The dream! Denver flips the script on Carolina, the entire league

The formula was simple: go 1 for 14 on 3rd down.
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The 50th edition of a legendary game goes to a legendary player, and that’s pretty cool. (Photo credit: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Before the game, I felt that no matter who the confetti fell on, it would be a fitting end. It could’ve been Carolina sticking the landing to a near-perfect season, with Cam smiling next to the trophy while the talking heads praise his improved maturity and leadership. Instead, it’s what we saw last night. A game that, through both its quality of play and eventual winner, epitomized an NFL season that should be remembered for its surplus of flawed teams. Even with a record number of undefeated teams through six-plus weeks, we were somehow still left wondering, “Is anyone great?” And of the undefeated teams, “Who have they beaten?” And now, after watching Denver go 1 for 14 on 3rd down while Peyton threw for under 150 yards and no touchdowns, we’re asking similar questions. “Is anyone really great?”

Yes, one is. That Denver defense.

With doubts of Denver’s ability to win this game, I asked how they could possibly pull this off. I settled on the obvious: Denver’s defense must be great. Carolina launched into huge leads in their first two playoff games and it was too much for even the most spirited of comebacks. If the same happened here, it was over. Denver’s offense simply did not possess the firepower. And so, the defense had to be great. And holy crap, were they ever.

If you watched the game, you saw. Denver abused a great offensive line and harassed Cam Newton all night. Carolina faced 15 third downs and converted just three of them. They may have gained 315 yards and 21 first downs, but they lost the ball four times. Defensive games are almost always within reach, but Denver’s defense was suffocating. The frustration boiled over in the 4th quarter as Cam writhed on the ground in pain. The Denver defense didn’t just beat Cam, they broke him.

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Even during his sullen and reserved press conference, Cam Newton offered three words of hope: “We’ll be back.” (Photo credit: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Perhaps the most telling aspect of Denver’s dominance is the fact that we’ve gone this far without mentioning Peyton Manning’s legacy or retirement. If this is indeed the end for Peyton, it’s a strange one. He’s a legend, one of the best ever, and he went out in the way every player dreams of: walking into the sunset with a Super Bowl win as their last game. Yet, this “walk” into the sunset was more of a ride on the backs of his defense. He didn’t play particularly well this game or all season. There was even a time midway through the season where we wondered if he had played his last game. How will history remember him for this? It’s impossible to say less than 24 hours later, but history does have a knack for leaving out the details. The hard numbers are this: four Super Bowl appearances under four different coaches and two different teams. Two rings with two different teams. That’s something no other QB can say and that’s pretty memorable.

As for Carolina? Pain, for now. Plenty of blame will go around as it always does with losing teams. In this case, I don’t think that’s warranted. Cam didn’t choke. Rivera didn’t gameplan poorly. Denver simply played better, but it still hurts. The future, however, is extremely bright for Carolina. Cam is just now entering his prime and the defense will retain its young, growing stars. As much disbelief as I had throughout this whole run, this was no fluke season for the Panthers. Yesterday’s loss was just their second since November 30, 2014. This is a winning team and I don’t expect that to change.

Overlooked in this game: Denver up 16-7; with 5:44 left in the 3rd quarter, Cam Newton throws an interception to TJ Ward. Ward fumbled the ball at the Denver 14-yard line, which was somehow recovered by Denver’s Danny Trevathan at the 7. If Carolina recovers that fumble and scores, the game is 16-14 with an entire quarter left to play. Instead, Carolina never sees the inside of Denver’s 20-yard line again.

These are the type of plays that define a season. And with it, the Denver Broncos are Super Bowl 50 Champions.

The 2015-16 NFL season is over, but that doesn’t mean we have to be. In the coming weeks, we’ll take a look back on some preseason posts and see what we learned from another yet another weird year.

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The teams that are supposed to lose: A quick look at the stacked wildcard teams (Sunday edition)

Everyone will take a deep breath when the Seahawks are finally out of the playoffs. Problem is, somebody has to be the team to actually do it.

Everyone will take a deep breath when the Seahawks are finally knocked out of the playoffs. Problem is, somebody has to be the team to actually do it. (Photo credit: ESPN.com)

Yesterday, we briefly covered the two AFC wildcard teams playing on Saturday. Kansas City’s fantastic defense propelled them to a rout of Houston while the Steelers’ playmakers came alive just enough to edge the Bengals. Can the two NFC wildcard teams follow suit and win both their games?

Seattle Seahawks (10-6)

at Minnesota Vikings, 1:05pm on NBC

Seahawks are hot and in the playoffs. Sound familiar? We’ve gotten to know Seattle as a top-tier playoff team over the past few years now. Perhaps the only thing unfamiliar about them this year is their role as a wildcard team. They performed slightly below expectations to begin the season (2-4 start), paving the way for other NFC teams like the Cardinals and Panthers to take the spotlight for once. But sure enough, Seattle re-discovered that winning formula and finished the season 8-2. Would you want to face a hot Seahawks team? I’m guessing not because it’s extremely difficult to begin a Super Bowl run when you have to face a QB that’s thrown multiple TDs and no picks in seven of his last eight games (Russell Wilson, in case you didn’t make the connection). Also, good luck lighting it up against a defense that’s allowing just 17.6 points per game, the lowest in the entire league. Seattle’s struggles were real, but make no mistake, they’re back. Behind yet another top defense and a QB that just keeps churning out wins, this Seattle team is poised for their third-straight Super Bowl appearance.

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Aaron Rodgers blew a chance to win the division. Will that propel him to perform even better in the postseason? (Photo credit: ESPN.com)

Green Bay Packers (10-6)

at Washington Redskins, 4:40pm on FOX

Speaking of teams we’re used to seeing in January, we have the Green Bay Packers. Their game in Washington marks their seventh straight postseason appearance. Even with all those chances, however, the Packers have only managed to win one Super Bowl. Can they steal a second from the lowly wildcard position? With Aaron Rodgers, anything is possible. Rodgers has that unique ability of making the Packers contenders no matter where they stand. Defenses can plan all week and perform excellently, but one stunning performance by Rodgers can undo everything an opponent has worked for. And he’s kind of a pro at delivering stunning performances. His numbers may have dipped a little this year, but Rodgers still has a solid team around him that is quietly doing great things. The much-maligned defense is actually 12th in the NFL in points against (20.2 per game). And despite the struggles of Eddie Lacy, the running game is holding up nicely (115 yards/game). They face an uphill battle, but these Packers still have plenty of weapons to take out the NFC elite.

The teams that are supposed to lose: A quick look at the stacked wildcard teams (Saturday edition)

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Potential ROTY Marcus Peters makes the Chiefs fun to watch. (Photo credit: ESPN.com)

The best part of the NFL season is right on top of us. Wildcard weekend starts tomorrow and it could be the beginning of an unbelievable ride to the Super Bowl. This ride, however, is usually reserved for division winners and top seeds. Only six wildcard teams have ever won the Super Bowl. These teams may have scraped and clawed their way to a postseason birth, but that’s where the fun usually ends. This year, however, I wouldn’t be surprised if all four extended their fun to the second round and beyond. All four teams–Chiefs, Steelers, Seahawks, Packers–have their starting QB and face their opponent’s backup. Save for the Packers, no team has more than one loss in the last five games. And save for the Chiefs, every team has relatively recent playoff success (aka Super Bowl wins). But enough about the similarities, let’s take a brief look at why these four teams have a shot at being that seventh wildcard team to win the big one:

Kansas City Chiefs (11-5)

at Houston Texans, 4:20pm on ABC/ESPN

What an incredible run this team has had this season. They started off as a boring, struggling 1-5 mess that I absolutely couldn’t stand. Now, they’ve won 10 (!) in a row and are actually watchable. As usual, Alex Smith throws interceptions at a frustratingly low rate (seven all year), which makes scoring 20 points fairly painless. Why 20? That’s the number that will usually win a game for the Chiefs when their incredible defense only allows 17.9 per game (3rd in NFL). In fact, only one team (Bills) have scored over 20 and that was still a win for KC. How can you argue with a team that’s won 10 in a row? Behind defensive talents Justin Houston and Marcus Peters, this once-unwatchable Chiefs team could wreak havoc in a struggling AFC field.

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Pittsburgh’s receiving corp will make defensive backs pay for the smallest of mistakes (Photo credit: ESPN.com)

Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6)

at Cincinnati Bengals, 8:15pm on CBS

Pretty tough to build a strong case for a team that needed another team to lose just to clinch a playoff spot. That is, unless that team is this year’s Steelers. Pittsburgh had some ups and downs this season mainly due to Ben Roethlisberger missing multiple games. With Ben, they’ve gone 8-4 and won six of their last eight. Their receiving corp is my absolute favorite in the league by far. Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, and Markus Wheaton are all different variations of super-fast, ultra-athletic, smart route-running freaks. It’s incredibly difficult to cover all three effectively if you don’t have enough bodies back. They’ve helped Pitt become top-5 in both total passing yards (3rd) and points scored (4th). This offense alone is enough to make Pittsburgh a legitimate AFC championship contender. If the defense can play above expectations, the Super Bowl is a real possibility.

We’ll look at the Sunday wildcard teams tomorrow!

Friday Picks: Week 10 (2015-16)

They may be one of three undefeated teams, but it's been the Patriots' league so far this season. Can they shake off the history and top the Giants? Photo credit: ESPN.com

They may be one of three undefeated teams, but it’s been the Patriots’ league so far this season. Can they shake off the history and top the Giants? Photo credit: ESPN.com

We’re now 10 weeks in and somehow picking these games seems harder than it was in the first three weeks, when everything is turned upside-down. The AFC wildcard race is, like last week, absolutely absurd. What separates the fifth-seeded Bills and the dead last Browns? Three games. If we’re being realistic, not all of these teams have a real shot but enough of them do (e.g. Texans, Chiefs, Raiders, etc.) that it makes these midseason games pretty intriguing. Speaking of absurd, is it possible we’ll be watching a Panthers-Bengals Super Bowl in February? I sell these teams week after week, but they just keep winning! The words Andy Dalton and MVP in the same sentence just doesn’t sit right with me, but he’s in the conversation. Still, dominating both of those conversations is Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. They’re the undisputed best team in the league and already generating new 16-0 talk. To get there, they’ll have to get through the only team they haven’t beaten since 2008: the New York Giants. I don’t care what the point spread is, this has to be my Game of the Week. My picks below (HOME team in CAPS):

Last week: 7-6       Overall: 83-49

Cold Hard Lock: 6-3       Upset pick: 4-5

Bills over JETS (TNF)

RAVENS over Jaguars

STEELERS over Browns

Panthers over TITANS

RAMS over Bears

Cowboys over BUCS

PACKERS over Lions

EAGLES over Dolphins

REDSKINS over Saints

Vikings over RAIDERS

BRONCOS over Chiefs

Patriots over GIANTS

Cardinals over SEAHAWKS (SNF)

BENGALS over Texans (MNF)

Cold Hard Lock: Cowboys over BUCS; Ok it’s about time the Cowboys win. I understand how valuable Romo is, but they have a good team around him and can’t lose seven in a row, can they? They’ve held a lead in each of their past three games, only to lose them by one score. They’ll get the job done against the Bucs, who were 0-8 at home last year and have started 1-3 this year.

Upset Pick: Cardinals over SEAHAWKS; I’m always selling the Cardinals and buying the Seahawks. This week, I’m flipping the script. Arizona has clearly been the better team and they’re a three-point underdog? That’s an awful lot of home love for a team that survived the Lions and lost to the Panthers in Seattle this year. My gut still says Seattle, but any time I can get a team as good as Arizona as an underdog, I have to take it. Cardinals get it done again in CenturyLink and beat the Seahawks 23-21.

This year's Giants team has a host of problems. But really, is that much different than any other year? Photo credit: ESPN.com

This year’s Giants team has a host of problems. But really, is that much different than any other year? Photo credit: ESPN.com

Game of the Week: New England Patriots at New York Giants; The last thing I want to do is overhype this game, but it’s probably the most anticipated game of 2015. Maybe the decade. The Patriots have dominated this league for years on end and finally turned that domination into another Super Bowl last year. That could have been their third in eight years if not for the New York Giants, the one team that has consistently given them trouble in that span. Their last four meetings have been decided by four points or less. However, throw that all aside and this is one lopsided matchup. New England has been rolling through opponents (+133 point differential), beating them in all sorts of ways. The Giants have been on a roller coaster ride, alternating wins and losses every week since Week 5. The key part of the Giants’ victories over the Pats, a strong pass rush, is virtually non-existent. In a vacuum, the Patriots are the better team in every phase of the game. But this is the NFL, where vacuums don’t exist and there’s dirt all over the floor! I don’t know what it is, but something about these two teams defies football logic every time they meet. I have no idea what kind of game it’ll be this time, but based on the intense history, this is the Game of the Week.

Friday Picks: Week 9 (2015-16)

After eight weeks, Carolina owns the first seed in the NFC. In Week 9, they look to keep that spot out of the hands of Green Bay.

After eight weeks, Carolina owns the first seed in the NFC. In Week 9, they look to keep that spot out of the hands of Green Bay. Photo credit: ESPN.com

I’ll try to sum up the state of the AFC wildcard race with this: the New York Jets have the fourth-best record in the conference and the Chargers are just two games behind them…with the 14th best record. With the Pats, Broncos, and Bengals cruising, virtually every AFC team has a shot at the final three spots. And as the Chargers and Jets show you, the records are so concentrated that tiebreakers are bound to come into play. That’s why games like Dolphins-Bills and Jaguars-Jets are so important in every passing week. In the NFC, teams like the Saints, Eagles, and Bucs (yes, even them) are still afloat despite four early losses. This is what these November games are all about: win enough to put yourself in contention come late December. Here’s who I have picking up those key wins in Week 9 (HOME team in CAPS):

Last week: 9-5       Overall: 76-43

Cold Hard Lock: 6-2       Upset pick: 4-4

BENGALS over Browns (TNF)

BILLS over Dolphins

Packers over PANTHERS

JETS over Jaguars

Rams over VIKINGS

PATRIOTS over Redskins

SAINTS over Titans

STEELERS over Raiders

Giants over BUCS

Falcons over NINERS

Broncos over COLTS

Eagles over COWBOYS (SNF)

CHARGERS over Bears (MNF)

Cold Hard Lock: Chargers over Bears; San Diego just keeps losing close game after close game. Their last four games, all losses, have been decided by one score. I believe things will be different against Chicago on Monday night. The Chargers have one of the most prolific passing offenses in the league (lead NFL in passing yards), but their running game and defense holds them back. Luckily for San Diego, Chicago yields the 5th highest passer rating to opposing QBs while allowing the 4th most rushing yards per game. With offensive weapons Matt Forte and Eddie Royal out for the Bears, it’s looking like a great matchup for the Chargers. At home in primetime, San Diego will snap their four-game losing streak, and by more than one score.

Upset Pick: Rams over VIKINGS; These two teams have a lot in common. While both passing games leave a lot to be desired, they field solid defenses and own two of the best running backs in the NFL. Todd Gurley has been on an absolute tear, rushing for over 120 yards in four straight games. Minnesota’s weak spot on defense lies in their ability to stop the run (15th in opponent rush yards/game), so I don’t see Gurley slowing down. I have to give the slight edge to the Rams defense as well. They’ve looked fantastic lately, keeping opponents out of the endzone in nine straight quarters. One more thing these guys have in common: they are in the thick of the NFC wildcard race. In a game with some early playoff implications on the line, I’ll take St. Louis in the modest upset.

Game of the Week: Green Bay Packers at Carolina PanthersGreen Bay was featured in last week’s GOTW in their matchup against the Denver Broncos. Denver delivered a serious message to the rest of the league, holding the best QB in the league to just 77 yards. That QB (Aaron Rodgers, duh) and his team don’t get a break as they face yet another undefeated team and yet another top-5 defense. Oh, and it’s on the road again. Can Green Bay rebound? I get the sense that a lot of people think they can. We’re not used to them losing back-to-back games and many are still skeptical of Carolina. The Panthers are in an eerily similar situation as Denver just last week. If they win, they’ll get a lot more respect and cement themselves in the Super Bowl conversation. Green Bay looks to rebound while Carolina puts their undefeated record on the line in this battle of two fantastic teams. If you’re a fan of quality football, stop watching the NFC East and tune into this game,

Friday Picks: Week 8 (2015-16)

Peyton has relied on his defense to deliver the wins. With Aaron Rodgers in town, can the defense hold up for him? Photo credit: ESPN.com

Peyton has relied on his defense to deliver the wins. With Aaron Rodgers in town, will the defense still hold up? Photo credit: ESPN.com

We’ve seen seven weeks of football. How do we still not know if these teams are any good? Outside of the Patriots and Packers, I’m scared of picking any team. Even the Packers are on the road against an undefeated team. In fact, we have more undefeated teams (5) at this point in the season than ever before and yet somehow, I’m not confident in any of them. As far as actual NFL implications go, keep an eye on the Saints and Raiders, two teams we may have considered dead but are now starting to turn things around. I also like the underdog Colts, Chargers, and Lions to threaten an upset. With the Packers visiting the Broncos on Sunday night, we’ll finally see another undefeated team fall.

My picks are below (HOME team in CAPS):

Last week: 7-7       Overall: 67-38

Cold Hard Lock: 5-2       Upset pick: 4-3

PATRIOTS over Dolphins (TNF)

Lions over Chiefs (London)

RAVENS over Chargers

Cardinals over BROWNS

Vikings over BEARS

STEELERS over Bengals

TEXANS over Titans

SAINTS over Giants

RAMS over 49ers

FALCONS over Bucs

Jets over RAIDERS

Seahawks over COWBOYS

Packers over BRONCOS (SNF)

PANTHERS over Colts (MNF)

Cold Hard Lock: TEXANS over Titans; The way this season is going, I don’t feel comfortable choosing any of these games as my lock. I’m going to go with the Texans, a team I wouldn’t have been caught dead picking as my lock just a couple weeks ago. I don’t like this team at all. Their QB situation is a mess and the defense is severely underperforming. Their only two wins have come against the Bucs and Jaguars and they trailed 41-0 to Miami at the half last week. In a week where no pick is safe, I’m going with the team I can’t stand to watch. At home against a team without their starting QB, maybe they can pull out their third win. In fact, make it a lock.

Upset Pick: Lions over Chiefs; Speaking of teams I can’t stand, the Chiefs are without Jamaal Charles as well as their home fans as they travel to London to take on Detroit. Both of these teams are underperforming and pretty much out of playoff contention. However, I really love the Lions’ talent on offense and just can’t see them losing to the depleted Chiefs. Calvin Johnson has seemed to find a rhythm after struggling early, gaining more receiving yards and touchdowns in each of the past two games than in any one game this season. I think Johnson can continue the trend and help the Lions steal one from the Chiefs.

Game of the Week: Green Bay Packers at Denver BroncosThis game is not your typical battle between two undefeated teams. There’s a lot of people who think Denver is lucky to be 6-0 and they may have a point. They’ve played six opponents with a combined record of 13-27 and have won by more than one score in only one of those games. While there’s a general feeling that they haven’t played anybody, there’s no denying that their defense is outstanding. They’re lead the league in passing yards allowed, are second in takeaways, and second in points allowed. The one team that has allowed fewer? The Green Bay Packers. Even with Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning in the game, something tells me this will be a low scoring game. Low scoring games tend to benefit the underdog. If that defense is as good as it seems, Denver has a real shot of “upsetting” the Packers in this duel of unbeaten teams.