Future Hall-of-Famers Peyton Manning and Tom Brady could be squaring off for the last time and, appropriately, a Super Bowl berth is on the line when the Denver Broncos host the New England Patriots on Sunday. Brady carries an 11-5 advantage into the 17th career meeting between the two best quarterbacks of their generation, but Manning won the last postseason matchup in January 2014.
The second-seeded Patriots lost at Denver in overtime in Week 12 and dropped their final two regular-season games to give the Broncos home-field advantage, but they rebounded to end Kansas City’s 11-game winning streak with a 27-20 victory last week. “It’s pretty hard to get to this point,” Brady said. “There’s only four teams standing. Two of these teams have to go home. Hope we’re not one of them.” Denver capitalized on a late turnover to score 11 points in the final three-plus minutes for a 23-16 victory over sixth-seeded Pittsburgh last week. Manning, who did not play in the earlier meeting with New England, made his first start since Nov. 15 in last week’s victory.
TV: 3:05 p.m. ET, CBS.
LINE HISTORY: The Patriots opened as a rare 3-point road favorite visiting the No. 1 ranked team and can still be found at that number at most books, but there are some Patriots -3.5 popping up at some places. The total has held steady at 44.5.
Patriots – WR M. Slater (probable Sunday, shin), T S. Vollmer (probable Sunday, ankle), QB T. Brady (probable Sunday, ankle), WR B. LaFell (probable Sunday, foot), TE R. Gronkowski (probble Sunday, knee), WR J. Edelman (probable Sunday, foot), WR D. Amendola (probable Sunday, knee), LB J. Collins (probable Sunday, back), LB D. Fleming (questionable Sunday, back), LB J. Freeny (questionable Sunday, hand), LB D. Hightower (questionable Sunday, knee), DE C. Jones (questionable Sunday, abdominal), DE R. Ninkovich (questionable Sunday, shin), TE S. Chandler (questionable Sunday, knee), DB N. Ebner (questionable Sunday, hand), OL L. Waddle (questionable Sunday, shoulder), G T. Jackson (out Sunday, knee).
Broncos – CB C. Harris (probable Sunday, shoulder), TE O. Daniels (probable Sunday, knee), QB P. Manning (probable Sunday, foot).
WEATHER REPORT: There is a 44 percent chance of rain at kickoff that can turn to snow as the game moves along. Temperatures will be in the low 40’s and will drop throughout the game. There will be a slight 3-5 mile per hour wind gusting towards the southern end zone.
WHAT SHARPS SAY: “The look-ahead line last Sunday morning was going to be Patriots -1.5 (at Broncos). However, after Denver’s lackluster win over Pittsburgh, the oddsmakers opened New England -3. The line has gone back and forth from -3 to -3 -120 during the week with a few sportsbooks moving to -3.5. This is a very key number as NFL favorites win by exactly a field goal 10% of the time. Denver won the earlier meeting this season in overtime as a +2.5 home underdog. The Broncos held a 433-301 total yards edge (5.6-4.9 yppl), including a dominating 179-39 rushing edge. However, New England was short-handed on offense in that game as WR Julian Edelman did not play due to injury.” – Covers Expert Steve Merril.
ABOUT THE PATRIOTS (13-4, 8-7-2 ATS, 10-7 O/U): Slot receiver Julian Edelman, who missed the last game in Denver, returned from a two-month injury absence and provided an immediate spark to New England’s offense with 10 receptions for 100 yards. Tight end Rob Gronkowski shook off knee and back ailments to grab seven passes for 83 yards and a pair of touchdowns as New England had just seven rushing attempts from its running backs. Brady threw for 280 yards and three touchdowns in November but was missing both Edelman and Danny Amendola while Gronkowski was carted off the field with just under three minutes to play in regulation. The Patriots were second to Denver in the regular season with 49 sacks but lost starting linebacker Jerod Mayo to a shoulder injury.
ABOUT THE BRONCOS (13-4, 8-8-1 ATS, 6-10-1 O/U): Manning, who threw only nine touchdown passes versus 17 interceptions during the regular season, finished 21-of-37 for 222 yards in last week’s win for Denver, which was limited to four field goals before finally getting in the end zone with 3:04 to play. C.J. Anderson has come alive down the stretch, rushing for 240 yards over his last three games while averaging a healthy 6.2 yards per carry. Emmanuel Sanders, who had five receptions for 85 yards last week, made nine catches for 113 yards in the first matchup with New England. The Broncos led the league with 52 sacks and also ranked No. 1 in passing yards (199.6) and total yards against (283.1).
* Patriots are 1-5 ATS in their last 6 road games.
* Broncos are 1-5-1 ATS in their last 7 playoff games.
* Over is 4-0 in Patriots last 4 playoff games.
* Under is 4-1 in Broncos last 5 playoff games.
COVERS CONSENSUS: The public is backing the Patriots in Brady-Manning 17, with 61 percent of wagers on New England. As for the total, 61 percent of the wagers are on the over.
NFC Championship Game – Arizona Cardinals at Carolina Panthers (-3, 47)
The Carolina Panthers are perfect at home this season and hope to ride that advantage to the second Super Bowl appearance in franchise history when they host the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday night in a matchup of the top two seeds in the NFC. The Panthers rolled to the best record in the league behind an unblemished home record that remained intact with last weekend’s 31-24 victory over Seattle.
“They say to get something that you’ve never had, you have to do something you’ve never done,” Carolina quarterback Cam Newton said. “For us, we’ve never had that vibe in the streets of Charlotte and I expect nothing less than what we saw on Sunday.” The No. 2-seeded Cardinals also are seeking to reach their second Super Bowl and will have a bit of added motivation against the Panthers. Playing with their third-string quarterback, Arizona dropped a 27-16 decision at Carolina a year ago and was held to an NFL playoff record-low 78 yards. The Cardinals, who outlasted Green Bay 26-20 in overtime last week, boast the league’s No. 2 scoring offense at 30.6 points per game – behind only the Panthers (31.3).
TV: 6:40 p.m. ET, FOX.
LINE HISTORY: The line for the NFC title tilt has held steady at the opening number of Panthers -3 with just the juice getting adjusted. The total opened at 47 and spent some time at 47.5, before getting bet back down to the opening number.
Cardinals – RB D. Johnson (probable Sunday, toe), QB C. Palmer (probable Sunday, finger), WR J. Brown (probable Sunday, shoulder).
Panthers – RB F. Whittaker (probable Sunday, ankle), RB J. Stewart (probable Sunday, ankle), TE G. Olsen (probable Sunday, stinger), DE J. Allen (out Sunday, foot).
WEATHER REPORT: Plenty of snow hit Charlotte this weekend, but it should be clear, albeit chilly for kickoff. Temperatures will hover around freezing for the game and there will be minimal wind.
WHAT SHARPS SAY: “The look-ahead line before last week for this possible matchup was Carolina -3 and that is exactly where the oddsmakers opened the real line. It appears the public is backing the Panthers, so this line might rise to -3.5 by kickoff. Last week, heavy money came in on Carolina (vs. Seattle) near game time as the Panthers went from -1 to -2.5/-3. It will be interesting to see if the public money pushes this line higher once again this week.” – Covers Expert Steve Merril.
ABOUT THE CARDINALS (14-3, 9-8 ATS, 9-8 O/U): Arizona’s high-powered offense has stalled of late, managing only six points in a loss to Seattle in the regular-season finale and 10 through three quarters in last week’s matchup versus Green Bay. Quarterback Carson Palmer admitted to being “tentative” in the first half against Green Bay before throwing for 275 of his 349 yards after halftime. Larry Fitzgerald had eight receptions for 176 yards and the winning touchdown, but rookie running back David Johnson struggled for the second straight game as he was limited to 35 yards on 15 carries. Arizona’s defense sacked Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers eight times in Week 16 but got to him only once last weekend.
ABOUT THE PANTHERS (16-1, 12-5 ATS, 11-5-1 O/U): Carolina delivered an early knockout punch to the Seahawks, bolting to a 31-0 halftime lead before holding off a late comeback for its 12th straight home victory. Jonathan Stewart returned from a three-game injury absence to rush for 106 yards and a pair of touchdowns, alleviating the pressure on Newton, who threw for only 161 yards and a score. Tight end Greg Olsen is the top target of Newton, going over 1,000 yards in each of the last two seasons while hauling in seven passes for 77 yards and a TD against Seattle. Carolina’s defense dominated the Seahawks up front and recorded five sacks, but defensive end Jared Allen may be unavailable due to a fractured foot.
* Panthers are 9-3 ATS in their last 12 versus NFC.
* Cardinals are 1-6 ATS in their last seven versus a team with a winning record.
* Under is 6-1 in Cardinals last seven games overall.
* Over is 5-1 in Panthers last six home games.
COVERS CONSENSUS: The public likes the home side with the NFC title on the line with 62 percent of wagers on the Panthers. As for the total, 66 percent of wagers are on the over.