Your complete guide to the AFC and NFC championships


The road to Santa Clara goes through Denver and Charlotte.

Sunday's AFC and NFC championship games will decide who will play in Super Bowl 50 at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California. 

But the four contending teams have tried to treat this week like any other during the regular season, sticking to the same work schedule they've maintained since August. 

The Arizona Cardinals and Carolina Panthers will play at Bank of America Stadium in a conference championship game that will feature two Heisman Trophy winners at quarterback for the first time in NFL history. One of those two quarterbacks, Arizona's Carson Palmer or Carolina's Cam Newton, will advance to play in his first Super Bowl. 

The two AFC starting quarterbacks are another story. Denver Broncos' Peyton Manning is trying to reach his fourth Super Bowl and win his second, while New England Patriots' Tom Brady is playing in his 10th AFC championship game and will attempt to lead his team to the Super Bowl for the seventh time.

Patriots (13-4) at Broncos (13-4)

It will be strength against strength with the Broncos' number one-rated defence against the NFL's most prolific quarterback.

Brady has led the defending Super Bowl champions back to the AFC title game despite the team's rash of injuries on the offensive line and to Brady's receiving corps. 

Denver has had its own injuries, specifically Manning, who missed nearly two months because of a torn plantar fascia in his left foot. Manning entered in relief to help the Broncos earn the AFC's top seed with a 27-20 win on January 3 against the Chargers. It was Manning's first game action since November 15.

But the Broncos are where they are because of a suffocating defence that has been the NFL's best all season. It held the Patriots to 301 yards -- 73 below their season average -- in a 30-24 overtime victory November 29. It was New England's first loss following a 10-0 start. 

The Broncos sacked Brady three times and were credited with nine quarterback hits while limiting New England's struggling ground game to just 39 yards on 2.4 yards per carry. 

"The challenge with Brady is he's one of the best quarterbacks playing in the National Football League," Broncos linebacker Von Miller said. "Sometimes he doesn't even need an offensive line. ... It's just, 'Hut,' and boom, right now. Half of the time, he doesn't even need a pass [protection]. He's doing most of it himself."

Manning hasn't had the type of season we've seen from the future Hall of Famer, but the five-time NFL MVP has displayed an ability to come through in the clutch. 

Cardinals (14-3) at Panthers (16-1)

Big games are nothing new to Newton, who led Auburn to a collegiate national championship during his Heisman-winning 2010 season and has the Panthers in the playoffs for third straight season. 

"I've been playing football too long for me to get nervous," Newton said Wednesday. "I used to dream about being in this type of position. I don't necessarily get nervous more so than anxious. I idolised the quarterbacks who have been in this position, and you dream about the opportunity."

Palmer is playing in just his fourth career playoff game after getting his first postseason win last weekend. The 13-year veteran is having a career season with 4,671 passing yards and 35 touchdowns. He struggled at times during last week's 26-20 overtime win over the Packers but benefited from some lucky breaks as the Packers dropped would-be interceptions and the Cardinals even scored on a pass that was deflected into the air by the Packers. 

That good fortune has some thinking it could be a charmed postseason for a team of destiny with veteran receiver Larry Fitzgerald also chasing his first Super Bowl title in his 12th season.

Although both teams rank in the top six in total defence, there could be plenty of points scored with Arizona boasting the NFL's top-ranked offence and the teams sitting at 1-2 in scoring.

Despite going 15-1 during the regular season, the Panthers have shown vulnerability this season by building big half-time leads only to let the commanding margin slip away in the second halves of multiple games. Carolina have been fortunate enough to win those games, including last week's 31-24 win over the Seattle Seahawks after the Panthers led 31-0 at the half.