As a New Englander and a strong supporter of the Patriots, I can’t help but say these playoffs went in the complete opposite direction of what I expected. Seven weeks into this season, we had four dominant undefeated teams: the Patriots, Panthers, Bengals, and Broncos, while the rest of the NFL showed major roster holes and weak results. The “Kill-Everybody Tour” was in full effect as the Patriots took out their anger over the deflategate fiasco and Roger Goodell on the hapless Jaguars, Colts, and others. The Broncos edged past everyone with results like 16-10 (week five against the Raiders) thanks to a dominant defense and kicking game, even with a diminished Peyton Manning. Even though the Bengals looked incredible and Andy Dalton looked more like Aaron Rodgers than Aaron Rodgers did, we all knew they would pull out a typical Bengals performance late in the season and then tank in the playoffs (Dalton broke his thumb trying to make a tackle after an interception in week 13 and the Bengals lost in embarrassing fashion to the Steelers in the first round of the playoffs). Then there was the Carolina Panthers, who had finished 7-8-1 in the previous season and only won a playoff game thanks to an Arizona scouting team offense featuring Ryan Lindley, Kerwynn Williams and their 78 total offensive yards gained.
Although the rest of regular season brought the top teams down to earth a little bit especially in the AFC, by the time the playoffs rolled around the Patriots looked primed to roll through to the Superbowl. The two wild-card teams were more of a threat, considering they were the hottest team in football (Chiefs) and the team with Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, and the only offense that could keep up with Brady and co. The NFC featured the always dangerous Seahawks, the luckiest 15-1 team in NFL history (at least we thought), and Carson Palmer, who in his 12 year career had zero playoff wins. All four wild-card teams won on the opening weekend to no one’s surprise. Perhaps the only surprise of the divisional round was how Carolina dismantled Seattle in the first half, but other than that the top teams all moved on through competitive games. Then came the AFC Championship game, New England vs. Denver.
The Patriots were three point favorites despite playing in Denver, and 81% of the tickets and 91% of the total money was bet on the Patriots. All the pundits said that in order to pull off the miracle upset win, Manning would need to play like the Peyton of old and the defense would need to harass Brady within one second of the snap, but in all likelihood the Patriots would roll through to San Francisco. What happened?
Well, basically what all the experts were saying. Von Miller and Demarcus Ware got to Brady over 20 times, and while Peyton Manning only had a few legitimate passes the whole game, those passes went for heartbreaking touchdowns. With such a strong defense, that was all they needed. Perhaps no one gave the Broncos enough credit, or maybe we all overvalued the abilities of Brady, Edelman, and Gronk to carry a team by themselves to another Super Bowl. What is clear is that the Patriots had a few major holes on the offensive line, at running back, and in some spots on the defense, while the Broncos were extremely strong, if not elite, at basically every position except quarterback. After all, the Broncos were the top seed in the AFC, so maybe their trip to the Super Bowl should not have been so surprising.
In the NFC, it seemed like all year people were waiting for the Panthers to lose. When they finally did in week 16 against the Falcons, many of wrote off their Super Bowl chances. With the dominant Cardinals, resurgent Seahawks, and Aaron Rodgers-led Packers, how could a perennial .500 hundred possible compete? They had a quarterback who was more interested in dabbing than winning, a defense without many stars, and Ron Rivera as their head coach, who before this season had a 32-31 career record. The Panthers were barely favorites in each of their playoff games, despite finishing the season 15-1. Then, all they did was dominate. The Panthers went up 31-0 in the first half against Seattle, opened the NFC Championship game as mere three point favorites and then beat the Cardinals 49-15. Newton proved his MVP talk and their defense proved to be one of the best in the league.
So here we are, with a Super Bowl matchup featuring the two most dominant teams that no one wanted. All season we saw excuses as to why they could never win in the Playoffs, and it mostly had to do with quarterback play. Peyton Manning was a shell of himself all season long. He threw nine touchdowns and 17 interceptions, one shy of league leader Blake Bortles, despite throwing 250 fewer passes. That caused us to overlook the greatness of the Denver Broncos everywhere else on the field. Everyone focused their attentions on Cam Newton too, but in a slightly different way. Although he was fabulous all season, the way he carried himself on and off the field drew negative views of him throughout the season. Even I thought Cam was wildly overrated, and just because he gave footballs to little kids it didn’t make him belong in the same conversation as Tom Brady, and a lot of people felt the same way. We were wrong. Cam Newton clearly was the MVP this season, just as the Broncos defense could more than make up for its quarterback.
Why no one could figure out that the two best teams in the regular season would end up battling each other in the Super Bowl, I have no idea. Maybe we got swept up in the drama of Deflategate (imagine Goodell personally handing the Lombardi Trophy to Tom Brady after the two have sued each other in federal court). Maybe we’re all ready to see the end of Manning. Perhaps not everyone is ready for the new generation of quarterbacks to take over. Whatever it was, the two top teams of the 2015 NFL season are playing in the Super Bowl, and that’s how it should be. Even if no one saw it coming.