Jarrett Bell: Cardinals over Patriots
This is easily the most wide-open NFL playoff field in years, and a case can be made — or not — for half of the entrants to emerge as the champ. What gives? The New England Patriots, having lost four of their past six games, seem ripe to be dethroned, weakened by so many injuries. Their momentum is kaput. But they still have Tom Brady — or at least a couple of weeks to get him healthy — and they have Bill Belichick, challenged to create coaching magic. Don’t count out the Patriots just yet, especially when considering the flaws of the other AFC contenders. A great quarterback can still make the difference. But the inconsistency that Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncoshave shown is nothing to bank on. The Arizona Cardinals, Seattle Seahawks and top-seeded Carolina Panthers have their big-time quarterbacks, too. But Arizona — despite getting clobbered by surging Seattle in the regular-season finale — will bring theCarson Palmer-armed offense that will match up best to exploit the Carolina secondary … if the Seahawks don’t upset Cam Newton and the Panthers first. To get to Santa Clara, Calif., the Cardinals just might have another date with the proud two-time defending NFC champs, who have grown another dimension with the exploits of Russell Wilson. But it would be so fitting if the Cardinals got that opportunity. Maybe it’s just a hunch that Bruce Arians and his balanced team will push through. As it stands now, that hunch might be as good as any for the wild ride this NFL postseason promises to be.
Nate Davis: Seahawks over Broncos
Lacking a better option, I’ll stick with Seattle, my preseason pick. The Seahawks certainly have issues — start with having to win three road playoff games to nail down a third consecutive NFC title — but so does every team in the postseason field. But outside of a Week 16 lapse to the St. Louis Rams, the Seahawks have arguably looked like the class of the NFC for nearly two months. Russell Wilson has clearly shed the game-manager label — I’d argue he did that in 2014 — and the defense has regained its dominant form, the capstone being a stifling performance against the NFC West champion Cardinals in Week 17. And if Marshawn Lynch is able to contribute coming off abdominal surgery? Look out. As for the AFC, every team almost seems fatally flawed in some way. But given the battered Patriots’ increasing inability to protect Tom Brady, hard to see them potentially overcoming Denver’s dominant defense in the Mile High City.
Lindsay H. Jones: Panthers over Patriots
This is the Year of Cam. Panthers quarterback Newton is the likely MVP, and though that vote likely won’t be close, it might take a Super Bowl win to convince the public at large that Newton has truly arrived. The Panthers’ run to the No. 1 seed in the NFC this season was no fluke — and it happened because of a powerful defense, with a breakout star cornerback in Josh Norman and the NFL’s best young linebacker in Luke Kuechly. But it wouldn’t have happened without Newton. He might not put up Brady-like passing numbers, but his impact as a runner and passer makes him nearly impossible for defenses to stop. I think the Patriots will rebound from their late-season slump to make another strong playoff push, bolstered by the expected return of Julian Edelman, but I think Newton will be an unstoppable force in Santa Clara, Calif.
Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz: Cardinals over Broncos
Arizona’s path to Super Bowl 50 won’t be easy, as the rival Seahawks and 15-1 Panthers both stand out as potential stumbling points. But Bruce Arians looks to have something special going with Carson Palmer and Co. If the pass rush holds up, the Cardinals would be the most well-rounded team in the postseason field. Denver, meanwhile, has plenty of uncertainty with Peyton Manning’s return to full-time starting status. But with the Patriots having lost four of their last six and the Cincinnati Bengalswaiting on Andy Dalton, no one in the AFC is at full strength. And the Broncos defense hasn’t flinched all season.
Tom Pelissero: Cardinals over Patriots
Throw a dart in the AFC. The Patriots get the nod here because they have the best quarterback, and improved health at receiver and along the offensive line would provide a boost. The NFC seems to have a clearer divide — it’s the Panthers, Cardinals and Seahawks, then the rest — and Arizona sure looks like a tough matchup for Carolina because of its ability to spread the field offensively. That’s the only team the Cardinals would have to play on the road, and the Panthers might need to get past the Seahawks first. In an Arizona-New England Super Bowl, the Cardinals’ speed and depth at receiver would stress the Patriots’ secondary, too.
Eric Prisbell: Panthers over Patriots
In a season in which both No. 6 seeds (the Seahawks and Steelers) have realistic chances of reaching the Super Bowl, I’m sticking with two of the favorites. The best thing to happen to the Panthers was losing to the Atlanta Falcons. A wake-up call before the playoffs at once alleviates pressure and renews a sense of urgency. A 15-1 record is a 15-1 record, even though their schedule wasn’t exactly the toughest in history. The questionable group of wide receivers doesn’t have to be sensational, it just needs to haul in the catchable passes from Newton. The combination of Newton and a healthy Jonathan Stewart gives Carolina a formidable rushing attack. They stop the run. The linebacking duo of Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly is arguably the game’s best. And cornerback Josh Norman needs to play with the edge he did not exhibit against the Falcons. They Panthers will likely need to hurdle the Seahawks to get to the Super Bowl. Tough challenge, but the Panthers have already done it in Seattle. Newton will cap his MVP season by winning the Super Bowl.
Lorenzo Reyes: Cardinals over Patriots
Arizona, even with a Week 17 flop, has all the pieces in place to make a run: an MVP-caliber quarterback in Carson Palmer, an aggressive offense led by coach Bruce Arians and a defense that can get after opposing quarterbacks. The Cardinals also have something else in their favor: added motivation. They were considered to be among the favorites last season before Palmer tore his anterior cruciate ligament. This could be their year. The Patriots, meanwhile, even though they’re weakened by injuries, still have far and away the best quarterback in the AFC playoff field in Tom Brady. But if they make it to Santa Clara, Calif., Arizona presents a tough matchup with athleticism on a defense that can match New England’s pass catchers, with the exception of tight end Rob Gronkowski.
by USA TODAY Sports