It’s just before kickoff, when neutral fans hope for memorable games and fans of the last four teams stomachs’ wrench with anxiety in hopes their team can pull away with a victory. The Super Bowl is one win away and infamy just two wins away.
In Carolina, they maintain a calm demeanor before the NFC title game against Arizona. This is the moment Cam Newton has been built up for. Coming into the NFL, there were detractors saying he would never be able to run an option based offense and dominate like in he did in college. With a 15-1 record for an entire NFL season, Cam might revert to 2010 when his #4 ranked Auburn defeated #1 Alabama, with his hand over his mouth, pointing at everyone who doubted his ability and poise and going on to lead his team to an undefeated season. Now he’s two games away from ripping the torch out the hands of pocket passing QBs Carson Palmer, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. The NFL has long showed it’s a copy-cat league, and a Carolina win would certainly usher the NFL into a new age of Quarterbacks, with Newton as the new league poster-boy. Rightfully so. Need further proof? Look no further than the face of the kids he hands touchdown balls to. A superstar who takes time for the fans, donates time, and who has done everything right off the field. Newton is what the NFL needs.
Lost in the hoopla of the other three teams sits the dark horse of the playoffs. Las Vegas and virtually everyone outside of Arizona is giving them little chance at taking down the NFC best Panthers, and they don’t care. Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson, and the Arizona secondary is sure to stifle the Panthers wide-receiving corps and hopes to give, Greg Olsen, and the rest of the defense the man-on-man coverage they need to focus on the run. Carson Palmer who also came into the NFL with huge expectations, as a Heisman Trophy winner out of USC, that have never manifested in his journey in the NFL. Of course injuries have set him back, and finding his second wind with the Cardinals after a disastrous run with the Oakland Raiders, seemingly primed for a chance at redemption. And who doesn’t like a good old tale of perseverance?
The Denver Broncos have surely changed since the last time we saw them here. Standing at the doorstep of immortality, and able to walk away holding up a Lombardi trophy to show the Peyton Manning experience was a success. Transforming from the best ever regular season offense, breaking almost every conceivable scoring record but ending up embarrassed by the Legion of Boom in Seattle, to a number one defense of their own in 2015. In front of them isn’t only Denver’s long time AFC foe the Patriots, but Manning’s 17th meeting with Tom Brady. A battered Manning, who only threw one touchdown pass in Mile High all year, who for the first time in his career had to sit sideline and watch his backup play meaningful games in December. And the Broncos giving an already motivated Patriots team all the bulletin board material they could use. Broncos Linebacker Brandon Marshall justifying calling Tom Brady a “crybaby,” saying he never seen a Quarterback complain so much to the refs after each hit. Butterfinger sponsoring Von Miller’s would be sack dances, should he get fined by the league. The Broncos hope Manning’s Jello arm and wobbly passes can get more touchdowns than field goals Sunday.
No team has ever had more motivation to repeat than the current Patriots. Their image tarnished in the off-season, then justified by a Supreme Court ruling that erased Brady’s suspension. A cloud of controversy that sits over each of their Super Bowl wins, from “The Tuck” rule, Spy-Gate to the deflated image of a iconic dynasty spanning years. A team consistently reloaded with cut and undrafted players, ready to fight to be in NFL legend forever. Bill Belichick always trying to squeeze an edge out on the competition, in a game of inches, listing half of his current starters as questionable. The Patriots have thick skin. They huddle together as a team and block outside noise probably better than anyone in any sport. And with one flip of that hoodie, Belichick’s cold responses and robotic behavior, once again leaves the league and fans wondering how it will end for one of the most hated, and loved franchises.
The world will see in just a few hours.