Anticlimactic divisional round produces marquee final four
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.
• 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.