NFL Conference Championship Preview: Which Teams Will Reach Super Bowl 50?
By Sunday night, we'll know which teams will play in Super Bowl 50. Here's a preview of this Sunday's AFC and NFC title games:
Sunday, January 24
AFC Championship: (2) New England Patriots at (1) Denver Broncos
Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver; 3 p.m. (ET) on CBS
How They Got Here: The Denver Broncos won their fifth consecutive AFC West title to secure the top seed in the conference. Denver beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, 23-16, in the divisional round last Sunday and advanced to their second AFC Championship Game in three years.
After winning their seventh consecutive AFC East title and clinching the second seed in the conference, the New England Patriots knocked off the Kansas City Chiefs, 27-20, in the divisional playoffs last Saturday. The defending Super Bowl champions advanced to their fifth straight AFC title game and are seeking their seventh Super Bowl berth in the Bill Belichick / Tom Brady era on Sunday.
Recent History: The Broncos rallied to beat the Patriots, 30-24, in overtime in Denver on November 29.
Preview: While Denver did beat New England in November, the Broncos needed a muffed punt and some shaky tackling on the part of the Patriots to do so. Additionally, receiver Julian Edelman missed the game with a broken foot and tight end Rob Gronkowski sat out the closing minutes with a knee injury. The point? None of those situations are likely to repeat themselves this Sunday. Likewise, the Broncos had current backup quarterback Brock Osweiler under center, but veteran Peyton Manning will be at the reigns of the offense this week.
If New England quarterback Tom Brady gets time, Edelman, Gronkowski or someone else will likely be open, especially on third downs. The Denver defense is relentless, however. Pass rushers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware can make game-changing plays at any time. The Patriots defense won’t have to contend with the sharp Peyton Manning who has faced them 16 times before. This older, turnover-prone version of Manning could very easily give the game away or manage a game-winning drive, as he did against the Steelers last Sunday.
NFC Championship: (2) Arizona Cardinals at (1) Carolina Panthers
Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, N.C.; 6:40 p.m. (ET) on Fox
How They Got Here: The Carolina Panthers only suffered one loss this season while winning the NFC South and clinching home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. After jumping out to a 31-0 halftime lead in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs against Seattle last Sunday, Carolina held on to eliminate the two-time defending NFC champion-Seahawks, 31-24.
The Arizona Cardinals won the NFC West title and secured the second seed in their conference. Arizona beat the Green Bay Packers, 26-20, in a thrilling overtime game in the divisional round last Saturday.
Recent History: The teams did not play each other this season. The Panthers beat the Cardinals, 27-16, in the wild card round of last year’s NFC playoffs.
Preview: By record, Carolina and Arizona were the NFL’s best teams this season. Run and pass threat Cam Newton led the Panthers’ offense, while linebacker Luke Kuechly, and cornerback Josh Norman anchored Carolina’s ferocious defense. Neither squad will have it easy against the Cardinals, who had the league's best offense and the fifth best defense.
Quarterback Carson Palmer must be at his best this week for Arizona, who must protect him from the Panthers pass rush. That will be easier if defensive end Jared Allen is sidelined with a broken foot. The Cardinals have enough weapons — Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and John Brown — to score against anyone, but not if Palmer is rushed into mistakes and turnovers. Newton must avoid turnovers and hope that running back Jonathan Stewart’s ankle injury isn’t serious enough to make Carolina a one-dimensional offense.
The Panthers have won 12 consecutive games at home — where they’ll be on Sunday evening — but they’ve also come dangerously close to blowing big leads to the Colts, Giants and Seahawks. If they aren’t careful, their prevent defense might prevent a victory in one of these games.
Super Bowl 50
Sunday, February 7
AFC champion vs. NFC champion | Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, Calif.; 6:30 p.m. (ET) on CBS