The divisional playoffs annually offers the promise of the best football weekend of the season. It doesn't always pan out that way. This year it did, in four different ways:
The Favorite: We haven't had a repeat Super Bowl winner in the NFL since the Patriots in 2004. Halfway through this season, the Seahawks looked to have the same DNA as other failed defending champs, as injuries, personnel drama and a maddening lack of consistency took hold. But the Seahawks shook their malaise, found their groove on defense and now look every bit as dangerous as they did this time last year. Seattle toyed with the Panthers for three quarters on Saturday before burying them in front of a delirious home crowd. This is the team nobody wants to face.
The Underdog: For years, Peyton Manning was the model by which all quarterbacks were measured. On Sunday, he was surpassed -- perhaps for good -- by Andrew Luck in a game that will be seen as a passing of the torch from one gifted AFC passer to another. There's at least an outside chance we saw the last of Manning on Sunday. But we're just starting to see the greatness of Luck, who might own many of Manning's records before his career is through. Luck will be an underdog in Foxborough, but do you really feel safe picking against him?
Old Faithful: The Patriots didn't lose on Saturday to the Ravens because Tom Brady wouldn't let them. The quarterback delivered a masterpiece in front of an adoring home crowd, advancing to his ninth AFC Championship Game. Nine. As in ... nine. People dwell on the Patriots' decade-long title drought, but not enough credit is given to Brady and Bill Belichick's ability to thrive year after year in an era of parity. They are the greatest coach/quarterback combo in NFL history, and we got another reminder on Saturday. The Pats stay in the picture.
Destiny's Darling:This Packers season feels like an America's Game: Super Bowl Champions episode being played out in real-time. Think about it: The Packers get embarrassed by the Seahawks in Week 1. Aaron Rodgers tells everyone to R-E-L-A-X. The Packers get hot. Rodgers gets hurt then guts his way through January -- stay with me here -- with a revenge win over Seattle capped by a Super Bowl triumph. You're telling me this doesn't sound at all plausible to you? There's a story being told here.
Let's hope Championship Sunday can match the drama. It's a tall task.
Here's what else you need to know from Divisional Weekend:
- This was an instant classic, with both teams seemingly trading game-changing haymakers throughout. Joe Flacco continued his playoff magic with a near-perfect performance through two-and-half quarters, only to stumble with a pair of interceptions in the final 16 minutes. After coughing up three points via an ill-timed sack and causing a 10-point swing going into halftime with an interception of his own, Tom Brady came up huge down the stretch, putting the Patriots ahead for good with a perfect pitch-and-catch to Brandon LaFell for a 23-yard touchdown.
- Rob Gronkowski was the most valuable player on the field on an afternoon in which the Patriots abandoned the run like a derelict shack in an overgrown forest. Beyond the seven receptions for 108 yards and a touchdown, Gronk drew extra coverage that allowed Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, Brandon LaFell and even Michael Hoomanawanui to make key plays.
- Speaking of Edelman and Amendola, they connected on an electrifying 51-yard touchdown that tied the game at 28 late in the third quarter. The trick play was six years in the making for Edelman, a former Kent State quarterback. Amendola's excellent performance, which included more touchdowns than he managed all regular season, was validation for a hard-luck player who lost his job to Edelman while playing through a torn groin last season.
- Beyond reaching 1,000 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns for his postseason career, Steve Smith gave Darrelle Revis fits in the shutdown cornerback's worst game of the season. Smith drew a pass interference penalty to set up an Owen Daniels touchdown just before halftime. A later defensive holding penalty on Revis wiped away a Jamie Collins strip-sack that would have given the Patriots the ball on the doorstep of the goal line. Entering the game, Revis had allowed just two touchdowns, two holding penalties and one pass interference all year.
- Collins was all over the field for New England, turning in an outstanding performance with 11 tackles, two passes defensed, one quarterback hit and the nullified strip-sack. One of the most athletic players in the league, Collins has the look of a perennial All-Pro.
-- Chris Wesseling
- Seattle still looks somewhat beatable. From where we're sitting, the Percy Harvin trade (and letting Golden Tate bolt in free agency) will be a fascinating case study on team harmony versus the overriding benefit of other-worldly skill position players. Russell Wilson certainly has a telepathy developed with some of his receivers, seen clearly on Doug Baldwin's opening touchdown, but what would Saturday's score have been with another X-factor drawing the defense's top cornerback? While it hasn't caught up with Seattle yet, we wonder how long they can survive on Marshawn Lynch's power and Wilson's sheer magic.
- Wilson was impressive Saturday, but especially in tight situations where he needed to match up against charging defenders with a serious height advantage. Seattle had the bootleg game open Saturday night but that meant Wilson one-on-one with an unblocked linebacker or defensive end. With the deft precision of a hook shot, he was consistently able to pick up first downs.
- I don't think we needed to see Kam Chancellor crush Mike Tolbert -- one of the toughest backs in the NFL to tackle -- in order to reaffirm our belief that he is quite possibly the most intimidating safety to play the game since Troy Polamalu was in his prime. But it was still something. Chancellor also hopped the offensive line twice in a row and nearly blocked two kicks at the end of the first half. Oh yeah, his pick six just happened to be the longest score in Seattle postseason history. He was, once again, unbelievably impressive.
- Carolina's game plan hinged on the ability to jump start their running game, but you have to appreciate the fact that Mike Shula built in plays that kept Cam Newton interested, and aggressive. This did not always work out, once ending in Newton airing a ball to Philly Brown (Richard Sherman picked it off) and once ending in another under-thrown pass to Kelvin Benjamin (Earl Thomas nearly picked it off). But this is what will happen against arguably the best secondary in NFL history. Shula knew it, but he didn't back down.
- Adding to our last point, this loss should not be an indictment of Newton's "clutch" ability. Yes, his final pick -- an awful, season-killing mistake that he should have anticipated -- was ill-advised. But he is piloting an offense with barely any skill position players and he was moving the ball well into the fourth quarter. Despite Carolina's absence of a quick-strike game, he was still firing deep balls down the seam to Greg Olsen and putting Carolina into scoring position down 14.
-- Conor Orr
- The Cowboys once again find themselves at the heart of a massive officiating controversy after the zebras leaned on instant replay to overrule Romo's fourth-down strike to Dez Bryant in the final quarter -- a 31-yard rope that put Dallas at the Green Bay 1-yard line with under five minutes to go. With the Packers nursing a 26-21 lead, Rodgers and friends went on to drain the clock for the win. NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino tweeted shortly after the game, "Bryant going to the ground. By rule, he must hold onto it throughout entire process of contacting the ground. He didn't, so it is incomplete." Decide for yourself:
- Battling through the pain of a strained left calf, Rodgers -- for much of the game -- was a shadow of the MVP-worthy fireball we watched all season. The Packers quarterback missed on repeated shots downfield and operated gingerly in the pocket before heating up down the stretch. Dallas notched just one sack, but Rodgers is a different player when you take away his legs. A Jeremy Minceystrip-sack in the second quarter marked the first turnover for Rodgers in 887 snaps at home, dating back to Week 14 of the 2012 campaign. After throwing for just 90 yards in the first half, though, Rodgers looked good tossing back-to-backpretty touchdown strikes to Davante Adams and Richard Rodgers to regain the lead in the fourth quarter. Still, the tweaked calf is a concerning injury for the Packers -- one that isn't going away before next week's title-game showdown with the Seahawks.
- Maligned for much of his career as a buffoon in big moments, Tony Romo can't be blamed for the loss. After Green Bay drew first blood with a fast-paced touchdown drive on their first possession, the Cowboys responded well with a 12-play, 62-yard scoring march of their own that saw Dallas stick to the script with DeMarco Murray on the ground. Outside of a lost fumble, the league's leading rusher was sensational in rushing for 123 yards on the day. When it came time to throw, Romo showed great confidence in connecting on 15 of 19 throws for 191 yards and twotouchdowns. Playing through pain, Romo offered up a gritty performance that should silence his doubters.
- The Packers came out of the gate with a steady focus on the run. Aiming to take the heat off his mobility-challenged quarterback, coach Mike McCarthy handed the ball to Eddie Lacy on seven of the team's first eight plays from scrimmage, leaning on the workhorse for 101 yards at 5.3 yards per clip out of a Pistol-heavy backfield. Lacy will need to be at his best against Seattle's outstanding run-stopping front.
- The battle between Green Bay's wideouts and the Dallas secondary was fascinating. We called it the matchup to watch, and it didn't disappoint. While Packers wideout Jordy Nelson was held to just 22 yards against a Cowboys defense that employed plenty of nickel coverage, Randall Cobb got the best of cornerback Orlando Scandrick for 116 yards off eight grabs, while rookie Davante Adams -- who added 117 yards of his own -- exposed the Dallas secondary with his decleater of safety J.J. Wilcox on a third-quarter 46-yard touchdown catch
-- Marc Sessler
- This performance rivals a 41-0 shutout loss to the Jets in 2003 for the least effective of Manning's illustrious 17-year career. Whether it's a tired arm or the lingering quadriceps injury draining his power, the five-time MVP hasn't been right since uncorking a career-high 155 passes over a three-game span from Weeks 9 to 11. The Colts took away the middle of the field, forcing Manning to loft a series of off-target floaters down the sideline. He finished just 6 of 21 on passes greater than five yards. Manning now has nine "one-and-done" playoff appearances, equaling the number of AFC Championship Games for Tom Brady. No other quarterback has lost his first game of the playoffs more than four times.
- Andrew Luck generated his usual share of "wow" throws, but this was a quintessential team effort. The offensive line nearly pitched a "Gholston" against Denver's ferocious pass rush, keeping Luck clean to the tune of zero sacks and four quarterback hits. The defensive effort was led by physical cornerbacks Vontae Davis and Greg Toler, who smothered the Broncos receivers while erasing their trademark crossing routes and bubble screens. Davis played at a level on par with All-Pros Richard Sherman and Darrelle Revis this season.
- John Elway spent the offseason building a backbone for a soft defense. He never imagined that Manning's aerial attack would devolve into the team's Achilles' heel by playoff time. Changes are horizon in Denver. Manning left the door open for retirement after the game. There are whispers of a shakeup on the coaching staff, with offensive coordinator Adam Gase taking over for John Fox. The best slot receiver of his generation, Wes Welker, has likely played his last down for the Broncos after losing his playmaking ability. Elway also has tough negotiations upcoming with free agents Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas.
- The Broncos bizarrely left Aqib Talib in man coverage on T.Y. Hilton as Luck exploited the mismatch. The box score doesn't reflect a dominant performance, but Talib was whistled for a pair of defensive holding penalties and got away with a few more. Second-team All-Pro Chris Harris has not only been the better player this season, but also has a skillset that matches up better with Hilton.
- We suggested a month ago on the Around The NFL Podcast that the Colts were obligated to de-emphasize Trent Richardson and Reggie Wayne for a legitimate shot at postseason success. Richardson was a healthy scratch for the first time in his career while Wayne was targeted on only one of Luck's 43 pass attempts. With the responsibilities of Dan "Boom" Herron, Coby Fleener and Donte Moncrief steadily increasing, this is a more efficient offense than the one that stumbled to the regular-season finish line.
-- Chris Wesseling