Championship Sunday in the NFL started with the headline match up in the Denver Broncos vs New England Patriots, and ended with the supposed under card between the Carolina Panthers and Arizona Cardinals. That was indeed pretty much how it turned out on Jan. 24, as the Broncos’ 20-18 nail biter gave way to the Panthers’ 49-15 coronation — and a date between the old and new NFL order in the Super Bowl on Feb. 7.
From the minute Peyton Manning held on for his fourth and perhaps last trip to the Super Bowl, it seemed like destiny that the old gunslinger would face new upstart Cam Newton in his last stand. The Panthers made it reality almost from the opening whistle, jumping to a 17-0 lead over the Cardinals, then taking over when Patrick Peterson fumbled a punt just as the Cardinals were surging.
That mistake turned a 17-7 lead into a 24-7 halftime advantage, and the Panthers rolled from there. By the time the carnage ended, Carson Palmer and the Cardinals were responsible for seven turnovers, while Newton was responsible for four combined touchdowns.
He certainly had it easier than Manning and the Broncos, despite how Denver’s defense dominated Tom Brady and New England for much of the AFC title game. Nevertheless, the Broncos clung to a 20-12 lead in most of the fourth, as they stopped the Patriots on fourth-and-1 and fourth-and-six plays near the Denver red zone.
However, Brady finally converted two fourth down plays on the final drive, the last of which was a touchdown to Rob Gronkowski. But thanks to a Stephen Gostkowski missed extra point in the first quarter, a two-point conversion to tie the game became necessary. In the end, it was tipped into the arms of Bradley Roby, minutes before the Panthers started a much easier path to the Super Bowl.
The next Championship Sunday will pit a top ranked Denver defense against the seemingly unstoppable Carolina attack, while Manning may have to be more than a game manager against a Panthers defense that just manhandled another aging Western quarterback. Of course, the last time Manning and the Broncos faced a mobile quarterback with a dominant defense in the Super Bowl, it did not end well two years ago.
Denver’s chance for redemption will come on Feb. 7 at Santa Clara, California, starting at 6:30 p.m. est on CBS.