Only four NFL teams still can entertain hopes of winning Super Bowl 50.
The Patriots visit the Broncos in Sunday’s AFC championship game and the Cardinals visit the Panthers in the NFC championship game.
It’s the first time since 2004 that the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in each conference are playing on conference championship weekend. Winning the Super Bowl has been a realistic goal for all four of these teams throughout 2015. Which of the four has the best chance of lifting the Lombardi Trophy?
The Broncos are the least likely of the four finalists to win Super Bowl 50 because they’re weakest at the quarterback position.
It’s no secret that the 39-year-old Peyton Manning doesn’t have the physical skills he did when he was younger. He’s older and wiser, but he’s not using that wisdom enough this week. He needs to tell his teammates to shut up. That Gillette Stadium bulletin board is filled with Broncos quotes.
Defensive lineman Antonio Smith said Tom Brady is going to “cry about getting hit,” according to NFL.com. Linebacker Brandon Marshall said that Rob Gronkowski “pushes off” and cornerback Chris Harris said the best way to stop Gronkowski is to “him him low” according to CBSSports.com.
Brady is already fired up this season because of Deflategate, and the Broncos keep pouring gasoline on that fire.
The Broncos’ chances of winning Super Bowl 50 would spike if they somehow get by the Patriots because they’d have more Super Bowl experience than their NFC opponent, but on Sunday they draw a Patriots team that’s starting to look like it did in the first half of the season.
The Broncos shouldn’t expect the Patriots to make the same mistakes the Steelers made on special teams. Unlike the Steelers, the Patriots are getting healthier.
Like the Broncos, the Cardinals didn’t exactly seem rejuvenated coming off their bye week.
They trailed for most of the second half against the Packers and allowed the roly-poly Eddie Lacy to gain 89 yards on 12 carries. Jonathan Stewart’s in better shape than Lacy.
There might not be a true No. 1 receiver among the Panthers’ stable of Ted Ginn, Jerricho Cotchery, Devin Funchess and Corey Brown. But Jeff Janis and Jared Abbrederis did some damage against the Cardinals on Saturday.
Greg Olsen is Cam Newton’s most potent target, and the Cardinals were among the league’s bottom 10 in receptions (89) and yards (929) allowed to tight ends.
Cardinals-Panthers is also the first playoff game of the Super Bowl era featuring two teams that average 30+ points per game.
— Chris Wesseling (@ChrisWesseling) January 20, 2016
The Cardinals’ offensive line is slumping at the wrong time. Arizona ran the ball 19 times for only 40 yards against the Packers and Carson Palmer was sacked three times.
The Panthers sacked Russell Wilson five times on Sunday, and he’s a lot harder to catch than Carson Palmer.
Of the four remaining teams, the Cardinals are the only one that would likely have to pull off two upsets to win Super Bowl 50.
The Panthers’ inability to put away the Seahawks in Sunday’s 31-21 NFC divisional playoff win might be a concern, but no matter how far they fell behind the two-time defending conference champions weren’t going to go quietly.
The Panthers (15-1) haven’t lost at home since Week 11 of the 2014 season. The Cardinals beat the Seahawks in Seattle, but that was before Russell Wilson went on his stretch of 24 touchdowns and one interception in the final seven games.
Cam Newton is the best NFL player still playing right now, and that gives the Panthers the second-best chance to win Super Bowl 50. If he has to take over the game to get the Panthers to San Francisco, he can do it. His offensive line has a lot to do with that.
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) January 20, 2016
Opposing quarterbacks combined for a 73.5 rating against the Panthers in the regular season, the lowest in the league. That’s not exactly what Carson Palmer needs to see coming off a game in which he threw two interceptions and two others that were dropped.
The Chiefs were second in the league with a 76.0 passer rating allowed, but Justin Houston played just eight snaps Sunday against the Patriots because of his knee injury. The Kansas City defense wasn’t able to fully test Tom Brady. The Carolina defense would if the Patriots face the Panthers in Super Bowl 50.
Among other things, Sunday’s AFC championship game is a matchup of the NFL’s top two teams in terms of sacks. The Broncos had 52 sacks in the regular season and the Patriots had 49.
Football Outsiders ranks the Broncos’ offensive line ahead of the Patriots’ when it comes to pass protection. However, the return of Julian Edelman gives Tom Brady a short-range target and allows him to get rid of the ball quickly. Edelman’s 10 receptions in the Patriots’ 27-20 divisional-round win over the Chiefs made all of the Patriots’ late-season problems go away.
Peyton Manning also has receivers he can throw the ball to on those underneath routes, but they couldn’t hang on to those passes against the Steelers. During their 15-year run of success, the Patriots have always forced opposing teams to try to do what they’re not comfortable doing. On Sunday, they won’t even give Broncos receivers a chance to drop those short passes because they’ll force Manning to throw the ball deep with that aging arm.
If that strategy works, the Patriots will have a decided advantage against their Super Bowl opponent because Brady and Bill Belichick know Super Bowls like the back of their hand.