NFL Conference Championship: Who’s going to Super Bowl 50?

Super Bowl 50

Denver Broncos tight end Owen Daniels (81) celebrates his reception for a touchdown in the second quarter. The Denver Broncos hosted the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on Sunday, Jan. 24, 2016.

Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

So here we are. 266 games later, we’re down to just two teams and one game for all the marbles. The Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers punched their tickets to Super Bowl 50 on Sunday. For the Broncos, it’s their second Super Bowl appearance in three years; this is the Panthers’ second appearance ever after advancing to the big game in 2004 (which was overshadowed by Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction”).

Your resident NFL writer correctly predicted the outcome of Sunday’s games (even though the predictions of the final scores were way-off). Here’s a look back at how we got here.

Broncos 20, Patriots 18

It was a battle of the two greatest quarterbacks of our generation, they said. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning will put on a show for the ages, they said. Brady is as dominant as ever, they said. Manning is past his prime, they said. Leading up to the game between the Broncos and the Patriots, all the hubbub was about Brady and Manning, yet the AFC Championship was determined by defense.

But first, it was a technological mishap that made waves as the Patriots’ Microsoft Surface tablets stopped working early in the game. By that point, the Broncos, who reported no issues with their tablets, were leading 14-6. Of course, the Internet had some fun at New England’s expense. Forget Deflategate, this year it’s all about #Tabletgate.

Playing with a lead, Denver’s number-one ranked defensive front brought the pain and sacked Brady four times and put a total of 23 hits on the him. Brady threw 56 passes and completed 27 of them for 310 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions and even led New England’s nonexistent rushing attack with 13 yards on the ground. Despite the Broncos’ relentless pressure, Tom-Terrific was able to orchestrate a late scoring drive to give the Patriots the opportunity to tie the game with a two-point conversion. But Denver didn’t blink and Bradley Roby picked off Brady’s pass to seal the game. It was an unfortunate end to the season for the Brady and the Patriots, who overcame a myriad of injuries and dragged a depleted roster within one game of the Super Bowl.

Manning was an efficient 17-for-32 for 176 yards and two touchdowns, both going to tight end Owen Daniels. Von Miller had himself a day with five tackles, two-and-a-half sacks and in interception. But it wasn’t all good. The offense failed to convert on red-zone opportunities in the second half and had to settle for field goals which left the door open for a Patriots comeback. Denver’s failure to put the nail in the coffin should be concerning going forward, considering the offensive juggernaut it will be facing in the Carolina Panthers. But we don’t want to rain on the Broncos’ parade so enjoy this moment, Denver.

Panthers 49, Cardinals 15

At one point, this game became just brutal to watch. It was like watching a Britney Spears meltdown in the 2000s. It was like watching the Titanic sink or the Hindenburg catch fire. It was like watching “Failure to Launch” with Matthew McConaughey, or any of his Lincoln commercials with the sound off.

Carolina beat the brakes off Arizona. It was never close. The Cardinals looked out-of-sorts from the word go and the Panthers looked like they were having a ton of fun. Cam Newton was Superman and then some, completing 19-of-28 passes for 335 yards and two touchdowns and rushing for 47 yards and two more scores. Carolina’s defense forced a total of seven turnovers, six from Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer with four interceptions and two fumbles. Palmer benefited from some divine intervention to win the divisional round game in overtime, but this time out he received no such luck and the #HotTakes were out in force:

The Panthers head into the Super Bowl as the odds-on favorite, and they should be after a performance like this. A week after nearly blowing a 31-point lead to the Seattle Seahawks, Carolina left no doubt and kept its foot on the gas the entire game. It’s impossible to deny how brilliant Newton has been all season, from leading the Panthers to a 15-1 record to defeating the two-time defending conference champs to completely dominating the number-two seed and having fun the entire time.

“It’s hard work just paying off, believing in coaching,” Newton told SiriusXM NFL Radio after the game. “I’m happy for the organization, for Mr. [Jerry] Richardson, for all the players, as well as the fans. Charlotte’s been anticipating this type of season for a long time and we’re not done yet, we got one more game to finish the deal.”

So here we are. Super Bowl 50 will have feature the old lion vs. the young cub, the fading Peyton Manning vs. the rising Cam Newton. The Panthers should enter the game feeling strong, something like…

But the Broncos have reason to believe, too. As the old saying goes, defense wins championships, and Denver boasts the best defense in the league. As long as the game doesn’t turn into a dance battle between Manning and Newton, the Broncos will have a shot to win.

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