2016 NFL Playoffs Conference Championships Recap

Super Bowl 50, scheduled to take place next month, will feature two teams that resemble polar opposites.

Although the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers seem like different teams, both utilized solid defensive play to punch their tickets to the Super Bowl in Santa Clara, Calif on Feb. 7. The Broncos took advantage of a New England Patriots offensive line that was decimated by injuries throughout the course of the season. Denver linebacker Von Miller’s speed off the edge, combined with a spectacular performance from Broncos defensive tackle Derek Wolfe, abused quarterback Tom Brady and the Patriots’ offense throughout the game. Against the Broncos’ defense, New England was unable run the ball without injured running back Dion Lewis, who suffered a torn ACL in Week 9 of the regular season, and LeGarrette Blount, who suffered a hip injury in Week 14.

The Broncos repeatedly put New England in third-and-long situations, resulting in sustained relentless pressure on Brady. Conversely, Denver quarterback Peyton Manning showed flashes of the guy we saw in 2013 who threw for an NFL record 55 touchdowns. Despite their early offensive success, the Broncos were never able to establish the same rhythm in the second half of their AFC Championship Game matchup with New England. Denver’s second half struggles could have been a result of Denver’s inability to effectively run the ball with Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson.

Anderson’s third-and-one, 30-yard run early in the fourth quarter was one of the rare occasions the Broncos’ offensive line won the battle at the line of scrimmage in the second half. In the final two quarters, Denver’s elite defense bailed the team out, totaling four sacks while forcing a plethora of knockdowns and rushed throws by Brady. Brady arrived in Denver as a legitimate MVP candidate, and that MVP-caliber ability showed itself late in the fourth quarter when Brady floated a 40-yard pass to tight end Rob Gronkowski on fourth-and-ten that set up a score by the Pro Bowl tight end four plays later. Gronkowski’s four-yard touchdown catch with 12 seconds to play brought the Patriots within two points. Ultimately, the Denver defense bent but did not break, thwarting New England’s two-point conversion attempt to tie the game. As a result, the Broncos will make their eighth Super Bowl appearance in franchise history.

Meanwhile, the Carolina Panthers secured just their second Super Bowl appearance in franchise history with a dominating 49-15 victory over the Arizona Cardinals Sunday. Carolina was aided by an atrocious performance from Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer and seven Arizona turnovers. Behind an opportunistic defense, and former Heisman Trophy winner and MVP candidate Cam Newton, the Panthers advanced to face the Broncos in next month’s Super Bowl.

The Cardinals’ defense was forced to consistently worry about Newton’s proven ability with his legs to take off on read-options and designed runs. However, it was Newton’s ability to effectively throw the ball from the pocket that decided the NFC crown. Panthers receivers Corey Brown and Ted Ginn Jr. each had a huge impact on the NFC Championship Game. Ginn’s 32-yard punt return and 22-yard touchdown run on a misdirection play got Carolina off to a fast start. Then, it was Brown’s turn. The second-year undrafted receiver out of Ohio State ripped off an 86-yard touchdown catch and run to put the Panthers up 17-0 late in the first quarter. Arizona struggled to move the ball for three quarters, and because of the Panthers’ second half debacle in the Divisional Round against the Seattle Seahawks, Newton left no doubt this time, tacking on 10 points in the third quarter to seal the Super Bowl berth for head coach Ron Rivera and the 17-1 Panthers.

Super Bowl 50 will pit the No. 1 ranked Broncos defense against the NFL’s hottest offense and quarterback. In Santa Clara, Calif., the future of the league at the quarterback position, Newton, will meet one of the greatest players of all time, “The Sheriff” Peyton Manning.

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