With the Divisional Round of the playoffs in the books, only four teams remain in the hunt for Super Bowl 50. After a Wild Card Round in which every visiting team won, the four home teams survived and advanced this weekend. The two Conference Championship games bring an abundance of storylines and the potential to be classics. The two players quarterbacking the NFC teams, Carolina’s Cam Newton and Arizona’s Carson Palmer, share stunning similarities- Heisman trophies on their record, their first Divisional Round wins coming last weekend, and MVP-worthy 2015 seasons. The AFC Championship has a more familiar storyline- the Brady-Manning Bowl, number 18. In three weeks, Super Bowl 50, the most hyped sports event in history, will match two worthy teams against each other. This year, the two teams best built to win the Super Bowl won’t face off in the Big Game, but rather in the 6:40 time slot this Sunday.
Arizona Cardinals (14-3, beat Packers 26-20 in Div. Round)
SUPERlative: Best Offense
Breakdown: Disregard the Cardinals’ Week 17 embarrassment against the Seahawks. Forget last week’s near collapse against Green Bay. Arizona is the best-built team to win Super Bowl 50 and this is their year. A healthy Carson Palmer with a rejuvenated Larry Fitzgerald (176 yards and a touchdown last week vs. Green Bay) and dangerous options in Michael Floyd and John Brown rival the Kurt Warner-Fitzgerald-Boldin trio that brought the Cards to Super Bowl XLIII. This year’s team also has a rushing threat- rookie David Johnson, who has effectively replaced Chris Johnson. That balance lifted the Cardinals to the top of the NFL in terms of offensive yardage.
Only Aaron Rodgers could complete two Hail Mary heaves consecutively, but Arizona escaped. Aside from those two miracle throws, the Cardinals’ defense is dominant and if they reach Super Bowl 50, their best player, Tyrann Mathieu, could return. If Patrick Peterson’s 100-yard touchdown return wasn’t overturned due to a penalty, the game could’ve been blown open. Coaching won’t be an issue, even after the questionable decisions in the thriller against the Packers.
The Cardinals have question marks but also have the team to overcome them. For one, playoff experience isn’t a strong point. Two, the Cardinals must travel to Carolina and win to reach the Super Bowl. Three, the quarterback, Carson Palmer only has two playoff games under his belt and is an injury risk. After the Packers game, the Cardinals allowed overtime to an inferior team. But that game also reinforced that Arizona wins in the clutch and makes big plays at big times. In the playoffs, the best team doesn’t always win; the team with the best plays emerges victorious.
Carolina Panthers (16-1, beat Seahawks 31-24 in Div. Round)
SUPERlative: Best Record
Breakdown: Scoring 31 points against the vaunted Seahawks’ defense in the first half validated the Panthers as the favorite to win the Super Bowl, even if the Panthers limped to the victory with a dismal second-half effort. That is the biggest problem with Carolina- an inability to close out games until the final seconds. A Super Bowl winner has to play at 100% for all 60 minutes of a football game, not just 30, 40, or 50 minutes.
On paper and on film, the Panthers are far and away the best team in the NFL. Home-field advantage also works to their advantage in the NFC Championship. Carolina boasts a roster with 11 Pro Bowlers, an MVP candidate, and possible two-time Coach of the Year in Ron Rivera. On offense, quarterback Cam Newton is a transcendent quarterback, one that could transform the game of football. Newton’s huge frame allows him to pound would-be tacklers, but he also has elevated his passing game to join the ranks of the elite. Running back Jonathan Stewart (106 yards vs. Seattle) and tight end Greg Olsen are Newton’s most dangerous weapons, allowing the balance between pass and run. Carolina’s defense destroyed Seattle in the first half and set up the offense with multiple takeaways, but they played too conservatively in the second half.
If the Super Bowl was based on the best two teams in the NFL, the NFC’s matchup would be the Super Bowl matchup. That isn’t the case, so the Panthers must defeat the Cardinals to stay alive until February. Carolina knows how to win, but they don’t know how to finish off teams. Arizona stays in games and then own the last moments. With the winner of the Super Bowl likely coming out of the NFC, the last minute of the NFC Championship will be the biggest minute of the season.
New England Patriots (13-4, beat Chiefs 27-20)
SUPERlative: Most Experienced
Breakdown: The Patriots are the favorites to win the AFC crown for the 7th time in the Brady-Belicheck era, but they fly under the Super Bowl radar. While New England lacks the talent and overall health of the two NFC squads, they have the best playoff quarterback under center and a much superior track record.
Dropping four of the last six games was an issue for New England, but with tight end Rob Gronkowski and receiver Julian Edelman healthy, the offense regained its momentum against Kansas City in the Wild Card. If those two stay healthy, the Patriots’ offense matches up with Arizona’s or Carolina’s. Brady has the advantage in matchups against Peyton Manning, especially in the playoffs. New England’s defense is injured, but when healthy the Patriots can hold down an offense of Super Bowl-caliber.
Though they’re the visitors in Denver, the Patriots are heavy favorites to win. The two weeks of preparation and rest before the Super Bowl would provide a needed break for the Patriots to mend. New England upset a historic team in Seattle in the last Super Bowl, so they can’t be counted out against the more inexperienced NFC representative. History gives the Patriots a shot at a fifth Super Bowl title, though they’d enter as underdogs.
Denver Broncos (13-4, beat Steelers 23-16 in Div. Round)
SUPERlative: Best Defense
Breakdown: The formula is set for a Denver Super Bowl run. Run the ball on offense and have Peyton Manning serve as game manager while limiting Tom Brady. Denver gave the Patriots their first lost in Week 10, so the Broncos know they can pull off the upset. But after the last few weeks and an unimpressive Divisional Round game against the wounded Steelers, the Broncos aren’t favorites to win in their own building.
Peyton Manning is the starting quarterback, but he isn’t the lifeblood of the offense. The Broncos rely on C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman to produce on the ground to open up the offense, as Manning no longer has the physical talent to beat NFL teams with his arm. The receivers can’t drop as many passes as they did last round and still expect to win. Denver’s defense can limit Brady and the New England offense to stay in the game, but it won’t matter if the offense can’t light up the scoreboard.
Denver has its’ hands full with New England this week. A Super Bowl victory is nearly unimaginable. Peyton Manning’s last ride could end as fourteen other postseason appearances have- a disappointing playoff loss.