Championship weekend treated NFL fans to one bare-knuckle, knock ‘em down brawl to the final whistle and one “turn off the telly at halftime” laugher.
Which is exactly what we all expected.
Except we figured the close game would be the one in Carolina and not out in Denver.
Whoops. The Panthers took Carson Palmer’s Super Bowl dreams, flushed them down the toilet, fished them back out of the septic system and flushed them again.
It was seriously painful to watch…and in fact, I didn’t.
I was all set to settle in for the full replay on NFL GamePass but as the ugly got uglier, and the uglier got ugliest, I went ahead and hit the fast-forward button to prevent the Cardinals’ turnovers from burning into my retina like an old-school tube television.
Seven. Seven turnovers.
Six by Carson Palmer (4 INTs, 2 lost fumbles) and one by Patrick Peterson on a muffed punt.
Carson Palmer is becoming as valuable for Carolina as Cam Newton is.
— Skip Bayless (@RealSkipBayless) January 25, 2016
But while the Panthers’ ball-hawking continued at a torrid pace (they led the league with 39 regular-season takeaways and now have 9 total in two playoff games), the true hero of the show was Carolina’s grinning Superstar under center.
Like it or not, Cam Newton has blossomed into perhaps the best player in the entire NFL. As the stage gets bigger we expect him to fold under the pressure – but on the contrary he just keeps on doing what Cam Newton does. Which is score touchdowns.
Early days Cam is long gone. Present-day Cam is the full package and soon to be a member (if not the leader) of the ‘New Quarterback Elite’.
During the regular season Cam rushed for 10 TDs (a solid number for any starting running back) but the real surprise was the full maturation of his passing game. Despite losing his star WR and being left with what most would consider a ho-hum receiving corps, Newton threw for an impressive 35 touchdowns to just 10 interceptions.
He added 4 more (2 rushing, 2 passing) scores to this impressive tally on Sunday’s straight-up ass-whooping of the Arizona Cardinals.
He’s brash. He’s absolutely unlikable. And he’s without question the Most Valuable Player in the National Football League. In two weeks’ time he’ll likely be Super Bowl champ to boot.
But we’ll dive deeper into a proper Super Bowl preview later in the week.
Three Things We Learned: Carolina 49 – 15 Arizona
1. Cam Newton is now an extremely accurate passer.
Early in his career he was a run-first, pass-second middling thrower. On Sunday he showed how precise his air attack has truly become. 335 yards and just 28 passes against the Cardinals.
Which makes him more dangerous than ever when he does take off – and unlike most QBs in the league, this one doesn’t slide.
— NYT Sports (@NYTSports) January 25, 2016
2. Carson Palmer will perhaps never live this game down. Not unless the Cards reverse the script and make it back to represent the NFC in Super Bowl LI.
Dropping back to pass 43 times, Carson was only able to manage 66 total adjusted net yards, good for just a hair over 1.5 yards per dropback, nearly 7 full yards less than his regular-season average.
Give the Carolina defense credit, but the greatest season of Carson Palmer’s career ended with a big ole dude from a one-time MVP candidate.
3. It’s time we truly stop thinking of the Panthers ball club as one that relies heavily on its defense for success. They led the league in scoring during the regular season and are dominating this same category in the playoffs, too.
Who nearly posts a 50-burger in the postseason?
These guys do.
Some highlights of the Panthers offense today: pic.twitter.com/9QiBdZ5eQq
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) January 25, 2016
Peyton Tops Tom, 20-18 (sort of)
The last great battle between good and evil (presuming you’re a member of the “Tom Brady is evil” camp) ended with a bang and a fizzle.
A bang because Brady was one 2-point conversion play from completing a late 4th-quarter comeback to send the game to overtime in the final seconds.
A fizzle because the game was less the story of a quarterback duel and more a saga of Denver’s defense not allowing Tom Brady any breathing room whatsoever in the pocket.
Von Miller and his cohorts hit Brady more times yesterday than any other QB has been smacked around all season long and it made all the difference.
— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) January 24, 2016
— The Denver Post (@denverpost) January 25, 2016
Peyton Manning just kind of showed up and didn’t make any mistakes. Well, except for a poorly thrown backwards pass that led to a Patriots touchdown.
176 yards on 17/32 passing is a mediocre output at best but it was good enough to add a little extra padding to Manning’s career playoff win-loss record.
He did find his TE, Owen Daniels, twice for touchdowns but the vast majority of his throws were short and safe and he tossed plenty of lame ducks that sailed long or died short of their intended target.
Manning was simply a role player in this one, riding the coattails of his defense, but this role player is now just 60 minutes away from a second title (assuming the Broncos’ defense can put the same kind of pressure on Cam Newton in 2 weeks in Santa Clara.)
But sometimes that’s the way the ball bounces. You lose when you shouldn’t and win when the odds are stacked against you.
Two years ago Denver was flying high when their record-setting offense was predicted to dismantle the top defense in the league at the time, the Seattle Seahawks. Manning fell flat on his face in an embarrassing defeat.
Perhaps in 2016 he’ll flip the script and play second fiddle to a stunning defensive performance.
I think most lifelong football fans are pulling for the old man to do it but the new guard has other plans.
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) January 25, 2016