It's now less than 48 hours until championship Sunday in the NFL and both the AFC and NFC title games remain separated by a field goal on the line. With most expecting Patriots-Broncos and Cardinals-Panthers to be closely contested, the difference in the outcome will likely be which team triumphs in more of the key matchups. Let's take a closer look at some of the most important battles to be played out in Sunday's gridiron wars.
New England Patriots (-3) at Denver Broncos
Patriots offensive line vs. Denver Pass Rush
Led by pass rushing dynamos Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, the Broncos collected 52 sacks during the regular season to easily lead the NFL in that category. This fierce pass rush played a big role in Denver finishing with the No. 1 overall defense and top pass defense.
Miller finished the regular season with a team-high 11 sacks, while Ware had 7.5 during the regular season and added one more last week in the Broncos' win over the Steelers. This week they will certainly plenty of chances to rush the passer. Bill Belichik and the Patriots have completely forsaken the run and have left it to Tom Brady's right arm to survive and advance. It worked last week against the Chiefs in Foxboro. But will it against the NFL's best defense in the Mile High City, where Brady is just 2-6 all-time?
The Patriots offensive line was banged up for most of the year but now has its full complement of starters. That's a good start for New England. And, of course, Brady releases the ball so incredibly fast it can be almost impossible to get to him. It won't be easy, but Miller and Ware-who did sack Brady once in the Broncos' 30-24 Week 12 win over the Patriots by the way-will have to make an impact.
C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman vs. Patriot Front Seven
It's been well-documented in recent weeks how Peyton Manning has transformed into a "game manager." The Broncos offense is now about eliminating risks in the passing game and pounding the rock. This makes Anderson and Hillman absolutely critical for Denver.
In last week's win over the Steelers, the duo combined for 110 yards on 31 carries and a touchdown, with Anderson scoring on a 34-yard touchdown run. Even more encouraging for the Broncos, in the Week 12 matchup, Denver rolled up 179 yards on the ground against the Pats.
New England ranked ninth in the NFL against the run during the regular season with just 98.8 rushing yards allowed per game. The Patriots front seven received plenty of hype during the first half of the season, with some saying it could be one of Belichik's best ever. That talk quieted a bit as the season wore on. In New England's Week 16 loss to the Jets, they allowed 143 rushing yards, and last week Kansas City averaged 4.2 yards a carry while tallying 135 yards on the ground. The other concern for the Patriot's is one of its defensive leaders-Jerod Mayo-was placed on injured reserve this week with a shoulder injury.
How this matchup plays out figures to go a long way in determining the winner.
Arizona Cardinals at Carolina Panthers (-3)
Carson Palmer vs. Carolina Secondary
Carson Palmer had perhaps the best regular season of his career and last week earned his first playoff win. It was a much-deserved victory for the former Heisman Trophy winner. Now Palmer must try for his first playoff road win against perhaps the most well-rounded team left in the playoffs.
The Panthers have been solid, if not elite, against the pass this season. They ranked 11th in the league against the pass during the regular season with 234.5 YPG allowed, which is perfectly acceptable. You could point out that Seattle last week and the Bucs in Week 17 each had 300-plus passing yards against Carolina. But, in both cases the opposition faced big early deficits and were forced to the air early, which padded the passing stats.
The Panthers finished with 44 sacks during the regular season, which ranked sixth in the NFL, and they feature one of the league's best cover corners in Josh Noman. Things don't figure to come easy for Palmer, Larry Fitzgerald, et al.
Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert vs. Cardinals Front Seven
Everything with Carolina starts with its running game. The Panthers, who finished the regular season with the league's second-best ground game at 142.6 YPG, turned in another typical effort last week when rushing for 144 yards against Seattle.
Stewart finished with 106 yards on 19 carries with two touchdowns, while Tolbert chipped in 17 yards on seven carries. That pair does all the heavy lifting for the Panthers, but of course there is always the threat of Cam Newton to tuck it under and run as well. This diverse ground game has frustrated defenses all season.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals finished the regular season ranked sixth in the league against the run with just 91.2 yards per game allowed. That's the good news. The bad news is things haven't been nearly as good of late. They allowed at least 100 rushing yards in the final two games of the regular season and again last week against the Packers, who averaged 6.1 yards per carry while rolling to 135 rushing yards.
The defense of Arizona is best-known for its stars in the secondary like Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu. The front seven has remained pretty anonymous. That group will need to have its best game of the season in order slow the league's most dynamic ground attack.
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