by Jim Bearor
To me, the Divisional Round and the Conference Championship Round are the best two weeks in sports – yeah even a little better than March Madness. And now that the AFC and NFC Title games are set, I’m feeling a little depressed that there are only three more games left this season.
But it’s been a great year of football, and as it is with any sport, half of the fun is drawing conclusions about the teams that don’t finish their season in the winner’s circle. There are some teams who many did not think would make it past the regular season, and by surpassing everyone’s expectations – including their own – they can mark this past year off as a success (here are your Chiefs, Chargers, Panthers, and maybe Colts). For other teams, merely making it to the postseason doesn’t provide quite the same satisfaction. Some teams may have met similar ends to their 2013-14 campaign, but you have to look deeper to see what it means to the franchise.
That being said, here is what I took away from the teams that won and lost this past week:
Saints at Seahawks
Saints – For New Orleans, it might be tough to write this season off as a success, but they were put in a difficult position the moment they lost to the Carolina Panthers and were forced to settle for the NFC’s sixth seed. All year, the story about the Saints hasn’t been the return to success following Coach Sean Payton’s return, but rather that the team was incapable of winning on the road. To be fair, that criticism has some merit, but they went on the road to beat a tough Philadelphia team and found themselves playing the next week in the league’s most hostile environment. That’s tough. All in all though, they had a good year. They finished the regular season 11-5 (and somehow ended up as the lowest seed in the conference), won a playoff game on the road, and gave the Seattle Seahawks – who I think is the best team out there – a run for their money. Not too shabby at all. If I’m a Saints fan, I’m expecting another formidable playoff run next year.
Seahawks – They are who we thought they were. The conditions and crowd noise definitely were factors in this weekend’s game, but I was amazed by the Seattle secondary – as I am every time I watch them. Except for some lapses in coverage later in the game, I think they did a great job of handling Drew Brees and keeping him from getting into a rhythm. Just think, Jimmy Graham didn’t even have a catch. The best Tight End in Football was shut out completely. That says it all. On the offensive side of things though, I thought the Seahawks could have looked a bit better. Marshawn Lynch did a great job of carrying the workload with 28 carries, but it didn’t look like Coach Carroll really wanted to open up the playbook and finish this game in the third quarter. Maybe part of this is on Wilson, but if the Seahawks are to beat San Fran next week, I think the offense needs to play a bigger role and keep Kaepernick off the field. This was a dominant win without the exclamation point at the end, but hey, a win is a win.
Colts at Patriots
Colts – Coming into this game, I thought Andrew Luck and company had a legitimate shot at winning this thing. I didn’t expect them to, but I figured we’d see a Brady-Luck shootout, and they would have a chance in a game like that. However Belichick – the evil genius that he is – decided to run the ball, run it some more, then keep on running it until the game was over. Partially thanks to a couple early miscues by Indianapolis, the Patriots dictated the tempo from the beginning. A tough way to go out, but this loss to end the year doesn’t mean the season is a loss for the Colts. It was their first full year under Chuck Pagano and second under Andy Luck. They earned a big win over what everyone thought was a big-time team in Kansas City, and didn’t get embarrassed by the Patriots. The arrow is definitely pointing up for this group.
Patriots – This win showed us that although Tom Brady is definitely the centerpiece of this team, he doesn’t have to bear the onus all the time. No, he doesn’t have the weapons around him in the passing game that Peyton does, but he has a hell of a running game and the best coach in football. This time, Brady was asked to play game manager and hand the game off to Lagarrette Blount and Stephan Ridley. They made the Indy defense look silly – again – without relying on Tom Brady. Big win for the Pats, as they introduce a game plan that could help get them another championship. The physical run game adds another dimension to this team, one that could help give them the upper hand when the weather worsens.
49ers at Panthers
Panthers – This was the first time we got to see Cam in the playoffs, and considering what he was dealing with, I don’t think he did a terrible job. San Francisco’s front seven stopped the Carolina running game before it really started, and they never left Newton alone. Cam was sacked 4 times, hurried on nearly every play, and still managed to put together a decent game, all things considering. Gore and Kaepernick wore down a Panthers defense that to this point, were held to the same standard of the ‘Hawks and ‘9ers. What does this say about Carolina’s defense? To me, it just showed that the offensive line of San Fran was superior to the Panthers defensive front. Going into this game, I though Kuechly and Thomas were going to be able to compensate for some of the mismatches on the line of scrimmage, but that turned out not to be the case. The Panthers got beat in the trenches on both sides of the ball, plain and simple. Looking ahead, I think Carolina has a pretty bright future if they do a good job of reloading in the offseason. While they do have a great foundation, Cam still needs more to throw to, and the often-banged-up running back situation is cause for concern, and you can always get better on defense. But this season showed progress for Carolina, and I think they will be perennial contenders in what should be a tough NFC South in coming years.
49ers – San Fran proved that they were a better team than Carolina. The teams may have been constructed off of a similar blueprint, but the 49ers are built with more care out of superior parts. There aren’t any weak parts to this team, just areas that may be overshadowed. The secondary isn’t weak, but linebackers and defensive lineman definitely help take some of that pressure off. Kaepernick is not a liability – ok, maybe sometimes – he just doesn’t dominate like his wideouts or o-line. More than anybody else, this team has their formula figured out. They aren’t stuck in their ways, they are consistently executing the game plan that Coach Harbaugh has drawn up. In a Lombardi-esque way, this group is saying: “here is what we are, here is what we are going to do, try and stop us.” Something about that mentality might be intimidating to the remaining teams, as the 49ers have shown that – maybe, just maybe – you can make them break, but they sure as hell won’t bend.
Chargers at Broncos
Chargers – In the beginning of this post, when I was referring to a team that was just happy to be here, these are the guys I was talking about. While you won’t hear that come out of anyone’s mouth in the San Diego locker room, I’m pretty sure that was the state of mind of the fanbase, and everyone else surrounding the team. This type of success is not usually expected from a team that just hired a head coach. Mike McCoy has done a tremendous job in his first year here. He helped Phillip Rivers turn back into the Pro-Bowl caliber quarterback that he was a few years ago, and maybe pushed him a little beyond that. Ryan Mathews had a solid year, and Danny Woodhead managed to fill the little shoes that were left behind by Darren Sproles so long ago. But above all, McCoy somehow managed to get San Diego into the playoffs while playing in a division with the Chiefs and Broncos. Wow. This could be the start of a great era for the Chargers. You stay classy, San Diego.
Broncos – Peyton Manning didn’t throw up all over himself. That’s really all there is to talk about here. The Broncos were the better team and they showed it, as the offense looked near-unstoppable. But somehow, someway, the Chargers recovered an onside kick en route to making it a close game, and all Peyton had to do was seal the deal. Many – including half of me – were holding their breath, half-expecting another meltdown. But it didn’t happen, as Manning found Julius Thomas for a couple clutch first downs, and Denver sealed the deal. Looking forward to their matchup against the Pats, I have some doubt about the Broncos, and it isn’t completely their fault. Belichick showed that he is more than willing to pound the rock, and that could be a recipe for disaster for a Broncos squad that are not so tough on the run. But who knows, Manning’s offense looks sharp as ever, and maybe Denver can control the line of scrimmage on defense. But really, who knows what is going to happen in this next Manning-Brady Bowl? It’s the NFL, where everything’s made up and previous weeks don’t matter. Just enjoy it.