And then there were four.

Four left standing out of 32 teams that started the journey toward the Lombardi Trophy. At the end of the day, two will remain and fight for that trophy. 28 other teams are at home and have cleaned out their lockers by the end of the week, preparing for the draft and the 2016 season.

It’s football’s answer to the NCAA’s Final Four.

The goal remains the same.

Win and advance to Santa Clara in two weeks.

Lose? Your season is over and your next game is in September of 2016.

It’s a process so simple even a kindergardener understands it.

Number ones hosting number twos. The NFL couldn’t have done it any better.

CLOSE GAMES: The NFC Championship Game has featured close games in each of the past eight seasons, including four overtime games. There have been eight consecutive NFC Championship Games decided by seven points or fewer, the longest streak in conference championship game history.

The NFC’s number 2 seed Arizona will travel this Sunday to play number 1 seed Carolina. The Panthers had seven games this season that finished within seven points or fewer, while the Cardinals had five such games.

The past eight NFC Championship Games decided by seven points or fewer:
2007 – New York Giants 23, Green Bay 20 (OT)
2008 – Arizona 32, Philadelphia 25
2009 – New Orleans 31, Minnesota 28 (OT)
2010 – Green Bay 21, Chicago 14
2011 – New York Giants 20, San Francisco 17 (OT)
2012 – San Francisco 28, Atlanta 24
2013 – Seattle 23, San Francisco 17
2014 – Seattle 28, Green Bay 22 (OT)
2015 – Arizona at Carolina

SUPER FOLLOW-UPS: The defending Super Bowl-champion New England Patriots defeated Kansas City 27-20 last week in the Divisional Round. With a win Sunday against Denver, the Patriots can become the 13th team in NFL history to reach the Super Bowl after winning it the previous season.

Eight Super Bowl winners won the title game the next year and four lost it.

The teams to reach the Super Bowl after winning it the previous season:

1966 – I (Green Bay, won Super Bowl)
1972 – VII (Miami, won Super Bowl)
1974 – XI (Pittsburgh, won Super Bowl)
1977 – XII (Dallas, lost Super Bowl)
1978 – XIII (Pittsburgh, won Super Bowl)
1982 – XVII (Washington, lost Super Bowl)
1988 – XXIII (San Francisco, won Super Bowl)
1992 – XXVII (Dallas, won Super Bowl)
1996 – XXXI (Green Bay, lost Super Bowl)
1997 – XXXII (Denver, won Super Bowl)
2003 – XXXVIII (New England, won Super Bowl)
2013 – XLVIII (Seattle, lost Super Bowl)
2015 – XLXI (New England, ???)

?SUPER CHAMPIONSHIP: In 2015, New England won the AFC East title for the 17th time and has advanced to the AFC Championship Game for the 12th time and fifth straight. The Patriots are 8-3 (.727) in AFC Championship Games all-time.

With a win against Denver on Sunday, New England (eight) can surpass Dallas (eight) and Pittsburgh (eight) for the most Super Bowl berths in NFL history.

Denver (seven) can tie New England, Dallas and Denver for the most Super Bowl berths with a win on Sunday.

The teams with the most Super Bowl appearances:
Dallas – 8
Pittsburgh – 8
New England – 8*
Denver – 7*
San Francisco – 6
*Active Sunday

CAROLINA CRUISING: Carolina, who went 15-1 en route to the NFC South division title and the conference’s top seed, hosts Arizona on Sunday in the NFC Championship Game.

With a win on Sunday, the Panthers will become the ninth team in NFL history to lose one or fewer regular season games and advance to the Super Bowl.

The teams with one or fewer regular season losses to reach the Super Bowl:
Oakland Raiders – 1967 (II, 13-1)
Baltimore Colts – 1968 (III, 13-1)
Miami Dolphins – 1972 (VII, 14-0)
Oakland Raiders – 1976 (XI, 13-1)
Washington Redskins – 1982 (XVII, 8-1)*
San Francisco 49ers – 1984 (XIX, 15-1)
Chicago Bears – 1985 (XX, 15-1)
New England Patriots – 2007 (XLII, 16-0)
Carolina Panthers – 2015 (50, 15-1)**
*Nine-game regular season
**Plays Sunday in NFC Championship Game

SUPER COMBINATION: New England head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady have made six Super Bowl appearances together, the most appearances by any head coach-quarterback combination in NFL history.

With a win Sunday against the Broncos, the Patriots can extend their NFL record for the most such Super Bowl appearances.

The head coach-quarterback combinations with the most Super Bowl appearances in NFL history:
Tom Brady/Bill Belichick, New England Patriots (6)*
Roger Staubach/Tom Landry, Dallas Cowboys (4)
Jim Kelly/Marv Levy, Buffalo Bills (4)
Terry Bradshaw/Chuck Noll, Pittsburgh Steelers (4)

With a win, Belichick (six) would surpass Pro Football Hall of Famer Don Shula (six) as the only head coach to lead their team(s) to seven Super Bowls.

The head coaches to reach the most Super Bowls:
Bill Belichick – 6*
Don Shula – 6
Tom Landry – 5
Five tied with 4
*Active Sunday

TERRIFIC TOM: New England quarterback TOM BRADY has played in 30 career postseason games in his 16-year career. On Sunday at Denver, Brady can surpass ADAM VINATIERI (30) for the most postseason games played in NFL history.

The players with the most postseason games played in NFL history:
Tom Brady – New England (50)*
Adam Vinatieri – Indianapolis and New England (30)
Jerry Rice – San Francisco, Oakland, Seattle (29)
D.D. Lewis – Dallas (27)
*Plays Sunday in AFC Championship Game

HEISMAN HYPE: Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer will face off against Carolina quarterback Cam Newton on Sunday in the NFC Championship Game.

Palmer, who won the Heisman Trophy in 2002 at the University of Southern California, while Newton, who won the award in 2010 at Auburn, will become the first pair of Heisman Trophy winning quarterbacks in NFL history to start against each other in the playoffs.

AFC TROPHY PRESENTATION:  The Lamar Hunt Trophy will be presented to the winner of the AFC Championship Game.

The late Hunt, founder of the Kansas City Chiefs and American Football League, helped professional football attain its stature as America’s number 1 sport. In the 10-year history of the AFL, his team posted the most wins (87) and earned berths in two of the first four Super Bowls, including a victory in Super Bowl IV.

In 1972, Hunt became the first person from the AFL to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

NFC TROPHY PRESENTATION: The winner of the NFC Championship Game will be presented with the George Halas Trophy.

Halas, the late owner of the Chicago Bears and a founder of the NFL, is the second-winningest coach in history (324-151-31) behind Don Shula (347-173-6). He won six NFL championships with the Bears and is a charter enshrinee of the Pro Football Hall of Fame (1963).
CHAMPIONSHIP GOAL: New England defeated Kansas City 27-20 on Saturday and clinched their fifth consecutive appearance in the AFC Championship Game. It also marks the 12th time the defending Super Bowl champs will appear in a conference championship, the fourth-most all-time since 1970.

​The teams with the most appearances in a Conference Championship Game since 1970:

Pittsburgh Steelers – 15
San Francisco 49ers – 15
Dallas Cowboys – 14
New England Patriots – 12
Los Angeles/Oakland Raiders – 11

TERRIFIC TIGHT ENDS: New England tight end Rob Gronkowski had seven receptions for 83 yards and two touchdowns in the Patriots’ 27-20 victory over Kansas City. Gronkowski now has eight career postseason touchdown catches, surpassing Keith Jackson (six), Jay Novacek (six), Vernon Davis (seven) and Dave Casper (seven) for the most touchdown receptions by a tight end in postseason history.

The tight ends with the most postseason touchdown receptions in NFL history:

Rob Gronkowski – 8
Dave Casper – 7
Vernon Davis – 7
Keith Jackson – 6
Jay Novacek – 6

CATCHING ON: Arizona wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald had eight receptions for 176 yards and a game-winning five-yard touchdown catch in the Cardinals’ 26-20 overtime victory over Green Bay.

Fitzgerald now has 10 touchdowns receptions in his postseason career and is tied for the third-most postseason touchdown receptions in NFL history.

The players with the most postseason touchdown receptions in NFL history:

Jerry Rice – 22
John Stallworth – 12
Larry Fitzgerald – 10
Fred Biletnikoff – 10
Antonio Freeman – 10
Randy Moss – 10
Hines Ward – 10

The final four teams are set and this Sunday will determine the two teams to play in Super Bowl 50. They are the last ones standing.

“There are only four teams playing next week and we’re one of them,” New England quarterback Tom Brady told the Boston Globe. “The Championship Game means a lot.”

In the first round of the 2015 playoffs, the visiting teams took wins in all four contests. Last week, the home teams got the message, woke up and smelled the coffee and took wins in all four games. Championship Sunday begins with the AFC title game between the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots in a rematch of a Week 12 overtime thriller won by Denver 30-24. The Broncos defeated Pittsburgh 23-16 in the Divisional round and New England won against Kansas City 27-20. The NFC Championship Game will feature the Arizona Cardinals and Carolina Panthers, the first meeting between the clubs since the Panthers defeated the Cardinals in the Wild Card round last year. In the Divisional Playoffs, the Cardinals knocked off the Packers 26-20 in overtime and the Panthers won against the Seahawks 31-24.

With each of the four remaining playoff clubs looking to capitalize on the momentum built this past weekend in hopes of advancing to Super Bowl 50, they’ll have their work cut out for them on Championship Weekend. As for last week, another 3-1 week (not bad), which means that we’re 165-89. A new NFC champ will be crowned this week and there could be a new AFC champ as well when the winners get the Halas and Hunt Trophies at the end of the day. Here are the Sunday afternoon picks for Championship Sunday.

AFC Championship – New England (12-4) at Denver (12-4), 3:05 p.m. on CBS. Their names are as well known as the Beatles.



Football’s answer to Jabbar vs. Chamberlain.

Ali vs. Frazier.

Connors vs. McEnroe.

You get the picture.

They meet for the 17th time overall and fifth time in playoff history as the defending Super Bowl champs travel west to face off against the Denver Broncos. Both the top seeds enter the early afternoon contest with close wins under their belts and both won at home to set up the matchup for all the marbles and a chance to go to Santa Clara in two weeks time.

New England advanced one step closer to its second Lombarbi trophy as they beat Kansas City 27-20 in Foxboro last Saturday afternoon. Brady and the Patriots led 14-3 at the break and started the scoring in the game when he and TE Ron Gronkowski connected on a 8-yard TD pass. A pair of Chris Santos field goals in the first half made the contest closer before Gronkowski and Brady connected again, this time from 16 yards away. The Chiefs would make a contest of it when RB Charcandrick West scored from a yard away with 73 seconds left to play. Kansas City would then go for the onside kick and fail, allowing New England to recover the ball and run out the clock. The Chiefs did manage to outrush New England 135-38 but Brady outpassed Alex Smith 302-246 in the win at Foxboro. Kansas City was 12 of 20 on third down tries and 1 of 2 on fourth down and ruled the clock, keeping the ball for 37:51, while the Pats were 6 of 12 on third down, holding the ball for 22:09.

New England head coach Bill Belichick, who has an NFL record 23 playoff victories, will coach in his 10th Conference Championship Game, tying Pro Football Hall of Famer Tom Landry for the most in the Super Bowl era. The Patriots are 6-3 in AFC Championship Games under Belichick. “It’s great to move on to the AFC Championship Game,” Belichick told the Boston Globe. “It’s always an honor to be part of that game. We’re excited about that.”

“It’s pretty special to get back to another AFC Championship Game,” said Brady, who will play in his 10th career Conference Championship Game, the most by any quarterback in the Super Bowl era. “It’s pretty cool. It’s hard to do. You’ve got to grind throughout the entire year.”

The top-seeded Broncos advanced to their 10th AFC Championship Game with a 23-16 win over Pittsburgh last week at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Denver enters the game with a 7-2 all-time record in AFC Championship Games, including a 5-1 mark at home. That record includes a 26-16 victory over New England in the Broncos’ most recent AFC Championship Game appearance, when Denver Manning passed for 400 yards with two touchdowns to earn a berth in Super Bowl XLVIII. Denver trailed 10-9 at the half and took the lead back for good when Manning led a 13-play, 65 yard drive that used 6:52 of time when RB C.J. Anderson scored on a 1-yard run. Manning and WR Demaryius Thomas then connnected on a two-point conversion to give the home team a 20-13 lead with 3 minutes left in regulation. Broncos kicker Brandon McManus then added a 45-yard field goal to make pull them a little further away with 53 seconds left. It would be a good thing that Denver did tack on those points, because Pittsburgh narrowed the gap to a TD when Chris Boswell connected on a 47-yard field goal with 19 seconds left. Pittsburgh then tried an onside kick, which Denver recovered and the Broncos ran out the clock for the win. Although they outrushed the Steelers 109-85, Roethlisberger outpassed Manning 339-222, with both being sacked four times (Roethlisberger three times, Manning once) and Denver forced the only turnover in the contest, a fumble by Francis Tousaint, allowing them to take the ball back. Both clubs had problems on third down tries (Pittsburgh was 2 of 12, while Denver was 3 of 15) and both failed in their fourth down tries (the Steelers were 0 of 2, the Broncos were 0 of 1) in the late afternoon affair in Denver, who ruled the clock, keeping the ball for 31:33 to Pittsburgh’s 28:27.

Manning ranks second in playoff history in passing yards (7,022), completions (619) and attempts (972), trailing only Brady (711 of 1,127 for 7,647 yards) in all three categories. Manning (38) ranks fourth all-time in postseason touchdown passes.

In his first year as head coach of the Broncos, head coach Gary Kubiak guided the team to a 12-4 mark and the conference’s top seed. This week, Kubiak will attempt to become the first head coach to earn a Super Bowl berth in his first season with a team since Jim Caldwell accomplished the feat with Manning and the Indianapolis Colts in 2009.

“There hasn’t been one way that we’ve won,” Kubiak told KUSA-TV and the Rocky Mountain News. “We’ve kind of won all kinds of different ways. We’ve had a lot of different players contribute to our success when we’ve been successful.”

The game will mark the 17th meeting in the historic rivalry between Manning and Brady. The two quarterbacks have represented the AFC in nine of the past 14 Super Bowls, earning Super Bowl MVP honors in four of those contests.

“I wouldn’t want it any other way,” says Pro Bowl linebacker Von Miller about facing the Patriots. “They’re one of the best teams in the AFC. Let’s go out and play and see who wants to go to the Super Bowl.”

They met in week 12 in the Mile High City and it wasn’t Manning under center in that Sunday night affair. Instead, it was Brock Osweiler who took the snaps for the Orange and Blue, while Manning was nursing a foot injury. New England led 14-7 at the half in a light snowstorm before the Broncos stormed back to take the lead with 69 seconds left in regulation when WR Andre Caldwell and Oswelier connected on a 4-yard TD pass. That lead did not last very long as Pats kicker Stephen Gostkowski nailed a 47-yard field goal as the clock struck :00 to tie things up and send it to overtime. NeW England won the toss to start the overtime but went three and out when Brady threw a pair of incompletions and was sacked. After the Pats punted, Denver took advantange of a somewhat short field as they marched downfield in only three plays, using 1:19 of clock when Anderson, who rushed for 113 yards scored his second TD of the contest, rushing downfield 48 yards untouched for the game-winning score. Denver outrushed New England 179-39 but Brady did outpass his younger counterpart 280-270, throwing three TD passes, connecting with Gronkowski on one of those tosses (both men were sacked three times in the game). Denver in the overtime win was 4 of 16 on third down tries but struck paydirt in their only fourth down attempt, keeping the ball for 36:31, while the Pats were 2 of 13, 0 of 1 on third and fourth down, keeping the pigskin for 25:57.

In the week 12 contest on a Sunday night in Denver, the defending Super Bowl champs were favored by 3 1/2 and Denver covered the spread with their 6-point overtime win at Sports Authority Field at Mile High and both clubs covered the 45 with 54 points combined. This time, the oddsmakers like the Pats as 3 point favorites with a 44 over/under. After all, it’s Brady vs. Manning. It’s five Super Bowls combined and it’s for the AFC title. That makes this one “DRILL WORTHY!” (For those of you that know what The Drill is, you are excused. Everyone else, pay attention. We don’t want any rookie mistakes here, k?)

After you go to the 9:30 mass on Sunday (the 4:30 vigil mass on Saturday counts as a mass attended, people! Don’t make us send the nuns after you! If we do, it is SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO OVER!), head to your favorite store (a trip to Wal Mart, Target, K-Mart or Costco counts) and get the vittles and the beverages (soda, beer, wine, coffee, et al… if you live in a state that allows the purchase of the items in question) and invite the co-workers, the neighbors (including that really cute kindergarden teacher that knows what to do with a cover-2 defense) and your cousin Connie (remember her? She’s the one that’s been married twice that’s just turned 56 last June and dates a 41-year old ex-Marine, who’s now a football coach at the high school in your town. She’s also the one that ate an entire Oreo cheesecake, two bags of Cool Ranch Doritos, two bacon cheeseburgers with blue cheese and chugged two 2-liter Cokes at your Super Bowl party last year and didn’t gain a pound. You look at her and say to yourself, “what the hell?”

Could this be the last time that Manning and Brady hook up? If that’s the case, then you may want to keep the TV on and not change channels until it’s over. New England will make it close but there will be a new AFC champ crowned. Denver pulls the upset and wins at home, although it will be closer than the 3.

NFC Championship – Arizona (13-3) at Carolina (15-1), 6:15 p.m. on FOX. Palmer vs. Newton. Heisman winners meet at Bank of America Stadium Carolina hosts the Arizona Cardinals in the Tar Heel State as the Panthers host their first NFC Championship game in the club’s history.

The Desert Angry Birds advanced to the NFC Championship Game for the first time since 2008 and the second time during the Super Bowl era. In the Divisional Playoff last week, Arizona defeated Green Bay 26-20 in overtime.

“Sometimes you’ve got to play harder for more than 60 minutes,” says Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians about Arizona’s Divisional victory. “I can’t be prouder of our guys. We get to practice again this week and play another game.”

Cardinals Pro Bowl wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald had eight catches for 176 yards and the game-winning overtime touchdown against Green Bay. Fitzgerald, who set up the game-winning score with a 75-yard reception, has 53 catches for 912 yards (114 per game) and 10 touchdowns in eight career postseason games. Fitzgerald’s 10 touchdown receptions in the playoffs are tied for the third-most in NFL history and puts him in some pretty good company, trailing only Pro Football Hall of Famers Jerry Rice (22) and John Stallworth (12). Fitzgerald is the fastest player in NFL history (eight games) to reach 10 postseason touchdown receptions.

“It was a great game,” says Fitzgerald, who now has three career postseason games with at least 150 receiving yards, the most such games by any player during the Super Bowl era. “It was a playoff atmosphere and that’s what you’re looking for.”

Palmer, who has won 27 of his past 32 starts, registered his first career postseason win last week. Against the Packers, Palmer passed for 349 yards and three touchdowns, including two to wide receiver Michael Floyd. Palmer set club records this season with 4,671 passing yards, 35 touchdown passes and a 104.6 passer rating.

“It feels good,” Palmer told the Arizona Republic. “But in no way are we done or satisfied. We’re excited about the win and we’re excited about what’s ahead of us.”

Arizona led Green Bay 7-6 at the half and trailed the Packers 13-10 after three quarters of action in Glendale last Saturday night before they would eventually rally to take the lead back when Floyd caught a 9-yard TD pass from Palmer with 3:44 left in regulation and added a 46-yard field goal by Chris Catanzaro with 1:55 left. Green Bay would not be outdone in the desert and with no timeouts left, marched down the field and once again, Aaron Rodgers pulled another rabbit out of his hat, as he let loose a 41-yard desparation toss to WR Jeff Janis as the clock struck :00. That would be the last time that Green Bay would see the football as Arizona would win the toss in overtime and made they way downfield, using only three plays, 80 yards and 65 seconds for Palmer and Fitzgerald to connect with the game-winning score, sending Cardinals fans home happy campers. Green Bay did outrush Arizona 135-40 but Palmer outpaced Rodgers 349-261, with both combining for five TD passes (Rodgers with two, Palmer with three). The Desert Angry Birds were 5 of 13 and 1 of 1 on third and fourth down tries, keeping the ball for 30:51 (including the overtime), while Green Bay was 7 of 15 and 1 of 2 on third and fourth down, keeping the ball for 30:14.

The Panthers, who have won 21 of their past 23 games (including the postseason), advanced to their fourth NFC Championship Game with a 31-24 win against the Seattle Seahawks in the Divisional round last week. This will be the first time in team history the Panthers will host the NFC Championship Game.

“They say to get something that you’ve never had, you have to do something you’ve never done,” says Newton, who is the only player in NFL history with 30 touchdown passes (35) and 10 rushing TDs (10) in a season. “For us, we’ve never had that vibe in the streets of Charlotte and I expect nothing less than what we saw on Sunday.”

In Carolina’s win against Seattle, Pro Bowl linebacker Luke Kuechly returned an interception 14 yards for a touchdown, the first postseason interception return for a touchdown in franchise history. Since he entered the league in 2012, Kuechly has 13 interceptions (including the playoffs), the most by a linebacker.

“They are a well-coached football team with a dynamic quarterback,” says Panthers head coach Ron Rivera about the Cardinals. “They’ve got some playmakers and then they have an aggressive defense. This is a complete team that we will play as well and we have to be on our game.” Carolina led 31-0 at the half before Seattle rallied to outscore the Panthers 24-0 in the final 30 minutes of action. Seattle managed to make the contest a lot closer than Panthers fans would have wanted when Stephen Hauschka connected on a 36-yard field goal with 72 seconds left in regulation. To no one’s suprise, shock or horror, Seattle then tried an onside kick, which landed in Carolina’s hands, allowing the home team to run out the clock and banish Seattle from the post-season. Carolina RB Jonathan Stewart ran for a pair of TDs, while rushing for 106 of the Panthers’ 144 yards (Seattle was held to 78) but Russell Wilson did manage to outpass Newton 366-161, despite throwing a pair of interceptions and five sacks. Carolina, who did not have a fourth down try at home last Sunday, went 8 of 15 on third down conversions, keeping the ball for 35:38, while Seattle went 5 of 11 and 1 of 2 on third and fourth downs, holding the ball for 24:22.

They didn’t meet in the 2015 campaign but they have met twice and split the two meetings in the postseason and both contests have taken place in Charlotte, with Arizona winning the first contest in 2008, taking a 33-13 win. The Cardinals have outscored Carolina 49-40 in the two contests. Their last meeting took place in 2014 and Carolina came away 27-16 winners. Carolina trailed 14-13 at the half and Newton threw a pair of TD passes in the second half to take the lead for good, outscoring the Desert Angry Birds in the final 30 minutes of play. Jonathan Stewart ran for 123 of Carolina’s 188 yards in the contest, while the Panther defense held Arizona to 27 yards on the ground, sacking Ryan Lindley four times and picking him off twice. Arizona, who turned the ball over three times, went 3 of 12 on third down tries and kept the ball for 22:54, while Carolina was 5 of 15 on third down, 0 of 2 on fourth down, while keeping the ball for 37:06.

In the 2014 meeting in the NFC Wild Card game, Carolina was favored by 5 1/2 and the Panthers covered the spread with their win by 11 in the Tar Heel State. The 37 over/under was covered as both clubs combined for 43 points. The oddsmakers like Carolina as 3 point favorites in the Tar Heel State and the over/under is 48. Both numbers make sense. Both teams have a Super Bowl trip under their belts (Carolina’s last trip to the big game was Super Bowl XXXVIII in Houston, the “wardrobe malfunction game” where they lost to New England 32-29; Arizona’s last Super Bowl visit was Super Bowl XLIII, losing to Pittsburgh 27-23 in Tampa) and both would like another one in their lifetimes. Arizona’s luck is about to run out in the Tar Heel State. They’ll keep the contest close but Carolina’s finer at home and takes the win, covering the 3.