NFL 2016 Conference Championship Previews: Panthers-Cardinals & Broncos-Patriots

January 22, 2016

Only four teams remain in the hunt for the Lombardi Trophy, and this weekend those squads will clash for the right to advance to Super Bowl 50.  Sunday's Conference Championship games will feature classic quarterback star power in both matchups, as Heisman winners Carson Palmer and Cam Newton will meet in the NFC, while future Hall-of-Famers Tom Brady and Peyton Manning will renew their rivalry in the AFC.

“There are only four teams playing next week and we’re one of them,” said New England quarterback Tom Brady. “The Championship Game means a lot.”

Championship Sunday begins with the AFC title game between the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots in a rematch of a Week 12 overtime thriller won by Denver 30-24. The Broncos defeated Pittsburgh 23-16 in the Divisional round and New England won against Kansas City 27-20.

The NFC Championship Game will feature the Arizona Cardinals and Carolina Panthers, the first meeting between the clubs since the Panthers defeated the Cardinals in the Wild Card round last year. In the Divisional Playoffs, the Cardinals knocked off the Packers 26-20 in overtime, and the Panthers won against the Seahawks 31-24.

PATRIOTS (13-4) at BRONCOS (13-4) (Sunday, CBS, 3:05 PM ET)    

The Patriots and Broncos will meet in the postseason for the fifth time, with Denver holding a 3-1 all-time advantage, including the teams’ most recent postseason meeting in the AFC Championship Game during the 2013 season. The clubs met earlier this season in Week 12, as Denver overcame a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit to earn a 30-24 overtime victory and hand New England its first loss of the season.

The Patriots, the defending Super Bowl champions, advanced to their fifth consecutive AFC Championship Game with a 27-20 win over Kansas City last week at Gillette Stadium. New England joins the 1973-77 Oakland Raiders as the only teams in the Super Bowl era to reach five Conference Championship Games in a row.

“It’s pretty special to get back to another AFC Championship Game,” said Brady, who will play in his 10th career Conference Championship Game, the most by any quarterback in the Super Bowl era. “It’s pretty cool. It’s hard to do. You’ve got to grind throughout the entire year.”

Brady, who threw for 302 yards last week, has 7,647 passing yards and 55 touchdown passes in his postseason career, both the most in league history. Brady has 22 career postseason wins, the most in NFL history.

In the Patriots’ Divisional Playoff victory against Kansas City, Brady threw two touchdown passes to Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski. Gronkowski has eight career postseason touchdown receptions, the most by a tight end in NFL history.

“They have a lot of challenges they present on their defense," said Gronkowski of the Broncos.  "But one of the ones that sticks out is their pass rush. They have great players on the outside edges. They know how to stop the run and they rush the quarterback really fast and can get off the ball fast.”

New England head coach Bill Belichick, who has an NFL record 23 playoff victories, will coach in his 10th Conference Championship Game, tying Pro Football Hall of Famer and former Dallas Cowboy coach Tom Landry for the most in the Super Bowl era. The Patriots are 6-3 in AFC Championship Games under Belichick.

“It’s great to move on to the AFC Championship Game,” said Belichick. “It’s always an honor to be part of that game. We’re excited about that.”

The Broncos advanced to their 10th AFC Championship Game with a 23-16 win over Pittsburgh last week at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

Denver enters the game with a 7-2 all-time record in AFC Championship Games, including a 5-1 mark at home. That record includes a 26-16 victory over New England in the Broncos’ most recent AFC Championship Game appearance, when Denver quarterback Peyton Manning passed for 400 yards with two touchdowns to earn a berth in Super Bowl XLVIII.

Manning ranks second in playoff history in passing yards (7,022), completions (619), and attempts (972), trailing only Brady (711 of 1,127 for 7,647 yards) in all three categories. Manning (38) ranks fourth all-time in postseason touchdown passes.

These days, Manning has lost some zip on his fastball, but he brings a wealth of experience and is reasonably healthy after missing significant time earlier in the season due to a foot injury.

In his first year as head coach of the Broncos, head coach Gary Kubiak guided the team to a 12-4 mark and the conference’s top seed. This week, Kubiak will attempt to become the first head coach to earn a Super Bowl berth in his first season with a team since Jim Caldwell accomplished the feat with Manning and the Indianapolis Colts in 2009.

“There hasn’t been one way that we’ve won,” said Kubiak. “We’ve kind of won all kinds of different ways. We’ve had a lot of different players contribute to our success when we’ve been successful.”

The game will mark the 17th meeting in the historic rivalry between Manning and Brady. The two quarterbacks have represented the AFC in nine of the past 14 Super Bowls, earning Super Bowl MVP honors in four of those contests.

“I wouldn’t want it any other way,” said Pro Bowl linebacker Von Miller about facing the Patriots. “They’re one of the best teams in the AFC. Let’s go out and play and see who wants to go to the Super Bowl. ”

CARDINALS (14-3) at PANTHERS (16-1) (Sunday, FOX, 6:40 PM ET)  

The Cardinals and Panthers will meet in the postseason for a third time, as the postseason series between them is tied (1-1). The Cardinals won the teams’ first postseason meeting in 2008, a 33-13 Divisional Playoff victory in Charlotte en route to an eventual berth in Super Bowl XLIII. The Panthers won the last meeting, a 27-16 game in the Wild Card round last season.

The Cardinals advanced to the NFC Championship Game for the first time since 2008 and the second time during the Super Bowl era. In the Divisional Playoff last week, Arizona defeated Green Bay 26-20 in an overtime thriller.

“Sometimes you’ve got to play harder for more than 60 minutes,” said Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians about Arizona’s Divisional victory. “I can’t be prouder of our guys. We get to practice again this week and play another game.”

Cardinals Pro Bowl wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald had eight catches for 176 yards and the game-winning overtime touchdown against Green Bay. Fitzgerald, who set up the game-winning score with a 75-yard reception -- most of that yardage coming after the catch -- has 53 catches for 912 yards (114 per game) and 10 touchdowns in eight career postseason games.

Fitzgerald’s 10 touchdown receptions in the playoffs are tied for the third-most in NFL history, trailing only Pro Football Hall of Famers Jerry Rice (22) and John Stallworth (12). Fitzgerald is the fastest player in NFL history (eight games) to reach 10 postseason touchdown receptions.

“It was a great game,” said Fitzgerald, who now has three career postseason games with at least 150 receiving yards, the most such games by any player during the Super Bowl era. “It was a playoff atmosphere and that’s what you’re looking for.”

Arizona Pro Bowl quarterback Carson Palmer, who has won 27 of his past 32 starts, registered his first career postseason win last week. Against the Packers, Palmer played with a banged-up finger on his throwing hand and struggled at times, but ultimately passed for 349 yards and three touchdowns, including two to wide receiver Michael Floyd. Palmer set club records this season with 4,671 passing yards, 35 touchdown passes, and a 104.6 passer rating.

“It feels good,” said Palmer, “but in no way are we done or satisfied. We’re excited about the win and we’re excited about what’s ahead of us.”

Defensively, the Cardinals will have their hands full trying to stop Panthers' Pro Bowl quarterback Cam Newton.

“When I watch him now, he’s a lot more accurate with his throws," said Cardinals' safety Rashad Johnson. "He’s made some unbelievable passes this season. He looks a lot calmer in the pocket as well. He’s not so quick to get out and run. He sits back there tall and looks comfortable playing quarterback.”

The Panthers, who have won 21 of their past 23 games (including the postseason), advanced to their fourth NFC Championship Game with a 31-24 win against the Seattle Seahawks in the Divisional round last week. This will be the first time in team history the Panthers will host the NFC Championship Game.

“They say to get something that you’ve never had, you have to do something you’ve never done,” said Newton, who is the only player in NFL history with 30 touchdown passes (35) and 10 rushing TDs (10) in a season. “For us, we’ve never had that vibe in the streets of Charlotte and I expect nothing less than what we saw on Sunday.”

In Carolina’s win against Seattle, Pro Bowl linebacker Luke Kuechly returned an interception 14 yards for a touchdown, the first postseason interception return for a touchdown in franchise history. Since he entered the league in 2012, Kuechly has 13 interceptions (including the playoffs), the most by a linebacker.

“They are a well-coached football team with a dynamic quarterback,” said Panthers head coach Ron Rivera about the Cardinals. “They’ve got some playmakers and then they have an aggressive defense. This is a complete team that we will play as well and we have to be on our game.”




WR Danny Amendola (knee), TE Scott Chandler (knee), LB Jamie Collins (back), S Nate Ebner (hand), WR Julian Edelman (foot), LB Darius Fleming (back, shin), LB Jonathan Freeny (hand), TE Rob Gronkowski (knee, back), LB Dont'a Hightower (knee), G Tre' Jackson (knee), DE Chandler Jones (abdomen, toe), DE Rob Ninkovich (shin), WR Matt Slater (shin), C Bryan Stork (ankle), T Sebastian Vollmer (ankle), T LaAdrian Waddle (shoulder)  

QB Tom Brady (ankle), S Patrick Chung (foot), G Josh Kline (shoulder), WR Brandon LaFell (foot), S Devin McCourty (ankle)


S Josh Bush (shoulder), TE Owen Daniels (knees), LB Todd Davis (shoulder), G Max Garcia (groin), CB Chris Harris (shoulder), QB Peyton Manning (foot), LB Brandon Marshall (ankle), QB Brock Osweiler (knee), CB Bradley Roby (quadricep), S Darian Stewart (hamstring), S T.J. Ward (ankle), LB DeMarcus Ware (knee)



CB Justin Bethel (ankle), WR John Brown (shoulder), LB Markus Golden (knee), RB David Johnson (toe), DT Josh Mauro (calf), QB Carson Palmer (right finger), DT Frostee Rucker (ankle)


DE Jared Allen (foot)

DT Dwan Edwards (foot), DE Charles Johnson (not injury related), RB Jonathan Stewart (ankle), RB Fozzy Whittaker (ankle)

Pro Bowl 2016 Captains Announced

In other league news, the NFL announced that the active player captains for the 2016 Pro Bowl will be DT Geno Atkins, WR Odell Beckham Jr., DT Aaron Donald, and RB Devonta Freeman. Atkins and Freeman will be paired together, while Beckham and Donald will form the other duo.

These four captains will help determine rosters for Team Irvin and Team Rice during the Pro Bowl Draft which will be nationally televised on Wednesday, January 27 on ESPN2 (7:30 PM ET).

Pro Football Hall of Famers Michael Irvin and Jerry Rice will serve as NFL Legends captains for their Pro Bowl squads – Team Irvin and Team Rice – and will select their coaching staff. Irvin and Rice return for the second time after being the winning captains during the previous two Pro Bowls.

Five-time Pro Bowler Darren Woodson (Team Irvin) and two-time Pro Bowler Eric Davis (Team Rice) will serve as defensive co-captains. The NFL legends will also each be assisted by one fantasy football champion in the draft process.

The Pro Bowl will continue using the revised game format that debuted with the 2014 game, with NFL Legends captains having final say over Pro Bowl Draft decisions. The Pro Bowl will remain “unconferenced,” with several key playing rules changed. Players were selected without regard to conference in voting by fans, coaches and players and will later be assigned to teams via the Pro Bowl Draft.

To determine which team owns the first selection in the Pro Bowl Draft and how the NFL Legends captains will be paired with active player captains, there will be a coin toss following the Pro Bowl Kickoff Press Conference on Tuesday evening, January 26.

The 2016 Pro Bowl presented by USAA will be played on Sunday, January 31, 2016 and televised live on ESPN at 7:00 PM ET from Aloha Stadium in Hawaii.

By Staff of and news services

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