March Madness has a lock on the “Final Four” terminology, but we’re down to the final four teams standing in the NFL Playoffs following a wild weekend of football.
This week we examine how the Final Four teams survived, and what their realistic chances of Super Bowl success are moving forward into the Conference Championship Games this coming weekend.
The Broncos were outgained by more than two full yards per play against the Steelers. It was not vintage Peyton Manning, to put it mildly: 37 pass attempts for 215 yards, with only two passes all afternoon gaining more than 15 yards. If you were watching the game, you already know how many missed connections Manning had with his receivers – no shortage of inaccurate passes and dropped balls.
With the exception of one explosive 34 yard run by CJ Anderson, Denver’s running game wasn’t much better. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman’s other 30 carries combined for just 76 yards. But the Broncos avoided mistakes, playing turnover free football; the first time as a starter all season in which Manning did not throw at least one interception. Manning was well protected, taking only one sack.
More than anything else, the Broncos defense was tremendous, holding Pittsburgh out of the end zone following a single first quarter TD drive. Denver’s D also forced the only turnover of the game, and it was a huge one, turning a promising Steelers fourth quarter drive into a fumble recovery that led to the game winning touchdown.
Broncos coordinator Wade Phillips has had the No. 1 defense in the NFL all year long; a stop unit that’s been good enough to carry the team for extended stretches this season. That includes their Week 12 win right here in Denver against the same team they’ll face on Sunday – the defending champion New England Patriots.
Tom Brady and the Patriots had the easiest path to victory of any team this past weekend, even though like the other three teams that won in the Divisional Round, had only a one TD margin of victory in the end. Brady will be playing in his tenth AFC title game; and his fifth in a row; a true testament to greatness in a parity filled league.
Brady enjoyed the 17th playoff game of his career with at least two TD passes, an NFL record. Most importantly, he didn’t commit any turnovers in a game where New England played out of three (or more) wide receiver sets on 47 of their first 50 snaps.
The Patriots defense looked vulnerable against KC, allowing a whopping 12 third down conversions and 135 yards on the ground. But that stop unit also kept the Chiefs out of the end zone until midway to through the third quarter, after the Pats already had three TD’s on the board. It’s worth noting the Pats defense took a couple of injury hits, however, with LB’s Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower both limping off the field.
Carson Palmer had never won a playoff game in his 13 year NFL career prior to Saturday night’s truly wild and weird win over Green Bay. And Palmer was certainly not at his best in Arizona’s win over Green Bay. A Cardinals team that was nothing short of exceptional at creating big plays with their vertical passing game struggled mightily in that regard against the Packers.
Palmer threw three TD passes , but he also tossed a pair of interceptions, including one particularly bad one in the red zone. Several other potential interceptions were dropped by Green Bay defenders. One of Palmer’s TD’s came on a tipped pass in the end zone, rarely a recipe for success. The Cardinals settled for a pair of red zone field goals and their defense nearly blew the game by allowing a Hail Mary TD pass on the final play, just seconds after allowing the Packers to convert on fourth and 20 to keep the game alive.
Palmer, following the game: “We didn’t feel like they were going to come in here and score 35 points on us. We have a lot of faith in our defense. And they weren’t going to let us score 35 points. They were sitting back in a ton of different two-high looks.”
Arizona head coach Bruce Arians, talking about his QB’s early jitters: “Carson wanted to start out this game throwing short. At halftime I said, ‘Look, they are giving us chunks. We’ve got too many chunk plays in here…not to use them.’ And then he was settled down by then and ready to use them.” It’s worth noting that after the game, Arians gave his team two full days off before prepping for the Panthers; a rarity for this time of year.
Cardinals defensive back Rashad Johnson: “[Palmer] just had that confident look. If you have played any sports or done any type of competitive activity, you see a guy that is confident. He can say, ‘I got you,’ and you know it.”
The game with Seattle in a tale of two halves, with the Panthers rolling out to a 31-0 halftime lead, then forced to hang on for the win after the Seahawks scored 24 unanswered following the break. This is not an easy game for box score breakdowns or for clear takeaways; the blowout that wasn’t.
Cam Newton following the contest, referencing another big blown lead, when Carolina blew a 35-7 second half lead against the Giants in Week 15 before winning on a late field goal. “We have to find a way to complete a full game of football. We have been known to take our foot off the throttle, and we have to find that killer instinct.”
Panthers LB Luke Kuechly, who’s early pick six ended up being the final margin of victory: “That’s what this game is going to teach us. No matter how good you play in the first half, the second half is just as important. It’s crazy. You go into these games, and you expect it to be like this, so it wasn’t a surprise for us. But you’ve got to be locked in the whole game.”
Carolina’s defense has now either blown big leads or come close to blowing big leads three times in their last five victories. If the Panthers don’t learn the lesson they were supposed to have learned already about protecting leads, they’ll certainly be vulnerable to the upset as home chalk against Arizona on championship Sunday.