By Steve Silverman
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If Sunday’s game was in 2013 or earlier, the “Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning” headline would be an accurate one to describe the AFC Championship game between the New England Patriots and the Denver Broncos.
But as we’ve moved into 2016, this confrontation is not about the passing exploits of the two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks.
At least not from the Denver standpoint. If the Broncos fall two or three touchdowns behind on Sunday, don’t expect Manning to remain under center the rest of the way. Head coach Gary Kubiak will be forced to turn to the stronger arm that belongs to Brock Osweiler if the Broncos are going to try to mount a comeback.
If Osweiler has the stronger arm at this point — and he does — the question should be why is Manning getting the start in the first place?
It’s because he has one of the greatest minds of any quarterback who has played the position. He can still read defenses and figure out the best play call based on the defensive set-up.
This is a difficult challenge under any circumstances, but when the Patriots are the opponents, it’s especially difficult. Head coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia are going to do everything they can to change the look of the defensive formation to make it difficult for Manning to read.
The Pats and the Broncos are both one-dimensional teams at this point. With LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis sidelined, the Patriots are going to be throwing the ball on Sunday, a lot.
With Manning limited by age, ineffectiveness and wear and tear, the Broncos are going to be running the ball, they hope a lot.
For either team to be effective, the defenses must step up and make plays.
The Broncos have had the best and most consistent defense in the NFL since the start of the season. The Patriots have also been very good, but not up to the standards of their opponent on Sunday. However, when it comes to stopping a limited offense, the Pats are fully capable.
The Broncos have not had a lot of success shutting down Brady over the years. They will pressure him, but as history has shown they’ve rarely been able to sack him.
The return of Julian Edelman gave New England more explosiveness in the divisional playoff game against Kansas City, and he should be sharper in this game after dropping a couple of passes against the Chiefs. Since Brady has a brilliant target in Rob Gronkowski, and two fine receivers in Edelman and Danny Amendola, the Patriots should be in a position to jump to an early lead and dictate the tempo.
If they don’t make big mistakes as the game progresses, New England should win and get a chance to defend its Super Bowl crown.
The Carolina Panthers have been the best team in football throughout the season, and quarterback Cam Newton will almost certainly win the MVP award when it is handed out Feb. 6.
He is a game-changing athlete who has enjoyed his best season, amassing 35 touchdown passes and 10 more on the ground.
Newton has basically risen to every challenge he has faced this season, including last week in Carolina’s 31-24 victory over Seattle. Forget about the Seahawks’ comeback in the second half. Carolina’s ability to sprint out to a monster lead over the two-time defending NFC champions was the most impressive aspect of that game.
The Arizona Cardinals were nearly as good as the Panthers during the regular season, and Carson Palmer will probably finish second to Newton in the MVP race.
However, the Cardinals were lucky to survive the divisional playoffs against the Green Bay Packers. Palmer threw two awful interceptions and at least two other passes that could have been picked off. He was nervous, and while his team survived in overtime, there is no reason to believe the Cardinals won’t be just as anxious when playing for the NFC championship, if not moreso.
The Panthers are at home, they have the best player and one of the most underrated head coaches in the NFL in Ron Rivera. Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians tends to get a lot of love as well, but it is Rivera who has the steady hand and it is Rivera who is not afraid to make the gutsy call when the game is on the line.
Look for the Panthers to keep rolling in this game. It should be close well into the third quarter, but Carolina will close it out with a strong effort over the final 15 minutes.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @ProFootballBoy