We're down to the final four teams in the NFL playoffs, and while each of the four divisional round games last weekend was laced with its own brand of drama (three of the four included late onside kicks, and the fourth was the crazy Packer Hail Mary game), ultimately we wound up with the top four teams in the league during the regular season, which is entirely appropriate considering how top-heavy the league was this season.
No one team separated itself from the pack during 2015, but instead about five or six teams organically created an exclusive club from which we knew the next world champion would emerge. The top four teams from the exclusive club are these four teams, the four who received a first-round bye and the four who ultimately were fortunate enough to dodge the injury potholes that the football gods laid at their feet.
New England was able to survive the season ender to Dion Lewis, constant change on their offensive line and Julian Edelman's missing half the season. Denver survived a two-man merry-go-round at quarterback and an offensive line shuffle that included a season ender to Ryan Clady before the season even started. Speaking of injuries in the preseason, Cam Newton will likely win the MVP having taken exactly zero snaps this season with wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin. And finally, the Cardinals came down the stretch and made it this far in the playoffs with no Chris Johnson or Tyrann Mathieu.
Indeed, these are the best four teams, and as an aside, we are guaranteed an exciting story line and QB matchup for the Super Bowl. There are no bad permutations from these four teams. On one side, we are guaranteed Tom Brady or Peyton Manning trying to pile onto their already All-Universe résumés, and on the other side we have Cam Newton trying to seize the torch and Carson Palmer making a Kurt Warner-like Lazarus comeback to at least have one of the oddest résumés in NFL history, even if it's short of Canton-worthy.
So who's gonna win these games? Well, after a 3-1 week last week, I'm feeling a good vibe for this week...
PANTHERS -3 over Cardinals
So the Internet is a funny thing. When you write a lot of opinions (which I do, literally tens of thousands of them in my six years writing here), it means you are bound to have some drastically wrong ones. My opinions during the pre-draft through second contract phases of Cam Newton are being proven wrong throughout all of 2015, and Panthers fans (one of them, at least) are psychotic enough to go back and find some of them...
So let the record reflect that I am now backing Cam Newton. I've come around. I'm even a Texans fan who will readily admit that if you redrafted 2011, you'd most certainly take Newton over J.J. Watt, blasphemy in the Bayou City! Here's the thing, Panthers Fan —- don't take up the respect card with me anymore. I respect Cam Newton, I respect the Panthers. You have a bigger problem with the oddsmakers respecting the Panthers. What 15-1 team would be a mere two-point favorite to a sixth seed one week and then a field goal favorite the following week at home?
This game, for me, comes down to trusting Cam Newton in crucial situations and my contention that Carson Palmer will have trouble handling zone blitzes and such from the Panther defense. As big a win as it was for Palmer last Saturday, he still had far too many shaky moments and was bailed out by the greatness of Larry Fitzgerald. Also, this game will come down to a few short yardage situations for each team. Cam Newton is a walking 3rd and 1 conversion, Arizona has no such animal. In a close game, I'll take the team that can make all the plays.
PREDICTION: Panthers 30, Cardinals 23
BRONCOS +3.5 over Patriots
Let's start with the fact that everyone is taking the Patriots to not just win, not just cover, but cover handily in this game. My cohosts are taking them, all of our listeners are taking them, I think Peyton Manning's family is taking them. Hell, I was taking them until everyone else started taking them! I'm not one who usually does the whole "fade the public" thing, because if I pick a team, I feel like I have my reasons. However, this is a lot of public doubt for a team that has, far and away, the best defense in the NFL (the Broncos are the only AFC team allowing fewer than 5.0 yards per play, 4.4 to be exact) and is getting 3.5 points at home! Also, the weather has a chance to be a little wet on Sunday. A slower, muddier track would seem to favor the run-grind-and-d-you-up Broncos.
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An outright Broncos win would set up an interesting potential Super Bowl dynamic as well, especially if the Panthers win. Every season with the Broncos, Peyton Manning has put over a new rising star in his ultimate loss that postseason. In 2012, Joe Flacco won his only Super Bowl after beating Peyton Manning in Denver in the divisional round. In 2013, Russell Wilson won his first (and, for now, only) Super Bowl over Manning in New York. In 2014, Andrew Luck got the Colts to the AFC Title Game by beating Manning in Denver in the divisional round. So why not Newton pinning Manning for the title in Santa Clara? This is why I say that Peyton Manning is the Ric Flair of the NFL...an aging legend whose primary role is putting over young talent. I mean, this has to happen, right? Right.
PREDICTION: Broncos 20, Patriots 19
Last Week: 3-1
Season Record: 53-62-1
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.