Who's Hot, Who's Not Heading into 2014 NFL Divisional Playoffs?
One thing which was definitely not "hot" this weekend was being a fan of a losing team in sub-zero temperatures and foul weather.
You had to feel for Cincinnati Bengals, Philadelphia Eagles and Green Bay Packers fans a little bit as they bundled up and got to the stadium, only to have their team lose.
Of course, those of you whose teams missed out on the playoffs completely probably have no sympathy for them.
We're through the Wild Card Round—one of the best weekends of playoff football ever in my humble opinion—and while three of the fours winners from this weekend will be pretty big underdogs, they do have some momentum.
As always, some of that momentum is good, while some of it is bad.
Let's take a look at who is heating up and who has cooled off as we head into the divisional round.
HOT: Mark Ingram, New Orleans Saints
The New Orleans Saints spread out their 36 carries among five different players, including Drew Brees and wide receiver Kenny Stills.
However, it was third-year running back Mark Ingram who carried the ball most often, averaging 5.4 yards per carry over 18 runs for a total of 97 yards.
He ran very well throughout the game and looked about as good as he has in his entire (brief) career.
The Saints will need him in a hostile—possibly wet and cold— environment in Seattle next week.
NOT: Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints
Whereas Ingram looked sharp, Drew Brees seemed to be off his game.
Two picks would normally be an aberration, save for the fact that in the last four games (including this one), Brees has thrown two interceptions in a game three times.
That’s a bit more problematic, especially with the opportunistic Seattle Seahawks secondary next up on Saturday.
Still, Brees felt like the team had proven itself a bit already.
"We know what we're all about," he said, according to ESPN.com. "This was a great testament to that. Coming on the road, hostile environment, great team, one of the hottest teams in football and getting one of those big victories."
Brees is going to have to regain his mojo if he hopes to avenge the Saints’ Week 13 loss in Seattle.
HOT: T.Y. Hilton, Indianapolis Colts
T.Y. Hilton had an insane second half, during which he caught seven passes for 140 yards and the game-winning touchdown. His totals—13 catches for 224 yards and two touchdowns—set a franchise playoff record for both receptions and receiving yards.
Certainly, the New England Patriots will be ready for Hilton next weekend, but if the Colts are going to win that game, Hilton will have to be on point again for Andrew Luck.
NOT: Indianapolis Colts Offensive Line
Even allowing for the fact that we have only a limited scope and insight into offensive line calls and responsibility, the Colts offensive line—almost to a man—had a tough day.
Right tackle Gosder Cherilus allowed four quarterback hurries and a sack. Right guard Mike McGlynn allowed another five hurries, while left tackle Anthony Castonzo let up five.
That Luck was only sacked once by the vaunted Kansas City Chiefs defense is a miracle, but the pressure definitely contributed to Luck’s first-half struggles.
If the Indianapolis Colts are going to win at Foxborough against the New England Patriots, they’re going to have to get more out of their offensive line.
HOT: Melvin Ingram, San Diego Chargers
Sometimes a player gets hot over the course of a day, as we discussed in regards to Indianapolis Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton.
Others pick their moments—as was the case for second-year San Diego Chargers linebacker Melvin Ingram.
Ingram wasn’t even supposed to be in the game. When tore his ACL during spring OTAs, NFL.com’s Dan Hanzus reported he would "likely" miss the season.
While Ingram didn’t do much in the four games he was healthy for at the end of the season, he made his impact felt with a key interception of Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton.
On the play, Ingram read the offense before the snap and adjusted his position so he could drop back and cover rookie tight end Tyler Eifert. Dalton either didn’t see him or thought he could slip the ball by Ingram, but the linebacker stepped in front of the pass and picked it off.
This could be Ingram’s crowning achievement in the playoffs, but the Chargers—who have had issues at outside linebacker all year—need him to step up again against the Denver Broncos in Colorado next weekend.
NOT: San Diego Chargers Offensive Play-Calling
Mike McCoy's conservative play-calling kept Cincy in the game too often in the last quarter.
As much as they might need Ingram—and quarterback Philip Rivers, rookie receiver Keenan Allen or veteran tight end Antonio Gates—to step up, the San Diego Chargers also need their head coach to do the same.
After the Chargers took a 20-10 lead, McCoy and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt took their foot off the gas. Lucky for them, Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton struggled (along with the rest of the offense) and couldn’t put points on the board.
If they go ultra-conservative against Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos—by running the ball with the lead and not scoring points—they will lose.
We know that there is a good chance Manning and the Broncos will put up points. The Chargers know it too, and while part of the game plan is to keep creating those 10-minute drives the Chargers pull off, the other part is that they need to score points.
McCoy had better find his backbone for some big plays, even if the Chargers have the lead late.
It’s one thing to have Dalton on the other side of the field down by 10 points.
Manning is a whole other kettle of fish.
HOT: Michael Crabtree, San Francisco 49ers
Well, Crabtree showed that, even post-injury, he has the ability to dominate games, just like he did against the Green Bay Packers on Sunday.
The Packers had no real answer for Crabtree, who caught eight balls for 125 yards.
While he didn’t score, Crabtree was routinely able to overpower, separate from and just generally school the Packers secondary.
Next week he faces off against the Carolina Panthers, a team which features a few undersized defensive backs but a fierce pass rush.
Coach Harbaugh had the highest of praise for Crabtree last weekend, via ESPN: "The greatest catcher of all time, Michael Crabtree, catches everything."
Considering who Crabtree plays for and the history there, that's a high bar to set but one the Niners may need him to clear.
NOT: Frank Gore, San Francisco 49ers
While San Francisco 49ers running back Frank Gore did score a touchdown, he didn’t have the success you normally would expect him to have against the No. 25-ranked run defense.
Most concerning was the 3.3 yards-per-carry average he stumbled to.
Luckily for the 49ers, quarterback Colin Kaepernick and the passing offense overcame the down game by Gore.
However, next week the Niners face the Carolina Panthers, ranked second overall defensively in the 2013 NFL regular season.
They’ll likely need more from Gore.
HOT: Rob Ryan and the New Orleans Saints Defense
There are a ton of things that people—fans and media both—get on Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones for, but one of the most blatant misfirings (figuratively and literally) of the last few years was when he canned then-defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.
While Jones got to watch Monte Kiffin flounder with the same issues (but worse) Ryan had, his former defensive coordinator was turning a defense that was ranked No. 32 overall in 2012 into one ranked No. 4.
This Saturday his defense took on the Eagles’ No. 2-ranked offense and stymied it.
Once or twice, the Eagles uptempo offense had the Saints defense on its heels, but Ryan made his adjustments and got the team back on its feet.
His defense even managed to contain LeSean McCoy—the most prolific running back in the NFL this year.
McCoy, who had been averaging 5.1 yards a carry, was held to just 3.7 yards per carry and 77 yards on 21 carries.
Going up against the Seattle Seahawks and Marshawn Lynch, Ryan will once again face a tough running back and an efficient offense.
However, coming off a solid game against the Eagles, the Saints and Rob Ryan’s defense appear to be heating up at the right time.
NOT: Indianpolis Colts Defense
The Colts might have sighed in relief when Jamaal Charles went down early in the game against the Kansas City Chiefs. The concussion ruled out the biggest weapon the Kansas City Chiefs had—vital considering how poorly the Colts played against the run again this year.
Of course, then they proceeded to allow Alex Smith to throw for 378 yards and four touchdowns.
The Colts did a much better job in the second half when they held the Chiefs to just 13 points, so perhaps they found their groove in time to hold off Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.
Still, the Colts need to keep this game from looking like the first half of the one against the Chiefs. After all, you can only tempt fate so many times with second-half comebacks.
The Colts need more from their defense—it cannot afford to look as bad as it did early on in the game against the Chiefs.
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