Bleacher Report's NFL Awards, Divisional Round Edition
The divisional round is in the books, and now it's time to hand out the awards for the best action of the weekend. We're one step closer to seeing a Super Bowl champion crowned, and the playoff contenders made it as exciting as ever this weekend.
In addition to the more standard awards honoring the best and worst player and game of the weekend, this week's awards will recognize the best catch and biggest hit.
Here are Bleacher Report's awards for the NFL divisional round.
Game of the Weekend: San Francisco 49ers vs. New Orleans Saints
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In terms of picking the best game this weekend, it was not even close. The San Francisco 49ers and the New Orleans Saints put on quite a show Saturday.
The Niners would get off to the fast 17-0 start (helped by multiple Saints turnovers) before the Saints would close the gap before halftime.
The Saints would keep it within one touchdown for most of the second half and would take the lead for the first time in the game with about four minutes left in the fourth quarter on a great score from running back Darren Sproles.
The Niners would take the lead again on a beautifully drawn-up run from quarterback Alex Smith, but the Saints were not finished. They would take the 32-29 lead on a beautiful passing touchdown to tight end Jimmy Graham with just under two minutes left.
With the 49ers needing a score, the team would get an inspired drive from Smith and tight end Vernon Davis. First, the pair connected on a 47-yard reception to get them in the red zone. Then, with only seconds left, Smith found Davis again for the go-ahead 14-yard touchdown.
The 49ers would advance, taking the 36-32 win.
For the Saints, the loss was a bitter pill to swallow after the team's humbling loss to the Seattle Seahawks in the last postseason. The Saints had the offense to win, but their early mistakes cost them dearly. They end this season still looking for their franchise's first playoff win on the road.
For the 49ers, the win was a complete victory from the whole roster (many of those parts will be covered in this slideshow), which has to give them the confidence that Indianapolis is in view.
For fans of the game, this was everything you could ask for. Great finishes. Good offense. Tough defense. Bold coaching calls.
This was a terrific game to watch.
Honorable Mention: Any game but the New England Patriots vs. Denver Broncos.
Stinker Game of the Weekend: New England Patriots vs. Denver Broncos
It was disappointing that the excellent game between the San Francisco 49ers and New Orleans Saints was followed up by the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos. The appetizer had far surpassed the main course.
In this one-sided blowout, the Patriots would control all facets of the game and go on to win, 45-10.
Tom Brady would tie the mark for touchdown passes in a playoff game, and the defense clobbered the hopes of Broncos fans looking for a repeat of their upset win over the Pittsburgh Steelers the previous week. The Broncos could not get anything going on either side of the ball.
Tebow Time is over (for now), and the Patriots made sure it ended in the ugliest way possible.
"Nice Catch, Guy!" Award: Hakeem Nicks
In one of the wildest plays of the season, the New York Giants were able to take all momentum in their game Sunday against the Green Bay Packers with this Hail Mary play from quarterback Eli Manning to wide receiver Hakeem Nicks to take the 20-10 lead.
Reminiscent of David Tyree's epic catch from the Giants' last Super Bowl trip, Nicks pulled in the catch off his facemask and held on despite tremendous pressure from the surrounding Packers defenders.
While it goes against several other impressive catches this weekend, here's my criteria: If it can get commentator Joe Buck to break from his regular monotone presentation, it's probably a big deal.
"Can I Kick It?" Award: Tom Brady
A 48-yard punt inside the opponent's 15-yard line? Not a bad job, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
Fake-out of the Weekend: Alex Smith
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith may not be known as the best rushing quarterback around, but the Niners totally fooled the New Orleans Saints on a critical third down as they sent him running to the left, leaving him untouched for a 28-yard score.
Plenty of credit for this play has to go to offensive lineman Joe Staley, who gave the final block for Smith to move his way into the end zone.
Lesson of the Weekend: Ball Security
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
If there's any lesson to come from this weekend, it's that ball possession is critical for any team looking to win in the playoffs (or anytime).
Each losing team this weekend had their issues with turnovers.
For the New Orleans Saints, their turnovers gave the San Francisco 49ers a 17-0 cushion early in the game. For Houston, the multiple interceptions (why would Texans quarterback T.J. Yates keep challenging Ed Reed?) were deadly. The Green Bay Packers were also ruined with their fumbles throughout the game (not to mention their endless drops). The Broncos' Tim Tebow made an already tough matchup even harder with an early fumble.
With the quality of defenses that are still around at this point of the postseason, anything but top-flight ball security could be the difference in what should be some very close games.
Hit of the Weekend: Donte Whitner
This vicious (yet by all accounts legal) hit from the San Francisco 49ers' Donte Whitner on the New Orleans Saints' Pierre Thomas changed the course of the game.
Instead of a likely Saints 7-0 lead, the Niners got the ball back and were able to build a lead of their own.
In a game decided by less than a score, those potential points were beyond critical.
Storyline Award: TV Executives
Rob Carr/Getty Images
No matter how you look up the potential Super Bowl matchups, each will have a made-for-TV storyline:
San Francisco 49ers vs. Baltimore Ravens: Rematch of the Thanksgiving "Harbaugh Bowl," the first time two brothers had gone against each other as NFL head coaches.
San Francisco 49ers vs. New England Patriots: Tom Brady vs. his favorite childhood team (Brady grew up in California and was upset that the team didn't try to draft him).
New York Giants vs. Baltimore Ravens: Rematch of Super Bowl XXXV of 2001, which was the Ravens' sole Super Bowl Victory.
New York Giants vs. New England Patriots: Rematch of Super Bowl XLII of 2008 in which the Giants ruined the Patriots' perfect season with only seconds to spare.
MVP: Tom Brady
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady did it all Sunday. He threw, he ran and he even punted, as the Patriots would clobber the visiting Denver Broncos to advance to the AFC Championship.
He would end the day with 363 yards passing, and a shared hold of the record for most touchdown passes in a postseason game (with six).
The telling stat: In the first half, Brady had more touchdowns (five) than opposing quarterback Tim Tebow had completions (three).
While it's fair to criticize the Pats for holding their starters in for too long, it was definitely fun to watch Brady give yet another standout performance.
Honorable Mention: Alex Smith, Vernon Davis, Eli Manning, Arian Foster
LVP: Tim Tebow
It's tough to rip Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow too much for the Broncos loss on Saturday. He may not have played his best game, but the loss was one to be shared by the whole roster.
With that said, his numbers were beyond awful. Completing nine of his 26 passes for 136 yards and no touchdowns, Tebow just couldn't get much going. When he tried to run, he met a physical Patriots line ready to bring some physical punishment for Tebow's willingness to test them.
Given that this was his first year as primary starter, there has to be plenty of reason for excitement and optimism as he spends the offseason preparing for the follow-up to his breakout year as a pro. For Broncos fans, it's all about having some faith for next season.
Dishonorable Mention: Jacoby Jones (what was that return attempt?), T.J. Yates (a lousy end to an otherwise fantastic rookie season) and the hands of all Green Bay Packers receivers.