It's crazy how different public perception and reality can be sometimes. Going into this game, everyone believed that the Patriots would win. They were favored by either three or four at Denver, which was just insane. Everyone just assumed that Tom Brady would outplay Peyton Manning despite battling the tougher defense, based on what happened during the regular season. As usual, when most people think something will happen, the opposite occurs.
Manning was the better quarterback in this game. Brady, who feasted on horrible opponents all year, simply couldn't do anything. It wasn't all on him though, as his supporting cast, outside of Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman, sucked big time. This includes his offensive line, which couldn't block whatsoever. Brady was constantly under siege, as the four sacks he took weren't nearly indicative of the amount of pressure he faced. Brady had to throw numerous passes away, and it's astonishing that he wasn't flagged for intentional grounding on a couple of occasions. Von Miller terrorized him, logging 2.5 sacks and an interception.
Meanwhile, Manning opened the game by throwing the ball into the dirt, which made me question what the hell I was betting on. However, Manning rebounded with some solid throws on a pair of third downs, and the opening drive culminated with a touchdown to Owen Daniels. Manning continued to play well throughout, abusing a secondary that hadn't been tested much all year because of a ridiculously easy schedule. Manning, for the first time all season, didn't throw an interception in a game that he started, though he did technically commit a turnover on a pass in which he threw backward. Bill Belichick successfully challenged, and it turned into New England's sole touchdown of the afternoon until the very end.
The Broncos controlled the game throughout, never trailing, but there was some concern as the game progressed. Denver lost numerous key defenders to injury, including T.J. Ward, who was Denver's best solution against Rob Gronkowski. Derek Wolfe and Brandon Marshall also got banged up, but were able to return to the field.
With Ward gone, Brady hit Gronkowski on a pair of miracle fourth-down throws on the final drive. The first was a big gain on a fourth-and-10 to reach the red zone, and then the second was a touchdown to bring the margin to 20-18. However, because of Stephen Gostkowski's missed extra point earlier in the afternoon, New England had to go for two. The attempt failed, and Denver was able to hang on to a victory. Let's take a moment to congratulate Roger Goodell for installing a new rule that allowed a conference championship to be decided by an extra point. I doubt Goodell is upset though, as he finally got his revenge on the Patriots for failing to penalize them for Deflategate.
The stats say that Brady outplayed Manning, but that was hardly the case. Brady went 27-of-56 for 310 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions, while Manning finished 17-of-32 for 176 yards and two touchdowns. Brady's 310 yards were a byproduct of garbage time; by halftime, he was just 9-of-20 for 87 yards and the two picks. The first interception was telegraphed, and it could've been returned for six had Miller not slipped. The second was the result of a Malik Jackson hit. Brady was nearly picked on a couple of other occassions, all of which was the result of Denver's incredible pressure.
Manning, meanwhile, barely completed half of his passes, but he didn't really turn the ball over. He was better than Brady, but didn't play great. He missed some throws he could've made in his sleep five years ago, overthrowing a couple of his targets in the end zone for easy touchdowns. However, Manning did some nifty things, including a scramble for a first down when he somehow picked up 12 yards on a third-and-10 early in the second half.
Manning's touchdowns both went to Daniels, whose only catches were in the end zone. Daniels was just one of two Broncos to accumulate more than 20 receiving yards, with the other being Emmanuel Sanders (5-62), who made a ridiculous 34-yard reception over Malcolm Butler that brought Ward off the bench in celebration. Demaryius Thomas, meanwhile, made just two catches for 12 yards. He dropped a pass, of course.
It continues to be a mystery why the Broncos continue to waste downs giving Ronnie Hillman the ball. Hillman (11-16) was outgained by C.J. Anderson (16-72) by a wide margin once again. Hillman also lazily didn't try to pick up the ball on Manning's apparent backward pass.
As bad as Hillman was, I'm sure Belichick would've killed to have him on his roster, given how incompetent his running backs were. It was so bad that Brady was the Patriots' leading rusher with 13 yards on three scrambles. James White (5-11) caught five passes for 45 receiving yards, but was very inefficient, being targeted 16 times. Steven Jackson scored, but gained just eight yards on four carries.
As for Brady's aerial targets, Gronkowski predictably led the way with eight catches for 144 yards and a touchdown. However, most of his production came after Ward left the game, as he caught just two balls in the opening half. Julian Edelman (7-53) was next on the receiving list.
One final note: I think Belichick screwed up big time in the fourth quarter. He eschewed two field goals, opting to go for it on a pair of fourth downs. His offense failed on both occasions. Had he kicked the ball, the score would've been 20-18 when Gronkowski caught his initial fourth-down pass on the final drive. A short field goal would have won the game, 21-20. The Patriots had six minutes and three timeouts remaining when Belichick eschewed his first kick, so there was still plenty of time.
Panthers 49, Cardinals 15
You know what's crazy? The Panthers and Cardinals were considered to be the two best teams in the NFL entering this game, and despite this result, that's still probably the case. And yet, Carolina absolutely demolished the team right below them in the power rankings. That's how much better they are than any other squad in the NFL.
The Panthers nearly posted 50 points on Arizona, dominating in all facets. The offense generated 476 net yards, compared to 287 by Arizona. The defense forced six turnovers. Even the special teams factored in; they collected a Patrick Peterson muffed punt and had a great return by Ted Ginn to set up an early touchdown.
Delving more into this and beginning with the offense, Cam Newton had a terrific performance. He scored four touchdowns (two passing, two rushing) and completed 19-of-28 passes for 335 yards to go along with 47 rushing yards on 10 scrambles. He made only a couple of poor throws, including one in the red zone that was picked off, as it was behind his intended target. That didn't hurt Carolina at all, however, as Carson Palmer hurled an interception on the very next play.
Newton's two touchdowns went to Philly Brown (4-113) and Devin Funchess (2-21). The score to Brown was an 86-yarder that put the Panthers up 17-0, blowing the game completely open. It came on a third-and-long from the Carolina 14. Newton had plenty of time despite an Arizona blitz, and he connected to Brown, who broke away from Rashad Johnson, who gave a horrible tackling effort.
Greg Olsen didn't score, but he was a huge part of the offense. Newton continued to lean on him, targeting him more than any other player. Olsen caught six of the eight balls thrown to him for 113 yards. I suppose we can safely say he's OK after he got banged up last week.
Speaking of injured Panthers, the one dark cloud over this game is that Thomas Davis appears to have broken his arm. That occurred when Darren Fells inexplicably leapt into him at the end of a 21-yard reception. The loss would be huge, but the Panthers won't be playing a quality offense in the Super Bowl.
Before moving on to the Cardinals' numbers, it should be noted that Jonathan Stewart ran well, gaining 83 yards on 19 carries. He had a pair of long gains on one drive and got tackled at the 1-yard line, but didn't score. Newton capitalized with a sneak. Also, Ted Ginn found the end zone on a 22-yard "rushing" touchdown, which was actually a reverse.
As for Arizona, Palmer was absolutely disgraceful. You could've had him don a Brian Hoyer jersey, and no one would've known the difference. He was that bad, and that's not an exaggeration in the slightest.
Carson Hoyer, I mean Palmer, went 23-of-40 for 235 yards, one touchdown, four interceptions and two lost fumbles. But those horrific numbers don't even tell the whole story. Palmer was wildly inaccurate throughout, beginning on the opening drive when he overshot Michael Floyd. Palmer was then nearly picked on a deep attempt downfield, and then proceeded to toss the ball into the ground. On the following drive, Josh Norman dropped a potential interception, leading me to wonder why in the world Palmer was targeting Norman when the rest of the Carolina secondary was the weak spot of the defense.
Palmer went on to float a short pass over Andre Ellington's head and then was strip-sacked. Palmer, facing a 17-0 deficit, then had a stretch in which he completed 7-of-9 passes, but went on to struggle after that. He lost a fumble and then heaved a careless interception into the end zone, staring down his receiver. Much later, whatever life the Cardinals had following a touchdown was sucked out when Palmer was responsible for a dumb interception into double coverage. Further embarrassing himself, Palmer was pick-sixed by Luke Kuechly with a few minutes remaining on the clock.
People are going to say that Palmer's finger injury was the reason for his struggles. However, that doesn't excuse his horrible decision-making. We haven't seen much of him in the playoffs, but he's now 1-3, and it's safe to say that he's a choke artist. The Cardinals need to think about using a day-two selection on a quarterback to groom behind Palmer, who will turn 37 during the 2016 campaign.
Outside of Palmer, Arizona's greatest disappointment was Larry Fitzgerald, who caught four passes for 30 yards, and no, it wasn't because Norman was covering him. Norman was on Michael Floyd (3-37), who didn't catch a pass in meaningful action. Fitzgerald was guilty of two drops. Meanwhile, John Brown snagged just one pass for 16 yards.
David Johnson was the only Arizona offensive player who didn't suck. He could've had a big game on the ground had the Panthers not jumped out to a big lead, as he gained 60 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries. He also caught nine passes for 68 receiving yards. He has a very bright future ahead of him.
For more thoughts, check out my updated NFL Power Rankings, which will be posted Tuesday morning.