This weekend was a remarkable one for playoff football: a double OT game, a Cinderella story falling short by two points, domination by one of the premier quarterbacks in the league and a new playoff rushing record. All that in just four games necessitates a closer look into each one.
Baltimore Ravens 38, Denver Broncos 35 (2OT)
Maybe the most exciting game of the weekend was also a crippling playoff collapse for Peyton Manning and the Broncos. While there was every reason for Denver to win, they seemed adamant to couple every one of those with one more to lose, never allowing the Ravens out of the game. A 290-yard, 3-touchdown passing performance is nothing to hang your head about, but fumbling as many times as you did in the regular season and throwing two critical interceptions in your first playoff game with your new team certainly is. It’s hard to lose a game in which you returned not only a kick but also a punt for a touchdown, but it’s also hard to win when your starting running back is injured and the rest of your backs are stagnant, meaning your quarterback is under relentless pressure all game. It is hard to imagine losing after an 11-game win streak, but as the Broncos know, playoff football changes everything.
Every single thing that made the Broncos a legitimate Super Bowl contender (their relentless, no holds barred style of play, the variety of directions the offense could go in, the confidence that defense took the field with) disappeared this weekend: with two time-outs, and given the ball at the 20 yard line in a tie game with 30 seconds left in the fourth, they chose to run the clock out. With practically no running game and disappearing receivers, Manning was forced to make plays himself. Giving up miracle play after miracle play to Flacco and the Ravens, there was no confidence. From there, it was only a matter of time before the Ravens capitalized on the weaknesses, and the Broncos lost the game.
New England Patriots 41, Houston Texans 28
Many argue Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback to ever walk an NFL field; if his now record 17 playoff wins and his five Super Bowl appearances were not evidence enough for that, this weekend provided even more evidence. Brady’s 344 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions embarrassed a Houston Texans defense that have slipped from prominence into a group that stumbled and bumbled into the playoffs. There is not a whole lot to be said about this game. Tom Brady and the dangerous corps of receivers dominated, allowing for the run game to open up for Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen. The New England defense was not dominating but they did enough. On to the next one.
Atlanta Falcons 30, Seattle Seahawks 28
Long ago, Matt Ryan earned the nickname Matty Ice, a nickname in reference to his 21 game-winning drives. But until Sunday night, Matty had not done so in the playoffs. Defensive breakdowns on Atlanta’s part lost the Falcons a 20-point lead and left them down a point with 31 seconds to go. Two plays, 41 yards and 18 seconds later, Matty Ice had done his job, setting up Matt Bryant for a game winning 49-yard field goal.
More than that, however, is the story of how far the Seattle Seahawks have come in the past few years. Performances in recent memory have ranged from abysmal to humdrum, hovering around .500 or worse for the past several years. And yet, there they were competing for a spot in the NFC championship game. In a Cinderella second half of a season, the Seahawks took eight of their last nine games, including a playoff win against the up-and-coming Redskins, led in large part by rookie QB Russell Wilson. Wilson threw for 386 yards and recorded three total touchdowns, leading coach Pete Carroll to say of Wilson, “He ain’t a rookie. … I can’t imagine how he could get better.”
Wilson is by no means perfect. He is still tiny in a league of giants. He needs to develop more pocket presence. He needs to learn to win away from home. But the Seahawks have a viable future, something we’ve hardly been able to say in past years.
San Francisco 49ers 45, Green Bay Packers 31
The story of the year for the Niners has been Colin Kapernick. Any questions about his starting ability were answered this weekend, as Kapernick set a record for playoff quarterbacks, running for 181 yards and two touchdowns, and then slapping 263 passing yards with two more touchdowns on top of that. It’s safe to say that we can qualify him as a dual threat quarterback.
Kapernick even outdueled Aaron Rodgers, a man with a list of achievements taller than he is. Kapernick and Gore ran for more than 300 yards against a flabbergasted and exhausted Packers defense. Try as Rodgers might, he could not match the historic effort Colin Kapernick put in; few could have.
As a fan, few weekends have topped this one for me this year, and unfortunately it’s hard to imagine the level of competition will remain this high throughout the postseason. But a boy can dream, can’t he?