By Graham Gillespie
The 2016 NFL divisional playoff weekend started off with the league’s old guard returning to the fore. In Glendale, the Arizona Cardinal’s 32 year old wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald caught a Carson Palmer pass by the left side-line before embarking on a mazy diagonal run ending on the Green Bay Packers five yard line. The next play saw Fitzgerald finish the job he started by crossing over for a touchdown to seal the 26-20 overtime victory and a place in the NFC conference championship game next weekend. In the other games the veterans Tom Brady and Julian Edelman led the New England Patriots past the Kansas City Chiefs setting up yet another tie with Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. However, all these iconic players were outshone this weekend by the Carolina Panthers spearheaded by the flamboyant Cam Newton.
The most obvious comparison that could be made with this year’s surprise package the Panthers is with Leicester City’s exploits in the Premier League. After having an average 2014 season, Carolina have been imperious in the 2015 regular season losing just one game and like Leicester have the fewest losses in their respective league. Given that both teams also wear similar colours it cannot be a shock to discover that the two teams have become kindred spirits and are supporting one another on social media. Both these teams have also been driven by players performing like superstars, Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez in the case of Leicester and quarterback Cam Newton for Carolina.
Unlike Vardy and Mahrez, Newton has always been seen as an exciting prospect being the recipient of the Heisman Trophy for best college player in 2010, but after five years in the league he is now living up to the hype that was attached to him in his early career. In what was a fairly underwhelming regular season Newton was one of the few people who added excitement, intrigue, joy and even a little bit of controversy to the pre-playoff phase of the season. Not only Newton’s ability to combine a solid passing skillset with a staggeringly athletic running game, but also his infectious personality have been the fulcrum to why success has been brought to Charlotte this season. The eternally smiling Atlanta native can be seen on the pitch either giving the game ball to children in the crowd or “dabbin” after scoring a touchdown (this bizarrely got him into trouble with some buzzkills to whom his response was “if you don’t want me to watch me dance do something about it”). The Panthers on Sunday blew out the Seattle Seahawks in the first two quarters taking a 31-0 first half lead against one of the league’s best away defences. Seattle did come back in true Seahawk fashion but Carolina managed to hold on and surely now must be considered of having an extremely strong chance of lifting the Super bowl on February 7th. He may not have Tom Brady’s ruthless winning mentality or Peyton Manning’s experience but Cam Newton’s thrilling explosiveness might well be enough to propel the Carolina Panthers to the Vince Lombardi trophy.
So it’s Brady vs Manning ….again.
Tom Brady was in excellent form for the Patriots beating the Chiefs on Saturday in Foxborough, completing eight out of his first eleven passes as well as going through a spell of completing fourteen passes in a row. As a result of his razor sharp form he passed two touchdowns along with rushing one himself. While the TD passes were caught by the force of nature that is Rob Gronkowski, the man on the end of the majority of Brady’s passes was his trusted lieutenant Julian Edelman. On his return from injury Edelman caught ten passes and nearly always gave Brady a quick option which enabled a flow to develop in Brady’s passing, proving how vital the 29 year old wide receiver is to the Patriot’s offence.
In the final game of the weekend two quarterbacks who have had controversies loom over them either recently or in the past. The Denver Broncos and Peyton Manning, who has been accused by an Al Jazeera documentary of using human growth hormone to recover from an injury, prevailed against a man whose issues are far more serious and heinous :Ben Roethlisberger and his Pittsburgh Steelers. The Bronco’s victory set up another clash for Manning against Brady at Mile High in Denver on Sunday and it feels like we’ve been through all of this too many times before. Although Brady has the advantage in head to head games between the two, when it comes to playoff games they are tied at two wins each. However apart from maybe the 2007 playoff game between the Indianapolis Colts and Patriots there has not been a classic Brady-Manning play-off game. With many now perhaps viewing Brady as the superior quarterback and therefore greatest player of his generation after winning his fourth Super bowl ring last season (more than Peyton Manning and his brother Eli combined), Manning may see Sunday as last chance to redress the balance of power and get one up over his nemesis perhaps for the last time.