This is it, the end of the line; for the season, and for this column. At 8-2, after splitting the Conference Championship games, I’m finishing with what might be my best playoff record ever. So, without further ado…
NFL Championship Game
Carolina Panthers at Denver Broncos,
Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, California
With two legitimately great defences, I am expecting this to be a close, competitive game throughout. The Broncos’ defence is deep and talented at every position, and is coached by Wade Phillips, who makes every defence he coaches better, and who consistently comes up with excellent game plans to nullify what other teams’ offences do best. Not to be outdone, the Panthers’ defence does everything well, and is led by one of the best and most versatile LBs in the league, Luke Kuechly. With so much defensive prowess on both sides, this game will be decided by what the offences will be able to accomplish under extremely difficult circumstances. Denver beat New England by striking early, unleashing talented and underutilized TE Owen Daniels, and the Pats, showing an uncharacteristic lack of preparation, got burned badly. With the lead in hand, the Broncs slowly choked the Pats’ offence to death, anaconda-style. With two weeks to prepare, and knowing that points will be at a premium, I expect Denver to employ a similar approach, introducing a new offensive wrinkle, and trying to catch Carolina’s defence flat-footed. What will it be? I wouldn’t be surprised to see TE Vernon Davis, returning to familiar ground, involved early, as either a playmaker or decoy. Whatever the result, I doubt that the Broncos can score more than 20 points against this Panthers defence. On the whole, Denver’s defence has the more difficult assignment. I fully expect the well-coached and well-prepared Broncos defence to frustrate Cam Newton early. I also think that Newton will fight through this, and will start winning the battles and moving the ball. As good as the Broncos’ defence is, I think that Newton is too talented, and is playing so well that he won’t be denied. Sure, one player doesn’t win a game, but what Newton does elevates every other skill player on his offence. What he does, combined with the threat of what he can do, on every play, will be the difference in this game.
So, to sum up, I envision Denver starting strong, with Carolina slowly reeling them in throughout the middle quarters, and then finishing strong.
Panthers 29, Broncos 17