My NFL Picks: Conference Championship weekend, including Patriots at Broncos and Cardinals at Panthers

We’re down to the NFL’s final four, and the top two seeds in each conference have made it to the Conference Championship games. After this weekend, we’ll know the two teams participating in Super Bowl 50, with the Patriots still alive to repeat as Super Bowl champions.

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No. 2 seed New England Patriots (-3.0) (12-4, AFC East champions) at No. 1 seed Denver Broncos (12-4, AFC West champions) 

The Sunday doubleheader begins with the AFC battle, featuring Patriots QB Tom Brady facing Broncos QB Peyton Manning for the 17th time in their careers, the fifth time in the playoffs. This time the matchup seems different than in the past, with Brady still at the top of his game and Manning no longer the player he once was. Although the Patriots beat the Chiefs by seven points last week, the game wasn’t as close as the score makes it appear. On the other side, the Broncos barely escaped with a 23-16 win last week over a Steelers team that was missing key offensive players.

The Patriots have a clear advantage in the passing game, with Brady throwing to the likes of WR Julian Edelman and TE Rob Gronkowski. The Broncos had a number of dropped passes by their receivers last week when Manning was able to get the ball to them. A telling stat from this season is that Brady threw more touchdowns in Denver (3) than Manning did (1), despite only playing one game at Manning’s home stadium. If the Broncos have a chance to win the game, it would be with their defense, which was fourth best in the league during the regular season. It’ll be tough to stop the Patriots offense, which is finally close to full strength after dealing with a number of injuries over the last couple of months.

This game is in Denver, but I don’t think home-field advantage will come into play in this one; the Patriots will win this game, and easily cover the three-point spread in what could be Manning’s final game with the Broncos — and perhaps the final game of his career.

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No. 2 seed Arizona Cardinals (13-3, NFC West champions) at No. 1 seed Carolina Panthers (-3.0) (15-1, NFC South champions) 

The Panthers host the NFC Championship game after going 15-1 during the regular season and beating the Seahawks a week ago. They are led by the probable league MVP, QB Cam Newton. The Cardinals needed overtime — and a lucky coin toss — to beat the Packers last week and make it to this game.

Like the Patriots, the Panthers have a clear advantage at quarterback, with Newton over the Cardinals’ Carson Palmer, who threw two interceptions last week but could have easily had another throw or two picked off. The Cardinals’ biggest advantage in this matchup is in its receiving core. WR Larry Fitzgerald is the best wide receiver in the game, with Panthers TE Greg Olsen the biggest receiving threat on his team. In the running game, Cardinals RB David Johnson had a couple big games late in the regular season, although he had just 35 yards on 15 attempts against the Packers. Panthers RB Jonathan Stewart returned to action last week after having not played since Week 14; in his return, he ran 19 times for 106 yards and 2 touchdowns, including a 59-yard run on the first play from scrimmage. Both teams have good defenses, with the Panthers finishing the regular season ranked sixth in the league, and the Cardinals finishing as the eighth best.

Like with the AFC game, I’m going with the favorite in this one. I expect the Panthers to win the game and, like the Patriots, cover the three-point spread.

If my picks verify, it’ll set up a Super Bowl 50 rematch of Super Bowl XXXVIII, when the Patriots beat the Panthers in Carolina’s only appearance to date in the big game. We’ll know by the end of the night Sunday if this rematch comes to fruition.

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