CHARLOTTE -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight from the NFL's divisional round. ...
• The NFL's four divisional-round games might have felt somewhat flat compared to the close contests and thrilling finishes we saw for the most part in the wild-card round, but you can blame the dominance of the Seahawks, Patriots, 49ers and Broncos for that. The cream rose this weekend in the NFL, and the four favorites all flexed their muscles and won as expected.
Upsets make for some great drama in the NFL playoffs, but there's nothing wrong with getting a postseason final four that features the four best teams in the league throughout the long four-month regular-season slog.
Let's face it: Any of the four survivors could win the Super Bowl early next month and raise nary an eyebrow. You can't call any of these clubs upstarts. The Seahawks and Broncos went an NFL-best 13-3 this season, while the Patriots and 49ers were both a strong 12-4 and are playing in their third consecutive conference title game. No pretenders in sight. All four teams were in the playoffs last season, and all but the Seahawks have made it at least three years in a row, with Seattle settling for three trips in four years.
Last week's four games had an average winning margin of 5.8 points, with only San Diego's 27-10 win at Cincinnati being decided by more than three points. This week the four victors won by an average of 12.3 points, with no game closer than the seven points that separated Denver and San Diego in the Broncos' 24-17 win.
And you can bemoan the overkill to come all you want in regards to another Tom Brady-Peyton Manning matchup in the AFC Championship Game, but it has been seven years since those two warriors met in a playoff game, and that one was Indy's memorable 38-34 comeback win over New England in the 2006 season's AFC title game. We should be so lucky to get another such instant classic next week in Denver.
When you throw in the San Francisco at Seattle slugfest in the NFC title game, a showdown that pits two of the best defenses in football and division rivals who have something of a blood feud going the past two years, how could the NFL have drawn up its conference title matchups with any more must-see factor? The two veteran Hall of Fame-bound quarterbacks face off yet again, this time in Denver, while the Russell Wilson-Colin Kaepernick young guns debate gets its first playoff chapter written in Seattle.
Onetime Super Bowl coaching rivals Bill Belichick and John Fox will match wits in the AFC, while those old collegiate antagonists, Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll, meet for the third time this season in an all-NFC West conference title game. This final four also assures that either Brady or Manning will get another late-career Super Bowl shot, with either Kaepernick and the 49ers returning to the big stage for a second consecutive year, or Seattle's Wilson leading the Seahawks to the NFL's ultimate game for the first time since the 2005 season.
What's not to like? The Super Bowl may be played in the cold Northeast this season, but the West is clearly where it's at this year, with three of the final four teams hailing from the league's two West divisions.
This weekend's divisional round might have lacked some competitiveness, but you can't deny that it delivered the best possible glamor matchups in the AFC-NFC title games to come. There's a scant three games left on the NFL's 2013 schedule, and they have a more than decent chance to be the best three games of the year. Let the fantastic four unfold.
• It's January, so that means Anquan Boldin is putting a team on his back again. OK, maybe Boldin wasn't the entire difference between winning and losing for the 49ers on Sunday in Charlotte, but his team-best eight catches for 136 yards against the Panthers had a lot of echoes of his dominance for Baltimore during the Ravens' Super Bowl run last year.
Boldin is one more win away from making his third Super Bowl, with a third team: Arizona in the 2008 season, and Baltimore last year. His presence on the roster is definitely not a coincidence in this case.
• Riverboat Ron Rivera's luck finally ran dry Sunday in terms of gambling on fourth downs. Carolina's third-year head coach entered the game against San Francisco having seen his team convert on 10-of-13 fourth-down plays this season, but Carolina was stuffed on a 4th-and-1 from the 49ers' 1 on the first play of the second quarter.
Later in that same quarter, San Francisco made another stout goal-line stand, holding the Panthers off from 3rd-and-1 from the one-foot line. Carolina wound up kicking a 24-yard Graham Gano field goal to take a safe-but-sorry 10-6 lead. The Panthers won 11 out of their last 12 games, often rolling the dice and hitting it big. But maybe the odds caught up with Rivera, whose team had costly struggles in the red zone in its 23-10 loss to the visiting 49ers.
• Of all the many New England trips to the AFC title game, this one is by far the most ridiculous. The Patriots' receivers Saturday night against the Colts were all under 6-foot in height, and two of them went undrafted: Danny Amendola and Kenbrell Thompkins. The tight ends were the underwhelming Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan. The fullback is James Develin, an Ivy Leaguer from Brown who also went unselected in the draft. The starting offensive line includes two more undrafted talents: center Ryan Wendell and right guard Dan Connolly. Then there are all the key injuries and defections that rocked New England this season, from Vince Wilfork to Rob Gronkowski to Aaron Hernandez.
How in the world did a Patriots roster that devoid of pedigree wind up winning 12 games in the regular season, one more in the playoffs, and find itself in position to win at least three other games on New England's final drive? It's a crazy impressive accomplishment that's getting considerably overlooked just because we're so used to the Patriots winning with Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.
And speaking of the Patriots' quarterback and the head coach, of the 12 seasons they've worked together as the team's healthy starter and boss man (minus Brady's lost season of 2008), this is their eighth AFC Championship Game berth, an absurd 66.6 percent success rate when it comes to playing for a Super Bowl invite. And with the Patriots making their third straight AFC title game, that annual storyline about New England's window of Super Bowl opportunity being about ready to close has been shot full of holes once again.
We may all take Brady's and Belichick's greatness for granted at this point, but Brady's ability to elevate the play of those around him, and Belichick's knack for getting the utmost production out of the talent he has available to him is in my eyes unmatched in NFL history.
• Taking nothing away from Seattle's dominating defensive performance for most of the game, but that's not looking like a Super Bowl-ready offense in Seattle about now. The Seahawks offense in the second half was playing in full awareness of taking care of the football in the rough weather, and calling plays designed to protect a 16-0 lead at the break. Still, Seattle had produced just 44 yards of offense in the second half until fewer than four minutes remained, and that lack of execution allowed the Saints to come dangerously close to stealing the game.
In the end, the Seahawks produced just enough offense to beat the Saints, who couldn't move the ball against Seattle's suffocating defense until the fourth quarter. But I don't see the Seahawks getting past San Francisco if they don't threaten more than they did on Saturday. Don't think Russell Wilson completing just nine passes for a career-worst 103 yards, like he did against New Orleans, will cut it next Sunday.
The Seahawks are clearly a more explosive team with receiver Percy Harvin on the field, but how can you begin to count on him in the NFC title game after he twice had to leave the game for concussion testing against the Saints. Between his issues with his hip, his head and his shoulder, Harvin gives Seattle no reasonable expectation of help this season.
• What a forgettable Saturday in Seattle for Saints' all-world tight end Jimmy Graham. Talking loudly in the pregame and then going completely silent when it counts, in the game, is the nightmare scenario for any proud and productive star. But Graham clearly let the chatty Seahawks defense get in his head with his pregame warm-up shouting matches, and that no doubt helped Seattle take him out of his game. His lone catch came in the game's closing 20 seconds, and Graham was never able to shake the blanket coverage the Seahawks threw at him all day.
Graham is freakishly gifted and the centerpiece of the Saints offense other than Drew Brees, but he's going to have to live with that zero of a performance all offseason, and there will be significant pressure on him to reprove himself the next time New Orleans makes the postseason.
• Speaking of Saints named Graham, New Orleans kicker Shayne Graham also came up way small under the glare of the divisional-round spotlight. He'll always have his strong night last week in Philadelphia to recall fondly, but the wind and rain in Seattle proved more than a match for Graham's veteran right foot on Saturday. He missed narrowly on a 45-yard field goal effort in the first quarter, but he absolutely Vanderjagt-ed that ill-advised 48-yard desperation try in the fourth quarter. Not that I would have even run him out there to try that long shot in those conditions.
Come to think of it, Saints punter Thomas Morstead had a rough day at the office, too. His 16-yard shank job on New Orleans' first possession helped set up Seattle's first score, and it came after the snap sailed through his hands and hit him in that spot for which there is no real defense.
• Had to be particularly brutal being a Tampa Bay fan and watching Saturday's divisional games unfold. There were ex-Bucs LeGarrette Blount, Aqib Talib and Michael Bennett, all making mighty contributions to help their teams advance to the conference title games, while Tampa Bay is starting over yet again on the coaching and GM front after its sixth consecutive non-playoff season. I know Talib and Blount had their issues with the Bucs, but New England has gotten quite the return on its investment.
Why do I get the feeling that Greg Schiano's name might have been taken in vain a few times in Tampa Bay on Saturday?
• Marques Colston might have made the dumbest play by a truly good player since Vikings defensive end Jim Marshall scored his infamous wrong-way "touchdown'' in 1964. Even if you want to maintain the element of surprise and not just rely on a Hail Mary heave or two in that situation, the key to the throw-back-across-the-field play is to throw it "back'' across the field, not forward by a good five yards or so.
• In the end, the Colts' Jekyll-and-Hyde-type regular season stayed perfectly true to form in the playoffs, didn't it? First, there were Indy's two wildly divergent halves of football at home against Kansas City, in that improbable 45-44 comeback victory over the Chiefs in the wild-card round. Those four quarters could have encapsulated the whole rollercoaster-like season in Indianapolis all by themselves.
And then, there was no real follow-up performance against the Patriots Saturday night, which again kept Indy's season-long pattern in place. The Colts had four comeback wins this season after trailing by 10 points or more, and each time they fell flat and lost the following week, losing those games by a combined 140-50.
The Colts have a bright future with Andrew Luck on the scene, but consistency is not yet their calling card.
• I'm pretty sure the the nasty weather in Seattle and Foxboro had plenty to do with the play-calling, but it was refreshing in an old-school way to see the Seahawks and Patriots so dominating on the ground on Saturday. Seattle and New England combined to rush for 408 yards and eight touchdowns on 81 attempts, for slightly more than 5.0 yards per crack. More than 75 percent of that yardage total was produced by the twin monster games turned in by the Seahawks' Marshawn Lynch (28 carries for 140 yards and two touchdowns) and the Patriots' LeGarrette Blount (a franchise playoff-record four touchdowns and 166 yards on 24 carries). Blount took a page out of the old Corey Dillon playbook in New England, and Lynch's great game was just another healthy dose of Beast Mode.
I'm not going to overreact and claim the NFL isn't a passing-first league after all. Of course it is. But the ground game was the path to victory for the Seahawks and Patriots in the divisional playoffs, and both teams rode some exquisite power running to a date in their respective conference title games. And that made it feel like a Throwback Saturday in the NFL.
• If you're the opposing offense against the Seahawks, how do you begin to identify the one Seattle defender that you have to account for going into the game? Linebacker Bobby Wagner was everywhere against the Saints. But safety Earl Thomas came up huge in some key moments, and sub-package defensive lineman Michael Bennett was a difference-maker all game long. And we didn't even mention cornerback Richard Sherman, because Drew Brees seemed content to not even test him for the most part.
Naming an MVP on Seattle's defense might be the toughest call in the NFL this season.
• The way last season ended in New Orleans, with the defense collapsing in historic fashion, did you ever dream the Saints would make the playoffs this season, but find themselves being let down by a lackluster offense and kept alive by their stout defense in the playoffs? That was the scenario in Seattle, where Rob Ryan's defense did everything it could to give Brees and Co. a chance to mount a comeback.
Said this starting in the offseason, but hiring Ryan wound up being even more beneficial to New Orleans' 2013 season than head coach Sean Payton's return.