1. Bouncing Carolina’s way: The most impressive stat of the 2015 regular season was Carolina’s 116 net turnover points — 40 more than any other team. The Panthers scored 148 points off takeaways while surrendering 32 off giveaways.
That trend continued Sunday. Carolina won the turnover battle 2-0, scored 10 points off turnovers and beat Seattle by seven in an NFC divisional game. Seattle threw two picks in 16 minutes after throwing nine in 17 games.
The Panthers had an NFL-high 39 takeaways — six more than any other team — while leading the league in turnover ratio at plus-20. No other team was better than plus-14.
How often do we spend six days talking about Hall of Fame quarterbacks and play-calling? And how often does someone like Steelers running back Fitzgerald Toussaint end up fumbling at a critical moment to turn Ben Roethlisberger’s win into Peyton Manning’s win?
Carolina is 16-1 with 41 takeaways and a plus-22 turnover margin. Give me Carolina at home against Arizona.
2. Moore is more in Arizona: The Vikings may need a receiver, but Minnesota is well stocked with Twin Cities natives Larry Fitzgerald Jr. and Michael Floyd scoring left and right for the Cardinals.
But look beyond those two because there’s another familiar Minnesotan making an impact in the desert: Tom Moore, the 77-year-old assistant head coach and offensive consultant to 63-year-old head coach Bruce Arians.
Moore started coaching in 1961 at Iowa. He was a Gophers assistant in the 1970s and a Vikings assistant in the ’90s. He won two Super Bowls with Chuck Noll in Pittsburgh and one with the Colts when he was teamed with Manning and Tony Dungy, his quarterback at Minnesota.
Those close to Moore say he was rejuvenated when he had double knee-replacement surgery in 2011. Harold Goodwin, 42, is the Cardinals offensive coordinator, but Moore’s fingerprints are on Arizona’s top-ranked attack.
3. Pats hide O-line woes: The best game plan of the weekend belonged to Patriots coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. They hid one of New England’s biggest weaknesses — pass protection — from one of Kansas City’s biggest strengths — pass rush — by opening the game with 14 passes and finishing with 42 and nary a sack in 56 snaps.
It sounds counterintuitive until you watch how fast the ball leaves the pocket over and over again. Yes, it helps having Tom Brady rifling those short passes. Yes, it helped having Julian Edelman, the best in the league at catching and advancing the hardest point-blank passes a slot receiver will ever see. But it still seems like something other teams with subpar lines could implement.
If the Patriots were to defend their Super Bowl title, their regular-season rushing average of 87.8 yards per game would be the lowest by a Super Bowl champion. Even the 2011 Giants, who ranked last in rushing, averaged 89.2 yards per game.
4. It’s the ‘D’ in Denver: In his one season as Vikings defensive coordinator (2011), Fred Pagac had to conduct weekly news conferences. He hated talking to reporters, so it made for some short Q&As. For example, Fred was asked to describe Aaron Rodgers. He said, “Aaron Rodgers is a good football player.” Asked to elaborate, Fred said, “He’s a real good football player.”
Today, Pagac is the position coach of one of the NFL’s more dominant position groups: Denver’s outside linebackers.
We all know Sunday’s AFC title game is being called Brady-Manning XVII. Brady is 11-5 overall against Peyton Manning, but they’re tied 2-2 in the postseason.
Manning tried to tamp down the quarterback hype a little when he corrected a sideline reporter who asked him what it was like to lead his team to the AFC Championship Game.
“Our defense has led us to this point,” Manning said. “Let’s make that clear.”
Pagac’s linebackers hold the primary key to the next step. But even facing the league’s best pass rush on the road, give me Belichick and Brady one more time.