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NFL Conference Championship Rewind: A New Age

That was a bit anti-climactic, wasn’t it?

Recently, championship weekend typically gives us at least one good game (occasionally a classic) and the other a laugher. However, most had the wrong games pegged of which would be which from yesterday’s conference title games.

In Denver, we saw Peyton Manning play sidekick as gets the chance to add a mark to his (disappointing) resume after “overcoming” Tom Brady and a furious Patriots rally, while in Carolina, the Panthers seem to be merely walking up the steps to their eventual deserved platform. Super Bowl 50 in two weeks is an intriguing matchup on one side of the ball but we’ll talk about that another time.

Let’s talk about the murky steps just before it:

An Elevated Tag-Along

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As I said leading up to the AFC title game, I expected a final surprise in the likely final chapter of Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning.

That surprise hit me right in the face. A game manager Manning going to the Super Bowl off the back of the best defense and particularly, Von Miller, in the NFL. It was exactly what Denver needed to pull the prototypical upset.

It’s always been trivial to me to compartmentalize these Brady-Manning games as solely the result of their individual play and I see no reason to say otherwise in what happened Sunday afternoon. Both the New England front seven and Denver front seven played quite well, however a transcendent performance by Von Miller (a top 5 defensive player in the league), was the difference.

It was Miller himself this past week, who when asked about Tom Brady’s two second pass release time, responded with a quip that he can there in a second. Everyone laughed off his arrogance then, but boy did he back it up. Whatever tackle the Patriots threw at Miller, the freak athlete consistently abused him. I’m sure New England had a nice offensive game plan but it simply didn’t matter. Whoever was in front of Miller may as well have been posing as a turnstile as New England’s injuries at tackle finally caught up with them against a generational pass rusher.

This isn’t even mentioning the dominance of the rest of Denver’s front. Demarcus Ware, Derek Wolfe, and Malik Jackson all had great games harassing Brady as well, as he was hit a season high 23 times and sacked four. That sack number would have been much larger if not for plenty of awkward throwaways by a skittish Brady as he was being wrapped up by a Bronco. Whatever adjustment New England tried to make by shifting the protection towards either side didn’t work either, as when they lined up Cameron Fleming as an extra tackle next to Marcus Cannon to widen the gap for Miller, it was almost like the race car pass rusher got to Brady even faster for a huge sack early in the 3rd quarter.

You beat great quarterbacks, coaches, and game plans with a pass rush and that may have been one of the better performances by a defense and individual player on that big a stage that I have seen in long time. In breaking the Broncos sack record with 2.5, as well as having four tackles to go along with a game changing pick to put the Broncos in the red zone, Von Miller was in the “Jordan zone”, meaning he was simply unconscious with his greatness, and it was a marvel to watch as quite literally the deciding factor.

One might be wondering, why haven’t I mentioned Peyton Manning yet? Because this wasn’t about the quarterbacks play. Manning has descended into the John Elway role with the first truly great defense of his career carrying him to a chance at a final successful ride into the sunset. As evidenced yesterday, all he has to do is not mess up the free mooching ride.

17/32 with 176 yards and 2 TD’s won’t light a fire of excitement under anyone, but zero turnovers will. If the Broncos are to pull the upset in Super Bowl 50, because they will be the underdog (although it shouldn’t be as heavy as many will have you think), no turnovers by their former “Sheriff” now game manager will be the key. It’ll be incredibly tough to game a defense and front seven in Carolina that is of a much higher quality than New England’s, but it would be a monumental mistake to underestimate these Broncos and Manning at this point after reaching the final step yet again.

As for the Patriots, they’ll probably be back here next year, because that’s what they do. As an inherent football fan, I would love to see new blood in the AFC compete for a spot in the big game, but I just don’t think New England will let that happen. They’ll certainly have to retool their offense (hope for better luck with injuries as well) and maybe add a legitimate outside playmaker on offense, but if anyone thinks they’re taking a step back, they’re probably in denial.

Until Tom Brady shows significant arm decline ala Manning (already showing some small signs), the Patriots will be playing on this stage for the foreseeable short future. As long as they can protect Brady, you should still fear and or hate the Patriots if you choose to do so. Also while some are ignorantly blaming him for the result, don’t expect kicker Stephen Gostkowski to miss a chip shot PAT again that would nullify any potential rally, after 500 consecutive makes. That’s not what he does and that’s not what New England does.

The Broncos elevated themselves in Mile High, while the Patriots will have to wait their turn for now.

A Crown Fit For Superman

Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton leaps into the end zone for a touchdown run during the second half the NFL football NFC Championship game against the Arizona Cardinals Sunday, Jan. 24, 2016, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn)

I guess we shouldn’t have been shocked over what happened in Charlotte.

49-15 seems like a completely unexpected result that most thought would be a classic NFC title game, but this is what the Panthers do to teams.

They’ve went up big against all of the big dogs in the NFC at this point in Green Bay, Seattle, and Arizona, it’s just been about less than impressive 2nd halves. This time, the boys in white and blue were prowling to make sure they cap off a Super Bowl berth the right way.

This was a complete and utter dismantling of a 13-3 team that most considered to be the most complete team in the league in the Cardinals. What should make the Panthers so scary for Broncos fans (and anyone that likes Peyton Manning in Indiana) is how easy they made the humiliation of an elite team look. In a metaphorical fashion, I’m not sure if Carolina necessarily broke a sweat. Seriously just look at all of the key stats:

  • 476 total yards to Arizona’s 278
  • 7 forced turnovers to just 1 off an errant throw by Cam Newton
  • And around 55% on 3rd down conversions for the Panthers, while the Cardinals converted just 3/10

The happy go lucky bombing aerial offense of Bruce Arians and quarterback Carson Palmer was nowhere to be seen and that speaks to the greatness of a Panthers team that we really need to start putting in the top 10-15 greatest teams conversation if they can pull the Super Bowl off.

Probably the difference in this game was how the two respective quarterbacks responded to pressure.

Yes it is a team game so I am not contradicting myself, but how your leader and team MVP responds definitely affects morale. It was 17-0 Carolina before anyone could blink last night and Carson Palmer definitely wasn’t confidently slinging the ball around. On the opposite side, Cam Newton was “dabbing” and throwing lasers all over the field in the fact of mitigating physical Arizona defensive pressure. Newton stood tall in the pocket and gave the Cardinals defense no chance to respond, while Palmer in a literal sense quite frankly, choked.

I’ve always been hesitant to name momentum as a real quantifiable factor in sporting events, but I think there is an easy way to define it, morale. Once the Cardinals saw how Palmer was playing (and it wasn’t inherently all his fault with the Arizona offensive line appearing to be quite porous and Patrick Peterson fumbling away an easy punt catch), you saw it reflect on their play. For example, what was and is one of the most talented and best secondaries in the league, had Panthers seemingly running free in broken coverages throughout the entire game. Not to discredit Newton or his offense, but it seemed at times that there was quite literally no one around Carolina receivers when they were thrown to.

That shouldn’t happen in a conference championship game and I think the Cardinals confidence in Palmer played a factor (not to get all hot takey). They’ll probably have a chance to make a similar run like this next year, but to act like the Cardinals aren’t concerned with how Palmer is in the postseason after two consecutive shaky performances (Bruce Arians is in denial, and or a good coach) would be a big fat lie.

Still, we shouldn’t discount what the Panthers did, because that would be an oversight. There was just no way Arizona was winning that game.

People act like they’re surprised the Panthers made this run given what they did last season, but they weren’t healthy last year and if you look around the NFC with all of those mentioned big dogs taking big steps back, we should have seen this team coming. Carolina has been the best team in the NFL wire to wire this season and for good reason. A front seven featuring Kawann Short, Charles Johnson, Star Lotulelei, and All Pro linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, is just unfair for opposing offenses. The Panthers were always loaded on the front seven but what separated them this season was the play of now All Pro corner Josh Norman. Norman offered Carolina a lock down presence in the back end that they desperately needed and now the results have come to full fruition. That’s not even mentioning under the wire pick-ups like safety Kurt Coleman, who had a pick yesterday, and 7 picks in the regular season.

Offensively people thought Carolina had nothing and to me, the offensive cast is still underwhelming, but contrary to the unpopular belief, quarterbacks do lift their supporting cast. Cam Newton, someone who’s been unfairly criticized for his inaccuracy, play, and celebrations in the past, is the best player in the NFL now, bar none. No one did more with less than Newton in what my opinion was, one of the best seasons by a quarterback ever (40 total TD’s passing and rushing). You saw it yesterday from him with an electrifying 335 yards passing and 2 TD’s as well as 47 yards rushing with 2 TD’s. The reason this Carolina offense has played so well is the stability of a great offensive line led by Pro Bowlers Ryan Kalil and Trae Turner in the interior, no doubt, but don’t forget the tremendous play and confidence of Newton.

And Newton isn’t in the mold of 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernik as a one hit wonder like many may say. He’s played well in the NFL before. He’s just had some flaws that he has really worked on as mentioned. Newton is more in the mold of Russell Wilson, but bigger, faster, smarter, and stronger. There is staying power here. He’s also a fantastic leader (celebrating with his defense actively every play, galvanizing his teammates), something he’s been mind numbingly criticized for in Carolina plenty of times before.

Of the new era and style of passing, Newton is the one that will usher it in and provide the mold that teams will be looking for in a franchise quarterback from now on. We’ve never seen a physical freak like Newton play quarterback. We’ve had Randy Moss at receiver, Rob Gronkowski at tight end, Luke Kuechly at linebacker, etc. etc. but not someone like Newton at the most important position. Someone who’s 6’5, 250 lbs, with a laser arm, fantastic mobility and legs and the leadership to go with that to boot.

Cam Newton is the future of football and unless the Broncos have a significant say on February 7th,  and in what I don’t think is a stretch at all, he’ll only add to the beginning of his impressive professional resume that may potentially culminate in Canton.

A Super Bowl title and (expected) MVP honor may be just the first step on the path to the coronation of the NFL’s smiling superman.

Robert Zeglinski is a staff writer and contributor for Second City Hockey and No Coast Bias. He is currently the sports editor at Aurora University. You can follow him on Twitter @ZigZags82.

(Credits: Deadspin, wcpo.com, yahoo.com, CNN)

 

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