Bring On Boston: What the Yankees Learned in the Wild Card

The New York Yankees. The Boston Red Sox. In a playoff series. Need I say more?

My editor says I do, so here I am writing this piece. Do not let that take away from the fact that for the first time in almost 15 years, the greatest rivalry in baseball, and arguably in all of sports (high praise coming from a graduate of the Duke-UNC rivalry) returns, in October no less, and it is back with a vengeance.

The feel of this iconic clash is different now. Babe Ruth will not be trading his socks for pinstripes. Alex Rodriguez and Jason Varitek will not be jawing at home plate. The entire game will not come down to David Ortiz and Mariano Rivera, as it always seemed to do. For the love of the baseball gods, Pedro Martinez is not going to throw an elderly bench coach to the ground. Poor Don Zimmer. Even Tyler Austin, the guy who started the lone skirmish between the clubs this year, will be watching from home like the rest of us after getting traded to the Twins in July. Yes, the animosity may seem to have simmered down – maybe because the steroids are out of everyone’s systems – but the competition of Yanks-Sox is as strong as ever.

For the bulk of the season, these were the best teams in baseball, 1a and 1b. A combination of injuries and slumps for the Yankees, coupled with multiple award-winning performances out of the likes of JD Martinez and Mookie Betts, made the division a laugher come late August. Do not let the final standings fool you: both of these teams can play ball. They can mash with the best of them, throw out flamethrower after flamethrower, and feature two of the brightest young coaches in the game. This may even be the best NYY-BOS matchup of all time, since it is the first time we are seeing them go against each other when both have over 100 wins on the season.

While Boston kicked back and watched on Wednesday, New York took care of business to set up this epic clash of titans, dispatching of the upstart Oakland Athletics 7-2 at Yankee Stadium. It followed the scripts experts and fans alike expected out of the Bronx this season: home runs and high heat, and once the Yankees get a late lead, good night. However, the wild card game showed us a lot about how this team is playing right now, both the good and the bad. Everything becomes important in a playoff series, especially against a team as potent as the Red Sox, hot off their best season ever with 108 wins.

So, while everything seemed peachy for the Yankees on Wednesday, let me tell you what I saw from watching every pitch, and what it means towards taking Boston down.

The Lineup

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Aaron Judge needs to stay hot for the Yankee offense to keep clicking.

The Good: What a time to get healthy and hot. Any doubts about Aaron Judge’s wrist were immediately erased when the 116 MPH screamer left the yard in the first inning, and the power kept on coming. Luke Voit, the hottest hitter you’ve never heard of, nearly joined the fray when he came inches short in the 6th off of All-Star closer Blake Treinen, but he was clearly happy with the stand-up two-RBI trible. Giancarlo Stanton hit a towering shot late, outdoing Judge with a 117 MPH, 450-foot moonshot. None of those hits were cheap shots to say the least, but power was not the only thing the Yankees showed. They made one of the best bullpens in baseball work for it, drawing a ton of walks and being selective with their swings. When the Yankees make good swings, the ball goes a long way.

The Bad: The Yankees did end up only having 7 hits in the game, and the only inning where they had more than one was the four-run 6th. The Yankee lineup has been known to be streaky and laden with strikeouts, and they cannot afford to let top-end starters like Chris Sale, David Price and Rick Porcello get in a groove on the mound. Not to mention, a few bats never showed up that need to, in order to make this lineup really groove one through nine. Gleyber Torres and Andrew McCutcheon were quiet, Miguel Andujar only got on with a cheap infield single, and Gary Sanchez’s woes continued. More on him later.

Luis Severino

The Good: Sevy put last year behind him quickly, huh? After not making it out of the first in last year’s wild card game, Severino took a no-hitter into the 5th, where he was pulled after two singles. He had great life on his pitches all night. The fastball velocity was top of the line, probably thanks to the lack of pressure to go deep into a playoff game with a behemoth bullpen backing you up. His slider was equally nasty, causing a lot of swing and misses from the Athletic batters with nasty late movement. Not to mention he pitched well again at home as he continues to shake off the late season slump that cost him a chance at the Cy Young Award. Best part? 5 days rest would put him in line to pitch again on Monday – Game 3, at home again.

The Bad: Did anyone else notice that Severino never seemed to hit the target? He was missing spots for most of the night but was lucky that he never made a bad miss. Perhaps that’s because the Oakland A’s were last in baseball in batting average against fastballs above 97 MPH, and the anticipation of that made his slider look even more devastating. Boston hits too well and has seen Severino too many times to let that happen. Not to mention, it took him 87 pitches to not even make an out in the 5th inning, with 4 walks sprinkled along the way. Severino may have been nasty, but he was not sharp, definitely not enough to continue his success against the Sox.

Gary Sanchez

The Good: Sanchez was one of the biggest question marks about the linuep for the Wild Card game. It was unknown whether he would catch Severino after allowing two big past balls in a loss back in August when the two last worked together against Oakland, but his defense was spectacular on Wednesday. After looking lethargic at backstop all season, Sanchez was moving well behind the plate and blocked every ball expertly. When a pitcher can trust hit catcher to stop balls in front of him, they are less afraid to throw their out pitches in the dirt. What may have been the reason why Severino struggled late season turned into a reason why he, and the relievers after him, performed so well on Wednesday. Calling a good game and hustling on the base paths are other good signs pointing towards putting him back behind the plate for Game 1 on Friday.

The Bad: I did not think I would ever talk about how Gary needs to stay in a lineup because of his defense, because his offense was abysmal again. After hitting .186 in the regular season, he began post-season play without a ball leaving the infield. Flip side? No strikeouts, and putting the ball in play will work well, but Sanchez needs to stop trying to pull everything, causing him to roll over balls to the left side. If he can find his stroke the other way and start making solid contact, he could make a big difference against a Boston team he’s been know to feast on.

The Bullpen

The Good: Besides a well-placed outside fastball that was turned around by the MLB HR leader for a wall scraper in the short right field porch at Yankee Stadium, every guy out of the Yankee pen the other night was frankly unhittable. Dellin Betances, often known to give up others’ runs when coming in with runners on base, worked out of Severino’s mess masterfully. Coupled with a strong second inning, he put 6 up, 6 down with three strikeouts in what may have been one of the best outings I’ve seen from him in a long time. Equally comforting? After injuries late season, Aroldis Chapman got his velocity back, lighting up the gun with 100’s and 101’s while shutting the door for the win. The Yankees will need him sharp to close out close games against the Sox.

The Bad: To be honest? No complaints. Sure, Khris Davis beat Zach Britton on the one pitch, but it was a decent pitch that barely got muscled out of the smallest part of the smallest park in the big leagues. That being said, as the only lefty in the bullpen outside of Chapman, Britton needs to get his confidence back because Aaron Boone needs to be able to rely on his trade deadline pickup. Speaking of the skipper…

Aaron Boone

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Luis Severino made his mark after his manager trusted him once more

The Good: Every call seemed to be on point and immediately justified. Start Severino? Throw 4 no-hit innings? Yank him in the 5th for Betances early with two guys on and no outs? Out of the jam. Take out Andujar and Voit for defensive replacements? Adeiny Hechavarria made one of the greatest leaping catches I’ve ever seen by an infielder, and Neil Walker made a great stab on his knees for the final out of the game. Every lever the rookie manager pulled worked out for the Yankees, meaning the skipper is now undefeated in the postseason.

The Bad: It only gets harder now. Managing the bullpen over a five-game series and navigating Boston’s equally terrifying lineup will be a challenge. Knowing when to insert the likes of Brett Gardner and Austin Romine will be just as difficult of decisions. Boone needs to be decisive and trust his gut in the playoffs, but sometimes the pressure can get to you the first time. Luckily for him, Boston’s rookie skipper Alex Cora faces the same battle, and he does not have a game already under his belt.

Yankee Stadium

The Good: Yankee fans showed up loud and proud for their team. Two pitches into the game, with Severino already ahead in an 0-2 count, the entire stadium was already on their feet. It stayed that way for every two strike pitch the rest of the game. When Judge blasted that one out in the first inning, forget about it. The new stadium erupted in ways that have rarely been seen since the Bombers moved across the street before the 2009 season, and the players seemed to relish in it.

The Bad: They’re the wild card team, which means no home-field advantage until the World Series. When it comes to Boston’s home field, Fenway will be just as hostile of an environment as the Bronx is to outsiders. This is a young team with several key contributors lacking significant playoff experience, and they cannot afford to get rattled by the Boston faithful and come back to New York facing elimination. Steal one away from home and the Yankees could advance on home turf.

I’m excited. The only upsetting part of it is that it’s not a seven-game series, but whoever emerges victorious from this matchup becomes the odd-on favorite to take home the rings. If the Yankees want to pull off the upset, they need to build off the great performance in the wild card game and hit the Red Sox in the mouth in Game 1. If they can get back to the Stadium with a win, they have a chance to do something special. To be the best, you’ve got to beat the best.

Yankees-Red Sox in the playoffs: there’s nothing better.

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Ranking Cities Sports Title Droughts

It has been a wild couple of years in sports in terms of ending title droughts. In 2016, Cleveland won its first championship in any sport in over half a century and the Chicago Cubs broke a 108-year curse by winning the World Series. In 2017, the Houston Astros won their first ever World Series title. 2018 has already seen the Philadelphia Eagles win a long-awaited championship and the Washington Capitals finally bring home the Stanley Cup. Some of the most historic title droughts in all of sports have ended in recent years, begging the question of which cities remain the most tortured for a title. Here is my top ten.

10. Detroit
Teams: Lions (NFL), Pistons (NBA), Red Wings (NHL), Tigers (MLB),
Last title: 2008

It has only been a decade since a Detroit team has won a title, but the history of sports success in the Motor City is not a great one. The Lions have famously (or infamously) never won a Super Bowl, or even appeared in one. They also hold the NFL record for most consecutive playoff losses. Baseball is a little more promising because the Tigers have won before, three times actually, but the last World Series victory came in 1984. The Pistons have had some great teams, but have also been one of the worst run NBA franchises in the last ten years. In the NHL, the Red Wings represent the true bright spot. Detroit has hoisted the Stanley Cup twice since the turn of the century. It hasn’t been that long for Detroit, but it might be a while before one of these four teams wins another title.

9. Indianapolis
Teams: Colts (NFL), Pacers (NBA)
Last title: 2006

Only two teams reside in Indianapolis and the Colts have won a title. The Peyton Manning era is still one fans could look back on proudly, but for a long time the Colts were one of the most tortured franchises in the NFL. They have resumed that post since then. For a city as crazy about basketball as Indy, zero NBA titles is a real bummer as well. The Pacers have only reached the NBA finals once in franchise history losing to the Shaq and Kobe Lakers. Both the Colts and Pacers have been competitive in recent years as well, but always end up faltering in the playoffs, leaving a bitter taste in fans’ mouths.

8. Charlotte
Teams: Hurricanes (NHL), Hornets (NBA), Panthers (NFL)
Last title: 2006

It has also been 12 years since Charlotte has won a title, but they get the edge for having three teams as opposed to Indy’s two. The Hornets have been one of the worst franchises in NBA history. It has been 30 years since the Hornets were founded and the team has never so much as won a division title. Football has treated fans a little better, as the Panthers did reach the Super Bowl back in 2003. They came agonizingly close to beating that Brady guy, but Adam Vinatieri kicked the game-winner as time expired to beat Carolina. The Hurricanes are the only team in Charlotte to win a title. After losing in the 2002 Stanley Cup final, Carolina broke through in 2006 to lift the cup. Still, just one title between three teams over the past 30 years is a poor return.

7. Nashville
Teams: Predators (NHL), Titans (NFL)
Last title: N/A

If you also lump in the Memphis Grizzles, the Tennessee would likely move up a few spots on this list. Seeing as Memphis and Nashville are on opposite sides of the state though, it did not seem too fair. Both teams moved to town in 1997, but the Predators came close to bringing home a title in 2017. On the other hand, the Titans made the playoffs in 2017 for the first time in nearly ten years. What holds Nashville back is how new of a sports city it is. It has only had pro teams for 20 years, so the lack of a title is not totally shocking. Only one appearance in a finals setting is more than enough to qualify for this list though.

6. Cincinnati
Teams: Bengals (NFL), Reds (MLB)
Last title: 1990

Oh, where to begin with Cincinnati. For one, the Bengals have been a punch line in the NFL for quite some time. Head coach Marvin Lewis took over in 2003 and has taken the team to the playoffs seven times in his tenure. He is also 0-7 in the postseason. It has been 27 years since Cincy has won a playoff game, the longest active streak in the league. The Bengals weren’t always this way though. In the ’80s, Cincinnati made it to two Super Bowls, both times losing by less than a touchdown to the Joe Montana led 49ers. The Reds haven’t been a whole lot better. Since winning the World Series in 1990, Cincy’s baseball team has only made the playoffs four times. With the Bengals looking like an average team and the Reds in the middle of a rebuild, it could be a while before Cincinnati celebrates another championship.

5. San Diego
Teams: Padres (MLB), Chargers (NFL)
Last title: N/A

Technically, there is only one pro team still in San Deigo, but to not include the struggles of the Chargers in evaluating the drought this city has gone through would be unfair. I actually think the fact the Chargers left makes life as a fan in this city even more torturous. Boasting one of the greatest offenses in NFL history, San Diego never managed to reach a Super Bowl. Its lone appearance was a blowout loss to the 49ers in 1994. Even during the early 2000s, it seemed like the Chargers would finally break through, but never managed to reach the Super Bowl. For the Padres, opportunities for postseason success have been few and far between. In 49 years as a franchise, the Padres have made the playoffs just five times, including two different losses in the World Series. San Diego has long awaited a title and now will have an even tougher time securing one with only the Padres left in town.

4. Phoenix
Teams: Cardinals (NFL), Coyotes (NHL), Diamondbacks (MLB), Suns (NBA)
Last title: 2001

It has been 17 years since the largest city in Arizona brought home a sports championship. The Cardinals came agonizingly close in 2009 before falling to the Pittsburgh Steelers in a wild Super Bowl. The Suns haven’t been good in years, but still remember the days of Charles Barkley and Steve Nash fondly. Neither of the ever managed to bring home a title. The Coyotes have never made it to a Stanley Cup final, much less won one. That leaves the Diamondbacks, who won the cities last championship in 2001. It is the only title in the city’s history. The Cardinals won an NFL Championship in 1947, but that was actually while the team was located in Chicago. Only one title between four teams is tough for fans to swallow and it does not seem like any of them are close to a title for a least a few more years.

3. Atlanta
Teams: Hawks (NBA), Falcons (NFL), Braves (MLB),
Last title: 1995

Between the Hawks, Falcons and Braves, Atlanta has only brought home one title in the history of sports in the city. The Braves broke through in 1995, which isn’t really that long ago, but this city definitely knows what it is like to want a title. The Hawks have never made it to the NBA Finals while in Atlanta. The 2016 Falcons made it to the Super Bowl and blew the largest lead in the history of the game. It marked the second time the Falcons lost in the championship. Looking at the Braves, they lost four other World Series during the ’90s. Had it not been for that World Series in ’95, Atlanta might very well top this list.

2. Buffalo
Teams: Bills (NFL), Sabres (NHL)
Last title: N/A

Western New York is home to one of the most passionate fan bases in all of sports. The aptly named “Bills Mafia” provides a fun home field advantage whenever the Bills are hosting. Sabres fans have suffered through many years of woeful play on the ice, but still support the team nonetheless. Between these two franchises, Buffalo has appeared in six different championships, winning none of them. The Bills came up short in four consecutive Super Bowls! Talk about torture for fans. The Sabres made two different runs to the Stanley Cup final over the years, but fell short in both. It was the NHL team who made Buffalo’s last championship appearance in 1999. Up until last year, the Bills hadn’t even been to the playoffs since 1999. What holds Buffalo back from the top spot is the fact that the city only has two teams.

1. Minneapolis
Teams: Timberwolves (NBA), Twins (MLB), Wild (NHL), Vikings (NFL)
Last title: 1991

21 years ago was the last time a team from the Twin Cities won a title. Minneapolis is home to some of the most tortured fan bases in sports. On one hand, you have the Vikings. The Purple People Eaters lost four Super Bowls from 1969 to 1976. The Vikings have never made it back to the big game since their loss in ’76. It seemed like they would in 1998, with a historically good offense, only to lose in their first playoff game that year. Then there are the Timberwolves. Minnesota finally broke the second longest playoff drought in NBA history in 2018 after 13 years of failing to qualify. In a league where more than half the teams make it to the postseason, that is quite a feat. The Wild haven’t been in town long, but like the Timberwolves, have never even reached the finals. The Twins are the only team in town with a title, but have not returned to the World Series. While Minneapolis has won a title, none of the teams in the city have even reached the championship stage in the 27 years since. This city is starved for a title and well-deserving of the top spot on our list.

The Forgotten Playoffs: MLS

We are in the playoff push for the NFL season. The NBA season tipped off and NHL season is well underway. One of the most watched World Series ever wrapped up with the Chicago Cubs breaking a 108-year curse, the longest drought in American sports history.

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Sebastian Giovinco could deliver Toronto a league title for a franchise that had never won a playoff game before this year. (Wikimedia Commons)

Somewhere in all of that, the MLS playoffs kicked off. Now, the MLS is not quite on par with the core four of American sports, but the last few years have pushed the top American soccer league into the national focus. The last several years have been solid years of growth in terms of league money and fans.

If anything, this year had the makings of a big year for the MLS playoffs. It features several big market teams, think New York, LA, Seattle, Dallas and D.C., a team searching for its first ever playoff win in Toronto, all three MVP candidates between the two New York squads and the return of the most-accomplished MLS player ever in Landon Donovan.

Yet all of that very easily fell by the wayside when the rest of the sports world exploded. Factor in the most ridiculous presidential election possibly ever and the MLS playoffs have been largely forgotten.

Now it is easy to write this off as just Americans don’t care about soccer, but that isn’t really a fair assumption. MLSSoccer.com reported in July that viewership was up across all ESPN platforms, specifically 32 percent on television and 127 percent via the WatchESPN app.

More fans are showing up to the stadiums as well. Total gate numbers increased by about more than 100 fans per game across the league. That might not sound like much, but that’s an extra 34,000 tickets sold this year. According to Soccer Stadium Digest, roughly 7.38 million fans turned out for MLS games this year.

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Jordan Morris (left) scored the decisive goal in the Western Conference Final for Seattle. (Wikimedia Commons)

The stage is set for a massive final tonight, between the Seattle Sounders and Toronto FC. It is the first time that either team has even reached the MLS Final, so we are guaranteed to have a new champion this year.

The stage is set for an impressive final, yet it is unlikely that people will be watching. At least not in the United States. Canadian television ratings were smashed consistently during the Eastern Conference playoffs. Toronto matched up with Montreal for the first all-Canadian conference final ever.

As I mentioned before, the league holds its playoffs at a time that competes with the NFL, college football, college basketball, the NBA, NHL and the World Series. It is to imagine that soccer is going to break through all of that to make an impression or garner fans’ attention.

Once again, the league needs to start considering a shift in the season. If the MLS Final were to happen some time in September or June, there is a very good chance that it would merit more coverage. There would also be a lot less to compete with. Obviously, the league does not want to admit that soccer is not popular enough to stand out in the States, but that’s the reality right now.

Soccer is slowly growing the U.S., but the long-term success of MLS will rely on a breakthrough in television viewership.

The better finals rematch

Golden State completed one of the great comebacks in NBA history beating Oklahoma City to advance to the NBA Finals. Those finals against Cleveland began Thursday and I have to admit that I am a little disappointed.

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Steph Curry is the reigning MVP for a second straight year. (Wikimedia Commons)

I know watching Steph Curry and Klay Thompson shoot is fun and the Draymond Green against LeBron James matchup has been interesting, but there was a much better rematch I was hoping to see in the finals this year.

It wouldn’t necessarily have been between two teams as much as it would have been between two players. Think back to four years ago when James was still wearing a Miami uniform. At this time in 2012, LeBron still had not won a ring. Neither had his main adversary in that year’s finals, Kevin Durant.

Fast forward four years and Durant is still seeking that ring while LeBron is desperately trying to bring Cleveland a title. Watching those two matchup again in the finals, granted with much different supporting casts, would have been epic to see.

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James and the Cavaliers have struggled against Golden State this season, but fared well versus Oklahoma City. (Wikimedia Commons)

It was a great battle the first time around. Durant averaged over 30 points a night, while LeBron posted 28, 7 and 10 per game. It was a battle of wills that Durant lost due to having a much weaker supporting cast. He had Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, but that was no match for Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in their prime.

Outside of LeBron and Durant matching up, there are a few other matchups I would have loved to see in a Thunder-Cavaliers series, one of them involving the aforementioned Westbrook. He is one of the best pure scorers in the league at this point. His athletic blend makes him a nightmare to guard. One of the players best-suited to slowdown Westbrook is Cleveland point guard Kyrie Irving.

We never got to see the two faceoff in the regular season, as Irving missed the first game as he continued to recover from that gruesome knee injury last year. He played just nine minutes in the second meeting. The regular season only scratched the surface of what this matchup could have been.

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Irving only played in Game 1 last year before fracturing his knee. (Wikimedia Commons)

I’m not saying for a minute that I will not be watching the finals now as a result of the Thunder not being a part of it, or that the repeat of last year’s finals won’t be interesting (especially now that Kevin Love and Irving are healthy), but I think we certainly got robbed.

I have to take what I can get though, and I might as well make a prediction. Cleveland took pretty much this same Golden State team to six games last year, despite missing two of it’s best players.

The Warriors took the first two games. I don’t think Cleveland will end up getting swept. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them snag two wins before the Warriors close it out. Repeat of last year, Golden State wins in six games and the Cavs spend another offseason wondering what went wrong.

NFL Playoff Preview: Championship Sunday

Welcome to the final four. The conference championships. There is nothing quite like it. The Super Bowl is always a great spectacle, but often these games are even more exciting to watch. Today we will get to witness all three MVP candidates on display, the best rivalry in football over the last 15 years and some of the most dynamic defensive playmakers the game has to offer. And all of it comes with a trip to Santa Clara on the line.

New England vs. Denver

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Manning has a career record of 12-13 in the playoffs. 

When you think of NFL MVP, it is hard not to think of Peyton Manning. The Broncos signal caller has won the award more times than anyone else in history, with five such distinctions. However, he is the only quarterback in Sunday’s games that isn’t in contention for this year’s award.

 

Tom Brady on the other hand is right in the thick of anpther MVP-caliber campaign. Even with some of his top weapons missing time this year, Brady managed to steer New England to a first round bye and has them playing some spectacular football yet again.

This game is being billed as yet another class Manning-Brady matchup but in reality, this is more a battle between Brady and the Denver defense. The last time Denver and New England met it was Week 12 at Mile High. The Denver defense did not do much to contain Brady that day, as he threw for 280 yards and three scores. However, the Broncos knocked Brady around a lot, hitting him on nine occasions, three of them being sacks. The Patriots also had no running game to speak of, as LeGarrette Blount led the way in rushing for New England with a measly 27 yards on the ground. Brady also struggled to find the mark in that game, completing only 54.7 percent of his passes.

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Brady is 11-5 in his career against Manning, but is only 2-6 in career playing in Denver.

Today is guaranteed to be different though as New England has a different cast of characters in place. Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola are back healthy, after not competing in their previous contest with Denver. However, Blount and now middle linebacker Jerrod Mayo will not be suiting up for this one, as both are on season-ending injured reserve.

 

The most interesting wrinkle though is that Manning will be starting this game. In that Week 12 showdown, Brock Osweiler started and defeated the Pats. He had a lot of help from his running game, as Denver amassed 179 yards on the ground at a clip of 5.6 yards per carry, but Osweiler took a beating. If the Pats generate the same amount of pressure on Manning, I think he will either be forced into some mistakes or be knocked out of the contest.

In the end, I don’t think The Sheriff has enough left in the tank to outduel The Golden Boy one last time. I think it will be an extremely close game that goes down to the wire as both defenses win the day. I think even with a depleted arsenal, Brady will work enough magic to eke out a win and earn his first career playoff victory in Denver, 24-21. Sad day as this will also probably mark the end of an era.

Arizona vs. Carolina

Even with the 17th edition of Manning-Brady in store for us, I think this is the game of the weekend to watch. This game is equal parts high-flying offense, dynamic defense and attitude.

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Newton suffered his last home loss on November 16, 2014. He is 12-0 in Charlotte since.

Enter Cam Newton into his first ever NFC Championship game. He is the front-runner for the MVP award this season with his ability to deceive and out-think defenses. Newton is a supreme athlete and always has been. However, this season saw SuperCam evolve into a much better quarterback. He set a career-high in touchdown passes with 35 and even slightly cut down on his turnovers. He also set new marks for Total QBR and passer rating. All of that culminated in his dominant performance against Seattle last week.

 

He has still kept his athleticism as an often-used weapon. Newton racked up 636 yards on the ground and scored 10 times when he kept it himself. Couple that with Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert; suddenly, this Carolina ground game is very difficult to stop.

The Panthers will need to control the clock as much as possible in this game as well, mainly to keep Carson Palmer off the field. Palmer struggled a little against Green Bay last week, but that should not discount the MVP-like season he had.

Editor’s note: It was really difficult to think of other ways to describe Palmer and Newton as they both have a lot in common. Both are first number one overall picks and both won Heisman trophies in college. 

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This will only be Palmer’s fourth career playoff game.

Palmer was downright lethal this year, completing nearly 64 percent of his passes while throwing for a career high in yards. The 36-year old was beyond effective when throwing the ball this season as well, posting a league-high 8.7 yards per attempt average. Palmer tossed the same number of touchdowns as Newton this year too. He also piloted an Arizona offense that led the NFL in yards per game and was second in scoring only to Carolina. In short, we could be in line for a shootout.

 

And we probably would be, if it wasn’t for the defenses lining up across from these quarterbacks. Carolina has four Pro Bowlers on their defense and Arizona has three of their own. These two defenses ranked fifth and sixth in yards per game allowed and sixth and seventh in scoring.

One of the great matchups of the weekend will be Larry Fitzgerald against Josh Norman. Fitzgerald is coming of a worldly performance out in the desert while Norman developed into one of the league’s premier shutdown corners. Past Norman though, this is a Carolina secondary that could be vulnerable to the spread offense Arizona will run. Seattle exploited the Panthers’ lack of depth in the divisional round. I think the Cardinals will do the same, getting the ball to John Brown and Michael Floyd early and often.

Between that and the overall speed of this Cardinal defense, I think Arizona will be heading to Santa Clara. Cardinals upset the Panthers at home, 27-21.