What Have We Learned From Championship Sunday of the 2016 NFL Playoffs

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AFC Championship Football

Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning watches the AFC championship trophy presentation following the NFL football AFC Championship game between the Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots, Sunday, Jan. 24, 2016, in Denver. The Broncos defeated the Patriots 20-18 to advance to the Super Bowl. (AP Photo/Joe Mahoney)

Here is What Have We Learned from Championship Sunday of the 2016 NFL Playoffs, thanks to the AP Pro 32 for photos & help in this article.


  • Manning’s Broncos to face Newton’s Panthers in Super Bowl 50– Today’s NFL is all about the quarterbacks, so perhaps it’s fitting that the 50th Super Bowl features a matchup between Peyton Manning’s Denver Broncos and Cam Newton’s Carolina Panthers.At 39, Manning — the only five-time MVP in history and one of the faces of the league — is the oldest starting QB to lead a team to the big game. Most folks figure his fourth Super Sunday will be the last time he dons a helmet.

    “Oh, wow,” Newton said. “Playing ‘The Sheriff.'”

    Newton, meanwhile, is part of the new guard. He is expected to be honored as the MVP for the first time — fans chanted those three letters during the NFC championship postgame ceremony — and he’ll be playing in his first Super Bowl.

    Carolina (17-1) ran away with a 49-15 victory over the Arizona Cardinals for the NFC title Sunday night, after Denver (14-4) edged the New England Patriots 20-18 in the AFC.

    “There’s no question, this is a sweet day, this was a sweet victory,” Manning said. “To me, this victory sort of is a great example of what this entire season has been like. It hasn’t been easy.”

    The Feb. 7 game at Santa Clara, California, will be the Broncos’ record-tying eighth Super Bowl appearances — they won twice in the late 1990s — and the Panthers’ second.

    Carolina opened as a 4-point favorite with most bookmakers.

    Manning, of course, will get so much of the attention over the next two weeks.

    He is 1-2 in past Super Bowls, winning a championship with the Indianapolis Colts in 2007, then losing with the Colts in 2010, before losing with the Broncos in 2014.

    But this is a different version of Manning.

    Yes, he’s still as good as anyone at diagnosing defenses and changing things up — or appearing to, anyway — at the line of scrimmage.

    Yes, he’s still out there yelling “Omaha!” But he is not quite as capable as he was, once upon a time, when it comes to putting the football exactly where he wants it, especially on deep routes.

    This has hardly been a record-setting season for Manning — or, until now, one worth remembering. Overall, the bad far outweighed the good, including one game with a passer rating of 0.0, 17 interceptions to only nine touchdown passes in the regular season, being sidelined for six weeks with a series of injuries, his first NFL game as a backup, and vehemently denying a report linking Manning’s wife to the banned drug HGH.

    “My role has been different and my contributions are different,” Manning said. “But I’m fortunate and grateful that I have the opportunity to contribute still, in some way. And it’s a great honor to be going back to the Super Bowl.”

    He’s going to California thanks in large part to the league’s best defense, which led the NFL with 52 sacks and allowed fewer yards than anyone else this season, then made life difficult as can be for Tom Brady and the Patriots on Sunday.

    “Defensively, we were just tremendous,” said Denver’s Gary Kubiak, the seventh coach in NFL history to get to the Super Bowl in his first year with a team.

    Linebacker Von Miller led the way for Denver, with 2 1/2 sacks and an interception.

    “I wanted to do it for Peyton,” Miller said. “To get him back there.”

    Miller and Co. will have its work cut out for it against Newton and a Carolina team that averaged a league-best 31.2 points during the regular season.

    And Carolina can play some serious “D,” too. The Panthers piled up seven takeaways against the Cardinals — six on defense, one on special teams — including an interception returned for a score by linebacker Luke Kuechly.

    The Panthers led 17-0 after the first quarter, 24-7 at halftime.

    “We wanted to start fast,” Newtown said. “We wanted to keep the pressure on.”

    Should be fun to see how these two talented defenses try to slow down these two talented quarterbacks.

    “We’ve just got to try to get some pressure on (Manning),” Kuechly said. “That’s the biggest thing.”

  • Together a decade, Kubiak and Daniels heading to Super Bowl– When Tom Brady took a knee with 33 seconds left in the first half of the AFC championship and turned to trot toward the tunnel, Broncos tight end Owen Daniels wasn’t buying it.He stood on Denver’s sideline pointing at the New England Patriots until they indeed disappeared into their locker room. Only then did he head off the field, passing his coach along the way.

    “I got some comments about that on social media that I looked really confused,” Daniels said Monday while basking in the afterglow of his two-touchdown performance in Denver’s 20-18 dethroning of the defending champs.

    Daniels wasn’t confounded, just cautious.

    You see, while he was in Baltimore last season, the Ravens came up with a scheme to fool the Steelers in the playoffs. If they had enough time, they were going to take a knee and fake like they were trotting off to their nearby tunnel only to run back to the line of scrimmage, snap the ball while the Steelers were walking off and run for an easy touchdown.

    They never got that chance.

    But, hey, if anyone else has thought of it, you can bet Bill Belichick has, too.

    “New England has always got something up their sleeve,” Daniels said. “… So, I was just making sure I was ready to make a tackle.”

    It’s that football acumen that led coach Gary Kubiak to vouch for Daniels last spring when he and general manager John Elway mapped out their free agency plans and offered Daniels a three-year, $12 million contract.

    Daniels has played for Kubiak his entire NFL career. He spent eight seasons with him in Houston and followed him to Baltimore in 2014 when Kubiak was hired as the Ravens’ offensive coordinator following his firing as the Texans’ head coach.

    Together, they resurrected their respective careers before coming to Colorado.

    Daniels caught 48 passes for 527 yards and four touchdowns in helping the Ravens reach the playoffs, where he scored his first postseason touchdown against New England.

    In Denver, Daniels caught 46 passes for 517 yards and three TDs in the regular season. He had TD grabs of 21 and 12 yards Sunday.

    “As a coach when you bounce to different places and guys’ names come up, you’ve got to be careful,” Kubiak said. “But there are certain guys you have no doubt staying up for, saying, ‘Put him on your team.’ And he’s one of those guys.”

    Daniels brought pedigree to a position where Peyton Manning had lost Julius Thomas and his two dozen TD catches from 2013-14 to free agency.

    He immediately received an invitation from Manning to attend his annual passing camp at Duke, where the 39-year-old quarterback picked Daniels’ brain about Kubiak’s offensive philosophy.

    Then, Daniels tutored the rest of the offense.

    “He didn’t like directly order me to do that, but … it kind of happened naturally,” Daniels said.

    Daniels had a disappointing start in Denver as the Broncos struggled on offense early on. They were getting used to a new O-line and Manning’s left foot was bothering him. Plus, they had injuries that reduced their ranks at tight end and limited their options.

    Then, Elway brought in Vernon Davis from San Francisco just before the trade deadline and everything changed for Daniels and Virgil Green.

    While Davis has had problems with drops and caught just 20 passes for 201 yards, his presence really opened things up for the other tight ends.

    “It’s been great. Having Vernon here, obviously he’s a super dynamic player who has been playing really well for a long time,” Daniels said. “Having him around, it’s allowed us to do more two-tight end stuff. To have three guys that are really interchangeable out there, he’s been a great asset for us.”

    It’s not just Daniels’ production, but his football instincts that helped the Broncos (14-4) get back to the Super Bowl, where they’ll face the Carolina Panthers (17-1).

    Like his heads-up on Brady’s kneel-down.

    “We tried to do that to another team,” Daniels said, “so I was kind of alert to that.”

    After the game, Daniels searched for Kubiak to soak in the moment.

    “Coach Kube and I obviously, we’ve been together 10 years. Those years in Houston were satisfying because we helped take that franchise from where it was and turn it around to make it a winning franchise expecting to win every year,” Daniels said. “That meant a lot and then for us to just kind of be in this moment together. I was looking for Kube after the game. I couldn’t find him until he was on the stage.”

    After the trophy presentation, the two embraced.

    “We had a little moment,” Daniels said. “I know it means a ton to him to be in this situation. It means a lot to me to share that with him.”

  • Panthers’ Ted Ginn Jr. comes up big vs. former team-Ted Ginn Jr. made the Arizona Cardinals pay for cutting him this past offseason.Discarded just one year into a three-year contract, Ginn beat his former team in almost every way imaginable — catching passes, running reverses, returning punts and even chasing down Patrick Peterson after an interception — helping the Carolina Panthers to a 49-15 win in the NFC championship on Sunday.

    “I felt like deep down inside they felt like I couldn’t do it,” Ginn said. “They sent me back out to the wolves.”

    Ginn caught two passes for 52 yards and set up his own electrifying 22-yard touchdown run with a nifty 32-yard punt return. But maybe his biggest play was chasing down Peterson after an interception in the final minute of the first half.

    Panthers wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery said Ginn didn’t talk much about retribution during the week, but he could tell his buddy was ready to play.

    “You could see that each and every day he had something there,” Cotchery said. “At this point in time in your career when somebody says they don’t want you, but you know you can still play, you want to go out and show it. He did that tonight.”

    Ginn said he left Carolina after the 2013 season to “chase a check,” but was seldom used in Arizona last season.

    He caught just 14 passes for 190 yards and no touchdowns. He was replaced by John Brown as the team’s third receiver and his playing time dwindled.

    After Arizona lost to Carolina in the playoffs last season, several of his former Panthers teammates said he needed to come back home.

    When Ginn was released, the Panthers welcomed the speedster back with a two-year contract — and the move paid off. Ginn caught 44 passes for 739 yards and a career-high 10 touchdowns in the regular season.

    But he may have saved his best game for Sunday.

    With Carolina leading 3-0, Ginn fielded a punt and weaved through traffic for a 32-yard return to set the Panthers up in Arizona territory. Five plays later he took a pitch from Cam Newton, raced around left end on a reverse, changed fields and scored.

    “I did what I always do,” Ginn said. “Pops always told me to use my shoes, so I used my shoes.”

    Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James, a big fan of Ginn’s college team of Ohio State, tweeted after the play “Do work @TedGinnJr_19!! I see you out there.”

    Ginn later caught a 39-yard pass over Peterson.

    And when it looked as if the Cardinals might have a chance of making a comeback, Ginn chased down Peterson after an interception, saving a touchdown. On the next play, Panthers safety Kurt Coleman intercepted Carson Palmer in the end zone and the Cardinals never threatened again.

    “Speed kills — and that is what he did today,” running back Jonathan Stewart said.


  • Brady-Manning among the best rivalries in sports-Tom Brady has more championship rings. Peyton Manning has nearly all the passing records.Fans will always debate which quarterback is better. But there’s no arguing it’s one of the greatest rivalries in sports history.

    So it’s fitting a Super Bowl berth is at stake for Brady-Manning 17.

    Brady and the New England Patriots are trying to repeat and earn their fifth NFL title. Manning and the Denver Broncos are aiming for the franchise’s first championship in 16 years and his second.

    Brady won the first six meetings and he leads the series 11-5. They’re tied 2-2 in the playoffs with Manning winning the last two, including the AFC championship game two years ago.

    Some of the best individual rivalries from the other sports:

    ALI-FRAZIER: Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier fought three times, including two of the most famous matches ever. Frazier defended his heavyweight championship with a unanimous decision over Ali in 1971 at Madison Square Garden in the “Fight of the Century.” Ali won the rematch by decision in 1974. Then came “The Thrilla in Manila” in 1975. Ali won on a TKO after 14 rounds. Honorable mentions: Sugar Ray Leonard vs. Roberto Duran, Ray Robinson vs. Jake LaMotta.

    CHAMBERLAIN-RUSSELL: Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell went head-to-head 142 times over a decade from 1959-1969. Russell’s Boston Celtics beat Chamberlain’s teams 85 games. Chamberlain shattered records. Russell collected championship banners, winning nine to Chamberlain’s one. Honorable mention: Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson.

    NICKLAUS-PALMER: Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer turned golf into a popular spectator sport on television. Nicklaus holds the record with 18 majors while Palmer captured seven in his career. They finished 1-2 four times in majors. Honorable mention: Tiger Woods vs. Phil Mickelson.

    FEDERER-NADAL: Roger Federer has a 17-14 edge over Rafael Nadal in career grand slam victories, but the head-to-head rivalry is one-sided. Nadal leads the series 23-11, including a 9-2 record in grand slams. Nadal’s victory in the 2008 Wimbledon final is considered one of the best tennis matches in history. Both men also have long rivalries with Novak Djokovic. Honorable mentions: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova; John McEnroe vs. Bjorn Borg.

    GRETZKY-LEMIEUX: The Great One vs. The Magnificent One. Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux dominated the NHL for two decades with one of the two players winning the scoring title every year between 1980 and 1997 except for one season. They never faced each other in the playoffs, however. Honorable mention: Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin.

    DIMAGGIO-WILLIAMS: Joltin’ Joe vs. The Splendid Splinter. Yankees-Red Sox had to make the baseball list. Ted Williams remains the last player to hit over .400, but his tremendous 1941 season was overshadowed by Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak. Williams won two AL MVP awards and two triple crowns, but no World Series titles. DiMaggio was a three-time MVP who won nine World Series championships with New York. Honorable mention: Willie Mays vs. Mickey Mantle.

    MESSI-RONALDO: The two best soccer players in the world play in the same league for two powerhouse teams. Since the Ballon d’Or was first awarded to the world’s top player in 2010, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are the only men to win it (Messi, 2010-12, 2015; Ronaldo 2013-14). In 2008, Ronaldo won the FIFA player of the year award, and Messi won in 2009. Messi’s Barcelona team club won the UEFA championship last season, and Ronaldo’s Real Madrid has not won the Spanish league since 2012, giving Messi some recent bragging rights. Internationally, Messi and Argentina lost to Germany in the finals of the World Cup, while Portugal and Ronaldo failed to get out of the group stage.


  • Former NFL star Vince Young arrested for drunken driving– Police say former NFL quarterback Vince Young has been arrested on charges of drunken driving in Austin, Texas.Travis County jail records show that the 32-year-old former Texas star was booked shortly after midnight Monday on a misdemeanor charge of driving while intoxicated. His bond was set at $2,000.

    Austin police spokesman Ivan Ramos said Young was stopped late Sunday north of downtown. An arrest affidavit says Young’s speech was mumbled and slurred. Young was pulled over after an officer saw his car allegedly drifting and changing speeds on Interstate 35.

    Young played six seasons in the NFL, most of it with the Tennessee Titans, after a brilliant career at Texas that included a national title in 2005. He now works for the University of Texas promoting diversity and community engagement.

    In a statement issued Monday, university officials said they were aware of Young’s situation and were working to “determine any appropriate action,” given Young’s position with the university.

  • Cardinals’ 7 turnovers lead to loss in NFC title game– Carson Palmer couldn’t hold onto the football against a relentless defense, causing one of the NFL’s best offenses to sputter.And his defense couldn’t come up with the hard-hitting stops needed to salvage any momentum.

    The Arizona Cardinals picked a terrible time — on the road in the NFC championship game, no less — to have a mistake-filled performance.

    Palmer had six of the Cardinals’ seven turnovers while the defense had a couple of key missed tackles that led to big plays in the Carolina Panthers’ 49-15 win on Sunday night, sending the Panthers to their second Super Bowl while ending what had been the Cardinals’ winningest season with a thud.

    “This is as low as you can feel,” Palmer said in a hushed tone. “You put so much in and you come in here with such high expectations, and to leave the way we’re leaving just hurts.”

    Palmer threw four interceptions and was stripped for a pair of fumbles, while All-Pro cornerback Patrick Peterson fumbled a punt return in the first half. And many of those miscues helped Carolina roll to a 24-7 halftime lead with an outcome that was — shockingly — never in doubt.

    This wasn’t what anyone could have expected from the Cardinals, whose 13 regular-season wins allowed them to dethrone the two-time NFC champion Seattle Seahawks as NFC West champions. And they were in contention for home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs until losing at home in a blowout to the Seahawks in the regular-season finale to finish with the NFC’s No. 2 seed behind Carolina.

    Still, they entered the playoffs as maybe the most complete team in the league statistically. They had the league’s No. 2 scoring offense (30.6 points) and top total offense (408.3 yards), while the defense ranked in the top 10 in both scoring (19.6) and total defense (321.7).

    That group never showed up in Charlotte.

    Palmer was inconsistent in earning his first career playoff win in last week’s overtime thriller against Green Bay in the divisional round. He struggled throughout on Sunday night, constantly shuffling against the oncoming rush and never looking comfortable.

    He finished 23 for 40 for 235 yards with one touchdown, throwing a late pick-6 to Luke Kuechly followed by another interception as the game turned into a rout.

    “I was definitely forcing it,” Palmer said. “And like I said, I put us in that hole.”

    Meanwhile, Arizona’s defense allowed several big plays. It started early when cornerback Justin Bethel missed a chance to bring down Ted Ginn Jr. near the line of scrimmage, and Ginn weaved his way across the field for a 22-yard touchdown for Carolina’s first score.

    There was an even bigger miss late in that opening quarter, when safety Rashad Johnson had a chance to tackle receiver Philly Brown after a big catch near midfield. But Johnson couldn’t drag him down, spring Brown free for an 86-yard touchdown that pushed Carolina’s lead to 17-0.

    “With the misdirection they do, they do a great job of bringing guys in motion, running the ball back from where the motion came,” Johnson said. “Just a lot of unorthodox things, and we just weren’t very sound in our defense today.”

    Turns out, it was just the start of a horrific night, with Arizona giving up more points and yards (476) than it had all season.

    And for the second straight year, the Cardinals’ season ended in a double-digit loss at Carolina.

    “If you’re not putting a ring on your finger, if that confetti isn’t falling on your head, it’s a bad year,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said.

    “You have to look back and see a lot of positive things. To win 14 games, to win a playoff game, to be here in the championship game, those are all positive things.

    “But we’re not about that. We’re about winning a championship.”

  • Gostkowski’s PAT streak ends at 523– An hour after the game, New England kicker Stephen Gostkowski still felt the sting of a rare missed extra point.Gostkowski sent his PAT wide right early in a 20-18 loss to the Denver Broncos on Sunday in the AFC championship game. It was his first missed PAT in nine years.

    “I just feel terrible,” Gostkowski said. “All day, these guys put their bodies and lives on the line, and for me to come out here and miss a kick, it’s a nightmare scenario. I can’t even explain how I feel right now. It’s just a complete shock and I let a lot of people down.”

    His teammates weren’t about to lay the blame at the right foot of Gostkowski, who had made an NFL-record 523 consecutive PATs.

    “You definitely shouldn’t put the heat on him. It’s a team game,” tight end Rob Gronkowski said. “You can’t put it on the hands of Steph. There’s no way.”

    Gostkowski said he just didn’t “hit a good kick” following Steven Jackson’s 1-yard touchdown run with 1:49 remaining in the first quarter. After the miss, the Broncos held a 7-6 lead.

    Gostkowski’s only other miss came in Week 17 of his rookie season in 2006 against Tennessee.

    After Gronkowski caught a 4-yard TD pass with 12 seconds remaining in the game, the Patriots went for the 2-point conversion as they tried to tie the game. On the attempt, Tom Brady’s pass was picked off.

    “I should have been out there kicking the tying extra point and helping us go into overtime,” Gostkowski said. “I had a good week of practice. Sometimes, things don’t fall your way.

    “It just stinks. It’s a nightmare. You want to help your team win. You don’t want to be the reason you lose.”


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