4 out of 4 on Divisional Weekend means we’ve got the line-up we thought for the Championship games, but that certainly doesn’t make picking these penultimate two games of the season any easier at all! For the first time in a while, we’ve got the standout four teams in the league actually making up the last men standing and it’s the first two seeds in both divisions, so there aren’t many arguments to be had.
So let’s get to breaking down these potentially classic matchups, starting at Mile High with a clash of titans.
New England Patriots 27-24 Denver Broncos
While there are two very competent teams indeed in opposition here, it will all be about Tom Brady vs Peyton Manning, two legendary quarterbacks with a sure-fire spot in the hall of fame when their careers do come to an end. Brady may be facing a tougher defense than Manning on the night and with the crowd hyped up to max and the Denver pass rush in his face, it’ll be a huge test (yet again) of his mettle, however, he’s closer to the height of his powers than Manning seems to be at the moment.
There are worries about Manning’s arm strength and his constitution under severe pressure and while I think these are mostly overblown, he certainly does seem to be off on a lot more throws than he was before the neck injury. The game could come down to who gets hit the least and who has enough time to complete their progressions.
I’ve already hinted at the fierce Denver pass rush and the Pats’ o-line will have to be at their best to help Tom Brady, but the Patriots have some pass rush of their own - Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins may well be two of the most dynamic and explosive players at their position and you shouldn’t underestimate their impact on this game.
It’s a tough call, but watching how the understrength Steelers pushed the Broncos all the way in the divisional round, the efficient Patriots just look like they have the tools in their locker to take this game, even though you just know it’ll be tight.
Arizona Cardinals 20-31 Carolina Panthers
At one point last week, it looked as if both of these teams could have blown comfortable-looking leads but while the Panthers held on well in the end against the Seahawks, the Cardinals had to turn it on in overtime to overcome the stubborn Packers.
In doing that though, they showed that they can take any team apart with their tooled-up offense and their defense, even missing Tyrann Mathieu, is a force. However, if you watch the first half of Carolina’s divisional matchup with Seattle, you’ll find it hard to think anyone can mix it with Cam Newton’s swag machine.
The manner in which they nonchalantly disposed of Seattle in that first half was eye-poppingly good and if they can harness that same intensity and quality for 30 minutes here, it would be extremely difficult for Carson Palmer and co. to peg them back. Luke Kuechly and Cam Newton are the heartbeats of the two units and if the Cardinals can’t get some kind of lock on them early on, the game could be gone before they have a chance to get in it.