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The best QB battle on Sunday will be Newton-Palmer, not Brady-Manning

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Forget Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.

The best quarterback matchup in Sunday's conference championship games will be at Bank of America Stadium between Carolina's Cam Newton and Arizona's Carson Palmer.

The Brady-Manning battle might hold more sentimental value when the New England Patriots face the Denver Broncos in the AFC title game because it could the last between two future Hall of Famers.

It might hold more historical value since this will be the 17th time they've met.

However, Newton and Palmer have been the best quarterbacks in the NFL this season for the best teams in the league. What they lack in terms of a Hollywood script they'll make up for with performance in the NFC Championship Game.

Over in the AFC, this isn't Brady-Manning of a few years ago, when both were playing at a high level, mainly because of the injury-plagued Manning.

Manning ranked 34th in the NFL in passer rating during the regular season, throwing 17 interceptions and nine touchdown passes. Among the quarterbacks who have participated in the playoffs, he ranks 10th with a rating of 74.4. He hasn't thrown a touchdown pass.

Newton led the NFL in combined passing and rushing touchdowns during the regular season with a career-best 45. Palmer was fourth with 36.

Newton and the Panthers led the NFL in scoring (31.2 points per game) during the regular season. Palmer and the Cardinals were second (30.6 PPG).

Palmer finished the regular season with the third-best passer rating (104.6). Newton was tied for seventh at 99.4.

Newton likely will win the NFL Most Valuable Player Award. Palmer likely will finish second.

The Panthers are an NFL-best 16-1. The Cardinals are second at 14-3.

Newton dabs. Palmer ... OK, so Palmer, Brady and Manning don't dab.

You get the picture. You have two quarterbacks playing at a high level in the NFC and one playing at a high level in the AFC.

"Shoot, in terms of how guys have played this year, the time Peyton missed and how he played when he was healthy, I don't think there is any doubt that the better [matchup] -- expecting good play out of both quarterbacks -- would be the Carolina-Arizona game," said Tim Hasselbeck, a former NFL quarterback and current ESPN analyst.

"What Cam has done this year, what they've asked of him, I'm not sure we've ever seen. It'll certainly be exciting to watch Carson play with the way he's played."

If given an either-or, Hasselbeck would watch Brady-Manning for the historical significance. But we're not talking history here. We're talking the best matchup, and that goes to Newton-Palmer.

Former NFL quarterback and current ESPN analyst Mark Brunell would pick Brady-Manning every day of the week and twice on Sundays. In ranking the four remaining quarterbacks, based on this season, however, he went Brady, Newton, Palmer and Manning.

He couldn't deny that overall Newton and Palmer are playing better than Manning and Brady.

"Two guys having career years," he said. "You can't say enough about the seasons they've had, especially Cam. He's been lights out. You talk about a guy that's really taken a step."

Here's another reason to watch Newton-Palmer. If history is any indication, the Brady-Manning matchup won't be close. Brady is 11-5 against Manning, winning six times by 10 points. Two of Manning's wins have been by 10.

Three of the past four games between Brady and Manning were decided by 10-plus points. In Brady and Manning's last meeting, in Week 9 of the 2014 season, New England won 43-21.

According to ESPN's Football Power Index, the Panthers-Cardinals game should be the best matchup of the year with a pregame quality matchup rating of 93.5.

The New England-Denver game didn't make the top four.

Need more? Palmer and Newton have the second- and third-highest average throw distance this season. This won't be just a dink-and-dunk contest.

The NFC Championship Game also pits the league's top blitz team (45 percent of dropbacks) in Arizona versus the top quarterback in touchdowns against the blitz (19) in Newton.

Maybe Newton will toss in a flip as he did on a 2-yard touchdown in Week 2 against Houston. Manning and Brady would be lucky to do a good somersault into the end zone.

"I think we'll see better performances on the whole out of that game for sure," Hasselbeck said.

Carolina players left little doubt which quarterback matchup they would watch if they had to purchase a ticket.

"It's hard to get away from Brady and Manning because it's got history," tight end Ed Dickson said. "But if you want something new, something up-and-coming, something that is going to be the future of this league, why not watch Cam and Carson?"

Wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery agreed.

"If I'm a fan, I want to see Cam Newton play," he said. "That's the ticket that I'm buying. He's a fun guy to watch, not only by the plays that he makes but by how much fun he has doing it.

"He's been great for the game, and I think a lot of people would agree with that."

Not many probably would pick Newton-Palmer over Brady-Manning. It's like the last fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. No matter how old the competitors, you want to say you saw it.

If you're not into historical significance and want to see the best matchup, forget Brady-Manning.

Newton-Palmer is better.