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Tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) and the Patriots will face the Broncos in the AFC Championship game on Sunday.

The NFL has its final four, and the oddsmakers are forecasting tight games.

Considering that the divisional matchups all finished with one-possession results, this weekend's championship games should be just as close, right?

Well, maybe not in one case.

The 17th and possibly final installment of the Peyton Manning-Tom Brady saga appropriately takes place in a conference title game. This one is in Denver, where Brady is 2-6, including a loss this season when Manning was injured and Brock Osweiler was taking snaps.

So yes, there are some raised eyebrows when the betting line is placed at New England favored by 2 1-2 points in the Mile High City.

This is the third time Denver has been a home underdog since Manning came aboard in 2012. Houston won 31-25 as a 1-point favorite that year. This season, Denver took apart Green Bay 29-10 in November when the Packers were a 3-point choice.

But there are also these elements to consider:

—Of the four winners last weekend, New England looked the strongest.

—Brady's postseason pedigree is better than Manning's overall. He is 22-8 in the playoffs, including 4-2 in Super Bowls. Manning is 12-13, 1-2 in Super Bowls.

—Brady also is 10-6 overall facing Manning, but the record is 2-2 in the playoffs.


Of course, the Patriots quarterback is in his 10th AFC championship game, fifth in a row, and has gone 6-3. Denver's QB is in his fifth and is 3-1, including 2-1 against Brady. That offsets the indicators favoring New England just a bit.

—Health. Brady has a nagging ankle problem, but he didn't seem affected against Kansas City, and he's certainly closer to peak form than Manning.

—Broncos coach Gary Kubiak has never been in charge of a Super Bowl team. Bill Belichick has made a habit of it.

No quarterback has won five Lombardi Trophies, and Brady has that in his sights, too.

"It's a big football game, and he's played in a lot of them," Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. "Doing the things that you've done to get yourself in this position are really important. ... Even though these games have finality to them that some games in the regular season or preseason don't have, he approaches it the same way."

It seems as if much of America dreads another trip to the big game by Belichick's team. Time to swallow hard and ...


Arizona (plus 3) at Carolina

Both clubs left their fans, neutral observers and probably themselves shaking their heads last weekend.

The Panthers, who had the league's best record at 15-1, pummeled two-time defending NFC champion Seattle 31-0 in the first half. Carolina's defense got consistent pressure on Russell Wilson and shut down the ground game. Cam Newton, Jonathan Stewart and Greg Olsen were dominant on offense.

Then it all soured, the Seahawks scored the next 24 points and probably were an onside kick recovery away from forcing overtime. Newton admitted his team needs more killer instinct.

Arizona displayed that trait in overtime against Green Bay, sparked by Larry Fitzgerald's weaving 75-yard catch and run. But the Cardinals never should have needed the extra work, allowing a 60-yard completion on fourth down, then a 41-yard desperation TD pass on the final play of regulation.

Each team has an outstanding defense, but the feeling here is lots of points will be had in Sunday's late game.

The majority of those points will be scored by the hosts, who have won 12 in a row at home.



2015 RECORD: Against spread: Week 2-2, Season (125-124-7). Straight up: Week 4-0, Season (161-103)

Best Bet: 8-10-1 against spread, 11-8 straight up.

Upset special: 9-9 against spread, 6-12 straight up.