Monday 23 April 2018

Super kick-off to our sporting year

Larry Fitzgerald #11 of the Arizona Cardinals Photo:Getty
Larry Fitzgerald #11 of the Arizona Cardinals Photo:Getty newsdesk

Every Super Bowl is special but, being the 50th, this year's showdown on February 7 in Santa Clara, California is particularly so. So it seems fitting that this month will see a particularly special set of play-offs.

Rarely has the competition looked so open at this stage of the year. Five teams look to be in contention and there is very little between them. Each has a good case to be regarded as favourite but there are also caveats to be entered.

The Carolina Panthers have undoubtedly been the outstanding team of the regular season. If they ultimately failed to become the second team ever to go unbeaten in a 16-game season, their 15-1 record still puts them in the top half-dozen historically. In quarterback Cam Newton they have the likely MVP, an athletic prodigy who is not only a very good passer but perhaps the best runner ever seen in the position. The one question mark over them is a somewhat dodgy secondary and it's this which might make them ideal opposition for the Arizona Cardinals.

The Cardinals finished 13-3 and were perhaps the most exciting attacking team of the campaign. They are sentimental favourites, with a 36-year-old quarterback Carson Palmer enjoying a remarkable late blooming after an ordinary enough career and one of the game's greatest wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald (pictured) bidding to break both his and the franchise's Super Bowl duck. They will also have the advantage of, if they make the NFC final, probably facing the winner of a bruising semi-final between the Panthers and the decidedly unsentimental Seattle Seahawks.

During the first half of the season the Hawks played as if the stuffing had been knocked out of them by the infamous Worst Play Call of All Time which cost them victory in last year's Super Bowl. But since then they have been ominous and nobody does ominous like Seattle. In Russell Wilson they have a quarterback in the Newton mould who is on the verge of breaking into the elite category and they remain as mean as ever in defence. Their big problem is that the poor start means they'll have to win three games on the road even to make the Super Bowl.

Tonight's visit to the Minnesota Vikings is no shoo-in against a side boosted by winning in Green Bay to take the divisional title last week and containing the game's best running back, Adrian Peterson. The Packers, who threw away last year's NFC title game against the Seahawks, have blown hot and cold this season but negotiating a tricky wild-card match away to the Washington Redskins tonight could kickstart their campaign.

Over in the AFC the New England Patriots looked unstoppable during the first half of the season but they finished with four losses in their last six games, an injury crisis making them look untypically ragged. Even Tom Brady has been uncomfortable in recent weeks, yet the legendary quarterback remains their great weapon. It is, after all, less than a year since he picked apart a supposedly invincible Seahawks defence to clinch a shock Super Bowl win.

The Denver Broncos have a lot going for them this term. They have a terrific receiving corps, a much better running game than the Patriots and perhaps the best defence in the league. And their 12-4 regular season record means that they will be at home throughout the play-offs. Their problem is at quarterback, where Brady's great rival Peyton Manning frankly didn't look up to it before bowing out through injury midway through the season. In his absence unheralded back-up Brock Osweiler stepped in and did a fine job before a stuttering final match put Manning back at the helm for the play-offs. It's a tall order for a veteran player who even at his peak was wont to show unBradylike fragility in the biggest games.

The AFC looks weaker than the NFC and whoever won last night's match between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals could be a very dangerous dark horse.

My own pick would be the Cardinals to beat the Patriots on February 7, though perhaps the more logical selection would be the Panthers over the Broncos. But I've always had a soft spot for Larry Fitzgerald and his club and a belief that there has never been a player like Tom Brady for overcoming the odds. There couldn't be a better way to start the sporting year.

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