The NFL playoffs have almost reached the climax with the conference championship round. Only four teams — the New England Patriots, Denver Broncos, Carolina Panthers and Arizona Cardinals — are still alive, battling it out this Sunday for a spot in Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara. Our panel of NFL experts is back to make their picks.
The AFC Championship features the Broncos hosting the Patriots in a battle of the top two seeds in the AFC. Both teams finished the regular season 12-4, but Denver earned home-field advantage thanks to a thrilling overtime win over New England in Week 12.
Brock Osweiler started that game while Peyton Manning nursed a foot injury, but Manning has since retaken the job. With him back under center, the Broncos struggled on offense in the Divisional round, but they did just enough to get past the injury-depleted Pittsburgh Steelers. Brandon McManus was the hero of the day, kicking five field goals to give Denver the win despite being outgained in total net yards, 396-324.
The Patriots also got some key players back since that Week 12 loss. Julian Edelman returned to the lineup in the Divisional round and looked as elusive as ever, helping Tom Brady and the Patriots beat the Kansas City Chiefs, 27-20. The Patriots struggled in the second half of the year, finishing the regular season with just two wins in their final six games, but they're getting healthy at the right time and Bill Belichick should never be underestimated in the playoffs. Our experts favor them by a 5-3 margin to reach the Super Bowl for the seventh time in Brady and Belichick's careers.
The NFC Championship has the potential to be the best game of the entire season, with the Carolina Panthers hosting the Arizona Cardinals. Carolina went 15-1 in the regular season, with its only stumble being a loss to divisional rivals the Atlanta Falcons. The Cardinals went 13-3 and won the NFC West with ease.
These two teams reached the conference championship game in different fashions. The Panthers boat raced the Seattle Seahawks in the first half of the Divisional round, taking a 31-0 lead into halftime. They took their foot off the gas and allowed Seattle to score 24 unanswered points in the second half, but the damage had already been done. MVP front-runner Cam Newton is looking for the first Super Bowl appearance of his career.
The Cardinals nearly suffered a heartbreaking loss last week, allowing the Green Bay Packers to tie the game thanks to yet another ridiculous Hail Mary by Aaron Rodgers at the end of regulation. However, Larry Fitzgerald took over in overtime, getting loose for a 75-yard catch-and-run down inside the 10-yard line then taking a shovel pass from Carson Palmer into the end zone for the 26-20 win.
The Panthers and Cardinals are the two best teams in the NFC and no matter the result, we should be in for some riveting television. Our experts favor the Panthers to move on, but it's only a slight 5-3 consensus.
Here are the complete picks.
|Conference championship||Ryan Van Bibber||Stephen White||Joel Thorman||David Fucillo||Danny Kelly||Matt Ufford||PFT Commenter||OddsShark|
|NE vs DEN||NE||DEN||NE||NE||NE||NE||DEN||DEN
|ARZ vs CAR||CAR||CAR||ARZ||CAR||CAR||ARZ||ARZ||CAR|
And here the updated results for the season.
|Ryan Van Bibber||Stephen White||Joel Thorman||David Fucillo||Danny Kelly||Matt Ufford||PFT Commenter||OddsShark|
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