Friday 19 January 2018 / 02:25 PM

AFC & NFC Championship previews

Yup, it’s happening once more.

Tom and Peyton are squaring off again in what will likely be (and I really mean it this time) their final head-to-head hoopla. (Well, unless they get the guy who built Darth Vader to take a look at ol’ wobbly-bones Manning.)

And we might as well get excited about it.

I mean, who knows? The Broncos might actually win!

Jokes about #18’s withering, feeble frame aside, the timeworn signal-caller in orange has still got heaps of tricks hidden up his sleeve and he only needs 120 more minutes of Hall-of-Fame magic to ride off into the sunset stroking a shiny new Lombardi trophy.

It’s really the kind of stuff storybook endings are made of. Minus Shrek.

To get your Manning-Brady juices flowing in anticipation of the big game, head over to for a killer collection of highlights from their epic 15-year rivalry.

And with that, let’s cue our AFC Championship Preview.

AFC Championship: New England @ Denver

The talk all week will (as we’ve already alluded to) naturally revolve around the play of both teams’ bedazzled quarterbacks, but if I had to put my money on this game’s true shapeshifter it’s Rob Gronkowski.

I predict that if the Broncos keep Gronk out of the end zone they’ll win. Just one TD? A tossup in overtime? Two-plus trips to pay dirt? Patriots are headed to Santa Clara.

He’s the one player on the field that no defense this season has truly had an answer for. Realistically, the only way to stop Gronkowski is to find a way to get Brady on his back.

Of course, not all players hold #87 in such high esteem:

Personally, I doubt that Gronk is truly getting an extra layer of star protection. He’s just such a big dude that defenders bounce off him like a ping pong ball deflecting against a full cup of beer.

I mean, I understand the desire to pull the “cheaters” card on the Patriots – but I don’t believe this particular complaint holds much water.

On the other side of the ball we’ll be looking for a strong running game and (hopefully) zero interceptions from Peyton Manning.Historical prowess aside, Manning threw 17 INTs to 9 TDs in the 2015 regular season and, face it, if his name wasn’t Peyton Manning he’d be third string in any other dimension with such a stat line.

Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson combined for 172 yards on the ground when Denver beat New England back in week 12. They’ll need to at least crack 100 to do it again.

Ironically, for the Patriots the best course of action will be to stack the box and force the Broncos to throw. Yes, that is how far down the totem pole Peyton has slid.

To me the G.O.A.T. argument is now officially in the books. If this game comes down to a quarterback duel, Tom Brady wins by a mile. An incredible amount of pressure will be put on Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware to get something going with the pass rush to disrupt Brady the old-fashioned way with pressure, sacks and bone-jarring hits. Fortunately, New England’s rushing attack is down to their 10th-string running back so there’s little risk for Wade Philips to go balls to the wall with his blitzing scheme.

NFC Championship: Arizona @ Carolina

For the first time ever, two Heisman-winning quarterbacks pit off against each other in the playoffs.

Add to the equation that Cam Newton and Carson Palmer engineered the league’s #1 and #2 scoring offenses respectively and we’ve got a dream NFC Championship to look forward to.

It’s funny how quickly the tides turn in the NFL, as until recently both clubs have been known first for their suffocating defenses.

And speaking of D, this matchup could come down to which club’s defensive unit is less apt to collapse in the 4th quarter. Arizona allowed Green Bay to force overtime in a game they could easily have controlled and Carolina was one muffed onside kick recovery away from allowing Seattle to come back from 31 to nuthin’ in theirs.

A. B. C.

Always. Be. Closing.

So, just as the AFC Championship may very well come down to how the Broncos can cover Rob Gronkowski, this tilt very much so hinges on what the Panthers do with Larry Fitzgerald – a man who really doesn’t want to spend Super Bowl weekend playing his second favorite sport.

#11 went off against the Packers and he could do the same against a Carolina secondary that doesn’t have enough Josh Normans to cover all three of the Cardinals’ top-tier receivers.

On the flip side, one has to wonder if the Cards will do the unthinkable and put their #1 DB, Patrick Peterson, on Tight End Greg Olsen. Olsen has quietly become the NFL’s second-most important player at his position and there’s no doubt he’s the Panthers’ top threat through the air.

And speaking of Panther threats – how about Jonathan Stewart last week? He was the first back to break 100 yards against the Hawks all season as well as the first RB to score a rushing TD against that same unit. Coupled with the dangerous legs of Cam Newton, Carolina boasts the most difficult running game to defend.

All up it’s hard to pick a favorite in this one. I’ll give a slight edge to the Panthers at home but I wouldn’t be surprised to see one of the highest-scoring Conference Championship games ever.

Either way, the NFC will be represented this year by a team that’s (0-1) lifetime in the Super Bowl.

The last time an (0-1) team made it to the Big Game (Seattle, 2014) they took home the title in resounding fashion. Against Peyton Manning, no less.

Could we be in for a replay in 2016?

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