By Shawn S. Lealos

In the NFC Conference Championship game, the Carolina Panthers took a huge lead and then almost allowed the Seattle Seahawks to come back to win it. In the NFC Championship game, the Panthers proved that they learned their lesson. After taking a big lead, Carolina never let off the gas and beat the Arizona Cardinals, 49-15, to advance to Super Bowl 50, where they will face the Denver Broncos.

Offense: A+

The fans in attendance at the NFC Championship game were all chanting “MVP,” and they had good reason to. Cam Newton has had one of the best years of any quarterback in the NFL by not only throwing the ball better than ever, but by running the ball and putting the entire team on his back to carry them to victories. He was masterful in this game, outside of his one interception. Newton completed 19-of-28 passes (67 percent) for 335 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for 47 yards on 10 carries for two more touchdowns, giving him four for the game. Newton scored more points by himself than the entire Cardinals team did in this game. 

The Carolina Panthers are going to the Super Bowl, in part, thanks to Newton’s amazing play. When it came to his passing game, he did throw the one interception, but he also completed passes to seven different men. Greg Olsen was as great as usual, leading the team with six receptions while tying for the most yards with 113 yards. Interestingly, it was little spoken-of Corey Brown who also had 113 yards through the air and caught four passes. It was Brown’s first game of his NFL career to break 100 yards, and he added a touchdown as well on an 86-yard touchdown catch and run in the first quarter.

Jonathan Stewart had another solid game in his second back from injury. He carried the ball 19 times for 83 yards to help eat into the clock. Ted Ginn Jr., who was invisible last week against Seattle, caught two passes for 52 yards and ran the ball one time for a 22-yard touchdown. 

Defense: A+

Cam Newton was not the only reason that the Carolina Panthers blew out the Arizona Cardinals. After putting together an MVP season of his own this year, Carson Palmer was brutalized in this game. Through the regular season, the Carolina Panthers considered themselves thieves, and for good reason. When it comes to turnover ratio, Carolina was +20 and the next best team was Kansas City at +14. That included 24 interceptions and 15 fumble recoveries. Against Seattle last week, Carolina was +1 with two interceptions. This week, it wasn’t even close.

The Panthers intercepted Carson Palmer four times while they forced him to fumble twice, and also recovered a Patrick Peterson fumble on a punt return for a huge seven turnovers against Arizona. Teddy Williams, Tre Boston, and candidate for the defensive player of the year, Luke Kuechly, were the recipients of the three fumble recoveries. Kuechly also led the team with eight tackles. Part of Palmer’s problems came due to the pass rush, and he was also sacked three times, while Kawann Short, Charles Johnson, and Kyle Love all notched a sack.

Kurt Coleman had two interceptions in the game and Tre Boston had one as well. The fourth interception went to Luke Kuechly, who returned it for a touchdown. With the fumble recovery, the team leading eight tackles, and the pick six, Keuchly was as just as much the MVP of the game as Cam Newton.

Special Teams: A

The Panthers had the fumble of Patrick Peterson that Teddy Williams recovered, which led to the Panthers third touchdown of the game, and a 24-7 lead. Graham Gano also had a nice game, hitting two of two on his field goal attempts and all five of his extra points. Their punting game only came out three times, and while they had the fumble recovery, punter Brad Nortman was underwhelming as he only averaged 39 yards per punt with none inside the 20. Despite that, the Panthers punt coverage team was spectacular and Peterson only had two yards of returns. 

Coaching: A

Last week, the biggest complaint was that Ron Rivera went super conservative in the second half and the Seattle Seahawks almost came back to win the game. This week, Rivera never called off the dogs and the Panthers left no questions about who the best team in the NFC is. They also did it in the same pounding style they won with all season, running the ball 37 times while throwing it only 28, and with a smothering defense. 

The Carolina Panthers next head to the Super Bowl to face the Denver Broncos. This is Peyton Manning and Denver’s second Super Bowl appearance in the last three years. Carolina has a great defense, ranked sixth in the NFL in 2015. In their first playoff game, they scored over 30 points against the second ranked defense in the NFL and this week they put up almost 50 against the fifth best defense. In the Super Bowl, Carolina plays against the No. 1 defense in the NFL and will try to continue proving they belong at the top. 

Shawn S. Lealos is a freelance writer who graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 2000 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism. He writes for a variety of national publications and has over 15 years of sports journalism experience. Follow Shawn on Twitter @sslealos. aExaminer.com.

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