We are finally one step closer to the 50th anniversary of the Super Bowl, and no matter what, we are primed for a great matchup. Before we look at the Super Bowl, we must focus on the AFC and NFC title games this Sunday.
While all eyes will be on cornerstone players, such as Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Carson Palmer, Cam Newton, Patrick Peterson, Luke Kuechly, and others, I will outline one player from each remaining playoff team that may have as big of an impact as the household names stated above.
Deone Bucannon (LB/S) – Arizona Cardinals:
Bucannon in his second-year in the NFL has been given a very intriguing task, which is to act as a hybrid linebacker and safety for this Cardinals team. This means, although he is a strong safety, he acts more like a linebacker, being placed ‘in the box,’ close to the line of scrimmage, to help stop the run, which he excels in, but he also has superb pass coverage skills. His skill set presents a big challenge for the Carolina Panthers. With the Panthers’ offensive philosophy predicated on the run, Bucannon will likely be forced to stay in the box more often than not, to help sniff stifle the Panthers deadly ground attack. The athleticism he possesses also gives the Cardinals an opportunity to have him shadow the Panthers’ stud Tight End and most productive receiver, Greg Olsen. If Bucannon covers Olsen, the Panthers offense will not likely not function as smoothly as it has all season long, setting the Cardinals up beautifully to head to their first Super Bowl since January of 2009.
Devin Funchess (WR) – Carolina Panthers:
It has taken rookie receiver Devin Funchess a few months to finally grasp the Panthers’ offense, but he has shown, in the second half of the season, that he is more than ready to contribute for a Panthers offense that lacks true firepower at the receiver position. Funchess, having caught 4 of his 5 touchdown passes in the final 8 games of the regular season, has started to contribute slowly, but surely. Although he only caught 1 pass last week vs. Seattle, Funchess has a golden opportunity against Arizona’s defense to perform. Although you may be slightly confused given the fact that the Cardinals’ secondary is a strength, due to injuries, they have been forced to rely on other defensive backs to contribute for this team. One player who has been thrust into a more prominent role, is Justin Bethel, who is an excellent special teams player, but tends to be a liability in coverage. He has seen the field much more late in the season, and played 74% of snaps last Saturday in the win over Green Bay. That was more than a 50% increase in snaps compared to Week 15. Bethel was shaky last Sunday, surrendering the 60-yard reception to Jeff Janis on 4th and 20 that I am sure many fans have seen from last week’s game. Bethel will be on the field plenty, and is likely going to be charged with covering the Panthers Rookie, Funchess. This could be a matchup the Panthers try to exploit on Sunday.
Bradley Roby (CB) – Denver Broncos:
With the shoulder injury sustained by Pro Bowl corner Chris Harris Jr, that has limited his time on the field and effectiveness, in particular last week during the win over Pittsburgh, Bradley Roby could become a major factor in this game. Harris is feeling better and is expected to play, but Roby might still be forced to cover one of the best slot receivers in the game, Julian Edelman. If Harris can’t play, or is still hampered by his banged up shoulder, it’s almost a certainty, Edelman will be Roby’s assignment. Roby, the 2nd year man, has played mainly the opposing offense’s 2nd receiver, and has fared pretty well. Given how much the Patriots throw the ball, regardless of Harris’ status, Roby should be on the field for most of the defensive snaps and this is Roby’s chance to play a special game, and help his team advance to its second Super Bowl in 3 years.
Patrick Chung (S) – New England Patriots:
With the way the Denver Broncos’ offense has functioned the last month, with a heavy focus on the ground game, New England must expect a heavy dose of running backs CJ Anderson and Ronnie Hillman. New England’s gameplan will be to let Manning beat them, by forcing Him to throw the ball down the field, which has not been a strength this season. The Patriots will be determined to prevent the running backs from being effective, making Patrick Chung a very important piece of the defense on Sunday. Chung is usually positioned near the line of scrimmage, ready to assist in defending the run, or handling the opposing team’s tight ends. In the Week 10 meeting between these two teams, Chung often covered Broncos tight end Owen Daniels, and held him to 48 yards. Expect a similar output from Daniels, as Chung has gotten better in coverage, as the season has progressed. If the defense can force the Manning-led offense to become one-dimensional, it will start with stopping the run, and Chung will need to be at his best to ensure this happens.
Hope everyone enjoys the games!
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