The divisional round of the 2014 NFL playoffs is in the books, and while all the favorites triumphed, the games didn't go down in the fashion that many had predicted.
The Seattle Seahawks dominated the New Orleans Saints for much of their game but let the Saints hang around until the final minutes.
The New England Patriots dispatched the Indianapolis Colts on the strength of their run game, not the right arm of quarterback Tom Brady.
The San Francisco 49ers suffocated the Carolina Panthers and abused their vaunted front seven, while the Denver Broncos nearly coughed up a big lead before holding on to beat the San Diego Chargers.
Before all eyes turn to what are sure to be epic conference championship games next Sunday, it's time to review the winners and losers from the divisional round of the playoffs.
There's no hiding the fact that the Denver Broncos defense played very well in a 24-17 AFC divisional round win over the Chargers. It's also true that a variety of Denver players stepped up in big spots to help secure the victory.
But when the conversation concerns the Broncos and the postseason, only one name will receive the lion's share of either the praise or criticism: quarterback Peyton Manning. Because his team won, it's Manning who needs to bask in the accolades.
If the Broncos had somehow managed to lose to an inferior Chargers team, Manning would have been raked over the coals. His legacy would have been called into question after a second consecutive one-and-done postseason appearance as the AFC's No. 1 seed, which would have dropped his overall playoff record to 9-12.
It wouldn't have mattered if Manning had thrown for 400 yards and four touchdowns in a loss to San Diego. All anyone would have remembered was that he quarterbacked yet another underachieving squad in January.
But to the victors go the spoils, and Manning piloted the Broncos to a berth in the AFC Championship Game. He only threw for 230 yards and two touchdowns with an interception against the Chargers, but he was in thorough command of a game that wasn't as close as the final score indicated.
Manning's complex snap counts led to five offside penalties by the Chargers, and he salted the game away late with a number of big passes, including a backbreaking 3rd-and-17 pass to tight end Julius Thomas for a key first down late in the game.
Manning got the job done and is now one win away from his third Super Bowl appearance. That makes him one of the weekend's biggest winners.
Fans of the Carolina Panthers can point to any number of reasons why their team lost to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC divisional round on Sunday.
There were a number of questionable calls that went against the Panthers, the 49ers steamrolled their vaunted defense in the second half and the team lacked composure throughout the game, especially early on.
Ultimately, though, the Panthers' season ended because of the failings of their offense, and that starts with coordinator Mike Shula.
Quarterback Cam Newton played exceptionally well in the first half, but the Panthers only managed to put 10 points on the board due to the failings of their red-zone offense. The team had seven opportunities near the goal line to punch the ball in for a touchdown but failed on every attempt. As a result, the Panthers only banked three out of a possible 14 points and ended up trailing at halftime despite being the superior team through the first 30 minutes.
Shula's play-calling near the goal line was definitely suspect. The Panthers had success on the ground all season, but running up the middle over and over again at the heart of an excellent 49ers defense isn't the best recipe for scoring points.
There was also the fact that the 49ers dominated defensively after the break. The adjustments made by San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio were masterful, as the unit harassed Newton throughout the final two quarters, sacking him four times and landing eight hits. The Panthers scored zero points in the second half.
The Panthers had a fantastic season, but they simply ran into a better team on Sunday. That doesn't change the fact that Shula's unit failed. His goal-line play-calling and inability to adjust in the second half doomed the team.
After his team wins games, San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh stands in front of his players in the locker room and asks the question: "Who's got it better than us?"
It's now clear that as the 49ers and their fans are concerned, nobody has it better than the 49ers, and it's largely because of Harbaugh's brilliance.
With Sunday's divisional round victory over the Panthers in tow, the 49ers have now qualified for the NFC Championship Game in each of Harbaugh's first three seasons in the league. He's the first coach in NFL history to earn that distinction. His playoff record sits at 5-2, and his team came within a few yards of winning the Super Bowl last season. Outside of Bill Belichick in New England, there might not be a better coach in the NFL than Harbaugh.
Check out what B/R's Matt Miller wrote about Harbaugh in the wake of Sunday's win. Miller is exactly right.
Harbaugh is an expert motivator and strategist, and quite frankly, his results speak for themselves. He has authored a historically great beginning to his NFL head coaching career, so it should surprise no one if the 49ers beat the Seahawks in next Sunday's NFC Championship Game and book a second consecutive trip to the Super Bowl.
New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham had one of the great seasons in the history of the position, hauling in 86 catches for 1,215 yards and an astounding 16 touchdowns this season.
But he completely disappeared in the team's divisional round loss at Seattle, catching only one pass for a grand total of eight yards. Quarterback Drew Brees targeted Graham six times.
It says something that Graham's biggest impact in the contest came during pregame warm-ups when he jawed with Seahawks defensive end Bruce Irvin.
The Seahawks defense, particularly safety Earl Thomas, did an excellent job of eliminating Graham from the game. Afterward, defensive end Michael Bennett called Graham "soft and overrated," per Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman.
While Graham is neither soft nor overrated, his no-show on Saturday contributed mightily to the Saints' season-ending loss, and that makes him one of the weekend's biggest losers.
The NFL has most certainly evolved into a passing league, and the inflated statistics for quarterbacks prove that beyond a shadow of a doubt.
However, the divisional round of the playoffs was a throwback to yesteryear, hearkening back to the days of rough-and-tumble, smash-mouth football, where teams won games on the strength of a dominant rushing attack.
No winning quarterback this weekend threw for more than 230 yards, and only Broncos signal-caller Peyton Manning broke 200 passing yards. Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson only completed nine passes for 103 yards, while 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and Patriots quarterback Tom Brady threw for 196 and 198 yards, respectively.
Meanwhile, the rushing attacks were prolific, with the four winning teams averaging 167 yards on the ground. Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount led the charge with 166 yards rushing and four touchdowns, keying a New England ground game that compiled 234 yards and helped amass 35 minutes of possession time.
Of all the winning teams, the Patriots' rushing offense was the most impressive, and it is is the main reason why New England finds itself in the AFC Championship Game for a third consecutive year.
Leading up to the conference title games, the hype will deservedly center on the quarterbacks. Brady vs. Manning and Kaepernick vs. Wilson are two amazing matchups. But don't get it twisted: The ground games for each of the four remaining teams will be absolutely vital as they seek to claim a berth in Super Bowl XLVIII.
Even though he threw seven interceptions in two postseason games this month, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck is a star.
Heck, if the Colts had lost, 38-10, to the Chiefs on Wild Card Weekend, Luck would have retained his status as one of the game's premier young signal-callers.
But there's no doubt that Luck needs more help around him. His supporting cast simply isn't capable of getting the job done against the elite teams in the NFL.
Don't talk to me about the Colts' early-season victories over San Francisco, Seattle and Denver. Those wins came when receiver Reggie Wayne was healthy. The offense clearly hasn't been the same since he tore his ACL late in Indy's win over the Broncos.
Luck's lack of weapons at the skill positions was evident in Saturday night's loss in New England, when he forced throws and tried to do it all himself. It's possible that Da'Rick Rogers and LaVon Brazill will evolve into excellent NFL receivers, but that day is not yet upon us.
While Donald Brown looked decent running the ball this year, he's not the long-term answer, and calling Trent Richardson a bust since coming over in a trade from Cleveland would be an insult to busts everywhere.
This offseason, Colts general manager Ryan Grigson must do a better job of surrounding his franchise quarterback with better talent at the skill positions. Just imagine what Luck would be capable of with a full complement of weapons.
The Seattle Seahawks have fashioned themselves into one of the NFL's model organizations, and while the majority of the credit for that is usually reserved for coach Pete Carroll or quarterback Russell Wilson, a name that doesn't get mentioned nearly enough for the transformation is general manager John Schneider.
Along with Carroll, Schneider has constructed the deepest roster in the NFL—one that also makes a ton of financial sense.
Just look at the stars of Saturday's divisional round victory over New Orleans. Wilson was a third-round pick in 2012. Seattle acquired running back Marshawn Lynch in a 2010 trade for two draft picks. The three key members of the much-ballyhooed "Legion of Boom" secondary, cornerback Richard Sherman (fifth round, 2011) and safeties Earl Thomas (first round, 2010) and Kam Chancellor (fifth round, 2010), were all draft picks. Ends Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, who combined for a sack of Saints quarterback Drew Brees, were low-budget signings last offseason.
Schneider has done a fabulous job of acquiring talent and deserves a ton of plaudits for doing so. He's the unsung hero of the Seahawks operation, and with the team set to host the NFC Championship Game, it's high time he gets his fair due as a winner.
As the Denver Broncos ran out the clock and staved off a late comeback by the Chargers to advance to the AFC Championship Game on Sunday, there likely wasn't a happier man in the Mile High City than receiver Eric Decker.
If the Broncos had managed to lose, he would definitely have worn the goat horns.
Decker committed three major gaffes in the game, as detailed brilliantly by B/R's Kristopher Knox.
First, Decker tripped over his own two feet on a punt return with nothing but open real estate in front of him. A touchdown there would have given the Broncos a 21-0 lead heading into halftime.
Even with that trip, the Broncos still had an opportunity to stretch their lead to three touchdowns in the waning moments of the first half, but a would-be Manning touchdown pass bounced off Decker and into the hands of Chargers linebacker Donald Butler. The turnover gave the Chargers momentum heading into halftime and surely raised the anxiety level in the greater Denver area.
Decker also had an opportunity to salt the game away by recovering a Chargers onside kick, but he fumbled it away and San Diego recovered. The Chargers ended up settling for a field goal to cut the lead to 24-17, and the Broncos were able to run out the clock thanks to some late-game brilliance by Manning.
The Broncos definitely hope Decker redeems himself next week against the Patriots. He was a major loser in the divisional round.
With apologies to the fans of teams that lost this weekend, there's no question that the NFL's conference championship games are, on paper, the best ones in recent memory and will be perhaps the most anticipated in NFL history. Fans should be jacked for the proceedings that await.
The four best teams in the NFL will battle next Sunday for two berths in Super Bowl XLVIII. In the AFC, we're treated to the 15th clash between Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning. In the NFC, the newest and best rivalry in the NFL will be showcased as the 49ers take on the Seahawks.
These are two heavyweight clashes rife with drama and storylines, and the buildup to the games will be almost as exciting as the contests themselves.
Sorry to fans of the Saints, Colts, Panthers and Chargers, but the conference championship games ended up the way they should have—with the four best teams fighting for spots in the Super Bowl.
That makes NFL fans a humongous winner from this past weekend's action.
You have to feel for Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Percy Harvin.
Since coming to the Pacific Northwest in an offseason trade with the Vikings, it appears as if Harvin has been snakebitten. A nagging hip injury limited him to only one game in the regular season, and the team nearly placed him on injured reserve a few weeks ago.
But Harvin argued to remain on the roster and worked tirelessly to ensure he'd be ready to go for the postseason. So there he was in the lineup for Saturday's divisional round clash against New Orleans.
Unfortunately for Harvin, his bad luck carried over into the postseason, as he had his bell rung on two separate occasions and underwent evaluation for a concussion. At this point, his availability for next weekend's NFC Championship Game against the 49ers is up in the air.
While Harvin didn't do anything on the field to earn the "loser" distinction, the fact that he can't avoid the injury bug definitely makes him a divisional round loser.