In the NFC, it's a first. In the AFC, it's a finale. When the dust settles, it's a fortnight to Super Bowl 50, with a captivating matchup guaranteed given any of the possible outcomes on Championship Sunday.
For the first time in NFL history, two Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks will start against each other in the playoffs when Carson Palmer and the Cardinals clash with Cam Newton and the Panthers for the NFC crown. In Denver, for the 17th and likely final time, future Hall of Famers Tom Brady and Peyton Manning will square off with no small parts of their legacies on the line.
It's undoubtedly a couple of dream matchups for the media and myriad fans, and a sure-fire bonanza for the NFL, but with only two games on the board and all eyes fixed upon them, there's nothing foolproof about the odds. Accordingly, this week's plays are smaller than usual, as there's no need to force action without value. This measured approach will ensure plenty of bankroll for Super Bowl props in two weeks. But first, two teams need to punch their tickets to the big game in Santa Clara.
Arizona/Carolina Over 47.5
As the league's top two scoring offenses, the Cardinals and Panthers combined to average more than 61 points per game throughout the regular season. In what projects to be a close contest, each dynamic offense can be expected to keep its foot on the gas from start to finish.
While both defenses are strong against the run, that opens the door to more passing, leading to more yards per play and less time ticking off the clock between snaps. This could leave both secondaries in trouble. Arizona is as deep and talented at wide receiver as any team still standing, and Carolina is thin in the defensive backfield behind All-Pro Josh Norman. The Cardinals claim the NFL's other All-Pro cornerback in Patrick Peterson, but they too lack depth behind him. Tyrann Mathieu's absence has left a hole in the secondary, as evidenced by Aaron Rodgers finding Jeff Janis alone for more than 100 yards on last week's game-tying drive for the ages to end regulation in Arizona.
With explosive plays in store, the chain gang is in for a workout in Charlotte.
Pick of the Week: Denver +10.5 vs. New England, New England/Denver Under 52 (Teaser)
Peyton Manning might not lead his team to victory, but that won't stop him from serving as a top factor for this ticket. His lack of arm strength, coupled with Bill Belichick's presence on the opposing sideline, means the Broncos can bank on the Patriots loading the box. This should minimize Denver's running and the short passing games and challenge Manning to win it with downfield throws, an uphill battle to say the least at this stage of his legendary career. Prior to their second-to-last drive last week against the Steelers, the Broncos hand't scored a playoff touchdown since their opening drive last year against the Colts - that's the equivalent of nearly two full games between trips to the end zone.
While points will be at a premium for Denver, it won't be a cakewalk for New England. If the Broncos are hosting the AFC Championship Game with such a limited offense, it follows that their defense is what makes them dangerous. Without a reliable rushing attack, even Tom Brady and the Patriots' offense should struggle to light up the scoreboard on the road against the league's best defense.
Teasing both the side and total of the same game in most cases is a dicey proposition, but this deep into the playoffs the value of doing so is at its peak. By the conference championship round, oddsmakers have a firm grasp of each team's true abilities. This means sharper point spreads and totals, which, in turn, increases the significance of the points a teaser provides. To support this logic, teasers on sides and totals in this round over the last eight years are a combined 55-9. Taking the Broncos up through 10 points and the total up to 52 crosses key numbers and makes this a strong candidate to further the trend in what looks to be a tight, low-scoring affair.
Conference Championship Record: 2-0
Picks of the Week: 12-5-1