ASN’s NFL Championship Sunday: Josh Norman, 14 others, make conference title game debuts

CHARLOTTE, NC - SEPTEMBER 27:  Josh Norman #24 of the Carolina Panthers makes a game-saving interception of a pass to Brandin Cooks #10 of the New Orleans Saints in the end zone during their game at Bank of America Stadium on September 27, 2015 in Charlotte, North Carolina. The Panthers won 27-25.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Josh Norman isn’t one to mince words.

“At this point in time, if you don’t pick us, it doesn’t matter,” the Panthers cornerback said after his team defeated the Seattle Seahawks, 31-24, to reach its first NFC Championship game since 2005 and fourth in franchise history “We’re just going to keep doing what we do. I guarantee you next week, there is going to be a whole bunch of people switching their votes.”

Norman, a fourth-year player who has had a breakout season, is one of 15 ASN-affiliated players who will be making their conference championship debuts. Teammate Mike Tolbert, who along with Norman is a Coastal Carolina grad, may have summed it up the best for all of those first-time players.

“This is my eighth year in the league and I’ve never been to a championship game, so it’s very special,” he said. “But we know we’ve got a lot of work left. We’re not done, by any means.”

And that may be what’s at the heart of a conference championship — it is a pinnacle reached, but not THE pinnacle. The experience is certainly one to treasure, but most NFL players view the Super Bowl experience — win or lose — as the Holy Grail.

“If you don’t make it, then you don’t have anything to measure your success against,” retired wide receiver Terrell Owens told ASN earlier this year. “All you can do is reflect on personal and team successes and figure if that makes you successful.”

For now, though, players making their conference championship debut  certainly view the experience as one more notch to add to a season of team success.

ASN’s preview of Sunday’s games:

New England Patriots at Denver Broncos, 3:05 p.m. ET (CBS)

FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 16: Julian Edelman #11 of the New England Patriots takes the field against the Kansas City Chiefs during the AFC Divisional Playoff Game at Gillette Stadium on January 16, 2016 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

In the AFC Championship, the Denver Broncos have only one ASN-affiliated player, guard Robert Myers Jr. (Tennessee State), who was elevated from the practice squad in late December.

The Patriots, on the other hand, have seven players from member schools on their playoff roster — and only nose tackle Ishmaa’ily Kitchen (Kent State) is making his conference championship debut. Receiver Julian Edelman (Kent State) will be playing in his fifth consecutive AFC Championship with the Patriots.

Edelman returned to the field for the AFC Divisional Playoffs after a foot injury sidelined him for the last seven weeks of the regular season. He echoed Tolbert’s sentiments about more hard work to come.

“Any time you go out with your teammates and get a win in the divisional round against a really good football team, it feels good,” Edelman said after the Patriots beat the Kansas City Chiefs, 27-20, last weekend. “It’s one of things that we’ve got a lot of work to do. Next game is going to be the toughest game of the year and you’ve got to get ready for it.”

Arizona Cardinals at Carolina Panthers, 6:40 p.m. ET (FOX)

Of the eight ASN-affiliated players on the Panthers’ 53-man roster, none have played in a conference championship before. When they look across the field at the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday in the NFC Championship, they will face six ASN-affiliated players, including five – linebacker Justin Babin (Western Michigan), cornerback Justin Bethel (Presbyterian), receiver J.J. Nelson (UAB) guard Earl Watford (James Madison; IR) and CB Corey White (Samford) – who are also making their conference championship debuts.

The game is a rematch of an NFC Wild Card Playoff last season, in which the Panthers beat the Cardinals, 27-16.

“A lot of us wouldn’t mind going back there to Carolina and playing those guys again since they beat us last year when we had a lot of injuries,” Bethel told the Associated Press.




Above: Carolina Panthers cornerback Josh Norman, making a game-saving interception against the New Orleans Saints on Sept. 27, is one of 15 ASN-affiliated players who will be making their conference championship debuts. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
Middle: Julian Edelman of the New England Patriots takes the field against the Kansas City Chiefs for Saturday’s AFC Divisional Playoff at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Jill R. Dorson

Jill R. Dorson is a freelance writer based in San Diego.