As quickly as chaos entered the arena of play, it left. All four road teams won their Wild Card round games. All four subsequent lost in the Divisional round. With that, no team that opened the postseason two weeks ago will take the field on Sunday.
While injuries temporarily derailed both AFC participants at various times throughout the year, it is not a stretch to consider the four teams still alive the four best in the sport throughout the entirety of 2015. Upsets are always prevalent in the National Football League, but the top-two seeds in each conference have avoided such a fate. With a trip to the Super Bowl now on the line, it is time to determine which pair of teams is truly the best of the best.
Below are predictions for each game against the spread. Spreads have been taken from various websites and are subject to change. The spread in parenthesis denotes the selected team.
*Confidence Picks – 2015 Season: 69-45-2
(2014 Season: 61-46-2)
All Picks Against Spread – 2015 Season: 141-116-7 (Last Week: 2-1-1)
(2014 Season: 149-114-4)
New England Patriots at Denver Broncos (+3)
As long as Tom Brady and Peyton Manning continue playing in the National Football League, won’t it always come down to this? Even after Brady’s legacy was called into question one year prior and during the undeniable decline of Manning’s career, both quarterbacks propelled their teams into the Conference Championship game and provide yet another showdown between two of the greatest of all time.
For the first time in his career, Manning’s team made the playoffs despite him playing fewer than sixteen games. The 2015 Broncos — in a stark contrast to the past Manning teams — were actually built outside of Peyton Manning, instead of around him. With a defense that ranks first in the league in total yards, rushing yards-per-attempt, and net-passing-yards-per-attempt, the Broncos are an immovable object on one side of the field. Even as the offense hit a lull at times throughout the year, Denver was still able to secure the top seed in the conference via a 12-4 record in the regular season.
Of course, the regular season is long gone, and the Broncos will not only be led by a quarterback with a history of regressing in the playoffs — nearly all of Manning’s major passing categories see a statistical dip in the playoffs versus his career averages — but Denver will also be playing against arguably the most dominant postseason team of the past two decades. As a result, the fact that Denver is giving points to the road team — and, obviously, the lower seed — is not necessarily surprising.
The key is that Denver is only giving three points to a New England team that is 6-2 in its last eight playoff games, with all six wins being decided by no fewer than four points. Considering how New England has a habit of holding — and extending — leads, shouldn’t the spread be a few points higher?
As a general theme throughout his career, Manning has struggled against Tom Brady, head coach Bill Belichick, and the New England Patriots. A dismal 4-11 in the regular season, Manning’s numbers, again, take a dive when comparing his statistics against the Patriots versus his career averages. Logic would suggest that this dominance at the hands of the Patriots would carry into January, but this is where the trend is broken.
Despite losing his first two postseason matchups with the Patriots, Manning is 2-2 against New England in the playoffs. His past two games have accounted for a total of 749 yards, three touchdowns, and only one interception. Therefore, the suggestion that “Manning cannot beat Belichick” is not entirely debunked, but also not as consistent as we are commonly led to believe. Instead, it is more realistic to assume that the raised level of competition across the board negates the spotlight battle of Manning versus Brady and Belichick and highlights the Patriots and Broncos, as a whole.
New England opened its 2015 playoff game against the Chiefs with fourteen consecutive passing plays, which aligns with the team’s gameplan throughout the regular season — fifth-most passing attempts and seventh-fewest rushing attempts. With Denver’s defense thriving against both the pass and the run, New England will likely lean on its strength — the league’s top-scoring passing offense — to compete again. Naturally, this is a non-issue for the Patriots, as turning to Tom Brady in the playoffs is arguably the best-case scenario for a given team.
It is, however, also a foregone conclusion that Brady will thrive. So much so that the three-point spread was actually lowered from its open of three-and-a-half points. Simply put, if the spread shrinks despite the overwhelming majority backing the favorite, there is reason to believe that the number is nothing but a trap. After all, the Patriots already lost to the Broncos once, this season, and another upset is not an outrageous suggestion.
Ultimately, it won’t happen, as New England’s defense — top-ten in both points and yards allowed — is superior to Denver’s offense in most categories. Therefore, a potential shootout for either team is not to be expected, and the AFC Championship game will likely be decided by a late field goal, where New England and Stephen Gostkowski regain the edge.
The Patriots win by two points, but Denver beats the spread.
Arizona Cardinals (+3) at Carolina Panthers
What a difference a year makes. When the Cardinals and Panthers met in the opening round of the 2014-2015 playoffs, Arizona — decimated by injuries — traveled to Carolina to face a 7-8-1 team. The Panthers cruised over the hobbled Cardinals, ending Arizona’s previously magical season.
Since the start of 2015, both teams appeared destined to return the playoffs, although the Panthers’ journey ultimately outshined that of the Cardinals. 14-0 to start the season, Carolina defied all odds by somehow doubling its win total from last year, torching the league en route to home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Every step of the way, the Panthers were a risk to stumble. All but once, they continue gliding.
Had the Panthers not tested history with such a dramatically hot start to the year, the Cardinals would have been the talk of the league, not just the NFC. It was only via a three-game stretch that Arizona ever returned to earth, and the team carried its two losses with it until the final week of the season, always trailing the Panthers in the standings — and the hierarchy of the NFC.
By the time the Panthers lost their first game, the Cardinals had improved to 13-2, calling into question whether or not Arizona was actually the class of the NFC. As the Panthers dismantled the Buccaneers while the Cardinals were getting blasted by the Seahawks, the comments subsided, and the Panthers, once again, stood alone.
Perhaps the most surprising moment of the postseason, to date, was the first half of the Panthers’ opening playoff game, during which they established a nearly insurmountable 31-0 lead against the Seahawks. The explosion was so sudden and unrestrained that it seemed as if the Panthers could have continued pouring on points, at will.
Of course, they didn’t. No team does.
The Panthers suffered from a natural regression that is basically unavoidable when facing a team suddenly thrust into a position of desperation. The surprise is not that a Panthers team were victims of a common fate, but that this Panthers team — that is, one that had repeatedly avoided ‘letdowns’ — was at risk of blowing its second massive lead of the past four games — the Giants erased a 31-point lead in less than seventeen minutes of game time, only to lose. In addition, Panthers’ head coach Ron Rivera is famously known for taking risks, yet his team went into a shell when trying to protect a lead. If the bigger stage of playing in the postseason did not impact the Panthers in the first few minutes of the game, it certainly struck a nerve by the end of the contest.
Conversely, the Arizona Cardinals played nearly the exact same style of play in their first playoff game that they have all season — overly aggressive. Indeed, the method was almost too much for the Cardinals to handle, as they did allow a Hail Mary pass from Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers to tie the game and go to overtime, but the mistakes that Arizona made throughout the game were due to nothing more than poor execution.
Whether or not the Cardinals’ final game of the season is included in the equation — it quickly became apparent that Arizona was not intending to win in Week 17 — Arizona’s 13-3 campaign is every bit deserving of praise. They entered the season as arguably the most complete team in the league — without any discernable holes, the Cardinals rank in the top-ten of almost every statistical category — and they have methodically handled their business to this point. There is nothing that suggests Arizona will suddenly not be up to the task on Sunday.
The Cardinals win by a touchdown and beat the spread.