The NFL’s Conference Championship weekend saw the Denver Broncos survive a late rally from Tom Brady and the New England Patriots to win the AFC and Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers blowout the Arizona Cardinals to capture the NFC crown.
The Broncos and Panthers will now meet in Santa Clara for Super Bowl 50 in two week’s time.
Here is the best and worst from the conference championship games:
Denver Broncos Pass Rush
Facing a four-time Super Bowl champion quarterback in Tom Brady, the Broncos defense produced one of the most disruptive pass rushes in recent playoff memory. Denver sacked Brady four times and hit him on 20 total drop backs, including on both fourth down stops in the fourth quarter and the final two-point play.
The unrelenting and punishing pressure was the game’s biggest factor. DeMarcus Ware tallied seven quarterback hits, while Von Miller and Derek Wolfe combined for 3.5 sacks and eight hits. Brady looked rattled and uneasy in the pocket for much of the contest.
TE Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots
The Broncos did an admirable job on Gronkowski for the better part of 59 minutes. But when the Patriots absolutely needed a play, quarterback Tom Brady leaned on his All-Pro tight end—and Gronk delivered.
He got behind the Denver defense for 40 yards to keep New England’s final drive alive, and he gave the Patriots a chance to tie the game when he made an incredible catch between two defenders for a score on 4th-and-goal with 12 seconds left. He was actually open enough on the two-point try, but Brady didn’t see him as he rolled to his right. For the first time in six games, the Patriots lost a postseason contest in which Gronkowski caught a touchdown.
QB Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers
He threw a regrettable interception before the half, but Newton was otherwise his familiar Superman self, producing four total touchdowns and close to 400 total yards to power Carolina past the Cardinals and into the Super Bowl.
He tossed scores to Corey Brown and Devin Funchess, leaped over the pile at the goal line for a first-half touchdown and broke Arizona’s will with a flipping score in the fourth quarter. There’s nothing Newton can’t do. The likely NFL MVP has produced 49 total touchdowns for the NFC champions, who won 17 of 18 games this season—many in dominant fashion.
Carolina Panthers WRs
A group that lost Kelvin Benjamin to start the season played a major role in getting the Panthers to a Super Bowl. Ted Ginn rushed 22 yards for a touchdown to give Carolina a 10-0 lead, Corey Brown raced 86 yards for a catch-and-run score to cap off a 17-0 first quarter and Devin Funchess hauled in a 5-yard touchdown to put Carolina up by 27 points in the fourth quarter. Who would have thought back in August that those three names would play such a defining factor in the NFC Championship Game?
New England Patriots Run Game
Most predicted the Patriots would attack the Broncos with a high volume passing game. In theory, there was nothing wrong with the plan, especially with Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski healthy. But once Denver hit the Patriots in the mouth with the pass rush, New England had no counter punch on the ground.
Running backs Brandon Bolden, James White and Steven Jackson combined to rush for 31 yards on 14 carries. Tom Brady led the team in rushing with 13 yards, of which 11 came on one scramble. The Broncos, meanwhile, rushed 30 times for 99 yards. Brady and his embattled offensive line could have really used some balance to negate the rush and alleviate some of the enormous pressure faced by the Patriots on nearly every passing play.
K Stephen Gostkowski, New England Patriots
Gostkowski picked a terrible time to miss his first extra point since the 2006 season. The lost point proved to be pivotal, as New England was forced to go for two after its late touchdown instead of kicking the extra point and sending the game into overtime.
One missed point from the first quarter didn’t lose the game for the Patriots, who had more than 45 minutes to make up for the mistake. But it did shift the dynamics of the contest, especially late. The new rule has added something good to the game—giving a formerly meaningless play some importance—but it did rob viewers of some extra football. Overtime of Broncos-Patriots would have been all kinds of fun.
QB Carson Palmer, Arizona Cardinals
A magical season came to an ugly end for Palmer in Charlotte. He threw four interceptions, including one in the end zone and another returned for a touchdown, while also losing two fumbles. Palmer could have been picked off on a handful of other throws. He got off to a shaky start and never fully recovered.
The Cardinals finished with seven total turnovers, with six directly involving Palmer. Overall, Palmer finished his 2015 playoff run with eight giveaways in two games. He needed to play close to perfect to take down the Panthers in Carolina, and he wasn’t anywhere close.