By: Chris Dagonas
The NFL Conference Championships featured one game that came down to the wire, and one that was pretty much over by halftime. Let’s take stock of each game and see what we’ve learned about the two Super Bowl finalists.
New England Patriots at Denver Broncos
OK, I admit it, I had this one wrong. I, among many others, thought that the New England Patriots were the superior team and would once again triumph over Peyton Manning and the Broncos. What I forgot, apparently, was that New England’s offensive line was full of replacements, and Denver’s defensive line is awesome. The Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady was sacked 4 times and hit a whopping 20 times. DeMarcus Ware, Derek Wolfe and Von Miller applied most of the pressure on Brady, and though all three of them played great, they were largely aided by truly terrible play by New England offensive line.
Ware especially seemed to have absolutely no trouble getting around left tackle Marcus Cannon. On several plays, he went virtually untouched into the Patriots backfield. He ended the game with just half a sack, but his 7 hits on Brady must have gotten into the veteran quarterback’s head and forced more than a few bad throws, including two interceptions.
On top of that, New England’s rushing game, clearly decimated without Dion Lewis, LeGarrette Blount, and half of the starting offensive line, was worse than awful. Their leading rusher was Tom Brady, who is hardly a Cam Newton-esque mobile quarterback. James White, Steven Jackson and Brandon Bolden combined for 31 total rushing yards on 14 attempts. Poor Brady had to drop back for 56 pass attempts, all the while getting clobbered on average once every three snaps. Denver’s defense, best in the league during the regular season, looked even sharper against a beaten-down New England offense.
When the season started, I noted that the longer extra point was likely to cause an interesting wrinkle in post-touchdown strategies. I never thought that would apply to New England’s stellar kicker, Stephen Gostkowski. But, after New England scored their first touchdown, Gostkowski pushed the 33-yard extra point wide to the right.
It turned out that point would be vitally important. If Gostkowski hits that, and assuming the rest of the game unfolds the same way, the late New England touchdown to Rob Gronkowski makes the score 20-19 in favour of Denver, with only an extra point needed to tie the game and send it into overtime. Of course, with Gostkowski’s early miss, the Patriots had to go for 2 on that last touchdown, and failed the conversion attempt, sealing the game in favour of the Broncos.
Nevertheless, aside from a first quarter touchdown drive, Denver’s offense looked anything but intimidating. Peyton Manning connected on only 53 percent of his passes for 176 yards. While he gave up no interceptions, there was some favourable luck on his side, as several possible picks went through the hands off New England defenders, or tipped passes fluttered harmlessly out of bounds rather than into the hands of a Patriot. Star wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, for his part, contributed a mere two catches for twelve yards, far below his expectations.
Denver is off to San Francisco for Super Bowl 50, but they must use their two weeks to figure out a way to get Thomas more involved, and get Manning connecting on a higher percentage of his throws.
Arizona Cardinals at Carolina Panthers
Well this time, the Panthers did not let up in the second half. Not at all. This game was out of Arizona’s reach early, and unlike in last week’s game, there was no second half letdown for the Panthers.
Cam Newton led a non-stop offensive attack against the Cardinals. The Panthers scored at least a touchdown in every quarter, Newton completed 68 percent of his throws, ran for 47 yards and 2 touchdowns, and was only sacked once. The Panthers were only stopped on four drives, having punted 3 times and surrendering one interception.
On the other hand, Arizona’s once red-hot offense sputtered horribly in this one, led by their quarterback, Carson Palmer. Arizona’s usually reliable receivers had hands of stone, dropping several key passes, including potential first downs that later turned into interceptions or fumbles on the same drive.
Those turnovers were mostly at the hands of quarterback Carson Palmer, who had probably the worst game of his career on Sunday evening. Palmer had never made it this far in his career, had never even won a playoff game until last weekend’s thriller against Green Bay. But he’s a solid quarterback, and had an absolute monster of a regular season. He is probably going to win comeback player of the year, for returning so strongly after a season-ending injury last year.
But he just could not find a rhythm, or a receiver, against Carolina. While he connected on 58 percent of his throws, most of those were for short gains. He also had some bad luck with drops from many of his key receivers. But worst of all, and most telling, is that Palmer threw 4 interceptions, all of which were poor decisions, and surrendered 2 fumbles, for a total of 6 turnovers.
It will be easy to blame Palmer in the coming weeks, and rightly so. But with no receiving help, only rookie running back David Johnson really showed any life at all, and the Cardinals were easily outclassed by the Carolina defense. Panthers fans were so excited, one guy even fell out of the stands after Luke Kuechly’s pick-six in the fourth quarter.
Speaking of which, Carolina’s defense ended the game with 7 turnover recoveries (4 interceptions, 3 fumbles). Causing fumbles and bad throws is no doubt a skill, but what are the odds that they would recover all of those fumbles? Or that Palmer would miss his receivers so often, and so badly, on those picks? Were we seeing the epitome of a highly skilled defensive machine, or some sort of blend of skill and luck? I don’t think Patrick Peterson would drop that punt if he had a thousand more attempts at it. It seems clear to me that Carolina benefited from a good deal of turnover luck, but played very well, and took advantage of those turnovers so assertively, that the wind was out of Arizona’s sails long before half time.
Super Bowl 50
That leaves us with Denver and Carolina, traveling to San Francisco for Super Bowl 50 on Sunday, February 7th. The Panthers are early 3.5 point favourites, which suggests a pretty balanced game, with an Over/Under at 45.5. Based on what I saw during these playoffs, I’d take Carolina to win and cover that spread, with a victory somewhere in the 28-21 region, which would also mean I’m taking the over. Enjoy the game!