AFC Football Conference
Photo Tom Brady and a seemingly healthy Rob Gronkowski figure to be a stern test for a tough Denver defense. Credit Elsa/Getty Images
3:05 p.m. Eastern, CBS. Line: Patriots by 3.
If you read only the coverage of Broncos games this season and ignored the scores, you might have assumed they had a losing record, dragged down by an aging quarterback and an underperforming running game. While the questions and concerns about the sharp decline of Peyton Manning had merit, the attention paid to the team’s offense ignored how dominant its defense was.
Denver’s metamorphosis from an offensive powerhouse to a defensive one might not have been expected, or even intentional, but any talk of disappointment has to be brushed off now that the Broncos are playing a conference championship at home.
Having switched to a 3-4 formation this season to suit the schemes of their new defensive coordinator, Wade Phillips, the Broncos thrived across the board. They finished the regular season having allowed the fewest yards in the N.F.L. on the strength of a defense that was No. 1 against the pass and No. 3 against the run.
They have a fearsome pass rush led by Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, a terrific secondary led by Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib, and an underrated supporting cast that includes Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan at middle linebacker and the surprisingly effective Sylvester Williams, who filled the massive hole at nose tackle after Terrance Knighton left the team as a free agent.
The unit held opponents to 18.5 points a game, which was fourth in the N.F.L., and it very likely could have done even better if not for Manning’s flirtation with incompetence: He threw 17 interceptions in nine starts, giving opponents short fields to work with all too often. Over all, the Broncos’ offense had 31 turnovers, making the stinginess of the defense even more impressive.
Denver’s coach, Gary Kubiak, worked his way up the coaching ranks under Mike Shanahan, one of the few coaches who had consistent success against Bill Belichick’s Patriots, and he has hinted at using two tight ends regularly Sunday to try to emulate that success. If Owen Daniels, Virgil Green and Vernon Davis can effectively confuse New England’s injury-depleted front seven, and thus give some room to the team’s running backs and additional time for Manning to find Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders down the field, Denver’s offense could rediscover its groove.
But betting against a Tom Brady-led team in the playoffs is nearly always foolish, and despite a lack of a consistent running game, New England is still dangerous provided Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski are playing near 100 percent.
Should the stars align perfectly, and Manning has an efficient, turnover-free game, the talent is in place for an upset. But expecting that is probably too generous for a player who appears to have hung on one year too long. A more realistic result is a game in which Denver’s defense keeps things close but the team ultimately comes up short.
6:40 p.m., Fox. Line: Panthers by 3.
In the first half of last week’s victory against the Seattle Seahawks, the Panthers showed why they won 15 games in the regular season. They moved the ball with ease on offense, made big plays on defense and thoroughly humiliated one of the best teams in the N.F.L. in cruising to a 31-0 lead. Whether they focused too much on playing things safe, or the Seahawks adjusted their approach, something happened at halftime that nearly led to what would have been the second-largest collapse in playoff history.Photo Cam Newton may have to show the way if the depleted Panthers defense can’t hold off Arizona’s high-powered attack. Credit Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
“I’ll be honest, I get it, I understand, ” Coach Ron Rivera told reporters when asked about the numerous times the Panthers nearly let a game collapse on them. But, he added: “We won those football games and look at who we played against. Am I concerned? Yeah. But are these things correctable and fixable? Most certainly.”
The problem they face this weekend will not necessarily be an issue with late-game strategy, but, rather, a struggle with depth. Carolina’s defense has endured season-ending injuries to cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Bene Benwikere, meaning that the side of the field opposite Josh Norman is being manned by Robert McClain and Cortland Finnegan. McClain, in his fifth season, was not on an N.F.L. roster until Dec. 15. Finnegan, in his 10th season, was retired until Nov. 30.
The quality of the defense has not suffered all that much considering the challenges, but a team like Arizona, with so many big-play receivers, presents a unique challenge. Norman is an incredible talent, but even if he takes out an entire side of the field, that will leave one or more of the Cardinals’ solid receivers going against a less-than-stellar defensive back, a situation quarterback Carson Palmer should be able to exploit even if he looked a little shaky last week in winning the first postseason game of his long career.