After what was another exciting week in the NFL playoffs, we have our matchups for championship weekend. In the wild card round, the road team won all four games. In the divisional round, the home team won all four games. The top two seeds in each conference ended up making the championship. In the NFC, the Carolina Panthers will be hosting the Arizona Cardinals. The New England Patriots will travel to Denver next week to take on the Broncos for the AFC title. We will spend some time wrapping up the games form the past week, and start to preview the title games.
If you want a link to a summary of the game with statistics, click on the link at the top of the page for each recap.
Divisional Round Games
There were people with questions at the beginning of the game about the Patriots. Was Tom Brady healthy? Could Julian Edelman and Gronk both be effective given their injuries? Could the offensive line protect Brady? Will this team be able to make it click again after a 2-4 stretch to end the season? The answer to all of those questions was yes.
It is just really tough to beat this team in Foxboro in January. Oftentimes, the Patriots will try to get the ball to start the second half and will kick off in the first half. Instead, this week they got the ball. In 11 plays, 80 yards, and not even 5 minutes, the Patriots had built a lead that they would maintain for the entire game.
While it was certainly a competitive and sometimes close game, the Chiefs were always behind. It felt as if this team was playing catch up for a majority of the time. Kansas City is not built to play that way; they are meant to play with a lead. If you look at the statistics, Alex Smith actually played a decent game and proves to be a capable playoff quarterback. However, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are simply too good. Tom Brady now has a career playoff record of 22-8, by far the most playoffs wins ever by a starting quarterback.
In a game that some expected to be a blowout, we ended up getting one of the best playoff games in recent memory, and maybe in NFL history. The first half of the game was much calmer than the second half; the Cardinals were coming out with a 7-6 lead. The Packers got the ball to start the second half and Aaron Rodgers threw an interception in their own territory. On the very next drive, Carson Palmer gave the gift of an interception right back to the Pack. Green Bay would eventually drive down the field and score a touchdown, energized by a 61-yard Eddie Lacy run.
As the game progressed, the Packers offense somewhat sputtered. The next three drives consisted of two punts and a turnover on downs for Green Bay. The Cardinals, however, would put up 13 points in their next four drives, giving them a 20-13 advantage with less than two minutes to go. Starting on their own 14-yard line, Rodgers was set up with a 3rd and 20 after a sack by Dwight Freeney on second down. With 55 seconds left and the Packers stuck back on the four yard line, things were looking grim. Then on 4th and 20, Rodgers hit Jeff Janis for a 60 yard pass down the field. If this wasn’t improbable enough, now the clock was running down near 30 seconds with the entire team needing to run down the field without any timeouts.
Eventually, time was running out and there was time for one last play. Rodgers scrambled to his left, threw up a prayer, and Janis came down with the game-tying touchdown with 00:00 on the clock. It had to be one of the most incredible throws I have ever seen. Throw in the fact that this was in the playoffs, against a phenomenal defense, to force overtime? Get out of here.
Unfortunately, that was the last time Aaron Rodgers got to see the field in that game. Moving past the really weird coin flip to start overtime, there wasn’t much suspense once overtime was reached. On a broken play, Carson Palmer scrambled to the right, looked, and threw it all the way to the other side of the field. Larry Fitzgerald was wide open and running down the side line. He would eventually be tackled around the 5-yard line, and Fitzgerald himself would finish the game off with a touchdown.
Russell Wilson boasts a dominant record in playoff games; entering Sunday, he was 7-2 in the postseason. The Seahawks seemed to be clicking as they ended the season, finishing with a 9-2 record over their last 11 games. In a game that many viewed as a pick-’em game, the Panthers came out and completely throttled the Seahawks in every way during the first half. Even though the Seahawks were the two-time defending NFC Champions, the Panthers wanted to hear none of it. They came out and drove down the field in 2.5 minutes to take a 7-0 lead early. Russell Wilson threw a pick-six to Luke Kuechly about a minute later. The Panthers next offensive drive was a touchdown. To make a long story short, the Panthers were leading 31-0 at the end of the first half.
The second half was another story. While the Panthers scored on all four of their first half possessions, they would end up punting on each of their second half possessions. While they would punt almost every time, Carolina made the game much shorter by consistently running the ball in the second half, cutting off three and five-minute chunks by gaining a few first downs. Seattle scored touchdowns on the first two drives of the second half. After a punt, the Seahawks scored a touchdown and a field goal on their next two possessions. However, the Panthers managed to take just enough time off the clock during the second half to ensure that Seattle would not get the ball before the game was over. Cam and the Panthers did just enough to squeak by after a dominant first half.
This game was filled with more questions marks than any before they started. Is Ben Roethlisberger healthy? How can you replace the production from Antonio Brown? Is Peyton going to overcome his past playoff failures? Should Peyton even be the starter?
On the very first play from scrimmage, Roethlisberger answered the questions about his health by chucking the ball 50 yards downfield. The game was filled with back and forth play, with the Broncos drawing first blood. After one of two bad first half punts from the Steelers, the Broncos settled for a field goal. Another poor punt lead to a second Denver field goal to put them up 6-0. On the next drive, things started to open up for the Pittsburgh offense, starting with a 40-yard run and 23-yard catch by Martavis Bryant. Two more strong rushes from Fitzgerald Toussaint and the Steelers were up 7-6 at the tail end of the first quarter.
The second and third quarters involved both teams trading field goals to bump the score up to 13-12 in the Steelers’ advantage. With Pittsburgh driving into field goal range with about 10 minutes to go in the game, Toussaint had the game’s first turnover with a fumble. The Broncos would take the ball 65 yards down the field and use up 7 minutes of the clock to score what would end up being the game-winning touchdown. In a game that was played so close by two good teams, that one mistake ended up costing the Steelers the game. As the two teams each added late field goals, the Steelers’ last hope was an unsuccessful onside kick. Denver would end up walking away victorious by a score of 23-16.
New England Patriots @ Denver Broncos – Sunday 2:05 P.M. CT on CBS
In what will be the 17th, and likely final, meeting between Manning and Brady, the Pats quarterback has a decisive 11-5 edge. In the playoffs, however, the series is tied 2-2. Although Brady has always been viewed as a clutch playoff performer, Manning has always seemed to underperform in the bigger stages. What a better way to see these two legends face off than for the AFC Championship and a right to play in the 50th Super Bowl. These two quarterbacks have combined to play in more playoff games (31 for Brady and 26 for Manning) than any other quarterbacks ever.
While the Broncos came out victorious earlier in the season, it will be interesting to watch this game the second time around. When the Patriots came to town the first time, they did so without Julian Edelman, and Gronk got hurt late in the game. With both back in the lineup on Sunday, expect that to make a huge difference. With that being said, this Denver defense is really good and the Pats have a lot to be afraid of. If New England can neutralize the pass rush with quick throws from Brady, the Patriots could definitely come out victorious. However, we just watched a Pittsburgh offensive line lose it in critical moments in the altitude. Could the same thing happen to a shaky offensive line for the Patriots?
On the other side of the ball, Peyton has not showed any reasons to be afraid of him this season. The Patriots will put as much pressure on him as possible, while shielding off the short throws Manning has been utilizing all season. C.J. Anderson dominated the Patriots in their regular season matchup, but their run defense will be improved with Dont’a Hightower back in the middle of the field and an all around healthier defense. New England will need its defense to make stops and force some Manning turnovers if Brady struggles against Denver’s top-ranked defense.
Arizona Cardinals @ Carolina Panthers – Sunday 6:40 P.M. EST on FOX
The Cardinals and Panthers play very different styles of football. Arizona has a lot to do with tempo, they want to speed up the game, the decision making, and the especially the intensity. The Bird Gang is very focused on making the other team play on the back of their heels. The Panthers wants to slow the game down, smack you in the mouth, and win with pure physicality. The Panthers want to run it down your throat, while the Cardinals like to show off an impressive passing attack.
While Manning and Brady have met several times throughout their career, this is the first time Cam and Palmer have met up in the playoffs. For the Panthers, the goal remains the same as it has all season. They want to win the turnover battle, win time of possession, and establish a consistent running game. If they can do that at home, they will be really tough to beat. For the Cardinals, the goal must be to jump on the Panthers early and make them play from behind. They have shown all season that they are great playing with a lead. When they have been behind, they have looked vulnerable.
This will come down to which offense can break through and put together long, efficient drives. Time of possession will be key, and expect a late turnover or defensive stand to be the difference.
Denver over New England
Carolina over Arizona