What We Learned from the NFL Divisional Round

Todd Pataky@@PittsburghToddCorrespondent IJanuary 16, 2012

What We Learned from the NFL Divisional Round

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    What an exciting weekend of games we just saw. We saw great defenses. We saw lots of scoring. We saw close, entertaining games. And we saw a couple records.

    If you are a fan of the NFL, this was a dream weekend.

    What can be made, if anything, of what we saw over the last two days?

    One thing is for sure: When you think you have it all figured out, things can change in a big, big hurry.

San Francisco 49ers Showed How to Beat an Elite Quarterback

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    By all rights, the game between the 49ers and the New Orleans Saints should have been a blowout, one way or the other.

    The 49ers kept taking the ball away from Drew Brees and the Saints, but refused to do anything with it. If they score some points off those turnovers, they win this game in a cakewalk.

    If the Saints had held on to the ball and moved it the way they are capable, they could have rolled to victory.

    Of course, they play the games for a reason, and the way it turned out, the 49ers did just what they needed to do to win.

    The way you beat elite quarterbacks is by keeping them on the sidelines. No quarterback in the history of the NFL has led a game-winning drive while standing next to his head coach.

    Saints QB Drew Brees still managed to throw the ball so often (63 passes) that he had to ice his arm down like he just pitched seven and two thirds in the Bronx. But the key is that he only completed 40 of those passes. That completion percentage, 63.5 percent, is well below his season average of 71.2 percent.

    He threw four touchdowns, but had two picks. 

    At the end of the day, the Saints gave the ball away too many times and their defense couldn't hold a late lead for Brees. They allowed 49ers' QB Alex Smith to do his best Joe Montana impression. When Brees got the ball back, he had too far to go and almost no time to do it.

    And that is how you beat an elite quarterback.

Denver Broncos Showed How Not to Beat an Elite Quarterback

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    As if to prove the point the 49ers made earlier in the day, the Denver Broncos demonstrated what can happen when you let an elite quarterback spend too much time on the field.

    New England QB Tom Brady threw for five touchdowns in the first half, three of them to TE Rob Gronkowski. 

    Gronkowski spent most of the game playing as if he had leprosy. No one wanted to go near him, so he was constantly wide open.

    Brady tied the all-time record for touchdown passes in a playoff game. He finished the game with 363 in the air on 26 of 34 passes.

    Denver QB Tim Tebow, on the other hand, looked like a completely different guy than the one who put 316 yards and big play after big play on the No. 1 ranked defense of the Pittsburgh Steelers last week.

    He had 136 yards in the air on 9-of-26 yards passing, and 13 yards on the ground. The big plays that proved the undoing of the Steelers must have missed the plane to Boston because they were nowhere to be found.

    New England had 509 yards of offense while only allowing the Denver offense 252 yards.

    This was an old fashioned beat-down. The game wasn't as close as the final score of 45-10 would suggest.

    I don't want to say the Broncos had no answers for the Patriots.

    Most of the time, when the Patriots asked, "Will this work," the Broncos answered, "Yes, sir."

Houston Texans Beat Themselves in Baltimore

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    Most analysts will tell you if you don't know the score of the game, check the turnover differential. That is an excellent indicator of who won the game.

    By all rights, the Texans should have won this game. 

    Ravens' QB Joe Flacco had two touchdown passes for one yard and 10 yards, but only 176 yards passing. This is on the heals of several comments to the media implying that he doesn't deserve all the criticism he gets. In the end, his comment about not being the reason the Ravens won if they did was proven right. (Read the actual quote here.)

    The Ravens' best player, Ray Rice, was held to 60 yards on the ground and no scores.

    The Ravens defense bent, but did not break. They allowed Texans' RB Arian Foster to rush for 132 yards and a touchdown, which is the first time a Ravens defense has ever allowed a 100-yard rusher in a playoff game.

    Houston's all-world receiver, Andre Johnson, had 111 receiving yards, but no scores.

    The difference in the game, as it so often is, was penalties and turnovers. The Ravens had neither. The Texans had three penalties for 20 yards and four turnovers.

    What can be taken from this game is that you cannot win in the playoffs, no matter how well you play, if you keep giving the ball to your opponent. 

    Baltimore should feel fortunate to have won this game because they didn't play nearly well enough to have won.

Big Plays, Dropped Passes Green Bay's Undoing

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    It had to happen sooner or later.

    The Green Bay Packers were playing with fire all year. At some point, someone was bound to keep Rodgers from putting up 40 points and then expose Green Bay's defense.

    That happened late Sunday afternoon in Green Bay as the New York Giants took a page out of the Denver Broncos' playbook from their playoff win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Wild Card round.

    The Giants had plenty of big plays against a Packers defense that came into the game ranked dead last in the NFL.

    On top of that, Packers receivers could not seem to catch anything. The Packers' highest number of dropped passes in a game before this game: four. In this game they had eight drops.

    And finally, ball security was an issue, much like it was in the early Sunday game. Green Bay committed three turnovers against zero by the Giants.

    Curiously, this was the only game of the eight played so far in which the visiting team won. Since the current wildcard format was instituted, home teams have never gone 8-0 in the first two rounds of the playoffs.

Lessons from the Divisional Round

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    So, let's recap what we have learned.

    • A good defense can cover up a lot of poor play by an offense. 
    • If your defense is not very good, you'd better be able to put up 40 points on offense.
    • You must, MUST, MUST protect the football in the playoffs.

    At the end of the day, playoff football is just like regular season football. The team that plays strong fundamentally and makes the fewest mistakes will win more often than not. You have to make throws and catches. You have to pressure the passer. You have to run effectively. And you have to score touchdowns when you have a chance.

    Three more games left, fans. I can't believe it is almost over.