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Lessons From Championship Sunday

Posted Jan 24, 2016

You wonder what Doug Pederson saw when he watched the NFL’s Championship Sunday as Denver edged New England and Carolina walloped Arizona, setting up a fantastic showdown for Super Bowl 50 two Sundays from now ...

You wonder what Doug Pederson saw when he watched the NFL’s Championship Sunday as Denver edged New England and Carolina walloped Arizona, setting up a fantastic showdown for Super Bowl 50 two Sundays from now.

Likely, he saw the same things we all saw: Denver's defense won the day in the AFC and the Panthers continued to show the distance they've enjoyed all season from the rest of the NFC contenders.

There are tried-and-true elements to a championship team, as Pederson knows from his playing days when he was a backup quarterback on two NFC Champion Packers team, one that won the Super Bowl. He knows it as a coach, too, understanding the 11-game winning streak the Chiefs enjoyed in 2015 before losing last week in New England.

Pederson wants the advantage in field position, so special teams are a huge part of the equation. He wants his offense to stay aggressive, limit turnovers and run the football well.

“It all starts with the offensive line,” Pederson says.

And the defense must play with an addytude and bring the hammer, take the football away, create short fields for the offense and look for six points the other way.

It’s Winning Football 101, and those tenants were on display in both games on Sunday.

What did we learn watching those games?

Denver defeated New England in Game 1 because the Broncos were dominating up front, remarkable off the edge with DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller, and because the back end did just enough to keep New England under wraps. The coverage schemes were outstanding. Denver’s secondary has long been among the game’s best, and when you combine the relentless pressure off the edge that forced Patriots quarterback Tom Brady to rush his throws all game with a blanket approach against receivers Julian Edelman (7 catches, only 53 yards) and Danny Amendola (5 catches, 39 yards) and a roving double team against the unstoppable Rob Gronkowski at tight end (8 catches, 144 yards and a touchdown) you understand why New England scored only 18 points.

Brady needed 56 passing attempts to gain 310 yards. He tossed two early interceptions – one that turned into a Denver touchdown and the second that changed field position late in the first half and helped the Broncos get in position for a field goal. Brady really didn’t have a chance given the amount of pressure he faced with the lack of a running game.

Denver’s offense wasn’t much better after a 17-point first half. But the Broncos won the turnover battle, played very well on special teams and won by making a stop on a two-point conversion try necessitated by a Stephen Gostkowski missed PAT early in the game for New England.

Quarterback Peyton Manning heads to Super Bowl 50, which could prove to be a fine ending for one of the game’s greatest quarterbacks. For Denver to win it all, the Broncos will have to play lights-out defense and give Manning and the struggling Denver offense some short fields with which to work. The red-hot Carolina Panthers, losers of just one game this season, go into the Super Bowl playing better than any team in the league.

Offensive coordinator Mike Shula has done a remarkable job crafting an offense with that team, minus its best wide receiver, Kelvin Benjamin. Quarterback and sure-thing league MVP Cam Newton has so much to his game as a runner and a passer, and he’s gotten excellent play from the cast around him – the offensive line has been outstanding, the running game punishing and the wide receivers a fine complement to tight end Greg Olsen, the major threat in the passing game.

Carolina’s defense took the ball away from Arizona six times on Sunday (a seventh takeaway came on a punt return) and it is a special group – as it has been all season -- starting with a front that is punishing. That front four dominates, and the play there allows Pro Bowl linebackers Luke Kuechly, who scored on a pick-six, and Thomas Davis, who exited the game with an arm injury, to fly to the football. The Panthers have done a great job coaching cornerback Josh Norman into a star and getting good mileage from role players like safety Kurt Coleman, who has blossomed in that scheme and had two interceptions on Sunday.

The Eagles have a lot of work to do to catch up to teams like the Panthers and the Broncos. They’ve got to find the right answer at quarterback and Sam Bradford’s scheduled free agency in March is the top personnel decision the Eagles must make. The offensive line needs work. The defense has some pieces, and coordinator Jim Schwartz has some pieces on that side of the ball. Dave Fipp’s special teams slipped just a tad in 2015 – the Eagles were ranked first in 2014’s Dallas Morning News’ comprehensive rankings compiled by Rick Gosselin and ranked fifth in the 2015 season – but were still outstanding, with some ground to make up in 2016.

Super Bowl 50 is set, and it should be a great game. Denver earned home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs, something that clearly paid off for the Broncos. Carolina was simply the best team in the NFC from the start of the season to the end, and the Eagles saw that first hand. Who wins in two weeks? The Panthers look like the better team from top to bottom and it would be no surprise if head coach Ron Rivera, of the Andy Reid coaching tree, brings home the Lombardi Trophy to Carolina.

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