NFL Conference Championships: Expert Takeaways from AFC, NFC Title Games
And then there were two.
After 17 weeks of regular-season action and three weeks of playoff games, the participants for Super Bowl XLVIII have been determined.
On Feb. 2, the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos will play for the Lombardi Trophy.
Sunday's games featured no shortage of drama and intrigue, from Peyton Manning's dissection of the New England Patriots defense to a wild finish Sunday evening in Seattle.
Here's a look at what caught the eyes of the NFL National Lead Writers and Division Lead Writers here at Bleacher Report during Sunday's conference championship games.
Shutting Down Danny Amendola Was a Smart 1st Step to a Broncos Win
After Wes Welker left New England for Denver in the offseason, Danny Amendola was quickly brought in. The thought was simple: replace one Texas Tech slot receiver with another.
Things didn't work out as planned.
A disappointing season for Amendola ended with Sunday's loss to the Broncos in the AFC title game, a game in which the fifth-year pro was shut out on the stat sheet.
AFC North Lead Writer Andrea Hangst feels that may have been by design and applauds Denver's ability to completely take Amendola out of the game:
Bill Belichick is well-known for his defensive strategy of eliminating his opponents’ best weapon. However, it was the Broncos defense that employed the tactic Sunday, winning 26-16 while holding Amendola to zero catches on one target.
Though Tom Brady ended the day 24-of-38 for 277 yards and both a passing and rushing touchdown, it took him until the fourth quarter to find a rhythm. By taking Amendola out of the equation, Denver forced Brady to find other options.
This was a game in which the Patriots had to pass the ball well, especially after being down 13-3 at the half and eventually 23-3. Though Brady connected with Julian Edelman 10 times on 15 targets for 89 yards and a score, his next-most productive receiver was running back Shane Vereen, with five catches for 59 yards.
No one but Edelman saw double-digit targets.
The Broncos made the Patriots one-dimensional by taking an early lead and eliminating the running threat. Had Edelman been a factor early, the entire complexion of the game could have been different. Instead, a passing offense that has dealt with an ever-shrinking receiving corps saw it constrict even further.
Though Edelman has been Brady’s No. 1 receiver this year, with 105 regular-season catches for 1,056 yards and six scores, Amendola has been the Swiss army knife over the middle much as Welker was in the past. Brady hasn’t been a deep-shot quarterback this season because of his receiving corps, so the short-middle targets that Amendola has seen all year have been invaluable.
Without Amendola, Vereen and Austin Collie needed to pick up the slack, but neither are particularly dangerous or explosive players. It was a smart approach by the Broncos defensively, one that gave the Patriots a taste of their own medicine.
There are ways to make Brady uncomfortable, and removing a favored receiver is an underutilized and effective one. Pressure isn’t the only way to keep Brady from methodically shredding his way down the field.
Deja Vu in Patriots’ Second AFC Championship Loss to Peyton Manning
Sunday's AFC Championship Game was the third time Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have met with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.
Manning has now won the last two such meetings, and AFC East Lead Writer Erik Frenz saw some eerie similarities between Sunday's matchup and the Patriots' 2006 loss to Manning's Indianapolis Colts:
Reche Caldwell’s beady-eyed stare told the story of the Patriots’ loss to Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts in the 2006 AFC Championship Game. In that encounter, the Patriots were undone by their lack of receiving talent.
Just a couple of months later, New England went to the ends of the Earth for as much help at receiver as possible. The team added Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte Stallworth, and the only holdover was Jabar Gaffney.
There were no such eyes poking out of Danny Amendola’s helmet when he dropped a pass in the Patriots’ 26-16 loss to the Denver Broncos, but the story could just as easily be told through the box score. The top options were wide receiver Julian Edelman (10 catches), running back Shane Vereen (five) and on-and-off-the-roster backup Austin Collie (four).
The Patriots must make serious considerations about the future of their receiving corps. Do they want to invest a second year in the previous product, hoping for improvements from young players and for a return on a couple of key investments? Or do they shake things up as they did after the 2006 season?
Aaron Dobson had his ups and downs, but he was making strides before his foot injury. The same could be said for Kenbrell Thompkins and his hip injury. The trajectory for those two will shape some offseason decisions.
Julian Edelman was the lone constant of this year’s group, but he is set to become a free agent. Amendola flashed his potential, but he never found the consistency some were expecting.
New England has a trump card with Rob Gronkowski coming back from ACL/MCL surgery. The offense scored over 7.5 points per game more with him in the lineup. He was good for a touchdown a game, and the team scored touchdowns on 25 percent more possessions in the red zone.
Gronkowski had a huge impact on the receivers around him as well. Just ask running back Shane Vereen (33 catches in four games with Gronkowski, 14 in five games since his injury). He helped everyone in the offense, Brady chief among them.
Jack Del Rio took away the Patriots’ bruising rush attack and dared Brady to throw the ball. They couldn’t capitalize.
When the Patriots look back on the 2013 season, the one thing that should stand out is their lack of production in the passing game outside of Edelman. The weight of the world has been on his shoulders all season long. Brady cannot thrive if that continues to be the case in 2014.
Aqib Talib’s Injury Created a Matchup Issue for Patriots
One of the things that makes the Denver Broncos such a nightmare for opposing defensive coordinators is the bevy of receiving options Peyton Manning has at his disposal.
As NFL National Lead Writer Matt Bowen writes, that problem became a disaster for the New England Patriots when top cornerback Aqib Talib went down early in Sunday's AFC Championship Game:
The Patriots went into Denver with a defensive game plan that leaned heavily on man coverage. The idea there is to get hands on receivers, disrupt the release and play to the upfield shoulder on inside breaking routes.
However, once Talib checked out of the game with an injury, Manning and Demaryius Thomas exposed the Patriots on the outside by targeting Alfonzo Dennard.
Thomas was too strong for Dennard on the release. He showed the ability to run through the jam and also create separation within the route stem on the post, the slant, the fade and more.
Going back to the touchdown pass in the deep red zone, Thomas sold the outside stem off the release, forced Dennard to open his hips and gained leverage inside to run the slant for six points.
That looked easy for the Broncos off play action with no help in the middle of the field.
The focus here should be on the release point—because that’s where the Patriots missed Talib’s ability to jam, re-route and play press-man versus Thomas.
Dennard couldn’t hang with Thomas' size and power at the line of scrimmage or down the field at the point of attack.
And when Manning identified that matchup, the veteran quarterback went after Dennard to take advantage of the Patriots' man-coverage schemes while punching a ticket to the Super Bowl in New York.
Richard Sherman Gives His Team a Black Eye
The NFC Championship Game turned late, when Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman tipped a ball that was snatched up by teammate Malcolm Smith for the game-sealing interception.
It's what Sherman did next that caught NFC East Lead Writer Brad Gagnon's attention.
He didn't especially like what he saw:
Sorry, but as a neutral observer, Richard Sherman’s embarrassing antics have me pulling for the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII.
I like the guy’s intensity, and I appreciate how authentic and passionate he is. Oh, and I do believe he’s the best cornerback in the NFL.
But why does he have to keep reminding us?
Moments after the Seahawks defeated the San Francisco 49ers to punch a ticket to the Super Bowl Sunday evening, Sherman had the first chance to thank the world-famous 12th man and congratulate his teammates. But instead, these were the first words that came out of his mouth in his postgame interview with Fox’s Erin Andrews: “I’m the best corner in the game.”
He then fired a shot at Michael Crabtree and ranted at nobody in particular, scaring the hell out of a national television audience that surely contained a lot of casual viewers.
Not that Sherman cares, but his childish diatribe likely alienated many of those who at that moment were deciding which team they’d be cheering for in two weeks’ time.
Sherman exemplifies why the majority of professional athletes should no longer be considered role models. Football is the ultimate team sport, and yet he continually makes it all about himself. He could have taken the high road after Sunday’s game, but instead he bragged to the nation in obnoxious fashion.
He’s not the kind of person I’d want my kids looking up to. I know there are good and bad apples on every roster, but few of them are exposed to the microphone as frequently as Sherman. With that, there’s a responsibility.
I’ll admit that Sherman should make Super Bowl week more interesting for fans and the media, but it’s hard to get behind a guy who is so severely lacking in class and sportsmanship.
Richard Sherman Is the Best, and He Knows It
Of course, you know the old saying: "One man's trash (talker) is another man's treasure.
Where Gagnon sees arrogance and smugness with Richard Sherman, NFC North Lead Writer Zach Kruse sees confidence.
Confidence borne of Sherman's abilities on a football field:
No player in the National Football League talks the talk and walks the walk quite like Richard Sherman.
Just moments after his tipped pass punched the Seattle Seahawks' ticket to Super Bowl XLVIII, Sherman proudly—and rather loudly—proclaimed what most already knew.
"Well, I'm the best corner in the game," Sherman told Erin Andrews. "When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that's the result you're going to get."
While mostly a tactless display of emotion, the unwavering confidence remained consistent with Sherman's exorbitant personality. And he was dead-on with his first statement.
There's little question that Sherman holds the cornerback crown.
Coming into Sunday, Sherman had allowed just 30 receptions over 17 games in 2013, and his eight interceptions and 45.9 passer rating against led all NFL cornerbacks. He finished back-to-back seasons with eight picks and a passer rating against under 50.0, a feat no other cornerback can claim.
In the divisional-round win over the Saints, Sherman didn't allow a catch and was targeted just once by Drew Brees.
The 49ers rarely tested Sherman Sunday, and when they finally did, a chance to complete a comeback win was lost. His twisting deflection in the end zone allowed Malcolm Smith to come up with an easy interception with just 22 seconds left.
Three kneeldowns later, and the Seahawks were officially NFC champions. Sherman's play sealed the deal.
Not everyone will like Sherman and his unique personality. That's OK. But there simply isn't much of an argument against his place as the game's preeminent cornerback.
Super Bowl Success Starts with a Pocket Passer
Super Bowl XLVIII is an interesting contrast in quarterbacks.
Whereas Russell Wilson of the Seahawks represents the "new order" of mobile passers, Peyton Manning of the Broncos is as "old school" as they come.
NFC South Lead Writer Knox Bardeen knows on what side of that fence he falls when it comes to football's most important position:
The NFL’s newest fad of mobile, dual-threat quarterbacks needs to be rethought.
But with the NFC Championship Game on the line, Kaepernick didn’t have enough of a passer’s mentality to lead his San Francisco 49ers to victory. In fact, he hurt his team with his arm and poor throwing decisions.
Kaepernick threw just eight interceptions during the regular season. But he tossed two—and turned the ball over with a fumble as well—in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s 23-17 loss to the Seattle Seahawks. And when his team needed a last-minute touchdown to win from the Seattle 18-yard line, Kaepernick aimed a pass toward Michael Crabtree, who was covered by the best cornerback in the game, Richard Sherman.
Kaepernick missed a wide-open Anquan Boldin streaking toward the end zone in the middle of the field. And now the 49ers will miss the Super Bowl.
Watching a mobile quarterback can be a lot of fun, and some of the best plays of the season have come from a scrambling, dual-threat passer. But when it comes to making it to and winning the Super Bowl, there just isn’t enough “passer” in most dual-threat quarterbacks.
Super Bowl history proves this.
Listen to the names of the recent Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks: Joe Flacco, Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger. That’s just the last five years, and nary a mobile quarterback.
Add earlier rings for Manning and Roethlisberger to Peyton Manning’s Super Bowl win, as well as to Tom Brady’s three and Brad Johnson’s big Super Bowl victory for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Here we are back all the way to 2001, and there’s not one dual-threat quarterback who’s won a Super Bowl. After watching Kaepernick struggle through the air in the fourth quarter Sunday, give me a pocket passer any day of the week.
Beating No. 1 Defense Would Be Fitting Way for Manning to Cement His Legacy
While we're on the subject of that Manning fellow...
After a season where the 37-year-old threw more touchdown passes and for more yardage than any player in NFL history, there isn't much the about-to-be five-time NFL MVP hasn't done.
With that said, AFC West Lead Writer Christopher Hansen believes beating a dominant Seattle defense in the Super Bowl would be another very nice feather in a cap that already looks like a peacock's butt:
The two No. 1 seeds will meet in two weeks for the Super Bowl. The game will feature the two best teams in Football Outsiders’ DVOA and the No. 1 scoring offense versus the No. 1 scoring defense.
For a neutral observer, it’s the game everyone wanted. It’s probably not what Manning wanted, but it’s the perfect game for him to cement his legacy.
To be the best, you have to beat the best. It’s an old cliché, and the best two teams don’t always make the Super Bowl, but it’s tough to argue against the Broncos and Seahawks.
For Manning, we are not just talking about being the best quarterback of the 2013 season. No, we are talking about the best quarterback to ever play this great game.
Should the Broncos emerge victorious, we'll remember Manning posting the perfect season, including wins over Tom Brady in the AFC Championship Game and the No. 1 defense in the Super Bowl.
We may even remember that Manning had to beat a defense with not only the best pass rush but also the self-proclaimed best cornerback in the league. Manning will have to do all that with his franchise left tackle on injured reserve and a defense held together by a tackle nicknamed “Pot Roast.”
Winning a second Super Bowl would have cemented Manning’s legacy regardless, but doing it against the Seahawks is like using fast-setting concrete designed for industrial applications—it will be superior in dry time and strength.
Seattle's Offense Has Work to Do If They Expect to Keep Pace with Peyton Manning
Most of the talk leading up to Super Bowl XLVIII will no doubt center on the matchup between Denver's offense and Seattle's defense.
However, NFC West Lead Writer Tyson Langland cautions that it's Seattle's offense that should be worrying fans as the buildup to the Super Bowl begins:
As good as the Seahawks defense was against the 49ers, Russell Wilson and co. have plenty of work to do before the Super Bowl. With Peyton Manning playing at an unprecedented level heading into the NFL’s biggest game, Darrell Bevell’s offense will have to tighten up and protect the football better than it did Sunday.
If the team doesn't, it’s going to be a long day for the Seahawks on Feb. 2.
Manning and the Broncos offense have been dominant all year, and they are playing their best football of the season. The 16-year pro out of Tennessee found his early-season groove as he passed for 400 yards against the Patriots, and Denver’s running game makes the unit dynamic.
Yes, Seattle’s offense outlasted the 49ers and their tough defense, but the team lacked awareness and played sloppy football at times. Wilson had trouble with a couple of snaps, Marshawn Lynch fumbled a handoff and the offensive line struggled to consistently control the line of scrimmage.
The Broncos have put up record-breaking offensive numbers all year, and that won’t change versus the Seahawks. Bevell and Wilson will have to turn in the best efforts of their careers in the Super Bowl if they want to keep pace.