Sunday gave us exactly what we’ve been waiting for all season long. The best two teams from each conference faced off in a winner-takes-all battle for a trip to the Super Bowl. In the AFC we finally got the long-awaited and potentially last ever Brady vs. Manning matchup when the New England Patriots traveled to Denver to take on the Broncos. The NFC side pitted a pair of Heisman Trophy winners against each other in Carson Palmer and Cam Newton as the Arizona Cardinals flew in to face the Carolina Panthers.
Brady/Manning, Round Seventeen. In reality, this was Brady vs. the Denver defense and Manning vs. the Patriot defense and both quarterbacks fought a losing battle. Manning and the Broncos struck early for a couple of touchdowns and New England staged a late comeback, but the vast majority of this game was completely dominated by a pair stingy defenses. After struggling at home all year, Peyton was able to throw a couple of touchdowns to Owen Daniels early on to give Denver a lead to protect. However, their offense slowed considerably as New England caught on and held the Broncos to just a pair of field goals the rest of the game.
On the other side of the ball, the Patriots attack was slow and steady all game long. Very slow. New England matched Denver with a first quarter touchdown of their own, but Gostkowski missed his first PAT of the year… Would it matter? What do you think? As the game played out, the Patriots offense sputtered and struggled, managing just two field goals in the next two quarters while completely and utterly failing to protect Tom Brady. Brady was hit more than twenty times in the game as Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware wreaked absolute havoc on the Patriots offense. Late into the fourth quarter and down 8 points, 20-12, New England’s drive stalled in Denver territory and Bill Belichick was faced with the decision to go for it or to kick the field goal. Gostkowski had already missed a PAT and the Denver defense was suffocating — could he trust the offense to make another scoring drive? Belichick opted to go for it with a sneaky play and Denver blew it up.
So now it is do or die for New England. It’s the final possession of the game and they need a touchdown and a two point conversion. The Patriots drove the length of the field, struggling but getting enough to get the job done including converting fourth downs. It looked like another New England miracle was brewing. Denver fans had their heads in their hands. They could feel what was coming next. The Patriots are knocking on the door of the endzone, but it’s fourth down. Brady drops back, buys time and fires to the man everyone knew would be the target. Rob Gronkowski running away from Brady across the back of the endzone, double covered. Somehow, he managed to stay in bounds and split the defenders to make the catch for a touchdown. Unbelieveable. How did they do it again? Hold on though, we’ve still got the two point conversion to contend with. Again, Brady drops to pass. He slings it towards Julian Edelman but this time it’s a Denver defensive back that comes down with the ball. The onside kick failed and Denver emerges victorious. Again, Peyton Manning has beaten Tom Brady in the playoffs and Denver is going to the Super Bowl.
Now, let’s go to Charlotte.
Many people picked Arizona as the league’s best all-around team with great offense, defense and special teams play. It is Carolina however, that held the league’s best record. I want to tell you that sixty minutes later, we knew who the better team was – but honestly, it was less than 15. Carolina was scoring points and intercepting passes before the Cardinals even got off the plane. I swear. It was already 17-0, Panthers, before the Cardinals could even sniff the endzone. Arizona was able to pull within ten during the second quarter, but Carolina scored again to take a three score lead into the half.
The Cardinals probably should have just gotten back on the plane at that point because it was even further downhill from there. Carson Palmer had one of the worst games of his career, throwing four interceptions on the day, including one returned for a touchdown by Luke Keuchly for the final score of the day. Unlike the previous week where Carolina faded in the second half, they put the pedal to the floor against Arizona. They dropped another twenty-five points on Arizona in the second half and slammed the door on an incredibly dominating victory. They slammed the door so hard that it caved in the walls and buried Arizona in the rubble.
So there you have it. One edge-of-your-seat, nail-biter and one whooping so bad that you may have cringed while watching it. We will get to see the The Sheriff. Peyton Manning, square off with The Outlaw, Cam Newton, whose penchant for celebration has made him a hot topic all year. He’s not really an outlaw… I don’t think.
Come back next week as we dive into the showdown and break down the big game, Super Bowl XXXXX! Same Bat time, same bat channel.