A season ago, the NFC South was the laughingstock of the NFL, and the Carolina Panthers were in the playoffs at 7-8-1 because the division wasn't competent enough to produce even one team with a .500 record. Now, the Panthers are one victory away from lifting the Lombardi Trophy as Super Bowl champions thanks to a dominant 49-15 win over the Arizona Cardinals in Sunday's NFC Championship Game.
As he has all season, MVP front-runner Cam Newton led the way with 335 passing yards, 47 rushing yards and four total touchdowns. However, the Panthers defense deserved plenty of credit as well, because it forced seven Cardinals turnovers and limited Carson Palmer to one touchdown pass, four interceptions and two lost fumbles.
Bleacher Report captured the victorious Newton in the aftermath:
The Panthers are headed to the Super Bowl! pic.twitter.com/gnQgKFMQ1s— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) January 25, 2016
Albert Breer of NFL Network reacted to the beatdown:
The Panthers are totally dismantling a 13-3 team on a championship stage. Pretty damn impressive.— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) January 25, 2016
History of the NFL said Newton "is one win away from being the first ever QB to win the Heisman, National Championship, NFL MVP and Super Bowl," while ESPN Stats & Info illustrated that it was business as usual for the signal-caller and his teammates Sunday:
ESPN Stats & Info also recognized it had been some time since NFL fans had witnessed such a poor performance from an offense with a spot in the Super Bowl hanging in the balance:
7 turnovers by Cardinals are the most by any team in any playoff game since the Packers had 8 in the 2001 NFC Divisional Playoff at Rams— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 25, 2016
With the Cardinals in the rearview mirror, Brad Gagnon of Bleacher Report put the impending Super Bowl matchup between Carolina and the Denver Broncos into perspective:
Cam Newton was in fourth grade when Peyton Manning was a rookie with the Colts.— Brad Gagnon (@Brad_Gagnon) January 25, 2016
The Panthers wasted little time in setting up a showdown with Peyton Manning and the Broncos, seizing a 24-7 lead heading into halftime. Ted Ginn Jr. scored the first touchdown of the game with a 22-yard run in the first quarter, and Corey Brown added to the lead less than four minutes later with an 86-yard score on a strike from Newton.
The NFL shared Ginn's electrifying moves in the open field:
ESPN's Bill Barnwell reacted to the play:
Ted Ginn’s the best player in football, right? Switched teams three times over last five years and they’ve gone 62-17-1.— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) January 25, 2016
The NFL also passed along a replay of Brown's backbreaking score that left the Cardinals reeling for the remainder of the contest:
Ohio State noticed a common thread linking the two playmakers, and that didn't even take into account the critical interception former Buckeyes safety Kurt Coleman made late in the first half that kept the Cardinals out of the end zone:
David Johnson got the Cardinals on the board in the second quarter with a one-yard score, but Newton answered with a one-yard touchdown run of his own to help push the lead to 24-7 by halftime. The only silver lining for the Cardinals was the fact that the Panthers nearly blew a 31-0 halftime lead against the Seattle Seahawks in the second half of the divisional round.
That wasn't in the cards Sunday, especially after Graham Gano extended the lead to 27-7 with a 21-yard field goal during Carolina's first possession of the second half. Tom Pelissero of USA Today searched for any type of upside for the Cardinals:
Rare that you say giving up an 11-play, 80-yard drive out of halftime is a victory, but holding to a FG sure feels like it for #Cardinals.— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) January 25, 2016
The Panthers kept rolling with a 79-yard scoring drive late in the third quarter to open up an overwhelming 34-7 lead heading into the final frame. Newton capped it off with a 12-yard touchdown run, leading Mike Hill of Fox Sports to offer his concise summary of the game:
SportsCenter noted Arizona had allowed only one rushing touchdown to a quarterback all season, but Newton had two through the first three quarters Sunday, while Fox Sports Live captured the head-turning highlight:
The Cardinals took to Twitter to ask for help with stopping Superman:
Anybody have any kryptonite handy? #AZvsCAR— Arizona Cardinals (@AZCardinals) January 25, 2016
While Newton and the dynamic Panthers offense were drawing most of the attention, Colleen Wolfe of NFL Media didn't overlook the Carolina defense:
This is the same Cardinals offense that led all NFL teams on the road in points per gm, total yds per gm & passing yds per gm.— Colleen Wolfe (@ColleenWolfeNFL) January 25, 2016
The Cardinals did finally strike when Palmer found Darren Fells for a 21-yard score, and J.J. Nelson converted the two-point attempt to trim the lead to 34-15 early in the fourth quarter. Lori Schmidt of 97.1 The Fan in Columbus, Ohio, reacted to the score:
You know some Arizona fan just looked up from the letter they're writing Cam about how classless he is to realize the Cards scored, right?— Lori Schmidt (@LoriSchmidt) January 25, 2016
Arizona had an opportunity to climb within striking distance, but Palmer threw another interception to Coleman in the end zone. Joe Person of the Charlotte Observer praised the safety for his ability to bounce back after a lackluster showing against Seattle:
Coleman had maybe his worst game last week vs. Seattle. Making up for it tonight. 2 picks after 7 INTs in regular season.— Joe Person (@josephperson) January 25, 2016
ESPN's Bomani Jones pointed out the issues from Arizona's perspective:
thing about palmer isn’t that he’s played poorly. it’s that he’s looked shook both games this postseason.— El Flaco (@bomani_jones) January 25, 2016
Naturally, the Panthers parlayed the turnover into another touchdown when Newton hit Devin Funchess from five yards out to make it 40-15. Mike Tolbert scored on the two-point conversion to make things worse for the visitors, and the Cardinals were out of ideas at that point:
ESPN Stats & Info noted the victors made some history on their way to the Super Bowl:
42 points for the Panthers, the most scored by a team in an NFC Championship since the AFL/NFL merger— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 25, 2016
But the Panthers didn't think 42 points were enough, apparently, because Luke Kuechly picked off Palmer and ran it back 22 yards for another score to help Carolina push the advantage to 49-15. Pro Football Talk was already looking ahead to the offseason for the Cardinals:
Carson Palmer may never be the same after this one. Cardinals would be wise to start looking for their next QB sooner than later.— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) January 25, 2016
For good measure, Palmer threw his fourth interception before the final whistle, and Carolina closed out the 49-15 victory.
Next up for the Panthers is a showdown with the No. 1 seed in the AFC, the Broncos.
Denver knocked off the New England Patriots on Sunday, 20-18, thanks largely to a missed extra point by Stephen Gostkowski that forced the losers to go for a two-point conversion after scoring a touchdown in the closing seconds and an incredible defensive performance by the Broncos. Tom Brady threw two interceptions and took four sacks, and the Patriots combined for 44 rushing yards on 17 carries.
Newton and his teammates will have to deal with a defense that finished first in yards allowed per game, first in passing yards allowed per game, third in rushing yards allowed per game and fourth in points allowed per game this season.
If the Carolina offense capitalizes on scoring opportunities against Denver's potent group more effectively than New England did Sunday, Newton will hoist the Lombardi Trophy on Feb. 7.
Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians was quick to come to his quarterback’s defense after the loss, per Around the NFL: “Carson didn’t lose the damn game. There’s nothing wrong with his damn finger.”
Palmer wasn’t as sure of himself, per Darren Urban of AZCardinals.com: “This is as low as you can feel. I kept digging us a hole.”
On the Panthers side, Steve Reed of the Associated Press noted linebacker Thomas Davis suffered a broken forearm. However, Davis wasn’t ready to let that stop him when asked if he would appear in the Super Bowl, per Max Henson of Panthers.com: “I wouldn't miss that for the world.”
Newton was also looking ahead after the win, per Person: “We’re not done yet.”
Carolina head coach Ron Rivera recognized the moment during his press conference, per the team's Twitter account: “It's a huge opportunity for this team and organization. It's what you work for. I look forward to it.”
The Panthers have the opportunity to do what the Cardinals couldn’t, and Arians did not look at the NFC West title and postseason run to the NFC title game as a moral victory, per Urban: “If you're not putting a ring on your finger, the season is not a success.”
The Panthers will surely keep that in mind as they prepare for their Super Bowl clash with the Broncos.