For the entire regular season, the New England Patriots and the Denver Broncos have looked like the best teams in the American Football Conference, so it was only fitting that they met in the conference championship. The Patriots offense started the season off sharp, averaging 33 points a game through the first nine weeks. However, injuries slowed the team down.

The Patriots went 2­-4 over their last six games. The Broncos started the season off 6-­0, led by the league’s best defense. Peyton Manning no longer had the look of an elite quarterback, throwing seven touchdowns to 16 interceptions over the first nine weeks. He was eventually sidelined with a foot injury after a Week 9 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.

His replacement, Brock Osweiler, went 4­-2 over the next six games. After the offense struggled in the regular season finale, Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak made the decision to hand the starting QB job back to Manning for the playoffs. The meeting was the 17th between Brady and Manning, and the fifth time the two have faced each other in the playoffs.

While the QBs were the headlines of the game, this game would ultimately be decided by the defense. The Broncos scored first, as Manning connected with tight end Owen Daniels for a 20-yard TD pass in the first quarter. Later in the quarter, the Patriots forced a turnover when they recovered a lateral pass from Manning.

Patriots’ running back Steven Jackson scored on a one-yard TD run two plays later. After Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed the extra point, the score was 7­-6.

Later in the half, Manning and Daniels connected in the end zone again. Down 20­-12 in the final minutes, it looked like Brady was about to muster another legendary comeback after connecting with Rob Gronkowski to make the score 20-­18; the Patriots then went for a two-point conversion.

Broncos’ cornerback Bradley Roby picked off a tipped pass to seal the game for Denver. Gostkowski’s missed kick was huge as it forced the Patriots to go for two after their late TD. “I feel like I lost us the game” said Gostkowski in his postgame press conference.

The difference in the game ended up being that the Patriots offensive line could not match up with the Broncos defensive front. Brady spent most of the game under siege. He was hit 20 times, more than any QB in a single game this season.

The MVP of the game for Denver was without a doubt defensive end Von Miller. Miller had three sacks, one hit, four hurries, five tackles and set up Daniel’s second TD when he intercepted Brady in Patriots’ territory.

For Denver, this is their second Super Bowl appearance in three years. They are on a quest for redemption as they were embarrassed by the Seattle Seahawks 43-­8 in 2014. With Manning likely to retire after this season and many of their key defensive players set to hit free agency, it’s now or never for the Broncos.

As with the AFC, the National Football Conference championship was a meeting of the best the conference had to offer. The Carolina Panthers have seemed unstoppable all year. After going 15-­1 in the regular season, Carolina raced out to a 31-­0 lead against the defending NFC champion Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round.

Linebacker Luke Kuechly, who has been a perennial Pro-Bowler since 2012, was joined on defense by breakout years from defensive tackle Kawann Short and CB Josh Norman. QB Cam Newton has stepped up and placed an offense mostly devoid of playmakers on his back this year.

Newton is expected to be named the league MVP at the NFL’s annual award ceremony in two weeks. The Cardinals experienced smooth sailing for most of the year, going 13-­3 in the regular season. At 36 years old, Carson Palmer experienced a breakout year under head coach Bruce Arians, Palmer experienced his first career

playoff win when the Cardinals defeated the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round.

The Panthers started out hot and never let up. Wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. scored the game’s first TD on an end around in the first quarter. On the Panthers next possession, Newton would go deep and connected with WR Corey Brown for an 86-yard TD.

The Cardinals could not get out of their own way, committing seven turnovers, six of them from Palmer. The worst came at the end of the first half. Cardinals CB Patrick Peterson had just picked off Newton and ran the ball back deep into Carolina territory. On the next play Palmer went for the end zone, but the ball was thrown into double coverage and picked off by the Panther’s Kurt Coleman.

Instead of building momentum going into the second half, the Panthers were able to happily sit on a 17-point lead. Carolina continued to pour it on in the second half. The game was sealed when Kuechly intercepted Palmer and returned it for a TD to make the score 49­-15 in the fourth quarter.

For the Panthers, this is their first Super Bowl appearance since losing to the Patriots in 2003. Under the guidance of Newton and head coach Ron Rivera, the team has grown considerably since they went 6­-10 in 2011, both of their first years with the team. Whether or not a team filled with so many young players can shine on the game’s biggest stage remains to be seen.

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