NFL roundtable: AFC championship picks

Tom Brady and the Patriots lost to the Broncos in Denver earlier this season. (Joe Mahoney/AP)

Got a hot topic? Our NFL panel has opinions. The panel includes NFL editor Craig Battle, Sportsnet deputy editor Jordan Heath-Rawlings, staff writer Mike Johnston, and associate editor Geoff Lowe.

Who you got, the New England Patriots or the Denver Broncos?

JOHNSTON: There’s far more to this game than it simply being another matchup between Peyton Manning and Tom Brady… but I’m totally going to ignore that and focus mostly on the QB battle.

Brady and Manning have played one another 16 times since 2001 with Brady’s teams winning 11 of them, and the Patriots have won three of four Brady-Manning Bowls since Manning joined the Broncos (Brock Osweiler was Denver’s starter when the Broncos handed the Pats their first loss of the season in Week 12). What’s interesting here though is that the home team has won each of those four Broncos-Patriots games and Sunday’s contest takes place at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on Sunday. Take from that what you will, but if the trend continues the Broncos are going to the Super Bowl. More important than trends, however, is how each pivot is playing right now.

This season, Brady has been solid and Manning has not. Last week, Brady was solid and Manning was not. Brady has a more reliable stable of targets and for that reason I'm going with the Pats—the Broncos great pass rush notwithstanding. There will be tons of pressure on Chris Harris to limit the effectiveness of Julian Edleman, who is more important to the Pats offence than Gronk, and I don't think he'll be able to. For the Broncos to have a chance Demaryius Thomas and his teammates can’t drop easy passes like they have too often this season.

My pick: 27–19, Patriots

LOWE: There are multiple factors that point me in the direction of picking Denver: the Broncos have the best defence in the NFL, including a vaunted pass rush that racked up more sacks than any other team this season (52); outside of last week, the Patriots have struggled mightily to protect Tom Brady over the last two months; New England have lost their last two games at Mile High.

But my gut still tells me to pick the Patriots, and I’m going with my gut. New England’s offence looked to be back in early-season form in its divisional win over the Chiefs last week, which included a vast improvement along the offensive line—Brady was hit just once and wasn’t sacked. And if the Patriots are able to put up points, I just can’t picture Peyton Manning and the Broncos’ offence keeping up. Denver barely survived a severely injury-depleted Steelers team, and the win came thanks to a fourth-quarter Fitzgerald Toussaint fumble deep in Steelers territory.

If Denver’s defence can get to Brady often, of course it will be a different story, but I don’t think they will.

My pick: 31–20, Patriots

HEATH-RAWLINGS: OK, here’s the thing. I don’t like to brag, but I am 8-0 picking winners in these playoffs. I went with all road teams in the Wild Card round, and all the home teams last weekend. If a football writer goes perfect for the playoffs and never picks an upset, does it even count?! I would tend to think not, so here is my first upset of the playoffs—Peyton Manning’s going to the Super Bowl one last time. Why? Well, mostly because I can’t just choose the favourite every time. It’s unseemly. But also because the Patriots biggest problem over the last two months has been protecting Tom Brady. The Chiefs, even without Justin Houston at anything close to full strength, forced Brady to get rid of the ball quickly last week.

And here’s the thing: The Broncos have the most terrifying defensive line in football. We saw the Pats try to compensate for their subpar O-line last week by starting the game with quick passes, developing a rhythm and keeping Brady upright. I expect them to try the same thing this week, but I don’t expect it to work nearly as well. And if you can force the Pats to worry about their QB getting smoked, you force them into running the ball and avoiding taking shots downfield, and that turns Tom Brady into something more resembling what Peyton manning currently looks like. And that’s a win for Denver.

My pick: 19–17, Broncos

BATTLE: Hang on, let me get one of those stand-up carnival wheels, decorate it in alternating elongated wedges representing the Broncos and the Patriots, then throw some darts at it. I don't care that the Patriots are favoured by three—to me, this game is a pick-’em.

OK, OK: When it comes down to it, Bill Belichick is the best coach in the world, and he's working without the limitations that saddled his team in the final weeks of the regular season. I trust him to make the necessary adjustments—to take the game plan everyone thinks they'll bring to the table and turn it on its head. You don't think Belichick hears all those "Well, Brady struggled against the New York Giants' stout defensive lines in those two Super Bowls, so..." arguments? He hears them. Right now in some sinister-looking cave/laboratory he's muttering to himself, "They don't know that we know that they know that we know..." and devising a plan to throw, I don't know, like 10 tight ends out there at once, just Brady and a bunch of tight ends versus the Broncos' defence. Or something. He's pulling the strings on his hoodie so hard he can't even breathe, but it's all coming to him. And my guess is it'll work on Sunday. Probably.

My pick: something–something (I honestly have no idea...), Patriots