It was an interesting Conference Championship Sunday. Both home teams won. The two No. 1 seeds head back to the Super Bowl for the third straight season. In those ways, you could say Sunday's action had a predictable outcome, but the manner in which the Broncos and Panthers emerged victorious was not what I had expected.
In Denver, while I've said all year that the Broncos have the league's best defense, I simply did not think they'd so severely stymie Tom Brady. They hit him an incredible 20 times -- more quarterback hits than any team sustained in a single game this entire season -- and as a result, Brady looked skittish at times and downright inaccurate at others. He completed just 48 percent of his passes, a career postseason low. He threw two ugly interceptions. And, despite all that, Brady damn near brought New England back from the brink.
The Patriots staged a comeback late in the fourth quarter and nearly succeeded in it after converting two crucial fourth-down situations -- both connections from Brady to Rob Gronkowski. The first came on a fourth-and-10 with 1:34 to go, and Brady hit Gronk for 40 yards down the seam. The second, a fourth-and-goal from the 4-yard line, was a prayer of a throw into the back of the end zone, and resulted in a Gronkowski touchdown that pulled New England to within two points -- 20-18 -- with 12 seconds left. However, the subsequent two-point conversion attempt was picked off by Bradley Roby and the ensuing onside kick was unsuccessful.
In the end, the story of the day was that Peyton Manning was efficient early on in throwing two touchdown passes to Owen Daniels, and while The Sheriff trailed off in effectiveness in the second half, the Denver defense more than took up the slack. Their pass rush almost completely took over -- Von Miller had 2.5 sacks, two tackles for a loss and an interception, DeMarcus Ware had seven quarterback hits, and Derek Wolfe had four quarterback hits, a sack and a pass deflection on the day, and it felt like Brady was under pressure on almost every snap. It was complete domination up front by Denver that allowed the Broncos to disable a normally explosive and efficient passing offense for New England.
As for the Carolina blowout win over the Cardinals, it was exactly that which I was not expecting: A blow out. I thought that we'd see a tight game between two really great teams. The Panthers and Cardinals feature contrasting styles of ball, but both have high-scoring offenses and tough, physical defenses. I was expecting a 12-round grudge match. We got, in effect, a first round TKO.
A week after jumping all over Seattle early, Carolina did the same thing to the Cardinals -- but the difference in this one was that Arizona did not muster much of a fight after falling behind 17-0 in the first quarter. It was almost too easy for Cam Newton and company on offense, and the defense, led by Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, Josh Norman and Kawann Short, forced six Carson Palmer turnovers -- four picks and two fumbles -- to continually take the wind out of any comeback sails for Arizona.
Newton finished with four touchdowns -- two by air and two by land -- and demonstrated complete control of the offense as he fed Greg Olsen and Corey Brown, both of whom finished with 100-plus yards receiving. Newton was integral in the Panthers' enterprising and creative run offense, featuring quarterback power, sweeps and a little misdirection just for fun. He showed exactly why he's certain to be named the league's MVP.
Sunday's outcomes set up what looks to be an excellent Super Bowl matchup. We've got two great teams, obviously, but importantly, it should be a battle that will feature strength on strength. The Broncos have the league's best defense. The Panthers have the NFL's best offense, the one that finished first in touchdowns and points while featuring the most complex and unique run game in the entire league.
It's Peyton Manning, who in his prime was considered in many ways to be the Platonic ideal of a traditional NFL pocket passer, vs. Cam Newton, the prototype for the idea of a nearly impossible-to-defend-dual-threat-runner-thrower. It's that Denver defensive line, probably the best and deepest in the league, against the Panthers' consistent, top-tier offensive line. It's the league's brashest, most irreverent defense in Denver against the league's most confident, fun-loving offense in Carolina.
Denver's elite secondary and high quality linebacker corps should match up well with Ted Ginn and Greg Olsen. They should be disciplined enough to limit the Panthers' ground attack. They should get after Newton early and often in the pass rush. At the same time, Carolina -- which led the league in takeaways this season -- should be salivating at the thought of Peyton Manning's diminished throwing prowess. They should feel confident in taking Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson out of the game. They should think they can force Denver to make a few mistakes.
It figures to be an all-timer of a game.
Final scores for the Conference Championships
AFC: Denver Broncos 20, New England Patriots 18
NFC: Carolina Panthers 49, Arizona Cardinals 15
Water Cooler talking points:
Arm yourself with a few essential tidbits from Sunday's action ... impress your coworkers around the water cooler.
Two top picks
The quarterback is inarguably the most important single player on the football field and potentially the most important position group in all of sports. This is becoming truer each season as the evolution of the game continues. Even with the heavy emphasis that has been placed on the position for the last couple of decades, Super Bowl 50 will be the first to feature two former first overall NFL Draft picks: Peyton Manning (1998) vs. Cam Newton (2011).
Old vs. Young
Manning and Newton are not only the first two No. 1 overall picks to face off in a Super Bowl, but they're also the two Super Bowl quarterbacks with the largest age disparity in league history, per Elias Sports. Manning, 39, is 13 years and 48 days older than the 26-year-old Newton.
Red zone killer
The Panthers were the NFL's most efficient red zone offense in 2015 and a big part of that is because of Newton's ability to run. Defenses have to take a different tack when defending Carolina inside the 20 in particular, and obviously have to account for Newton as a runner, which changes the math on defense.
This becomes even more pronounced the closer the Panthers get to the end zone. According to ESPN Stats and Info, Newton has 19 career rushes from the 1-yard line, and has converted 14 of those (including one on Sunday) into touchdowns. I'm guessing this team won't be throwing any slants from the 1-yard line in this year's Super Bowl.
The John Fox Bowl
As Kenny Albert pointed out on twitter, Super Bowl 50 has an interesting distinction in that both Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak and Panthers head coach Ron Rivera had replaced John Fox with their respective teams. For what it's worth, Fox also took both teams to Super Bowls -- as head coach of the Broncos in 2013, he took them to Super Bowl XLVIII, where they were blown out by the Seahawks, and in 2003, Fox took the Panthers to Super Bowl XXXVIII, where Carolina lost to New England.
The MVP curse?
Does Cam Newton's almost sure-fire, soon-to-be MVP Award spell doom for the Panthers? As Kenneth Arthur notes, the last six NFL MVPs to play in the Super Bowl the year they won the award have lost in the big game. That streak extends back a decade and a half: Kurt Warner (2001) and the Rams lost to the Patriots, Rich Gannon (2002) and the Raiders lost to the Bucs, Shaun Alexander (2005) and the Seahawks lost to the Steelers, Tom Brady (2007) and the Patriots lost to the Giants, Peyton Manning (2009) and the Colts lost to the Saints, and Peyton Manning (2013) and the Broncos lost to the Seahawks.
The Cardinals' offensive struggles can be summed up by this leaping Panthers INT.
Cardinals RB David Johnson didn't stand a chance when Thomas Davis came at him like a runaway train.
The Patriots have the best extra point kicker of all time, and lost the AFC Championship thanks to a missed extra point.
Ted Ginn ran around in circles like a kid on the playground, then he scored a TD,
Bill Belichick changed into a hoodie at halftime, but the Patriots lost anyway.
Patriots convert improbable fourth down TD only to miss game-tying 2-point conversion.
Rob Gronkowski was furious refs didn't call pass interference on this crucial fourth down.
The Broncos benefited from a Patriots tablet malfunction.
Peyton Manning threw a backward pass that only the Patriots knew was live.
Tom Brady gift wrapped a terrible throw for Von Miller.
Thomas Davis suffers fractured forearm during NFC Championship.