Four teams faced off this week for a shot at the Super Bowl. The hype machine loved the match up of a Peyton Manning led team against a Tom Brady led team, and overlooked the ridiculousness of the NFC match up. Both games turned out to be some of the best football played this postseason, and I was highly interested throughout the day. Even in the Broncos and Patriots game, defense ruled the day.
New England Patriots 16 - Denver Broncos 26
The Patriots have had a lot of success running the ball for most of the season, but more specifically over the past couple of games. Against Denver, they were unable to continue that trend. The offensive line was beaten all game by the Broncos' defense, and as well as giving up two sacks, they were only able to provide space for a total of 64 yards on 16 carries, including seven yards and a touchdown for Brady. Brady wasn't spectacular in the game, but he played well, completing 24 of 38 passes for 277 yards, but he only was able to get one pass in to the end zone. He had some passes that were way off target, including deep passes to Julian Edelman and Austin Collie. The play action was working most of the game, which was surprising considering how effectively Denver was stopping the run. Brady had many receivers come open as a product of a play action fake. Edelman took advantage of the fakes to the tune of 89 yards and a touchdown on eight receptions. Brady faked the run and when he looked up, Edelman was all alone behind the defense on a deep crossing route, but it was thrown about five yards over his head. Danny Amendola was supposed to "replace" Wes Welker (although with Edelman they already had a homegrown replacement), but injuries held him to just six starts in 12 games played, and against the Broncos he caught zero passes, and dropped the only ball thrown his way, early in the third quarter.
Shane Vereen led the running backs with four carries for 34 yards, and he added five receptions for 59. Brady brought the Patriots within 10 points when he ran five yards, breaking a tackle by defensive tackle Mitch Unrein (who weighs in at 306 pounds) because Unrein made the unacceptable decision to dive for the tackle instead of breaking down and making a good tackle (which the most defensive players seem to do at this point), but Brady made a great play with nobody open to score and give New England a chance. The Patriots would fail on a run for the two point conversion, and did not recover the onside kick.
New England held the Broncos to a full 10 points fewer than their per game average through the season, but it wasn't enough to come away with a win. The Patriots couldn't force any turnovers, and didn't record a sack in the game. Rookie corner back Logan Ryan looked good most of the season, but against Denver he was beaten often, particularly by Eric Decker. According to Pro Football Focus, seven passes were thrown at a receiver being covered by Ryan, and five were completed, for 99 yards, three of those passes were caught by Decker. After an impressive rookie season, however, Ryan looks to be set for a bright future. Aqib Talib was injured early in the second quarter when Wes Welker ran in to him while running a crossing route intended to help open up Demaryius Thomas. Bill Belichick was upset by the play, calling it a "deliberate play to take out Aqib" because he alleged that Welker made no attempt to get open. Belichick doesn't often make comments about calls by referees, which makes the comment thought-provoking, but it seems to just be gamesmanship on his part. The majority of NFL teams run "pick" plays, and Welker's route didn't look to be any more deliberate than other plays of that nature.
Denver has found their defense, which was missing in action all season. The Broncos allowed only 16 points, even though they forced no turnovers. They sacked Brady twice, both times on big plays, forcing the Patriots to settle for a field goal late in the second quarter, and forcing a turnover on downs late in the third. LeGarrette Blount has been almost the entire offense for New England that last two weeks, but he only gained six yards on five carries because Denver was focused on the run in this game, which is evidenced by how well the play action worked for New England. Denver gave the Patriots opportunities, which did not come back to bite them, but overall they played a great game on defense. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was injured late in the first quarter on a hard block by Edelman, but he came back and played great defense, recording three tackles and giving up zero touchdowns. Champ Bailey returned to action last week and doesn't seem to have lost anything in his game, playing two straight weeks of lock down cornerback. Robert Ayers and Terrance Knighton took Brady down in the backfield, but the defense was in Brady's face all game.
Knowshon Moreno was injured late in the game, and didn't return, but Montee Ball has finally overcome his fumbling issues, and is finishing off his rookie season with some great running. He finished the game with 12 carries for just 43 yards, but he held on to the football and he was key in running down the clock on Denver's final possession. 11 of his 43 yards came on four carries in the first half, and he had five carries on the final drive. Peyton Manning had 400 yards passing and two touchdowns, while completing 32 of his 43 attempts. He was not hit in the game, although he had to avoid pressure on multiple occasions. The protection even held up on a bobbled shotgun snap that took Manning over a second to corral and throw to Decker. The main target against New England was Demaryius Thomas, who caught seven passes for 134 yards and a touchdown, while abusing Alfonzo Dennard often. Talib was covering Thomas until he was injured, then the duties fell to Dennard, and he wasn't able to stack up. Coincidentally, when Welker hit Talib, Thomas actually dropped the ball, although it was a wide open and perfectly thrown pass. Julius Thomas continued his breakout year, catching eight passes for 85 yards. Denver does a very good job of finding Thomas with favorable match ups, which is definitely made easier by the copious number of weapons at their disposal. Thomas beat rookie Jamie Collins deep for a 37 yard catch that was floated perfectly to him. The Broncos advance to the Super Bowl on a hot streak.
San Francisco 49ers 17 - Seattle Seahawks 23
The NFC Championship game turned out to be one of the best games of the season. Both teams beat each other up, and both defenses came to play. Navorro Bowman suffered an ugly injury when he ripped the ball away from Jermaine Kearse, but safety Eric Reid hit Kearse at the same time, and they both landed on Bowman's leg. San Francisco lost Bowman for the end of the game, and upon further review didn't even come away with the fumble recovery.
The 49ers started the game with a bang, Aldon Smith closed on a scrambling Russell Wilson before Wilson was able to get rid of the ball to his tight end, and Smith forced the fumble and made the recovery, on the first play of the game. The 49ers found themselves set up on the Seahawks 15 yard line, but were unable to move the ball more than eight yards and had to settle for a field goal. Smith had two total sacks in the game, with Dan Skuta and Bowman taking down Wilson one time each. Bowman sacked Wilson on a delayed blitz, and came through the line unblocked to end a Seattle drive late in the first quarter. Donte Whitner was flagged for a personal foul in the first quarter, which highlights the absurdity of some of the rules changes. In an attempt to make the game "safer" they have made it more and more difficult for the defense to do their jobs. On a deep throw over the middle to Luke Willson, Willson was upended by Eric Reid, and a hard charging Whitner lowered his shoulder and hit Willson hard to pop the ball out. Whitner hit him well, with shoulder to shoulder contact, but the flag stood and took away what was a great defensive play.
San Fran went in to halftime up 10-3, and Colin Kaepernick's running ability was the key to their early success. For the game Kaepernick rushed 11 times for 130 yards, but he had 99 on just six carries in the first half. His legs gave him more time to throw the ball too, avoiding multiple sacks to complete 14 of 24 passes for 153 yards and a touchdown. Kaepernick's biggest mistakes were made when he threw an interception to end each of their final two drives, which followed a fumble while being sacked. San Francisco ended the game with three straight turnovers.
Anquan Boldin caught five passes for 54 yards, and scored a touchdown, catching a ball that barely went past Earl Thomas' hand. Michael Crabtree was involved in a lot of smack talk with Seattle's Richard Sherman, and while he caught four passes for 53 yards, he didn't catch the most important pass of the game, when a fade route in the end zone was knocked away by Sherman and caught by linebacker Malcolm Smith, on what would be the final offensive play for the 49ers. Frank Gore was completely ineffective, carrying only 11 times for 14 yards, but the offense was hurt by an injury to Mike Iupati on the goal line, when Anthony Dixon scored a touchdown in the first quarter. Iupati never returned to the game, and Adam Snyder played at guard in his stead.
The Seahawks have annoyed fans and players alike this season with their brashness and physical play, and they didn't disappoint in the championship game. They made it known when they made a big play, and they hit the 49ers hard all game. Kam Chancellor may have been Seattle's best player in the game, coming away with nine tackles and an interception. Late in the third quarter, Vernon Davis caught a pass on a drag route, but he was nailed immediately by Chancellor and the ball came out before Davis could hold on. The Seahawks had pressure on Kaepernick all game, but only came away with two sacks. They forced a fumble on both sacks, but they couldn't recover the fumble forced by Michael Bennett early in the third quarter. Seattle either didn't have an answer for Kaepernick's running ability, or they were content with allowing him to run as long as he didn't have success throwing the ball. The 49ers only challenged Sherman in coverage twice, and because of a ticky tack holding penalty, only one target counted in the stats. San Francisco saved their challenge until the end of the game, when Crabtree ran a fade route against man coverage, and Sherman played it flawlessly, turning to knock the ball away before Crabtree even had a chance. Sherman was flagged for taunting immediately after the play and Crabtree shoved him in the face, leading to a "controversial" post game interview.
In the first half, Marshawn Lynch only gained 33 yards on 12 carries, but he ended the game with 109 yards on 22 carries, including a nasty run for a 40 yard touchdown, which was the longest run against the 49ers all season. Lynch cut back across the line, hit the hole, and with a step that almost looked like a hurdler, cut to the outside, and stumbled his way in to the end zone. 83 of Lynch's 109 yards came after being contacted. Russell Wilson played an efficient game, when he wasn't running for his life, and completed 14 of 25 passes for 215 yards and a touchdown. Doug Baldwin was his most consistent target, catching eight passes for 106 yards, including a 51 yard catch on a bomb by Wilson, after rolling right and scrambling back to the left, and throwing to Baldwin wide open behind the defense. Kearse caught the only touchdown pass, going up in the end zone with Carlos Rogers in perfect position, and holding on to the ball as he came down, on fourth down early in the fourth quarter, for a 35 yard touchdown reception. Kearse's only other catch he fumbled, but the Seahawks kept possession.
Seattle kicked one more field goal in the game, but the defense had a strong finish. First Cliff Avril sacked Kaepernick and Michael Bennett recovered. On San Fran's next drive, Kaepernick attempted to float a pass over Chancellor, but the 6'4" safety leaped up and snatched the ball out of the air. Malcolm Smith caught Sherman's tipped pass in the end zone on the final drive, sealing the victory for Seattle.
Super Bowl Sunday:
February 2, on Fox, at 6:30 PM EST,
Denver Broncos vs. Seattle Seahawks.
Belichick slammed Wes Welker and the Broncos for an illegal "pick" play, but the double standard of the NFL won't change just because a coach was angry, even if it is Belichick. Welker, most likely, did not intend to injure Talib, but he was running across the field to help Thomas gain separation. The intent of most crossing routes is to run the defenders into each other, but that won't always be the case. There wasn't anything wrong with the play, but if that same type of contact was initiated by a defensive player, it would have been an immediate pass interference, which is something that should be looked at. If the NFL truly wants to keep players safer, there are better ways to do that without making it more difficult to play defense.
I'm vocally against sideline reporting in general, and the majority of post game interviews, but Richard Sherman provided what may have been one of the best interviews I've ever seen. Sherman is loud and confident, and this interview highlighted both. After fighting and jabbering with Crabtree all game, Sherman made the big play at the end, and when Erin Andrews asked him about it, he started yelling into the camera, saying, among other things, that he is the best corner in the NFL and Crabtree is a sorry receiver. When Sherman finished, he walked away, and Andrews' face and responses were amusing, when she asked Sherman who was talking about him, and after Sherman walked away (which Andrews was also not expecting), she reacted quickly and sent it back into the studio. It's no secret that the Seahawks talk trash, particularly in the secondary, and talking trash immediately after the game shouldn't be such a big deal to analysts and people around the country.
My prediction (partly because it's what I hope happens), is that the Seahawks' defense will completely dominate the Broncos' offense, and Seattle will have their first Super Bowl victory in franchise history, with a 19-13 win. The score will probably be inaccurate, but I do expect a low scoring game.
I may write a recap next week about the Pro Bowl, but it will most likely be short if I do. Instead, look for the first installment of the No Apologies Sports team's best players in the NFL. Thanks for reading, don't forget to register and share with your friends! Who do you think will win the Super Bowl and why? Share your opinions in the comment section.