Some Final Thoughts on Championship Sunday

Cam Newton is one of three former No. 1 overall picks starting on Championship Sunday.

This almost seems too apropos. Tom Brady, a sixth-round draft pick with an eternal chip on his shoulder, the outlier in a four-man field of former No. 1 overall picks. In many ways, this weekend is symbolic of just how motivated Brady is to prove people wrong, even in his 16th season in the league and four Lombardi trophies under his belt.

Tomorrow, Brady will play what he would argue is the biggest game of his career. So will Peyton Manning, Cam Newton, and Carson Palmer. The only difference is: coming out of college, no one would have predicted Brady’s success (except for maybe Brady, of course).

Since our predictions have already been filed (and not subject to change at all before kickoff), here are a few final musings on the two matchups that will determine who the media will fawn over for the next two weeks in San Francisco:

New England at Denver – Tom vs. Peyton, and then everyone else

We know by now the storyline of this game. The media has hammered it home enough. Likely the final installment of “The Rivalry,” this one is for all the marbles. The winner will be ahead, 3-2, in playoff victories, which is often seen as the bottom line.

For Manning, what is interesting entering this contest is the whole “momentum” aspect and how it stacks up to his previous showdowns with New England. The first two times Manning met the Patriots in January, he fell, and fell hard. He threw just one touchdown and five picks in two losses in which his team scored a combined 17 points. Interestingly enough, however, Manning was coming off of two absolutely epic playoff performances a week earlier.

In the two combined games leading up to the Patriot debacles, Manning threw for a total of 762 yards, seven touchdowns and just one interception. So much for riding a hot hand.

The two times that Peyton has edged Tom in January, there was doubt prior to the game. In the 2006 playoffs while with Indianapolis, Manning was coming off of two wins in which he threw just one TD against five picks, and the latter of those wins happened to be the last time a team won a playoff game without scoring a single touchdown (15-6). In 2013, Manning’s Broncos set the regular-season record for points scored (606), but nearly blew a 17-point fourth-quarter lead at home to San Diego.

It is hard to gauge just how much momentum Denver is carrying this time around, but it has been something of a similar tale for New England. In times when the Patriots have won their divisional round game with ease, the championship game has usually been a struggle. Manning has experienced both sides of this against Brady; in the 2003 playoffs, New England squeaked by Tennessee before picking off four Manning passes in the AFC championship game the following week. In 2013, the Patriots destroyed Manning’s old team, the Colts, by three touchdowns, but were stymied in Denver the following week.

Given that both teams are coming off of seven-point victories a week ago, neither team can be anointed the “hot team” coming in. If nothing else, the Patriots, who finished the regular season 2-4, won their game with more ease than the Broncos did, as Denver had to rally from behind in the fourth to beat Pittsburgh.

Arizona at Carolina – Will the Panthers go Jekyll and Hyde again this week?

Can you really fault a team for easing up a little bit after they gained a 31-0 halftime lead against the two-time defending conference champions? It would certainly be much easier to excuse had this been an anomaly; however, we’ve seen this now a couple times within a month from the Panthers.

Carolina led the New York Giants, 35-7, on the road in Week 15 before the Giants stormed back to tie the game. It was only then that Cam Newton and the offense re-awoke and drove for the winning field goal. So will this week’s title game against Arizona be a tale of two halves again?

One big injury to watch — and it’s been a few weeks now — is the absence of the “Honey Badger,” safety Tyrann Mathieu. This would be of even bigger significance should the Cardinals reach the Super Bowl against New England and be without one of the game’s best safeties to cover Rob Gronkowski.

Let’s not sleep on Greg Olsen, the Pro Bowl tight end who caught 77 passes for 1,104 yards and seven touchdowns this season. He has been a big reason the Panthers have won 16 games despite losing their top wideout, Kelvin Benjamin, in the preseason.

Carson Palmer is sort of the forgotten man in the QB mix this weekend. His tremendous season hasn’t gone unnoticed by any means, but the 2003 top pick in the draft waited 12 years just to get his first playoff win, last week’s thriller against Green Bay in overtime.

Etc., Etc.

-The numbers would suggest at least one road team should win tomorrow, especially since one is already favored. The favorites have had the upper hand of late in title games, going 17-5 the last 11 seasons.

-Road favorites have had pretty good success on championship Sunday. Since the playoff field expanded in the 1990 season, AFC road favorites are 3-0, with the Patriots’ 2004 win in Pittsburgh being the last occurrence. In the NFC, road favorites are 3-1. The 49ers in 2012 were the last example, winning by four in Atlanta. The only road favorite to lose in this round in the past 25 seasons was Philadelphia in 2008, as they lost by a touchdown to Arizona.

-From 1994 to 2008, a span of 15 seasons, no Super Bowl featured both No. 1 seeds. Since then, it’s happened three times, including the last two years. As unlikely as a Denver-Carolina Super Bowl showdown might seem, we’ve grown accustomed home cooking of late. Since 2006, home teams are 13-5 in the championship round. From 1997-2005, however, at least one road team won all nine seasons.

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