The NFL is down to its "Final Four."
The Divisional Round of the 2014 playoffs is in the books, with the Seattle Seahawks, New England Patriots, San Francisco 49ers and Denver Broncos moving on to next week's conference championship games.
Whether it's the the looming NFC West showdown in Seattle or the next chapter in Brady vs. Manning, there were any number of compelling storylines after the games this week.
We asked the National Lead Writers and Division Lead Writers here at Bleacher Report for their biggest takeaways from the Divisional Round.
Here's what that esteemed group had to say.
It was a cold, rainy and windy day in Seattle on Saturday, but it wasn't just the weather making Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints miserable.
For much of the game, they were once again stymied by the Seattle Seahawks' formidable defense. As NFL National Lead Writer Matt Bowen points out, the Seattle D was powered by the rear wheels:
There are plenty of angles to take from the Seahawks' win over the Saints in the NFC Divisional Playoffs, but my focus is on the secondary in Seattle and the ability it showed to completely dictate the flow of the game versus Drew Brees.
This unit challenged routes, got hands on receivers to disrupt the release off the line of scrimmage and drove downhill on the ball to break up passes at the second level.
Look at the multiple third-down situations where the Seahawks sat on routes to take away the sticks or the middle-of-the-field throws from Brees that were impacted by free safety Earl Thomas breaking on the ball.
Tight end Jimmy Graham was a non-factor, the Saints struggled to work the seams versus three-deep coverage and Brees was forced to throw the ball into tight coverage.
This unit is talented when we talk about Thomas, Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor and others. And what I saw from them on Saturday just reinforces how physical play in the secondary sells on the postseason stage.
Over the past decade we've become accustomed to the New England Patriots making a deep playoff run. Sure enough, the Patriots are headed to their third consecutive AFC Championship Game after downing the Indianapolis Colts 43-22 Saturday night.
The Patriots' sustained success is a rarity in today's topsy-turvy NFL, and AFC East Lead Writer Erik Frenz warns it shouldn't be taken for granted:
Three straight AFC Championship Games. That’s no small feat. For the New York Jets, two straight was enough to set off a parade that’s still running through the streets of the Big Apple.
For the New England Patriots? It’s just par for the course these days.
Some people will choose to measure the Patriots’ success by whether they win the Super Bowl, but on the doorstep of another crack at greatness, it’s time to appreciate this journey. Whether the Patriots even make it to Super Bowl XLVIII, this may be one of the last chances we get to watch Tom Brady and Bill Belichick make a deep run in the playoffs.
That message was delivered by an unlikely messenger in the Patriots locker room on Saturday after their 43-22 triumph over the Colts: basketball legend Charles Barkley.
“In New England, y’all have a chance to win every year,” Barkley said, according to Mike Petraglia of WEEI.com. “I’m impressed with the Patriots organization because they’ve lost so many people and y’all take winning for granted. Y’all do. Let me tell you guys something: When Bill Belichick leaves and Tom Brady leaves, y’all team is going to [expletive] suck.”
Few would argue that Belichick and Brady have been the keys to New England’s run of success, but the Pats' record in 2013 has hinged not on their singular abilities, but on their ability to get the most out of everyone around them. Brady and Belichick dragged bad defenses to the conference title game in 2011 and 2012. They’ve done it again without so many of their key players this year.
Regardless of circumstance, the occurrence is rare. Only 13 times has a team gone to its conference championship game three or more years in a row. The Raiders (1967-1970), Bills (1990-1993), Cowboys (1970-1973, 1992-1995) and Eagles (2001-2004) went to their respective conference title games four years in a row. The only team to do it five times was the 1973-1977 Raiders.
The ultimate goal is a Super Bowl, but in the hunt for the ultimate glory, the Patriots have achieved a run of success that is rare in a league geared toward preventing such things from happening.
San Francisco pulled away in the second half and will move on to face the Seattle Seahawks with a 23-10 win. But NFL National Lead Writer Ty Schalter cautions that Newton's afternoon wasn't as bad as the numbers indicate:
Don’t be fooled by the 23-10 final score or the two interceptions charged against his name. Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was clutch on Sunday, delivering a quality performance when his team needed it most.
His first interception bounced off of receiver Brandon LaFell’s hands, and the Panthers’ last gasp at victory ended with his first bad decision. In between, though, Newton appeared to be beating San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick at his own game.
Newton had accuracy and touch on short passes, zip and placement on deep throws. Best of all, we once again saw a lot of his tremendous speed and power on designed runs, read-options and broken-play scrambles.
No, he wasn’t able to bully his way through the 49ers defensive line on two first-half goal-line stands or pull off a Brady-esque 14-point comeback with less than eight minutes left in the game. But the Panthers desperately needed “Good Cam” to show up today, and there’s no question he did.
Newton can still get better—in fact, his ceiling is almost unlimited—but on Sunday, the difference between him and Kaepernick was in the weapons they had around them.
As mentioned on the previous slide, Sunday's NFC Divisional Round Game in Carolina featured a pair of third-year signal-callers.
With Cam Newton losing his first postseason start while Colin Kaepernick heads back to the NFC title game for the second straight year, some might argue that it's Kaepernick, and not the former first overall pick, who has emerged as the better pro.
Not so fast, writes NFL National Lead Writer Michael Schottey:
Heading across the state of Florida toward Tampa for Shrine Game Week, I had the pleasure of listening to the San Francisco 49ers-Carolina Panthers game on Westwood One radio. Although I was pleasantly surprised by the broadcast team, one nugget left me scratching my head: Hall of Famer James Lofton proclaimed it a “coin flip” as to which quarterback he’d like to start a franchise with.
Really? A coin flip? It’s not that close.
“Wins” are not a quarterback stat. Football is a team game. This isn’t like a starting pitcher, or even an NHL goalie. While a quarterback is far and away the most important player on a football field, it’s a poor exercise in judgement to proclaim one better than another because of wins.
Lofton’s argument was that he’d have taken Cam Newton when both were coming out of college, but Colin Kaepernick’s time with the 49ers had made it closer. It’s important to remember that the 49ers were the 49ers before Kaepernick too. In fact, they were just fine with Alex Smith at the helm for part of the previous season.
Cam Newton is the Panthers, period. Yes, they’ve started to actually build a defense, and that’s why the wins are starting to pile up. Newton hasn’t gotten better this season, but the team around him has. In the same fashion, Kaepernick has had a solid team around him all along.
Newton is one of the best young passers in the league. He tends to be left out of the “young” passer group for some reason, and seems to have more critics than his play has ever warranted. As the Panthers continue to build, maybe he’ll get the respect he deserves.
The flip side of the Carolina Panthers' loss, of course, is a third straight trip to the NFC Championship Game for head coach Jim Harbaugh and the San Francisco 49ers.
Harbaugh's sideline antics draw their share of detractors. However, with the team one win away from making it back to the Super Bowl, NFL National Lead Writer Matt Miller writes that it's awfully hard to argue with the results since Harbaugh took over in San Fran:
You may not like Jim Harbaugh, but to overlook the job he has done in San Francisco would be foolish. Love him or hate him, he is one of the best coaches in the game.
When the 49ers hired the former Stanford head coach in 2011, they were coming off a 6-10 season that saw Mike Singletary fired. They hadn’t seen the playoffs in eight years. Enter Harbaugh.
In his first three seasons as head coach, the 49ers have made the playoffs all three years. They’ve also advanced to three straight NFC Championship Games and one Super Bowl.
Harbaugh’s run as head coach in San Francisco is off to a legendary start. Win in Seattle on Sunday and he’ll be praised as a modern-day Bill Walsh by the 49er faithful.
It was a rough weekend for the NFC South.
After placing two teams in the NFC bracket, the South most certainly did not rise again in the Divisional Round, whether it was on the road in Seattle or at home in Charlotte.
The Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints are both finished for the season at least partly because of off games by their star quarterbacks, according to NFC South Lead Writer Knox Bardeen:
With names like Drew Brees, Cam Newton and Matt Ryan, the NFC South is chock-full of talent at the quarterback position, perhaps more so than any other division in football.
Brees and Ryan both finished in the top five among NFL passers with 5,162 and 4,515 passing yards, respectively. Newton was 15th with 3,379, but added 585 rushing yards to his mix. Brees, Ryan and Newton all finished in the top 12 in touchdown passes with 39, 26 and 24, respectively.
Between both Brees and Newton this weekend in the divisional round of the playoffs, the NFC South accounted for two touchdown passes—Brees and Newton each had one.
When you play the Saints, Panthers and Atlanta Falcons, the first threat on offense is always their quarterback. Any one of them can take matters into his own hands and win a game.
Neither Brees nor Newton did anything of the sort this weekend, while Ryan has been playing golf for two weeks (yes, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers do have a quarterback; no, he’s not getting mentioned here). It’s not entirely up to Brees and Newton to win games for the Saints and Panthers, and there was plenty of blame to go around for many members of both teams. But from a division that puts so much stock in its quarterbacks, I expected more out of at least one of them in the divisional round of the playoffs.
Now, the NFC West will be battling to go to the Super Bowl and I’m left wondering if the NFL is still a quarterback-driven league.
There are any number of subplots heading into next week's NFC Championship Game in Seattle.
The San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks are mirror images, from their stout defenses to their outspoken head coaches. There's also certainly no love lost between the two teams.
As NFC North Lead Writer Zach Kruse reports, the teams have something else in common.
Both have benefited greatly from the changing financial landscape in the NFL.
Five NFC quarterbacks with $100 million deals will be at home watching next Sunday when two quarterbacks making just over $2 million combined this season square off in the conference title game.
Aaron Rodgers ($110 million), Matt Ryan ($103.8 million), Drew Brees ($100 million), Jay Cutler ($126.7 million) and Tony Romo ($108 million) have all cashed in on an evolving quarterback market that now pays the position handsomely. Yet it will be Colin Kaepernick, who earned just $1.4 million from the San Francisco 49ers in 2013, and Russell Wilson, a $680,000 investment for the Seattle Seahawks this season, playing for a spot in Super Bowl XLVIII.
This isn't a knock on any of the teams that locked up quarterbacks with big deals. There is no smarter path to long-term viability in the NFL than acquiring and retaining a top player at the game's most important position.
But the ungodly sums now paid to quarterbacks might be shifting the economic landscape of the league.
Without the salary cap limitations presented by a $100 million quarterback, the Seahawks and 49ers have developed the two most talented and deep rosters in the NFL. Both teams have invested large sums toward building championship-caliber defenses while also surrounding their quarterbacks with comparable pieces on offense.
Might the league now favor teams that strike gold with young, talented and inexpensive quarterbacks? Having such a minimal commitment at quarterback certainly aids the rest of the team-building process.
Soon enough, both the 49ers and Seahawks will understand the ramifications of a mega-deal at quarterback. Kaepernick and Wilson are looking at big second contracts in the next few years. But for now, the two teams can enjoy the monetary freedom at the position that has helped both general managers build championship rosters.
Of course, it didn't take long for people to start looking ahead to what should be a knock-down, drag-out affair in the Pacific Northwest.
The Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers split their two meetings this season, with each team winning on their home field. In the opinion of NFC West Lead Writer Tyson Langland, quarterback Russell Wilson needs to get a lagging Seattle offense in gear for the Seahawks to continue that trend:
Head coach Jim Harbaugh and the San Francisco 49ers have officially punched their ticket to their third straight NFC Championship Game. That’s nothing to scoff at, and the Seattle Seahawks know how good of a football team the 49ers are. Despite beating them handily in front of their home crowd earlier in the season, the Seahawks haven plenty of reasons to be worried heading into next Sunday’s game.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s unit is red-hot, quarterback Colin Kaepernick is playing mistake-free football and wide receiver Michael Crabtree has 11 catches for 151 yards in two playoff games. It’s evident the 49ers have been at their best over the course of their last eight games.
Some would argue that the Seahawks are on the verge of playing their best football of the season as well. Against the New Orleans Saints, running back Marshawn Lynch punished Rob Ryan’s defense for 140 yards rushing and two touchdowns, while Seattle’s front seven controlled the line of scrimmage.
However, no matter which way you slice it, the Seahawks aren’t the Seahawks unless quarterback Russell Wilson is at the top of his game. And he hasn’t been since Week 14. Over the course of the past five games (playoffs included), he has completed 56.7 percent of his passes, thrown four touchdown passes and tossed three interceptions.
Moreover, he’s only averaging 157.6 yards passing and 6.57 yards per pass attempt. That’s a stark contrast in comparison to his first 12 games of the season, when he averaged 222.7 yards per game and 8.76 yards per pass attempt.
Without a doubt, Wilson needs to rediscover the dynamic outings to which we are accustomed. If he doesn’t, Seattle will come up short in the playoffs for the second straight season, and San Francisco will embark on its mission to capture its sixth Super Bowl championship.
The last game of the Divisional Round featured the rubber match between two AFC West teams in Denver.
It was Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos who got the victory, holding off a late San Diego comeback to win 24-17.
However, given that it was quite the surprise that the Chargers even made the playoffs, AFC North Lead Writer Andrea Hangst doesn't believe Sunday's loss takes anything away from a bounceback season from San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers:
Now that the San Diego Chargers are eliminated from the postseason, having lost to the Denver Broncos, 24-17, what the Chargers and their quarterback Philip Rivers accomplished this year will start to fade from memory.
Rivers has been far from the center of the public’s eye this season, what with Peyton Manning breaking records, Tom Brady effectively moving the football with a seemingly thrown together receiving corps and Robert Griffin III and the circus surrounding him in in Washington garnering the most attention. But Rivers has been quietly having one of the best seasons of his career.
To say it’s a disappointment for Rivers’ great year to go mostly unnoticed would be an understatement. His completion percentage of 69.5 was his career best. He threw for 4,478 regular-season yards for 32 touchdowns, just two shy of his personal record, and just 11 interceptions. He was sacked only 30 times, compared to 49 in the previous season. And he had five games with over 300 yards passing that also included three with over 400.
Though this postseason hasn’t been the kindest to Rivers, he still handled the Cincinnati Bengals’ brutal defense in the Wild Card round, completing 75 percent of his mere 16 pass attempts for 128 yards, a touchdown and, most importantly, zero turnovers. And while he took a beating at the hands of Denver’s defense, Rivers managed to put forth a strong performance late in the game which threatened the Broncos’ considerable lead.
Down 17-0 at the start of the fourth quarter, Rivers finally was able to get the ball to the Chargers’ most dangerous receiver, Keenan Allen, engineering two touchdown drives and a field goal. Though the offense managed to produce too little, too late, it still speaks to Rivers’ ability to turn his team’s fortunes around this season. He had four fourth-quarter comebacks and four game-winning drives in the 2013 season.
Every season it seems there is someone who has a truly transcendent on-field performance but is trumped by others doing just as or more remarkable things and happens to be a household name, like Manning or Brady. This year, it’s Rivers. Just because he’s no longer in the playoffs doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be recognized as one of 2013’s most impressive quarterbacks.
There's an old adage in sports that "there's no such thing as moral victories."
The San Diego Chargers no doubt feel that way. The fact that they shocked the AFC by sneaking into the playoffs and then ousting the Cincinnati Bengals a week ago likely doesn't matter in the wake of Sunday's loss to Denver.
However, AFC West Lead Writer Christopher Hansen writes that once the sting of defeat fades and the Bolts look back, they'll discover more than a few things to like about the 2013 season:
After the sting of their 24-17 loss to the Denver Broncos wears off, the San Diego Chargers should feel pretty good about what they accomplished in 2013. Their fans should eventually feel good about it, too.
In the aftermath of being unable to force a punt on Sunday to allowing the Broncos to convert a 3rd-and-17 on their final drive, the defense will be heavily scrutinized, and rightfully so. However, it has struggled all season.
The defense struggling was the least surprising thing that could have happened to the Chargers in the playoffs, but a lot more good came out of the season than bad for them.
Philip Rivers became a top-five quarterback again, rookie receiver Keenan Allen has a bright future and running back Ryan Mathews had a career year. The offensive line was stabilized and was a big reason for the team's turnaround.
Running back Danny Woodhead turned into Darren Sproles 2.0 for the Chargers and became a key part of the offense. Tight end Ladarius Green came on strong in the second half and looks like he could be ready to replace Antonio Gates as early as next season.
There were a ton of positives, and when the Chargers look at this season in review, they will see that their offense was arguably one of the best in the league. They finished second only to the Broncos in points per drive, per Pro Football Reference.
The Chargers will also get outside linebackers Dwight Freeney and Melvin Ingram back at full strength next year, which should help the defense significantly. They are really only a few moves away from becoming a perennial playoff contender.
Head coach Mike McCoy had a rocky start, but he was able to keep the team together and inspired it to make the postseason despite being up against slim odds. He really became the anti-Norv Turner at the end of the season.
Even though offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt may get another shot as a head coach, the Chargers have solid leadership to take them forward. They fell short of their ultimate goal, but their future looks bright.
After the craziness of Wild Card weekend, it was going to be awfully hard for the Divisional Round to meet the challenge in terms of excitement and jaw-dropping plays.
Sure enough, NFC East Lead Writer Brad Gagnon says that the best one-word description for this week's games may well be "letdown":
Many fans consider the weekend of the divisional playoffs to be the best football weekend of the year. But this time, it was dull.
The four favorites won by an average of 12.25 points. New Orleans and San Diego closed gaps late to at least introduce some belated suspense, but both of those teams had too little, too late in Seattle and Denver. New England and San Francisco easily took care of the Indianapolis Colts and Carolina Panthers, respectively.
It seems our expectations have been warped. Last week, for the first time in history, three of the four wild-card games were decided by three points or fewer. And 48 percent of the games played during the regular season were decided by seven points or fewer, which was the fourth-highest rate in NFL history.
According to Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio, teams coming off bye weeks won only 56.3 percent of their division-round games between 2005 and 2012, but they were three for four this year. And the only team with a bye that lost was a Vegas underdog anyway.
Last year’s divisional playoffs were absolutely thrilling, with Baltimore beating Denver and the Atlanta Falcons beating the Seahawks in dramatic fashion, and with Colin Kaepernick putting together an unforgettable performance in San Francisco’s prime-time victory over Green Bay.
This weekend, the Saints, Colts, Panthers and Chargers simply couldn’t keep up with superior opponents. As a result, it was a boring exhibition of an exciting sport.
The good news is that we may be in store for one hell of a conference championship Sunday. The Broncos, Patriots, Seahawks and 49ers probably entered 2013 as the top four Super Bowl front-runners, and it’s clear they’re the four best teams in football.
Expect the NFL to regain that magic touch next Sunday.