Three of football's top five defenses were in action this week, all in the NFC. The defensive performances, in every game, indicate that defense is still more important than offense. Only one of the losing teams scored more than 20 points, and only one of the winning teams scored more than 24. Ironically, both of the exceptions came in the Colts and Patriots game.
New Orleans Saints 15 - Seattle Seahawks 23
The Saints played better than in their last visit to Seattle, but it wasn't enough to threaten the Seahawks in this one. New Orleans scored all 15 of their points in the fourth quarter, and by then it was too late. Drew Brees was a miserable 5 for 12, for 34 yards in the first half. He was better in the second half, completing 19 of his 31 passes for 275 yards and a touchdown. Brees was harassed most of the game, and never developed much of a rhythm because of great coverage all over the field. Marques Colston led the Saints in the receiving, scoring the only touchdown through the air, and catching 11 total passes for 144 yards. Colston was also involved on the final play of the game, and made a play that did not make sense to anyone at my house, and, presumably, most people watching the game. Colston caught the ball on the sideline, with 12 seconds left, and rather than going out-of-bounds, begins to run to the middle of the field and threw the ball across the field, except he threw it about five yards forward, which is illegal not only once the ball crosses the line of scrimmage, but also if the ball had already been thrown forward once, resulting in a dead play, a penalty, and a 10 second run off. The run off ended the game because there were only two seconds left at the time of the penalty. Two plays before he chose not to get out-of-bounds this, Colston recovered the onside kick.
Khiry Robinson was the focal point of the Saints' rushing attack. Robinson rushed 13 times for 57 yards and a touchdown. The rookie ran hard, and earned every yard, gaining 46 of his 57 yards, after being contacted by a defender. Robert Meachem had only two catches on the day, but 52 of his 69 yards were scored on one play, after he caught a pass that was tipped by Earl Thomas, and ran another 12 yards before Kam Chancellor brought him down from behind. Jimmy Graham was held to a single catch for eight yards. Graham and Kenny Stills got into it with Richard Sherman and other members of Seattle's secondary before the game, but Stills didn't even record a catch.
New Orleans' defense played a great game, the opposite of what is expected in a Saints game. Although New Orleans couldn't do much to stop Marshawn Lynch, they only allowed Russell Wilson to complete 50 percent of his passes, and just 23 points. In a typical game for the Saints, the defense only allowing 23 points most likely means they will win, but that wasn't the case this week. New Orleans had three sacks, with three different players getting to Wilson. Rafael Bush set the tone early, and often, flying around the field and laying hits over and over. He laid out Percy Harvin on Seattle's first drive, sending him to the locker room, and continued to hit Seahawks players throughout the game. Bush was called for an unnecessary roughness when he hit Harvin, but it was a great play made, and it was a legitimate hard hit. New Orleans still has trouble winning on the road, and against teams like the Seahawks, those troubles will typically be too much to overcome.
The Seahawks were talking again, and the confidence this team plays with is awesome. Sherman was heated during the pregame altercation with Jimmy Graham, and he shut down his side of the field on every play. According to statistics from , Sherman only had one pass thrown to a receiver he was in coverage against, and it was incomplete. Earl Thomas played like a man possessed, and in most of the "hero shots" after a play, he could be seen with an angry stare on his face. Thomas recorded seven tackles, six of which were solo tackles, and played a large part in the lock down of Graham. Thomas' ability to break on a route was evidenced on two separate plays, when he jumped Graham in the middle of the field to knock the ball away. Thomas did allow Meachem's 52 yard touchdown, and he was attributed with giving up the touchdown to Colston, but he was all over the field for Seattle, and he made big tackles, including a relatively innocuous tackle early in the game on a Mark Ingram first down rush. Thomas jumped up after the tackle with a confidence that seemed to spread throughout the defense. Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett combined for the Seahawks' only sack, when the Saints were driving midway through the third quarter.
Russell Wilson only completed nine of his 18 passes, for 103 yards, but when Marshawn Lynch is running like he did, Wilson doesn't need to do more. Percy Harvin led the team in receiving, even though he left the game late in the second quarter after getting hit hard by Malcolm Jenkins. As part of his three reception, 21 yard day, Harvin caught a 16 yard pass that he had no business catching, leaping high into the air on a floater over Corey White. Doug Baldwin had a ridiculous catch of his own on a critical third down late in the fourth quarter, twisting in the air, and staying in bounds, to catch a 24 yard pass and convert the first down. Later on that drive, Marshawn Lynch would score the second of his two touchdowns, when he cut outside, and stiff-armed Keenan Lewis on the sideline, en route to a 31 yard touchdown run. Lynch's first touchdown was even more impressive on his first touchdown, making three defenders miss before dragging Corey White into the end zone, on a 15 yard touchdown rush. He ended the game with 28 carries for 140 yards. Steven Hauschka added three field goals to Seattle's points total, to help them come away with the win.
Indianapolis Colts 22 - New England Patriots 43
Andrew Luck had a miserable outing in this one. Luck threw a career high four interceptions in this game, although it is interesting to note that he has already had six games in his two years the he has thrown 3 or more interceptions in. Luck seemed to be off most of the game, making some terrible decisions, which led to three of his four picks. Some are placing the blame for his second pick on fullback Stanley Havilli because the ball hit Havilli in the shoulder, but even though Havilli had a chance at the pass, if it was thrown well, it would have been caught. Luck did have some beautiful throws, including a bomb to LaVon Brazill, on a fly down the middle of the field for a 35 yard touchdown. Brazill didn't need to break stride as the ball dropped in his arms in the end zone. Brazill's first catch was also a touchdown, on a perfect throw to the sideline, which he caught over Alfonzo Dennard for a 38 yard score. Luck threw just the two touchdowns, and completed only 20 of his 41 passing attempts for 331 yards. T.Y. Hilton was mostly shut down throughout the game, but he still managed to catch four passes for 103 yards, including two ridiculous 40+ yard receptions, one of which was made with just his fingertips as he dove for it, both catches came in the third quarter.
Donald Brown rushed for 63 yards on 17 carries, but the Colts weren't able to establish anything in the running game. Indy's offensive line was shoddy, at best, in the game, and the Patriots' would have had more than three sacks if Luck hadn't successfully moved around in the pocket to avoid pressure on multiple occasions.
Indianapolis played well against the pass, but New England didn't throw the ball very often, and the Colts had no answer for the Patriots running attack. LeGarrette Blount dominated the defense, and on his longest run of the night, a 73 yard touchdown, LaRon Landry seemed to read the play correctly, but he played the run terribly and gave Blount the outside. Altogether, the Colts allowed 234 yards on the ground, as well as six rushing touchdowns in the game. They need to put some work into the offensive line, as well as the defense.
New England surprised everyone by running the ball consistently, but that shouldn't have been such a surprise. Since Bill Belichick took over as head coach for the Patriots (in the 2000 season), they have finished the season outside of the top 10 in rushing attempts only five times, and have had three seasons in which they were in the top 5 in rushing attempts. It's a misconception that they don't rely heavily on their running game, but against Indianapolis they were just utterly dominant running the ball. Blount didn't even have his best rushing output of the season, but he gained 166 yards on 24 carries and scored four touchdowns. He benefited from great blocking up front as Logan Mankins, Nate Solder, Marcus Cannon, Dan Connolly, and Ryan Wendell opened huge holes for him to run through, and Michael Hoomanawanui was able to seal the edge and made some great blocks as a lead blocker. Three of Blount's four touchdowns came within the three yard line, and he showed the ability to move really well for such a big man, particularly as he cut into a hole and around Landry on his 73 yard touchdown run. Stevan Ridley scored two touchdowns of his own, rushing 14 times for 52 yards.
Tom Brady seemed content to allow the running game to dictate the outcome, which was a smart decision. He completed only 13 of his 25 attempts, but the completions accumulated 198 yards and he didn't throw any interceptions. Julian Edelman led the team with six receptions for 84 yards and Danny Amendola caught three passes for 77 yards, including a 52 yard reception, when he was left wide open at midfield and LaRon Landry overran the tackle attempt.
New England on defense was dominant in their own right, thanks in large part to two interceptions by Dennard, one of which he came within inches of returning for a touchdown. Jamie Collins had a night to remember, recording a sack, and holding on to flawless coverage to pick off Luck early in the fourth quarter. The biggest hiccup of the night for New England came when long snapper Danny Aiken snapped the ball over punter Ryan Allen's head. When Allen picked up the ball he was on about the one yard line, and instead of going down it looked like he was making trying to throw the ball, but it was knocked out of his hands for a safety. Allen was injured on the play, leaving punting duties to kicker Stephen Gostkowski, who averaged almost 42 yards per punt.
San Francisco 49ers 23 - Carolina Panthers 10
Neither team was very successful, or efficient, on offense, but the 49ers were able to muster up more than Carolina. Frank Gore rushed 17 times for 84 yards, including a great 39 yard run, when he took the ball on a trap play, cut through the hole created by his pulling guard Alex Boone, and juked around Robert Lester, before finally going down around the 29 yard line. San Francisco was already up by 10, but Gore's run helped set up a field goal to put the 49ers up by 13. Colin Kaepernick was above average in the game, with some beautiful throws to Anquan Boldin, but he only completed 15 of his 28 pass attempts, for 196 yards and a touchdown, as well as a rushing touchdown. Kaepernick's touchdown pass to Vernon Davis, was Davis' only catch of the game and had to be reviewed after originally being called incomplete. Video showed that Davis did, in fact, get both of his feet down before falling out-of-bounds with the catch. Boldin had his way with Carolina's secondary, catching eight passes for 136 yards. Boldin was talking smack throughout the game, which was returned often by the Panthers defensive backs, and he backed it up in a big way.
The 49ers recorded five sacks, although they should have had six. Dan Skuta recorded his second sack on Carolina's penultimate drive, but it was called back for a pitiful roughing the passer penalty. Skuta worked around left tackle Jordan Gross and when Cam Newton spun backwards, to get out of the pocket, he spun directly into Skuta, who inadvertently ended up hitting him in the head. A crappy enforcement of an even worse rule. Ahmad Brooks had 2.5 sacks in the game, and added one of the best encroachment penalties a fan will ever see when he dove over the center (and Newton) before the ball was snapped. Newton flopped, for reasons unknown, immediately after Brooks cleared him, but the Panthers were unable to get into the end zone on three downs from the one yard line and settled for a field goal. Navorro Bowman had a sack of his own and him and Patrick Willis each had 11 total tackles. Willis intercepted Newton on Carolina's first drive of the game, and Donte Whitner picked him off to end the Panthers' second to last drive, and ultimately the game. Whitner's interception seemed to completely deflate Carolina, and Cam Newton in particular.
Cam Newton seemed nervous when the game began, and it showed in his play. He was inaccurate with many of his passes, and wasn't confident in his running. He completed 16 of 25 passes for 267 yards and a touchdown, but he threw two interceptions, and the final interception was not only a horrible decision, it was a terrible pass. Attempting to throw it to Greg Olsen, it seemed, he threw into perfect double coverage, with Bowman underneath and Whitner over the top of Olsen. Newton did throw a beautiful pass to Steve Smith for a 31 yard touchdown. Newton threw a strike to the front corner of the end zone, and even though Tarell Brown had flawless coverage, the ball dropped perfectly into Smith's hands, and he made a great play on it to score. Smith was fired up for the game, and he caught four passes for 71 yards and the touchdown. Ironically, four Panthers receivers caught passes, and each of them caught four passes. Ted Ginn led them with 104 yards. Newton ran the ball 10 times for 54 yards, which was more than DeAngelo Williams, Mike Tolbert, and Brandon Lafell had, combined.
Carolina played good defense most of the game, but only Luke Kuechly was able to get to Kaepernick for a sack, and for a team that relies on getting pressure, that isn't a good sign. Carolina talked a lot of smack, but they were unable to back up most of it. Mike Mitchell was called for a penalty that he called "terrible", and I'm inclined to agree with him. On a tipped ball Mitchell leveled a receiver, and they called an unnecessary roughness penalty on him.
San Diego Chargers 17 - Denver Broncos 24
Ryan Mathews only played on five snaps in the game, but he 26 yards as he carried the ball each of the five snaps he was in for. Considering how well Mathews has played, especially the last few weeks, this would prove to be difficult to overcome for San Diego. Danny Woodhead only managed 29 yards on nine carries, and just three catches for 10 yards in Mathews' stead. Philip Rivers had a good day, completing 18 of 27 passes, for 217 yards, and two touchdowns. The Chargers, only converted four out of 12 third downs in the game, and didn't score until the beginning of the fourth quarter. Keenan Allen had the best individual performance, catching six passes for 142 yards and San Diego's two touchdowns. Allen caught each of his six passes in the second half, which was the only time the Charger' offense truly showed life. They did not block well for Rivers, allowing him to be sacked four times.
On defense they played well, considering the offense they were up against. They held Denver to just 24 points, fewer than any other game this season, and forced two turnovers. The interception was at a somewhat inopportune time because it came in the end zone with just 30 seconds left in the half, but it did prevent Denver from scoring any points, although it was a great play by Donald Butler, catching the tipped pass, and getting both feet down before momentum carried him out of the back of the end zone. The fumble recovery by Richard Marshall started the offense on their own 44 yard line, but resulted in a missed field goal.
Denver's defense played a great game with Champ Bailey coming back from injury. Bailey isn't likely to fix the defense, but they stopped the Chargers all game, and San Diego's offense is far from a joke. Denver sacked Rivers four times, including two by former Charger, Shaun Phillips. They didn't force any turnovers, but they held San Diego scoreless for three-quarters, and didn't give the Charger's receivers room to work. In Von Miller's absence, Phillips stepped up big, with help from Jeremy Mincey and Malik Jackson. Eric Decker was returning punts, which I was surprised about, and almost took one to the house, but he tripped over the turf monster and had to settle with a 47 yard return. Decker broke five tackles on the return, but couldn't get past the chalk on the 35 yard line. Decker dropped the onside kick, when he attempted to dive over a Charger's player for the ball, and it was recovered by Richard Marshall.
Fortunately for Denver, the defense held, and only allowed a field goal. Knowshon Moreno, and Montee Ball, ran well for Denver, with Moreno carrying the ball 23 times for 82 yards and a touchdown, and Ball gaining 52 yards on 10 carries. On the touchdown, Moreno ran into his own linemen at the two yard line, and together they pushed until he was in the end zone. Peyton Manning was human, as unexpected as that may be, only throwing for 230 yards and two touchdowns, with an interception, and completed 26 of his 35 passes. Julius Thomas had six catches for 76 yards, including a 21 yard reception on third and 17 which was inexcusable for San Diego defensively because Thomas had nobody within 10 yards of him when he caught the ball. Thomas also fumbled early in the second quarter. Demaryius Thomas had eight receptions for 54 yards and a contested touchdown Denver's opening drive. Manning fired a pass to Thomas, which barely made it past Eric Weddle's fingertips, and the booth reviewed whether Thomas had possession of the ball while in the end zone, ultimately ruling that he did.
Conference Championship Schedule:
Sunday, 3:00 PM EST, CBS will air,
New England Patriots at Denver Broncos.
All week sports networks, and websites, will be bombarding you with Manning and Brady comparisons, while making the game solely about the two quarterbacks. Don't fall into the trap. Both quarterbacks are likely to have good games, the interesting storyline is how Denver's defense will play. The Broncos have not been very good on defense this season, even taking into account this past week's game, and they have been even worse against the run. New England has proven over the last two weeks that they have a great running game, and they are probably going to feature it prominently in the championship game. The Patriots got a lot of pressure on Manning in the first game, but they were full of holes against the run. Both teams relied heavily on turnovers in the game, and when they weren't getting turnovers, they weren't playing very good defense. No matter where the biggest plays come in the game, it promises to be exciting. I think the Broncos will win, but there is an ulterior hope to that, which will be addressed with the NFC.
Sunday, 6:30 PM EST, Fox will play,
San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks.
The divisional match up may end up being the best game in these playoffs. They will beat each other up on both sides of the ball, but the last time San Fran was in Seattle, they were annihilated. Seattle played better against the run as the season wore on, and if they can stop Frank Gore, they are likely to run away with the game. The 49ers will stay in the game because their defense is about on par with Seattle's. Russell Wilson will be under pressure, and Marshawn Lynch will not be able to recreate his game against New Orleans very easily. My expectation is that Seattle will win the game, but it will be a fight until the end. Watching the Seahawks play the Broncos in the Super Bowl is a dream match up, in my opinion. I fully believe that Seattle would dominate Denver's offense, and I would have a blast watching it. I think seeing a defense manhandle the best offense in the NFL, with plenty of broken records to support the theory, would make for the most exciting Super Bowl I've watched... Since the New York Giants did it to the New England Patriots in 2009.
Thank you for reading. I have been in love with these playoffs so far, and I can't wait to watch this coming week, especially in the NFC. Don't forget to register, comment, and share! Enjoy the weekend.