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Cardinals-Panthers NFC title game is the real Super Bowl

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There are some years when it feels like the Super Bowl is going to be nothing more than an anticlimactic event. It happened with the 1985 Chicago Bears, the Dallas Cowboys that Jimmy Johnson led in the early 1990s and the 1994 San Francisco 49ers that steamrolled the San Diego Chargers. Even before those teams ever reached football's biggest stage, it seemed as if they'd already claimed their respective Lombardi Trophies. The same thing is going to happen when this year's NFC title game concludes.

The AFC Championship Game can have all the hype and hoopla that comes with yet another meeting between New England's Tom Brady and Denver's Peyton Manning. All they're doing in that game is figuring out who gets to be devastated inside San Francisco's Levi's Stadium on Feb. 7. It's already looking like neither the Patriots nor the Broncos have what it takes to beat Arizona or Carolina. At this juncture, the only thing the AFC teams have going for them are pedigree and prestige.

That's not to knock Brady or Manning, because God knows they've done all you can do in this business. It's just that Arizona and Carolina have been the two best teams in the league all year. As Cardinals outside linebacker Dwight Freeney said. "It's been a good year so far, but we're hoping to make it a great year."

The beauty of the NFC title game is that it's strength on strength. The Panthers went 15-1 this season, while the Cardinals finished 13-3. Neither team suffered through disappointing stretches like the Patriots, who lost four of their last six regular season games, or the Broncos, who have struggled offensively for most of this season. Both Carolina and Arizona won with dominant defenses and offenses that averaged over 30 points per game.

The only thing that separates the Panthers and Cardinals is the way they each attack opposing defenses. Carolina hammers away with a steady dose of Cam Newton and Jonathan Stewart and a play-action attack that relies heavily on tight end Greg Olsen. The Cardinals prefer a wide-open approach. Quarterback Carson Palmer can go downfield in a hurry with Michael Floyd, John Brown and a reborn Larry Fitzgerald, who torched the Green Bay Packers in last week's divisional playoff win.

What actually makes these teams similar is their mental toughness. The Panthers were 3-8-1 late in the 2014 season and managed to win 18 consecutive regular-season games after that (until this year's Week 16 loss at Atlanta). They accomplished that feat while dealing with: a car accident that injured Newton's back late in 2014; a fire that burned down part of head coach Ron Rivera's house; all the drama that surrounded former Panther and current Dallas Cowboys defensive end Greg Hardy; and a season-ending knee injury to star wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin in training camp. This isn't a team that fades in the face of adversity.

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"The situations that we've been through the past few years have kind of allowed the team to come together," Pro Bowl linebacker Luke Kuechly said. "When there was stuff that wasn't going right, we knew the only way to get around it was to come together as a group. There are a lot of older guys in the locker room that keep the team together, and it starts up top with Coach Rivera. He always preaches team and the guys really feed off that."

The Cardinals know a thing or two about resilience, as well. Last year's team relied on three different starting quarterbacks to finish 11-5, before falling to Carolina in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs. This year's squad has been a revelation for many reasons: the renaissance of running back Chris Johnson, who couldn't find a job after being shot during the offseason; the continued ascent of safety Tyrann Mathieu, who went from being a rookie trying to beat a drug problem in 2013 to being a Pro Bowler (who unfortunately sustained a season-ending knee injury in December); and the resurrection of linebacker Dwight Freeney, who put off retirement for a year and posted eight sacks after signing in October.

Even the story of head coach Bruce Arians offers a lesson in perseverance. After spending 20 years as an NFL assistant, he's now won at least 10 games in each of his three seasons as Arizona's head coach.

"Culture outweighs talent, and when we first got here, we put 'Trust, Loyalty and Respect' on their shirts," Arians said. "We don't have rules because those three rules are all the rules you need as a human being and a football player. This was going to be [a] family; [we were] going to be accountable to each other."

In fairness, it's worth pointing out that New England, the defending Super Bowl champion, and Denver have overcome their own obstacles. The Patriots have endured several injuries on offense, while Manning has dealt with ineffectiveness and a foot injury that sidelined him for six games. But also, both teams are still struggling with the fallout of those problems. New England can't run the ball consistently and Denver labors to score. You don't want those issues when facing teams as complete as Arizona or Carolina.

This season actually has a similar feel to what we witnessed in 2013. Back then, we had another meeting between New England and Denver in the AFC Championship Game (in Denver as well), while Seattle and San Francisco were battling for the NFC title. There was no doubting that the Seahawks and 49ers had produced the most vicious rivalry in the league at that point. The game they put on that evening -- which ended with Seattle linebacker Malcolm Smith clinching a 23-17 win with a late-game interception -- only cemented the fact that both teams were capable of claiming a Lombardi Trophy that year.

That's not to say that there weren't people who didn't believe in Denver at that time (this writer sadly was one of those). It's just that Seattle's 43-8 demolition of the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII should've been a reminder of what happens when lore supersedes logic. The two best teams in the NFL played in the NFC title game that year. That didn't mean Denver deserved more merit simply because it had won its conference.

There are some years when it's virtually impossible to have equality across the board. Hell, there was a 13-year stretch -- from 1985 to '97 -- when an NFC team won every Super Bowl. That run had little to do with one conference experiencing more good fortune than another. It had everything to do with the NFC boasting stronger teams for an unimaginably long period of time.

Every game, all season

The same thing is happening now. The AFC was wide open when the playoffs began, and that had plenty to do with how the regular season played out. There were some impressive moments -- New England, Denver and Cincinnati all managed to avoid losing a game until November -- but most of the top teams struggled down the stretch. At one point in December, it was highly conceivable that Denver could've missed the postseason altogether.

That should be enough evidence to see the strength in the NFC. Arizona and Carolina have been rolling since Week 1, even as key players have succumbed to injury. They've been so good that there was a legitimate debate about who was the best team in the league when the regular season ended. In a couple of weeks, with an AFC opponent across the field, that question won't be nearly as difficult to answer.

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter @jeffrichadiha.

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