compiled by Andrew Potter
During each game of the NFL playoffs, the FO staff sends around emails about the action. We share information, ask questions, and keep everyone else informed about what we're watching. On Monday, we compile a digest of those e-mails and produce this feature. By its nature, it can be disjointed and dissimilar to the other articles on the site.
While these emails are generally written with Audibles in mind, they do not represent a standard review of all the games. Though unlike the regular season we will cover every game, we may not cover every important play. We watch the games as fans rather than solely as analysts, so your favorite team might not be covered to your fullest desires or even at all. (If you are a Steelers or Patriots fan, you are probably in luck; if you are a Vikings fan, not so much.) We have no intention of adding new authors to cover every team, nor will we focus on a different team from the ones that we're personally interested in watching, just to ensure that Audibles covers every team equally.
New England Patriots 18 at Denver Broncos 20
Aaron Schatz: Whoo! We're coming to you live from Mile High Stadium! Well, Andrew Healy and I are. He's in the stands, I'm in the press box. Let's play some football.
Patriots win the coin toss and Bill Belichick wants the ball instead of choosing to defer. Surprise! Patriots get one first down, then punt. Great route by Emmanuel Sanders on third-and-10 on that next series. So many guys these days will run a route 9 yards on third-and-10. He rounded his cut just past the marker for a conversion.
Broncos are moving the ball. Got first down on third-and-6 when Logan Ryan committed a totally needless defensive pass interference -- Manning threw the ball way behind the receiver and he wasn't going to make it back to catch the pass. Drive ends with a seam pass touchdown to Owen Daniels against Cover-2. Really good offensive drive by Broncos.
Vince Verhei: Broncos opening drive makes it look surprisingly easy. Especially on the touchdown. Patriots rush three, drop eight, and somehow still leave the middle of the field wide open for Owen Daniels. Surprised they are giving such big cushions. You'd figure they would be pressing receivers and trying to force the Broncos to throw deep.
Scott Kacsmar: Still surprised the Patriots wanted the ball first. Denver with one of its better looking drives this season. Even had a Vernon Davis sighting.
Aaron Schatz: Bad no-call the next drive when T.J. Ward interferes with Rob Gronkowski on third-and-3. Definitely seems like the kind of play where home field and subconscious favoring of home team by officials played a part. Follows a really good play by Derek Wolfe to slap down a Brady pass that would have hit a wide-open Julian Edelman on second-and-3. Aqib Talib's specialty is not covering these agile little receivers like Edelman.
Cian Fahey: Going to add that fumble decision to the long list of reasons why I hate replay. Multiple refs were waving their arms and blowing their whistles before Jonathan Freeny picked up the ball. That doesn't seem like good process for decision-making.
Aaron Schatz: Well, they did get the call right, it was a backwards pass. Then the shocker was that Stephen Gostkowski missed the extra point. So it's now 7-6.
Tom Gower: That's been the rule for a couple years, that a clear immediate recovery even post-whistle means that sort of play can be challenged. What Ronnie Hillman did was just stupid and lazy.
Scott Kacsmar: If the whistle was blown before a recovery (I don't know if that happened or not), should the Patriots get the ball? That doesn't seem right. They could see it was a lateral and move the ball back, but I would think the offense should keep it if the whistle blew. Just bad awareness by Hillman to ignore the ball. You heard a coach on Denver's sideline drop the f-bomb to him about that.
Aaron Schatz: Patriots with no fear of the deep ball, keeping ten up on the line, which is making it very difficult for Broncos to run the ball. But they just got a deep throw. It hung in the air, just no power behind it, but incredible catch by Emmanuel Sanders with Malcolm Butler right there, 34-yard gain.
Lots of unexpected things today. The missed extra point, of course. Tom Brady just threw an interception right into the hands of Von Miller, who had dropped into coverage. I don't think Brady even saw that Miller had dropped to cover Gronkowski. And then the Broncos score, converting yet another third-and-long (6 this time) when Owen Daniels gets away from Jamie Collins, wide open in the back right corner of the end zone. Collins' coverage was just awful there.
Biggest thing this game has been Denver converting third-and-long. Including the Ryan DPI, 3-for-6 on third down with 6 or more to go.
Scott Kacsmar: Daniels looks like the tight end Gary Kubiak always thought he was today. All year he has looked pretty slow, and was often falling down on his targets from Manning. Looks like a factor again. Pretty much everyone but Hillman is showing up for Denver.
Andrew Healy: A few thoughts from Denver:
1 ) Said before the DPI on Ryan that a defensive penalty was coming. Only prediction I've made. Conspiracy theory potential high with that call that led to seven Denver points followed by the non-call on Gronk and the highly questionable personal foul on Bryan Stork. Those calls ended two drives. This stuff absolutely can make the difference. Every Pats fan's nightmare
2) Loved Phillips' call to rush three and drop eight on Miller's interception.
3) My Broncos fan friend called the Gostkowski missed extra point. Now that's a Nostradamus act
Aaron Schatz: Patriots just marched downfield well but Brady got sacked in field goal range, third-and-3 at the 22. Gostkowski did hit the eventual 46-yarder from the 28. Broncos pass rush really toying with the Pats' offensive line today. DeMarcus Ware, Von Miller, and Derek Wolfe all dominating. Patriots running game also going nowhere. Broncos don't want to hear about your shotgun running plays.
Vince Verhei: Add "unsportsmanlike conduct on Denver's punt gunner for running out of bounds" to the list of weird things we have seen today.
Aaron Schatz: Another awful interception by Brady. He had Gronk totally open over the middle for a first-down conversion on third-and-5. Instead he hefts it deep down the left sideline where the are two Denver defenders surrounding James White. Just terrible. Denver ball, near midfield, 4:08 left second quarter.
Andrew Healy: Think it's hard to put that on Brady when he's getting piledrived as he releases. So far, only two completions to Gronk. That will obviously have to change in the second half.
Broncos front four in a unanimous decision so far. Huge by Edelman to tackle Darian Stewart. Some chance for a pick-six there.
Cian Fahey: The one thing that was underappreciated during the lead up to this game was how well Brady played in the previous meeting. Everyone was talking about the absence of the weapons, but few were looking at the pressure and the types of throws that the defense forced Brady into.
Aaron Schatz: Patriots get the ball back with 2:22 left and run for 2 yards on first down. Running backs now have nine carries for 17 yards. Just knock it off already, guys. The Broncos front is REALLY good.
I really do not understand Patriots' decision to take one of their two remaining timeouts as Broncos are lining up for field goal attempt with 38 seconds left. Did they see something to make them think a fake was coming? They sort of needed that timeout to try to drive into field goal range in the last 30 seconds.
Well... they just ended the half with a kneel, so I guess there was never going to be a drive. So taking the timeout didn't mean anything. Weird decisions by the Patriots today.
Vince Verhei: Man, that Broncos front four is just taking the game over. Patriots haven't done hardly anything -- their only touchdown drive was just 22 yards after that dumb Denver fumble. Peyton Manning has been exceptionally adequate against a New England defense that is also playing well. I'll go back and check, but I'm pretty sure his two playoff games are going to be his two best games of the year.
Aaron Schatz: I feel like the biggest difference between this Manning and the one from the first half of the season is that this one isn't making mistakes. The arm isn't stronger, but he had no interceptions last week, and none so far this week. Even the incomplete passes aren't really close to being interceptions. The only exception might be that hanging deep ball to Sanders, maybe Butler has that if he leaps a little earlier. But for the most part, he's protecting the ball. Meanwhile, Brady has the two interceptions that look like total misreads of the coverage.
Tom Gower: Broncos up 17-9 at the half. Each team has one touchdown on a short field off a bad turnover by the opposition -- one off Hillman's "what, me pick the ball up?" lateral and the other off Von Miller's interception of Brady. Both teams have used matchups to get a linebacker in coverage in the red zone and exploited it successfully -- Brandon Bolden on Von Miller, I believe, to set up New England's score, and Jamie Collins was involved in both Owen Daniels touchdowns, one in man coverage. Denver's non-short field scores came on their first possession, a Kubiak script special that required a couple of those third-and-long conversions Aaron mentioned, and a sub-30 yard drive for a long field goal at the end of the half. Really more a Denver-style game than a New England one so far.
The big story of the game, as mentioned, has been Denver's pass rush and the play of their front four in general. They're playing light enough, like dime when the Patriots go light, that old New England would have just run the ball down their throats, in either 11 or 12 with Gronkowski leading the mashing. Nope. And they've been able to get pressure with four and sometimes even three, sometimes taking advantage of Josh Kline, the Patriots' weak link up front, sometimes just letting DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller go around the edges, and sometimes with twists and stunts. Big change from last year's Colts game, where I recall Miller in particular as complete non-factor.
Andrew Healy: Why is Shaq Mason still in the game? Maybe go with David Andrews at center and Stork at guard.
Sterling Xie: Honestly, I don't think any different offensive line combination is helping today. And just then, Cameron Fleming gave up a sack to Miller as a sixth lineman. Almost turned and ran like a cornerback off the snap.
Aaron Schatz: Possible halftime adjustment from the Patriots? They now have Devin McCourty covering tight ends on first and second down with Duron Harmon in McCourty's usual role as the deep safety.
Tom Gower: It also seems like they're making a point of bringing delayed pressure, especially on play-fakes. I don't know if that's just green dogging or a designed delayed rush, but Collins has a couple pressures leading to sacks of Peyton that way this half.
Vince Verhei: Broncos pin the Patriots inside the 5 on a punt. There have been some really bad failures to field punts here, with both teams giving up 5 to 10 yards on bouncing balls that should have been covered by the returning teams.
Tom Gower: I wonder if Belichick takes the safety punting from his 3 or so if it was 17-13 instead of 17-12, like it would have been if Gostkowski had made the extra point. Probably not, given Denver's offensive production to date, but the thought crossed my mind.
Aaron Schatz: Maybe part of the idea of McCourty now covering the tight ends is to free Jamie Collins to rush the passer.
Cian Fahey: The Broncos' third and fourth pass rushers would probably be the top two on a few teams. Their fifth and sixth might be too.
Scott Kacsmar: Need C.J. Anderson to be the running back this quarter. Line's not doing much of anything, but he's just so obviously better than Hillman for most types of runs. Feel like Kubiak has gone into coaching not-to-lose mode very early in this one. You're not winning this game 17-12.
Andrew Healy: I know Von Miller is good, but can we get a Brandon Gorin sighting please? Cannon seems like a disaster from here.
Aaron Schatz: Good timing by Scott. Anderson just went 30 yards on third-and-1 because when the Patriots stuffed the line to try to stop him, that left only one other defender to beat.
Vince Verhei: Tom brings up a good point concerning the Denver defense. They have improved greatly without any major personnel additions. Darian Stewart taking over for Rahim Moore at safety is probably the biggest upgrade, but by and large it has just been Wade Phillips making everyone look better.
Aaron Schatz: As this ESPN Insider piece I wrote in October points out, Phillips has a phenomenal record of improving defenses in his first season.
|With Phillips||Previous Year|
|YEAR||TEAM||W-L||DEF DVOA||RANK||W-L||DEF DVOA||RANK|
Patriots do finally get a big long drive against the Denver defense, in part thanks to a Shiloh Keo helmet-to-helmet roughness penalty for 15 yards. They end up with fourth-and-1 on the Denver 16 and they went for it instead of trying a 34-yard-field goal. I think that's the right decision, particularly since three points still would have left the Patriots behind by 5. Yes, getting a touchdown and a 2-point conversion is hard, but getting back to the 16 against this Denver defense is pretty hard too.
Broncos make a fabulous defensive play with Chris Harris covering Edelman when the Patriots play-faked and threw a swing pass to Edelman. Ended up going down for a loss of a yard. I know we may be wondering why Pats didn't sneak, but it was more like a yard and a half instead of 1 yard, and the Broncos were totally ready for the sneak. They had Brandon Marshall move up and he was right up on the line of scrimmage, basically in 0-technique between two defensive linemen.
Vince Verhei: Denver's red zone defense saving the day again, with another turnover on downs inside the 20. On both failed fourth-down plays, the failures were in part due to Brady throwing passes under heavy pressure, forced to throw to guys who weren't really open -- Edelman on the first play, then Gronkowski on the second.
And then Denver goes three-and-out in a hurry, and the Patriots are going to get a third try at a season-saving, game-tying touchdown.
Andrew Potter: Funny, for this being Brady-Manning and the NFC title game being supposedly the big matchup of defense-first teams, this has been one outstanding game of defense on both sides.
Tom Gower: On how many passes on that final possession was Brady pressured, or forced to game-plan after pressure? Six? Seven? All nine, including the two-point conversion? Phenomenal job by the Denver defense, including overcoming some not-so-good plays by their backup safeties, forced into action by in-game injuries. Darian Stewart stays on top of Gronkowski on the seam route on that fourth-down throw instead of letting him get over the top and opening up the lane for that throw to be completed, and Keo has already been mentioned.
Aaron Schatz: People on Twitter have brought up that Gronk was open on the two-point conversion, but again, that's the problem with all the pressure. Even the best quarterback isn't going to see all open receivers when that internal clock in his head is on super-fast.
Vince Verhei: Save for the two Gronkowski catches, just sensational defense by Denver down the stretch. It's not just the pressure -- nobody was open either! It's not like there were open guys Brady was missing. He had nobody to throw to, and no time to throw it anyway. It was snap after snap of "my first read is covered but here's the pass rush so I'm lobbing it to him anyway."
Scott Kacsmar: Brady looked better in the second half. The Broncos really just turtled on offense, hoping the game clock would melt away. Can't argue with any of Belichick's fourth-down decisions. Could quibble with the play calls, like the negative ALEX play that reminds me of fourth-and-2 from 2009. Need a throw to the sticks there instead of leaving everything to chance on breaking a tackle. Denver tackled pretty well. Obviously pressure was amazing. A real classic battle there.
I'm not sure which matchup is better for Denver in this Super Bowl, but just like I felt about this game today, this defense would give them a chance to win a close one.
Aaron Schatz: I also want to dispute the idea that the Patriots would have just won the game if they had kicked field goals each of the first two times they got into the red zone, and then on that last drive, rather than continually having to go for it on fourth down. That assumes two things. First, it assumes all three field goals would have been good. Even if we say, OK, those are all field goals in the mid-30s, that's about 90 percent chance for each -- that means there's a 27 percent chance one of them misses. There's also the issue of the field position after each field goal. Instead of Denver getting the ball on the 16 and then the 14, they would have received a kickoff, which likely means either the 20 or, if they are able to return the ball, past the 20. That in turn changes field position for the Patriots the next time they get the ball back, making those drives longer. And the kickoffs would have taken an additional 10 to 15 seconds off the clock, leaving less time for the Patriots on the last drive and possibly changing the meaning of the two-minute warning and what Denver would have done on its last offensive drive.
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Andrew Potter: Yes, it's football's own Chaos Theory. You can't assume the rest of the game would have played out the same if you changed even one of those fourth downs for a field goal.
Tom Gower: Steve White, the former player who writes for SB Nation, brought up a really good point on Twitter: an immobile quarterback lets Denver's pass rushers just tee off in a way they can't against a player who can escape from the pocket. With that and their corner depth, I think they'd rather see Arizona's offense, at least.
Aaron Schatz: Two other notes on the AFC Championship Game.
1) Further on Vince's thought, it was remarkable how the Broncos consistently got pressure rushing three or four. They hardly ever blitzed and had 20 quarterback knockdowns, more than any defense on any quarterback this season. The Pats really need to consider an upgrade at guard next year. A big free agent or second-/third-round pick to replace Josh Kline, along with maturation by Shaq Mason in his second season, would be huge.
2) I don't understand why the Pats tried so many deep passes trying to test Broncos linebackers or backup safeties in one-on-one coverage on the second half. That's just not their game. They weren't even wheel routes; they were gos. I never felt like they were gonna hit. Just felt like continuously giving away a down.
Cian Fahey: Gronk was wide-open for the two-point conversion and pressure shouldn't have played a part in Brady's decision. They had rolled him out of the pocket perfectly to get him away from pressure and Gronkowski was in his line of sight straight away. He hesitated in the moment and tried to make the more difficult throw without setting his feet properly.
The Broncos pressure forced the Patriots into a play call that isn't usual for them. Brady is a great pocket quarterback but he's obviously never been someone who thrives on throwing on the move.
Either way, Brady was a huge reason the Patriots were even in that game at that point. The Broncos defense was smothering with that ravenous pass rush and versatile secondary. It's a phenomenal unit that was severely overlooked leading up to this game.
Andrew Healy: The Patriots won last year, but I actually think it's a pretty brutal loss. The Broncos could do essentially nothing on offense. They had about 250 yards of offense. Their touchdown drives were one that should have been a punt bar a lousy pass interference on an uncatchable ball. (It was a comeback, but sure looked thrown to a spot where a completion was impossible.) Then an 18-yard touchdown drive after an interception. A short drive for a 52-yard field goal. I really thought it was almost impossible for the Broncos to get a first down the whole second half.
And let's be clear about Brady versus Manning: the much better player today lost to a better supporting cast. Brady was absolutely under siege. DeMarcus Ware lived in Brady's lap, and so did Von Miller. It made me sad to see Shaq Mason in the game. Given the pressure up the middle from Malik Jackson and Derek Wolfe, guessing he played poorly. I know Marcus Cannon was a disaster, since I watched him frequently. Friends tell me Sebastian Vollmer wasn't much better. Miller and Ware are great players, but still just a disaster on the offensive line.
In the face of that rush, Brady was still there throwing that perfect fourth down pass to a double-covered Gronk. And then it's Gronk making that great catch, where Brady made maybe an even better play to put that ball in that spot under pressure. I hear that Gronk was open on the two. If he was single-covered, it sure seems simple just to target him on that throw. If the call was to Edelman over the middle, I'm just confused. Feels like Coach Dale wanting to run the last play to Merle on the picket fence. Gronk was the offense down the stretch. Why not live and die with him unless Denver absolutely forced you to go another way?
Gostkowski's missed extra point qualified as a pretty ominous sign. Seemed almost preordained that they would lose on the missed two.
The bad Colquitt had a really good day. It could have made a huge difference to have Edelman back there the whole game and not just the last punt. It was 50-yard net again and again and Edelman would have prevented at least a couple of those. And one big punt return could have made the difference.
Did Denver need to even put a man on Brandon LaFell or Keshawn Martin?
Malcolm Butler might be wondering how he missed a couple of those passes. Looked like his hand was there and the football gods saw the ball improbably around his fingertips.
Lots of that is bad luck. Nothing you could do about the early calls, Butler missing balls, Gostkowski missing the first extra point of his professional career. But the Patriots still win if they're even marginally competent protecting Brady and they might win if they just keep it simple and design the two-point play for the league's best red zone threat who had just cut Denver to ribbons.
With no great team waiting in the Super Bowl, you would have loved the Pats' chances. Now they might not just rue today's mistakes, but losing in Miami when home field was there for the taking. The Denver crowd was loud all game and may have helped cause the crucial false start on third-and-1 from the 9 on the next-to-last drive. If the Pats had gotten six there, even if they miss the two-point conversion, you would have to have loved their chances to get a field goal to win it on the final drive.
Arizona Cardinals 15 at Carolina Panthers 49
Aaron Schatz: Well, apparently Carolina can't (almost) blow a big lead without getting a big lead first. Great blocking on an end around by Ted Ginn which then got cut back for a touchdown. Then Cam Newton, as I wrote about, kept perfectly steady on an Arizona blitz and found Corey Brown deep with safety Rashad Johnson in coverage. 17-0 after first quarter.
Vince Verhei: Carolina continues to be a dominant first-half playoff team, jumping out to a 17-0 lead. Their offensive line is just crushing people. They were mediocre in both our offensive line stats this year, but it seems like they have been the best unit in the postseason.
Aaron Schatz: Carolina goes against the grain by essentially being stronger blocking up the middle than they are on the edges. That works well against a defense that actually doesn't have great outside pass rushers, such as Arizona. But if we get to that point, I wonder what it will mean against Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware?
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Cian Fahey: My timeline has had a few suggestions that Carson Palmer can't play in big games. I generally disagree with this idea. Every NFL game is big. Palmer went into Seattle during the regular season and played one of the best games a quarterback could play, that wasn't a big game?
I'm more inclined to think that Palmer's finger is having a major impact on his ability to grip the ball. His poor performances can be traced back to that time too.
Aaron Schatz: The only thing about the finger argument is that Palmer's first game after the injury was the blowout win over Green Bay. But it could be an issue of hurting himself elsewhere by trying to compensate for the finger?
Cian Fahey: That Green Bay scoreline was inflated by two fumble returns though. He was OK in that game, not spectacular.
Tom Gower: Thomas Davis, for all his age and knee surgeries, is still flying around all over the place in the first 20 minutes of the game.
Cian Fahey: People without ACLs >>>>> People with ACLs. I'm just being honest.
Aaron Schatz: David Johnson just has phenomenal agility. Panthers are a pretty good tackling team. I'm excited for a full year of him as a starter. So of course he'll probably tear his ACL in Week 2.
Scott Kacsmar: Cardinals finally on the board with a Johnson touchdown run. He looks good so far. Palmer finally had it going on that drive, and unfortunately Thomas Davis has headed to the locker room with an injury. Was just saying how easy it is to root for a guy like that after how he's fought back from all the ACL tears.
Aaron Schatz: Cardinals finally stop the Carolina offense and get a shot at good field position, and Patrick Peterson can't secure the punt. Carolina ball in great position. Arizona and Carolina both suck on special teams. Sigh.
Scott Kacsmar: Weird play too. Really just looked like Peterson trying to do too much. Cardinals would have been in solid field position down 17-7, so likely a turning point there. Two big runs by Jonathan Stewart followed, and I think Rashad Johnson has had a few poor tackle attempts today. He was beaten on the Brown touchdown where just a little juke put Johnson out of position to make that a long score instead of just a completion to midfield.
Vince Verhei: In-season trends holding true: Cardinals get to the goal line, and Carolina's league-worst red zone rush defense gives up a rushing touchdown to David Johnson. Then the Panthers reach the goal line after Peterson's fumble, and they are stuffed on first and second down before Cam Newton, their best (and maybe the NFL's best) short-yardage runner scores on third down.
Palmer's red zone interception at the end of the half was a terrible decision, not a terrible throw. Can't blame the finger for that. I don't think it's an injury situation, I think it's just, this is Carson Palmer. He has never been a guy who excels at ball security. I mean, six turnovers in six quarters in the playoffs so far is a lot more than you'd expect, but he was playing so far over his head all year he had to come back to earth eventually.
Scott Kacsmar: In the way that we had a much larger sample to say that Peyton Manning does not suck at football, Carson Palmer's biggest sample is that he's a mistake-prone quarterback. Good enough to get you beat close in a vintage Matt Schaub kind of way. He still might make a game of this, or he might turn it over a few more times. Either way, he'll probably finish with a 300-yard passing game, but fans are going to be disappointed. In no way does this take away from Palmer's regular season, but it's not like MVP-caliber performances are something we've grown to expect from Palmer.
Aaron Schatz: As I noted in my NFC Championship preview, the biggest driver behind all of this season's big blown leads for Carolina was the offense suddenly shutting down, not the defense giving way. So a sustained drive to start the second half was a good sign, even if it ended with a field goal and not a touchdown.
Tom Gower: 27-7 after Ron Rivera kicks a field goal on fourth-and-goal from about the 2. I hate short field goals that don't put you up an additional score, especially in the non-late-game situation.
Shortly after my earlier email, Thomas Davis suffered an arm injury, maybe broken, and was declared out for the game. I am sad.
Much like the earlier game, the home team's defense and in particular the defensive front was pretty much the star of the first half. Carolina, the more plodding and less efficient offense, moved the ball in huge chunks. Arizona, the team that has lived on the deep ball under Bruce Arians, has had to make more repeated big plays. Even their touchdown drive was 10 plays with nothing longer than 15 on offense (the longest play was technically 17 yards, Mario Addison getting his hand up into David Johnson's face mask to tack on 15 yards). And the turnovers, yes, the turnovers.
And it gets to 49-15 by late in the fourth quarter. Wow. That, by which I mean Carson Palmer, really went off the rails.
Vince Verhei: Those who thought Seattle only rallied last week because Carolina steps off the gas with big leads in the second half must think Arizona is the worst team in football right now.
Aaron Schatz: I spent so much time at midseason trying to explain to people that the Panthers were not as good as their record. Ironically, the Panthers eventually became that good in the second half of the season. This was the best game they played all year. Andrew said earlier that there was no great team waiting in the Super Bowl for the AFC Champion, but the Panthers of November until now are a great team. I'll have DVOA numbers up sometime later on Monday, but I can also summarize it with just point differential. When the Panthers were 8-0 in the first half of the season, they had only one win by 14 or more points. It was exactly 14 points. They're 9-1 since with SIX different wins by 14 or more points, including four by 28 or more points.
Early thoughts on the Super Bowl: Patriots fans who underestimated the greatness of the Denver defense will now be replaced by Carolina fans who underestimate the greatness of the Denver defense. I think that defense keeps the Super Bowl from being a blowout. The Panthers are interesting in that on both sides of the ball, they've gone away from the conventional wisdom that pass rush (and pass blocking) is most important on the outside. Their better linemen are in the middle. That's fine against Arizona, but I wonder what Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware are going to do to Michael Oher and Mike Remmers.
That being said... Carolina just looks like the better team right now. I don't know if Denver's line can keep Peyton Manning upright long enough to even take advantage of the fact that Robert McClain is going to have to cover either Demaryius Thomas or Emmanuel Sanders. Keeping Cam Newton contained in a neutral-site game seems harder right now than keeping Tom Brady contained at home, which means the Broncos will need more offense than they got today. I don't think they'll get it.