DES MOINES, Jan. 22, 2016 — For casual football fans attending parties, the Super Bowl is a big deal. They get excited over commercials, inane halftime shows, cheese platters and everything except the actual game of football. For leatherheads, the games before the Super Bowl are a very big deal. The Vince Lombardi Trophy for winning Super Bowl 50 will have to wait. There is some serious football to be played before that game.
The conference title games are upon us. The Super Bowl is frequently anti-climactic. The AFC and NFC title games are two thrill rides. The winners get to go to the Super Bowl. The losers know they came up just one game short.
With brutal weather belting many parts of the country, only the toughest teams will make it through this Sunday.
Usually, the NFC title game is played first. This year the AFC title game is the earlier game. Since there is no real advantage, the change is more an odd footnote.
What is more significant is that there are no party-crashing spoilers this year. Past years have seen some Conference title game shocking upsets. Not this year. The matchups that the league has dreamt about for weeks will be taking place. The four best teams will go at it. With that, here is the NFL 2015-2016 Conference Title Games Preview and Bettor’s Guide, with point spreads provided by ProFootballLocks.com and all times Eastern.
AFC Title Game: 2.) 12-4 New England Patriots (-3) at 1.) 12-4 Denver Broncos at 3 p.m. on CBS.
Football fans everywhere should cherish this game, regardless of the outcome. While they do not take the field at the same time, everybody knows that this game will add to the legacies of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. While Brady holds a healthy overall advantage, the playoffs offer a different story. They have met in four AFC title games, with each one winning twice.
Manning owns all the statistics. Brady owns the rings. They both own guaranteed first ballot enshrinement to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
In the regular season in Denver, New England blew a fourth-quarter lead as the Broncos won in overtime. Manning was out injured, and Brock Osweiler was supposed to be the new sheriff in town. Manning is back in the saddle, and the football world is back to reality.
While Manning is being derided now as a game manager, the same was being said of John Elway during his final season. The argument was nonsense then and remains so.
Yet for all the focus on football royalty, this will not be a glamorous game. This is shaping up to be an ugly street fight that will come down to the men in the trenches. Denver has a nasty defense. New England’s offensive line is patchwork.
New England started out 10-0 before stumbling to a 2–4 record down the stretch as injuries to the offense took their toll. While the Patriots will have key cogs back in the lineup, it is not easy to immediately gel again.
Two years ago in the AFC title game, the Broncos throttled the Patriots in Denver. Last year the game would have been in New England, although a stunning home loss by Denver in the divisional round prevented us from ever knowing what might have been.
Evil Hoodie Bill Bellichick is a genius, but another coach will be the sideline hero of this game. This Denver defense is better than the one that shut down Brady in 2013. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips will leave Brady battered, bruised, and by the end of this game, broken. For the second time in three years, Broncos fans will get to house the Lamar Hunt AFC Championship trophy. Upset special, Broncos win outright.
NFC Title Game: 2.) 13-3 Arizona Cardinals at 1.) 15-1 Carolina Panthers (-3) at 6:30 p.m. on Fox
These teams met last year in the NFL playoffs. The Cardinals were the far better team but were playing with their fourth string quarterback due to a set of devastating injuries. Carolina had a losing record but the home field advantage since they won their division. The Panthers won that game 27-16.
While the Panthers have the better record and again have the home field, the Cardinals might be the best team in football.
Cam Newton is this year’s NFL MVP, but the Arizona offense can score points at will in bunches.
Ron Rivera has the nickname Riverboat Ron, but it is Bruce Arians who is the most aggressive play-caller in the NFL.
When the 9-7 Cardinals led by Kurt Warner stunned the 12-4 Panthers in Carolina in 2008, it was Larry Fitzgerald lighting up the scoreboard rather than Steve Smith. Seven years later, and Fitzgerald is still torching opposing defenses.
Both teams have great defenses. Carson Palmer is a pure pocket passer, but Carolina has a ruthless front seven. Cam Newton is mobile, to say the least. yet Arizona likes to blitz the house.
Carolina nearly blew a 31-0 halftime lead last week, hanging on for dear life for a seven-point win. Arizona somehow allowed two Hail Marys and 96 yards in less than one minute, needing overtime and a favorable coin toss that also had to be done twice.
Teams with 15-1 records have been beaten before. Just ask the 1998 Vikings and the 2004 Steelers. Carolina is tough, but their secondary is vulnerable. With enough time, Carson Palmer can get the quick strike plays. Regardless of the score, Arians will keep his foot on the gas. Palmer will keep firing, which is exhausting on even the best defenses.
Arizona feels it was cheated last year. Players are on a mission, and being on the road will not stop them. Some teams adjust their passing attack due to bad weather. If the game is played in a blizzard, Arians will still throw the ball. Aggressive gambles frequently pay off. On this day, boldness wins. For the second time in franchise history, the Cardinals will hoist the George Halas NFC Championship Trophy. Upset special, Cardinals win outright.