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Saturday, January 23, 2016

NFL Playoff Predictions: Conference Championships

I need to start this column with an apology.  For the first time since this blog has started, I failed to post predictions for the early rounds of the playoffs.  In a way, I am sort of glad about that.  My online betting tickets show that I was not particularly prescient in the early rounds.  But, now we are down to four teams.  Time for me to stop hiding and get back to prognosticating.

New England at Denver:  Sunday at 3:05 p.m. EST on CBS.  The AFC title game features the two top seeds in the conference.  It also features two of the greatest quarterbacks of all time in Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.  But this is 2016 ... not 2006.  This is not the quarterback duel that it would have been a decade ago.  At this stage of their careers, Tom Brady is playing much better football than Peyton Manning.  On the other hand, on paper, Manning is surrounded by a better supporting cast.  That being said, the New England Patriots have two things that the Broncos do not.  The Patriots have Bill Belichick and Rob Gronkowski.

Bill Belichick is a defensive genius.  He will devise a game plan that will contain an aging Manning and the rest of the Broncos offense.  Meanwhile, no one can contain Rob Gronkowski.  This is even more true than ever now that Julian Edelman is healthy and back in the Pats' lineup.  This will be a close game into the fourth quarter, but Brady and Gronk will connect when it counts the most and carry the defending champion Patriots back to the Super Bowl.

Arizona at Carolina:  Sunday at 6:40 p.m. EST on FOX.  The NFC championship game is not a matchup that many predicted at the start of the season, but these two teams have proven throughout the course of the year to be the two best and most consistent teams in the conference.  These teams are fresh faces in the conference championships.  They also have some of the most likable players and coaches in the league.

The Arizona Cardinals have the type of team that should travel well.  Solid defense and a straightforward offense.  Also, the 6:40 p.m. kickoff should make the trip from the west to the east a little easier.  But, Sunday will be Cam Newton's moment to shine on the big stage.  Newton is simply the best player in this game, and he gets to touch the ball on every single offensive snap.  Cam will put his team on his back and lift Carolina to the Super Bowl.

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