The boxing cliché that “styles make fights” says that contrasting strengths make for the best competitions, and the matchups in the AFC and NFC championship games this weekend are all of that. And these extend far deeper than just Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning. Besides, those two aren’t ever on the field at the same time anyhow.
Other matchups are far more relevant to game conduct and outcomes.
Both championship games involve teams with head coaches from opposite sides of the football. Offense vs. defense. Both games.
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Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians is a go-downfield boss who reined in quarterback Carson Palmer in a overtime win against the Green Bay Packers. Arians says now that the Cardinals will get back to their core style, the one that made Arizona No. 1 in total yardage and No. 2 in points per game.
Against him is Ron Rivera, he of the ’85 Bears, aggressive defense (part of where he and Lovie Smith diverged sharply) and the No. 6 overall defense.
Bill Belichick’s legend owes in very large part to the quarterbacking of Brady, but in even larger measure to Belichick’s New England defense.
Against that will be former NFL quarterback Gary Kubiak’s Denver Broncos, the one offense among the final four not ranked in the top three in points scored. But the Broncos also the only one who didn’t have its starting quarterback for all 16 games, yet was solid enough to win five games starting a backup quarterback (Brock Osweiler).
Offenses vs. defenses
In one of the key tipping-point stats:
Arizona ranks No. 1 in yards per pass play. Palmer’s 8.70-yard average is nearly a full yard more than Cam Newton’s (7.75) for Carolina. Carolina is No. 2 against the pass.
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Meaning: The NFC championship game has the conference’s best passing offense against its best pass defense.
The only defense better per pass than the Panthers is the Broncos. Only the Pittsburgh Steelers (No. 2) and Cincinnati Bengals (No. 3) were better than Brady and New England in the AFC this year. The Broncos did allow seven pass plays of 20 yards or longer in defeating Pittsburgh in the divisional round, but more than half were short tosses with yards after catch, and the Broncos didn't allow Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers a single touchdown pass.
Meaning: The thing that the Patriots do best — pass the football — is the thing that the Broncos are best at stopping.
If there is a decision point in either game, it is in turnovers. And then only in the AFC.
Three of the four remaining quarterbacks — Brady, Manning, Newton — have thrown zero interceptions in their one-game postseasons. Palmer, in what was a decidedly shaky playoff game, threw two. Carolina led the NFL with a plus-20 turnover differential. Arizona stood fourth with a plus-9.
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Carolina had the NFL’s best passer-rating-against this season (73.5). No team intercepted more than the Panthers’ 24 pass pick-off’s. Turnovers decide football games and if Palmer and the Cardinals commit them in Charlotte, they will lose.
Brady-Manning? The two rank 5-6 with nearly identical career passer ratings, reflective of ball security. The Broncos led the NFL in sack rate and ended the Steelers season with a final takedown of Roethlisberger.
But the Patriots were 4-2 in games in which Brady was sacked three or more times. Denver defensive lineman Antonio Smith said that Brady may whine a bit, looking for penalty flags, when he’s hit, but Smith also said that hits don’t particularly faze Brady, either.