Super Bowl 50 Prediction by Nicky Parola
On Saturday, the New England Patriots rolled right over the Kansas City Chiefs in Foxborough, while the Arizona Cardinals squeaked out an overtime victory over the Green Bay Packers at Phoenix Stadium. The next day, the Carolina Panthers would survive a second half surge in their own backyard from the Seattle Seahawks (who were blanked in the first half). Sunday afternoon, Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos overcame a second-half deficit against the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers.
What's interesting from the results of this weekend's action to me is that the two teams that did not deserve to still be in the playoffs were eliminated. The previous weekend, during the NFL Wildcard Playoffs, Seattle advance simply on a missed field goal by Minnesota Viking's kicker, Blair Walsh. The field goal attempt was an easy 27-yard chip shot, and 99 times out of a hundred Walsh would make that kick. The day before, Pittsburgh advanced out of Cincinnati simply because the Bengals shot themselves in the foot, several times, with just 96 seconds left in the game and a one point lead.
Let's take a look at the four teams that remain in the hunt.
New England Patriots
The 2014 Vince Lombardi Trophy Winners are back again. The Patriots are seeking their seventh Super Bowl appearance in the Tom Brady era. They've won 4 of their 6 trips to the Super Bowl since Bill Belichick and Tom Brady arrived. Don't underestimate the motivation of Belichick's pursuit of the record for most Super Bowl victories as a head coach. He is currently tied at four with Chuck Noll. The New England Patriots looked unbeatable earlier in the season, but scores of injuries from offensive line to wide receivers had diminished their offensive power in the second half of the 2015 regular season. After a 10-0 start, he Patriots won just 2 of their last 6 games to finish at 12-4 - still good enough to conquer the AFC East and the 2nd overall seed entering the playoffs.
When you have the number 1 scoring offense in the NFL (31.6 PPG), and you combine it with the 6th ranked defense overall (322.9 Yards/Game), you get a team that is nearly unbeatable. The Carolina Panthers are 16-1 entering the NFC Championship Game - a game they get to host. They could just as easily be still undefeated with a 17-0 record if they hadn't run into a hot Matt Ryan in Atlanta on December 27th. Ryan threw for a season high best 76.7% completion rate while getting 10.2 yards per attempt. One thing I observed that was different in that game than the rest of Carolina's games this season, was the lack of turnovers on either side of the ball. The Panthers were remarkably successful in the turnover department with a +20 differential in 2015. The second closest in that department was the Kansas City Chiefs, who finished with a +14 turnover differential. Without such fortunes, one could question what the overall record of this team would be. Nonetheless, Carolina did remain undefeated on their home turf, where they are now 9-0 (8-0 Regular Season, 1-0 Postseason).
The number 1 ranked offensive team, with 408.3 overall yards per game, averaged over 30 points per game this year. Bruce Arians claims that Arizona Quarterback, Carson Palmer, is "the best quarterback in the NFL." He may have some validity to that statement. Palmer finished the 2015 regular season with a 104.6 passer rating, which was 3rd best in the league. He also earned his first postseason victory against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers on Saturday. Two months ago, Pro Football Focus had Palmer rated as the number 1 quarterback in the NFL as well, citing that Palmer was putting up slightly better numbers than Tom Brady at the time, despite the fact that he was getting pressured on over 43% of his drop-backs (3rd most in the league). Arizona's Defense is nothing to take for granted either, finishing 5th best overall by allowing just 321.7 yards per game to opposing offenses.
With or without a top-rated quarterback, the Broncos Defense alone is a force to contend with. The Peyton vs Brady saga can be put to rest due to the fact that Manning's mechanics are obviously in decline, but the old adage, "defense wins championships" will be put to the test once again. Denver's Defense finished tops in the NFL, allowing opponents just 283.1 offensive yards per game overall. They ranked number 1 against the pass, and number 3 against the run. How valuable was that defensive performance of the Denver Broncos this year? They carried an offense that ranked just 16th in overall yards per game, and 19th in points scored per game, to a solid 12-4 record and the number 1 seed in the AFC. Hence, they are playing at home in the AFC Championship when they face New England. Don't forget the Patriots visited the Mile High earlier this year and suffered their first defeat of the season.
AFC Championship Game Prediction
The Patriots candidly defeated the Chiefs last week, while the Broncos somewhat skated by the Steelers to get here. The Chiefs were attention-getters at the betting windows, entering the NFL Playoffs on a 10 game winning streak. However it could be easily argued that Kansas City had such success against one of the softest schedules in the NFL. Now with the apparently easy victory, it's the Patriots that are getting attention from football bettors. It's easily overlookable to the betting public that New England is still undermanned due to injury depletion, and that they won with such ease with the luxury of playing on their home turf - where they are nearly perfect over the past 15+ years.
Denver was the most heavily bet on public team in the Divisional Playoffs last weekend and, depending on the spread, they pushed or lost at the betting window. That bitters the taste of gamblers, and now the public perception of this game sees an injured Peyton Manning that appears to be nothing but a shell of his old self. But it's not the passing game that I'm counting on to predict the winner in this one. With Denver's powerful defense, and home field advantage, all I demand of the Broncos is good ball control and clock management for my play; and I don't expect them to disappoint. They ran for 179 yards in the regular season meeting, and that was the most rushing yards allowed all season by the New England Patriots.
The Patriots are way more susceptible when playing away from home. Three of their four losses came on the road, where they are also just 1-5 against the spread in their last six. The Patriots are 1-5 in their last six visits to Mile High Stadium, and 1-5 against the numbers in their last six Conference Championship Games. Surprisingly, with Tom Brady, the Patriots are also 0-2 in their two playoff games at Mile High.
The Denver Broncos are in great shape health-wise, except for Peyton Manning who is now somewhat human. They are also 8-3-1 against the spread after losing money for their backers. This line is clearly an overreaction to Manning's condition, and last weeks' results. These two teams have been performing with opposite results when playing a good team; the Patriots are 1-4-2 at the window in their last seven such games, while the Broncos are 3-1-1 against the line in their last five.
My pick to win the AFC Championship Game:
8 Units Denver Broncos +3.5 at Topbet Sportsbook
NFC Championship Prediction
Not so fast. The Arizona Cardinals went 7-1 on the road in 2015, losing only to the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field all the way back in Week 6. Carolina was undefeated at Bank of America Stadium and there was plenty of chatter regarding Cam Newton and the MVP honors. But the less talked about quarterback in this matchup, Carson Palmer, finished with a 104.6 QBR in the regular season while averaging 292 passing yards per game.. Cam Newton finished 8th in the NFL with a 99.4 QBR in the regular season, while averaging a 240 yards per game. Newton is an excellent quarterback, with plenty of upside as well, but he's not this years' MVP.
Comparing the two NFC Teams, one glaring aspect that stands out to me is their strength of schedules. So I did some research. According to Prediction Machine, which emulates nearly every NFL statistic imaginable, the Carolina Panthers had the 2nd softest schedule in the NFL. The only team with an easier schedule was the Atlanta Falcons at #32. The Arizona Cardinals had the 16th toughest schedule, right around the NFL average.
Looking into injuries on both sides, Carolina has a couple of notable marks as well. Jonathan Stewart is listed as "probable" for the Panthers, but will be nursing a sore ankle - not good for a running back. It was Stewart's big game against the Seahawks last week that has Carolina here in the first place. Greg Olsen is also listed as "probable" but will be a little sore from a stinger sustained last weekend against the Seahawks. But the key injury for this matchup will be the loss of Jared Allen, Carolina's star Defensive End. Allen is a force to be reckoned on the defensive line. Arizona's weakness has been pressure allowed on quarterback, Carson Palmer. If Palmer won't be getting as much pressure with Allen "doubtful" for Sunday's game, the Cardinals have a great shot at winning this game outright. Arizona has no new notable injuries to report.
As I mentioned before, Carolina has been very fortunate in the turnover margin this year. But they are facing a team that's also been pretty successful in the turnover department. The Arizona Cardinals finished 4th in the NFL with a +9 turnover differential. They had 33 takeaways (19 interceptions and 14 fumbles recovered), to go along with 24 giveaways. It's the interceptions that could be a problem for the Carolina Panthers. Cam Newton has been prone to throw interceptions in playoff games. He has a win under his belt in this years' Playoffs, but makes him just 2-2 straight-up lifetime. Because it's in Carolina, this game can bounce either way. But my lean is on the Cardinals, slightly, to win this game outright. They are the better overall team, despite the records, and in slightly better health. So I'll be backing them with the additional field-goal being offered by oddsmakers.
My pick to win the NFC Championship Game:
Not as strong as my Denver Bet, But I have 4 Units on the Arizona Cardinals +3 (-102) at 5Dimes Sportsbook
Super Bowl 50 Prediction
My futures bet on Super Bowl 50:
5 Units on Denver Broncos +440 at Bovada, 3 Units on Arizona Cardinals +375 at 5Dimes
I like Denver's chances of winning Super Bowl 50 slightly more than I like Arizona's. Here's why:
Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos have the experience. Even though they were dominated by the Seahawks in their last trip to the big game, that experience goes a long way and they will have learned from it. This is very well Peyton's last NFL football game. The emotional motivation is one of the strongest in professional sports. Yes, the Broncos are currently the biggest underdog of the four teams remaining. But once they get past New England they will most likely be listed as the favorites if they play Arizona in the Super Bowl if there are no major injuries suffered from this weekends' matchups. With my two futures wagers, Denver at +440 and Arizona at +375, it doesn't really matter who will win the Super Bowl. At +375, I still win 6.25 units if the Cardinals win Super Bowl 50 after subtracting my 5 unit loss on my Denver wager. But, at +440, I win 19 units if the Broncos win Super Bowl 50 after subtracting my 3 unit loss on my Arizona bet.
Let's go Denver Broncos!