Who's Hot, Who's Not Heading into 2014 NFL Conference Championships?

Andrew GardaFeatured ColumnistJanuary 13, 2014

Who's Hot, Who's Not Heading into 2014 NFL Conference Championships?

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    Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

    We are just three games from the end of the NFL season after the divisional-round action. 

    The New England Patriots cruised at home over the Indianapolis Colts thanks to LeGarrette Blount and the ground attack, while Marshawn Lynch led the Seattle Seahawks past the New Orleans Saints as well. 

    On Sunday, the San Francisco 49ers held off the Carolina Panthers on the road, and the Denver Broncos outlasted the San Diego Chargers at home. 

    At this crucial time, we still have plenty of players heating up and cooling off. Let's take a look at who did what this weekend and whether it was just a passing moment or a sign of things to come. 

     

    *All statistics obtained from NFL.com or ESPN unless otherwise noted.

HOT: Marshawn Lynch, Seattle Seahawks

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    Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

    With poor weather and a potent offense on the other side of the field, the Seattle Seahawks came into Saturday's game determined to run the ball early and often—which they did.

    With only 18 passes compared to 35 runs (including three by Russell Wilson), they needed a back to rely on, and Marshawn Lynch stepped up.

    His 140 yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries netted him an impressive five yards per carry Saturday, and even when the New Orleans Saints threw everything they had at him, he was unstoppable.

    Even more impressive is the statistic ESPN had in its research notes, which points out that 66 yards of his 140 were after contact.

    No stat is more of a testament to Lynch’s running style than that. He’ll have to replicate it against a very tough San Francisco 49ers front seven in the NFC Championship Game.

NOT: Eric Decker, Denver Broncos

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    Denver Broncos wide receiver Eric Decker had a game to forget against the San Diego Chargers. 

    He tripped in the open field on a huge punt return he should have scored on, had a pass bounce off his chest and land in the arms of Chargers linebacker Donald Butler, and coughed up an onside kick.

    He finished the game with just two receptions for 32 yards. 

    Decker has had a second very productive season in a row for Denver, and it likely won't be difficult for the 26-year-old free-agent-to-be to bounce back. 

    That said, his confidence must be low after his performance Sunday. 

HOT: Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas, Seattle Seahawks

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    Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

    As good as Marshawn Lynch was on the offensive side of the ball, a shoutout must go to the safety tandem of Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas.

    They accounted for 25 tackles (11 solo) and four passes defensed.

    Chancellor and Thomas were instrumental in helping the corners take the New Orleans Saints wide receivers out of the game, and they were fantastic against the run, especially Chancellor.

    They’re going to have to step up again to help keep San Francisco 49ers running back Frank Gore in check and contain quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

NOT: Golden Tate, Seattle Seahawks

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    Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

    After a huge game in Week 17 against the St. Louis Rams in which he caught eight balls for 129 yards and a touchdown, Golden Tate caught one pass on five targets and just couldn’t find a way to get open.

    Really, none of the Seattle receivers could find room to work against the New Orleans secondary, nor were they asked to do all that much.

    This was Marshawn Lynch’s game, and everyone else was essentially an onlooker. Besides that, the weather was nasty, so the Seahawks avoided throwing the ball.

    We don’t know if Percy Harvin will play next week, but Seattle will need Tate to find a way to step up either way. You can bet the San Francisco 49ers will stack the box, which means Tate needs to perform. 

HOT: LeGarrette Blount, New England Patriots

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    Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

    The New England Patriots beat the Indianapolis Colts 43-22, and the ground game accounted for all of the touchdowns—exactly how we all guessed it would be, right?

    Not long ago, LeGarrette Blount was an afterthought. Four touchdowns and 166 yards later, he's anything but. Blount destroyed the Colts' nonexistent run defense Saturday night, especially in short-yardage situations. 

    His 73-yard touchdown run featured great blocking, and Blount knew what to do in space, telling the Associated Press (via ESPN): "Once I get into the open field, they're going to have to chase me. And if they catch me, they do. And if they don't, they don't. They usually don't."

    A special shoutout goes to Stevan Ridley, who registered 52 yards and two touchdowns. 

NOT: Marcus Cannon, New England Patiots

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    Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

    As good as the New England Patriots played, there were spots along the offensive line that struggled, notably right tackle Marcus Cannon.

    Despite quarterback Tom Brady only dropping back 25 times to throw the ball, Cannon allowed a sack, a quarterback hit and two hurries. (Right guard Dan Connolly also had issues pass blocking, though his run blocking was sound.)

    Cannon struggled as a run-blocker, but it’s his pass protection that will need upgrading for next week.

    Even though the Denver Broncos defense has been underwhelming this season (especially after Von Miller was hurt), it sacked San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers four times and hit him five times total.

HOT: Anquan Boldin, San Francisco 49ers

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    Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

    We expected Michael Crabtree to be a big factor in the divisional round, but it was Anquan Boldin who stepped up versus the Carolina Panthers. 

    You can attribute some of that to Crabtree's presence. He drew a lot of attention away from Boldin, freeing him up for eight catches and 136 yards. 

    And Boldin acknowledged that, telling the Associated Press (via ESPN): "That's the great thing about our team—we have weapons all around. You try to take one guy out and you still have two or three guys left who can make big plays."

    That's something the Seattle Seahawks will have to think hard about for next week. Dealing with Boldin, Crabtree and Vernon Davis is not a comfortable task. 

NOT: Vernon Davis, San Francisco 49ers

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    Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

    Although tight end Vernon Davis contributed a much-needed toe-dragging touchdown versus the Panthers, he finished the game with one catch for one yard. 

    He had a hard time breaking free of coverage, sometimes not getting a clean release off the line and struggling to get separation in his routes.

    While Anquan Boldin was feasting on the attention being paid to Michael Crabtree, the Panthers were still able to buckle down on Davis and make him a relative non-factor for almost the entire game.

    We’ll have to see if the Seattle Seahawks adjust their coverage to account more for Boldin and if that frees up Davis.

HOT: Denver Broncos Defense

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    Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    This weekend’s win over the San Diego Chargers was a team effort. No one player took over the game, even Peyton Manning, but every piece did its job.

    However, considering how the Denver Broncos defense struggled in both of the previous games to keep the Chargers from grinding the clock out and owning time of possession, you have to give a nod to the unit for a great game Sunday.

    Quarterback Philip Rivers (18-of-27, 217 yards, two touchdowns) and rookie wideout Keenan Allen (six receptions, 142 yards, two scores) had their moments, but Denver was in control. 

    With running back Ryan Mathews battling an ankle injury, he, Danny Woodhead and Ronnie Brown could never get going, and that was a determining factor in the game. Rivers was also sacked four times and had pressure in his face for much of the game. 

    Denver’s defense will have its hands full again against a New England Patriots team that can run as well as pass—as the Indianapolis Colts found out this weekend.

NOT: Percy Harvin, Seattle Seahawks

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    Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

    Oh, Percy Harvin—we only knew you ever so briefly.

    Finally back after an injury that took most of the season from him, Harvin had to leave the field twice to get checked for a concussion, according to The Seattle Times' Ryan Divish.

    After halftime, Harvin remained off the field, and he will have to go through concussion protocol this week to see if he can play next Sunday.

    Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll felt bad for Harvin, according to Divish, saying, “That poor kid. He finally gets to play and he banged his head against the turf really hard.”

    It was hard to believe he came back after the first hit, but that second one was too much.

    Harvin was supposed to be a big part of at least the return game and would have been a bigger part of the offense next week against the San Francisco 49ers. Now, his status is very much in doubt. 

     

    Andrew Garda is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association. He is also a member of the fantasy football staff at FootballGuys.com and the NFL writer at CheeseheadTV.com. You can follow him at @andrew_garda on Twitter.