Logically, the Falcons should win. They’re the better team overall on offense and defense than the Packers. The problem is, they’re the Falcons. Despite the fact that the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Cubs have broken curses this year, I wouldn’t put my money on the Falcons overcoming a curse AND beating Aaron Rodgers. The Falcons have the talent to win, but I just can’t bring myself to pick them.
Prediction: Packers win
Pittsburgh Steelers @ New England Patriots
Sunday January 22 at 3:40pm PST
Neither the Patriots nor the Steelers looked great last year. The Patriots had trouble against the terrible Texans, but the Steelers couldn’t even score a touchdown. On the other hand, this week both teams will facing worse defenses, but much better offenses. My guess is it will be a close one, but I’m more confident in the Patriots. Ben Roethlisberger can be inconsistent and a decent portion of the Steelers’ roster might have the flu. The Steelers certainly have a chance to win, but the Patriots seem like the more likely AFC Champion.
There are plenty of melodramatic things to say about what might be the last time Peyton Manning and Tom Brady compete in an NFL game, but the real competition in this game is the Brady/Gronk duo vs. the Broncos‘ defense. The Broncos’ defense has been great, and the Patriots have had trouble running the ball. So, I suspect the Broncos’ defense will have to find a way to keep Brady from getting the ball to Gronkowski if they want to win this. That said, I really hope Peyton can pull off a fantastic performance, but even in his prime, he has rarely been a great post-season quarterback. Another ting to keep in mind: the Patriots have had trouble playing in Denver in recent years. The Patriots lost in Denver this season on November 29, 2015 and lost their last playoff game in Denver on January 19, 2014. I think this will be a close game, but the Broncos just won’t be able to put enough points on the board to keep up with the Patriots.
Prediction: Patriots win
NFC Championship Game
Arizona Cardinals @ Carolina Panthers
Sunday January 24 at 3:40 PST (6:40 EST)
This is, by far, the toughest game to predict of this post-season. Partly because I really like both teams, and mostly because both of these teams have been fantastic this season. The records speak for themselves, the Panthers‘ 15-1 record speaks for itself. Their only loss coming against the Falcons, which was clearly a fluke. The Cardinals have also had some funky losses: losing first to the Rams, then losing to a Pittsburgh Steelers team with Landry Jones at quarterback, and ending the regular season with a 36-6 loss to the Seahawks. The Cardinals and Panthers last met in the first round of the playoffs last year on January 3, 2015 in Charlotte. The Panthers won, but Ryan Lindley played quarterback for the Cardinals, in place of an injured Carson Palmer. Thankfully, Palmer will be available to play this time. Both Palmer and Carolina’s quarterback, Cam Newton, have had unbelievable seasons. I worry that Palmer’s finger is still injured, which may have led to his struggles in their game last weekend against the Packers. While Cam has been stellar, the rest of the Panthers’ offense isn’t quite as consistent as the Cardinals, who have Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, Andre Ellington, and Troy Niklas. The Panthers are totally reliant on Cam on offense. On the flipside, the Panthers’ defense is superior to the Cardinals’. Both Bruce Arians and Ron Rivera have had fantastic seasons. I can see either of these teams winning, but give the slight edge to the Panthers, as I think Cam has proven to be a better playoff quarterback, even if there isn’t much of a sample size.