Who's Hot, Who's Not Heading into NFL's Conference Championships?
It's come down to this: Only four teams remain from the idealistic 32 who started Week 1 with dreams of grandeur and hopes of that elusive championship.
The divisional rounds offered up some of the most exciting football of the year, which included overtimes, amazing comebacks and record-breaking performances. We have new faces and rising stars scattered throughout the postseason, all making key contributions.
With one set of games remaining before the big dance, lets take a look at who's hot and who's not as we head into the long-anticipated conference championships.
Can these hot hands keep their flames going, or will "fluctuation" and "inconsistency" be the words of the week?
Hot: Joe Flacco, Ravens
The Skinny: After Saturday's amazing upset victory, Flacco was ranked third among all postseason quarterbacks in ESPN's Total QBR.
Flacco unleashed his howitzer-like arm several times against the Broncos secondary, mostly to fantastic results. His combination of wits and moxie was enough to best the No. 1 seed in the AFC and bring Peyton Manning's legendary season to an end.
If Flacco continues to play like he did on Saturday, the Ravens will have to break the bank when they sit back down at the negotiating table, as he is in the final year of his contract. Talks of an extension have been rather fruitless as of late, but perhaps Flacco and his rocket arm are determined to make one last convincing argument to be "shown the money."
Hot: Torrey Smith, Ravens
The Skinny: Torrey Smith only needed to touch the ball three times to make one of the biggest impacts of the day. Smith used his elite size and speed to beat man coverage against a Pro Bowler and future Hall of Fame cornerback in Champ Bailey.
Flacco connected with his No. 1 deep option for two critical touchdowns and a total of 98 yards.
Hot: Ray Rice, Ravens
The Skinny: In the Wild Card Round against Indianapolis, Rice fumbled the ball twice, earning him a spot on the slideshow as a "Not." This time around, Rice was a big-time asset, carrying the ball 30 times for 131 yards and a TD rushing against one of the best rush defenses in the league.
Rice ran hard and with purpose all day as he shouldered a major portion of the offensive load. His efforts were key in the Ravens' upset victory over the Broncos as they kept the chains moving, the defense honest and Peyton Manning off the field, if only for a series or two.
Hot: Terrell Suggs, Ravens
The Skinny: Terrell Suggs is the second Raven to flip from 'Not' to 'Hot' this postseason. After a rather quiet game in the Wild Card Round, Suggs defied all of his ailments and injuries to play some truly inspired and dominant football.
Suggs racked up 10 tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble in Denver. He may have had his best game of the season at just the right time. Saturday's dominance reminded us all why Suggs is the reigning defensive MVP of the league.
Not: Kelechi Osemele, Ravens
The Skinny: Osemele showed his youth against the Broncos—specifically in the running game, where he was routinely beaten by his opponent.
Osemele is a promising rookie lineman who has the versatility to play almost any position on the line, but on Saturday he struggled to keep his body between the ball-carrier and the defender.
There where several times throughout the day where he allowed his man to disrupt the play in some way, though he did play decently against the pass.
Hot: Colin Kaepernick, 49ers
The Skinny: Colin Kaepernick did more than just play well in his first career playoff game; he broke an NFL record for the most rushing yards (181) by a quarterback ever in a postseason contest.
If that weren't enough, Kaep outplayed the reigning MVP of the league Aaron Rodgers by amassing over 400 yards of total offense, including two passing and two rushing touchdowns in a decisive 45-31 victory.
In addition to his unstoppable legs, No. 7 threw for more yards (263) on fewer passes than Rodgers, and he had just as many touchdown passes.
If this game was any indicator of the things to come for Kaepernick...well, then teams better watch out. This offense, fueled by the arm and leg of Kaep, is unlike anything anyone's seen in this league.
All indications suggest the 49ers' quarterback situation just went from a manageable weakness to a fervent strength in less than a year's time.
Not: Delanie Walker, 49ers
The Skinny: Delanie Walker is beginning to make a habit of missed opportunities. On Saturday, he was targeted five times and had only one catch and two dropped balls for a total of 17 yards receiving.
Walker is supposed to provide the Niners offense with a unique set of skills, but unfortunately his inconsistent play has made him more of a liability than an asset as of late.
Hot: Michael Crabtree, 49ers
The Skinny: Michael Crabtree has been the most consistent player on the entire 49er offense. He had good chemistry with Alex Smith but has since blossomed into the go-to guy for Kaepernick.
On Saturday, Crabtree had nine catches for 119 yards and two touchdowns. This is the second straight game that Michael has gained over 100 yards receiving (172 yards vs. Arizona in Week 17).
Anyone paying attention knows that this kid is quickly becoming one of the most reliable weapons in the NFL, especially on third-down situations.
Not: Ray McDonald, 49ers
The Skinny: The front line for the 49ers has not been the same since Justin Smith hurt his triceps. Ray McDonald has failed to step up in his absence and had another quiet game in San Francisco.
McDonald was virtually nonexistent as a pass rusher and did little against the run as well. Though he wasn't a glaring weakness against the Packers, he really wasn't much of a factor.
Even Smith, who returned to action for the first time in over a month, had more of an impact than McDonald despite playing with virtually only one arm all game.
Hot: Tarell Brown, 49ers
The Skinny: Tarell Brown shut down every Green Bay receiver he was responsible for. He even had the team's only interception, which he returned 39 yards to put the 49ers in good field position.
Later in the game, Brown showed off his ball skills yet again when he picked off Aaron Rodgers in the end zone. It was a beautiful display of coordination and body control. However, the turnover was reversed due to a questionable pass interference call.
On the day, Brown allowed only two catches for 16 yards. Not bad for a guy going up against perhaps the best receiving corps in the NFL.
Not: Vernon Davis, 49ers
The Skinny: What exactly has happened to Vernon Davis? Well, for whatever reason, he and Kaepernick have struggled to get on the same page so far. You may remember Davis was the favorite target of Alex Smith when he was QB; since then, it has been all quiet.
Davis will need to make a impact against the Falcons if the 49ers are to advance to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1994. He has all the tools to be a big-time threat; just one catch, like what he had against the Packers, won't cut it at this stage in the game.
Hot: Mike Iupati, 49ers
The Skinny: The tone and attitude of the 49ers is established up front, specifically with Mike Iupati. On one play in particular, Clay Matthews knifed inside Joe Staley, only to find Iupati smashing down on him with all the power of a tank hitting a Prius.
Iupati did a wonderful job all game paving the way for an unstoppable run game. This towering young lineman is growing into one of the most complete blockers in the NFL.
Hot: Matt Bryant, Falcons
The Skinny: Matt Bryant is the hero of the day after punching in the most significant field goal of his career with the 49-yard game-winner to send the Falcons into the conference championship.
Bryant also hit on his other two field goals in the game and didn't miss an extra point. He did everything that was asked of him on the way to victory.
Not: Kroy Biermann, Falcons
The Skinny: Kroy Biermann had a tough day trying to get his mitts on Russell Wilson, who appeared to have his jersey dipped in Crisco by the way he was escaping would-be tacklers all day.
Despite playing most, if not all, of the defensive snaps on Sunday, Biermann did very little either as a run-stopper or pass-rusher. He tallied one tackle all day and missed on at least a few opportunities to get Wilson down for a sack.
Wilson's elusiveness almost cost Atlanta yet another playoff game.
Hot: Roddy White, Falcons
The Skinny: Roddy White led all Falcon receivers with 76 yards, including a touchdown.
White's big-play ability has helped keep Atlanta on top of several close games throughout the season. He's an expert at separating from defenders and was even able to have a good day against one of the league's most dangerous secondaries.
The highlight of the day was a 47-yard touchdown strike from Matt Ryan, who must have thrown the ball half a mile in the air before it landed perfectly in White's outstretched hands. White then coasted into the end zone as Richard Sherman was left lying on the ground, looking up in disbelief.
Hot: Sean Weatherspoon, Falcons
The Skinny: Sean Weatherspoon was almost the sole reason the Falcons were able to shut down Marshawn Lynch. Weatherspoon didn't just make tackles; he imposed his will on the Seahawks offense, causing a proud, hard-working group of backs to seemingly fail to run the ball with any passion.
Weatherspoon is a special combination of strength, speed and intelligence. He used the full extent of his tools on Sunday to stop the Seahawks' running game. He was in on eight tackles and also forced a fumble.
Hot: Tom Brady, Patriots
The Skinny: Tom Brady was more or less business as usual. His ability to stand in the pocket and throw a strike downfield while taking a hit is really understated. So is his ability to get right back up every single time.
Brady was 25-of-40 for 344 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. This was a typically impressive performance as the Patriots dominated the Houston Texans nearly the entire game.
Brady is looking like an MVP again and will likely be playing in yet another Super Bowl very soon.
Not: Chandler Jones, Patriots
The Skinny: Chandler Jones has been quiet for most of the second half of the season. Perhaps this rookie has hit his wall, or maybe offensive linemen have figured out how to block him after a little bit of film study.
Jones was more or less invisible for most of the game after a nice hustle tackle in the first quarter. His pass-rush production is nearly nonexistent, and he really hasn't been much of a factor for quite some time now.
Will we see the Chandler Jones that lit up the league in his first eight games, or is the empty shell of him all that's left?
Hot: Shane Vereen, Patriots
The Skinny: Shane Vereen is slowly emerging as a handy weapon in the Patriots offense with the versatility to run or catch out of the backfield.
Vereen's performance on Sunday was rather impressive as he found his way into the end zone three times, two by air and one by ground.
Perhaps equally impressive was his quickness when hitting holes and getting upfield.
Vereen combined for over 120 yards of total offense against Houston, thus playing a key role in New England's victory.
Not: Patriots Kickoff Coverage
The Skinny: The Patriots' kickoff cover team needs to take a good look at this game and correct whatever malfunction they seem to have.
They were gashed twice for big yardage by a guy who is not even fast enough to take it to the house. The only reason Danieal Manning was able to make those long runs was because he didn't have to make a single move until he got to the kicker.
If the Patriots don't get this problem fixed ASAP, it could cost them a Super Bowl.
Hot: Rob Ninkovich, Patriots
The Skinny: Rob Ninkovich played a very solid game and made plays all game long. In fact, he made the biggest defensive play of the day when he intercepted Matt Schaub to put the game nearly out of reach.
But if the game wasn't out of reach at that point, Ninkovich came through one last time with a critical onside-kick recovery to secure the Patriots victory.
Ninkovich is perhaps one of the most overlooked guys on the defense. He plays smart and with a lot of energy. Any time a player can do this on a consistent basis, good things are bound to happen.
Hot: Wes Welker, Patriots
The Skinny: Wes Welker dropped some balls thrown his way on Sunday, but he also managed to catch a bunch as well.
Brady stayed true to his favorite target by hitting him for a game-high eight catches for 131 yards. That was enough production to make up for his few lapses in concentration.
Welker has a knack for getting open, and he and Brady seem to be on the same page more times than not. There is no more consistent weapon on New England's offense than Welker.
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