/Manning rivalry have each been given the billing of a prize match by the media, and almost every single meeting has met the expectation. Brady and Manning always play each other close. 11 of the 16 times they’ve played each other, the game has been decided by 10 points or less. The games are always memorable, whether it’s good or bad. As a Pats fan, I’m still not sure what’s worse, an hour long conversation about the Keith Faulk 4th and 2 play in Indy, or shock therapy. It’s a toss up. This week, the game has received the same billing it has in the past; the meeting of two of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time, playing for the highest stakes possible, in a matchup that will only enhance the already immense legacy of the winner. Fortunately, I was able to keep myself from drowning in the overplayed narrative this time around. As much as the media, or all of America for that matter, want this to be the same Brady/Manning rivalry we’ve seen 16 times before, that’s not what we’re going to get in the AFC championship game. Just like the final episodes of the Rocky/Godfather series, this edition of the Brady/Manning saga is going to be so far from the standard of the previous ones that we universally agree to forget about it in 10 years when we discuss the Brady/Manning rivalry. Bet you didn’t even know there was a Jaws 3, did you? That doesn’t mean this game won’t be good. It could even be great. But it won’t be a Brady/Manning classic, I can promise you that. Peyton just isn’t skilled enough on his own anymore. If Denver wins this game, it will be on defense, and by running the ball (I can’t wait for Peyton to make me eat my words on that one).
Fact: Tom Brady has thrown more touchdown passes (3) in Denver this season than Peyton Manning (1). Is that stat relevant? Absolutely not. But I found it and felt the need to throw it in somewhere. We can all agree that the NFL’s worst nightmare is the idea of Roger Goodell having to hand the Lombardi trophy to Brady, Belichick and Kraft, right? It would be the ultimate cherry on top of the embarrassment that Deflategate was for the NFL. That’s why I’m 100% convinced that the NFL purposefully assigned Ed Hochuli to be the head official for this game. Since 2008, the Denver Broncos are 6–0 in games officiated by Ed Hochuli. The Patriots? 3–4 in Hochuli games since 2010. This had to have come down from the top. This has Fidel Goodell written all over it. Alright, I get how ridiculous this must seem to those of you outside of New England and the annex of Massachusetts that is my home. But New England Patriots fans, after a year filled with insults, accusations, and a smear campaign directed by the NFL to besmirch the image of an American hero, have developed a persecution complex, and a fear that the NFL is always someway, somehow conspiring to take down Tom Brady and the Pats. But, as with everything the NFL has thrown at the Patriots over the past year, the Pats will be able to overcome the hurdle of Ed Hochuli. Do I sound crazy/biased enough yet?
When the Patriots have had all of their offensive weapons available to Tom Brady this season, the team hasn’t scored less than 27 points in any game. With the trio of Edelman, Amendola, and Rob Gronkowski, the Pats move the ball too well for any defense to really keep them off of the scoreboard. Watching Peyton and the Denver offense operate last week, it’s going to take Peyton Manning using something like, I don’t know, let’s say HGH, to put up the 28+ points necessary to hang with the New England offense. The only way for the Broncos to stick around is by disrupting the Patriots passing game, and keeping this a low-scoring game. Anyone who’s watched Pats football since about week 12 knows that they threw their running game out the window after losing both Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount for the season. They’ve since been reduced to Brandon Bolden and what appears to be a 54-year old Stephen Jackson at running back. It’s honestly hard to watch. The Patriots offense right now is entirely contingent upon their passing game. Thus the way for Denver to stay in this game is to get to Tom Brady, and throw a wrench into the New England aerial attack. And the Broncos are built to do exactly that. Finishing the season with an adjusted sack rate of 8.1%, Denver compiled 52 sacks during the regular season. They got to opposing quarterbacks more than any other defense, and if they can get to Tom Brady, and throw the Patriots off of their offensive rhythm, the Broncos can hang around in this game.
I’ll admit, I don’t like that this game is in Denver. Every Patriots fan knows the two places that Tom Brady struggles are Denver and Miami. I don’t know what it is about those cities, maybe it’s the thin air, or the club scene, or the weed, or the humidity, but things always go wrong there. Heading into this game, Tom Brady is 2–6 all-time in Denver. Since 2009, the Patriots have gone 1–2 At Mile High. In the two losses, Tom Brady was totally hamstrung when it came to his receiving options. Here were his top targets:
2013 AFC Championship game: Julian Edelman, Austin Collie, Shane Vereen, Aaron Dobson, and Matthew Mulligan.
2015, Week 12: Scott Chandler, Rob Gronkowski, Brandon LaFell.
Any passing attack that features Austin Collie and Matthew Mulligan is certainly suspect. This week, Brady will have his full arsenal of weapons at his disposal. That’s a huge difference that needs to be considered. Last week’s offensive performance against Kansas City was definite proof of how different the Patriots offense is with Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola in it. It’s also worth noting that the Patriots had the 9th best run defense this season, allowing just 98.8 yards per game. The Broncos are going to be running the ball primarily, and they’ll get their fair share of yardage. But if the Patriots can contain the run, and force Peyton Manning to make big throws, the Broncos won’t be able to move the ball effectively. It’s what the Steelers did for 3 quarters last week, and it worked well for them until Mike Tomlin decided to phone in the 4th quarter. I can’t see Denver’s banged up secondary containing the New England offense, and I don’t think they can keep up with the Pats if they hit their patented 27+ points. I’d also like to remind you that the Broncos have won 10 of their 13 games this season by a touchdown or less. They don’t dominate teams. They kick field goals, run the ball, hang around, and then pounce on the opposing team’s late mistakes. The Patriots don’t really make many mistakes. We’ve seen plenty of crazy things transpire throughout the Brady v. Manning rivalry, but I think this one is pretty black and white. By the way, I’ll be watching Saw VI, The Hangover 3 and a few other disappointing sequels in preparation for this game if anyone wants to join me.
Patriots (-3.5) over Broncos
Cardinals (+3) at Panthers
I’ll apologize now to my Carolina and Arizona readership, I’m not going to write 1,000+ words about this game like I just did with Patriots/Broncos. It’s not happening. There just aren’t the same storylines here for me to talk about. That being said, this is an intriguing game. With weird performances last week, the Panthers and Cardinals have left us with a lot of questions. The Panthers played an absolutely flawless first quarter last week, and then scored just 10 points the rest of the game, leaving the door open for a Seattle comeback. I’m not going to put too much stock into that–it’s hard to keep your foot on the pedal, especially when the opposing team is desperate and your defense spends the entire second half on the field–but it’s still concerning. The Cardinals played an uncharacteristically weak game against Green Bay, and were beaten on two do-or-die Hail Mary’s in the Packer’s final drive. I don’t remember a lot of Super Bowl teams who let that happen. Then again, I don’t really remember ever seeing anything like that happen anyway. That sequence of consecutive Hail Mary’s was pretty unbelievable. I’ve never seen anything like it! How did we not get Aaron Rodgers the ball again in that game! WE NEED TO CHANGE THE OVERTIME RULES!
Sorry, the sensationalist sports media personality in me came out for a second. My bad. I’ll try extra hard to contain myself during this game when Cam Newton has the audacity to celebrate a touchdown and then subsequently hand the ball to a child in the stands. I’ll tell you, it’s going to be tough. Honestly, since about week 10, this has felt like Cam Newton’s year to make the Super Bowl. He and the Panthers have consistently dominated nearly everyone they’ve played so far, and have been doubted and questioned the whole time. Doesn’t all sports movie history point to the black quarterback, who has been chastised all year by the media for being “cocky”, proving all of the haters wrong and getting to the championship game? If that doesn’t, here’s what might: The Panthers are 9–0 at home this season, and haven’t lost there since 2014. Cam Newton has accounted for 27 touchdowns and just 1 interception in his last 9 starts. The Panthers defense boasts not one, but two potential defensive player of the year candidates in Josh Norman and Luke Kuechly. The Panthers are now 16–1 on the season in games in which at least half of the media is doubting them. I think that they may finally actually be good. I don’t know, just a hunch.
For you Cardinals fan who are still upset about how poor your defense looked on that final drive, I have a stat to cheer you up. Since 1975, the Arizona Cardinals are undefeated in games in which they give up two, 50+ yard Hail Marys on one drive in the final minute of regulation. Fine, that’s only happened once, and it was last week when they won, but still. One thing no one (including me) had considered going into last week’s game was that Carson Palmer had never won a playoff game. I built him up before that game figuring he’d look just as strong and confident as he had in the regular season. He could not have looked more lost going up against the aggressively average Packers D. His throws were off, he was mistiming his receivers’ routes, and the errant interception he threw late in the game was indefensible. I was pretty disappointed with the way he played. If that’s how he looked going up against the Packers’ secondary, I’m concerned about how he’ll play against Carolina’s DBs. At the same time, Arizona’s secondary has the personnel to smother Cam Newton’s receivers. Outside of Greg Olsen, the Panthers posses a group of nothing-to-write-home-about wideouts who have miraculously performed particularly well with Cam Newton this year. But I don’t care what anyone tells me, Ted Ginn Jr. is as run of the mill as run of the mill gets. If I’m Bruce Arians, I let Greg Olsen get his yards, and I make sure my defensive backs take the receivers out the game. Take away Cam’s options, and you’ll force him into mistakes.
Here’s what I know about Charlotte, NC: They just got slammed by snow. The storm hit them overnight Friday into early Saturday morning , so by game time it will have been over 24 hours since the snow subsided, but that doesn’t mean the field conditions are going to be great. Last week in the divisional round, the field was an absolute mess, and it neutralized a lot of the speed on both sides. This week the field is going to be frozen and torn up. I have a feeling it’s going to be a really ugly, really close game. I don’t know who to go with here. They’re both really strong teams, but I don’t actually know how strong either is. Had either one played complete games last week, this would be a lot easier. With the bad weather and strong defenses, I anticipate this game coming down to a play or two on offense, and if that’s the case, I’ll take Cam’s athleticism and playmaking ability over anything Carson Palmer can do. And hey, it only took me 919 words to break this game down. Under 1,000 words, just like I promised. To quote Sarah Palin, “I’ve never been known for my brevity”.
Panthers (-3) over Cardinals.
By the way, when you’re watching the AFC Championship Game listen to how Nantz and Simms commend Peyton’s impeccable audibles and hand-offs. It’s unbelievable. They could not be more in the bag for the Manning family. On an unrelated note, Peyton and Nantz employ the same agent, share a cabin in Deer Valley, and spend their June Sundays feeding each other seedless fruits.
Enjoy your weekend football everyone!