Championship Sunday

Sunday marks one of the biggest sports days of the year as the Super Bowl matchup will be determined when the four remaining teams in the NFL square off for the right to go to Santa Clara, CA and play in Super Bowl 50. Santa Clara’s the new home of the San Francisco 49ers who played their second season at Levi Stadium this year. Super Bowl 50 marks the end of the roman numerals for the game, and many think it’s because the roman numeral for 50 is L. In any event the match-ups tomorrow start with New England traveling to Denver to take on the Broncos and then Carolina hosting the Cardinals in what will be the city’s first ever championship game. The hype surrounding the AFC Championship is quite a bit bigger so we’ll start in the NFC.

The top seeded Carolina Panthers head into this game undefeated at home this year at 9-0 while sporting an equally impressive and NFL best 16-1 record. Cam Newton’s the odds on favorite for NFL MVP this year with 45 total touchdowns and 4,473 total yards of offense. At 26 years old Newton’s quickly becoming the league’s best all-around player, and his ability to stand in the pocket delivering the football has allowed him to ascend from the running dual threat quarterback he came into the league as to the now unstoppable force that is causing defenses to have to play zone against him. In the preseason Newton lost what was supposed to be his number one target in Kelvin Benjamin, but that has seemingly only made him better as he’s now spreading the ball around to his not only his Pro Bowl TE Greg Olsen, but a bunch of other players that before the season started couldn’t have been identified if you put them in a lineup.

Players like Ted Ginn Jr. who was deemed a bust in Miami after coming out of Ohio State with the ninth pick in the 2007 draft. A Jerricho Cotchery who at 33 is on his third team playing a big role with 40 catches this year. Newton to say the least doesn’t have the greatest cast of characters around him, but the numbers he’s putting up is the major reason why he’s not only a lock for NFL MVP, but a shining star for many years to come.

The biggest contributor other than Newton’s exceptional play this year is the Panthers’ Defense which led the NFL in turnover margin at +20 which was double and then some of the team they’re playing. Josh Norman a former fifth round pick out of Coastal Carolina in 2012 had a breakout season this year with four interceptions while routinely being given the task of covering the other teams best receiver (Ask Odell Beckham Jr.). SS Kurt Coleman was second in the NFL in interceptions with seven, while another former Chicago Bear now on the Panthers Charles Tillman has had a nice bounce back season with two interceptions, two forced fumbles, and seven passes defended while playing opposite Norman.

The secondary can’t take all the credit as the Panthers have probably the best defensive front in football with the strength being on the interior. Former Purdue Boilermaker Kawann Short has been outstanding this year with 11 sacks to go along with three forced fumbles. Short’s partner on the inside is Star Lotuleilei from Utah who this year hasn’t put up the numbers like Short, but has been equally as productive in stuffing opposing offenses running games. Lotuleilei routinely eats up double teams for the likes of Charles Johnson and Kony Ealy off the edge.

The Panthers best defensive player, and former NFL Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly’s not only the captain of the defense, but he’s also the heart and soul of the unit while being the signal caller at MLB. Kuechly this year again leads the team in tackles with 118, while in addition having a sack, four interceptions and two forced fumbles. Kuechly last week had a pick six in the Divisional Playoffs of Russell Wilson that gave the Panthers a two touchdown lead. Kuechly’s longtime partner WLB Thomas Davis who at 32 is in his 11th Season as a pro, and continuing to play at a high level with 105 tackles to go along with four interceptions, four forced fumbles, and 5.5 sacks.

The Panthers like to play smashmouth football for a full sixty minutes while carrying a balanced attack in the running game with longtime Panther Jonathan Stewart leading the way on the ground. Newton has the ability to use his legs while having a nice security blanket in Olsen if need be. The big plays usually have come from Ginn this year which in the past would’ve been Steve Smith or Kelvin Benjamin, but no matter how you game plan against them they’re tough to score against, and equally tough to defend.

The Arizona Cardinals have the task of trying to unseat the NFC’s best team this year, and tomorrow they’ll lean on their defense and in particular players like Patrick Peterson, Calais Campbell, Frostee Rucker, Sean Weatherspoon, and Kevin Minter. The Cardinals secondary much like their counterparts to the northwest have a name for their secondary called the “No Fly Zone”. Patrick Peterson’s widely considered the best Defensive Back in the NFL and this year he lived up the pay day he got with eight passes defended, two interceptions, and a forced fumble to go along with 35 tackles. Peterson much like Richard Sherman isn’t thrown against very often and much like Norman and Sherman has the task of going against the opposing teams best receiver. Peterson’s the highest paid defensive back in the NFL receiving $48 million guaranteed two summers ago. At 25 Patrick Peterson will almost certainly receive another massive contract netting himself well over $100 million in his playing career (very tough to do unless you throw the ball).

Offensively the Cardinals are led by former Heisman Trophy winner and relative journeyman Carson Palmer who’s like Cotchery is on his third team in Arizona. Palmer has set career highs across the board this year with yards, touchdowns, completion percentage and quarterback rating. The last time Palmer completed a higher percentage of his passes was 2007 when he was with the Bengals. Palmer for only the second time in his career has had over a 100 quarterback rating. The last time he did that was 10 years ago when he was in just his second year in the league.

Palmer’s biggest target this year have been Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown, and Michael Floyd. The trio have combined for over 3,000 of Palmer’s 4,600 yards through the air. The Cardinals didn’t have a thousand yard back this year with former Titan Chris Johnson being the leader of the group with over 800 yards. Not unexpected considering the type of season Palmer had and the amount of points the Cardinals scored. Offensively the Cardinals were the second highest scoring team in the NFL trailing only you guessed it the team they’ll be facing. Arizona averages over 30.6PPG while having the best passing attack in the league at 408.3YPG.

Wintercane Jonas didn’t seem to affect the Charlotte area and Bank Of America Stadium should be cold, but good to go for the game.

In the AFC it’s Manning vs. Brady 17 with the first meeting of these two men coming when I was a Junior in High School. Dating all the way back to two weeks after 9/11 Peyton Manning and Tom Brady have seen each other every single year with the exception of 2008 when Brady was injured. Those roles were reversed a couple of years later when Manning was out for the entire final season with the Indianapolis Colts ushering in the era of Andrew Luck who was taken with the first overall pick the following year in 2012. This meeting between the two future first ballot hall of famers will be the fifth time in the playoffs that they’ve met. The record is even at 2-2 with both quarterbacks trading consecutive wins. The two have met three times in the AFC Championship game with the home team having won each time. Brady’s 11-5 overall against Manning, but none of that will matter because of where the game is being played. In Denver Tom Brady’s numbers are awful as he has a losing record. Brady has lost two playoff games in his career at Mile High Stadium. Once in 2006 after having won consecutive Super Bowls, and another time two years ago when Manning was at his very best in a Broncos uniform.

The early game tomorrow is led by Brady-Manning being the stars of the show, but that’s not how the game will be decided. The real key is can Manning control the game while Brady, still at a high level, goes up against statistically the best defense in football in a place he’s never played well his whole career (Brady’s 2-6 lifetime in Denver). The Patriots are 11-0 this year when the trio of Gronk, Edelman, and Amendola are on the field, and the bookies in Vegas have placed them as a 3.5 point favorite because of this very stat. The most recent meeting between the two teams was without Manning who was benched in favor of Brock Osweiler. In that snow game the Patriots got mangled when trying to stop the run eventually blowing a two touchdown fourth quarter lead.

The Broncos Defense is very very good, and the key for both teams is at the line of scrimmage with the Patriots skeptical O-Line trying to hold back the vicious pass rush of players like Von Miller, Demarcus Ware, Derrick Wolfe, Malik Jackson, and SS TJ Ward. The Broncos were fourth in the NFL in scoring defense at 18.5PPG while leading the league in interceptions with 23.

Denver has a phenomenal secondary led by former Patriot Aqib Talib who was let go in free agency for the undeniable upgrade of Darrelle Revis two seasons ago. It was that decision that many believe led to the Patriots winning their fourth championship. Talib has on his opposite side Chris Harris Jr. and Bradley Roby who this year combined for three interceptions on the season. Talib himself had three interceptions and 13 passes defended while much like the aforementioned cornerbacks before him have the task of shutting down the opposing teams best outside threat (Gronkowski when speaking about the AFC Championship Game).

The task this weekend for the Broncos secondary will be to stop Gronk, Edelman, and Amendola who between them have 21 touchdowns and 2,500 yards receiving. Brady this year has had another hall of fame caliber season with 4,700 yards passing, 36 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. Brady led the league in touchdown passes over Carson Palmer, was third in yards, and had the best touchdown to interception ratio at nearly 6:1. The Patriots cannot run the ball as they’ve lost their starting running back in LaGarrete Blount and use the short passing game to mitigate the weakness of the O-Line and as a another form of running the ball.

Defensively for the Patriots they’re a very good group led by a revolving door of very capable defensive lineman. The Patriots were 10th in the NFL at 19.3PPG and in the top five in turnover margin at +7. New England had 38 sacks on the year which was one behind Denver, however the one area that really sticks out, and will be very important in the early game is how New England does against the run. On the year they were ninth in the league at just under a hundred yards a game, while Denver as a team rushed for 107YPG. In last weekend’s game Denver ran for 109 yards while Kansas City ran for 135 against the Patriots. In the game earlier this year Denver ran for 179 yards and with the way Manning throws the ball that’ll be New England’s top priority.

The Patriots were without a lot of key components in the regular season matchup but so were the Broncos and the Mile High atmosphere seemed to rear its ugly head in New England’s face again. The Patriots are going to need to eliminate mistakes in order to advance onto Super Bowl 50 in two weeks. The Patriots are the last team to repeat as super bowl champions, doing so 10 years ago. Manning has only one super bowl win under his belt with two losses, the most recent one coming two years ago after he beat Tom Brady in this very game in the very same place.

Cam Newton and Carson Palmer look to reach their first super bowls as quarterbacks, but their teams’ second in franchise history. The first game kicks off tomorrow at 2:05CST.