The divisional weekend went as I expected. The four teams D’Marco Farr and I picked to win on Friday won during the weekend, with none of the games being decided after the two-minute warning like the NFC games were last week. How close are the Rams to getting here? I’ll tell you in my 10 takeaways from the NFL divisional weekend:
1. The Seahawks are just harder than New Orleans. The weather didn’t benefit the Saints, but Seattle is built for just such conditions. When they needed to put the passing game on the shelf and turn the game over to their defense and running game, the Seahawks could and the Saints could not. Marshawn Lynch ran for a gritty 140 yards on 28 carries, with two touchdowns. And the Saints as a team could only get 108 yards on 26 carries. In a game of men, Seattle’s men were tougher.
2. It’s interesting to look at momentum in a game. The Saints went three-and-out on their first possession, and the Seahawks, after a terrible punt, moved 20 yards – 14 of those via penalty – to a field goal. On their next possession, the Saints missed a field goal that would have tied the game, and Seattle moved 34 yards to another field goal. Then, on its third drive, New Orleans fumbled at its own 24-yard line, and the Seahawks took two plays (runs by Percy Harvin and Lynch) to make it 13-0. At that point, the way it was going, the game was virtually over.
3. After the Rams’ season, I blamed them for their numerous penalty-inducing skirmishes. But Seattle, San Francisco and Carolina are all really chippy, aggravating teams. Not to defend the Rams, who should never have instigated or responded to that stuff, but there’s plenty that the other teams do. Steve Smith and Mike Mitchell are the biggest instigators for Carolina, and obviously Anquan Boldin, Donte Whitner and even Colin Kaepernick are irritating 49ers. You have to be bothersome to get Troy Aikman to rip you, like he did Boldin in the first half. The constant head-butting does get old. And for Kaepernick to mock Cam Newton’s Superman touchdown celebration was tacky and unnecessary. At some point, someone is going to incite a major altercation and set the stage for an injury with this behavior. At some point, they need to just shut up and play, and win with some class. A Boldin-Richard Sherman matchup in Seattle next week might be just the stage for something crazy to happen.
4. Like they did to the Rams a couple of times, the 49ers just manhandled Carolina. The Panthers scored just one touchdown: a Newton pass to the diminished Smith. When the Panthers got inside the five-yard line to end the first quarter and start the second, they ran up the middle three times for two yards, and gave up the ball on downs. Then, later in the second, they ran two plays for minus-one yard. For virtually the entire game, San Francisco’s big guys dominated Carolina’s big guys. San Francisco ran the ball 34 times to Carolina’s 24 and sacked Newton five times, while Kaepernick was sacked once. The battle of the lines was won by the 49ers, and that’s how they’ve won eight in a row.
5. It was great to read the news that hundreds of fans greeted the vanquished Saints at 1 a.m. upon their return from Seattle. That community definitely has a great relationship with their franchise and their team, and both represent each other with pride. Aside from Green Bay, there isn’t a better team-fan connection in the NFL. To show up to greet the plane of a team that lost is impressive on the part of that fan base.
6. The fact that New England destroyed Indianapolis, and put 43 on the Colts’ defense one week after Kansas City put 44 on them, wasn’t a surprise. What was a surprise: Tom Brady didn’t throw a touchdown pass in the game. The Patriot defense featured starters such as Sealver Siliga, Chris Jones, Jamie Collins, Dane Fletcher and key reserve Logan Ryan. With injuries to Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Jerrod Mayo and Adrian Wilson, the Patriot defense still had Andrew Luck flummoxed. They were completely prepared, and Collins had six tackles, a sack and an interception. The Patriots will be quite a handful for Denver. And the New England offense simply outmuscled Indy, which doesn’t bode well for the Broncos, either.
7. Luck certainly has allowed us to ask questions about his postseason abilities. With only nine points of production last year, he didn’t have a touchdown and threw an interception. This year, after throwing 23 touchdowns with nine interceptions, he threw six touchdowns and seven interceptions. It’s waaaay too early to judge Luck, but as great as he is, there’s an expectation of postseason greatness, too.
8. Peyton Manning and the Broncos didn’t play their best game, but still held on against an overmatched Chargers team. Against New England, Denver’s defense is going to have to get pressure up the middle against Brady, and it needs to stand up to LeGarrette Blount. If it’s a nice day (and it’s expected to be 50 degrees), Manning should be able to pick apart that inexperienced Patriot defense. But the New England offense should be able to put up points on Denver, too. It’s probably a game that comes down to who makes the fewest mistakes and who wins in the return game.
9. The four remaining teams all have great quarterback situations. They all have great running games, which is necessary at this time of year. Each coach has a great pedigree, with only Pete Carroll of the four not having been to a Super Bowl. And they can all play defense, with the four teams allowing 15, 22, 10 and 17 points to good offenses this weekend. If the weather is good in Seattle and Denver next Sunday, we should have two great championship games.
10. How do the Rams get to this point? They have the quarterback with the skill set. They showed a great running game once Zac Stacy became the starting running back. They have a coach who’s been to the Super Bowl. They can play defense. The keys for the Rams are going to be Sam Bradford’s play once the Rams get to the point of being a playoff team and consistent, tough play from both lines. The Rams need to be more disciplined, too. But the way they played their games against Seattle at home, Indianapolis, Chicago, New Orleans and Tampa Bay, they showed they can play great games against great teams. They have to find the mindset from day one and game one as to how to play as hard and tough up front as the four semifinalists. If they become that consistent, they could be in the same situation as early as next year.