The Seahawks had a tougher time with the Saints than most anticipated, but they eventually wore New Orleans down, and with the help of a very bold play at the end of the game, they were able to triumph in this rematch and advance to the NFC Championship.
The Saints' defense kept the team in the game, but poor offense and coaching combined with unfavorable weather conditions did them in. It was insanely windy and rainy in Seattle, as you might expect, and here's how the weather really hurt New Orleans:
- Mark Ingram dropped a third-down screen on the opening drive. This was followed by the punter bobbling the snap and releasing a horrific kick that landed at the Seattle 40-yard line. That set up a field goal.
- Ingram screwed up again later, losing a fumble in his own territory. This helped set up a Marshawn Lynch touchdown.
- Shayne Graham whiffed on two field goals, though one could be blamed on the holder, who set up the ball with the laces facing the wrong way.
- Marques Colston dropped a 20-yard pass in the 2-minute drill at the end of the second quarter.
- Some of Drew Brees' passes fluttered. Others were knocked down by the wind. He didn't throw an interception, but only because the Seahawks dropped two possible picks, the second of which was very Auburn-like, as the ball bounced off two Seattle defenders and into the arms of Robert Meachem for a long gain. Brees was better after halftime, but he was awful in the opening half, going just 5-of-12 for only 34 yards.
Brees finished 24-of-43 for 309 yards and a touchdown to Colston, who had a big game with 11 catches for 144 yards. I mentioned the near-picks, but perhaps Brees' best play in meaningful action was when he resembled Russell Wilson, inexplicably squirting out of two potential sacks to find Colston for a 15-yard completion.
Jimmy Graham had an eventful pre-game when he ripped off Bruce Irvin's cap and then got into a shouting match with Richard Sherman. However, Graham didn't log a single reception until an eight-yard catch on a failed final drive. Earl Thomas did a great job of keeping Graham in check.
The Saints ran the ball well with both Khiry Robinson (13-57, TD) and Ingram (10-49). Robinson is someone to watch out for in fantasy next year; as the FOX broadcasters let us know repeatedly, Bill Parcells called Sean Payton during the week and told him that Robinson reminds him of Hall of Fame running back Curtis Martin.
Speaking of Payton, he had some poor coaching gaffes in the second half. He burned a pair of timeouts, which was absolutely crucial, as the Saints simply ran out of time on their final drive. He then had Graham try an 48-yard field goal into the wind instead of having Brees attempt to move the chains. Sure, it was a fourth-and-15, but Graham had zero chance in that spot. Even a punt would've been a better choice. Payton then wasted his final timeout when challenging what seemed like a sure reception on Seattle's final offensive possession. It was a big gain, but Payton simply couldn't throw the red flag there unless he was absolutely sure that Doug Baldwin dropped the pass. Payton also may have been responsible for Colston's desperation bone-headed forward lateral on the last play from scrimmage. Colston should have just stepped out of bounds following a reception to give Brees a Hail Mary try, but perhaps he was told to attempt a backward pass.
As for the winners, the big story for the Seahawks heading into this contest was Percy Harvin's return to the field. Harvin had a nine-yard rush on a sweep and made a 16-yard leaping catch, but his first game back turned out to be a flop because he was knocked out with a concussion in the second quarter on a fierce hit by Malcolm Jenkins. The Saints made it a point to hit him hard; safety Rafael Bush drew a flag for a shoulder shot to the helmet, yet the coaches high-fived him on the sideline. Roger Goodell can't be happy about that. Harvin finished with just three grabs for 21 yards.
Marshawn Lynch couldn't muster anything in the early going, as the Saints did a great job of bottling him up. However, he broke free for some big gains as the game developed, finishing with a franchise playoff-record 140 yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries. Lynch appeared like he wore down at the end of the season, but he was in full Beast Mode in this contest. That obviously bodes well going forward.
Russell Wilson had some issues with his accuracy; he completed only half of his passes (9-of-18 for 103 yards), as some of his attempts were behind his intended targets. However, there are two things to keep in mind. First, the Saints have an outstanding aerial defense, as stud cornerback Keenan Lewis broke up several passes. Second, Wilson made a clutch, third-down conversion to Baldwin (2-30) on the team's final possession, setting up Lynch's second touchdown.
Baldwin, by the way, led the Seahawks in receiving yardage. Harvin, meanwhile, was the only Seahawk with more than two receptions. Wilson almost definitely would've enjoyed a better performance had Harvin remained on the field. Fortunately for Seattle, he'll have an extra day to get cleared.
Patriots 43, Colts 22
It's amazing how quickly public perception can change. About a month ago when the Patriots saw Rob Gronkowski suffer a season-ending injury, New England was pretty much given up for dead. No one gave the team a chance, especially after it lost at Miami. Now, three victories later, including this 43-point playoff performance, the Patriots are completely unstoppable.
New England is somewhere in between, though its ground attack has been prolific in the second half of the season. LeGarrette Blount, who averaged five yards per carry during the regular season, absolutely bulldozed Indianapolis' anemic front, gaining a franchise playoff-record 166 yards and four touchdowns on just 24 carries. Blount's four rushing scores were the second-most in playoff history behind only Ricky Watters' five in 1994.
Despite the 43-point outburst, Tom Brady didn't throw a single touchdown pass. In fact, he barely completed half of his passes and couldn't even reach 200 passing yards. The New England backs did all of the work. Blount was phenomenal, while Stevan Ridley also looked good, mustering 52 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries.
Brady, by the way, finished 13-of-25 for 198 yards. He had an interception dropped by safety Antoine Bethea in the end zone near the end of the game, but was fine otherwise. Most of his yardage came on a 53-yard bomb to Danny Amendola (3-77). Brady could've had a better statistical performance, but the play-calling at the end of the second quarter was mind-boggling. New England went run-run on its final first-half possession despite being in decent field position and having ample time remaining on the clock. Then again, it was very windy and rainy, so perhaps Bill Belichick was right in being ultra conservative.
While Brady was limited yardage-wise but remained turnover-free, Andrew Luck was the complete opposite. Luck threw for 331 yards and two touchdowns on 20-of-41 passing, but he threw four interceptions. Two weren't his fault - the ball bounced off fullback Stanley Havili's chest on one occasion, while LaVon Brazill didn't make the appropriate back-shoulder read on another - but the first pick of the evening occurred because Luck stared down Brazill. Alfonzo Dennard snatched the ball and nearly ran it back into the end zone. The Patriots ultimately scored, as Blount pounded his way in for six.
Luck's other poor pick happened because he didn't see Jamie Collins, who had a monstrous outing. Collins logged six tackles, one sack and the interception, but those numbers don't describe how well he played. He was dominant in all facets, and he even made a tackle when he was on the ground.
Despite all of this, Luck had some great moments. He aired out some terrific passes downfield, hitting T.Y. Hilton for 46 yards and Brazill for 38. He'll be much better next year once he has more experience and welcomes Reggie Wayne back to the lineup.
Both of Luck's touchdowns went to Brazill (2-73). Coby Fleener led the team in receptions (6-74), while Hilton had the most receiving yardage (4-103), with all but 17 yards coming in the second half. Hilton's aforementioned 46-yard score came when he finally broke free of Aqib Talib, who had locked him down beforehand. Hilton was hit hard a couple of times in this game, but managed to stay on the field.
New England had struggled against the run heading into this contest and didn't have Brandon Spikes available, yet Donald Brown was just limited to 63 yards on 17 carries. Take away a 16-yard burst, and Brown had a mere 16-47 line. Trent Richardson, meanwhile, was not a factor at all. He managed just one yard on three carries and was stuffed near the goal line.
Some other notes/stats for the Patriots:
- Here's some history: Brady is now the first quarterback in league history with 6,000 career playoff passing yards. Meanwhile, New England's six rushing touchdowns in a postseason game is tied for second all time behind the 1940 Chicago Bears (7).
- Julian Edelman was the only Patriot with more than three receptions; he caught six balls for 84 yards.
- The Patriots surrendered a safety on a high snap. Punter Ryan Allen scooped the ball up, panicked and tried to throw a pass, but was tackled and fumbled the ball out of the back of the end zone.
- Allen got hurt on the ensuing kickoff, so Stephen Gostkowski had to assume punting duties. Gostkowski actually punted extremely well for distance, but a pooch punt of his sailed well into the end zone, as he didn't come close to pinning the ball inside the 20. Still, the Patriots won't exactly be hurting if they have to ask Gostkowski to punt in the next two playoff games.
49ers 23, Panthers 10
It's hard to believe based on the final result, but the Panthers were dominating this game until the very end of the second quarter. Prior to San Francisco's final first-half drive, Carolina had outgained the 49ers by a whopping margin of 195-59. San Francisco became an unstoppable force after that, but the Panthers were up by only four points at that stage of the game for two reasons:
First, the Panthers squandered 11 points because of two failed opportunities at the goal line. They turned the ball over on downs the first time and settled for a field goal on the second occasion. They called for a Cam Newton sneak once, and it didn't work, but I feel like Newton should've been given more opportunities to rush the ball into the end zone.
Second, and this is much more disconcerting, official Carl Cheffers and his crew completely sabotaged this game for Carolina, as they seemed like they were doing everything in their power to make sure there was a San Francisco-Seattle matchup next week, which will obviously draw higher ratings. That's the only reasonable explanation for this one-sided officiating.
Here are some examples of Cheffers' incompetence and/or corruption:
- Michael Mitchell was whistled for an awful unecessary roughness penalty on the first drive - Troy Aikman was as livid as he gets upon seeing the infraction for the late hit - and this helped set up a San Francisco field goal.
- Steve Smith was hit late similarly on Carolina's opening possession, yet no flag was thrown.
- The 49ers were whistled for a defensive hold on the next drive in which Luke Kuechly barely touched the opponent.
- Captain Munnerlyn was flagged for an unnecessary roughness for headbutting a Panther. This was a questionable penalty, but the thing that made this an absolutely horrific call was that Anquan Boldin wasn't whistled for the same exact thing right before San Francisco scored its first touchdown at the end of the opening half.
- As Mike Pereira pointed out, the 49ers had 12 men in the huddle prior to that touchdown, yet Cheffers allowed them to take a player off the field. This is illegal, and San Francisco should've moved backward five yards, which would've probably forced a field goal, given that the team didn't have much time remaining on the clock.
Given that the Panthers were battling the unstoppable combination of Jim Harbaugh and the officials, it's understandable that some of the players would get deflated. This, however, does not excuse Cam Newton sulking on the sideline. He showed terrible body language, and even though a comeback was possible down 23-10 with eight minutes remaining, it was obvious that the 49ers would come away with the victory.
Newton had a horrific second half. After going 8-of-10 for 136 yards, one touchdown and an interception (the pass thrown behind Brandon LaFell) in the first half, Newton was just 7-of-12 for 72 yards and a pick (overthrow into double coverage) after the break, subtracting a garbage-time 59-yard flip to Ted Ginn. His final numbers were 16-of-25 for 267 yards, one touchdown to Steve Smith and the two picks. He also rushed for 54 yards on 10 scrambles.
It's difficult to take this victory seriously for the 49ers. They're definitely one of the league's best teams, but this contest would've been much more interesting had the officials been unbiased. Still, the offense was extremely sharp in the second half, scoring 10 points on their first two drives and converting 4-of-5 third-down tries.
The Panthers simply couldn't stop the run after intermission. Frank Gore had a 7-17 line heading into the break, but he finished with 84 yards on 17 carries. As mentioned, Carolina simply ran out of gas because it knew it had to overcome a physical team and biased officiating.
Colin Kaepernick, meanwhile, attempted only four passes after the break, but completed all of them for a total of 75 yards. He struggled initially - he was nearly pick-sixed in the opening quarter - so his final numbers were just 15-of-28 for 196 yards and a passing touchdown to Vernon Davis. Kaepernick also ran in a score, as he picked up 15 yards on the ground on eight scrambles.
Kaepernick often targeted Anquan Boldin, who snatched eight passes for 136 yards. The catch of the game, however, came from Michael Crabtree (3-26), who made a leaping grab for 20 yards in the second quarter. Davis, meanwhile, had just one catch for one yard, but he did reel in Kaepernick's sole aerial touchdown by somehow dragging his feet inbounds as he was falling out of the end zone.
Some stats/notes for the Panthers:
- DeAngelo Williams struggled to run the ball, mustering just 13 yards on five carries. Mike Tolbert outgained him with 20 yards on eight attempts.
- Only four Panthers caught passes, and all four of them had four receptions: Ginn (4-104), Smith (4-74, TD), Olsen (4-55) and LaFell (4-34).
- Carolina suffered a tough injury to safety Quintin Mikell in the first half. Defensive end Charles Johnson was also banged up. The Panthers were so much worse defensively without Mikell.
Broncos 24, Chargers 17
A year ago during the divisional round of the playoffs, Peyton Manning had a chance to convert a third-and-7 with two minutes remaining. Denver failed to move the chains and gave the ball back to Joe Flacco on his own 23-yard line. Three plays later, Flacco sailed what became known as the Mile High Rainbow to Jacoby Jones for an inexplicable 70-yard touchdown. Baltimore went on to upset Denver in double overtime.
Manning was faced with two similar situations in this contest. His team was up by 17 points on a couple of occasions, but Philip Rivers caught fire in the fourth quarter. He eventually drew to within seven, and following a penalty, Manning had to convert a third-and-17 or risk giving the ball back to Rivers. Instead of punting the ball away like he did last January, he somehow found Julius Thomas for a gain of 21 along the sideline. Manning was also able to move the chains after hitting his target on a third-and-6. This allowed Denver to bleed the clock out, as all Rivers could do was stand on the sidelines and wave his arms in disgust.
Manning didn't post eye-popping numbers like he did on many occasions during the regular season, but he was able to convert clutch throws. He went 25-of-36 for 230 yards, two touchdowns andan interception that wasn't his fault (the ball deflected off Eric Decker's chest to safety Darrell Stuckey in the end zone). Manning suffered through several drops, including that Decker screw-up. Wes Welker also had a potential touchdown clang off his arms. However, Manning got away with a couple of picks, including one where he floated a pass downfield on the opening drive. The San Diego defender had the ball simply fall through his arms. This was a blown opportunity for the Chargers, as Denver eventually found the end zone on that drive.
Manning's touchdowns went to Welker (6-38) and Demaryius Thomas (8-54). Julius Thomas led the team in receiving (6-76) though he also committed a drop and lost a fumble that led to a missed field goal (more on that later). Decker, meanwhile, barely did anything positive on offense (2-32), but had a great punt return that would've been a touchdown had he not tripped over his own two feet.
The Broncos ran the ball extremely well with both of their running backs. Knowshon Moreno tallied 82 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries, while Montee Ball looked very powerful as he registered 52 yards on just 10 attempts. Denver's ability to pound the ball allowed it to control the clock - it won the time-of-possession battle by nearly 11 minutes - which is exactly how San Diego won the previous matchup between these teams. The Broncos simply gave the Chargers a taste of their own medicine.
San Diego was able to control the clock last time via the run. That was not the case in this contest, as a hobbled Ryan Mathews mustered just 26 yards on five carries (most of which came on a 16-yard scamper in which he was bottled up that was broken outside). Danny Woodhead led the team with 29 rushing yards on nine attempts.
There were three themes for the Chargers in this game:
1. San Diego couldn't pass protect. Von Miller was out, yet Denver sacked Rivers twice on the opening drive and three times on the first two possessions. Rivers, as a consequence, looked rattled early on. He was just 5-of-8 for only 20 yards in the first half. He was hot at the end though, as mentioned, so he was able to finish 18-of-27 for 217 yards and two touchdowns.
2. The Chargers seemed to suffer a billion concussions in this contest. Their defenders continuously hit each other. First, Jahleel Addae crashed into Manti Te'o and knocked him out. Reggie Walker then collided with Marcus Gilchrist, so the safety had to leave the game. Addae was then blasted by Melvin Ingram. Punter Mike Scifres also got hurt.
3. San Diego killed itself with unforced errors. I mentioned the dropped interception, but the most prominent issue had to do with being offsides. The Chargers were whistled for a whopping five neutral zone infraction penalties. They also had a missed field goal in which Nick Novak slipped on the turf, while backup tight end Ladarius Green dropped a long reception.
I mentioned Rivers' stats; it's also worth noting that he had a dropped interception on a pass thrown behind Keenan Allen. Both of Rivers' scores went to Allen, who had way more yardage than anyone else on the Chargers; he caught six balls for 142 yards and two touchdowns. Antonio Gates (2-10) barely did anything.
For more thoughts, check out my updated NFL Power Rankings, which will be posted Tuesday morning.