NFL Conference Title Games — 4 Winners, 4 Losers

Well, we knew the last four teams standing weren't going to deliver a dud for the now two-week build-up to Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara, California. As it turned out, we were not given the two teams most expected to be there, but we now have a Super Bowl that guarantees us either a) a potential passing of the torch to the next big thing (Cam Newton) or b) a potential "go out on top" story in which Peyton Manning's stepping down after a victorious Super Bowl would surpass the template for just that very thing set by his boss's boss (John Elway) a couple of decades ago.

After a 20-18 classic slugfest in which the Denver Broncos defeated the New England Patriots, and a 49-15 laugher in which the Carolina Panthers ruined Carson Palmer and the Arizona Cardinals, we now have Denver and Carolina in the Super Bowl in 13 days. The two master surgeons in yesterday's game — Bill Belichick and Bruce Arians — were both outfoxed by Gary Kubiak and "Riverboat" Ron Rivera. What a world. 

Let's do a quick look back at what worked and what didn't yesterday...


4. Cam Newton
The sand is running out of the hourglass on the Cam Newton doubters and haters. I know. I was one of them (more doubting than hating). As if it weren't apparent enough over a 22-2 stretch of football going back to Week 14 last season, Newton gave a "turn back the clock to his Heisman days" performance on Sunday, going 19 of 28 for an explosive 335 yards, and rushing for 47 yards and two touchdowns. If there are defensive answers for the Newton Conundrum, the Cards had none of them. Now we will see what Wade Phillips can come up with. More on Wade in a second...

3. The SEC
As if the remainder of the United States outside of the Southeastern Conference's footprint doesn't have enough SEC fatigue following Alabama's win over Clemson in the college football national title game, now we get a Super Bowl in which both quarterbacks are SEC legends. This is a hangover that won't go away!

2. Wade Phillips
A year ago, Phillips was doing a weekly hit on the morning show at SportsRadio 610 and begging for a job on Twitter. (I'm fairly certain that Wade enjoyed doing radio with John Lopez and Nick Wright, and yet I also think there's a decent chance that those 60 minutes each week are the sole reason he sought to get back into coaching. I could go either way...I kid, I kid, guys!) On Sunday, Phillips answered his critics who said he couldn't adjust or adapt in an NFL world that requires more adjusting and adapting than ever. His defense made Tom Brady look completely mortal, which is the highest compliment I can pay.

1. Gary Kubiak
Honestly, the job Kubiak did probably deserves its own column. If you had told me that the Broncos would make it back to the Super Bowl in large part because their head coach managed to deftly juggle as delicate a QB situation — medically and politically — as we've ever seen a good team have, I'd have had Kubiak about 416th on my list of guesses as to who the head coach would be. I give him a ton of credit for an outstanding coaching job, and while clearly there are still strains of the old Kubiak (I mean, there are like 1,000 former Texans in the building), just as clearly, he's learned some things. I'm happy for him.


4. Belichick/Brady Era
How does Bill Belichick process the state of his team? That's the big question to me this offseason. Are they a 10-0 team that was beset by injuries everywhere and fumbled away the one seed in Week 17 in a fluky loss to the Dolphins? Or are they more the team that went 2-4 down the stretch, and in need of a jolt in the secondary and in the offensive backfield? Also, how do you process the Texans being one of those two wins down the stretch, given how lopsided the game was? So much to think about.

3. NFC Title Game viewers
When Aaron Rodgers hit that Hail Mary to send the divisional round game in Arizona to overtime last week, it looked as if we might get one more week involving, for my money, the best quarterback on the planet (Rodgers, even though he didn't look like it this season). Instead, Arizona manned up in overtime, and ruined the Packers' dreams in just a couple of plays, one of them a 75-yard catch and run by Larry Fitzgerald. Well, as it turns out, the Cardinals were totally ill equipped to win a big game on the road in the post-season. Believe me, I speak for America, Cardinals Fan, when I say that we'd have much rather seen what Rodgers could do in Carolina last night than watching your team soil itself. In particular, your two principles in that overtime versus Green Bay....

2. Larry Fitzgerald
Four catches for 30 yards, numerous drops, including one on a crucial 3rd and 2 at a juncture in the game where Arizona needed to start pitching a perfect game. Not a good day at the office for a guy who had a remarkable renaissance season.

1. Carson Palmer
The fear for the Cardinals all along was that Playoff Palmer would show up. And he did. God, did he ever. Twenty-three of 40 with four interceptions, a couple of fumbles, Palmer was about as awful as Brian Hoyer was against the Chiefs, which is honestly the worst insult you could make about a human being. My only fear now is that Bob McNair somehow looks at Palmer's performance and sees it as justification to keep Hoyer around for another season. "See, it happens to MVP candidates!!"

Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 7 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.  

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