It was a tale of two defenses — and two very divergent outcomes — in the NFL's conference championship games Sunday.
In the NFC, the Carolina Panthers stormed their way to a commanding victory over the Arizona Cardinals. Earlier in the day, in the AFC, the Denver Broncos narrowly survived a late-game push from the New England Patriots to emerge with a win.
The victories mean conference titles for the Panthers and the Broncos — and, more importantly, a trip to the Super Bowl for both teams.
For the Panthers, who were playing at home in Charlotte, that win was never in doubt. By the end of the first quarter, Carolina had piled on a 17-point lead, and the team's turnover-happy defense kept feeding quarterback Cam Newton the ball. Newton, for his part, converted those opportunities into four touchdowns — two through the air and two rushing scores.
Along the way, Newton set a Panthers postseason record for passing yards. Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that ESPN's David Newton reported chants of "MVP" from the Panthers' hometown crowd.
The Panthers claimed a 49-15 victory at game's end, but the win was all but assured well before that.
In Denver, where the Broncos eked out a 20-18 win over the defending champion Patriots, the course of the game was a far different story.
The AFC championship game had been billed as a clash of the titans, the renewal of a rivalry between the Broncos' Peyton Manning and the Patriots' Tom Brady. It was the fourth time the quarterbacks faced off in a conference championship game — more than any other quarterback match-up in NFL history, according to ESPN.
But in the end, the game was less about the future Hall of Famers under center, and more about one dominating defense. Before the fireworks even got started, the Broncos were ready with the cold water. The squad harried Brady early and often, sacking him twice and intercepting him twice in the first half alone.
Then, as time wound down, the team survived a last gasp from the Patriots. Brady led a final drive, completing a touchdown pass to tight end Rob Gronkowski with just 12 seconds left to play — but the Patriots didn't manage the two-point conversion necessary to tie it and put the game into overtime.
The Broncos' defensive performance — coupled with a big play or two from running back C.J. Anderson — meant Manning didn't have to do too much more than steer the ship. And he did so ably, avoiding turnovers and tossing two touchdown passes. The rest of Denver's points came from the leg of kicker Brandon McManus, who kicked two field goals.
The Denver Broncos will play the Carolina Panthers in the Super Bowl in Santa Clara, Calif., on Feb. 7.