Everything you need to know as kickoff approaches...
Championship Weekend Injuries
New England Patriots
QUESTIONABLE: WR Danny Amendola (knee), TE Scott Chandler (knee), LB Jamie Collins (back), S Nate Ebner (hand), WR Julian Edelman (foot), LB Darius Fleming (back, shin), LB Jonathan Freeny (hand), TE Rob Gronkowski (knee, back), LB Dont'a Hightower (knee), DE Chandler Jones (abdomen, toe), DE Rob Ninkovich (shin), WR Matthew Slater (shin), C Bryan Stork (ankle), T Sebastian Vollmer (ankle)
PROBABLE: QB Tom Brady (ankle), S Patrick Chung (foot), G Josh Kline (shoulder), WR Brandon LaFell (foot), S Devin McCourty (ankle)
PROBABLE: S Josh Bush (shoulder), TE Owen Daniels (knees), LB Todd Davis (shoulder), G Max Garcia (groin), CB Chris Harris (shoulder), QB Peyton Manning (foot), LB Brandon Marshall (ankle), QB Brock Osweiler (knee), CB Bradley Roby (quadricep), S Darian Stewart (hamstring), S T.J. Ward (ankle), LB DeMarcus Ware (knee)
Harris will play. The question is how effective he will be matching up with Edelman.
Bruce Arians said his team was fully healthy.
Allen wanted to play, but Ron Rivera overruled the veteran. Stewart is good to go.
We will update as prognostications drift closer to game times.
Matchups that intrigue
In the Week 12 matchup, the Broncos ran all over the Patriots' defensive front. Anderson and Hillman galloped for 179 rushing yards combined. Anderson's quick cuts made him extremely tough to tackle on the slick field as he dashed for 113 yards and two scores on 15 carries -- including the walk-off 48-yard scamper. Sunday, Denver wants to protect Peyton Manning as much as possible and grind down the clock, keeping Tom Brady on the sidelines. The Broncos need to get Anderson going early. When C.J. is plowing downhill on one-cut runs, he can be devastating for defenses to handle.
The difference for the Patriots in this go-around is health. Jamie Collins (back) should play after missing Week 12, which is a huge boost to the Pats' front seven. Dont'a Hightower left the previous matchup early in the game. When Hightower was on the field Denver gained just 46 rushing yards on 16 carries. When he went out with an injury the Broncos' backs dashed for 133 yards and three TDs on 16 carries. If Collins, Hightower and Chandler Jones all can play significant minutes Sunday, New England could flip the ground stats to its favor in the rematch.
Let's first dispel one notion: We won't get a lot of Josh Norman on Larry Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald lined up in the slot on 51.2 percent of his plays this season, while Norman has only covered the slot on 1.4 percent of plays. At any event, the Cardinals have a lot more weapons than Fitzy -- even if he is the most potent weapon in the playoffs, averaging 114 yards per game in the postseason for his career (most of any player since 1991). Michael Floyd has been a mismatch problem on the outside and in the red zone. Floyd has either 100-plus receiving yards or a TD in six of his last nine games. Add in speedster John Brown blowing by defenders like they are standing still and the Cardinals boast a nearly uncoverable trio of wideouts that can force mismatches at all three levels. Also, don't forget the role David Johnson plays in the pass game -- who could challenge Le'Veon Bell next year for top dual-threat tailback in the NFL. The Panthers boast the fastest sideline-to-sideline linebackers in the NFL, but will be pressured by the rookie out of the backfield.
Led by Norman, the Panthers' secondary has been stout this season, allowing just 234.5 pass yards per game, but injuries have poked holes. Losing slot corner Bene' Benwikere hurt more than is discussed nationally. Then Charles Tillman was lost and it thrust the likes of Robert McClain and Cortland Finnegan into big-time duty. Finnegan has been getting torched in the slot, so the Panthers will need to send help on Fitzgerald, or the Pro Bowl receiver will eat him alive. The Panthers need Norman to lock down Floyd or Brown on the outside so they can aid to the other secondary spots with linebackers and safeties. The biggest boon to Carolina's secondary might be a dominant pass rush. Carson Palmer was under siege last week, which caused massive problems for the Cardinals' passing game. If Kawann Short and Co. are causing havoc, it will relieve some of the back-end pressure.
Did You Know?
Since 1990, No. 1 seeds are 16-9 versus No. 2 seeds in conference championships. Since 2006, No. 1 seeds are 5-1 versus No. 2 seeds in conference championships.
In the current playoff format, home teams have the lowest win percent in the conference championship round in the NFL playoffs.
Home Winning Percentage By Playoff Round, Since 1990
Wild Card: 65-39 .625
Divisional: 77-27 .740
Conference: 31-19 .620
Best Postseason Record Among Remaining 2015 Playoff Head Coaches
Bill Belichick: 23-9 .719
Gary Kubiak: 3-2 .600
Ron Rivera: 2-2 .500
Bruce Arians: 1-1 .500
The Patriots have made their fifth straight AFC Championship Game, tying them for the longest streak of consecutive conference championship games with the Oakland Raiders from 1973-77. The Patriots have won one Super Bowl in that span, the same number the Raiders won during their streak. Oakland defeated the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl XI following the 1976 season.
I'm not sure if you've heard about this during the week, but Tom Brady and Peyton Manning will meet for the 17th time in their careers (including playoffs), with Brady holding an 11-5 edge. They have split their playoff matchups 2-2, and Manning is 2-1 versus Brady in AFC Championship Games. The only pair of Hall of Fame quarterbacks to meet more often in their careers were Dan Marino and Jim Kelly, who squared off 21 times, including three playoff matchups.
The five playoff meetings for Brady and Manning are the most in NFL history among starting quarterbacks. They break a tie with Joe Flacco and Brady, Steve Young and Brett Favre, and Terry Bradshaw and Ken Stabler. The four conference championship matchups between Manning and Brady is also an NFL record, breaking a tie with Steve Young and Troy Aikman, Bernie Kosar and John Elway, and Terry Bradshaw and Ken Stabler.
Tom Brady is 6-3 in AFC Championships, but has thrown just 11 TDs and 10 INTs, while Manning is 3-1 in AFC Championships with 7 TDs and 5 INTs.
Brady has thrown more TD passes at Sports Authority Field at Mile High this season than Manning. In the Week 12 game in Denver, Brady threw 3 TDs. In the six home games Manning played this season, he threw a total of 1 TD. Yes, Broncos fans, I understand that: A) Peyton was hurt all season and B) the Broncos won Week 12. It's merely an interesting fact, not an all-encompassing predictive model for life.
This matchup will give us the oldest-combined age by opposing starting quarterbacks in playoff history. Manning (39 years, 306 days) and Tom Brady (38 years, 174 days) will be a combined 78 years, 115 days old on Sunday, surpassing John Elway and Dan Marino from the 1998 AFC Divisional playoffs, when they were a combined 75 years and 311 days old.
Patriots notable 2015 offensive ranks: third in PPG (29.1); fifth in pass YPG (286.7); sixth total YPG (374.4); 30th in rush YPG (87.8).
Brady 2015 Season: 64.4 comp pct, 298.1 pass YPG, 36 TD, 7 INT, 102.2 passer rating.
Brady will set record for most playoff games ever played on Sunday with 30. Brady has the most wins by a QB (22), most TD passes (55) and most passing yards (7,647) in postseason history.
Tom Brady was sacked 38 times this season (ninth-most among QBs). Denver had 52 sacks this season (most in NFL). Brady was hit 95 times this season (T-seventh most in NFL).
New England is 10-0 and averages 33.0 PPG with Edelman playing this season (including playoffs). Without Edelman (broken foot), the Patriots won just three of seven games, scoring 23.1 PPG. The Patriots convert 48.8 percent of third downs when Edelman plays, compared to only 32.0 percent when he was injured.
When targeted in Week 12 versus Denver, Gronkowski was covered by five different defenders: Darian Stewart (4 targets), Bradley Roby (2 targets), Brandon Marshall (2 targets), David Bruton Jr. (1 target), Danny Trevathan (1 target). Fifty-nine of Gronkowski's 88 receiving yards and his one TD were with Darian Stewart in coverage.
Patriots notable 2015 defensive ranks: Ninth in total YPG (339.4) and rush YPG (98.8); 10th in PPG (19.7); 17th in pass YPG (240.7).
This is the 10th AFC Championship Game for the tandem of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, four more than any other coach-quarterback duo. Both Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw, and Tom Landry and Roger Staubach reached six conference championship games. Belichick's 10th conference championship game as a head coach ties him with Landry for the most in NFL history. Both Don Shula and Chuck Noll each made seven conference championship games.
The Patriots won their first three AFC Championship Games of the Brady era with a turnover differential of +11. However, New England is just 3-3 in its last six AFC Championship Games with a turnover differential of -4.
Denver is 5-1 all-time in AFC Championship Games at home, and 3-0 all-time in home playoff games against the Patriots.
Broncos 2015 notable offensive ranks: 14th in pass YPG (248.1) 16th in total YPG (355.5); 17th in rush YPG (107.4); 19th in PPG (22.2) and yards/play (5.4); 25th in third-down percentage (35.3); T-29th in giveaways (31).
For the Broncos offense, the goal appears to be at least 105 rushing yards. Including the playoffs, Denver is 9-0 when they hit that mark, compared to just 4-4 when they rush for fewer than 105 yards.
The Denver offense had 52 three-and-out drives in the regular season (second-most in NFL). Only the 3-13 Titans had more three-and-out drives (53, one more than DEN).
Peyton Manning 2015 Season: 59.8 comp pct, 224.9 pass YPG, 9 TD, 17 INT, 67.9 rating. Ranked last in the NFL in TD-INT ratio and passer rating. Manning threw an INT once every 21.6 pass attempts this year, including playoffs. Divisional Round vs. PIT: 21/37, 222 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT, 74.4 passer rating -- snapped streak of 13 straight playoff games with at least 1 pass TD, which had been longest-active streak.
With Manning under center during the 2015 regular season the Broncos ran 83.7 percent of their plays from shotgun. In the Divisional Round win, they ran 52.1 percent of plays from shotgun.
Manning: 49.8 passer rating on passes of 20-plus air yards (26th among 30 qualifying QBs). In the Divisional Round, Manning was 0-4 on 20-plus yard passes, 7 of 10 on 10-19 yard passes, 12 of 21 on 0-9 yard passes and 2 of 2 on throws behind the line of scrimmage.
Manning's postseason struggles don't extend to conference championship games at home. In three such games in his career, Manning is 3-0 and averages 375.3 pass yards per game, with a 6-1 TD-INT ratio and a 105.6 passer rating.
Ronnie Hillman 2015 season: 207 carries, 863 yards (4.2 avg.), 7 TDs. Divisional Round vs. PIT: 16 carries, 38 rush yards. Week 12 vs. NE: 14 carries, 59 rush yards, 1 rush TD.
C.J. Anderson 2015 season: 152 carries, 720 yards (4.7 avg.), 5 TDs. Averaging 6.1 yards/carry since Week 8 (including playoffs) -- most in NFL, minimum 80 carries. Divisional Round vs. PIT: 15 carries, 72 rushing yards, 4.8 yards/carry, 1 TD. Week 12 vs. NE: 15 carries, 113 rush yards, 2 rush TD -- 48-yard rush TD in overtime.
Demaryius Thomas 2015 season: 105 receptions, 1,304 yards, 6 TD. Week 12 vs. NE: 13 targets, 1 reception, 36 receiving yards (Osweiler as QB) -- T-fewest receptions by any player with 13-plus targets since 1991.
Emmanuel Sanders 2015 season: 76 receptions, 1,135 yards, 6 TD. Week 12 vs. NE: 6 receptions, 113 receiving yards.
Vernon Davis 2015 Regular Season: 38 receptions, 395 yards, 0 TDs. In 10 games since being traded to DEN: 2.0 receptions/game, 20.1 rec YPG. Last four games combined: 1 reception, 5 receiving yards. Played one snap in Divisional Round.
Broncos 2015 notable defensive ranks: First in total YPG allowed (283.1), pass YPG (199.6), yards per play (4.4) and sacks (52); third in rush YPG (83.6); fourth in PPG (17.3).
Week 12 vs. NE: Allowed 301 total yards (262 passing, 39 rushing) -- third-fewest total yards by NE this season, third-fewest rush yards by NE this season. Held NE to 2-13 on third down.
Denver allowed only one QB to throw for 300-plus yards this season (inc. playoffs) - Ben Roethlisberger did it twice (380 pass yards in Week 15; 339 pass yards in Divisional Round). Brady had 300-plus pass yards in seven games during the regular season -- 280 vs. DEN in Week 12.
Chris Harris Jr. 2015 Regular Season: 2 INT, 6 passes defensed. Suffering from a shoulder injury suffered in Week 17 vs. SD. Played a team-high 97.0 percent of defensive snaps in reg. season. Played third-most snaps among CB in Divisional Round (74.6 percent). 80.2 passer rating allowed in regular season (37th in NFL among CBs).
Under the radar players to watch:
Patriots center Bryan Stork: Stork left the Divisional Round with an ankle injury and is questionable after being limited in practice this week. In the Week 12 matchup, Stork got bum-rushed by Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson. If he plays, the center needs to bounce back and keep a clean pocket for Brady.
The Panthers (+192) and Cardinals (+176) were the NFL's best teams this season by point differential, marking the third straight season that the teams with the NFL's top-two point differentials will meet in the playoffs. Last season, the Patriots (first in point differential) defeated the Seahawks (second) in Super Bowl XLIX. In 2013, the Seahawks (second) beat the Broncos (first) in Super Bowl XLVIII.
Cardinals are 5-2 vs. playoff teams this season (including playoffs): vs. Playoff teams: 5-2; 25.6 PPG; 24.6 PPG allowed; -5 turnover differential.
vs. Non-Playoff teams: 9-1; 33.6 PPG; 16.1 PPG allowed; +13 turnover differential.
Cardinals 2015 notable offensive ranks: First in total YPG (408.3), yards per play (6.3), yards per pass attempt (8.5), 10-plus yard plays (255), three-and-out percentage (14.5); second in PPG (30.6), pass YPG (288.5); third in third-down percentage (47.0).
Carson Palmer 2015 Season: 63.7 completion percentage, 291.9 YPG, 35 TD, 11 INT, 104.6 passer rating. Palmer set Cardinals' single-season records for passing yards, passing touchdowns and passer rating. Ten 300-yard passing games this season (including playoffs). Divisional Round vs. GB: 25/41, 349 pass yards, 3 TD, 2 INT, 92.4 passer rating -- earned first postseason win (third playoff appearance).
The Cardinals are 11-0 when Palmer has a passer rating of 100-plus this season and 3-3 when Palmer has a passer rating below 100 (including playoffs). Back-to-back sub-100 passer rating games: Week 17 vs. SEA: 60.3 passer rating - Divisional Round vs. GB: 92.4 passer rating.
Palmer averaged 10.7 air yards/attempt this season (most in NFL). Palmer had 32 completions of 20-plus air yards this season -- second-most in NFL (Blake Bortles, 36). Carolina allowed 20 completions of 20-plus air yards this season (T-seventh fewest in NFL).
Larry Fitzgerald 2015 Season: 109 receptions, 1,215 yards, 9 TDs -- T-fifth in NFL in receptions, ninth in NFL in receiving yards. One TD reception in each of last three games (including playoffs) -- longest streak by Fitzgerald since Weeks 11-14, 2013 (four straight).
In eight career playoff games, Larry Fitzgerald has averaged 114.0 receiving yards per game and scored 10 touchdowns. He is the only player in NFL history (minimum 3 games) to average 100-plus receiving yards and one-plus TD per game in the playoffs. Fitzgerald had eight receptions for 176 yards and a touchdown against the Packers in the Divisional Round. He became the only player in the Super Bowl era to gain 150-plus receiving yards in three different playoff games.
Fitzgerald needs 88 receiving yards to reach 1,000 postseason receiving yards faster than any player all-time -- Steve Smith Sr. did it in 11 games (currently the fastest all-time).
Michael Floyd 2015 Season: 52 receptions, 849 yards, 6 TDs this season. Floyd has either 100-plus receiving yards or a TD in six of his last nine games. Five 100-yard receiving games in last nine games (six in previous 55 games). Divisional Round vs. GB: 3 receptions, 26 yards, 2 TD.
John Brown 2015 Season: 65 receptions, 1,003 yards, 7 TDs. Averaging 80.6 receiving YPG on the road this season (seven games).
David Johnson 2015 Season: 125 carries, 581 yards, 8 TDs; 36 receptions, 457 yards, 4 TDs. Johnson had 13 TDs this season (8 rush, 4 receiving, 1 kick return), the most TDs by any Cardinals player this season. Led all NFL rookies in touchdowns -- T-fifth most touchdowns in NFL this season (all players). Johnson led the league with nine total TDs in road games this season.
Only four Cardinals have had more total TDs in a season in franchise history than Johnson: 1983 Roy Green, 14 TDs; 1962 John David Crow, 17 TDs; 1960 Sonny Randle, 15 TDs; 1948 Mal Kutner 15 TDs.
Johnson averaged 149.8 scrimmage YPG in Weeks 13-16 - Averaging only 68.5 scrimmage YPG in last 2 games (including playoffs).
Cardinals 2015 notable defensive ranks: second in takeaways (33); fifth in total YPG allowed (321.7); sixth in rush YPG (91.3); T-seventh in PPG (19.6); eighth in pass YPG (230.4) and third-down percentage (35.7).
Arizona held opponents to 20 points or less in six of last seven games (including playoffs).
Patrick Peterson 2015 Season: 2 INT, 1 forced fumble, 8 passed defensed. Among all cornerbacks that were targeted at least 50 times in the regular season, Peterson allowed the lowest passer rating in coverage this season (45.6). In his two career playoff games, Peterson has surrendered only three receptions for a combined 27 yards (0 TDs).
The Panthers went 8-0 at home during the regular season. Since 1975 (when No. 1 seeds were first recognized), 23 other teams finished unbeaten at home and had the No. 1 seed (home-field advantage throughout the playoffs). Only 12 of those 23 made the Super Bowl. The last team to go undefeated at home, earn home-field advantage throughout the playoffs and win the Super Bowl was the 2003 Patriots.
The Panthers are 5-0 against playoff teams this season -- Beat HOU (Week 2), SEA (Week 6), GB (Week 9), WAS (Week 11), SEA (Divisional Round) -- scoring 32.6 PPG, allowing 21.8 PPG with a +6 point differential in those contests.
Panthers went 8-1 (.888) in games decided by eight or fewer points this season, including the playoffs.
Carolina's 2015 notable offensive ranks: 1st in PPG (31.3); 2nd in red zone TD percent (68.3) and rushing YPG (142.6); 7th in third down percent (42.4); 11th in total YPG (366.9); 24th pass YPG (224.3). Only one of the last six Super Bowl winners has ranked in the bottom half of the league in passing (2013 Seahawks).
Panthers scored 30-plus points in seven of their last eight games, including playoffs. Averaging 32.8 PPG in home games this season, including playoffs.
The Panthers went 3-0 this season against top-5 total defenses, averaging 27.3 points per game and gaining over 150 rushing YPG.
Cam Newton 2015 Season: 59.8 comp pct, 239.8 pass YPG, 35 TD, 10 INT, 99.4 passer rating - 132 carries, 636 yards, 10 TD. In the Divisional Round, Newton posted a passer rating above 85 for the first time ever in the playoffs (108.3).
Cam Newton has 22 pass TDs and 1 INT in his last nine games, including the playoffs. He also has five rushing TDs in that span. Newton has 11 TD, 0 INT in last four home games (including playoffs) with two rushing TDs.
Newton greatly improved his downfield passing in 2015: 9 TD passes of 25-plus air yards in 2015 (T-most in NFL with Derek Carr).
Newton has not fared as well this season against top-5 total defenses (Cardinals had No. 5 total defense this year). Though he has won all three such games, his passer rating of 77.7 is 27 points lower than his rating against all other teams this year.
Jonathan Stewart 2015 Season: 242 carries, 989 yards, 6 rush TD (4.1 yards/carry). Missed final three games of regular season with a sprained foot. Divisional Rd vs. SEA: 19 carries, 106 rushing yards, 2 rush TD.
Stewart has earned 100-plus scrimmage yards in three of the last five games (including playoffs).
Greg Olsen 2015 Season: 77 receptions, 1,104 yards, 7 TD. Divisional Round vs. SEA: 6 receptions, 77 yards, TD.
Panthers 2015 notable defensive ranks: 1st in takeaways (39); 4th in rush YPG allowed (88.4); 6th in PPG (19.3), total YPG (322.9) and sacks (44); 11th in pass YPG (234.5).
Panthers allowed less than 20 points in eight games this season, but allowed 20-plus points in three of the last four games.
The Panthers' pass defense has allowed 70 more passing yards per game over the last four contests (293.8) than the first 13 games (223.2).
Josh Norman 2015 Season: 4 INT, 18 passes defensed, 60.9 passer rating allowed -- 15th lowest passer rating allowed among all CBs (min. 40 targets). Allowed 3 TDs in coverage this season.
Don't expect to see Norman shadow Larry Fitzgerald in this game. Fitzgerald has lined up in the slot on 51.2 percent of his plays this season, while Norman has only covered the slot on 1.4 percent of his plays.
The Panthers defense boasts two of the three NFL players to record 100-plus tackles and 4-plus interceptions this season. Kuechly had 118 tackles and 4 INT, while Davis had 105 tackles and 4 INT.
Under the radar players to watch:
Panthers WR Devin Funchess: The rookie receiver has been boom or bust. He's been silent in many contests, but with Patrick Peterson shutting down other options and Greg Olsen gaining loads of attention, Funchess should get a good matchup. Teams have picked on Cards corner Justin Bethel at will. Expect Newton to do likewise with Funchess or Corey Brown.
Cardinals "Moneybacker" Deone Bucannon: As a safety playing linebacker, Bucannon offers immense flexibility in coverage and pass rushing. However, as an undersized player in the middle of the defense, he'll face a wholly different challenge against the Panthers' diverse run game. Pro Football Focus ranked Bucannon the Cards' worst run defender this season (-5.7 grade). If a good Panthers offensive line pushes around Bucannon, Stewart and Newton could see huge holes on the second level.