And then there were four. And for once, you can say they’re likely the best four teams in the NFL this season. No teams like the Giants squeaking into the tournament and then wreaking havoc en route to the Lombardi Trophy. Actually…that’s kind of a shame. I love it when stuff like that happens.
So when I think about the two games tomorrow, I’m torn between what I want to happen and what likely will happen. In the interest of fairness and my self-imposed duty as your geeky prognosticator, I’m going to base my picks on what likely will happen, all else being equal. I kind of hope I’m wrong on both these.
I know…I feel like the Doctor trying to explain why he can’t break time, then he goes and does it anyway. Doesn’t matter. On with the picks!
New England at Denver: How much can a really great defense carry a team? Pretty far, actually. That first Ravens Super Bowl win sticks out in my mind for having a ferocious D and Trent Dilfer at quarterback, and with due respect to Dilfer, all the quarterbacks this weekend are better than he was. That said, and until proven otherwise, Peyton Manning isn’t what he once was. Statistically, the Denver defense and the Patriots’ offense are matched well, and I would give a slight edge to Denver there as long as they’re able to create turnovers and stall drives. They’ll have to double-team Gronk — who, I imagine, prefers being double-teamed off the field rather than on it — and put Aqib Talib on Julian Edelman to try to shut him down. It’s tough shutting down an offense like New England’s, but if a tiny, rag-tag bunch of underfunded revolutionaries can blow up three planet-sized superweapons in a galaxy far, far way, anything is possible. Tom Brady remains one of the best, and Denver will have to show him some new looks and knock him off his Uggs a few times if they’re going to rattle him.
On offense, Manning’s passes still lack a bit of zing, and his receivers are going to have to do a lot better job adjusting and, you know, actually catching the ball. Of course, at this point Manning is far more valuable as a game manager behind center — he can kill you with his mind. (Not really, but you get the idea…and the geek reference, no doubt.) He has two running backs who could theoretically top 100 yards apiece, and just enough left in his arm to keep New England honest. So to stop Denver, New England is going to have to furiously stuff the run and put pressure on Manning, forcing him to use his arm and find his quick-outlet receivers. The Denver line is going to be under the gun all day and will have to play its absolute best game to prevail, opening holes in the run game and keeping Manning’s jersey clean. It would also behoove the Pats to come up with some new looks and unpredictable wrinkles to keep Manning honest, because I’m sure Manning has seen every defensive play the Pats have made this year and stored it in his Terminator-style super-computer brain.
This is likely Manning’s last hurrah, while Brady has shown he can still compete at an extremely high level for at least another couple seasons. On a personal level, I want to see Manning get one more crack at a ring. But I think Brady instead will try for one for the thumb. Pick: Patriots.
Arizona at Carolina: Oh, man, this is going to be so good. I may have to crack open one of my Ommegang bottles for this one, it’ll be that good. Or even my 2013 Old Rasputin. I’m gonna savor this game. It’s got two of the best QBs in the game not named Brady or Manning, and two defenses that can really hit hard. Yet both teams have had some inconsistencies that can lead to upset either way. For Arizona, their bread-and-butter is attacking downfield. The Panthers have a good secondary, so Carson Palmer way want to think about his criminally underused tight ends and slot receivers in the middle. Otherwise, take some shots down the field against corners not named Josh Norman and see what you get. And don’t forget the run game. Rookie David Johnson has been pretty darn good — let him run and keep the Panthers D honest. Then wait until the second half for the defense to fade so you can catch up!
That Panthers tendency to throw big numbers up in the first half, only to start crocheting and thinking about tea-time in the second half, has got to worry Carolina fans. You cannot afford to run out of gas and let up, on either side of the ball, when a trip to the Super Bowl is on the line. How does an offense put up 31 points in the first half against Seattle’s great defense, then goose-egg the second half while allowing Russell Wilson 24 second-half points? Weird. Don’t do this, Panthers, because Carolina can make you pay. On offense, unleash tight end Greg Olsen and work the middle of the field. Let Cam Newton be who he is, because he’s pretty darn awesome. Be methodical and don’t give the Arizona secondary too many shots at downfield interceptions, because they’re really quite good at that. Arizona, for its part, needs to keep Newton contained and force him to throw under pressure. Rattle him early and often.
Again, this is a consistency matchup. The team that can be more methodical in advancing the ball on offense and containment on defense will take this one. And this is much more of a close game than Broncos-Patriots. It really could go either way, and I wouldn’t mind seeing Carson Palmer get his shot at a ring, either. Cam Newton will have many more years to grab his. However… Pick: Panthers.
Last week’s record: 3-1
Playoff record: 7-1.