The NFL's final four this season seems like a formidable group. For the first time since 2004, the top four seeds have advanced to the conference championship games. Among them, they have only 12 losses, the lowest total since that 2004 season, when the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Atlanta Falcons, the Philadelphia Eagles and the eventual champions New England Patriots had 11.
Yet despite their stellar records, all four have a surprisingly stubborn group of detractors. Here's a first look at the match-ups, and the possible Achilles' heels of the NFL's elite:
Patriots (12-4 regular season) at Broncos (12-4)
Time: Sunday, 3:05 p.m. CBS-10
Line: Patriots by 3
Offense/defense rankings: Patriots sixth/eighth; Broncos 18th/first (based on yards per play)
Why these teams are great: The longest running debate in the NFL is whether Tom Brady or Peyton Manning is the quarterback of the century. (Aaron Rodgers has plenty of backers, too.) Both are tested and successful. Throw in the Broncos' top-rated defense (Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, former Buc Aqib Talib, etc.) and the Patriots' long record of success (it is their fifth-straight conference championship game appearance), and you have a dream match-up.
Why some think the Broncos are not: Manning is 39, and had an adjusted yards per pass figure of 5.03 this season; that's Jimmy Clausen and Ryan Mallett territory, and it was the worst of his career. He also missed six games because of a heel injury. His performances this season were bad enough that a significant number of fans and commentators advocated starting Brock Osweiler even after Manning returned. Yes, Brock Osweiler. Manning was not terrible against the Steelers on Sunday, but he was not great, either, throwing for 222 yards.
There is also the lingering knock on Manning that he underachieves in the playoffs. In his long career, which includes 11 seasons in which he had 12 or more regular-season wins, he has just one Super Bowl victory and a 12-13 playoff record. These doubts have made the Broncos the underdogs at home, where they are 28-4 in their four seasons with Manning.
And Denver's point differential in the regular season was only plus-59, lower than the New York Jets'.
Why some think the Patriots are not: While New England's naysayers are less numerous than Denver's detractors, they are present. Although this is the Patriots' fourth straight 12-4 season, there are those who think they are not quite the team they were. The offensive line has been criticized. There is little running game; the Patriots ranked 30th in the league in rushing yards and yards per carry. The Patriots are still the Patriots, but many feel the New England empire may be staggering to the finish line.
Cardinals (13-3) at Panthers (15-1)
Time: Sunday, 6:40 p.m., Fox-13
Line: Panthers by 3
Offense/defense rankings: Cardinals first/ninth; Panthers 12th/second
Why these teams are great: Carson Palmer had an otherworldly season at age 36, leading the league in the major passing categories, with 32-year-old Larry Fitzgerald his main target. A result was the NFL's best offense. The Panthers were 15-1, the best record in the league in four years. Cam Newton put up the best passing numbers of his career, which, combined with his explosive rushing, makes him the Most Valuable Player front-runner. The Panthers' top-notch defense, featuring linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, was problematic for nearly every team it faced.
Why some think the Cardinals are not: Palmer has been around a long time, but was only 0-2 in the playoffs until Saturday. Nick Foles had one great season, too; it didn't mean he had secretly turned into Joe Montana. Arizona had two road games against playoff teams this season; they beat Seattle by 7 and lost to Pittsburgh, and Palmer had subpar games in both.
Why some think the Panthers are not: Carolina must be the most denigrated 15-1 team in history. Part of this is lingering doubts that the team can possibly be for real after a 7-8-1 record last season. The Panthers are also docked points for having an easy schedule, perhaps the league's easiest, depending on how you measure it. Seven of their wins were by 10 points or fewer, and four by four or fewer; it is not hard to imagine that a few different bounces would have made their record 12-4.
As a result, the Panthers were only 21/2-point favorites at home against the highly touted Seattle Seahawks on Sunday, the smallest spread of the divisional round. Carolina seemed to lay a lot of doubts to rest in taking a 31-0 halftime lead. But surrendering 24 consecutive points in the second half brought those doubts back again.
The worthiest teams have advanced to Sunday's games. By next Monday, two sets of doubters will get a chance to crow. Two others will be silenced, at least until it all starts again before the Super Bowl.