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Saturday, 23 January 2016

NFL Conference Championship Play Off Picks 2016 (Sunday 24th January)

After a week in which all of the road teams won their Play Off games, the Divisional Round saw all of the home teams win.

You can't say there have been too many upsets in the post-season so far with all of the games being won by the favourites aside from the Green Bay win in Washington when the home team were favoured by a single point.

Now we have reached the Conference Championship Games and this time we have one small home favourite and one small home underdog as the Number 1 Seeds host the Number 2 Seeds in both the AFC and NFC Championship Games.

I have to say I am looking forward to both games and I have picks from both.

New England Patriots @ Denver Broncos Pick: The Denver Broncos stole the Number 1 Seed in the AFC from under the New England Patriots' noses, but I don't think it was ever a big concern for Bill Belichick to host the Championship Game. That was particularly the case with the injuries New England had been dealing with in the final two weeks of the regular season, but they are a lot healthier now and will be seeking revenge for a loss here in the regular season.

It hasn't been a familiar position for the New England Patriots in recent years as their AFC Championship Games have mainly been held at home during the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era. The Patriots haven't really enjoyed the last two times they have had to travel for the AFC Championship Game as they have lost both of those, ironically to the Quarter Back they will be facing on Sunday.

Peyton Manning helped the Denver Broncos beat the New England Patriots here two seasons ago and was also Quarter Back of the Indianapolis Colts when they beat New England at home in 2007. However, I don't think it is really making any grand statement to say that Manning is not the same as even the Quarter Back that played in the Championship Game two seasons ago and his career in Denver is winding down.

He would love to go out on a high, but Manning will have to be better than he was in the win over the Pittsburgh Steelers when only a busted decision from the referees helped Denver come back and win that game. Manning was somehow allowed to get up from a 'self Sack' and then throw the ball for a 40 yard gain, but it was mainly a poor passing day for the future Hall of Fame player, while his Receivers haven't helped with too many drops.

I don't want to be overly critical of Peyton Manning who has had a wonderful career, but I am not sure he has enough to lead Denver to a win in this one. The Patriots have a lot of respect for Manning too, but they will use a fierce pass rush to rattle the Quarter Back and make sure he does not have the time to throw the ball to his Receivers down the field.

The deep ball is gone anyway, but Manning might have some success if the quick passes can be caught by his Receivers and that might be the best way they can get the running game established. Manning is more reliant on the likes of CJ Anderson and Ronnie Hillman than he has been on other Running Backs over the last few years as he can't move the chains with his arm alone, but the New England Patriots will clamp down on the run like the Steelers did in the Divisional Round and will almost dare Manning to beat them with his arm.

There will be a lot of coverage about Peyton Manning in this one, no less so because he is facing his old adversary Tom Brady who is still playing up to the level he has set for himself. Brady will be very glad that he has got all of his Offensive weapons back and he has had one look at the Denver Defensive unit already this season and has the likes of Julian Edelman in the starting line up this time.

Brady played well in the first game considering the supporting cast, but that shouldn't be an issue this week. The likes of Edelman and Rob Gronkowski create match up problems no matter where they line up, but Denver will have faith in the Defense that has been so important to their success all season.

It will be up to Brady to make the plays because the New England Patriots are not going to have a lot of success lining up and traditionally running the ball. This is the one area that Denver have been strong through the season and it was a big hit against Fitzgerald Toussaint when he tried running the ball that became the key play of their Divisional Round win over Pittsburgh.

Now Josh McDaniels won't want to drop Brady back and have him throw fifty times a game, but I can see New England using a number of players similar to Pittsburgh to move the ball on the ground. That is getting Danny Amendola, Brandon LeFell and Julian Edelman taking some end arounds to find themselves in space, while Brady will be happy to make the short passes to keep the Offensive unit in third and manageable spots through the game.

As much as Denver have enjoyed getting the pressure on the Quarter Backs they have faced, it has been possible to throw the ball against them, while New England's Offensive Line is healthier now. I expect they will give Brady just enough time to make his plays and I do think it will be difficult for Peyton Manning to keep up barring his Defense giving him a couple of short fields with turnovers or big Special Teams plays.

The Patriots will have to change some recent history as eight of the last nine AFC Championship Games have been won by the team hosting. However, favourites in the Conference Championship Game of three points or fewer have a very strong 11-3 record against the spread going back to 1986.

One area New England have thrived in is the revenging a same season loss and they have gone 12-4 against the spread under Bill Belichick in that regards. Add in the fact that teams that won the last regular season game are just 7-11-1 against the spread in the last couple of years in post-season games.

 I do think New England will have learned a lot about Denver from their first game and it is hard to see Peyton Manning generating enough points to win this game unless Tom Brady turns the ball over two or three times.

New England are an experienced bunch and I think they are looking healthier while I can see them earning revenge over Denver by beating them in the AFC Championship Game at the same venue they were beaten by the Broncos two seasons ago.

Arizona Cardinals @ Carolina Panthers Pick: This was the game that I always felt was most deserving of the NFC Championship Game and I hope the Carolina Panthers and Arizona Cardinals are over their nervy finishes to the Divisional Round.

The Panthers were very close to blowing their 31-0 half time lead to Seattle who might have won the game if they could have pushed it to Overtime with all the momentum behind them. On the other side of the coin was the Arizona Cardinals giving up a Hail Mary pass that forced their game into Overtime before a couple of huge plays from Carson Palmer to Larry Fitzgerald won it for the Cardinals against the Green Bay Packers.

Carson Palmer had a horrible start to the game with the Packers as he couldn't shake the nerves that come for a player that has had zero Play Off success before last week. That win in the Divisional Round should loosen Palmer up and he and Bruce Arians must have been excited to see what the Seahawks were able to do when they were forced to pass in the second half to get back into the game.

It is not the first time the Panthers have allowed a furious comeback this season- the Green Bay Packers and the New York Giants both rallied before ultimately coming up short as Seattle did last week when the time, rather than the Carolina Defense, beat them. This is now a Carolina Secondary that have given up over 300 passing yards per game in their last three games and face an Arizona team that love throwing the ball and are very successful at doing that.

There will be some pressure on Palmer from the pass rush that Carolina generate and he has to be aware of trying to take away the mistakes that have blighted him in recent games. This is a ball-hawking team that looks to create turnover and every possession is going to be key for Arizona to pull the upset.

Bruce Arians will know his team matches up well Offensively with Carolina even if it is unlikely that Arizona will be able to run the ball effectively, but he should also have faith that the Defensive unit can slow down Cam Newton and the Panthers. Newton has been immense when you think of what he has been working with, while Jonathan Stewart looked strong after missing a couple of games through injury.

I do think Carolina can establish the run in this game which is vital for them if they are going to win this game. Both Stewart and Mike Tolbert will be able to find space against Arizona who have struggled against the run in recent games, although that could be down to facing three very good passers and so losing the focus.

Either way  I do think Carolina will have some joy running the ball with Newton using the read-option to good effect, but the key will be whether they can make the big plays through the air which has been a feature of their games all through the season. One aspect where Arizona have improved in each passing week is getting some sort of pass rush generated, although getting to Cam Newton is far from easy, but Arizona also know they have a Secondary that can shut down Receivers.

It is a shame that Tyrann Mathieu is out for the Cardinals, but this is still a team that has used the pressure up front to make the Secondary look even more effective. It has been a struggle at times for Carolina to make the plays through the air that they would like to, especially in recent games, and I think Arizona may have learnt something from the way Seattle approached the second half to slow down what the Panthers wanted to do.

As soon as this game was set I knew I wanted to back the Arizona Cardinals if they were given at least three points here, even though the statistic I pointed out in the Denver-New England pick points to a trend that would favour the home favourites. Unlike the AFC Championship Game, hosting the NFC Championship Game hasn't meant all that in recent seasons with those teams going 4-4 straight up, but they were 2-4 before Seattle's two consecutive wins in the last two seasons although just 1-1 against the spread in those wins.

Carolina have been very dominant as the home underdog of three points or fewer as I pointed out when backing them to beat Seattle, but this Arizona team is 15-7 against the spread as the road underdog over the last couple of seasons, while they are 4-0 against the spread when set as the road underdog of three points or fewer.

I also think the time of the game is significant for Arizona as it will match what they might be used to on the West Coast even though this game is played in Carolina. It could be cold which is an issue for an indoor team playing outdoors, but I think Arizona earn some revenge for their Play Off loss to the Panthers last season when injuries bit them hard.

This should be a really fun game to watch but I think enough factors are pointing to the Cardinals in this one and I will take the points being offered.

MY PICKS: New England Patriots - 3 Points @ 2.00 Paddy Power (2 Units)
Arizona Cardinals + 3 Points @ 2.o0 Sporting Bet (2 Units)

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