FOXBORO, Mass. -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight as the most riveting weekend of NFL playoff action in memory winds to a breathless close....
? Not sure what must have been greater, the inherent and inescapable pressure the top-seeded Atlanta Falcons were under as they entered this weekend's NFL Divisional round, or the stomach-churning stress and strain they endured in the second half when it came within seconds of slipping away Sunday against Seattle in a shell-shocked Georgia Dome. But in the end, they withstood it all, and moved on. And those are the magic words when it comes to playoff football.
Good Lord, that was tense. Has any football team anywhere needed a W more than Mike Smith's Falcons did on this day? Devastating doesn't begin to describe the mood that would have descended on Atlanta if the Falcons had become the first NFL playoff team to ever lose after holding a 20-point lead entering the fourth quarter. When Sunday began, teams were 83-0 in league postseason history after building that kind of advantage, but that stat darn near dropped to 83-1 thanks to Seattle's remarkable 21-point fourth quarter.
Atlanta survived, thanks to Matt Bryant's clutch 49-yard field with 8 seconds remaining, but even that final Seahawks' Hail Mary attempt meant the Falcons had to sweat out every last second of this one before it was time to at last celebrate victory. And what a vindicating victory it was for Smith and fifth-year Falcons quarteback Matt Ryan, who finally rid themselves of the onus of going winless and 0-3 in the playoffs since arriving to start a new chapter in franchise history in 2008.
Every playoff team wanted to win this weekend. The Falcons simply had to win. And a loss after being in total command in the game's first three quarters would have been almost unimaginable, and maybe a turn of events Atlanta's players and coaches would never really recover from. Yes, in Atlanta's case, there really was that much on the line in third game of his thrilling NFL Divisional round weekend.
But now, there will be even more at stake next Sunday in the Georgia Dome, when the No. 2 seeded San Francisco 49ers">49ers (12-4-1) visit, and the Falcons (14-3) take part in their first NFC Championship Game since losing at Philadelphia in January 2005. There can't possibly be more pressure on Atlanta than there was this week, but the Falcons have never had a home game with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, so that's a first in their 47-season franchise history.
Suffice to say, the Falcons won't be able to get away with just one half of quality football against the 49ers, not with the way San Francisco and its quarterback sensation Colin Kaepernick had things rolling against the Packers Saturday night in Candlestick Park. Atlanta can't afford to take its foot off the gas offensively like coordinator Dirk Koetter seemed to do after halftime against Seattle, which scored 28 of the second half's 38 points. Playing not to lose against Kaepernick and Co. will likely ensure defeat.
The Falcons got here this season by opening things up on offense, and pushing the envelope whenever possible. That mentality almost deserted them at the worst possible time on Sunday, but they were able to strike quick and late, and stave off catastrophe. In a weekend full of revelations, learning that Ryan, Smith and the rest of the Falcons could indeed win when the pressure of the playoffs was on was the most meaningful discovery of all.
? Good for Tony Gonzalez, and you have to think those were tears of relief he shed as soon as the final gun sounded. I mean, 16 years in the NFL wars and Atlanta's future Hall of Fame tight end finally has a playoff victory to savor. Waiting must have made it all the sweeter.
From his tip-toe first-quarter touchdown catch, to his critical final catch just before Bryant's game-winning field goal, Gonzalez was the guy Atlanta's offense leaned on when it needed to make a play. And like he has since 1997, Gonzalez almost always responded.
But as amazing as it is to contemplate Gonzalez's long odyssey, it only makes the plight of Takeo Spikes even more unbelievable. The Chargers linebacker has played 15 seasons in the NFL for five teams, and never even made the playoffs, let alone won a game in the postseason.
That's the ultimate drought.
? Not all losses are created equal, of course. How can Seattle feel anything but excitement for the future with rookie quarterback Russell Wilson saving his best for last in this 2012 season? Wilson very nearly mounted the most heart-stopping fourth-quarter comeback in NFL playoff history, and his 385-yard, two-touchdown passing, one-touchdown rushing day put an exclamation point on a near-magical first season with the Seahawks.
Wilson, the third-round pick out of Wisconsin, was the most pleasant surprise in the NFL this season. But he has set the bar high now. Quality quarterback play was the missing element in Seattle before 2012 began, but that position is in great hands for the foreseeable future. With a dominant running game and a young and underrated defense, plenty more playoff runs should be on the way for the Wilson-led Seahawks.
? I know the thirst for larger TV ratings dictates most everything in the NFL, but wouldn't it have made more sense to play Sunday's Seattle at Atlanta game in the late-afternoon slot, thereby not forcing the Seahawks to play a game at 10 a.m. by their body clocks? Seattle had the late Sunday game last week in the first round, winning at Washington.
The Houston at New England matchup didn't have any such time zone consequences, since the Texans are in the Central time zone and wouldn't have had much of a struggle starting a game at noon their time. In the first half, the Seahawks fell behind 20-0 and played as if they weren't quite awake yet.
? Worst decision of the weekend, and it's not even close, was Atlanta opting to squib/onside kick on the kickoff following Bryant's 49-yard game-winning field goal. What in the world was the thinking there? In mind-boggling fashion, the Falcons nearly gave Seattle the field position it desperately needed to try its own game-winning, last-second field goal attempt.
I know Falcons special teams coach Keith Armstrong is greatly respected around the league and is even generating some head coaching interest and interviews. But that was a potentially season-ending brain cramp he or someone else on the Falcons coaching staff suffered.
? You can't tackle the Peyton Manning legacy issue without stating the obvious: He may wind up being the winningest quarterback of all time, but that's just in the regular season. Manning can't be considered the greatest quarterback ever with that galling 9-11 playoff record and so much unfinished business in the postseason.
That's just the way it works in the NFL. The playoffs serve to settle things, and Manning has been average at best when it matters most. In his 14 seasons of NFL action, Manning's teams have made the playoffs a whopping 12 times. But Saturday's double overtime loss to the underdog Ravens was the eighth time Manning has gone one-and-done in the postseason. Eight out of 12 one-and-dones. That's a staggering number, and means two-thirds of his playoff trips have been over almost before they ever started.
This was the fourth time Manning has lost a playoff opener despite his team earning a first-round bye, and six of his nine career playoff wins were bunched in 2006 and 2009 -- the Colts' two Super Bowl seasons. In four of his last five playoff trips, and five out of seven, Manning's team has lost its first playoff game. His last postseason victory of any sort came in the 2009 AFC title game, when Indy mounted a fourth-quarter comeback to beat the upstart Jets 30-17.
Manning had a great 2012 season, and his stellar return to form was one of the stories of the year in the NFL. But the reality is he returned to form in the playoffs as well, and the Broncos have now seen both the highs and the lows of life with Manning.
? Despite his three turnovers, Manning clearly wasn't the No. 1 cause for the Broncos loss. That would be safety Rahim Moore, who inexplicably let Jacoby Jones get and stay behind on that game-tying 70-yard touchdown pass with 31 seconds left in regulation. Moore wasn't alone in his culpability. Broncos head coach John Fox came up very small on the big stage, taking a conservative approach with time to play with, both at the end of the first half and end of regulation. And then there was that run on 3rd-and-7 with just more than a minute left in the fourth quarter, when a first down would have iced the game. With Manning on your team, you don't coach like you have Jake Delhomme.
Head coaches who play not to lose in the playoffs usually wind up losing. Fox, Marty Schottenheimer and Norv Turner all come quickly to mind. For Fox, this is the second time in the past five seasons that his team has pulled the one-and-done thing after securing a first-round bye. Carolina in 2008 was the NFC's No. 2 seed, but lost in the divisional round at home to eventual NFC champion Arizona.
In retrospect, perhaps it didn't help the Broncos to win all those games so easily in the course of its 11-game winning streak (all by seven points or more). Denver's schedule was challenging early in the season, but not late. And the bye-taking Broncos never seemed to match Baltimore's intensity and sense of urgency, which carried over nicely from last week's first-round Ravens' win at home against Indianapolis.
? While we're at it, veteran defensive coordinators (and former head coaches) Dom Capers and Jack Del Rio didn't bathe themselves in glory either with their work Saturday. Capers' Packers had no answers for Kaepernick's read-option moves, and seemingly went for almost every fake the 49ers quarterback issued. It was as if the Packers never prepared for the possibility Kaepernick might run.
As for Del Rio, his defense got burned repeatedly by Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco, and there's no excuse for receiver Torrey Smith getting behind Champ Bailey three times (producing a pair of touchdowns), with Moore's bad positioning on Jones' touchdown costing Denver a victory in regulation.
? Time to pay the man, Ravens. Baltimore's Flacco is never going to reach free agency now. Not after leading his team to a third AFC title game in five seasons in Baltimore, and improving his playoff record to a gaudy 7-4, including five road wins in nine tries.
Flacco has his issues with disappearing at times in big games, and makes some ill-advised throws with his strong arm. But he was superb in the cold of Denver on Saturday, is one of the game's top eight quarterbacks -- in the upper 25 percent -- and deserves to be paid like it. Saturday's victory was his finest hour in Baltimore, given how little chance he and his Ravens were given of upsetting Manning and the Broncos, and there would be plenty of teams lining up to pursue him in free agency if he got to the market.
This is not the best Ravens team of Flacco's and John Harbaugh's five seasons in Baltimore, but the Ravens are a resilient and mentally tough bunch, capable of beating anyone when they're at their best. Since both Flacco and Harbaugh arrived in 2008, Baltimore is easily the NFL's best team to not reach the Super Bowl in that span. Flacco deserves to start getting his share of the credit and a new contract for Baltimore's consistent Super Bowl contention.
? Any further questions about the Alex Smith benching in San Francisco? In my opinion, Jim Harbaugh's gutsy decision got backed up weeks ago by Colin Kaepernick's versatile playmaking skills, but Smith probably even agrees with the move at this point. (OK, maybe not. But you get my drift).
It was like watching the future of NFL quarterbacking Saturday night, as Kaepernick shredded the Packers defense with both his feet and his right arm. I'm sure teams will eventually adjust to the read-option offense, but with Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III and Cam Newton running it this season, it was like a new era in NFL quarterbacking fully began in 2012.
Win or lose next week in the NFC title game, San Francisco made the right call at quarterback. Smith was very good. But Kaepernick has a chance to be great, and his eye-popping performance against Green Bay even moved normally understated Packers general manager Ted Thompson to superlatives.
? The Texans acquitted themselves far better Sunday in Gillette Stadium than they did on that Monday night in December, but the result was still a loss and a considerable gap between themselves and the reigning AFC power from New England. If Houston hopes to close that gap in 2013, it needs to be on the lookout for more playmakers on offense.
Running back Arian Foster is a stud, and Andre Johnson is still one of the game's elite receivers. Other than that, the Texans don't have anyone who strikes fear in the hearts of defenders. And that has to change, because the Patriots can throw a lot of weapons at you, and they all take their pound of flesh a bite or two at a time.
Stop me if you've heard this before, but Houston has to locate a stretch-the-field receiver and get more explosive at tight end, where the two-tight end Patriots set the pace in the NFL. The Texans have done a lot of the hard work in getting to the AFC's final four two years running, but if they want to get past the likes of New England, they have to be able to throw more playmakers at the Patriots defense. Because you know Tom Brady and friends are going to score plenty. They put 42 points up against Houston in December, and 41 more on Sunday.
? With No. 1 seeded Denver (13-4) crashing and burning in the divisional round, it continues to be more curse than blessing to earn your conference's top seed. The Broncos were the sixth team out of a possible 10 No. 1 seeds to lose in the divisional round from 2008 on. In those five seasons, at least one top seed has lost its playoff opener every year except 2009, when the No. 1 Colts met the No. 1 Saints in the Super Bowl. Stretching the trend to the past eight years, nine of 16 top seeds have gone one-and-done in the playoffs from 2005 on.
Every year we make a big deal about who winds up earning the top seeds in each conference, and then the playoffs start and we get reminded once again of how little seeds really matter.
? Tell me again why the Texans decided they could live without Trindon Holliday earlier this season? I know there were ball security issues, but what a difference-maker in the return game he was on Saturday in Denver, when the first-year Bronco became the only player to ever have punt and kickoff return touchdowns in the same playoff game.
Not that Baltimore's cover teams even came within the same area code as Holliday. It was like he was invisible to the Ravens on the 90-yard punt return score, and things didn't go any better on his 104-yard kickoff return touchdown either. If the Ravens cover like that in next week's NFC title game, they probably won't cover the spread.
? Don't really see the big deal about Peter Tebow's tweet. It may not have been taking the high road, but it wasn't an outrage either. One, he's Tim's brother, and brothers are supposed to stick up for brothers. No surprise there. Secondly, Tebow's not a Bronco any more, and it's understandable that Peter Tebow took some satisfaction in Denver not going any further in the playoffs with the celebrated Peyton Manning than it did last year with his brother at quarterback.
I get that. He's a fan, and a family member, and that's how both tend to react: emotionally. Now if Alex Smith's brother gloats next week if the 49ers lose -- and I don't even know if he has a brother -- that's a different story. Smith is still a 49er, after all, and it's always bad form to root against one's own team for personal reasons. Even if the gripe falls under the heading of when unfair things happen to good people.
? Looking ahead to next week's NFC title game, I love the 49ers' chances of running the ball right down Atlanta's throat. All game long. The Falcons ranked only 21st against the run this season, and few teams commit to the ground game like the 49ers. When your quarterback is capable of ripping off a record-breaking 181-yard rushing game, you know you can move the sticks on the ground.
Carolina's Cam Newton, running a read-option offense, had big days running against the Falcons this season, rushing for 202 yards in a pair of games versus division rival Atlanta. The Panthers beat the Falcons at home, and narrowly lost in the Georgia Dome.
? Here's another reason to like San Francisco next week: The 49ers are not intimidated by the road atmosphere. Not one bit. The 49ers went 5-3 on the road this season, but they won in some of the toughest venues in the league: at Green Bay, at New Orleans and at New England, with the last two of those victories being orchestrated by Kaepernick.
Atlanta went 7-1 at home this season and has a nice dome-field advantage. But it's not overwhelming, and I expect San Francisco to deal with it without too much trouble next week.
? You do realize that for the second year in a row, we're just a pair of wins away from the Har-Bowl, the Super Bowl pairing of the coaching Harbaugh brothers in Baltimore and San Francisco? Both the Ravens and the 49ers lost the conference title games in excruciating fashion last January, but they're right back knocking on that door.
It'd be a cool Super Bowl week storyline, but we'd probably be so sick of it by the week before the game that we'd never even make it to media day without over-dosing on Brothers Harbaugh anecdotes. But I feel vaguely the same way about a Falcons-Ravens Super matchup, because then we'd never be able to escape the Retirement Bowl angle with both Ray Lewis and Tony Gonzalez planning to walk away from the game after this season.
? I love that we're getting Baltimore and New England teams that know each other so well in the AFC Championship Game. This will be their third meeting in about a year, with last year's dramatic Patriots win in the AFC title game in New England being balanced somewhat by Baltimore's last-second 31-30 win at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday night of Week 3 this season.
In addition, this will be the third time in four years the rivals have met in the playoffs, with Baltimore pulling off the upset blowout at Gillette Stadium in 2009's first round, and losing in gut-wrenching fashion in 2011's AFC Championship.
I see Baltimore's best chance of pulling yet another road upset next Sunday at New England boiling down to two words: Torrey Smith. The Ravens' second-year deep-threat receiver is the matchup problem that could give New England's secondary fits. Kind of the way he did well-decorated Denver cornerback Champ Bailey on Saturday. Smith caught two long touchdown passes over Bailey in the first half (59 and 32 yards) and finished the game with three catches for 98 yards and the two scores.
Against the Patriots in Week 3, of course, Smith came up huge in an emotional setting. Playing just a day after his 19-year-old brother, Tevin Jones, was killed in a motorcycle accident in Virginia, Smith caught a team-best six passes for 127 yards, scoring the Ravens' first and final touchdowns. Afterward, Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh awarded Smith a game ball and saluted his courage and commitment to his team.