Conference Championship Sunday — it’s the final day of the NFL season that belongs to actual fans before two weeks of pop culture vulturism and white butane hot takes during Super Bowl 50 week that will make you wish you could revoke your American citizenship.
Being that two teams will punch their tickets for Santa Clara and Super Bowl 50 by the end of Sunday night, a few here at TSFJ — Kyle Madson, Ronnie Hampston, Trey Jones and Jason Clinkscales — decided to give you reasons why each of the remaining teams will win or lose the Super Bowl.
Why go with all four teams now instead of waiting until we know who will play? Because 1) why the hell not? and 2) in all honesty, both conference title games are all chalk (No. 1 vs. No. 2). For much of the past month, many figured that two of these four teams would be vying for the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Some of these reasons will make sense to you. Some won't. Either way, we're skipping ahead and patting ourselves on the back in advance because something here will go right. If you win the office pool or are able walk the streets with your chest up high because your team won it all, feel free to thank us.
What we saw in the second half of the Divisional Round game against the Green Bay Packers was the Cardinals at their best: an offense that can either milk the clock or strike quickly to score. The Cardinals led the NFL in net yards gained per pass attempt and ranked among the top three in nearly every offensive category. Now, that game was at home, in front of their rabid crowd and the comforts of playing in a domed stadium. Yet, here’s something that may surprise you: The Arizona offense is actually better on the road.
Granted, you’ll say that the 7-1 road record — tied for best with Carolina — came largely off of playing just two teams that made this year’s playoffs, but the Panthers themselves played just one playoff team on the road this year (both teams defeated the Seahawks in Seattle).
Perhaps Mike Iupati bulldozes defensive linemen a little harder away from Glendale. Maybe the air in these other cities magically glides Carson Palmer’s passes away from cornerbacks. Maybe Bruce Arians performs a séance in the stadium the night before a road game to bring the spirits on his side. No matter how it’s done, the Cardinals don’t have another home game until next September. This may be a good thing. —Jason
The Cardinals had a very interesting defense. On one hand, the Cardinals had 33 takeaways, second behind Carolina in the regular season thanks to 19 interceptions and 14 forced fumbles. They are 14-0, including the playoffs, in which they have one defensive turnover. All of that is lovely until you realize that Arizona also has the second-most penalized defense in the league behind Indianapolis, which usually speaks to either largely undisciplined players or a super-aggressive unit. In this case, it seems like more of the latter, which can counter the fact that the run defense allowed the sixth-fewest rushing attempts.
Cam Newton, Tom Brady and, yes, even the declining Peyton Manning are not what you’d call conservative quarterbacks under center. Each will do anything possible to draw offside penalties to move the chains or test 'Zona’s defense deep as the Cards’ lost safety Tyrann Mathieu due to an ACL tear last month. In turn, the offense will start stressin’ and pressin’, leading to ill-fated turnovers in their own right as they committed against an uneven Green Bay team last week.
And as the Cincinnati Bengals taught us, drawing penalty flags on the final drive of a game is probably not a good idea. —Jason
The Panthers enter the NFC title game with a 16-1 record, the league’s best point differential, the top scoring offense and the sixth-ranked scoring defense. This team is dominant in every facet. Despite a weak regular-season schedule and sputtering in the second half in the Divisional Round, the Panthers are still poised to represent the NFC in Santa Clara Feb. 7.
Carolina’s defense was on full display in the first half of the playoff matchup with Seattle. Led by Luke Kuechly and Josh Norman, this is a suffocating defense that flies to the ball with an urgency that makes it seem as though lives are on the line with every yard gained. As good as Arizona is offensively, this Panthers defense will be too much as the game wears on.
This hard-hitting defense also led the NFL in turnovers and had four players with four or more interceptions, including two linebackers (Kuechly and Thomas Davis). Carson Palmer, for as good as he’s been this year, is prone to mistakes. With Carolina’s versatility on defense, the Panthers will force Palmer into some bad throws that will lead to turnovers. And turning the ball over is the last thing you want to do against Cam Newton and the high-powered Panthers offense.
Newton has been nothing short of magnificent this season and is the ultimate reason the Panthers will dance into Super Bowl 50. His mobility and arm strength, coupled with his accuracy, make him the most dangerous players in the NFL. The Cardinals have an outstanding defense, even without star defensive back Tyrann Mathieu. However, Newton is simply too good. He’s too athletic for linebackers to spy him, and if you bring a safety up to contain him, he’ll beat you over the top.
If you let him sit in the pocket, he’ll pick you apart with his favorite target Greg Olsen (77 catches and 7 TDs). Look no further than Newton’s 22 touchdowns to one interception since Week 9 if you need some convincing of his prowess as a passer. That and the fact he’s turned Ted Ginn Jr. (44 catches, 10 TDs), Devin Funchess (31 and 5) and the ghost of Jerricho Cotchery (39 and 3) into an elite receiving corps proves this even further.
Cam Newton is the best player on the field and probably the league, and he will lead his team to its first Super Bowl since 2004. —Kyle
Carolina is a very, very good football team. However, there’s just something that doesn’t sit right when you look at the Panthers against every other team that finished the regular season 15-1. A large part of this has to do with their schedule. They already get six games against the weak NFC South. Then they got to play against their counterparts in the AFC, as well as the NFC East. The moral of this story is that in the regular season, Carolina played four teams with a winning record, two of which (Washington and Houston) were 9-7 in bad divisions. The Panthers haven’t been tested yet, and after a fast start against Seattle in the Divisional Round, they fell flat in the second half and nearly blew a 31-point lead.
They’ll likely not get the same luxury of a 14-point lead in the first five minutes against the Cardinals. Arizona can score, averaging nearly 31 points a game. Even if Carolina slows the Cards down some, that still means the Panthers have to score 24 or more to win. This means Newton will have to go make plays against Arizona’s seventh-ranked scoring defense.
The problem for Carolina is that the Arizona defense is talented enough to take away Olsen. It also has a shutdown corner in Patrick Peterson to neutralize Ted Ginn. This puts the onus on Newton to go win the NFC Championship effectively by himself. While it’s hard to put anything past Newton at this point, it’s even harder for one man to beat the second best team in the conference all by himself. —Kyle
(Editor's note: Nah, for real, they're gonna #DominateTheFoe because of this hot fya right here.)
"You ever play roulette? Let me give you a word of advice ... always bet on the Broncos." —Wesley Snipes in Passenger 57 ... if he was talking about the Broncos instead of himself.
The Broncos are winning Super Bowl 50. Take it to the bank. They have too many things working in their favor. For starters, the other team can't win a game if it can't score, and the Broncos have the league's best defense. The team only gave up 18.5 points per game in the regular season — the lowest total out of the remaining contenders — and led the league in total yards per game allowed (283.1) and passing yards per game allowed (199.6). The passing stat is especially telling, as the other three remaining teams rely heavily on their respective passing attacks.
The Broncos and their four defensive Pro Bowl players (cornerbacks Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib and outside linebackers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware) will be very tough to beat.
On the offensive side, the Broncos boast two game-changing receivers with 1,100+ yards in Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, a running game that has postseason experience, and the inimitable Peyton Manning. Although Manning is in the twilight of his career — serving as the backup QB during multiple games this season — he's seemingly only increased in popularity due to his Nationwide Insurance commercials. Manning is America's quarterback. He's extremely likable, marketable, and everyone outside of North Carolina, Arizona and the New England states wants to see the veteran go out on top. In fact, if America described all of the QBs in one phrase, it would look like this:
Chicken Parm wins every time. —Trey
Answer: Jake Delhomme. Mark Brunell. Mark Sanchez. Colin Kaepernick. Mike Tomczak.
Question: Who are the five quarterbacks with a better playoff winning percentage than Peyton Manning?
Congratulations, Broncos fans! Out of the goodness of their hearts, the 2015 version of your team has decided to help clothe kids in third-world countries. Those Super Bowl 50 championship T-shirts will not go to waste. Why are you losing? Well, your quarterback is Peyton Manning, for starters. For all of his regular-season greatness, Manning has been pedestrian once the calendar turns to a new year. If Manning won Super Bowl 50 — he won't — that would raise his playoff record to one game over .500. Broncos fans have entrusted their entire season on the arm of a man who has thrown 24 interceptions in 25 career playoff games. Good luck.
But you can't base this year's success off of previous years, right? The 2015 Broncos are different, right? Sure they are! That being said, you can't win a Super Bowl when your best offensive play is "fall down, play dead — stand up, throw the ball". And even when Peyton threw his wounded duck passes by conventional means, this playoff version of the Broncos made it a point to drop them as quickly as possible. It’s like the Broncos signed every stereotypical, non-catching wide receiver from every football movie — "The Replacements," "Little Giants" and "Necessary Roughness" come to mind — and decided to put them on the field for the most important games of the season. On paper, the Broncos' offensive scouting report reads like this:
That doesn't look like a Super Bowl team. Let's not forget that last week, the Broncos' vaunted defense gave up 339 passing yards to a one-armed Ben Roethlisberger, who was missing his All-Pro wide receiver, All-Pro center, starting running back and backup running back.
Tom Brady and the New England Patriots are on par for back-to-back Super Bowl victories. The Pats are just two games away from doing so, and with Eli Manning and the New York Giants not standing in the way, it increases the Pats' chances to succeed.
On a serious note, it will be a tall task to accomplish that feat. Nevertheless, this wouldn’t be the first time that the Pats repeated as champions. With winning a fifth Super Bowl, the combination of Brady and coach Bill Belichick would be in a class by themselves, having the most SB wins for a coach/quarterback tandem in NFL history. No. 12 is a ferocious competitor, and understanding what’s at stake from a historic standpoint, it’ll be hard to bet against him and the most hated team on the East Coast.
Although the talk of enhancing the legacies of Brady, Belichick and the Pats has been brought to the forefront, New England is a pretty damn good team beyond the two living legends. The Pats pose several matchup problems for opposing teams, starting with their behemoth of a tight end Rob Gronkowski. When dealing with the Patriots, you pretty much have to pick your poison. When teams double Gronk, it opens up the middle of the field for Julian Edelman and company. If you dare to leave Gronk in one-on-one coverage, the opposing defense will pay immensely.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Pats don’t have as many big names as they’ve had in the past, but players such as Malcolm Butler, Malcolm Brown and Akiem Hicks have played key roles while notable defensive players have nursed injuries. The defense is not quite the “No-Name" defense of the 1972 Miami Dolphins, but it is a cast of mostly unfamiliar characters that should not be overlooked. —Ronnie
At this time of the year, injuries are always a concern, and New England's injury woes may finally catch up to the team after grinding through most of season. All year long, the Pats have plugged in players at multiple positions without missing a beat. Though they continue winning and playing impressive football, how much shuffling can be done to make up for the walking wounded like Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins and Chandler Jones or the loss of key players such as Jerrod Mayo and Rob Ninkovich? Belichick is a defensive guru, but it may be a bit much to overcome.
Of course, since there's not much talk of any controversy this time around, I don’t know how the Pats will survive through the rest of the playoffs. (OK, I kid.)
The offense has been getting away with a plug-and-play method due to the genius of Tom Brady. But that may come to an end sooner rather than later. Brady will have his hands full with the opposing defenses that are left in the playoffs. The Broncos, Cardinals and Panthers bolster top-flight defenses, ranked first, fifth and sixth respectively in total defense during the regular season.
With the Pats relying on an efficient passing game, all of the aforementioned teams have enough talent in the secondary to negate New England's aerial attack and stifle the running game, keeping Brady, Belichick and company off the podium at Super Bowl 50. —Ronnie
Thank God the Patriots got eliminated!
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