And then there were four.
After the last of the divisional playoff matches were concluded over the weekend of 16 January, the Championship games for the AFC and NFC have been decided. With no major upsets, it is the four highest ranking teams who will battle it out for a shot at the Vince Lombardi trophy.
The New England Patriots face Denver Broncos in the AFC in an intriguing match up that pits Tom Brady against Peyton Manning, for perhaps the final act of their storied rivalry. Carolina Panthers, fresh from a thrilling win over last season’s Bowl runners-up; Seattle, will face Arizona Cardinals.
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So who’s best placed to book a date at Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara this February?
On paper, at least, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see any of these teams there. There’s a phrase bandied about in football terms when two teams who cannot be separated face up – and both of these fixtures look like a “pick ‘em”.
Whilst the Panthers and Arizona won 15 and 14 games in the regular season respectively, perhaps only injuries prevented Bill Belichick’s Patriots (12-4) from matching this feat. The Broncos have undermined doubts about their prospects by continuing to win, with or without Manning under centre. They secured top seed in the AFC by virtue of Patriots’ surprise defeat on the last game of the season.
New England Patriots vs Denver Broncos
Both of these teams were good but not excellent in their respective divisional wins. Remarkably, the Patriots gained only 38 rushing yards in their 27-20 defeat of the Chiefs. With no real ground game to speak of, mostly due to season-ending injuries to Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount, they attacked Kansas City by throwing the ball.
If they decide to continue this on offense, the excellent Broncos secondary just may have more success than the Chiefs in stopping Tom Brady from moving the chains.
Meanwhile, Manning has struggled by his own exceptional standards this year. The Broncos have stuttered all season in attack and although they say a good defence can win championships, whether or not their QB can get anything going on offense by finding Demaryius Thomas downfield or allowing the rush attack to flourish, may decide who fares better in this one.
If the Patriots defence can stop the likes of CJ Anderson and Ronnie Hillman up front, then their passing game and Manning’s weakening arm strength will be brought into play and may get exposed. Manning threw almost twice as many interceptions than he managed touchdown throws in the regular season.
The Patriots have no such problems. Rob Gronkowski is practically unstoppable at tight end and boosted by the return of Julian Edelman, they suddenly started to look dangerous through the air again against Kansas. The Broncos defence will have their work cut out, but they have won games practically on their own this season.
Despite this, with Brady in the mood and a few of his favourite targets fit and healthy at last, I see the Patriots advancing in a thoroughly entertaining encounter.
Carolina Panthers vs Arizona Cardinals
Carolina Panthers had the best regular season record of any of these teams and were exceptional in the first half against the Seattle Seahawks. After going 14-0 to the good before anybody had caught breath, they continued to dominate the opening two quarters on their way to 31 unanswered points.
If this version of the Panthers turn up against the same Cardinals who looked so pedestrian for three quarters against Green Bay, this one would be a lot easier to call. But these are two excellent teams and it seems unlikely either side will have it all their own way for extended periods when they clash at Charlotte.
As top seed, the Panthers will enjoy home advantage and have been a very efficient unit all season on either side of the ball. The Cardinals though will be encouraged that they allowed Seahawks to charge back to within a touchdown before seeing the game out 31-24.
Their second half performance may have simply been a case of taking their foot off the gas and handing the momentum to Seattle but Bruce Arians’ team will have seen signs of vulnerability as Russell Wilson chipped away at the lead with aggressive and bold plays. Either way, the end result was a little too close for comfort for Carolina.
Arizona for their part are the best-ranked offence in all the NFL and will be hoping with the tools at their disposal, they can do similar damage without the attrition to their defence.
In their last game, they played out what has been called an all-time classic against the Green Bay Packers. A match where the lead swayed back and forth was sent into overtime after Arizona’s seven-point lead late in the fourth quarter was wiped out by a spectacular ‘Hail Mary’ touchdown from Aaron Rodgers with seconds remaining.
The drama continued as Larry Fitzgerald, excellent all game for the Cardinals ran almost 80 yards from a short Carson Palmer pass to set up a game-winning TD, which he himself then converted.
This Palmer and Fitzgerald connection will be key again in the game against the Panthers. The veteran wide receiver has been in brilliant form all season and the Arizona QB will need him on top form against the excellent Luke Kuechly and the rest of the Panthers secondary, who have the most interceptions in the NFL this season. David Johnson and Andre Ellington will also have their say in the backline. The Cardinals are a formidable prospect.
Perhaps what this may come down to is small margins and who can hold their nerve most on the big plays, good decision making and execution.
Though Carson Palmer has enjoyed a fine season, this was lacking for most of the game against Green Bay and in all of these qualities, I’m more inclined to side with Cam Newton. The least experienced of all the four quarterbacks in the Championship games has been imperious all season and I expect this to continue as he leads the Panthers to their first Super Bowl appearance since 2003.
Any combination of these teams would make for a great spectacle but the Panthers against the Patriots at Super Bowl 50 should really whet the appetite of football fans everywhere. For UK fans, this one would definitely be worth staying up late for!