These four specific matchups could decide which two of the Cardinals, Panthers, Patriots and Broncos will be on the way to Super Bowl 50. 

By Doug Farrar
January 20, 2016

Football is a game of matchups, and a team’s strengths and weaknesses loom larger and larger as it gets deeper into the postseason. Ahead of the conference championship games, here are four specific matchups that could decide which two teams will be on the way to Santa Clara for Super Bowl 50.

AFC Championship Game (3:05 p.m. ET, CBS)

Julian Edelman vs. Denver’s underneath defenders

When the Broncos beat the Patriots 30–24 in overtime in Week 12, Tom Brady was without receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, and Rob Gronkowski was hurt late in the game. Those injuries contributed to New England’s clunky finish to the regular season, but with all three targets back, Brady has returned to form. Everybody knows that Gronk is the obvious physical mismatch; discussions of how to cover him consistently are purely hypothetical. However, when it comes to moving the chains in the passing game against any type of defense, I’d argue that Edelman is second in importance to Gronk, thanks to his complete grasp of New England’s highly complicated option route system. Option routes are always determined by a defender’s actions, and quarterback and receiver have to be on the same page for that to work out. Brady and Edelman have that connection, and it’s crucial to the play-to-play consistency of the Patriots’ offense.

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“He’s been one of our best players, most dependable and consistent players, for as long as he’s had the opportunity to be in there and play that role,” Brady said of Edelman in December. “So the more of those guys you can have out there, the better you’re going to be.”

Edelman returned for the Patriots’ divisional round win over the Chiefs, suffering three drops in the first quarter, but recovering to amass a team-leading 10 catches for 100 yards. The Chiefs’ estimable defense is similar to Denver’s in some respects, but let’s take a trip back to Week 9 of the 2014 season, when New England beat Denver 43–21 and Edelman caught nine balls for 89 yards and a touchdown.

That touchdown was a five-yard reception—nothing flashy, but as is true with a lot of Patriots passing plays, there’s a lot to take note of when you look deeper. First, the backfield is empty before the snap, but running back Jonas Gray moves into the backfield and Edelman shifts closer to the formation to discern that the Broncos are playing man coverage. With Edelman closer on the right side, this is a trips package with Edelman outside, Gronk in the middle and Amendola inside. At the snap, Edelman and Amendola run sharp crossing routes as a man-beater to get single coverage on all their targets. Edelman makes a strong outside cut before turning toward the goalpost and getting inside position on safety T.J. Ward.

An easy pitch-and-catch for Brady, but it was schemed up that way. With as much man coverage as they play, the Broncos can expect to see more of this in the AFC title game.

Denver’s pass rush vs. Tom Brady’s quick trigger

The Patriots have used an incredible 37 different offensive line combinations this season, and while that’s due in part to injuries, it’s also something New England’s coaching staff has explored as a strategic advantage. Against the Jaguars earlier this season, New England had nine drives and used different line combinations on all of them. It works to a large degree because the Patriots’ passing offense has evolved from a full-field attack to more of a timing-and-rhythm game, and the idea is for Brady to get the ball out as quickly as he possibly can. This season, per Pro Football Focus, Brady has gotten the ball out in an average of 2.34 seconds—only Peyton Manning has been faster at 2.33. Brady has completed 71% of his passes and taken just 10 sacks in the 250 dropbacks in which he’s thrown in 2.5 seconds or less, compared with a 47.5% completion rate and 29 sacks when throwing after 2.6 seconds. When he has been pressured this season, Brady has thrown 15 touchdown passes with just three interceptions.

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However, in that Week 12 loss to the Broncos, Brady was pressured on 15 of his 42 attempts, completing just four passes, though one of them was for a touchdown. It was by far the most obvious example of Brady getting consistently hurried, and that’s a combination of the Broncos’ merciless pass rush and the ability of their defensive backs to disrupt the timing of those quick routes with their physicality and aggressiveness.

“Sometimes he doesn’t even need an offensive line,” Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller said of Brady on Wednesday. “It’s just that connection with Gronkowski, the connection with Edelman and with Amendola and all of the receivers that he has is just instantaneous. It’s just, ‘Hut,’ and boom, [pass] right now. Half of the time, he doesn’t even need pass [protection]. He’s doing most of it himself. We’re going to have to be tight in the secondary, which I expect us to be. We will have to get a pass rush every down because you never know what opportunity is going to present itself for you to go and make a big play.”

Brady performed surgery without anesthetic on Denver’s defense during the Patriots’ first drive of their regular season meeting: four attempts, four completions, capped by a 23-yard touchdown pass to Gronk. On none of those passes did he take more than three steps in his drop. From then on, Denver’s defenders got even more physical with Brady’s receivers, forcing them to make highly contested catches. Things started to break down bit by bit, and late in the first quarter, end Derek Wolfe came through with a sack thanks to the combination that has been kryptonite for Brady throughout his career: pressure from interior defensive linemen and route timing disruption across the field.

Brady took a five-step drop on this play, and right away, you can see that his reads aren’t going to be easy. When he hits his back foot, his only open target downfield is Gronkowski running across the middle of the field underneath Von Miller, but before he can make that read and get rid of the ball, Wolfe busts through the double-team and brings him down.

DeMarcus Ware, when asked on Wednesday about Brady’s ability to the ball out in under two seconds against the Chiefs:

“It means that I have to get off the ball a little quicker and I need to get to him in 1.8 seconds, to be honest with you. With a guy like Brady, you have to be able to have good corners, which we have that can give the pass rushers a little extra time to get there. If he’s getting the ball off in 1.9 seconds, nobody is ever going to get to him. You can see that from the Kansas City game, in which they had [Kansas City LB] Tamba Hali and they had [Kansas City LB Justin] Houston and they still couldn’t get there. You have to be able to have those corners to buy you just a little more time to get to him.”

Denver has done it before, and they can do it again. They’d better, if they want to advance.

NFC Championship Game (6:40 p.m. ET, FOX)

Carolina’s multiple run game vs. Arizona’s gap discipline

The Panthers led the league in points scored this season with 500, and while Cam Newton had a lot to do with that as a pure passer (his 36-touchdown, 10-interception season is no fluke), offensive coordinator Mike Shula has implemented some fascinating rushing concepts that make his offense so diverse. While most teams look to create chunk plays in the passing game—the Cardinals do this better and more often than anybody else—Carolina will try to create huge swaths of yardage in the run game, and they have quite a few ways of doing that.

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Carolina’s ground attack also starts with Newton, of course. This season, he rushed for 636 yards and 10 touchdowns, finishing first among quarterbacks in Football Outsiders’s rushing efficiency metrics. Attacking a quarterback built like Calvin Johnson who isn’t afraid of power running schemes is a unique experience for a defense. Newton is a throwing quarterback, a running quarterback and a pure runner all in one, and a big pain in the butt for any defense he faces. Add in halfback Jonathan Stewart and fullback Mike Tolbert, and this ground game has the talent to hum when it’s healthy.

But the real worry for any defense is the way Shula deploys his weapons, and that’s not just the guys in the backfield. The Panthers use a ton of ghost motion from their receivers to reveal what defenders are anticipating, they break out dual- and triple-option run concepts, and when they add in sweeps with speed receiver Ted Ginn Jr., it’s almost too much to handle. Finally, Carolina’s blocking concepts—old-school but performed with a high degree of consistency—seal the deal.

This 43-yard run by Ginn in Week 7 against the Eagles shows all of these aspects. No, the Eagles don’t have the defense Arizona does, but Philadelphia employed a hybrid front with some real run-stopping studs in Fletcher Cox and Bennie Logan. End Calais Campbell and his cohorts in the Cardinals’ front seven will be studying plays like this all week long, and the mantra has to be “gap discipline.”

At the snap, there are two stress points: the chance Newton takes the ball himself to run or throw, and the play-fake to Tolbert. Then, Ginn adds a complication by running an end-around from wide right, and Newton pitches him the ball. The point of this exercise is to present a defense with option anxiety, and that happens here. But also, watch how well-blocked this play is. Before Ginn even turns the corner to the left sideline, he’s got a wall of blockers in front of him.

“There’s so much he can do,” Campbell said of Newton on Wednesday. “He throws a very good deep ball. He’s very elusive, he’s hard to bring down. I have a lot of respect for him. His play-action game is unbelievable, and that works when you can run the ball for four or five yards a pop. If we can get them for no gains and losses and get them in long situations, you can really pass rush. If you can’t do that, you have no chance.”

Larry Fitzgerald vs. Cortland Finnegan

The Cardinals ranked second in the league in points scored this season with 489, and though they can certainly run the ball when needed, especially with rookie David Johnson in the backfield, Bruce Arians’s offense is based on the combination of deep vertical routes on one side of the field, and short-to-intermediate passing concepts on the other. The canard that Arians prefers to go empty backfield and just sling the ball deep is misleading—as Carson Palmer told me last November, it’s all about balance and putting the opponent on its heels.

“There aren’t a bunch of tendencies that you see on film where you know a certain play’s coming,” Palmer said of his head coach's game plans. “He’s very, very careful in designing plays and designing a game plan with what’s on film from the previous month or two. He always tries to keep you guessing. One week it will be a whole bunch of runs out of one formation. The next week it’ll be all passes. So he makes it really tough to find a tendency in what he’s doing.”

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A primary weapon of that diverse offense is the presence of Larry Fitzgerald in the slot. This season, the future Hall of Famer logged 66 targets in the slot, with 54 receptions for 638 yards and three touchdowns. Fitzgerald can still be an outside threat as well, of course, but it’s in the slot where he makes defenders pay with his advanced understanding of coverages and how to exploit them. Especially when the rest of Arians’s offense is on the ball.

This 17-yard touchdown against the Seahawks in Week 17 is instructive to what the Panthers may see on Sunday. Fitzgerald is in the right slot, covered by cornerback DeShawn Shead. Richard Sherman is on Shead’s left, playing outside bail coverage, and linebacker Bobby Wagner is the Mike linebacker in Seattle’s nickel defense. At the snap, Palmer fakes a handoff to Johnson, and things break down for Seattle right away: Wagner bites on the fake and takes a step forward, Shead peeks at the outside receiver and Fitzgerald runs to the open void in the defense, making an easy catch. From there, he pinballs his way into the end zone.

Like the Seahawks, the Panthers play a ton of Cover-3 over the top. They don’t blitz a lot, preferring to get pressure with their front four and letting their linebackers roam free to help cover. It’s been an effective strategy for Carolina, but with primary slot cornerback Bené Benwikere out for the remainder of the season with a broken leg, inside coverage has become the responsibility of veteran Cortland Finnegan. Though Finnegan was roasted time and again in coverage on the perimeter over the last few seasons, he’s actually proven to be fairly effective inside. He’s allowed 20 catches on 30 targets with no touchdowns and a pick in that role, but odds are he hasn’t faced anyone like Fitzgerald yet.

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