NFL Conference Championships

The final four, NFL Conference Championships will be played this coming weekend and the match-ups are intriguing, as they usually are every year. Water Cooler Talk will give you the insight of each game and tells you what to watch for when the game play occurs. So kick back, relax, hide the monitor from the boss and let Water Cooler Talk help you be the sports guru of the office this week.

Since the playoffs expanded to the current 12-team format in 1990, this is the first year in which the #1 and #2 seeds from each conference have met in the conference championships. What makes this weekends games so intriguing, is that each of the four teams have had completely different paths coming into this weekend.

The Carolina Panthers started 14-0 before losing Week 16, but finished strong at 15-1 and clinched home-field advantage throughout the playoffs Week 17.

The Arizona Cardinals started their season 4-2 before ripping off 9 straight wins before losing Week 17, a loss in which head coach Bruce Arians sat his starters in the second half of the game after Seattle was trouncing them on both sides of the ball and knowing Carolina had all but sealed their home finale.

The Denver Broncos offense has fluttered all season with and without Peyton Manning and didn’t clinch the AFC West and home-field advantage until Week 17 thanks in part to the Kansas City Chiefs long winning streak and the Bengals and Patriots late-season blunders.

The New England Patriots lost 4 of their final 6 games which ultimately led them to the #2 seed. Injuries to the offensive line and their two biggest play makers in Gronk and Julian Edelman had a lot to do with their late season stumble.

New England at Denver:  The Patriots seem to be healthy with the return of OL Sebastian Vollmer, WR Julian Edelman and TE Rob Gronkowski. Each of these players had an impact on Saturday that helped lead the Patriots past the Chiefs. Brady wasn’t sacked, Gronk had 2 TDs and Edelman had 10 receptions for 100 yards. Seeing how a depleted Steelers offense weaved their way through Denver on Sunday, this offense should be licking their chops.

While the Patriots confidence in their offense should be high, the same can’t be said for the Broncos offense or defense. Manning struggled at times to throw the ball and his receivers had numerous drops. The wind may have factored into most of the mistakes, but numerous mistakes need to be avoided in the playoffs. In order to advance to the Super Bowl, the Broncos need to get their pass rush to Brady to throw off the timing patterns on defense while limiting turnovers and converting third downs to avoid giving the ball to Brady on offense. If Denver can do this, with what should be a very energetic home crowd, they may just make it to San Francisco.

Many are hoping for Manning to get to the Super Bowl and ride off into the sunset with another championship. While that would be a good story, I just don’t think it’s going to happen. Brady and Belichick have the winning ingredient which will lead them to their seventh appearance in the Big Game. The Patriots will win a scrappy, hard fought affair, 26-20.

Arizona at Carolina:  When looking at Arizona’s season between weeks 7-16, you’d have said they’re legitimate Super Bowl contenders, but their last two games have to say otherwise. After getting embarrassed in their regular season finale, they were barely able to escape the Packers last week, a team in which they dominated in Week 16. The loss of Tyrann Mathieu was a big blow and his absence is really starting to show defensively. Their offense has big-play ability on seemingly every snap, but the run game is a huge factor into that success. If David Johnson can’t get rolling early, those big plays may not be there for Arizona on Sunday against a stingy Panthers defense.

The first 30 minutes of games have been fantastic for Carolina for much of the season to this point, but it’s the last 30 minutes of the game which has Carolina fans referring back to the 2003-2004 Cardiac Cats. Big leads have turned into small margins of victory against the Colts, Packers, Giants and now the Seahawks. Besides this obvious mishandling of the offense and defense after halftime, there really isn’t anything bad to look at. The offense has big-play ability on the ground and through the air and the defense simply smothers runners and receivers at will while threatening to get to the quarterback on nearly every play. The Panthers need to frustrate Carson Palmer early and limit the run game like they did against Seattle early. Big lead or not after halftime, in-game adjustments will play a major factor if they hope to advance.

I anticipate smash-mouth football for a full 60-minutes on Sunday thanks in part to two physical defenses on the field. One turnover could mean the difference, so both QBs will need to protect the ball and not take unnecessary risks. I think the home-field advantage will ultimately help Carolina move on to San Francisco and they’ll move on to face the Patriots with a score of 28-21.

There you have it, the Patriots and Panthers will advance in what will be a rematch of Super Bowl XXXVIII.

That’ll do it for this week’s edition of Water Cooler Talk. Be sure to follow me on Twitter (@JasonSaulter) if you like what you’ve read and be sure to check out other blog entries. Enjoy the games on Sunday and have a great week and weekend everyone.