By all accounts, this was an underwhelming quartet of games played on The Best Weekend in Football. Last year, the division round gave us an incredible Russell Wilson comeback where the Seahawks scored three fourth quarter touchdowns before falling short against the Falcons and the Peyton Manning-Joe Flacco-Rahim Moore classic. Seattle won this year but in boring fashion, and Broncos fans undoubtedly prefer this year’s rendition of Neutral-Zone-Infraction to last year’s heartbreak. In 2011, the 9-7 Giants pulled off the rarest of upsets: outclassing the 15-1 Packers and winning a game as huge underdogs while managing to look like the better team in the process. The day before, Alex Smith lead the 49ers in a home upset over the Saints in one of the more exciting playoff games of our generation. In 2009 and 2010, the brash Jets won road games as heavy underdogs in convincing fashion against the Chargers and Patriots. This was the halcyon era of the Mark Sanchez-Rex Ryan Jets, also known as years 3 and 2 Before The Buttfumble. In 2008, the Ravens (over the Titans), Eagles (Giants), and Cardinals (Panthers) all won as road underdogs. The year before, the Giants shocked the Cowboys before that was our Tony Romo-adjusted expectation, and the Chargers won as 11-point underdogs in Indianapolis preventing a Tom Brady-Peyton Manning upset (no such road bump this year).
In some ways, the results this weekend were a good thing. Perhaps we will remember this as the year the division round of the playoffs felt like eating a salad – a bit unsatisfying at the time, but better for us in the long term. No one would complain about seeing more Andrew Luck — actually, maybe some of us would — but getting an AFC Championship Game of Manning and Brady just feels right. We have become so accustomed to seeing fluky teams like the Chargers make runs that we’ve forgotten that it can be very good when the results match our intuition. Back in April I said that the Patriots and Broncos were on a collision course for the AFC Championship Game, although my reasoning wasn’t exactly spot on (“the key to their success is keeping Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, and Danny Amendola healthy, although the Patriots will be fine as long as two of them are on the field.”)
But it’s not as if I had some special insight: as noted by Will Brinson, the 49ers, Seahawks, Patriots, and Broncos were the four teams with the best preseason odds. No one would complain about seeing more from the Saints and Panthers, but I don’t think many would argue with the idea that the 49ers and Seahawks are the two most talented teams in the league. A few years from now, there won’t be much we remember from the division round. But I have a feeling it set up two conference championship games that will be very memorable.
The vaunted Seahawks pass defense dominated this game, with an assist from the famous crowd and the weather. New Orleans had eight offensive drives in the first 42 minutes of the game. During those drives, Drew Brees completed just 8 of 18 passes for 67 yards and averaged a miserable 3.00 Net Yards per Attempt. The running game had been more effective – Khiry Robinson and Mark Ingram combined for 82 yards on 19 carries — but the Saints gained just nine first downs and zero points. Brees and the offense did get things going over the final 18 minutes, but that was after Seattle had staked out a 16-0 lead that felt insurmountable. After eight drives, New Orleans’ win probability had dropped to just 3%.
If you recall, Steve’s pass ratio projections had the Saints throwing 63.8% of the time and the Seahawks passing on 49.7% of plays. The Game Script was even more tilted towards Seattle than we expected, but New Orleans almost exactly hit the number, throwing on 62.9% of plays. The Saints had a run-heavy (for them) game plan, partially because of the rain and wind, and partially because of the intimidating Seattle pass defense. Jimmy Graham caught his first pass of the game with just 50 seconds remaining! I wouldn’t be surprised if this was one of only a handful of games where the Sean Payton Saints posted a large negative Game Script and passed on fewer than two-thirds of their plays.
Seattle wound up passing on just 37.5% of all plays, as Pete Carroll and Darrell Bevell were content to run out the clock for much of the game. Russell Wilson completed just two passes in the second half, because frankly, no more was needed. Marshawn Lynch rushed 28 times for 140 yards and two touchdowns, which allowed Seattle to control the game and the clock.
Still, it would be naive to ignore the struggles of the Seattle offense. The Seahawks had 11 first downs and picked up just 277 yards. In the last 40 years, just five teams have won a playoff game with no more than 11 first downs and 277 yards. Four of those games involved the Ray Lewis Ravens (in 2011 against Houston, 2008 against Tennessee, and 2000 against Tennessee, with the Steelers pulling off this trick against Baltimore in 2008), and the fifth was Washington against Tampa Bay in 2005 (in that game, Sean Taylor scored a defensive touchdown early, Washington had a 17-3 halftime lead, and Mark Brunell was 7/15 for 41 yards and 1 interception.) Wilson and the Seattle offense, particularly with Percy Harvin, earn the benefit of the doubt, but this was not an inspiring game from the passing attack.
Look at the final score, and it’s easy to chalk this up as yet another Bill Belichick playoff masterpiece. And in many ways it was: LeGarrette Blount, acquired for Jeff Demps and a seventh round pick during the 2013 draft, has now pulled off one of the most remarkable two-game stretches in NFL history. In week 17 against the Bills, Blount joined Adrian Peterson and Gale Sayers as the only players since 1960 to rush for 175 yards and gain over 100 kickoff return yards in the same game. Then, against the Colts, Blount joined Ricky Watters as the only players to ever score more than three touchdowns in a playoff game. The Patriots won on a day where Tom Brady gained just 185 net passing yards on 27 pass plays, thanks to a dominant rushing attack that picked up 234 yards and 6 touchdowns on 46 carries.
Ironically, it was one of Belichick’s rare errors that made this a game at all. New England faced 4th-and-short (either 1 or 2 yards, depending on your source) right at midfield, up by 9, with 2:28 remaining. Belichick initially appeared to have decided to go for it, before switching gears and sending on the punt team (after taking a delay of game). That’s the wrong call and it led to a really wrong result: the snap went over punter Ryan Allen‘s head and resulted in the longest safety since at least 1999.
But that call was just an appetizer for analysis of the terrible fourth down decisions of Indianapolis head coach Chuck Pagano. The first one was a judgment call, although one that probably called for a more aggressive approach. Facing 4th and 6 on the Patriots 18, down by 14 with 5:40 remaining, Pagano chose to have Adam Vinatieri attempt the field goal. This is a call nearly every coach would have made, but is worth mentioning as part of the team’s broader fourth down style.
The next decision was really tough to stomach. With 4th and goal on the New England three-yard line, down by 9 early in the third quarter, the Colts again chose to kick. From an Expected Points standpoint, the Colts gave up a point by kicking, but that’s just part of the analysis. When trailing by 9 in the second half against a good offense, how can kicking a 21-yard field goal be the right call? Indianapolis desperately needed a touchdown in this situation, not three points. Pagano cut the lead to six, but the next time the Colts offense was on the field, they were down by 14 points.
The last decision was inexcusable. Facing 4th and 1 on their own 29, down by 21 points with 10:30 remaining, Pagano sent on the punt team. Sure, Indianapolis probably wasn’t going to win the game, but this decision sealed it. How can Pagano watch Luck lead a 28-point comeback one week and then the next week decide that the game was over when down by 3 touchdowns with over 10 minutes left? And if Pagano didn’t think the game was over, it’s even worse: that would mean he thought punting improved Indianapolis’ odds of winning, a truly scary thought to ponder. Since 1999, there have been just four punts in situations similar to this: trailing by 17-24 points, on 4th-and-1, with between 3 and 12 minutes left in the game. This was an absurd punt, and Pagano should have apologized to Colts fans for giving up on the season.
Elsewhere in 4th down territory, the legend of Riverboat Ron Rivera ended tragically. At the start of the 2nd quarter, the Panthers faced 4th-and-goal from the 49ers one yard line trailing 6-0. Rivera wisely chose to go for it, presumably empowered by the success of Cam Newton on fourth downs all season long. The 49ers stuffed the quarterback sneak, but the satisfaction would be merely delayed for the Panthers. San Francisco, pinned at their own 1 yard line, went three-and-out, and a good punt return by Ted Ginn put the Panthers in field goal range. And Newton didn’t want to wait very long to put up points, throwing a 31-yard touchdown to Steve Smith on the first play of the drive.
The score remained 7-6 when the Panthers were back on the 49ers goal line with five minutes left in the half. Facing fourth down and four feet from the end zone, Rivera chose to kick a field goal. That meek decision was as bad then as it was in hindsight: after hitting the field goal, Colin Kaepernick drove the 49ers down the field and threw a touchdown pass to Vernon Davis to give San Francisco a 13-10 halftime lead, and the Panthers were never as close again to controlling the game. It’s disheartening to watch Rivera, aggressive all season, decide to play it safe just because (1) he had a one-point lead, and (2) the fourth down play failed the previous time. Carolina is one of the best short-yardage teams in the league, but Old Ron was on the sidelines on Sunday.
Many words can, and probably should, be written about the 49ers, but I’ll leave that to another writer. Instead, I want to also highlight Carolina’s methodical pace. The Panthers had just 7 real drives in the game, excluding two end-of-half drives that began with less than 15 seconds remaining. That’s an incredibly small number, and it’s Carolina’s fault. The Panthers milked the clock in the first half, which is generally part of the Panthers strategy (the team ranked 2nd in average drive length (measured by time) in the regular season and had the second fewest number of drives). But in the second half, Carolina embarked on a 13-play, 8:20 drive that ended in a punt. That pace is inexcusable when trailing by 10 in the second half. I criticized offensive coordinator Mike Shula for a similarly slow pace in the season opener, but the pace today was even harder to stomach. Carolina didn’t need to be in hurry-up mode, but the Panthers literally bled the clock trailing by two scores in a playoff game. One could say that Belichick and Jim Harbaugh outcoached their opponents this weekend, but the Pagano and Rivera wounds were self-inflicted.
There have been eight times in NFL history where a team has not punted in a playoff game. Three of those teams were quarterbacked by Peyton Manning. Against the Chargers, Manning was very good if not ruthlessly efficient the way he was when the teams squared off in San Diego. The star quarterback was a workmanlike 25/36 for 230 yards and 2 touchdowns with no sacks, with the only blemish being an interception at the goal line that bounced off Eric Decker‘s chest.
As predicted, the Chargers engaged in clock warfare, but so did the Broncos. Each team had just eight meaningful possessions. Denver scored 24 points, but the team’s other four possessions ended on a fumble, a missed field goal, the goal line interception, and the end of the game (the Broncos erased the final 3:53 of game time). Denver had four drives of over five minutes, which effectively kept Philip Rivers and the Chargers offense off the field. Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball rushed 33 times for 132 yards and a touchdown in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score. That allowed Denver to gained 26 first downs, twice as many as picked up by San Diego.
The Chargers trailed 17-0 before Keenan Allen started taking over the game (in part because Quentin Jammer replaced an injured Chris Harris). An onside kick gave San Diego late life, but this game was a mostly one-sided affair. In fact, if not for Denver’s self-inflicted wounds — again, the team never punted — the Broncos could have scored 40+ points. The fumble was a questionable call that could have easily been reversed while the interception was nearly a touchdown. Add in the missed field goal, and the Broncos could have scored 41 points even with only seven real drives. The Chargers defense looked very much like the unit that played terribly most of the season, not the one that took the field in weeks 15 through 18.
If you want to nitpick on the San Diego side, one could criticize the coaching style of Mike McCoy. He stuck with the ground game for far too long: Danny Woodhead, Ryan Mathews, and Ronnie Brown weren’t even that effective, rushing 17 times for 64 yards. But McCoy refused to unleash Rivers and the passing game on a day when it was clear that San Diego’s only path to victory was a shootout. Rivers picked up 7 first downs through the air in the final frame after gaining just three passing first downs in the first three quarters. Some of that was due to Denver’s prevent defense, of course, but it felt like McCoy was stubbornly sticking with the run in the face of the results. On the other hand, when you make the playoffs (and win your first game) as a team focused on running the ball and controlling the clock, I’m not sure if it’s fair to expect the coach to switch gears all that quickly. Even if he should have. No one should know better than McCoy the power of the Broncos offense.