The fact that the Patriots, Broncos, Panthers and Cardinals are the last four NFL teams standing this season should not be considered outrageous by anyone. Those four teams were the class of the league all year long. All four are led by seasoned veterans at quarterback and stout defenses full of some of the game's elite playmakers on that side of the ball.
Quite simply, these guys are pretty good.
As a result, we have conference championship weekend in the NFL where no conclusion — nor any means of arriving there — should surprise us. You should always be ready for the outrageous.
Outrageous Predictions for the AFC/NFC Conference Championship Games
Manning outgains Brady through the air
New England is much better at stopping the run than the pass. The Patriots' defense is built largely around the strength of their front seven, a unit that excels against the run. Knowing that, look for the Patriots to force Peyton Manning to try and beat them through the air — something that would have sounded crazy a couple of years ago. He'll have enough targets to do damage up and down the field between the 20s on New England, piling up plenty of yards along the way. When Tom Brady and the Patriots have the ball, look for cornerback Aqib Talib to blanket tight end Rob Gronkowski, the same way New England head coach Bill Belichick once used him to shut down the Saints' Jimmy Graham. This will severely limit Brady's effectiveness through the air.
Steven Jackson eclipses the 100-yard mark on the ground
When Brady struggles — and sometimes even when he doesn't — the Patriots turn to a hammer in the backfield to change things up. When it's been Corey Dillon or LeGarrette Blount, New England's championship runs have often come, at least in some part, on the shoulders of power backs. Enter Jackson, who has been relatively quiet thus far during his tenure as a Patriot. With all of the focus on Brady, Julian Edelman and Gronkowski, look for Belichick to hit Denver with a heavy dose of Jackson and a power running game that puts the Bronco D on its heels and opens up the passing game late.
Cam Newton throws three picks
Newton has taken pretty good care of the ball this season, but he hasn't played a defense as complete as Arizona in terms of pass rush and coverage. Look for the Cardinal front seven to penetrate the pocket regularly, still keeping Newton in it and forcing him to throw ill-advised passes into a ball-hawking secondary all day. Additionally, even when Newton is not on the run, his receivers will have a tough time getting open in individual matchups against the Arizona secondary. It'll be nothing but tight windows for Carolina's passing game in this one.
Larry Fitzgerald will finish with 3 or fewer catches
Carson Palmer will target Fitzgerald plenty, he just won't have much luck in doing so. Ron Rivera has seen Fitzgerald dominate the postseason over the years and is not about to let his Panther defense become the next victim. Luckily, he has Josh Norman — arguably the best cornerback in the league —at his disposal. I like Norman to cover Fitzgerald on an island all day and force Palmer to feed the ball to John Brown and Michael Floyd instead. Whether or not that's a winning formula won't be decided until the clock hits zero, but know that it'll be a quiet day for Fitzgerald.