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NFL Picks – Conference Championships

Is this the end? Could Sunday be Peyton Manning’s last game in the NFL? Maybe. Probably. Yes. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)

Last Week:  3 – 1 – 0
Playoffs:      7 – 1 – 0

Sunday, January 24 (3:05PM ET)

(2) Patriots at (1) Broncos
I planned on picking the Patriots to win all of last week. Then I began writing out my picks and foolishly fell in love with the idea of the Chiefs defense playing so well that Kansas City would pull the upset. I will not allow the same to happen this week.

Denver can’t score. It’s hard enough for them to move the football. The Broncos had 14 possessions against the Pittsburgh Steelers last week. Only two of those drives amassed more than 37 yards. Seven went for 18 yards or fewer. That type of offensive “production” may suffice against a Steeler offense missing it’s top two weapons and sporting an injured quarterback, but it won’t be enough against a Patriot offense that is as close to 100% as its been since Halloween.

At least Peyton Manning was honest enough to admit last week that it was the Denver defense that has been carrying the team. Without that defense the Broncos are a 7 win team this year. Even the talents of Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders haven’t been enough to mask Manning’s dramatic decline since December 2014. New England will jam Denver receivers at the line, forcing Manning to hang in the pocket. Either the pass rush will get home or Manning will need to squeeze the football in tight spaces or hit receivers downfield. He’s proven incapable of both for over a year now. The ground game is Denver’s only saving grace, and even that comes and goes with no explanation.

I know the Broncos boast the NFL’s top defense, but even the defense hasn’t been great of late. The Steeler offense left so many points on the field. Markus Wheaton dropped what would have been a 32 yard touchdown on 4th and 1 early in the 1st quarter. While nursing a one point lead in the 4th quarter, the Steelers drove to Denver’s 34 before Fitzgerald Toussaint fumbled. All Pittsburgh needed was a two score edge in that game and Denver would have been in trouble. That’s why I can’t give the Broncos more than a puncher’s chance. Tom Brady and the Patriot offense may not light up the scoreboard Sunday afternoon, but if they get to 24 points or can squeeze out a double digit 2nd half lead, Manning and the Bronco offense will be sitting ducks. New England’s lack of a running game scared me into picking the Chiefs last week. I won’t be tricked again. PATRIOTS If I were Charles Barkley; Patriots -3.5

Sunday, January 24 (6:40PM ET)

(2) Cardinals at (1) Panthers
I’m not right about many things, but there are three things I’ve nailed in recent years. 1. Chip Kelly was a bad choice. 2. Chipotle is gross. 3. Cam Newton is the future. Well the future is now. Look around the NFL. Is there a single player you could offer the Panthers in exchange for Cam Newton where they don’t hang up on you? Outside of Aaron Rodgers, I can’t think of one. Even a Rodgers for Newton flip isn’t a no-brainer. When I posed this question to myself, my initial response was, Rodgers is amazing. Look what he dragged to 10 wins and within a few plays of the NFC title game. Then I remembered what Newton dragged to a 15-1 record en route to the NFC title game; Teddy Ginn Jr, Jericho Cotchery and Corey Brown. That’s a better receiving corps than Green Bay’s. Look at Newton’s stats compared to Rodger’s…
Newton: 3,837 YDS, 59.8%, 35 TD, 10 INT, 99.4 Rating
Rodgers: 3,821 YDS, 60.7%, 31 TD, 8 INT, 92.7 Rating

Newton also rushed for 300 yards more than Rodgers and scored nine more rushing touchdowns. Please understand, I am in no way bashing Aaron Rodgers. I’m simply arguing that Cam Newton has proven himself worthy of being one of the NFL’s top three players, if not the best. Obviously, Newton had the benefit of one of the NFL’s top defenses and Rodgers did not, but based purely on offensive output, Newton had a slightly better season than Rodgers despite a weaker cast of skill players.

Anyway, I’m not paying too much attention to the Panthers 2nd half last week against Seattle. It’s human nature to let up and lose intensity in that situation. The great Gregg Popovich hates large leads in the 1st half because he knows his team will loose focus and time permits the opponent to capitalize on that lack of intensity. The big lead also forced Carolina into a weird position where they wanted to continue running the football against the NFL’s 2nd best run defense. While throwing the football was the best option to move the football, it was also counter productive to burning clock. Putting the football in the air also increases the chances of a big turnover, which was the one thing Seattle was missing in their comeback attempt. Given their lead and only one half of football remaining, I was one of the few that didn’t have a real problem with how Carolina handled that 2nd half. In order for Seattle to win, the Panthers would have had to help them.

The Cardinals pose a more significant threat to the Panther’s historic season than Seattle. Arizona can run the football and send three receivers to challenge your secondary. The Seahawks made a killing throwing to the side of the field opposite Josh Norman. If Jermaine Kearse can run wild like that, imagine what John Brown can do. David Johnson is also a receiving threat out of the backfield. I imagine the Cardinals will use that to burn Carolina on one of those classic Jim Johnson safety/CB blitzes Sean McDermott loves to use.

Pressure will be key for Carolina. Carson Palmer had a great season, but he’s still Carson Palmer. The Packers got to Palmer early and kept him off balance. He easily could have thrown 3 or 4 interceptions had the Packers held onto the football. As mentioned earlier, McDermott is a Jim Johnson disciple. He’ll make it a priority to hit Palmer early and often, not allowing him to find a groove.

Carolina’s big 31-0 lead in the Divisional Round neutralized Cam Newton’s arm. The Panthers aerial assault will be on full display this week. People love talking about Arizona’s defense but they’re susceptible in the passing game without the injured Tyrann Mathieu.

The Panthers also have a semi-secret weapon. Despite 600 rushing yards this season, Newton hasn’t totally unleashed his legs. In a wise move, the Panthers wanted Newton to be healthy all year so limiting his exposure to big hits was key to their overall success. In 2014, nagging injuries always hampered Newton. When he took a knee in the huddle he looked like a senior citizen as he attempted to stand. I’m not sure there’s a single player in the postseason as healthy and fresh as Newton. With a big lead last week Newton opted not take off downfield. With a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, I’m expecting Newton to unleash his full fury. PANTHERS If I were Charles Barkley; Panthers -3

*****

Last Week: 2 – 2 – 0
Playoffs:     4 – 4 – 0

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