And the Panthers won.
"We were challenged. It pisses you off, because they put on their pants the same way you do," said Finnegan. "They had the best offense and they said it was going to be a mismatch in the slot with (receiver Larry) Fitzgerald. Our coach challenged us, especially me. I had a tall task covering him in the slot.”
Finnegan (Samford) made a critical tackle in the first quarter of the Panthers' 49-15 NFC Championship victory on Sunday. He and Josh Norman (Coastal Carolina) helped Carolina’s secondary stymied Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer, whose 57.5% completion percentage was his second-worst of the season. Fitzgerald was held to only four receptions for 30 yards, well below his average of nearly seven catches per game.
Norman, who was also selected to his first Pro Bowl, and Finnegan will make their first trip to the Super Bowl when the Panthers play the Denver Broncos on Feb. 7 in Santa Clara, Calif. The Panthers advanced to the Super Bowl for only the second time in team history. They are one of 13 NFL franchises that have never won a Super Bowl.
In total, 22 ASN-affiliated players reached the conference championship games, but only nine — the Panthers plus Denver Broncos guard Robert Myers Jr. — advanced to the Super Bowl. Thirteen ASN-affiliated players saw their season end on Sunday.
When New England lost to Denver, 20-18, in the first game, it marked the end of the season for seven players, including receiver Julian Edelman (Kent State), whose return in the divisional playoffs was critical to the Patriots’ success.
"It's tough. You put a lot of time and effort in to put yourself in this situation and you've got to tip your hat to them,” Edelman told the media after the game. “We didn't play our best football, but they made more plays than us when they had to. That's why they won."
How each ASN player performed in their respective conference championships:
- LB Justin Babin (Western Michigan): Inactive.
- CB Justin Bethel (Presbyterian): Had four tackles and batted down one pass.
- LS Mike Leach (William & Mary): No stats, but was consistent as the special teams’ snapper.
- WR J.J. Nelson (UAB): Caught two passes for 25 yards and no touchdowns. In the second quarter, Nelson’s 10-yard reception helped set up the Cardinals’ first score of the game. Nelson also had two kickoff returns for 45 yards (22.5 yards average).
- G Earl Watford (James Madison): Did not play (injured reserve).
- CB Corey White (Samford): Inactive.
- WR Brenton Bersin (Wofford): Inactive.
- DE Ryan Delaire (Towson): Assisted on one tackle.
- CB Cortland Finnegan (Samford): Had a key tackle in the first quarter, helping to stall an Arizona drive. He had two assists and a quarterback hit, as well.
- S Dean Marlowe (James Madison): Inactive
- CB Josh Norman (Coastal Carolina): Had a total of two tackles (one solo, one assist) and broke up two passes for a Carolina defense that kept Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer off-balance and limited the ground game to only 60 yards.
- FB Mike Tolbert (Coastal Carolina): Carried the ball three times for four yards and caught one pass for 14 yards. The reception allowed the Panthers to convert a third-and-4 at the Arizona 23. Carolina scored on a field goal four plays later.
- QB Joe Webb (UAB): No stats.
- CB Teddy Williams (UTSA): No stats.
- Robert Myers Jr. (Tennessee State): Inactive.
New England Patriots
- P Ryan Allen (Louisiana Tech): Helped New England with good field position over and over again, punting six times for a total of 281 yards (46.8 average). He put one punt into the end zone and had a long of 55 yards.
- LB Jamie Collins (Southern Miss): Led the Patriots defense in terms of tackles with eight total (six solo and two assists). He also had two sacks.
- WR Aaron Dobson (Marshall): Did not play (injured reserve).
- WR Julian Edelman (Kent State): Seven catches for 53 yards and no touchdowns. Edelman was the Patriots second-leading receiver behind Rob Gronkowski. He also returned a punt 16 yards.
- QB Jimmy Garoppolo (Eastern Illinois): Did not play.
- NT Ishmaa’ily Kitchen (Kent State): Inactive.
- OL Josh Kline (Kent State): Started at left guard on an offensive line that struggled mightily with Denver’s pass rush. The offensive line allowed four sacks and Brady, who usually has plenty of time in the pocket, was hurried throughout the game.
Above: Josh Norman celebrates with former NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon after the Carolina Panthers won Sunday's NFC Championhip game, 49-15 against the Arizona Cardinals, in Charlotte, N.C. (Courtesy of Jeff Gordon via Twitter)