(Image Credit Simpsons.Wikia.com)
The final auditions are set for this weekend to see who opens for Coldplay at Super Bowl 50.
Are these indeed the best four teams in football this season? Yes. They’ve all had to face trials and tribulations but held up very well. That being said none are the same team that started the season. Cumulative bumps, bruises, collisions, concussions, tears and tears have all left their collective marks on each.
There is a boatload of favorable statistics one can quote at this point when you’re looking at four teams with a combined record of 56-12. There is certain logic to over-analyzing those twelve losses, trying to ascertain where some weakness lies. All four coaching staffs are spending the week pouring over footage of when their opponent didn’t play so well…didn’t win.
Yet as we know sports comes down to match-ups. Figuring out what your personnel can do best against the opposition – how to exploit their weaknesses with your talent. Figuring out where your talent may need reinforcement – the opposition is looking to exploit your weaknesses.
And then there were four…
New England (13-4) at Denver (13-4) – (Forecast calls for showers and temps in the mid-forties) Denver hosted and defeated New England 30-24 in OT November 29th. It ended the Patriots up-til-then-undefeated season. Brock Osweiler was the Broncos QB. New England star TE Rob Gronkowski was knocked out of the game late with a knee injury. Patriots WR’s Danny Amandola (knee) and Julian Edelman (foot) didn’t even play.
I see New England having certain advantages heading into the rematch. First, the fact they already played. Denver’s Head Coach Gary Kubiak has never inspired great confidence in me and Patriots HC Bill Belichick is a better strategist and way more experienced at this whole going-to-the-Super Bowl stuff than Gary. Bill will have a chance to analyze that first meeting and hone in on how to best attack and defend his opposition…of course while reminding his team all the while how much that loss after winning their first ten games stung. Not to mention another Patriots loss two years ago…Denver beat New England 26-16 in Denver to advance to the Super Bowl. That one stung even more for those players still on the roster…including one QB named Tom Brady.
Secondly, the Broncos will be starting Peyton Manning at QB. Talk all you want about his experience and savvy but you cannot ignore his poor play this season or the anemic offense Denver has put forth with or without him. Even though the Broncos managed to run for 179 yards in their first meeting RB’s C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman as well as the O-line have been wildly inconsistent. They will have to throw to win this game and with Manning no deep threat exists. I believe starting Peyton may benefit New England – it’s a team game but Manning’s playoff record is 12-13…and that’s when he was the “old” Peyton. Tom Brady has been a starting QB for a record twenty-two playoff wins. He’s got a bit of experience and savvy too…but unlike Manning he’s still playing at a high level, can offer up a deep ball…and now has all his weapons at his disposal. The Patriots can’t run the ball (due to all their injuries) but they’re used to playing that way by now.
Denver DL Antonio Smith thinks Tom Brady is a cry-baby based on comments this week. “I’ve never seen any quarterback look to the referee right after he gets sacked more than Brady. Every time he gets sacked he looks at the ref like, “You see him sack me? Was that supposed to happen? He did it a little hard. Please throw a 15-yard penalty on him. Get him fined.”” Denver LB Brandon Marshall thinks Rob Gronkowski gets away with things based on comments this week. “I say because he pushes off. I mean, he pushes off and he gets away with it about 98 percent of the time.” Denver DB Chris Harris Jr. decided to share this week the best way to stop Gronkowski is, “You gotta hit him low man. Hit him in the knees. That’s the best chance you got of hitting him.”
This sounds like New England may already be in Denver’s heads a bit…not so much looking forward to this rematch…even though the Patriots have not always had their finest hours in Denver. This sounds like a defense that knows they were a bit lucky they didn’t lose at home last week to a disarmed Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger, who didn’t even have Antonio Brown to throw to. This sounds like a defense who knows beating New England twice looks like a “Mile High” challenge unless they rise up and play at the higher level they played at most of this season – first in the NFL in fewest yards allowed, fewest passing yards allowed …and sacks.
The Broncos have the home field. They have a solid defense. But they’ve been quite fortunate to win a lot of close games in spite of that sputtering offense and I think their “winning formula” catches up to them here. I think a fired-up Tom Brady and Company get themselves enough points to win.
WINNER – NEW ENGLAND
Arizona (14-3) at Carolina (16-1) – (Forecast calls for clear skies with temps dropping into the thirties) Speaking of rematches…this is a repeat of last year’s Wild-Card Game, also in Charlotte, where the Panthers won 27-16. Arizona QB Carson Palmer didn’t play in that game…and quite frankly if he doesn’t show up and play great in this weekend’s game Carolina will win again.
The Cardinals offense was definitely one of the league’s finest during this season. Yet…you can easily make the case their last two games have been among their worst on that side of the ball, especially Palmer. The Panthers are going to go after him just like they did Seattle QB Russell Wilson last week. Arizona’s best chance to win is, unfortunately for Palmer, to throw often. Their running game only got 40 yards on 19 carries last week and that was against Green Bay. They have arguably the best group of receivers in football and can hurt Carolina when Carson has a pocket…but I have little confidence in Palmer’s ability to withstand the pressure headed his way and/or correctly read the coverages the Panthers always spread the field with. The Carolina defense covers a lot of ground and loves to compete with their own offense for who can score the most points.
Cam Newton is the no-doubt league MVP for 2015. His top RB, Jonathan Stewart, is healthy again and took the fight to the stellar Seahawks defense from the jump last week with his 59-yard run to open the game. His TE, Greg Olsen, left that game late with what initially appeared to be a serious injury but returned after missing but one series. His presence and performance will be a must. After missing a couple of games backup RB Fozzy Whittaker (ankle) looks like he’s a go. Arizona likes to pressure the opposing QB also and he could be quite valuable as a safety valve for that pressure. Fortunately for the Panthers, Can Newton elevates everyone’s play at the other offensive positions no matter who takes the field. This is the highest-scoring offense in the NFL and he’s a big part why…along with their aggressive defense setting the table for him with turnovers and good field position.
The Cardinals really struggled against the Packers last week while the Panthers pounded the Seahawks for one half and then held on for another.
Carolina is at home with a solid, opportunistic defense…and an MVP QB. I think Arizona will give that defense opportunities…and Cam will help turn them into points.
WINNER – CAROLINA
I know Coldplay has been very anxious to see who will be their opening act. At least we know now it was a good idea to not leave some or all of it up to a national call-in vote and instead let these auditions play out on the football field.
In any competition… isn’t having the most deserving finalists get to the end something worth singing about?