Bill Belichick is a genius. Peyton Manning can’t beat Tom Brady. Manning chokes in the postseason. The NFL playoffs produce upsets. The Panthers might not be for real.
None of those popular notions rang true Sunday, when the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers advanced to Super Bowl 50.
Sunday, Belichick’s mistakes caught up to him, Manning beat Brady again and two No. 1 seeds beat No. 2 seeds to advance.
The Broncos don’t throw the ball well, or even run it efficiently, but they are going to the Super Bowl because of an excellent defensive coach and a devastating pass rush. The Vikings can take heart. They have the former and are getting close to the latter.
The best story of the day was Manning beating Brady to position himself to become the oldest quarterback, at 39, to start in a Super Bowl. Manning improved to 4-1 in AFC Championship Games, giving him victories in his past three title games against Brady. The story line emphasizing Manning’s postseason failings is temporarily on hold.
Manning will practice for the Super Bowl on the football field at Stanford, where Broncos President John Elway played in college. Elway, now Manning’s boss, retired after winning a Super Bowl.
Manning has now taken four coaches to the Super Bowl: Tony Dungy, Jim Caldwell, John Fox and Gary Kubiak.
Sunday, he beat a great coach who has reason to second-guess his season management. Bill Belichick chose to kick off in overtime against the New York Jets and lost the game without Brady seeing the ball in the extra period. He seemed to de-emphasize winning in the season finale against a bad Dolphins team.
Had Belichick won either of those games, the Patriots would have earned home-field advantage. Brady is 16-2 in home playoff games and 3-4 in road playoff games.
Manning produced the best historical narrative of the afternoon, and Cam Newton the best offensive performance. The best inside-football story of the day was Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips turning Tom Brady into the statistical equivalent of Joe Webb. (Joe Webb the quarterback, not Joe Webb the kick returner.)
Before Sunday, Brady had not been hit more than 12 times in a game. Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware and Phillips’ defense hit Brady a chiropractor-pleasing 23 times.
Phillips outcoached the Patriots’ Belichick and Josh McDaniel, who thought they could beat Denver’s pressure with quick passing. By taking away those quick passes, Phillips took full advantage of Miller’s favorable matchup with the right side of the Patriots line. In an effort to exploit the Broncos’ approach, the Patriots tried to make big plays with former Wisconsin running back James White on long passes. White was effective in that role late in the season but proved unable to adjust to deep throws Sunday.
Belichick pushed for the extra point to be pushed back 10 yards this season. Sunday, his kicker, Stephen Gostkowski, missed an extra point after making his last 523 attempts.
Gostkowski’s homage to Blair Walsh is one reason we will have a convenient theme for Super Bowl 50.
Manning, who has won five NFL Most Valuable Player awards (and was kept from a sixth by Adrian Peterson), will face the player most likely to win this year’s MVP award.
The Super Bowl will feature two No. 1 seeds, two great defenses, two tremendous quarterbacks at different stages of their careers.
While the quarterbacks offer an attractive story lines, Sunday offered a reminder that any player on the roster can win or lose a game. Owen Daniels is with this third team. He produced the Broncos’ two touchdowns. Ted Ginn is with his fourth franchise. he produced the first big play in Carolina’s victory.
The Broncos survived their first playoff game this year because of a fumble by little-known running back Fitzgerald Toussaint.
Last year, Malcolm Butler, an undrafted cornerback from West Alabama, produced the play that won the Super Bowl for the Patriots.
Manning vs. Newton is a fascinating study in contrasts, but the more important matchup might feature the first two picks of the 2011 draft, the two players who dominated the title games.
Newton. And Miller.