Submitted by Jim Hurley on Thursday, January 21, 2016 at 6:31 PM
OUR AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME PREVIEW: PATRIOTS-BRONCOS MIX IT UP IN THE MILE HIGH CITY
Who said there's no crying in football?
According to a couple of folks on the Denver Broncos, they say New England Patriots' QB Tom Brady - yes, a four-time Super Bowl champion - is a "crybaby" and a "whiner" and blah-blah-blah.
Now, if only the Broncos can put their money where their mouth is come Sunday afternoon in chilly Colorado ... after all, it's Denver that has not won a Vince Lombardi Trophy since the 1998 season and, ahem, the Patriots have won four of those shiny pieces of hardware since the start of the millennium (see 2001, '03, '04 and '14).
Perhaps the wrong team is chirping, eh?
AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
# 2 NEW ENGLAND (13-4) at #1 DENVER (13-4) - 3:05 p.m. ET, CBS
Folks, you have to go all the way back to the 2004 season to find the last time we've had a road betting favorite in an AFC Championship Game - remember New England (- 3) besting
Pittsburgh 41-27 in 11-degree weather in the Steel City? - and so right off the bat this matchup's a bit unusual in that particular pointspread regard.
It's not so unusual when you consider that this will be the second time in three years and the fourth time in all that we've had a Brady versus QB Peyton Manning throw-down to decide who goes to the Super Bowl. Brady and the Pats beat Manning's Indianapolis Colts crew in 2003; Manning's Colts got revenge in 2006; and then two years ago the Manning-led Broncos topped the Pats 26-16 before getting stomped by Seattle in the Super Bowl.
No kidding that Manning (9 TDs and 17 INTs this past regular season - 0 TDs and 0 INTs in last weekend's gritty 23-16 win/push against 7-point underdog Pittsburgh in an AFC Divisional Playoff Game) ain't what he used to be with arm strength, conditioning, etc. all part of the mix here while many in-the-know folks believe this has been one of Brady's best-ever years considering all the team's injuries along the offensive line and at wide receiver/tight end/running back. In case you'd forgotten, Brady threw for 4,770 yards with 36 TDs and 7 INTs in regular-season play and was super-sharp last Saturday in that 27-20 win/cover against 6-point underdog Kansas City in an AFC Divisional Playoff Game while throwing for 302 yards and a pair of scoring strikes to TE Rob Gronkowski.
And, while Brady-Manning XVII continues to get the lion's share of headlines this week while leading up to this title tilt, there's so much more that must be examined while studying/handicapping this duel in Denver:
For starters, the Broncos have become the masters of the one-score game - Denver is 10-3 SU (straight-up) in games decided by 7 points or less this season and that includes a perfect 3-and-oh mark in overtime games as Gary Kubiak's squad has beaten Cleveland, New England and Cincinnati in bonus time action or else this AFC West crew never would have landed the numero uno seed in the AFC Playoffs. The Broncos sport the NFL's top pass defense and the combo of a fierce pass rush starring OLBs Von Miller (11 sacks) and DeMarcus Ware (7.5 sacks) and that great last line of defense with a star-studded secondary makes this Wade Phillips-coached unit mucho tough to crack ... only one team scored more than 30 points in a game against the Broncos this year and that was back in Week 15 when Pittsburgh stormed back for a 34-27 win at Heinz Field.
No secret formula here - the Broncos must cave in Brady's pocket and make him throw some "rushed" footballs and then that defensive backfield starring CBs Aqib Talib and a banged-up Chris Harris must be in prime position for some picks or some PBU (passes broken up). Hey, you saw what Brady did to the Chiefs last week when they couldn't pressure 'em with no sacks at all.
Brady would like to speed up the tempo at times and get slot receiver Julian Edelman (10 catches last week) into a real rhythm and so one game plan for the Broncos is jam 'em at the line of scrimmage and disrupt the flow of New England's passing game.
Meanwhile, Manning does not necessarily have to be your proverbial "game manager" here - although his stats against Pittsburgh last Sunday included 21 completions for 222 yards - but he must detect when to surprise the Patriots' defense with inside handoffs to RBs C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman - we think they are the real offensive keys for the Broncos after combining for a rather underrated 110 rushing yards last Sunday versus the Steelers.
Forget about all the talk of "drops" by Manning's targets - WR Demaryius Thomas will be fine (although he dropped a ton of balls all year long) and WR Emmanuel Sanders (five receptions for a team-leading 85 yards last weekend) figures to make a couple of stretch-the-field plays here but the whole key is move the chains: The Broncos had a slim time-of-possession advantage last week (31:33-to-28:27) versus the Steelers and we believe the Manning-led Broncos' offense probably needs to have closer to 40 minutes possession time here in order to cop the smallish upset ... and make no mistake about it Denver PK Brandon McManus (5-of-5 FGs last week in an oft-windy stadium) can't miss.
Maybe you're of the mind that this Belichick vs. Kubiak coaching "matchup" is lopsided but do keep in mind the Patriots have lost seven post-season games (against 10 wins) the past 10 years and so it's not as if "The Genius" is infallible!
Current Line: New England (- 3) and 44.5 points
Spread Notes - New England is 9-6-2 ATS (against the spread) overall this season and that includes an 8-6-2 spread log when in the betting favorite's role. The Patriots, however, have failed to cover four of their last five post-season games played away from the friendly environs of Foxborough and that includes last year's 28-24 Super Bowl win in a pick 'em affair against Seattle. Note that Belichick and Company are a composite 4-5 versus the vig in nine prior tilts in the AFC Championship Game. On the flip side, Denver's 7-6-4 ATS overall this season and that includes a wobbly 3-5-1 spread mark as hosts. The Broncos own a perfect 4-and-oh spread record as underdogs this year (see our chart below) but keep in mind Denver had failed to cover five of its prior six games (between the 2012-14 seasons) when gobbling up points. In the last 10 years - including post-season games - Denver's 4-6 against the odds in its 10 head-to-head hoedowns with the Pats.
Here's the last three head-to-head meetings between the Patriots and the Broncos (note all home teams are in CAPS):
|2015||DENVER||+ 2.5||New England||30-24(ot)|
|2014||NEW ENGLAND||+ 3||Denver||43-21|
|2013 *||DENVER||- 5||New England||26-16|
- = AFC Championship Game
Here's the team-by-team charts for both the Patriots and the Broncos this year (note all home teams are in CAPS below and spread listed is according to the winner):
NEW ENGLAND (12-4)
|1||NEW ENGLAND||- 7||Pittsburgh||28-21|
|2||New England||+ 1.5||BUFFALO||40-32|
|3||NEW ENGLAND||- 14||Jacksonville||51-17|
|5||New England||- 9||DALLAS||30-6|
|6||New England||- 8.5||IND'POLIS||34-27|
|7||NEW ENGLAND||- 6.5||NY Jets||30-23|
|8||NEW ENGLAND||- 8||Miami||36-7|
|9||NEW ENGLAND||- 13.5||Washington||27-10|
|10||New England||- 7||NY GIANTS||27-26|
|11||NEW ENGLAND||- 7||Buffalo||20-13|
|12||DENVER||+ 2.5||New England||30-24 (ot)|
|13||Philadelphia||+ 9.5||NEW ENGLAND||35-28|
|14||New England||- 4.5||HOUSTON||27-6|
|15||NEW ENGLAND||- 14.5||Tennessee||33-16|
|16||NY JETS||+ 2.5||New England||26-20 (ot)|
|17||MIAMI||+ 10||New England||20-10|
|Div||NEW ENGLAND||- 6||Kansas City||27-20|
Div = AFC Divisional Playoff Game
|2||Denver||+ 3||KANSAS CITY||31-24|
|6||Denver||- 3||CLEVELAND||26-23 (ot)|
|8||DENVER||+ 2.5||Green Bay||29-10|
|10||Kansas City||+ 3.5||DENVER||27-24|
|12||DENVER||+ 2.5||New England||30-24 (ot)|
|13||Denver||- 6||SAN DIEGO||17-3|
|16||DENVER||- 3.5||Cincinnati||20-17 (ot)|
|17||DENVER||- 10||San Diego||27-20|
Div = AFC Divisional Playoff Game
JIM SEZ COLLEGE B-BALL NOTES
We have a question ... is the Big East really one of the cream-of-the-crop leagues this year or might it be a tad overrated?
We ask because checking out the latest numbers, there are two Big East teams boasting high-high-high RPI ratings and that includes #1 Villanova (16-2, 6-0) and #3 Xavier (16-2, 4-2) with the latter fresh off Tuesday night's 81-72 home loss versus 10-point underdog Georgetown.
It's our Jim Sez contention that both 'Nova and Xavier are nice, solid teams with legit shots to make it to the Final Four but press us on the issue right here/right now and we'd probably have seven or eight teams we like to get to the Final Four before choosing Jay Wright's 'Nova Wildcats and we'd likely go 10-to-12 teams deep before we gave you Xavier as a Final Four squad.
In other words, the Musketeers' aforementioned loss to G-town the other night shouldn't come as any great shock because overall the Big East power ratings/RPI rankings are simply too high right now. It's safe to say that six or maybe even seven teams from this 10-team conference will be "locks" to make the NCAA Tournament (also Georgetown, Providence, Seton Hall and Butler right now) but as far as putting Big East teams amongst the upper crust of this college basketball world, we say nay.
Maybe we'll be singing a different tune in March ... we shall see.
OUR NFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME PREVIEW - CARDINALS-PANTHERS CLASH IN CHARLOTTE WITH THE WINNER HEADING TO SB 50
MORE COLLEGE HOOP NOTES - HERE'S A PAIR OF DISAPPOINTMENTS
Go ahead and add up all the Super Bowl championships that the Carolina Panthers and the Arizona Cardinals have won in their respective gridiron histories and you come up with a big fat zero!
Okay, so we'll cut the NFC's top-seeded Panthers some slack here 'cause they've only been around since 1995 but you get the general idea.
The right to play in Super Bowl 50 is a big deal - and it's a really big deal if you've never won a Vince Lombardi Trophy before - and so you can expect some jangled nerves and some anxious moments here as these clubs collide Sunday in Charlotte.
Yes, we've seen the totals price rise this week as the good folks in Las Vegas figure roughly seven touchdowns will be scored here but that's counting on Carolina QB Cam Newton and Arizona slinger Carson Palmer trading darts for a full 60 minutes ... is that asking too much? Lots more to say in our Jim Sez NFC Championship Game Preview:
NFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
# 2 ARIZONA (14-3) at #1 CAROLINA (16-1) - 6:40 p.m. ET, Fox
They were the NFL's number one and number two scoring offenses this past 2015 regular season - the Carolina Panthers somehow overcoming the full-season loss of talented WR Kelvin Benjamin and yet still registering a league-best 500 points while the Arizona Cardinals were right behind at 489 points scored - and so maybe it shouldn't come as any great surprise that the totals price was drifting up towards 50 points as we closed in on Sunday's game.
The $64,000 question where it involves the Panthers is can they press the re-start button on their offense that zoomed out to a 31-0 halftime lead en route to the 31-24 triumph over 2.5-point underdog Seattle in an NFC Divisional Playoff Round Game ... or will QB Cam Newton (35 TD passes and 10 TD rushes this year) and Company stall against an Arizona defense that ranked eighth in the NFL in pass defense (allowed 230.4 ypg) and fifth in the league in rushing defense (yielded just 91.2 ypg on the ground)?
No doubt Newton's headed for his first-ever MVP award and he gets high grades for Carolina being unbeaten at home this year but you do have to wonder if Arizona's blitz-happy defense will reassess matters here and perhaps drop more folks into coverage while also "spying" the Panthers' megastar signal-caller - ask us and we think it's a big mistake for the Redbirds to "send the house" in passing situations as Newton could zoom past the rush and make hay with his legs. In fact, if Newton wants to set his own tone for this NFC Championship Game affair than some designed quarterback runs could freeze the Arizona front seven folks here.
On the flip side, Arizona QB Carson Palmer - yes, that other Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback in play here (the first time we've had Heisman Trophy-winning QBs face one another in a post-season game) - needs to get settled down early. Last week his 349-yard, 3-TD passing game in the wild 26-20 non-cover overtime home win against Green Bay was a tad misleading as Palmer made some incredibly inaccurate throws and that fourth-quarter, first-and-goal interception was a real amateur hour doozy. Let's face it: WR Larry Fitzgerald (8 catches for 176 yards and one TD) saved Palmer's proverbial bacon with that catch-and-run 75-yard play that set up the Palmer-to-Fitzgerald five-yard shovel pass score that won it just two plays after the long gainer or else critics in the desert would have been dissecting its quarterback play a bit more closely.
If the Cards are gonna lend their veteran slinger a helping hand here, than they better get the ground game in gear. Last week rookie RB David Johnson (15 carries for 35 yards) was awful while trying to pick-and-choose his holes and, in fact, the kid from Northern Iowa's been a dud in his last three games and so you begin to wonder if there might be some gimmicks shown here by third-year Arizona head coach Bruce Arians ... will we see WR Michael Floyd (two TD catches last week against the Packers) get some "touches" on reverses or might speedy WR John Brown line up in the backfield and be given some opportunities to bust free?
No matter how you slice it, the Cardinals need to get some aid from the ground game or else head coach Ron Rivera's Carolina crew is gonna come after Palmer full throttle and who's to say he won't toss one to the other side as Seattle's Russell Wilson did last week with that early-game disastrous 14-yard "pick six" by Panthers' LB Kuechly? The Panthers won't mind the matchup of Pro Bowl CB Josh Norman on the aforementioned Fitzgerald but it's what Arizona's other skilled players do here that likely decides this tilt.
Two other X-factors in play for this NFC Championship Game:
Carolina is used to this rather sloppy playing field at Bank of America Stadium - remember it was an issue for much of last week's win against Seattle - and so let's see if the Arizona defensive backs have trouble tracking Newton's targets whether it be favorite TE Greg Olsen or wide-out Ted Ginn, Jr. and mates. Everyone's looking to see Arizona CB Patrick Peterson "take away" half the field in the passing game but will he and his Redbird secondary mates be able to keep their feet here?
Finally, Newton discussed "Big Mo" last week referring to momentum within the course of a game and we've all seen Carolina gag up big leads this year - it wasn't only in last week's playoff game against Seattle - and so a two-TD or so lead by the Panthers here won't necessarily mean it's "lights out" for Arizona. Heck, you have to wonder if one of these games the Panthers are gonna blow a multi-score game and then not be able to hold off an opponent's late-game charge.
Current Line: Carolina (- 3) and 48 points
Spread Notes - Carolina is 12-5 ATS (against the spread) overall this season and that includes a nifty 10-5 spread log when placed in the favorite's role (and 5-2 ATS as home betting favs). The Panthers have split their eight pointspread playoff verdicts dating back to 2005 - the last time Carolina made it to an NFC Championship Game. On the flip side, Arizona is 9-8 against the Las Vegas prices this year including last weekend's non-cover 26-20 overtime win against 7-point underdog Green Bay. Note the Cardinals are 15-7 spreadwise as dogs in the Arians Era that began back in 2003 with the lone point-grabber this year coming in a 39-32 triumph at 3-point fav Seattle back in Week 10.
Here's the last three head-to-head meetings between the Cardinals and the Panthers (note all home teams are in CAPS):
|2014 *||CAROLINA||- 5.5||Arizona||27-16|
* = NFC Wild Card Game
Here's the team-by-team charts for both the Cardinals and the Panthers this year (note all home teams are in CAPS below and spread listed is according to the winner):
|1||ARIZONA||- 2.5||New Orleans||31-19|
|3||ARIZONA||- 7||San Fran||47-7|
|4||St. Louis||+ 7||ARIZONA||24-22|
|12||Arizona||- 8.5||SAN FRAN||19-13|
|13||Arizona||- 3.5||ST. LOUIS||27-3|
|16||ARIZONA||- 6||Green Bay||38-8|
|Div||ARIZONA||- 7||Green Bay||26-20 (ot)|
Div = NFC Divisional Playoff Game
|3||CAROLINA||- 9.5||New Orleans||27-22|
|4||Carolina||- 3||TAMPA BAY||37-23|
|8||CAROLINA||- 5||Indianapolis||29-26 (ot)|
|9||CAROLINA||+ 2.5||Green Bay||37-29|
|13||Carolina||- 6||NEW ORLEANS||41-38|
|15||Carolina||- 4.5||NY GIANTS||38-35|
|17||CAROLINA||- 9.5||Tampa Bay||38-10|
Div = NFC Divisional Playoff Game
AND THERE'S MORE COLLEGE HOOP NOTES!
The 2015-16 College Football season is really revving up - a whole bunch of teams already have 20-or-more games under their belts - and so it's high time we examine a couple of major disappointments among the "majors":
MICHIGAN STATE (16-4, 3-4) - No, it wasn't supposed to be this way in East Lansing where Sparty was thumping out its chest following the school's latest Final Four but instead Tom Izzo's team has been in a major freefall and left stuck smack dab in the middle of the log-jammed Big 10 Conference ... could this club actually have to sweat out an at-large bid come March Madness should this slide continue? The Spartans have lost back-to-back one-point games while heading into Saturday's home game against Maryland.
BUTLER (13-5, 2-4 Big East) - Here's the good news when it comes to the Butler Bulldogs: Right now they rank 15th in the land in scoring offense (averaging 83.3 ppg) and they're not afraid to go cheek-to-cheek with any opponent. The bad news? If the season ended today the Dawgs would be playing in those early-round Big East Tourney games and that's not what was forecast back in October when the "know-it-alls" believed Butler was the third- or fourth-best team in this league. Maybe lack of depth is a bigger problem than they thought in/around Hinkle Fieldhouse ... someone send for Norman Dale (a/k/a Gene Hackman).
NOTE: More AFC and NFC Championship Game News/Notes plus Hoops too in the next edition of Jim Sez.