Jesse Pantuosco (@JessePantuosco): I don’t need to tell you how high the stakes are—but I will anyway. This weekend will decide which two teams are headed to Super Bowl 50 (no Roman numerals this time) in Santa Clara. So let’s cut to the chase—who do ya got?
Last week was full of nail-biters but I think New England will win by a pretty comfortable margin Sunday against Denver. I know Tom Brady hasn’t had much success in Denver over the years (2-6 lifetime at Mile High) but the passing game did whatever it wanted Saturday against Kansas City and I think that will carry over into the conference championship. Chris Harris looked spent against Pittsburgh and I think he’s going to have a really hard time against Julian Edelman. With Peyton Manning pretty much reduced to a game manager, I just can’t see the Broncos keeping pace with the high-octane Pats.
The second game on Sunday’s schedule should be much more compelling. I still don’t really have a clue who’s going to win, but my gut says Carolina. It’s at home, the Panthers beat Arizona in the playoffs last year (admittedly, that was without Carson Palmer) and if you look past their sluggish second half on Sunday, the Panthers looked pretty dominant against Seattle. Palmer was a nervous wreck against Green Bay and even Patrick Peterson let his guard down on Aaron Rodgers’ Hail Mary. Both teams are stacked but Cam Newton hasn’t been making mistakes (one INT in his last nine games) and I think that’s going to be the difference. The Panthers have lost just one game this year and I think it’s time we stop doubting them.
Who do you guys think will join Coldplay in Santa Clara?
Evan Silva (@evansilva): Picking favorites has been an effective strategy so far this postseason, and I'm sticking with Conference Championship favorites New England (-3) and Carolina (-3) this week. The Patriots got healthy at the right time and are a better team than the Broncos. I also believe the Panthers are a better team than the Cardinals, or at least they’ve played better recently. Arizona hasn't looked like a Super Bowl contender in either of its last two games, and Carson Palmer hasn't played a great game in over a month. I do believe Cardinals-Panthers could be close because there are holes in Carolina's pass defense across from Josh Norman. But there are also holes in Arizona's secondary across from Patrick Peterson, and Arizona's run defense has been vulnerable recently, giving up over 5.00 yards per carry to running backs over its last three games.
I think the Patriots might win in a blowout. I think Cardinals-Panthers will be something like 27-23 with Carolina pulling it out. The Panthers haven't lost a home game since November 16 of 2014.
Graham Barfield (@GrahamBarfield): Like Evan, I'm on the Patriots and Panthers as well. When Denver and New England met in Week 12, the Pats were without Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower left early with an injury. Both are healthy now. I really don't see how the Broncos move the ball consistently unless Peyton Manning and the passing offense shows something we haven't seen since 2014. New England could end up smashing Denver, especially if Chris Harris Jr. (shoulder) is limited in the slot against Julian Edelman.
I'm tempted to take Arizona -- the Panthers secondary has allowed three straight games of 300-plus passing yards to Matt Ryan, Jameis Winston, and Russell Wilson -- but I do think this game will at least hit the over (currently at 47.5). If Carolina pressures Palmer consistently, they can mask some of their shortcomings in the secondary outside of Josh Norman.
Patrick Daugherty (@RotoPat): I'm going to stick with the chalk. Even though the game is in Denver, I just don't see how the Broncos can stop the Patriots. The Pats looked re-oiled last weekend, and the Broncos' offense is one of the worst in the league right now. Throw in the fact that Chris Harris will be at significantly less than 100 percent, and you have a game that might not be all that competitive. It would take a herculean effort from Peyton Manning — one he hasn't had all season — for the Broncos to win.
I think the 16-1 Panthers will keep rolling in the NFC. Evan is right that the Cardinals have looked out of sync for a bit now, and the game being outdoors in Carolina instead of Phoenix's fast track is a big deal. Cam Newton is just out of his mind. He was again last weekend against a team that had won the conference the previous two years. The Cardinals are tough and have weapons galore, but their defense has faded since Tyrann Mathieu's season-ending injury.
Jeff Brubach (@Jeff_Brubach): I'm siding with Carolina in the NFC. This would be a decent spot to take the underdog Cardinals but Carson Palmer looked shaky last week against Green Bay, which concerns me as they go on the road to play the Panthers. As long as Carolina takes care of the ball, they should give the world two straight weeks of Cam Newton coverage prior to Super Bowl 50.
In the AFC, I am going to roll with the Broncos. Favorites have dominated this postseason, but I feel comfortable enough in the Denver defense at home to take the dog here, despite the status of Chris Harris. It will take a big effort from the Denver ground game to push the Broncos by the Patriots but I'll side with the home team.
Raymond Summerlin (@RMSummerlin): I am going with Carolina in the NFC. Carson Palmer was shaky for most of the Divisional Round contest, and the Panthers lead the league in takeaways for a reason. They are opportunistic, and they will take advantage of Palmer’s mistakes if he does not play better. I also agree the Cardinals defense is not the same. Justin Bethel is a problem, and the pass rush has not been there the last couple weeks. They also uncharacteristically had breakdowns against the run against the Packers, especially on a specific outside zone run which utilized the fullback to create confusion. I am sure they will work on maintaining their responsibilities this week in practice, but no running game is more diverse and tough to stop than Carolina’s. They should throw some run-game wrinkles at the defense early.
On the other side, I am going with the Broncos. The “Peyton Manning played poorly” narrative from last week is overblown. He made several plays that would have led to extended drives, but the receivers let him down. The offense is going to be conservative with Manning under center, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. On the other side, I would like the Broncos’ chances on defense a lot more if Chris Harris were completely healthy, but he should still give Julian Edelman problems. Brady was not sacked against a good pass rush last week, but that was because he got the ball out as quickly as he has at any point this season. Most of that was Edelman’s ability to do whatever he wanted against the Chiefs secondary. Even with Harris banged up, I do not think it will be as easy this week. I will take the Broncos at +3.5 and higher if I can get it because I see this as a close game regardless, and I believe Denver will squeak out another win.