Championship Sunday's best statistics

Posted Jan 25, 2016

The 2015 season was one in which quarterbacks generally had their way and defenses were playing catch-up in an era where it is becoming increasingly difficult to make an impact on that side of the ball.

This year we saw record highs across the league for completion percentage (63.0), passing yards per game (487.7), passing touchdowns (842) and passer rating (90.2). There were 11 quarterbacks who threw for more than 30 touchdown strikes and the 436 interceptions thrown across the NFL were the lowest in a 16-game season since 1978.

To put those offensive numbers into context, let’s remember that this has not been a banner year for quarterback play around the league. This has been a season that has seen the likes of Jimmy Clausen, Ryan Mallett, Johnny Manziel, Austin Davis, Brandon Weeden, Case Keenum, Kellen Moore and Luke McCown starting under center.

Those kind of gaudy numbers have led to complaints that the rules are skewed too much in favour of the offenses around the NFL. On Sunday night, the Denver Broncos struck back for fans of defensive football and showed that you can still turn to this old adage every now and then…

Offense sells tickets… Defense wins championships!

The Broncos were outstanding on that side of the football in the AFC Championship Game as they battered, bruised and confused Tom Brady on their way to a dramatic 20-18 win that dragged Peyton Manning to a fourth Super Bowl appearance.

Now, it should be noted that Brady went down swinging and throwing punches like a true champion but his offense was no match for the Denver defense for much of a fascinating encounter.

Brady was intercepted twice, sacked four times and hit on 20 occasions by a Wade Phillips defense that brought pressure from all over the field. Importantly, the Broncos proved they were able to get pressure on Brady with just three rushers, allowing more players to drop into coverage.

Phillips always seemed to be one step ahead of Brady and New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and the pairing of Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware was just so dominant against the over-matched tackles, Sebastian Vollmer and Marcus Cannon.

And with New England going empty backfield so often, there was not a lot of help offered to that pair. Miller had 2 ½ sacks and an interception but Ware proved that statistics can be misleading. He only registered half a sack but I thought he took over proceedings late in the contest and was camped in the Patriots backfield.

Denver also played well on the back end, making Brady toss up contested throws time and again. It is virtually impossible to keep Rob Gronkowski (8 catches for 144 yards and 1 touchdown) and Julian Edelman (7 catches for 53 yards) quiet for an entire game, but they certainly took the latter of that duo out of the contest. Brady had to target James White 16 times during the game – perhaps that is a sign that Wade pulled a Belichick and took away New England’s best passing attack options?

Now the Broncos will face the most physically imposing quarterback on the planet in the 50th Super Bowl and they will be well aware that Cam Newton is well protected by an offensive line that has surprised many in 2015.

But the Broncos will also know that the Carolina attack is not renowned for getting the ball out of Cam’s hands in a Brady-like 2.1 seconds. So the likes of Miller and Ware will be expecting to make plays in the backfield.

And if they can, the Broncos might yet offer up one last serving of the argument that defense does indeed still matter in today’s pass-happy NFL.

Now onto this week’s numbers…

523… Stephen Gostkowski had made 523 consecutive extra point attempts before pushing his first effort wide right on Sunday. It proved to be a devastating blow for the Pats because they trailed by two instead of one after Gronk’s touchdown catch with 12 seconds remaining and could not kick the game into overtime. This was exactly the kind of drama the NFL was seeking when it moved the extra point attempt back to the 15-yard line this off-season, turning a chip-shot into a 33-yard nerve-jangler. There were 71 missed extra point attempts in the regular season and one in the playoffs before Gostkowski stepped up to the plate. But there was no bigger miss than this one and it hurt New England’s chances of advancing to the Super Bowl. As for the rule – which is to be reviewed after the season – I would say it is here to stay.

7… That’s the number of turnovers committed by the Arizona Cardinals as they fell to a 49-15 humiliation at the hands of the Carolina Panthers. Sure, some of these turnovers came once they were chasing a game that was becoming increasingly out of reach, but that is unacceptable for a competitive team that went into Sunday’s contest with genuine Super Bowl aspirations. Carson Palmer looked shaky for the second outing in a row and I would not be surprised if we hear that the finger on his throwing hand was more significantly injured than anyone would let on in the middle of a playoff run. Palmer took too many chances with the football and was not protected well at all – the result was that he accounted for 6 of the Arizona turnovers (4 interceptions and 2 lost fumbles) and will now have to live with that miserable showing through the entire off-season, erasing memories of his outstanding play for much of 2015.

3-13… Let’s go back to the Denver-New England game just for one more moment and consider the fact that the Patriots’ leading rusher was Brady with 3 carries for 13 yards. You can gloss over an anaemic running game for a while, but it will come back to hurt you in time. And I think New England lost this battle on first and second downs, making Brady a sitting duck on third down. During the course of Brady’s long afternoon in Denver he faced a third and 8, 14, 9, 10, 13, 10, 13, 10, 10, 11 and a fourth and 10. It’s tough to protect your quarterback and to be consistent on offense in those kind of down and distance scenarios, particularly on the road in front of a raucous crowd.

Monday Musings…

  • Wade Phillips has gone from being unemployed to the Super Bowl in the course of a single year. Good for you, Wade. You showed them you can still coach with the very best of them!
  • Ted Ginn Jr. may have some technical flaws in his game but the Carolina Panthers receiver can flat out fly and has difference-making and game-breaking speed.
  • We got asked in the studio if we would prefer JJ Watt or Luke Kuechly on defense. I know this may seem like a ‘what have you done for me lately?’ kind of move but I’d take Kuechly because I think he can impact more areas of the field.
  • Thomas Davis is an absolute warrior and a great man who has served as an inspiration to many around the NFL. I think Ron Rivera is going to have quite a task keeping his defensive leader on the sidelines for Super Bowl 50, even with a broken arm.
  • If Davis does play, I’m going to spend much of Super Bowl 50 wondering how a hard-hitting linebacker who tackles people for a living can play with a broken arm? It will be heroic.
  • I’m also rooting for medical science to find a quick cure for a broken foot so my old pal, Jared Allen, can get into the big game at defensive end for the Panthers. Again, if Rivera makes him sit, Jared is not going to be happy.
  • Brady and Manning took such a beating in that AFC Championship Game that I half-expected them to meet at midfield like Apollo Creed and Rocky Balboa at the end of the first Rocky movie. Manning: “Ain’t gonna be no re-match.”…. Brady: “Don’t want one.”
  • Kawann Short is such a dominant force at the heart of the Carolina defensive line. His force up the middle against Peyton Manning, who cannot move off the spot all that well, will be key in Super Bowl 50.
  • Has anyone seen or heard from Vernon Davis? I’m sure he moved to the Broncos during the 2015 regular season. If anyone spots him between now and the Super Bowl, please let me know.
  • It was a miserable night from start to finish for the Arizona Cardinals but David Johnson was the lone bright spot and I cannot wait to see how he develops as a second-year player in 2016.

Final Thought

I’ve got to the end of this column without talking too much about Peyton Manning, but he deserves our attention here before wrapping up the Championship Games. Kevin Cadle was quick to point out that Denver reached the Super Bowl with Peyton at the helm, poking fun at my Peyton Manning-related rant from our previous show. But as I pointed out last week, they were going to need either to bench Manning (which they didn’t do) or get a lights out performances on defense (which they did receive) to advance. There is no doubt that Denver’s defense has carried this team to the Super Bowl, but this week more than last, Manning played his part. He threw some nice balls in the first half and even evaded some pressure with his legs. Manning still misses the downfield throws that appear to be beyond him at this stage of his career but he was accurate on some shorter passes. He faded badly in the second half with just 48 passing yards but his defense carried him home. And now after a season in which he has been humbled, injured, benched and even accused of taking performance-enhancing drugs, Peyton Manning stands 60 minutes away from lifting the Vince Lombardi Trophy. And that is why we are always taught to ‘expect the unexpected’ in the NFL.

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