Experience counts in January.
All four home teams emerged victorious on Divisional Round weekend, which means three of the four quarterbacks advancing will be over 35 years old.
If the NFC Championship Game is the matchup we've been waiting to see all season, the AFC Championship Game offers the 17th showdown between Manning and Brady, showcasing the two dominant players of the 21st century.
- That was one of the best playoff games in NFL history, and thankfully we had Bruce Arians on the sidelines to end it in style. After a stunning Hail Mary finisher by Aaron Rodgers to end regulation, Carson Palmer spun out of pressure, ran into his own offensive lineman and then hit a wide open Larry Fitzgerald, who took it 75 yards into scoring territory. Arians went right back to Fitzgerald on the next play, and the play after that. The shovel pass was most definitely a tribute to Fitzgerald, who was exceptional on Saturday (eight catches, 176 yards and a touchdown), and you had to know that Arians would not want to end the game any other way.
- The game was a string of iconic plays, and most of them were provided by the golden arm of Rodgers. Hopefully when this game is talked about 20 years from now, we'll remember a dart that Rodgers launched 58 yards in the air to pull his team out of a fourth-and-20. The Cardinals were relentless with their pass rush down the stretch, and Rodgers followed up the fourth-and-20 throw with the Hail Mary. The mechanics of this throw were ridiculous -- the equivalent of a half-court fadeaway in basketball. Kudos to second-year wideout Jeff Janis, who high-pointed the ball and shielded it from Patrick Peterson on the way down. If nothing else, we know the Packers practice their last-play scenarios quite thoroughly.
- Now we've seen everything. Mark your calendars: On January 16, 2016, just seconds after one of the most amazing plays in football history, a referee went out for a coin toss, and failed to correctly flip a coin. The botched flip eventually awarded possession to the Cardinals, who stunned us with an incredible play to Fitzgerald. As a side note, NBC actually has a high-res slow motion camera focused on the coin during the flip!
- This is one of the first times we've seen Arians' style questioned thoroughly. The Cardinals threw a pass at the end of the fourth quarter that stopped the clock and provided Rodgers with more time to work on the game-tying drive. The Cardinals also blitzed without mercy during Rodgers' two exceptional throws at the end of the game. Arians has coached fearlessly all season, and hopefully that doesn't change, but it's interesting to see the other side of his shoot-from-the-hip tactics. Rodgers was so certain that Arians was blitzing toward the end of the game that he was lengthening the speed and depth of his dropbacks at a significant level. Though the Hail Mary throw was a thing of beauty, he threw it with a little more confidence knowing that so many of Arizona's defenders were devoted to sacking him.
- Palmer fought brilliantly on a night that just wasn't his. He struggled for the better part of four quarters on Saturday; he buzzed a few throws high, including a potential touchdown. He hurled a red-zone pick and nearly threw another that was magically deflected into the arms of Michael Floyd, who scored a go-ahead touchdown.
*-- Conor Orr *
- They say you need to run the ball to win in the playoffs. Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels disagree. New England called 11 consecutive passing plays on their opening possession, a 80-yard touchdown drive over 4:37 that ended with a eight-yard touchdown catch by Rob Gronkowski. The Patriots ran the ball just 10 times (not counting kneel-downs) against 42 passes. The strategy evoked memories of the Pats' Week 7 win over the Jets, when Brady dropped back on 91 percent of plays from scrimmage.
- This was a classic "Couldn't Get Over The Hump Game" for the Chiefs. They hung around for four quarters and had multiple instances where they could have really threatened to steal this game. But they could never make the play, whether it was red-zone sputters (there were two in the first half), clock mismanagement (an Andy Reid staple) or missed opportunities on defense (Marcus Peters will see Tom Brady's fourth-quarter pass slip through his fingers in his dreams). If you want to beat the Pats in Foxborough, you can't kick away opportunities. K.C. did it all day.
- All hail Tom Brady. The Patriots quarterback delivered a vintage performance, completing 13 consecutive passes at one point and finishing with two touchdowns, one rushing score and no turnovers. Brady has now posted a passer rating of 99 or higher in four straight playoff games dating back to last year. Brady showed no ill-effects of his high-ankle sprain, and benefitted greatly from a non-existent Chiefs pass rush. And surprise, surprise: Having Edelman, Danny Amendola and Gronk all on the field had Brady looking like an MVP again.
- Gronkowski showed up on the injury report with back and knee issues this week, and was rumored to have received an injection in his right knee at a Boston-area hospital on Wednesday. But the All-Pro tight end was his dominant self once the game started, finishing with seven catches for 83 yards and two touchdowns. Gronk is now the NFL's all-time postseason leader in receiving touchdowns by a tight end. Reminder: This is only Gronkowski's sixth pro season.
- Jeremy Maclin displayed some serious guts playing through a high-ankle sprain, but the wide receiver wasn't himself and it held the Chiefs back on offense. Maclin managed two catches, but Reid and offensive coordinator Doug Pederson were unable to use their No. 1 wideout to his full capability. The Patriots, meanwhile, did a nice job keeping tight end Travis Kelce in check.
-- Dan Hanzus
- Reminiscent of Seattle's blowout of Denver in Super Bowl XLVIII, the first half was a comprehensive dismantling of an inferior opponent from the opening snap, when Jonathan Stewart broke through the second level of the Seahawks' defense for a 59-yard run. Defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short -- the "hog mollies" targeted by general manager Dave Gettleman in the first two rounds of the 2013 NFL Draft -- took over from there, dominating the line of scrimmage and forcing Russell Wilson's pick-six to Luke Kuechly. The Panthers controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, with offensive coordinator Mike Shula and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott painting masterpieces with their scheming and play-calling.
After nearly blowing big leads against the Colts, Packers and Giants, coach Ron Rivera conceded his biggest concern was his team's ability to finish games. That was an issue again on Sunday, as Wilson tossed three second-half touchdown passes against a sleepwalking Carolina squad with one eye on the ticking clock for the final 30 minutes. The Panthers needed Thomas Davis to field an onside kick to keep the ball out of Wilson's hands with a chance to tie in the game's final minute. Rivera will be sure to drive that point home in lead-up to next week's clash with an Arizona Cardinals club that can light up the scoreboard with any in the league.
- The Seahawks will point to the time zone and poor footing for their slow start. The condition of the field forced many Seattle players to change cleats after the opening drive. To their credit, they did not tap out in the second half despite the 31-point halftime deficit. The story of the afternoon, though, was a dominant 15-1 Carolina team imposing its will in all facets of the game.
- Buoyed by that 59-yard run on the opening drive, Stewart became the first back to rush for at least 100 yards against the Seahawks' defense in 27 games. The Panthers' decision to hold their hard-charging power back out of the final three regular season games paid off, as Stewart looked as fresh as he has all season, despite tweaking his foot early in the game. Powered by an underrated offensive line, Carolina has the strongest, most consistent and most creative ground attack in the NFL, topping 100 yards in 30 consecutive games.
- If this was the end of the Marshawn Lynch era in Seattle, it was an anti-climactic encore. Lynch was bottled up to the tune of 20 yards on six carries. He has looked a step slower all season and had trouble making defenders miss in open space. Lynch turns 30 years old in April and carries an $11.5 million salary-cap hit for the 2016 season. The Seahawks can feel good about turning this backfield over to dynamic rookieThomas Rawls, who outplayed Lynch throughout the season.
- Cam Newton's mechanics lapsed a few times in an unproductive second half, but he missed just six throws all day. His 19-yard, second-quarter touchdown pass to Greg Olsen was a textbook example of throwing a receiver open in cramped quarters. Newton's ball placement was impeccable on the throw, allowing Olsen to make a brilliant catch. The most improved passer in the NFL this season, Newton has 27 touchdowns versus three interceptions since Week 9.
*-- Chris Wesseling *
- The Broncos earned the No. 1 seed because of their defense. And their defense wound up making the biggest plays to send Denver to the AFC Championship. Bradley Roby's forced fumble of Fitzgerald Toussaint helped turn the game around in the fourth quarter. And DeMarcus Ware pressured Ben Roethlisberger on back-to-back plays to kill Pittsburgh's attempt at a game-tying drive in the fourth quarter.
"I think our defense is what's guiding us. Let's be clear," Manning said after the game.
- Peyton Manning (222 yards on 37 attempts) did not have a vintage performance. But he avoided any big mistakes, survived at least five drops from his receivers, and made the biggest throw of the game when he absolutely needed it. He's a game manager. Facing a third-and-12 with 8:37 left, Manning threaded the needle on a seam pass up the middle to Bennie Fowler for a 31-yard gain. Denver's running game did most of the work rest of the way on the game-winning drive. This is a different sort of Manning-led team, but the formula is working.
- This was the exact recipe that the Broncos used early in the season. Their defense kept an ugly Broncos passing game alive, forced a huge turnover in the fourth quarter, and then Manning came up with some fourth quarter heroics. If nothing else, the Broncos are used to these sort of games. They have made big comebacks throughout the year and have a lot of confidence in their ability to close out tight finishes. One of those comebacks, of course, came against their AFC title game foe -- the Patriots.
- The Steelers will be kicking themselves for not taking advantage of opportunities. They moved the ball well, with 396 yards against the No.1 defense in football. But they couldn't finish drives. Their second drive of the game finished with an attempted 30-yard touchdown kill shot on fourth-and-one. Big Ben, who had plenty of arm strength all day, was late on the throw. A penalty took them out of field goal range in one fourth quarter drive. Aqib Talib broke up a pass at the goal line to force a third quarter field goal. And Toussaint's fumble killed a promising drive, setting up Manning's heroics.
- Martavis Bryant led the Steelers with 154 yards receiving. He also led the Steelers with 40 rushing yards. Pittsburgh will be wondering "What if?" all offseason when it comes to Antonio Brown's concussion. The Steelers looked one offensive piece short for much of the day. Roethlisberger was too often not on the same page with Markus Wheaton, and they couldn't get a consistent ground game going. Still, an emotional Mike Tomlin didn't want to talk about the missing players Sunday. They had a fourth quarter lead and the ball in Broncos territory. They had this game.
*-- Gregg Rosenthal *