Championship Weekend Thoughts

The games start in less than 2 hours and I didn’t have much of a plan of writing any sort of preview or prediction beforehand. However, after watching a myriad of NFL.com videos led by Deion Sanders and a crew of players spewing the same old nonsense about Brady/Manning, Brady being the best ever and winning with everyone being injured, it being his best season (which they say every year), can Manning even play or throw right now, what if he loses the Superbowl, legacies, bla bla bla, I have to at least attempt to exorcise those thoughts out of my system. (I do complain a lot about how so many people have such misinformed beliefs about the NFL, but when you see what the masses are being spoonfed it becomes more understandable…)

Anyway, I’m going to attempt to keep it short here (things usually never go well when I say that) and just provide some informal musings and thoughts regarding these matchups. Earlier in the week I was trying to come up with some predictions for the games and figure out how they might go, but to be honest, I really have no idea. I tend to stay away from predictions in general because the NFL is itself so unpredictable (even though I did correctly predict Superbowl 47 a few years back at the start of the season), I’m really more of a guy that likes to go back and look at the process. Having said all that, there are times where you can have a general sense of how games are going to go, but the more I thought about these two games the more I realized I really had no idea who was going to win either. These are really two games that could go either way. As a fan that’s what you want; it bodes well for an exciting championship Sunday as it should be really interesting to see how things play out. So like I said, this isn’t going to be any pre planned crisp analysis as I really don’t have enough to say to offer any of that. Rather, I’m just going to share some thoughts regarding the matchups and what my thought process has been trying to analyze them in a sort of thinking out loud. Ultimately we’re going to have to wait until the games are played to see what really happens.

I’ll start in the AFC where we have the infamous “Brady-Manning” showdown. This may very well be the last time we get to see these two faceoff as it is highly likely that Manning retires after this season. Because of the history these two quarterbacks have and the fact that it is so late in both of their, but especially Manning’s career, the game is intriguing from a story perspective. Because of that it will be fun to see how things play out. However, when you put that historical aspect of it aside, it’s not a super exciting matchup, as both teams have some flaws and question marks they have to overcome, especially on offense. It could very well be an unexciting game.

I don’t think framing this in terms of the Brady/Manning career argument is the right way to look at this game. Manning’s going to retire very soon and we’ll be having that conversation for eons when that happens. We’ve also had it seemingly every year up to this point. It can wait. Another reason that it shouldn’t be focused on is this isn’t your typical Brady or Manning matchup or Brady/Manning year. It’s been a strange and very atypical year for Peyton, one that’s almost hard to believe even while seeing it unfold before you. This is the first time in recent (or distant) memory that Peyton could be viewed as sort of an underdog, or at least, not a massive overdog. This isn’t the Peyton machine we’ve seen in years past. This isn’t the point where weeks and weeks of greatness and high scoring are causing pressure to build up to see if the machine can make it all the way. Nope, instead Peyton is running a much more watered down version of his offense with Kubiak having neutered him a bit. He’s coming off one of his worst and toughest seasons in years, and he hasn’t even played for most of the regular season. When you see how this team plays every week, particularly on offense, you always figured it would have to break down at some point, yet here they are in the AFC Championship. This is not frontrunner big man stat compiling high scoring record rewriting isheisorishenotthegreatestofalltimeorjustthemostoverratedofalltime Peyton. This is Peyton being carried on the back of this Denver team, toughing out and fighting against the forces of injury and father time, trying to push through to make one valiant last effort at a title and at glory before father time takes over. That should be the storyline surrounding this game, and it honestly feels nothing like the matchups of the past. So ultimately, while there are always title and legacy implications and it’s hard to not have that conversation, I really think it’s the wrong one to be having and we can hold off right now. I get — well I don’t “get”, but I can see why people like to beat down on Peyton when he has the big time seasons because he sets the bar so high. But at this point, he’s just trying to not have the bar crush him. It’s a miracle of football baby jesus that they made it this far and he’s even playing right now. So please, let’s just try to lay off the legacy, “can he throw” “is he a choker” etc etc etc talk for just a bit. That’s not what this game is about.

Like I said earlier, I have no idea what’s going to happen in these games. You never thought the Broncos would get this far and that Peyton would come back and yet here they are. Then there’s New England, who always seems to defy the laws of just about everything. They’re close to impossible to predict. When you see them struggle you want to count them out. But they’re New England. They can turn it on anytime. They can take a weakness from a week earlier and turn it into a strength the next week, and vice versa. Tom Brady will struggle for a bit and you think he’s done, and then he channels his inner supply of elixir of youth and he’ll look like the same old Brady. If there’s anything I’ve learned up to this point, it’s that you can never count these guys out… even when they give you absolutely every reason to. And that’s sort of the story of this game isn’t it? Despite each team having really no reason to be here, here they are.

Now enough editorializing, let’s look at the actual matchups. New England started the season at fiery pace, but ever since the injury bug bit they just haven’t been the same offense. They went 2-4 in their last six games of the regular season and in a way which is not very New England like, it really felt like with each passing week they were actually trending in the wrong direction. A 10-20 loss to this year’s lowly Miami team with close to no passing output was the icing on the cake, but there were also games like the Philly game, which broke New England’s ridiculous streak of being undefeated at Gillette with a lead of 8+ (something like 91-0, an absolutely absurd number) in most embarrassing fashion. It was not only who they lost to (the Chip Kelly led disaster show Eagles), but how they lost, giving up a myriad of special teams return touchdowns (where Belichick teams are usually rock solid) and giving up .. I believe it was 28 unanswered after building a 14-0 lead.

It was really starting to look like the injury bug was too much to overcome for New England. Tom Brady gets a lot of credit for winning without big time receivers and for getting the ball out quickly, but without shifty Julian Edelman’s ability to get open quick on those option routes, Tom was holding the ball a lot longer. With no Vereen this year and Dion Lewis injured, they were running out of backs as well. James White and Brandon Bolden have done a good job for themselves in the receiving game, but are they of starter quality? Edelman’s play will be key today and Denver needs to make sure they have the right man on him (in addition to of course recognizing the routes based on motions and stacks and finding a way to be in the right position in those plays and not letting Edelman get the free releases they like to give him). I don’t purport to know who that man is.

There was actually a little bit of doubt coming into the wild card round hosting a red hot Kansas City. It was looking like they might be able to give New England a run for their money, especially with their pass rush. The NE offensive line was really starting to look like a weakness, which hadn’t been the case in the past. They were very injured and it was starting to look like it was going to cost New England. Tom Brady can account for offensive line weaknesses, but like any QB, only to a certain point. People always make a bigger deal about receivers than need be in New England, but oline is a much more important position.

But, would you know, it all turned out to be fine. New England went empty and went to the quick game, Gronk and Edelman got involved, Tom Brady was barely touched, KC’s offense stalled most of the day, Andy Reid was Andy Reid, and New England won a clean, easy, and somewhat boring game. That’s the thing about New England. Their coaching advantage is so good that in that division and that conference, they can get to the AFC Championship and not even play that well. Heck if they have home field advantage they can get to the Superbowl without even playing that well. They just know how to work around weaknesses and play situations. They’re so good at it that they make it so talent isn’t even that important at times. They can be an annoying team for sure, but their ability to maintain success the way they have is absolutely historic.

But now they go on the road to Denver, which is what gives Denver an advantage. It’s not so much that Denver has played great at home than it is that New England is just unbeatable at home but vulnerable to good teams on the road. The Chiefs were a good team but they were still just the Chiefs. I don’t think anyone was genuinely surprised by the loss. New England will be tested at Denver. Will the oline hold up against Von Miller and company? Will Tom Brady be able to get rid of the ball quickly enough? Will their offense look like its confused late season self? From a coaching and QB (for this season) standpoint NE has an unequivocal advantage. But Denver is a good team and a really good defense. Like I said, it could go either way. New England could cruise to a win, or they could struggle. I just never know with them. You can always envision both scenarios because they’ve shown us both over the years. They’ve shown the ability to struggle when you expect them to do well and do well when you expect them to struggle. They just defy the laws of prediction. If I knew more about these teams rosters this season specifically I might be able to give you more. But unfortunately, I don’t.

Moving on to Denver (Bill Belichick voice). Again, this is a game that you would think New England has the edge. The Denver offense has seemed broken all year regardless of who’s playing Quarterback. Peyton is not who he used to be. The oline has been a serious issue, which could be exposed against a really overlooked New England defense. The running game has been on and off, and they’ll need to sustain it if they want a chance of winning. It doesn’t need to be lights out, but they can’t be all pass and expect to win this one. And it seems like Belichick usually stops running teams when he needs to. The receiving group is average at best and has been having the dropsies all over the place. There isn’t really a game changer at tight end or a versatile receiving back. And I’ve never really trusted the Gary Kubiak offense in big moments… and this certainly isn’t the offense he typically wants to have.

When you think about all that, you want to say New England has it. Again though, Denver’s model has been a defense, grind it out win, offense struggles but just stays afloat sort of team. It’s weird to think about a Peyton team that way, but that’s their model. Again, Peyton hasn’t even played most of the season, and you really don’t get the sense it will come down to him like it does in the past, because it hasn’t yet this season. If Denver has any chance, it might be because this might be a scenario where we forget about the regular season and our expectations regarding this usual matchup, and look at Denver and say, can they put this three game stretch together. Can they defy expectations and just play solid defense, be good enough on offense, and have Peyton be healthy enough to manage the game and do what he still does best, which is the mental game and the little checks at the line. This is what Denver has to hope for to win. They’re hoping they can defy all prior logic and just put together this three game stretch with the new model they’ve built this year. It’s one none of us are used to seeing, but it’s one that just might be what they need to get to the Superbowl. It’s not pretty, but they squeak out the wins. Who would’ve thought they would’ve made it this far? Will the Cinderella story make it all the way? Or will Belichick make the glass slipper fall off and make us laugh for even thinking that this Denver team could match up with the almighty Patriots? If anyone is going to do that, it’s going to be him. Also, was that even the right metaphor? I haven’t seen that movie in eons…

Let me get back to X’s and O’s for a sec. I don’t mean to just be editorializing and act like Denver is just going to cross their fingers and pray here. This matchup has the potential to be close because the Patriots offense has holes and has struggled, and because Denver has a really big time defense. Ultimately, that is what Denver is hanging their hat on.

Also, one more thought. You can see Peyton is still in control of the offense and you can see why they brought him back over Brock. It’s all the mental experience. He’s playing quicker and he’s in command. He’s keeping the pace going, he’s making the right reads, and he’s making the checks he needs to. His arm looked a little better last week than it had for most of the season. He definitely looked a little healthier. At this point we know he doesn’t have a big time arm, so saying anything more about that is just a waste of breath. It is what it is at this point. What I was going to say is that there were a few plays last week where Peyton made the right check to a shot play, often a deep post, and he just overthrew it slightly. If the Broncos want to win, he’s going to have to make those throws. He’s going to have to make the plays that are there. The mental ability can only get you so far. He won’t have to make a ton of big time throws, managing the game will mostly be fine, but he’s going to have to make the few that are there.

At the end of the day, it’s really a miracle that this matchup is happening. Peyton was playing so poorly and so injured that after they went back to Osweiler I really did not foresee a scenario in which he came back to play for them, let alone had success. But here we are. Peyton wasn’t going quietly into the old night without one more Brady Manning matchup before one more shot at the elusive second ring. It’s almost poetic justice that we get to see this matchup again after all Peyton went through this season. Lets enjoy it while it’s here, because it’s likely the last time we’re going to see this historic rivalry.

NFC

How’s that whole “keeping this article short” thing going? Not so well? Hopefully I can pick up the pace for this section; otherwise the games are going to start before I finish this article– T-Minus 30 Minutes until kickoff!! Is this what it’s like to be a journalist????

This is really the better matchup and after a year of Phil Simms I couldn’t be happier that we’re getting the good FOX matchup in the primetime slot. The NFC has been absurdly better than the AFC this year and I’m really excited for this one. If it weren’t for the storylines in the previous game this would undoubtedly be the better game exponentially. And it still probably is the better game. These are two really big time teams. They were the two most dominant teams of the regular season and the quarterbacks were the two top MVP candidates. It’s fitting that we get to see them clash heads in the NFC Championship game.

Like the last matchup, I really have no idea how this one is going to go, although unlike the last matchup, I don’t have as much editorializing to do. Like I said, these were the two best teams in the regular season and both were dominant. Pretty sure they are the 1 and 2 seed actually. It’s rare we get to see the two most dominant regular season teams also face off in the postseason. With the fluky nature of the postseason and how tough it is to not be an underdog (what’s the opposite of underdog, overdog..?), those types of teams often get outed in earlier rounds.

Both teams are tough as nails. Arizona embodies the personality of their head coach Bruce Arians, a no nonsense hit you in the mouth kind of guy that is one of the most inspiring coaches out there and also one of the smartest football minds. They have a big time old school quarterback in Carson Palmer and a rejuvenated dog in Larry Fitzgerald. The result is one of the more aggressive, spread you out, complex full field route concepts, multifaceted offenses there is out there. Their pass game, both due to the coach and players and just tactically, is really tough to defend. They also have an aggressive blitz heavy defense that is going to pressure you.

On the other hand there’s Supercam, who’s been all the rage this year, leading the CAR attack. No one seems to be playing with more confidence and swagger than him right now–although you never know when nerves are going to take over when the stage is this big. Their offense is also very tough to defend. They, like the Cardinals, are also very multidimensional, but moreso in the run game. They use Jonathan Stewart and Cam Newton to build the run game with a ton of misdirection and option elements. Their offensive line is one of the best in the business and they are incredibly physical. Then they build the pass game off of that, with even more deception using all sorts of play action. It’s tough for a defense to keep up with. They have a deep threat in Ted Ginn and a big time receiving tight end in Greg Olsen and they use the backs in the pass game as well. Although, you wonder if Funchess is going to have to play a bigger role in this game. If Patrick Peterson is on Ginn (which I don’t know if he will be), it’s very unlikely Ginn wins that matchup. The Panthers too, are very good on defense. Kawann Short has been off the chain, and Kuechly and Thomas Davis are the best linebacking duo in the game. Those two don’t move like linebackers. Their athleticism, playmaking ability, and football instincts most importantly are phenomenal. Carolina also has home field advantage, and that crowd was roaring last week.

It’s tough to get a sense of Carolina based off of last weeks game as it was kind of a weird game with Carolina getting up so quick. Does that lead show how dominant they are, or was Seattle just sleepwalking to start the game? Does the fact that Seattle came close to tying it up again prove anything about Carolina, or was that just a case of them playing conservatively with a lead? Those big leads are tough to play with. Its very hard to find the line between being conservative/not taking too many risks with a lead and keeping your foot on the pedal. As players its just strange to think about when you’re up by that much, strange to know how to play. It’s not the normal dynamic of a game. I struggle knowing what to take away from that game.

One thing I will say about Arizona is this. If there’s anything to worry about, it’s their offensive line. It’s been a point of weakness all season but Carson has compensated. However, it was exposed a little bit against Green Bay last week, and Kawann short is going to be chomping at the bit. Offensive line is often overlooked when talking about big time teams with a lot of weapons. But it all starts with protection. Just ask Denver in SB 48 or NE in SB 42. You can’t get the ball to your playmakers if you don’t have time to get the throw off.

I’m rooting for Arizona, although I’m not super confident about them on the road against this Carolina team. But overall I have high hopes for this matchup and am really looking forward to it. It’s two of the best, most consistent, most dominant, most physical, best schematically, and well rounded teams in the league, and way better than anything the AFC has given us. It shouldn’t disappoint.

Only three more games left in the NFL season before we see who is crowned the winner of Super Bowl 50!! But enough talk, let’s get going already!!! So go ahead and plop a seat on the couch, order some wings to be delivered, grab a beer from the fridge, and answer me this one question…

ARE YOU READY FOR SOME FOOTBALL???????!!!!

 

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