We’re now down to the last four teams in the NFL playoffs. Baltimore, San Francisco, Atlanta and New England. It was an entertaining weekend of games. The Ravens-Broncos overtime thriller was an instant classic and a game that Denver fans, and Peyton Manning, will likely want to forget quickly. The Broncos, huge favorites, really blew that game. Green Bay-San Francisco was close, at least until the fourth quarter, but nonetheless a much more competitive game than their first encounter in week one. This game didn’t turn out at all the way I wanted and I now have to live with it. I may never write another Packers preview as a result. Seattle-Atlanta looked like it would be a rout early, but the Seahawks, as they’ve done all season, refused to give up and made it quite an ending, though they ultimately blew their chance to steal a win. That game may have ended even more exciting than the Baltimore-Denver game. And finally, New England showed how strong, and deep, they really are by winning a game with Houston that never really appeared competitive after the Pats scored their first touchdown.
We’ll have previews of the AFC and NFC Championship games later this week, but here are my initial thoughts after watching the four playoff games this weekend:
— Peyton Manning could be the best regular season quarterback ever, but man, that guy has a tendency to come up short in the playoffs. It just feels like a really high number of times that he’s been the higher seed and lost. He’s such a good player and an all around good guy that I feel sorry for him.
— Speaking of him being a good guy, I appreciated hearing that Manning waited around for an hour and a half after the game to privately congratulate Ray Lewis. That’s a class act.
— The Ray Lewis story is having quite the final chapter. I can’t believe how much he’s inspired this Ravens team. It sounds ridiculous, but his presence on the field does wonders for improving Baltimore’s chances of winning a game.
— Enough criticism of Joe Flacco. He’s shown over the past two post seasons that he really is one of the best quarterbacks in the game. I’d take him in a playoff game. Last year he outplayed Tom Brady, this year he outplayed Peyton Manning. You can’t ask for much more than that.
— Baltimore still has a good defense. They don’t quite have the same pass rush they’ve had in the past, with Paul Kruger being the only really consistent pass rushing threat, but it’s still a solid unit. They may not have ranked that way this year, but remember, they had a ton of injuries and those injuries were to main contributors (Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Ed Reed). Everyone’s healthy now.
— The San Francisco 49er offense may have become the team’s strong suit. With the difficult to defend new read option dimension that Colin Kaepernick has added, I really think this might the case. While the defense is still solid, I don’t feel like they shut down the Packers defense as much as they did in their week one meeting. In fact, the Pack did more to shoot themselves in the foot. Their turnovers were more a result of their own mistakes than any forcing the San Francisco defense did. And it was the Niner offense that capitalized on those Green Bay mistakes.
— Frank Gore quietly continues to be a huge contributor to the 49ers offense. He’s not the most vocal or showy player, so doesn’t command the same mainstream media attention as others on their offense, but he is the rock of that unit. Would you be surprised to know he gained 119 rushing yards against the Packers? I watched the entire game and was surprised by it. He quietly just gets his job done.
— Michael Crabtree has emerged as a top receiver in the game. Going into that game, Green Bay knew that he was one of Kaepernick’s go to guys, and they still couldn’t defend him, knowing it was coming.
— Green Bay didn’t appear to have much of a competitive game plan on either side of the ball. They apparently didn’t read my analysis post from last week because they didn’t appear prepared for many of things I called out. They ran very few screen passes (and I don’t remember any outside screens) on offense and on defense, they didn’t look prepared for Kaepernick’s outside running, which is especially odd since they put together a game plan exactly a week ago to shut down Adrian Peterson’s outside running (and were effective).
— I wouldn’t be surprised to see a new defensive coordinator in Green Bay next year. Dom Capers’ unit has not performed well for the second season in a row now. It’s the achilles heel of an otherwise pretty good team. Sure, personnel is some of it, but I think scheme is part of it too.
— Seattle had quite the year, but came up just short. That’s still a great team and one that I think over the next couple years will become the team to beat in the NFC West. They’re younger than San Francisco and won’t face some of the free agent questions that the Niners will in the offseason.
— Good for Matt Ryan. He’s a good guy and it’s nice to see him get this playoff monkey off his back. Same with Falcons head coach Mike Smith and tight end Tony Gonzalez. Those are three of the classiest guys in the league.
— Pete Carroll’s got to be wishing he had not taken the time out to try and ice Atlanta kicker Matt Bryant at the end of the game. Bryant ended up missing the attempt (which then didn’t count) and Carroll proceeded to complain to the officials about being awarded the time out. Not sure what you were complaining about Pete. FOX clearly had you on tape calling the timeout.
— The Georgia Dome is LOUD.
— Most people think the Packers (Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, James Jones, Jermichael Finley) or Patriots (Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Lloyd, Julian Edelman, Danny Woodhead, and now Shane Vereen) have the best group of receivers in the league. Top to bottom, they probably do, but does anyone have a better 1-2-3 combination than the Falcons have in Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez? Throw in Harry Douglas and that’s a pretty good receiving corps. They’re vastly underrated.
— San Francisco should have a more difficult time preparing for Atlanta’s offense than they did preparing for Green Bay’s last week. In the passing game they’re similar, but Atlanta has the running game that Green Bay doesn’t with the combination of Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers (as long as they don’t forget about it, which for some unknown reason they’re prone to do at times…).
— New England is the deepest team in the league. They’ve faced quite a few injuries to key contributors this year, yet their play doesn’t drop off. Danny Woodhead gets hurt on his first play of the game and New England turns to Shane Vereen to fill Woodhead’s role. He looked awesome and we’re now left wondering, where was this guy all year?
— New England’s running game has really developed this season. Ridley and Vereen looked good against a Houston defense that was supposed to be one of the best in the league.
— Speaking of Houston’s defense, what happened to them? They looked horrible. They couldn’t stop New England at all.
— Tom Brady now has the most playoff wins of any quarterback in NFL history as he surpassed Joe Montana on Sunday. In the Brady-Montana debate about who’s the best quarterback ever, I think Brady keeps doing his part to provide us with a definitive answer. The guy’s money and the case is closed in my book.