Conference Championships: Denver’s Big D
The Broncos defensive game plan for the Patriots practically exposed the Patriots the way the Patriots exposed the Seahawks last year. Everything the Patriots do is about timing. On most throws, Brady releases the ball before the receiver comes out of the route. The Broncos got physical, especially on Gronkowski. He was on the sideline so frequently because he was getting man-handled. Denver consistently had a guy on the line that chipped him off the snap, which handed Gronk off to a linebacker, who chipped him again, all within five yards, all totally legal. In fact, can you guess one important play where the Broncos didn’t chip Gronk? The 4th and 10 pass that (momentarily) saved the season for the Patriots. The secret to beating the Patriots is to beat them up. If you play off their receivers, give a guy like Edelman three yards to breath, Brady will laser those passes in there and bleed you to death.
Where the Broncos succeed in a way that is less replicable is the massive day their defensive line had. I don’t know many of the Patriots players but whoever was #61 might as well have just not gone out there. Just put in whoever was wearing a uniform instead. The depth on the o-line had to be terrible for Belicheck and McDaniels to stick with this guy. He was getting beat play after play after play. While the Brady/Manning Bowl is usually an offensive stat-fest, Brady found himself barely able to stand, never mind delivering a ball. As the game went on, including three straight fourth quarter drives that–at least I expected–should have put some exhaustion in the Broncos d-line, they stayed strong. They pressured Brady to the last snap, including getting home on the Patriot’s 2pt conversion attempt. Where I commend the Broncos is that they had the stones to keep sending pressure, up until the very end. They knew they couldn’t give Brady time, and they’d have rather lost their way. They resisted the temptation to play off, play contain, go prevent, and guess what? They won.
As for the Patriots defense, I can’t tell if they had a good game or if this is all Manning can give, no matter if it is the Patriots D or Pop Warner. They played tough, I suppose, but they also allowed Manning to get in some really slow, stiff, velocity absent passes. I was not impressed with the Patriots pass defense, considering who the quarterback was, but I was impressed with their run defense, until they cracked and gave up the big one.
Mostly a stinker, this game got interesting in the fourth quarter. I watched these games at a bar, so I didn’t hear the announcers or any of the post game talk, and because I’m still at the bar, so If I’m repeating everyone alive, I apologize. WTF were the Patriots doing going for it on two fourth downs in drives in the fourth quarter when they were only down by 8 points? With six minutes left, they could have hit an easy field goal. Boom–15 to 20. Broncos gets a three and out, no surprise, Manning was out of juice at that point. Patriots get the ball back, drive right back down the field. They go for it on fourth down again? If they had gone for a second field goal, it’s be 18-20, with enough time to get the ball back from Denver again. If they at least kick the second field goal, it’s 15-10 and Gronk is about to catch the winning TD at the end of regulation. I mean, I don’t think I’ve seen a fourth quarter managed so poorly by the Patriots. It was a one score game and they had half a quarter and three timeouts and acted like a 3 couldn’t help them. Plain stupid. They’re going to watch film on that one and realize that they had this game won on field goals alone.
The NFC Championship game wasn’t even a competition. Carson Palmer turned into a pumpkin, as we all should have expected. Seriously, the guy is 36 years old. We all knew the type of quarterback Carson Palmer is, but the narrative this year had always taken this weird angle, almost as if he was a third or fourth lead QB taking the leap. He was Carson Palmer the whole time. He just had a ton of weapons and a ton of time to throw and a good stable of running backs, but he was not an MVP candidate, he was a game manager, and when asked to picked up the Cardinals, he threw 4 INTs.
The Panthers did what they did against the Seahawks, starting strong and building a lead. It’s an easy thing to do with Cam Newton rifling in passes with nightmarishly accuracy. But he was not perfect. The Cardinals were gifted an opportunity back into this game when Cam threw an ill-advised deep pass right to Patrick Petersen, who had fumbled a special teams kick return earlier in the game. Running back sixty yards, the Cardinals started the red zone and Palmer threw an immediate INT.
In the second half, the overmatched Cardinals folded.
So there you have it, ladies and gentlemen! Your Super Bowl is the Carolina Panthers versus the Denver Broncos. To me, this game personifies the old school versus the new school trends in the NFL. The Broncos will bring their aging quarterback with his 2000s offense and its heavy pass rush defense while the Panthers will bring their young, 2010s QB (great thrower, great runner) and their fiesta defense that feeds on a strong stable of linebackers. Obviously, the key to this game will be the Broncos ability to keep the Panthers from a hot start, so they do not fall behind by several touchdowns before the end of the first quarter. Conversely, it is hard to believe the Broncos can win the Super Bowl if they score only 20 points.