After the road teams swept all four games on Wild Card weekend, the home quartet held serve in the Divisional Playoffs, setting up two marquee matchups among the top four seeds in the conference championship games.
The AFC Championship between the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos will kick-off the festivities at Mile High (Sunday, 3:05 PM Eastern), followed by the Arizona Cardinals at Carolina Panthers from Bank of America Stadium (Sunday, 6:40 PM Eastern).
New England (13-4, 5-3 road) at Denver (13-4, 7-2 home) – Spread: Patriots -3
The Patriots lost two straight and four of six to close the regular season but used their playoff bye to get healthy and took care of Kansas City on Sunday (27-20). Like they’ve done all season, the Pats relied on the arm of Tom Brady, throwing the ball 42 times while rushing it just 16. Even for New England, which was bottom-ten in the league in rushing attempts (23.9), that was an unusually low split. But without their top two RBs, LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis, we should see more of the same come Sunday against Denver’s top-tier rush defense.
The Pats’ own defense played surprisingly well this year, ranking tenth in the league in scoring and ninth in total yards. They were better against the run than the pass, which bodes well against a Denver offense that’s at its best when the ground game is effective.
Betting-wise, New England was able to cover as 5.5-point favorites on Sunday, bringing their ATS record to 8-6-3, overall. They’re also a profitable 4-1-3 on the road.
The Broncos got a solid performance from Peyton Manning in their win over Pittsburgh last weekend (23-16). His numbers weren’t overly flashy (21 of 37 for 222 yards and no touchdowns), but he didn’t turn the ball over, either, and would have had better stats if not for some drops.
That said, the Broncos aren’t in the championship game because of Manning; they’ll be playing on Sunday thanks to their defense. The unit gave up nearly 400 yards to Big Ben and the Steelers, but tightened up on its own side of the field and forced Pittsburgh into three field goals. As was their calling card early in the year, the D also forced a timely turnover; Bradley Roby knocked the ball out of the hands of Fitzgerald Toussaint midway through the fourth quarter, setting the Broncos up for the go-ahead touchdown drive.
This weekend’s game will be a rematch from November when the Broncos came from behind to beat New England in overtime (30-24) at Mile High, handing Brady and company their first loss of the season.
Denver pushed as touchdown favorites against Pittsburgh, thanks to a late field goal from Chris Bosworth. They’re now 9-6-2 against the spread and 4-5 at home. But Manning proved he can look after the football on Sunday and the defense is top-notch. Getting points with the home side looks like good value in this one.
- Pick: Broncos +3
Arizona (14-3, 7-1 road) at Carolina (16-1, 9-0 home) – Spread: Panthers -3
The Cardinals survived Aaron Rodgers’ second Hail Mary of the season on Saturday (26-20 OT), responding with a three-play, 80-yard TD drive on the first possession of overtime. Even with that crazy – and lucky – final Green Bay surge, Arizona had a nice day on defense, holding Rodgers to just 266 yards on 54-percent passing. They gave up one huge, 61-yard run to Eddie Lacy, but were otherwise solid against the rush as well. That kind of balance has been the theme for the Cards all year; they ranked top-ten against both the run and pass.
The Cards offense, which led the league in total yards during the regular season, was a little less impressive. Carson Palmer piled up 349 passing yards and three touchdowns, but he looked nervous for much of the game and threw two picks; he also had a couple more throws that should have been intercepted.
Arizona was a touchdown favorite against Green Bay and their backers got screwed by Rodgers and Jeff Janis on the final play of regulation. They’re now 9-8 against the spread, but a sparkling 6-2 on the road.
While Arizona led the league in yards, it was Cam Newton and the Panthers who led the NFL in scoring (31.2 PPG). The Carolina offense matched that number in the first half against Seattle, but were then shut-out in the second frame, hanging on for a 31-24 win.
The Carolina defense was absolutely dominant in the first half, intercepting Russell Wilson twice and shutting out the Seahawks for the first 30 minutes. The second half was a different story as the secondary got torched for several long pass plays, but the Panthers still finished the game +2 in turnover margin, adding to a league best +20 during the regular season.
Arizona will want to establish RB David Johnson and the run come Sunday but, in reality, may have to rely on Palmer’s arm more than ever. Carolina has the second-best rush defense in the league, but showed they can be beaten through the air.
The Panthers were only field-goal favorites at home against Seattle and covered with ease, putting them at 12-5 against the spread, including 7-2 in Charlotte. Carolina is laying just three points again this weekend. Against a Cardinals offense that looked shaky, at best, in the Divisional round, lay the points.
- Pick: Panthers -3.
(Photo credit: Zennie Abraham (flickr) [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/legalcode].)