A lot of fans regard Championship Sunday as the best football day of the year — better than the Super Bowl — and the NFL has its most pedigreed final four in years. The quartet of survivors has a combined 56-12 record, and this is the first time in 11 seasons we have had a No. 1 vs. No. 2-seed finale in both conferences. Poor Cinderella wanted into the ball but just couldn’t get past the velvet ropes this time. Sorry, Cindy. You’ll see elsewhere on this page that I like both favorites on Sunday and history would back me up. Betting faves are 52-22 straight up all-time in conference championship games, and 42-31-1 vs. the spread. Those trends make me feel pretty good about my picks. But this makes me feel even better: Cam Newton, at home, and Tom Brady, anywhere.
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PATRIOTS (13-4, No. 2 seed) at BRONCOS (13-4, No. 1)
Line: NE by 3.
Cote’s pick: NE 27-23.
TV: 3:05 p.m., CBS.
You’d not be nuts to be tempted by Denver as a home ’dog, despite Peyton Manning’s decline and frailty at the end of what has been an awful season for him. Bill Belichick is only 8-12 vs. the Broncos and Tom Brady is 2-6 at Mile High. Denver leads 3-1 in playoff meetings and won 30-24 in Week 12. Also, Denver’s better than typical home-field edge is a big reason the Broncos are 16-5 at home in the postseason. So, whether it is those trends, the Broncos’ superior defense or a sentimental gut belief that Manning has more heroic game left in him, liking the homies here is not insane. (Here comes the “but,” of course). The defending champion Patriots are hell-bent driven by the Deflategate mess that shadowed them into the season, and driven more literally by the NFL’s best-ever playoff duo in Belichick and Brady. This is the Pats’ fifth straight AFC Championship Game, and in the Super Bowl era only the 1973-77 Raiders have done that. And now that Brady has Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola both back to augment Rob Gronkowski, it’ll be tough for even the Broncos’ mighty defense to hold NE under four touchdowns. The cold and perhaps damp weather will be a neutral factor here, but this won’t be: A still-great Brady vs. the near-empty husk of Manning.
CARDINALS (14-3, No. 2 seed) at PANTHERS (16-1, No. 1)
Line: CAR by 3.
Cote’s pick: CAR 31-27.
TV: 6:40 p.m., Fox.
I know, I know. This is Sunday’s quarterback undercard bout compared to Brady-Manning. But Carson Palmer (Southern Cal, 2002) vs. Cam Newton (Auburn, 2010) marks the first time two Heisman-winning QBs have met in the playoffs. Moreover, they lead the NFL’s two highest-scoring offenses in Carolina (31.3 points) and Arizona (30.6). This game won’t have the emotional heft of watching Manning in perhaps the final game of his storied career, but it figures as the more entertaining of the two games. How will the Cardinals’ aggressive, blitz-crazy defense deal with the dual threat of Newton? Can the Panthers’ big-time secondary limit ’Zona’s bombs-away air game? Also loving the matchup of the league’s likely coach of the year in the Cats’ Ron Rivera and its most daring coach in the Birds’ Bruce Arians. Here is what ultimately steers my pick: Carolina has won 21 of its past 23 games, and Charlotte will be jumping to host its first conference championship game. An even better bet than the home Cats winning, though, is that it’ll be close. Eight straight NFC title games, four of them in overtime, have been decided by seven points or fewer. Great chance that streak continues in the Sunday late game that will complete the matchup for Super Bowl 50.