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 emails 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.
Denver Broncos 24 vs. Carolina Panthers 10
Aaron Schatz: Denver surprisingly strong moving the ball on the opening drive. Josh Norman made a bad play, holding Andre Caldwell and then letting him go so he was open. Robert McClain made a good play, nearly getting a pick-six on an out where Peyton Manning just can't get enough strength on the throw anymore. So, that's an odd switch. The Broncos eventually get bogged down and kick a field goal.
Vince Verhei: Full credit to Phil Simms for pointing out that Panthers blitzed on first two plays of that drive and gave up two completions for first downs. Then they backed off, and that's when Denver's offense stalled and Robert McClain had a (slim) shot at a pick-six. Panthers blitzed about 28 percent of the time this season, which was in the middle of the pack, but they'll be better off with a more conservative game plan today.
Panthers go three-and-out on their first drive. On second down, Cam Newton had a clean pocket and a wide-open Corey Brown for what might have been a first down and certainly would have set up third-and-short, but overthrew him. Third down, Newton hits Greg Olsen, right at the sticks, but Aqib Talib makes a good tackle to force the punt.
Cian Fahey: Von Miller spying Cam on the first third down. I'm not sure if that's good or bad strategy. Miller is probably the second best option to do that behind T.J. Ward, but he's your best pass rusher. It's a question of value and a question that's pretty hard to answer, really.
Aaron Schatz: I don't usually feel like I know enough about how players think and feel to give emotional explanations for things, but wow that overthrow of Brown just screamed "I'm nervous it's my first Super Bowl!" Calm down, buddy.
Tom Gower: Gary Kubiak often does a nice job scripting the opening drive. You may recall the Broncos scoring a touchdown against the Patriots two weeks ago on it. He's also pass-heavy, often using motion to identify coverage looks for later in the game. Kubiak 101, but not everybody seems to know it. I thought Denver would have success on their first possession, but it's whether they can sustain that on other ones that decides how successful the offense will be.
Bad miss by Cam on second down, great tackle by Talib on Olsen to hold Carolina to three-and-out. In some alternate world, Ron Rivera does go for that. In some ways, that might be a better world.
Scott Kacsmar: It was probably closer to third-and-2 than third-and-1, but surprised Denver didn't run the ball there. Carolina actually ranked 32nd vs. short-yardage runs this season. Quick three-and-out drive.
Andrew Healy: And I'm wary of getting in the business of reading facial expressions, but Newton looks a little nervous and joyless so far.
By the way, Thomas Davis' arm seems fine so far. Made two or three nice plays already, including one tackle that stopped a conversion.
Pretty surprising how good the protection has been for Manning, late first quarter.
Aaron Schatz: The Panthers' option handoffs also look really nervous, like Newton keeps leaving that ball in there an extra second because he's not sure if he should be handing it off or keeping it.
Vince Verhei: Two bad overthrows for Newton in the first quarter, the early one to Brown and then later on a seam route where Ted Ginn had beaten his man and looked set for a big play.
Really, except for Denver's success on their opening drive, the game has gone as we expected, I think. Denver got the turnover they needed to get ahead, but it's still anyone's game.
Andrew Healy: If Newton had been able to rip that ball out of Stewart's grasp on that last play of the first quarter, he would have had a one-on-one with T.J. Ward with a big gain there for the taking.
Andrew Healy: I'm sorry, but Aqib Talib should be ejected for that mauling of Philly Brown. Just a vicious torquing with the face mask. One day that will be an automatic ejection.
Andrew Potter: That day might be next season, if the "two personal fouls and you're out" rule is added. And yeah, no question that was deliberate to prevent any chance of a broken tackle. The soccer term is "professional foul."
Scott Kacsmar: So I guess Aqib Talib would be ejected already under Roger Goodell's new rule of two personal fouls = ejection. They'll have to write that one carefully. Things like a face mask or roughing the passer really shouldn't count. You want to avoid the stuff like Adam Jones in the playoffs or the post-whistle stuff between Josh Norman and Odell Beckham, but some of these personal fouls are just tough defensive plays.
Vince Verhei: Brown gets a catch for a first down inside the 5. Aqib Talib tackles him by the facemask, yanking him violently to the ground. Obvious penalty, but it goes from first-and-goal at the 2 to first-and-goal at the 1. Honestly, probably smart for Talib to commit that foul if that's what he had to do to guarantee the tackle.
Love Jonathan Stewart breaking out the hand jive from Grease on the touchdown.
After the game, we need to chart the "average time ball spends in the air" for Manning and Newton. I bet Manning's passes spend three times the, uh, time in midaiir.
Aaron Schatz: Ron Rivera just used his second challenge and we aren't even halfway through the second quarter. I think that's a mistake. He used it to get a few yards on a sack -- and he should get that overturned, and it will be a sack -- but you have to save that second challenge in case you need it to get an important first-down conversion, or there's a turnover that the officials missed or something. A more important play than this one.
Andrew Healy: Huge that Rivera lost the first challenge on the Jerricho Cotchery catch. He'll win this challenge, but he has 2-plus quarters now with no challenges. Wouldn't have blamed him for keeping the flag in the sock there.
Would have been neat if he'd taken the penalty on the extra point, too, to go for two, particularly down early.
Mike Kurtz: The first penalty was unsportsmanlike, not a personal foul.
And the AFC Championship Game showed us that there is nothing you can do during a live-ball period that will get you ejected.
Carolina's blocking has shored up tremendously since the first two drives. If Denver can't get consistent pressure, they're in a world of trouble.
Aaron Schatz: Well, I don't think I've quite seen a punt return like the one Denver just had. The return man didn't make a motion at all, but somehow both Panthers guys convinced themselves that he had called for a fair catch, and they both held back from a tackle at the last second to try to avoid a flag... that never would have been thrown because there was NO FAIR CATCH MOTION. So instead, the Broncos get into the red zone for free. That was WEIRD.
Vince Verhei: What's that? The Panthers are struggling with turf conditions and adjusting footwear so they don't slip so much? Seahawks fans know what they're going through. (And yes, the Denver players are doing the same thing.)
What the hell happened on that long Jordan Norwood punt return? He did nothing resembling a fair catch, but the Panthers all just watched as he ran by.
Tom Gower: The gunners close to him were so worried about kick catch interference (which they might've done anyway!) they didn't bother to tackle him, and apparently everybody else thought the gunners would have him. Weird, weird play. And Denver can't get 7, settling for the field goal after a holding call negates fourth-and-1 conversion.
Ben Muth: I think the one gunner saw the other jump out of the way to avoid him and assumed he saw a fair catch. Everyone else probably thought the gunners would make the play.
Scott Kacsmar: Halftime. So this looks like a bad offense, an overrated offense, and the two best defenses in the league. In other words, exactly what we expected. I think Denver did leave some more opportunities out there than Carolina did. The holding penalty on fourth-and-1 may have cost them four points. The Manning interception likely three points, so that's at least seven more there. Carolina did a poor job of managing the clock before the half and came away with nothing. I see Newton doing a lot of running again in the second half. He's not throwing it well at all and the receivers aren't getting open. He had a 24-yard gain by extending the play in the way we looked at this week, but that was about the only big pass play. Haven't seen much of anything from Manning since the first drive. Demaryius Thomas is still struggling and I'm not sure Emmanuel Sanders has done anything. I'd lean on Anderson and maybe get the tight ends involved. They can't be hanging on for dear life for another half unless they get another return score. But I think Denver's already exhausted the return score and the long punt return, and C.J. Anderson broke his one long run, which Manning wasted. Carolina fortunate to be hanging in there and getting the ball first.
Vince Verhei: Panthers have to feel about as good as a team down 13-7 at the half can feel. Partly because Denver has done almost nothing since their first drive. Partly because the most random plays in the game (the long punt return and the two lost fumbles) have all gone against them. If they get better breaks in the second half and keep playing as well as they have, they should still win.
Aaron Schatz: The Panthers' running game was completely shut down. They finally got a couple big runs on options... and Tolbert fumbled the ball away. And the Broncos' running game has been completely shut down except for that one huge Anderson run. The coverage is tight on both sides, the pass rush is intense on both sides. It's just a lot of defense.
Tom Gower: Surprises of the first half? Obviously the two random-ish big plays, the Von Miller strip sack turned defensive touchdown and the long punt return. Much of what else has happened has gone largely to form. Denver has struggled after getting points on the opening drive, and Carolina's pass catchers mostly have been unable to defeat Denver's cover players, when Cam Newton has had time to get the ball to them. The matchup that has gone Denver's way more than I expected coming in was how they handled Carolina's run game in general and option game specifically, and you could chalk that up to Stewart's injury if you wanted to.
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Vince Verhei: Hey, if Gary Kubiak's script worked so well to start the game, why don't they go back to that script for their first drive of the second half?
Aaron Schatz: Boy, did Jerricho Cotchery wake up on the wrong side of the bed today. Just lost the ball when he should have had a first down, a drop/defensed where Von Miller was covering him (!) and barely got his hand in.
Vince Verhei: That Cotchery drop is a perfect example of why Newton won the MVP with mediocre numbers. Denver blitzes. Cotchery can't get open against Von Miller, but Newton makes an absolute dream of a throw, where only Cotchery could catch it. But Cotchery (who, I remind you, failed to get separation against a pass rusher) can't hold on to the ball. None of this is an anomaly. Cam has been handicapped by these guys all year.
Mike Kurtz: Kubiak is listening to you, Vince!
Vince Verhei: And the Panthers are using their first-drive strategy too of over blitzing, which is leaving Robert McClain in one-on-one coverage against Emmanuel Sanders. Which isn't going well.
(Ted Ginn lets a pass bounce off his hands for an interception.)
Cian Fahey: In my personal quarterback charting, Cam Newton had three interceptions during the regular season that weren't his fault. Only six quarterbacks had more (excluding Carson Palmer who is yet to be charted). Peyton Manning also had three.
Aaron Schatz: I can't believe Jim Nantz is on with this "Peyton Manning provided a spark in his Week 17 return" narrative. Knock it off. This is all defense. Defense, defense, defense. And a little bit special teams. And fumble luck.
And with that complaint, Manning gets strip-sacked and this time Carolina actually recovers.
Cian Fahey: Did the Panthers run power for the first time in the third quarter?
Vince Verhei: Newton hits Ted Ginn for what should be a first down in the red zone, but Ginn lets Bradley Roby knock the ball away and Panthers get a field goal instead. This after an earlier pass hit Ginn in the hands and Ginn tipped it into the air for an interception, also in the red zone. These receivers are so awful.
Aaron Schatz: I'm a little blown away by how little Manning is throwing to Emmanuel Sanders. Sanders has McClain on him, Demaryius Thomas has Josh Norman, and Sanders has also looked better than Thomas for weeks now.
Then I went and looked, and actually Sanders has six catches for 83 yards and Thomas' only catch is on a screen. So my eyes are deceiving me. This game is weird.
Andrew Healy: Can't think of a mediocre punter making a bigger difference in the playoffs than the bad Colquitt these last two games. 48.2 net on his first six punts. Tack on a couple of blocks in the back and Denver's punts have changed field position by more than 50 yards per punt.
Vince Verhei: I was arguing on Twitter that Colquitt had an MVP case, though Von Miller has pretty much changed that single-handedly here.
Aaron Schatz: Miller's strip-sack probably ends the game. Just crushing Mike Remmers tonight. Where are those seven-man protections we wrote about? They keep leaving Remmers alone and Miller has destroyed him all night. And I don't understand why Newton took a step back instead of diving for a loose ball in the FREAKING SUPER BOWL
Mike Kurtz: Rivera has really taken up the Reid-ian mantle this game. Sub-four minutes left, Denver has the ball at your 7, you wait until the second-down play to call time out. Plus the trainwreck at the end of the first half.
Also, Simms and Nantz criticizing Newton for not jumping on a pile on something that was very close to an incompletion is completely ... well, something I can't post in this column.
Vince Verhei: Panthers punt down two touchdowns with just over 2 minutes left and only two timeouts. I don't care that it was fourth-and-24, I don't care they were deep in their own end. They will not get the ball back with a chance to tie now. In fact, the punt killed the two-minute warning. Denver is actually running plays and I don't know why. Just take knees and punt and laugh.
Tom Gower: Why not take the intentional safety? 16 is still technically two scores, and onside recovery may be about as likely as fourth-and-24. I know, an All Options Really Suck scenario, but I do value trying.
Aaron Schatz: Mike, I hate Nantz and Simms too, and I'm sick of racist crap about Newton. But you've gotta go for the ball there when there's no whistle. It's the Super Bowl and if they recover that fumble the game is over. You have to go for it.
We have been writing all year about how great the Denver defense is. It's great. It's really great. And it turned the game up in the playoffs, like the Bears in 1985 and the Ravens in 2000. A reminder: the best offense in DVOA almost always is higher than the best defense. Only four years have been exceptions. This was one of them.
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I should add, I don't think that Newton was "lazy" in not diving for the ball. I think he likely had a weird brain freeze.
Tom Gower: The shot's there, he can dive into the pile, possibly getting his banged-up left shoulder hurt worse, and there's already a player with his hands on the ball. Could he have done better overall there? Sure. But he's probably going to get ripped more than he should in my opinion.
Story of tonight's game for me? Von Miller is/should/will be MVP, and he was dominant, and a lot of the story will concentrate on how he and DeMarcus Ware beat Michael Oher and Mike Remmers all night while the defensive backs dominated Carolina's receivers. But we all knew that was likely to happen coming in. What got me is how the Broncos, who were just a really good run defense, really shut down the league's most multiple and difficult-to-defend run game, and one I thought had an edge over the defense in the physical/power game.
Andrew Healy: I know it almost certainly wouldn't matter, but Riverboat Ron punts on fourth-and-24 down two touchdowns with 2:08 left? Man oh man.
Kind of a weird day for the Panthers all around. An oddly unenergetic Cam, who didn't actually play all that bad despite that. Cotchery with two enormous drops. OK, that part wasn't weird, I guess. The first one led to the Broncos' first touchdown. The Panthers also tied the record for penalties in a Super Bowl with 12.
Let's dispense with the fairy tale ending talk for Manning, too. Does this even count in the legacy debate? 2.3 ANY/A for Manning today. He did what he could to lose -- just a brutal interception to Kony Ealy -- and the Broncos defense wouldn't let him.
And now someone is saying "a great sheriff's last dance." Sweet fancy Moses.
Obviously, Manning was playing a better defense, but let's not pretend that Peyton Manning hasn't been lousy all year, or that he was especially good tonight.
Denver's defense was superb tonight. Yes, fumble luck went Denver's way for sure. But that pass rush was just suffocating.
Big edge for Denver in special teams too. Panthers finish with 3 punt return yards, and I'm sure that's deep into the negative yardage range once you account for the penalties. Plus, Denver made its field goals. Carolina had the only miss.
Scott Kacsmar: I think some FO commentators made a good point in how Denver's defense was not just No. 1 this year, but by a pretty good margin too. And it was definitely No. 1 tonight. I thought Ealy played very well to keep Carolina in it, but Miller and company were just outstanding again.
Tom Gower: Good point by Vince, Carolina really could've used something from special teams to flip the field and make things easier for the offense. I thought special teams would likely be a bit of a wash, since neither team was great in that area, but Colquitt had a great game and the coverage was outstanding when it needed to be as well.
Vince Verhei: Let's note that the Denver Broncos just finished beating MVP Cam Newton, four-time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady, and two-time Super Bowl winner Ben Roethlisberger, allowing those three players to complete 51 percent of their passes for 6.8 yards per pass with one touchdown, three interceptions, and 14 sacks.
Rob Weintraub: Believe it or not, I had to fly to Florida during the game, making this year the first time I haven't watched the Super Bowl live since I was -- what? -- 7 years old, I think. You'd be amazed how many folks fly during the Bowl, by the way -- Atlanta airport was packed. Of course, it's always packed...
One or two thoughts to pile on:
Glad I watched on DVR -- seemed like that game would have dragged badly watching live. Denver scarcely seemed like it was trying to move the ball for large chunks of the game. Their defense was their offense.
Miller was awesome but I might have given some MVP consideration to Malik Jackson, Derek Wolfe, and Sylvester Williams. They dominated the game on the inside, and Carolina's inability to gain anything running between the tackles set up the perimeter nightmare. And the inside dudes got good pressure on Cam on passing downs as well throughout the night.
Clearly the key play in retrospect was the early completion that wasn't, even though replay confirmed the ball never touched the ground (right?). That set up the strip-sack touchdown, which probably wouldn't have happened if Carolina had been near midfield.
That strip-sack touchdown was a virtual replica of the one Miller had on Brady in the AFC title game, except Brady held on to the ball. On that play, Miller went to merely wallop the piss out of Tom Terrific. Looks like Son of Bum got in his ear and told him if had the opportunity with Cam to go for the ball and not the big blow, which was what happened, to deadly effect.
The recovery of their own interception by Danny Trevathan was a colossal play that was kinda passed over by the broadcast, I thought. 50-50 ball inside the 5, Panthers all around, and Denver comes up with it. That's the sort of play that proves it's your night.
Another small-but-big play -- Anderson converting that fourth-and-1, even though it was wiped out by penalty. But if he doesn't get it (and at first he appeared to be stopped before squirting forward in a nice effort), the hold is declined, Carolina gets the ball, and Denver doesn't get those three points. Turned out not to matter much, but if the game is closer who knows how it turns out?
Josh Norman had a couple of picks he could (not should, but could) have made that might well have been game-changers. He's gonna be replaying this game in his head for a long time.
My take on the "Cam gave up! See, we were right about him all along!!" play on the fumble was that at the last second it appeared the Denver defender was about to slap the ball between Cam's legs, so he had to stop awkwardly as though he was going to change direction. But then the ball skittered toward the goal line instead. There's no way he made a Deion-like "business decision" to not go for the ball -- he was wrong-footed.
I plied my columns at Sports On Earth with stats about great defenses winning Super Bowls, and teams that put up big points in the playoffs failing to repeat that performance in the following game, and all sorts of indicators pointing Denver's way -- and then picked Carolina anyway. My ass is dumb.
But you already knew that.