The NFL Playoffs divisional round is over, as the Carolina Panthers, thanks to a huge first half by their defense and Cam Newton, advance to the NFC championship game at the expense of the Seattle Seahawks, while the Denver Broncos defense carries Peyton Manning once again, this time into the AFC championship game, leaving the hobbled Pittsburgh Steelers behind.
Seattle Seahawks 24 Carolina Panthers 31: First half of complete Panthers control, including two Russell Wilson interceptions, a Luke Kuechly pick six touchdown, two for Jonathan Stewart and one by Greg Olsen off of a Cam Newton pass en route to a 31-0 lead, and then the Panthers just shutting down and wasting time, and almost letting it get out of hand. Wilson threw three touchdown passes (couple of Jermaine Kearse, one to Tyler Lockett). But the Panthers stopped the Seahawks from getting another touchdown on their final drive and most importantly, didn’t let the onside kick become a factor, recovering the ball and giving themselves the opportunity to kneel a few times and frustrate the Seahawks en route to their first conference championship game in 10 years, while avenging their loss against the Seahawks from a year ago. It also goes to show that all that 15-1 and hard work in the regular season meant something on the bigger stage.
Pittsburgh Steelers 16 Denver Broncos 23: A very weird, closed game. The Steelers had an injured quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger. The Broncos had a very old one, which is almost like an injury, for Peyton Manning. Manning avoided turning the ball over, a big issue for him during the season, while Roethlisberger couldn’t find a receiver in the end zone. Both teams scored just one rushing touchdown, but the Broncos made one more stop thanks to forcing a fumble late in the game which allowed them to win it, making Fitzgerald Toussaint the tragic figure for the Steelers who were missing so many playmakers it’s surprising they managed to last that long, although with such a conservative, neutered offense the Broncos put on the field, it might not have been that big of a surprise.
What did we learn? The Panthers continue to confuse us. A massive team at times, and it’s difficult to say if their second half letdown had to do with being overwhelmed by their lead or simply unable to maintain a certain mental state that motivates them. For the Broncos, the blueprint is clear: Keep things simple, don’t make Manning force anything and hope things open up for him, while the defense has most of the pressure on them, knowing they can’t afford to make more than one mistake.
Next: The conference championships. First game on January 24 will be the New England Patriots playing in Denver against the Broncos on 3:05 PM ET, followed by the Arizona Cardinals coming to play the Carolina Panthers on 6:40 PM ET.