All of a sudden you look up and there are only three NFL games left in the season.
It’s an upsetting realization, one that entitles you to take some time for processing. But you get only a week, because two of those games will be played Sunday, with the winners heading to Super Bowl 50 two weeks later. So after watching Tom Brady school the Chiefs, Larry Fitzgerald outmuscle Aaron Rodgers’ magic, the Panthers hold off the never-say-die Seahawks, and the Broncos come back to escape the Steelers, these are the biggest questions we have as we make the turn into conference championship week.
Is there a Brady vs. Manning storyline left to explore?
These guys have met so often and in so many games that thinking up something fresh to write about it feels like covering “White Christmas.” The big story this time will be whether the 17th meeting will be the last, as Manning looks close to the end. Brady has beaten him 11 times, including three in the playoffs. Even Brady, if he beats Manning for a 12th time overall and third in the playoffs, probably won’t crack another age joke.
Are the Patriots scary healthy at the right time?
Julian Edelman headed to the X-ray room after Saturday’s game, but that could have been just to see if anyone there was missing him. Edelman was healthy enough to catch 10 passes for 100 yards in his first game in two months. With him and Rob Gronkowski both available, Brady’s confidence appears as inflated as it gets.
Can the Broncos get to Brady?
The Chiefs’ inability to pressure Brady (along with Brady’s ultra-quick release) doomed Kansas City on Saturday night. Denver’s secondary has been a strength all season, but it looked a little leaky Sunday. The Broncos can blitz if they want, but if they do that, they’d better hope Chris Harris is healthier than he looked in Sunday's game. The better bet would be for Von Miller to have a playoff game for the ages and for Denver to create pressure on Brady with just the front four.
Who’s the cooler quarterback in the NFC game?
Maybe he needed to get his first playoff win out of the way, but Arizona’s Carson Palmer looked more than a little jittery Saturday night, right? Two interceptions, several close-call scary throws and decisions. One of his touchdowns came on a bizarre lucky tip and another on a shovel pass. The throw to Fitzgerald at the start of overtime was a thing of beauty and reminds you what Palmer’s capable of, but he didn’t inspire confidence for most of that game. Cam Newton, meanwhile, is hitting Greg Olsen in double coverage with laser beams and looks like nothing has ever bothered him. At this point, Newton is the QB in this matchup you trust more.
What’s Josh Norman’s assignment?
The Cardinals offer ample choices if you’re looking to assign your top cornerback to a No. 1 receiver. The size of Michael Floyd? The speed of John Brown? Norman needs to know early in the week, so he can brush up on his opponent-specific insults. But the problem is that Arizona’s top receiving threat Saturday was the ageless Fitzgerald, who lines up in the slot, where Norman never goes. When the Panthers blitz, Norman may be wise to cheat Fitzgerald’s way. Palmer was 5-of-8 for 152 yards targeting Fitzgerald against the blitz Saturday.
Will the travel bother the Cardinals?
Arizona has to take a 4½-hour flight to get to Charlotte. And while the forecast high temperature Sunday is in the 50s, the sun will have set by the time the game kicks off at 6:40 p.m. ET and temps could get into the 30s before the game ends. Not great cactus-growing weather. The bigger problem may be the Panthers’ underreported home-field advantage. Carolina has won 12 consecutive games at home, including last year’s playoff victory over Arizona, and beat its opponents by an average score of 33-17 at home this season.