NFL Divisional Round: Most Outstanding Performers

Jordan BallCorrespondent IJanuary 16, 2012

NFL Divisional Round: Most Outstanding Performers

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    After an exciting and an intense Wild Card Weekend, we turned our eyes to the divisional round to see if it could somehow compare to last week's action. When it was all said and done and the dust had settled, it was even better.

    To start off the weekend, we had one of the more exciting playoff games in recent memory. Who would have thought that the 49ers offense could step up in a big way when the game was on the line?

    We knew there defense was the real deal, but there was a huge question mark on if the offense could compete with the likes of the Saints. With that question mark looming, Jim Harbaugh rallied his troops and they came out on top, sending the the favored New Orleans packing. 

    The nightcap wasn't exactly the shootout that the first game was, to say the least. The way Tom Brady performed, you would've thought it was, but that was just Brady reminding people that he still is the best in the game.

    They easily rolled over the Broncos on their way to yet another AFC Championship game. 

    To start off Sunday, we had what was supposed to be the least entertaining game of the round. Rookie QB T.J. Yates and the Texans had other plans, though, as they fought hard until the very end.

    They fell a little bit short due to a big performance by the Ravens defense, however. Baltimore asserted their dominance and narrowly escaped a nail-biter at home.

    To end the weekend, we had the defending champs taking on the New York Giants. The Packers had been thrown into conversation as one of the best teams of all time with "the best quarterback in the game," and the Giants slammed the door shut on those discussions.

    New York, rather easily, rolled to a 37-20 win at Lambeau, ending Green Bay's 13-game home winning streak. 

    In a round that featured four former Super Bowl MVPs for the first time ever, we saw it all. There were close games, upsets and even a record-breaking performance—what else could a fan ask for? 

    Before next week's action starts, let's take a look back and see who the most outstanding performers of the weekend were. 

Alex Smith and Vernon Davis

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    Wow.

    More than likely that was the word you—along with everyone else watching this game—said when Vernon Davis hauled in the game-winning TD on a laser from Alex Smith.

    It was one of the most sensational finishes the playoffs have seen recently, and these two players are who we have to thank for it. 

    For the seven years Smith has had a job as a starting QB, I've constantly asked myself, how?

    Well, now I know.

    Though he did get out-performed by his counterpart, Smith stepped up when it mattered the most and led his team to victory. Besides the game-winning throw, he also had an amazing 28-yard TD run two minutes earlier to give them the lead before the Saints stormed back.

    At the end of the day, Smith tallied up 299 yards passing on 24-of-42 passing and tossed three touchdown passes. He also had the one rush of 28 yards that resulted in the only rushing touchdown of the day.

    No one benefited more from Smith's big day then his go-to guy, tight end Vernon Davis. Davis, who has the potential to become the best TE in the game, showed that on this day.

    He hauled in seven passes for a grand total of 180 yards, a 25.7 average. Two of those seven catches resulted in touchdowns. The first TD grab was the first score of the game and his second was, fittingly, the final score.

    His 180 yards are second all-time in 49ers history, behind the one and only Jerry Rice. Not bad company.

Drew Brees

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    The first repeat from last week's list, and he definitely deserved it.

    After the 466-yard, three-touchdown game Brees had against the Lions, almost anything he did this week would fall short of that.

    What he did, though, was about as close as he could come to matching that performance.

    Though the Saints ended up being eliminated, Brees accounted for 462 yards passing and four touchdowns on 63 passing attempts.

    His 462 yards falls just short of his record 466 yards of last week, but he now holds the top two spots for most passing yards in a regulation playoff game.

    Along with those incredible numbers, Brees also threw two picks in the first quarter that proved costly as the 49ers jumped out to a quick 17-0 lead. In all of his previous playoff games combined, he had only thrown two interceptions total.

    If this was an off day for him, I would have hated to see what would have happened to San Francisco if he would have been on. 

Darren Sproles, Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham

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    Of course, none of Drew Brees accolades would have been possible without his receiving corps.

    In particular, running back Darren Sproles, tight end Jimmy Graham and wide receiver Marques Colston.

    The three combined for 29 of Brees' 40 completions, 358 of his yards and all four of his touchdowns.

    Somehow, even that wasn't enough to pull out the win.

    Sproles arguably had the biggest day of them all. As a rusher, he only accounted for three yards on three attempts.

    When he was thrown the ball—well, that was a whole different story. Racking up 15 receptions, Sproles broke the playoff record for most catches in a game.

    Along with those receptions, he accumulated 119 yards and at one point in time scored the go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth.

    If there was any remaining question on whether or not he was the biggest free-agent pickup this offseason, that discussion is now over. 

    Marques Colston, who has been Brees' favorite target for the past few years, came ready to play as well. The guy was beating his man off the block almost every single play, and his numbers back that up.

    On nine receptions, including a touchdown, Colston had a total of 136 yards—a team high.

    If it weren't for Vernon Davis having a career day, it would have been a game high as well. He does it quietly every game, but Colston always shows up big, especially when it matters, as he proved this weekend.

    As for Jimmy Graham, he had an average day for himself. On five catches he hauled in two TDs and 103 yards.

    On a day that featured tight ends going above and beyond, Graham did his part to contribute. The scary thing is he could have been an even bigger factor, but he went down early in the game after a rough touchdown grab.

    He came back the next drive and went on to have an outstanding day, but he was not 100 percent. He, nor any Saints fans, can complain with the day and season this young stud has had. 

Tom Brady

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    It's scary how good Tom Brady was this weekend. 

    Six touchdowns, and that's after letting off the gas in the second half.

    After the first two drives, Brady was 8-of-8 with two touchdowns.

    At the end of the first half, he had thrown for a record-breaking five touchdowns.

    To get the record for most touchdowns in one playoff game, all he needed was one more, but as you know, he only finished with six. If he really wanted it, you can't tell me that he couldn't have gotten seven, if not more. 

    He may not have gotten the record, but he showed why he is still the best the game has to offer. On 34 attempts, Brady completed 26 passes for 363 yards.

    His only mistake was a first-half overthrow that fell into Broncos safety Quinton Carter's arms. He led his team to a convincing 45-10 win and put fear in the eye of every future opponent this postseason.

    While having his way with the Denver D, he moved up on a few all-time record lists as well. By the end of the day, Tom-Terrific found himself in fifth all-time for postseason passing yards, third for passing touchdowns, and second for wins.

    Not too bad for a sixth-round draft pick.

    Oh, he also rushed three times for eight yards and even punted once. The kick traveled 48 yards, the longest of the game. 

Rob Gronkowski

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    If you're talking about Tom Brady, you know Rob Gronkowski's name has to show up soon after.

    In a season where he broke the record for receiving touchdowns, it was only right that in his first playoff game he tied the record for most touchdown receptions, with three.

    Gronk finished with a game-high 10 receptions for 145 yards and of course the three TD grabs.

    After being virtually nonexistent the first time these two teams faced off, he quickly made up for it.

    In fact, all three of his touchdowns came before halftime, which in itself is a playoff record. 

    Out of Brady's 34 attempts, Gronkowski was targeted over a third of the time. With the numbers he has and continues to put up, you can see why.

    I think it's safe to say that the Broncos definitely got, "Gronk'd".  

Arian Foster

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    If you didn't get a chance to watch this game, you missed one of the best and most emotional games of the season.

    By emotional, I don't mean that people ended the game in tears, though some players might have, but I simply mean that there was so much heart and effort given in this game. 

    For the Texans, no one showed more of those two than running back Arian Foster.

    Foster is the only other repeat from last week's list and like Brees, his is also much deserved.

    He left it all on the field today, and unfortunately for him, his team fell just short.

    You cannot blame him, though. The man with the best haircut in football finished the day with 132 yards on 27 carries along with a touchdown. He also racked up five receptions for 22 yards, including a crucial first down and a sick catch. 

    The game he had on the ground was the only time the Ravens have allowed an 100-yard rushing game. The closest was a 91-yard performance by Eddie George in 2000.

    Along with that, he also has now combined for 285 yards in his first career playoff games, which breaks Duane Thomas' record of 278 set in in 1970 with the Cowboys. 

    His leadership was shown many times throughout this game, whether it was vocally lifting his team or just doing his thing on the field.

    Without him, the Texans would be nowhere near where they finished, and he'll do everything in his power to make sure they make it back and advance further next season.  

J.J. Watt

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    There is only one word to describe J.J. Watt this weekend, and that word is dominant. 

    For the day, he finished with 12 total tackles, 2.5 of those being sacks.

    That's pretty solid for a guy who only had 56 total tackles and 5.5 sacks for the year.

    To me, though, this was his coming-out party.

    This is a guy who his extremely talented and has come a long way in his rookie season. 

    He is one of many Texans defenders who had a great game, but today his was the biggest of all. Even though they couldn't keep the Ravens off the scoreboard enough times, the game they had was nothing to hang their heads about.

    When you can hold the offense to two touchdowns, you can only hope that your offense can back you up and pull out a win. Especially when you hold the quarterback under 200 yards and the running backs under 100.

    Their offense tried their hardest but couldn't advance them to the next round. 

    J.J. Watt and the Houston defense showed that they are a force to be reckoned with today, though, and we'll be hearing a lot more about them in the years to come. 

Ed Reed

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    When I mentioned playing with your heart earlier, this guy is the definition of that. 

    Ed Reed's numbers today weren't outstanding, but how many plays he affected was.

    Don't get me wrong—six tackles, four pass deflections and an interception are very impressive, but he was so much more than those numbers. 

    Playing on what seemed to be an injured hip that was caused by an athletic pass deflection, Reed had the entire field on lock-down today.

    His effort on the last play of the game summed up the day for him. On a last-second Hail Mary by the Texans, Reed jumped up and lifted himself over two teammates to reach out and knock down the ball that could have potentially been the game-tying grab. 

    Unfortunately, though, Reed twisted his ankle on the landing.

    With a game next week against Tom Brady, the Ravens will desperately need their ball-hawking safety if they hope to pull of the W. He should be fine to play, and if he does, the Ravens may very well be Super Bowl bound.

    As the saying goes, "water covers 70 percent of the Earth, Ed Reed covers the other 30 percent". 

Eli Manning

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    If I had to put money on who would win a game between Aaron Rodgers and Eli Manning, nine times out of 10 I'd go with Rodgers.

    Luckily I'm not a betting man, though, because Eli once again proved his doubters wrong by dethroning the reigning Super Bowl champs. 

    I don't know how he does it, but when his back's against the wall and everyone expects him to choke, that's when he plays his best.

    Besides his impressive numbers, Eli showed great leadership throughout this game.

    He did a great job managing the game, whether it was converting the numerous 3rd-and-long plays, throwing a lead block or just making the smart throw instead of forcing it like usual. 

    When all was said and done, his stat line was 21-of-33 for 330 yards passing and three touchdowns. He completed passes to six different receivers, with his longest of the day being a 66-yard TD pass to Hakeem Nicks.

    He threw one pick, but with the final score as lopsided as it ended up being, it didn't matter too much. 

    Everything has seemed to be clicking for Eli and the Giants this far in the playoffs. It's very reminiscent of their '07 playoff run.

    Their road goes through San Fran next week against what has proven time and time again to be one of, if not the, toughest defenses in the league.

    If they hope to make it back to the big game, then Manning will have to step up big time. If his defense keeps dominating opponents like this, then we're in for one heck of a game next week. 

Hakeem Nicks

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    Just like with every other quarterback on the list, next up has been their prime target.

    For Eli Manning and the Giants, that guy was Hakeem Nicks.

    Every week, one of the three big receivers for the G-Men steps up big in one way or another.

    This week, Nicks was that guy.

    After I snubbed him from the list last week, he came back with a vengeance (probably not because of me, but who knows?).

    Altogether, he had 165 receiving yards and two touchdowns on seven catches. The first was an amazing 66-yard play in which he caught the ball and was hit immediately, but spun from the contact and then out-ran the Packers' defensive backs for the score.

    For an encore, as time ran out in the first half, Manning tossed up 37-yard prayer into triple coverage, and Nicks came down with it. That was the last time Nicks reached the end zone, but he continued to impact the game with much-needed catches later in the game. 

    His teammate Victor Cruz, who has for the most part outshone Nicks this season, also had a good day, with five catches for 74 yards. This day, however, belonged to Nicks.

     

    All stats are from ESPN.com