Four really really good teams. Two really interesting matchups. This weekend should be great for football fans everywhere.
Let’s start with the Panthers vs. the Cardinals.
In the preseason, Cam Newton lost his #1 wide receiver in Kelvin Benjamin and the Panthers were in trouble. A horrible, unknown receiving corps led by kick returner Ted Ginn Jr. and somebody named Philly Brown? Come on. Yes, they have All-Star tight end Greg Olsen, but how hard is it to cover the one offensive weapon? They let half of their backfield get away and Jonathan Stewart is a running back no one has ever been afraid of, mostly because he has a career ending injury every nine plays. There was no way this team would be good. No way.
Then they almost ran the table.
They lost one game this season. One! Yes, they were aided by a cakewalk of a schedule, but winning in the NFL is tough. Last week they put concerns about not being able to win the big one to bed when they downed a surging and veteran Seattle team. They blew out the Seahawks in the first half and then got stomped in the second half, barely eeking out a victory. There was a moment last week when it looked like Seattle was about to pull off the biggest comeback in playoff history and I thought if Seattle wins this game, they’ll win the Super Bowl. No one will stop them.
But Carolina did. Between a combination of a (usually) swarming defense and whatever smiling mojo Cam Newton is cooking. To defeat a team like Seattle is no small thing. But Cam was understandably concerned …
I thought the Packers / Cardinals game last week was easily the most exciting game of the season. Have to tip your hat to the Packers for always finding a way to stay in it.
(Side note: Aaron Rodgers put his team on his back like no one I’ve ever seen. My god he’s phenomenal. My god.)
On the other side of the league, there’s a fantastic game brewing in the AFC.
Man, if you’re a fan of the game, and not just a salty bastard, knowing that this is likely the last Manning vs. Brady of any importance is a pretty big deal. I’m not talking in the glorified NFL Network bash-you-over-the-head with it. I’m just saying that this has been an era of some pretty impressive quarterbacking in the NFL, and these two guys are at the pinnacle of the sport in that regard. To know they face off one last time, tired old lions who we watched as springy little whippersnappers with functioning lower bodies and cannon arms? Well, it’s the end of an era, really, and it bears mentioning.
I mean, there was a few years where you just couldn’t stop Peyton Manning. He was omniscient. He was once the most game-controlling, dominant force in NFL history. Just an absolute nightmare to play against. And this year he hit the wall. He was injured. He was a backup. He had to swallow his copious pride and be a teammate in a way he’d never been before. It was difficult to watch, honestly. And when Brock Osweiler took over, the Broncos had a resurgence. The running game took off. Everyone seemed to be playing with more passion. And now Peyton is back and honestly, to my eye at least, Denver didn’t look that daunting last week. How will they match up against the Patriots?
A fun stat I shared with my friends this week: Tom Brady is more likely to go to the AFC Championship game (10 of 15 years - 67%) than he is to complete a pass (career 64%). That’s nuts.
The Patriots have had an interesting season. Injuries, more than anything, have certainly taken a toll on them. Losing offensive linemen and their entire backfield hasn’t helped. At one point this year the Pats had a castoff, thrice-cut running back named Dion Lewis starting for them and he looked poised to become the next great Belichick out-of-nowhere weapon. But he’s out for the season and the Patriots signed shuffling behemoth Steven Jackson out of retirement. I’ve often thought that if Steven Jackson was drafted by a good team instead of playing for two-win Rams teams for his whole career, we’d be speaking his name with the likes of Jim Brown. Now, he has a last chance to put a ring on his finger- and I stress last chance because he runs like if you put a sofa on end and then pushed it over. That’s how many yards he gains every time he runs. Almost one sofa. Thank god he falls forward.
This game is in Denver and that’s going to be a challenge for the Patriots. They’ve lost many an important game there. And that Denver defense is preposterously good. If they have all hands on deck (and as of now they’re not reporting limited practice for anyone) this feels like a weirdly low-scoring game to me. Maybe even a kicker’s duel. If they can stop Edelman, that will go a long way. But then they also have to stop Gronk. And I feel like the Patriots have been intentionally hiding running back James White in the shadows a little. The real matchup to watch for me is how healthy two New England linebackers are: Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower. If Denver can’t run in this game, they can’t win.
Then again … if Peyton finds a way to channel some last gasp inner champion? Who’s to say …
I’m feeling like New England finds a way and everyone groans as the Patriots head to another Super Bowl.
So I think it’s Cards/Pats but just as easily it could be Panthers/Broncos. That’s how well matched these games are and how difficult it is to pick a clear favorite. For it to work out my way, both #2 seeds would have to win on the road against #1 seeds and that’s not very likely. Still, when I look at the players and the coaches and the individual battles in the trenches, I feel like we’re looking at Carson Palmer vs. Tom Brady for all the marbles.
But even if you don’t love the sound of that, think of it this way: either Steven Jackson gets a ring or Larry Fitzgerald does. That’s something any true NFL fan can get behind.
Either way, football fan or no, there should be some pretty amazing football to watch this weekend. Three games left in the season and all three should be outstanding.
Have a great weekend everybody, and if you’re in the Mid-Atlantic region: hunker down and stay safe.