Only four teams remain, and were it not for another OT controversy, one of those might be the Packers but taking nothing away from their victors the Cardinals we should have two intriguing [for different reasons] matchups this weekend. The Panthers take on the Red Birds, but before that, a small matter of Brady vs Manning XVII .
New England Patriots [12-4] vs Denver Broncos [12-4]
This battle of the two top AFC teams was all set up at one point in the season to be taking place in Foxborough, with the rise of the Patriots unbeaten start, and the potential decline of Mr Manning, but one OT game changed the entire complexion of the AFC playoff race [firstly] but it was never really decided until week 17.
New England, [despite the score line being close], was never really threatened by the Chiefs last week and came out comfortable winners. For the Patriots, who were ranked 6th in offense, 9th in defense, 5th in passing and 30th in rushing [through the regular season] seem to be getting all their players back from injuries at the right time , namely, Edelman, Gronk, Amendola, while defensively, although not quite as healthy, have placed Jerrod Mayo on season ending IR [shoulder].
Still, the Broncos will need to look out for
WR Keshawn Martin who is proving himself to be a more than capable receiver, and finished off the regular season [after getting a chance through injuries to ‘Dola, Gronk and Edelman] with 24 completions for 269 yards [11.2 yards per catch] scoring twice, appears to have moved up the depth chart ahead of LaFell and Martin caught two passes for over 50 yards last week, and is becoming a great source of concern for secondaries as he displays his abilities to hold on to passes, especially crucial drive extending ones.
DE Rob Ninkovich was a constant source of pressure to opposing backs, with 52 tackles [19 assisted] 6.5 sacks, 7 pass defences and a forced fumble in the regular season, was able to make 6 tackles [2 assisted] last week, and is really a key player to have out there since arriving in Foxborough, and you now that if there’s a tackle to be made near scrimmage, Ninkovich will be all over it.
FS Devin McCourty is often under the radar, given his position, but made 64 tackles [13 assisted] resulting in 1.0 sack, 5 pass defences and he also snagged a stray pass for a 27 yard interception return. This season was his first since 2012 where he failed to force a fumble, so perhaps he’s waiting for the AFC title game to do that, but while he may not be the first defensive player you think of when discussing the Patriots; he’s every bit as valuable as Ninkovich, Butler, Ryan and co. New England scored 29.1 points per game and racked up 374.4 total yards per game while giving up 19.7 points per game and conceding 339.4 total yards per game.
Denver came from behind to see off the Steelers in an entertaining struggle, and have at times rode the leagues’ best defence to get here, and the old adage is Defence wins championships. [Malcom Butler would agree].
Denver will be hoping to get their rush game going early to grind the Patriots D down, especially as the Patriots gave up 98.8 rushing yards each week and Peyton will be hoping that he won’t have to make too many pass attempts given his struggles throughout the regular season, but he can’t be entirely written off.
Denver will also be hoping that the case of the ‘drops’ that seemed to be plaguing their receivers last week are also cured. They were ranked 16th in offense, 1st in defence, and 14th in passing and 17th in rushing.
The offensive line have done a good job of keeping defenders away from their QB as Manning has only been sacked once in the post season [16 in the regular season].
ILB Danny Trevathan made 109 tackles [36 assisted] with 6 pass defences, 2 INTs with one of those returned for a 25 yard TD return [Week 13] and made 9 tackles [1 assisted] last week. People are extra cautious of outside line-backers, and the inside ones can do damage if that happens trying to clog a certain side of the field.
Former Patriots CB Aqib Talib made 45 tackles [6 assisted] while patrolling the back field with typical aplomb and made 13 pass defences, 3 INTs and returned two of those for pick sixes. Talib is still demonstrating the killer instinct that lured the Patriots to acquire him from Tampa in 2012.
WR Emmanuel Sanders caught 76 passes for 1135 yards [14.9 yards per reception] and scored six times in the regular season. Sanders caught 5 passes for 85 yards against the Steelers in what was largely a defensive battle.
Denver scored 22.2 points per game while gaining 355.5 total yards per game while conceding 18.5 points per game and giving up 283.1 total yards per game.
The teams have alternated wins in their last three matchups, and Denver winning the latest in Overtime back in November, could indicate a Patriots victory this weekend, but the last time these teams met in the playoffs, Denver saw off Brady and co and rode into the SuperBowl. There might be a score in it either way, but it would be surprising if there’s a blowout.
Arizona Cardinals [13-3] vs Carolina Panthers [15-1]
This was supposed to be [in some peoples’ eyes] a rematch from last year, with Green Bay duelling with the Seahawks, but the animals fought back and while in some aspects this could be a surprise NFC championship game, they are the two top NFC teams, based on record, so perhaps it would have been surprising if one of these two fell along the way.
Arizona, in most other seasons would be hosting this game, but the Panthers had an incredible run this season and only lost the one game so both teams might consider themselves favourites for that reason.
Arizona missed out on last years’ chance to play in a Super Bowl in their own back yard, but in a rematch from last year’s Wild Card encounter [Carolina easily won] Arizona will be doubly anxious to knock off the Panthers, and given that in last year’s game they were without their star QB, they could be in with a shout this time. The Cardinals are a much better with team with Carson Palmer, than without but that’s not to say they are one dimensional, or a one man team, they have plenty of talent, but Palmer knows to eke out every inch, that other QBs might not be able to.
FS Rashad Johnson, made 5 tackles [1 assisted] in the OT victory over the Packers, and registered a pass defence, and an INT of Aaron Rodgers and made 7 defences of passes and 5 INTs in the regular season.
Dwight Freeney LB, was the only Cardinal Defensive player to get to Aaron Rodgers last week [physically] and only make 9 tackles in the regular season, with 8 of them being recorded as sacks. Freeney in in the twilight phase of his career, so won’t be expected to play all the time, but when he takes to the field it’s usually bad news for opposing QBs. While all the ‘talk’ has been wouldn’t it be great if Larry Fitzgerald finally gets a ring, it could be better [at least for Freeney] if he gets a ring in what could be his final season.
With what could be a hotly contested defensive battle, the kickers will need to be called upon quite frequently, and in his second year, Chandler Catanzaro made 28/31 FG attempts with 53/58 Extra points successful, he is as good as they come, although with a little room for improvement perhaps, though he is perfect in the post season so far.
Arizona scored 30.6 points per game while accumulating 408.3 total yards per game and gave up 19.6 points per game and conceded 321.7 total yards per game.
For Carolina, the route to the end zone often comes through
Ted Ginn WR. While Ginn hasn’t yet scored in the postseason, he frequently found the end zone in the regular season with 44 receptions resulting in 739 yards [16.8 yards per catch] and 10 TDs. Ginn hasn’t really been able to settle down at any of his previous teams, but seems to have found a good match for his skill set, and the teams; playbook, back in Carolina.
OLB Thomas Davis made 5 tackles last week [1 assisted] and didn’t trouble Russell Wilson or his primary receivers, but being up 31 points at half time, he didn’t really need to, but 105 tackles in the regular season [30 assisted] and also made 5.5 sacks with 7 pass defences, 4 INTs and 4 forced fumbles.
DB Robert McClain has showed glimpses of what he can do, but the trouble for him has been sustaining it, and returned to Carolina for this season, after 4 seasons away [although he missed the entire 2011 season], and had a career year 2012 with Atlanta. McClain’s numbers in the regular season read 7 tackles [3 assisted] 1 pass defence and an INT [24 yards], although he made 8 tackles last week [2 assisted] and defended a pass successfully.
Carolina scored 31.2 points per game and racked up 366.9 total yards per game while conceding 19.2 points per game and gave up 322.9 total yards per game.
This could arguably be the game of the weekend, with the prelude which could also be a classic in the other game, this could be one fantastic weekend of football , and with just two weeks’ to go until the big game , all teams will be hoping their season doesn’t end at this point.