For the second week in a row an officiating decision threatened to overshadow the events – and results – of the playoffs. However, with a white-knuckle thriller in Boston, and possibly the end of an era in Denver, there’s plenty to talk about beyond the men in stripes.
Peyton Manning walks off the field, perhaps for the last time, to a chorus of boos after Denver’s defeat.
The last game of the weekend was far from the best, but nonetheless it could go down in NFL lore as the last game of Peyton Manning. The Colts comfortably overcame the Broncos, with the second seed looking like a long shot from their second drive onwards. Despite two Andrew Luck interceptions and a poor day on the ground with ‘Boom’ Herron notching just 2.7 yards a clip, the Colts waltzed to victory with good redzone efficiency and a defence that continues to improve. The Broncos were uninspiring all around, with a pass rush featuring DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller unable to sack Luck once. However, Peyton Manning, perhaps the premier passer since entering the league in 1997, was plain poor. He miss-fired, miss-timed and just plain missed on plenty of his passes, particularly on longer routes. Tellingly he missed an open Emmanuel Sanders numerous times in the game, and for likely the first time in his career, he earned – and accepted – looks of scorn from his receiver. Peyton’s performance was pitiful. I do not mean that as hyperbole or an insult, I genuinely felt pity for the superstar as it seemed apparent that he had played one season too long, as he was forced to watch, as we all were, his body and skills fail him.
Peyton’s decline has been rapid and steep, going from an 111.9 passer rating and an average of 340 yards per game through the first ten games, to 233 yards per game and a passer rating of 88.6 over the last seven games
After the game, despite earlier remarks that he absolutely intended to return next season, Peyton refused to commit to another season behind centre. Is Peyton hanging up his boots, heading to Canton – or to coach – with faint echoes of ‘Omaha! Omaha!’ consigned to distant memory? Much has been made of Peyton’s decline, with age and neck surgeries finally getting the better of him. However, I would suggest Peyton’s decline has been rapid and steep, going from an 111.9 passer rating and an average of 340 yards per game through the first ten games, to 233 yards per game and a passer rating of 88.6 over the last seven games. This would indicate it is not a simple matter of time getting the better of him, rather his mysterious thigh injury may have been worse than thought. If Peyton can get relatively healthy, and provide himself with a base off of which to throw, he’s likely to come back next year, albeit with reduced practice time and a layer of cotton wool bigger than the Wes Welker’s helmet.
Whilst there’s debate how much injuries are affecting Peyton Manning, there has been even more about how much Rodger’s calf strain is affecting him. The MVP candidate sustained the injury in week 17 before returning to the field to lead the Packers to victory and a bye in the first round, and this week Rodgers, in a limited capacity, returned to play against the Dallas Cowboys in a match up between the leagues two statistically highest rated quarterbacks. For three quarters Rodgers was not himself, visibly struggling to set a base to throw off of, and floating passes high of his targets. However, thanks to a lucky over turned first down and some questionable play calling at the end of the first half (opting to pass on first and short with two minutes left, instead of running it and forcing the Packers to burn a time-out if they were stopped short of a first down) the packers remained very much in the game at 14-10 at half time. However, one of the most critical plays of the game came early in the second half, after holding the Packers to a quick punt the Cowboys were looking to drive down field and called a run play perfectly, with DeMarco Murray bursting through the hole with no one between him and the end-zone. Julius Peppers made an exceptional play, leaping around his blocker to get a hand on the ball and ripping it from Murray, stopping a certain touchdown (see below how open it was) and setting up a Packers field goal to leave the game 14-13 instead of 21-10.
After swapping Field Goals, Rodgers led the Packers down the field for two touchdowns on consecutive drives, including an absolutely perfect bullet between Safety and Cornerback into the hands of tight end Richard Rodgers, and for the first time since the first quarter, the Packers led. With nine minutes left and five points behind, the Cowboys need a long and successful drive, but after chewing up nearly five minutes of clock the Cowboys are left with Fourth and Two, outside the range of expert but off form kicker Dan Bailey. For the second week in a row Jason Garrett and Scott Linehan made a gutsy call to go all in on fourth down. This week the call was even braver, as they didn’t give it to All-Pro running back Demarco Murray, but threw it deep for Dez Bryant on a fade, he went up, caught it and dove with ball stretched forward for the endzone, but was called down at the one. Dallas fans were thinking this may be even better, four chances to run the clock down before Murray can punch it in from a yard out. However for the seventh time this season Green Bay Head Coach Mike McCarthy threw a challenge flag, and for the first time he won. Dez Bryant was adjudged to have lost control of the ball as he lunged for the endzone, having the ground dislodge it from his hand, as such it was ruled an incomplete pass and the Packers got the ball at their own 38 yard line. This decision has caused an uproar with fans, although it has almost unanimously been accepted as the right call by the referees, the question is whether this should be the right rule.
Dez Bryant goes up for the ball and makes the catch with two hands, takes three steps and dives for the end zone, moving the ball to his left hand and reaching it out for the end zone. To my mind these actions should constitute a ‘football move,’ as he was no longer in the process of catching the ball, instead he was reaching for the endzone and trying to stay up to get there. Thus, if he has completed a ‘football move’ it would no longer be a incompletion, but a fumble, however the ground cannot cause a fumble and even if it could his knee was down, so it should have been considered a catch. Although the referees were right to call it an incompletion as the rule states that the receiver must maintain possession of the ball all the way to the ground. After the call the Packers simply ran the clock out, gaining two first downs before assuming the victory formation. For Cowboys fans there is much to be grateful for after a season that ended with 8 more wins than was widely predicted, whilst Packers fans will be mildly apprehensive, with Rodgers looking worryingly wounded and a run defence that gave up more than five-yards per carry to Dallas running backs, including 123 yards for Murray (who would have had another 59 if not for the fumble), with their match up against Marshawn Lynch and the Seahawks looming next week.
When the Seahawks scored a touchdown with just over ten minutes gone, it seemed they had already scored more points than the Panthers would manage all game
The Seahawks themselves achieved an unsurprising victory, hosting the 7-8-1 Panthers, in a game that you could be forgiven for abandoning in the first quarter after five consecutive drives of five plays or less (including three three-and-outs and one two-and-intercepted). When the Seahawks scored a touchdown with just over ten minutes gone, it seemed they had already scored more points than the Panthers would manage all game. However, the Panthers showed heart in staying with the Seahawks, including an entirely scoreless third quarter, until the fourth quarter when the Seahawks offence started to find their feet. Kuechly and co. did admirably stopping the run, limiting Lynch to just 65 total yards and a fumble, and forcing Wilson to beat them. Unfortunately for Panthers fans, that is exactly what he did, posting a passer rating of 149.2 and throwing three touchdowns with only seven incompletions. The Legion of Boom were in fine form notching up two picks, including Chancellor’s ninety yard score in the fourth quarter, however they continued to struggle against bigger receivers, with 6’5 Kelvin Benjamin catching two touchdowns. If the Packers are to succeed on Sunday Jordy Nelson and their tight ends Quarless and Rodgers will have to put in a strong performance.
If the Seahawks-Panthers match-up was a slow defensive battle, the Ravens trip to New England was an absolute shoot out. Before Sunday the Patriots had never come back from a deficit greater than eleven points in the playoffs, in this game they came back from fourteen points behind, twice. In a game where the quarterbacks combined for 659 yards and eight touchdowns, it was the coaching that really shined in the Patriots 35-31 win. Harbaugh making great calls to go for it on multiple fourth downs, and Bill Belichick was unusually crafty, even for the master of ‘spygate’. With trick plays on consecutive drives, he first had the difficult to spell and impossible to pronounce Hoomanawanui line up at left tackle, with running back Shane Vereen in the slot, but reporting as ineligible, allowing Hoomanawanui a free release and easy first down inside the Ravens five yard line, a position quickly converted with a touchdown pass to Gronk, bringing New England back within a score for the second time. After a riled Ravens offence went three-and-out the Pats established another quick drive, taking nineteen yards on two downs before opting for another trick play, as Brady threw a lateral to former Kent State quarterback Julian Edelman, who threw a fifty yard bomb to Amendola for a touchdown, and for the second time in the game the pats had overcome a fourteen point deficit. This time they would go on to take – and hold – the lead, setting up their fourth straight AFC Championship game.
Next Week in the NFL
The penultimate (competitive) week of the NFL season sees the two Championship games, with the winners going on to the Super Bowl in Arizona. In the AFC the Patriots host the Colts, in a fixture that was commonplace a decade ago. The Pats will go into the game as favourites, with advantages in most positions, as well as key post-season experience. The lack of a running game last week (no player rushing for more than seven yards) could be worrying if not for the fact that the Patriots ran for 480 yards and ten touchdowns in the last two match-ups between these sides in the last twelve months. The Patriots offence is somewhat of a chameleon, adapting to fit the weaknesses of their opponents, expect them to rush on closer to to the 60% of plays they’ve averaged against the Colts than the 20% they ran against the Broncos last week. However, the Colts rush defence has improved significantly since Jonas Gray gashed them for over 200 yards in week 11, holding Anderson to 80 yards and Hill to 47 over the last two weeks. However, if the Colts are to stand a chance, the offensive line, and defensive units, must continue to exceed expectations, and Luck will have to put his team on his back and reign in his interceptions. The Broncos were unable to capitalise on two last week, but Belichick and Brady in Foxborough will turn picks into points.
The Seahawks and Packers face off in Seattle for the NFC Championship, in a repeat of the opening game of the season, which the Seahawks won by a 20 point margin. Whilst I do not expect a similar route, the Seahawks, on a seven game win streak, should be considered favourites against a Packers side, led by a limping Aaron Rodgers, that has travelled poorly (8-0 at home, 4-4 on the road ). Seattle is just about the hardest place in the NFL to travel to, losing just two home games in the last two seasons. On both of those occasions a tough running game (from Arizona and Dallas) was crucial and so Eddie Lacy will have to perform, particularly given Rodgers reticence when facing the Legion of Boom in general, and Sherman in particular. The ground game will likely decide the victor, as parity will allow Rodgers to outplay Wilson even with the questionable Green Bay secondary, but anything less and the injured MVP candidate will struggle to make an impact with Lynch keeping him off the field and opening up the play action and bootleg plays that are so crucial to Wilson’s success. The Packers defence must show up to this game, after a poor start to the season, they have improved since moving Clay Matthews around the formation, giving him time at Inside Linebacker as well as letting him rush from the edge. However it is a tough ask as they have performed poorly against strong ground games and mobile quarterbacks, getting knocked out of the playoffs by the 49ers in the last two years and allowing a combined 379 yards rushing to Colin Kaepernick and over 200 yards rushing to the Seahawks this season. If the game were at Lambeau it could have been a fantastic and tight game, however in Seattle the Seahawks should be able to wrap up the victory by the middle of the fourth quarter.
Images courtesy of: Denver Post, CBS Sports, Dallas News, Getty Images