Clutch Encounters: Divisional Round
by Scott Kacsmar
Can a NFL game be close and remain a blowout at the same time? The Divisional Round tested that odd theory with action that was not quite up to par. If the Wild Card games were like The Dark Knight, then this weekend was closer to Batman Forever. Some of the same ingredients were there with Drew Brees putting in an ineffective first half, the Colts allowing 40-plus points and turning it over four times, the 49ers featuring a lot of Colin Kaepernick, and Mike McCoy hiding the No. 2 quarterback in DYAR for most of the game.
But the quality was just not the same without the late drama that fuels this column every week. We actually had two games with a comeback opportunity (both on Saturday), but the finish that may have been the most nerve-racking happened in Denver. On a weekend favoring the run (and all four favorites for the first time since 2004), Peyton Manning was the only winning quarterback to complete more than 15 passes and surpass 200 yards through the air.
So if you're disappointed with the lack of an upset or game-winning drive, take comfort in the fact these results have set up an incredible Championship Sunday where the four best teams in the league are going to play for the right to go to the Super Bowl. It feels like a very long time since that's happened.
Clutch Encounters of the Losing Kind
|Marques Colston had seen enough Drew Brees screen passes.|
Saints at Seahawks: Pete Carroll Left for More Coins at the "Finish Him!' Screen
The Saints returned to Seattle with the hope of avenging past losses, but another disappointing performance saw the team slowly march to another season death like a New Orleans funeral in the rain. Seattle waited so long to bury things that the body rose from the coffin one last time, only for Marques Colston to slam the lid shut.
Let's be honest. New Orleans had no business being in the game late, but the Seattle offense, specifically the passing game, did not play well enough to wrap things up early. Russell Wilson had nine completions for 103 yards in the entire game. That even includes four failed completions, so he was a shell of the dominant player he was on Monday Night Football in Week 13 against the Saints. Wilson threw several slants that were either well short of the first-down marker or just inaccurately placed to open receivers.
If you wanted great offense, then fire up a copy of the 2010 NFC Wild Card meeting, because this game was not pretty. The Seattle rain made for some slick conditions, which did seem to bother the Saints more early in the game. Mark Ingram was an early goat with a dropped screen pass on third down -- that's where the inactive Pierre Thomas was really missed -- and a fumble early in the second quarter. Seattle pounced on those mistakes to build a 13-0 lead. The offense's best early play was a flag for unnecessary roughness on Rafael Bush for hitting Percy Harvin too hard. I hated the call, which gave the Seahawks a third-down conversion, because Bush did lead with his shoulder. The Saints seemed to be targeting Harvin specifically. He took quite a few shots on the day and left the game with a concussion from another big hit later.
Some might call Harvin injury-prone, but he wasn't soft in returning to the game after that first hit. Seattle defensive lineman Michael Bennett did call New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham soft and overrated after the game. That's a bold claim against an All-Pro tight end, but Graham did play a bit soft in both Seattle games and earlier in the season in New England when Aqib Talib got physical with him. Those two teams are playing next week for a reason, but it will be interesting to see if defenses start attacking Graham differently. He caught 1-of-6 targets for just eight yards on Saturday and I thought he did a really poor job of not attacking the ball more when he was targeted.
Drew Brees also could have done a better job of getting him the ball more. Brees went into halftime just 5-of-12 for 34 yards with the Saints trailing 16-0. It might be an understatement to call that Brees' worst first half as a Saint. Sean Payton had a very run-heavy approach for this game, which was admirable at the start with the conditions and strengths and weaknesses of the Seattle defense. But when the running game clearly was not dominating, the plan had to change to let Brees throw more and actually throw downfield. His early attempts were all behind the line of scrimmage and the Seahawks were all over the screen passes.
The Saints surprisingly ran the ball twice on third-and-4 situations in the game. Neither was successful and both seemed to come with the expectations of a fourth-down attempt (which also failed twice). Since 2006, the Saints called 152 passes and 20 runs on third-and-4 (88.4 percent pass ratio). That turns into a 68-3 pass ratio (95.8 percent) when the Saints were trailing like they were in this game.
New Orleans finally opened up the passing game and went into the fourth quarter with its first promising drive of the day. Khiry Robinson finished things with a 1-yard touchdown run and Ingram converted for the two-point run. Seattle only led 16-8 with 13:11 to play. Wilson nearly had a miraculous scramble on third-and-10, but came up two yards short of the first. A good punt forced Brees to start at his own 6. The offensive line began to collapse, but Brees did a very good job of making plays under pressure. However, a 30-yard pass to Kenny Stills was wiped out after a holding penalty was called on Zach Strief. Seattle created that pressure with just a three-man rush too.
Under more pressure, Brees drilled a pass right into the hands of safety Kam Chancellor, but he dropped the ball. Seattle would have been setup inside the Saints 40 with half a quarter left. Earl Thomas came through Graham's back on third-and-14 to force another incompletion and the Saints punted. After a Seattle-three-and-out, Brees had it back at his own 28. Using play action and getting good pass protection, Brees underthrew a deep ball that should have been intercepted by one of two Seattle defenders. Instead it was tipped and went to Robert Meachem for a 52-yard gain.
In 20 years, a young NFL fan with an interest in stats will see the Brees stat line in this game -- that would be 24-of-43 for 309 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT against the top-ranked pass defense on the road -- and think he played very well given the circumstances. Let's hope the internet archives preserve an article like this so I can say this was one of Brees' worst playoff games. He was impotent in the first half and forced some bad balls that should have been intercepted in crunch time.
Brees passed for 158 of his 309 yards (51.1 percent) in the final 5:03. After Meachem's big catch, the Saints struggled to manage the clock, picking up a delay of game penalty and burning a timeout. Brees' passes were again off the mark and Payton was in no man's land for a fourth-and-15 decision at the Seattle 30 with 3:56 left. Shayne Graham is not a great kicker and he already missed a 45-yard field goal in the first quarter in unfavorable conditions. I would have thrown a vertical pass on both third and fourth down here, but Brees' screen was incomplete on third-and-15 and the result was Graham's 48-yard field goal embarrassingly going wide left.
Wilson's lack of production kept the Saints alive in the second half. After halftime, Wilson's success rate was only 2-of-11. For some strange reason, the Seahawks threw a pass on first down with 3:51 left. On third-and-3, Wilson hit his biggest pass of the day, but it was more of a brilliant 24-yard catch by Doug Baldwin on the sideline than it was a great pass. Payton used his last timeout to challenge, which was unsuccessful.
On the next play, Lynch got the edge and took off for a 31-yard touchdown run with 2:40 left. Now I understand the novelty of Lynch "putting away" another game against New Orleans with a big touchdown run in the playoffs, but it was a stupid decision to score when he could have taken a dive at the 1-yard line; the clock would have gone done to two minutes with the Saints out of timeouts, so Wilson would have taken three knees and Seattle would have won 16-8. I was hard on Ronnie Brown last week in a less critical situation, so you know how much this one bothered me. At least Lynch hesitated as if he thought about going down, but he absolutely should not have scored.
That kept the Saints alive in a 23-8 game with 2:40 left. Crazier things have happened. Sure enough, Brees drove the offense 80 yards with Colston coming alive for four grabs, including a 9-yard touchdown on fourth-and-6. When you see Earl Thomas get shaken up in the end zone on such a drive -- although he turned out to be fine -- that just further justifies Lynch not scoring. His defense had no business having to keep defending plays. Such drives are not garbage-time points since the game is down to one score with the onside kick to come, but they are usually just stat-padders, because the onside kick is really hard to recover, right?
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Well, with 26 seconds left, the Saints managed to recover their third onside kick of the season (three attempts) after the ball hit Golden Tate and was scooped up by Colston. Brees had one more chance from his 41. Graham caught his only pass of the day, but the offense needed a spike with 11 seconds left. Brees found Colston for 13 yards. He was at the Seattle 38 and easily could have stepped out of bounds to stop the clock with six or seven seconds left and preserve a Hail Mary attempt. I don't know if you can have a "senior moment" at age 30, but Colston had no business throwing a forward lateral or a lateral of any kind here. The ball hopped over to the receiver, but that's illegal and the game ended on the rare 10-second run off.
That fun-filled final 160 seconds could have been replaced by a boring (but deadly efficient) three kneeldowns.
Colts at Patriots: Can the Colts Trade Trent Richardson for a Blount?
In my gargantuan preview for the AFC Divisional Round, I said the two most likely outcomes would be the Colts winning this game with a late drive or losing by 21 points. They actually did have a chance to come back in a one-score game in the fourth quarter, but ultimately lost 43-22. Like so many past Colts-Patriots meetings, New England was too balanced and better coached while the Colts dug an early hole with mistakes. Choosing to receive the opening kickoff was the first error given everyone knows the Patriots love to defer to the second half.
One of my highlighted stats was that New England was 69-2 (.972) at home since 2001 when winning the turnover battle. Sure enough, Andrew Luck's first pass of the game was intercepted -- he made a poor decision to force a throw into tight coverage -- and returned to the Indianapolis 2. According to ESPN Stats & Information, that mistake dropped the Colts' win percentage from 42.6 percent to 27.1 percent -- a change of 15.5 percent, the largest change from any play this weekend. No wonder the weekend was boring: the biggest game-changing play was on the third play from scrimmage on Saturday night.
What I should have researched before the game instead of during the first quarter was how good the Patriots are at home at protecting leads. Everyone is well aware of Andrew Luck's ability to lead the Colts from behind, but Foxboro is the last place in the NFL a team wants to fall behind.
Since 2001, the Patriots are 81-0 at home when leading by at least eight points at any time in the game. The biggest blown lead was seven points in 2008 against Pittsburgh in a 33-10 loss with Matt Cassel at quarterback. So Luck had his work cut out for him, yet for much of the night it actually felt like the comeback might happen despite the dominance of New England's running game (44 carries for 235 yards and six touchdowns). Like last week against the Chiefs, the Colts were doing things quickly on offense, for better or worse. Luck made some bad throws, but he also made some brilliant ones to keep the Colts alive into the second half.
Due to the final score, many probably have forgotten it was just a 29-22 game with the Colts having possession of the ball to start the fourth quarter. Luck tried to step up in the pocket, but was blatantly tripped by Joe Vellano for a sack. That should have been a big penalty instead. On third-and-10, Luck's pass for LaVon Brazill never had a chance and the Colts punted.
LeGarrette Blount has really come on for the Patriots lately and on the next play, he embarrassed LaRon Landry in the open field on his way to a 73-yard touchdown run. Blount finished with 166 rushing yards and four touchdowns. It was not the worst thing that could happen to the Colts since the one-play drive only took 13 seconds. But with 12:55 left, Jamie Collins continued his strong performance with an interception off a bad throw by Luck. The Patriots soon returned to the end zone and it was 43-22 -- the fifth unique score the Colts have taken down this season.
Everything was desperation time for the Colts, but Luck threw incomplete to bring up a fourth-and-1 at his own 29 with 10:30 left. Shockingly, Chuck Pagano sent out the punting team and actually went through with the punt. That's mind-blowingly bad coaching on Pagano's part. He at least admitted to the mistake after the game, but the punt should have never been on his mind in the first place. Pagano finished the game having used just one of his six timeouts in a game the Colts trailed for the final 58:41.
The punt made the final 10:30 irrelevant, leaving only enough time for the Patriots to pad the rushing totals and for Luck to throw his fourth interception in garbage time. If Colts general manager Ryan Grigson still thinks Luck is like Michael Jordan, then he may as well compare this to a young Jordan losing in the playoffs to a superior Boston Celtics squad. Luck will likely have his day at the top in the AFC, but the Patriots are still just better.
49ers at Panthers: Captain Comeback > Riverboat Ron
The 500th playoff game in NFL history did not set offensive football back to 1933 standards like some imagined another defensive struggle would. In the battle of coaches with nicknames awarded on super small sample sizes, we actually had 33 points scored on just 16 combined drives. There were 19 points on 24 drives in the first meeting, won 10-9 by Carolina. San Francisco had more offensive talent on the field this time and it showed.
The fact this was never a one-score game in the fourth quarter is astonishing and can be attributed solely to how bad the Panthers finished the few precious possessions they had. Carolina ran eight plays inside the San Francisco 10 and scored three points. While Ron Rivera unsuccessfully went for a fourth-and-1 at the 1 when he trailed 6-0, he latertook the conservative approach and kicked a short field goal in a similar situation, leading 7-6. Carolina never scored again and its minus-9.5 expected points added inside the 10 are the worst Carolina has had in a game since 2006, according to ESPN. None of the plays being the dive out of the shotgun for Cam Newton was most absurd given how effective he is at doing that. In the playoffs, Rivera has to be a bit more willing to let his quarterback risk his body. Newton did have 10 runs on the day too, so how much more harm could one dive have done?
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Perhaps the real killer for Carolina came in the third quarter. Down 20-10, the Panthers methodically drove down the field, converting three third-and-one situations. But at the San Francisco 29, Newton held onto the ball too long and took back-to-back sacks, knocking the Panthers out of field-goal range and forcing a punt on fourth-and-26.
Carolina's drive lasted 8:20, making it the longest drive to end in a punt by a trailing team since 1999, according to Pro-Football-Reference. San Francisco added a field goal to take a 23-10 lead halfway through the fourth quarter. The Panthers benefited from a bogus roughing the passer penalty to negate a sack, but two plays later Newton threw his worst pass of the day for a crucial interception with 4:22 left that essentially wrapped up the San Francisco win. Newton lived up to the "Supercam" billing by playing a strong first half with few mistakes, but he was much closer to a bumbling Clark Kent after halftime.
In an era where it's so difficult to stay at the top, we have to give a lot of credit to Jim Harbaugh for coaching the 49ers through tough losses in the 2011 NFC Championship Game and Super Bowl XLVII to a third-straight appearance in the NFC Championship.
Chargers at Broncos: Four-Minute Offense, Take Two
One year to the date of that crushing playoff loss against Baltimore, Denver had a chance for redemption against this season's "team of destiny" that just so happened to be the only team to beat the Broncos at home in 2013. For a Divisional Round playoff game, the pressure on Peyton Manning to win here was rather significant. I carefully laid out San Diego's plan to have success against Manning, but some of it really has been just a matter of good fortune, especially in January. I like to call that Manning's Law, where anything that can go wrong, will go wrong for Manning's team in the playoffs.
On Sunday, we did see some of that play out again. San Diego converted a third-and-17 on the opening drive thanks to a facemask penalty on Denver. Julius Thomas fumbled a Manning pass at midfield. Eric Decker tripped over his own feet on a punt return that might have become a touchdown. At the end of that drive, Manning hit Decker right in the chest with a pass in the end zone, but it was deflected and Donald Butler did an incredible job to get his feet in for the interception. That was the first red-zone interception of the season for Manning and San Diego's defense, keeping it a 14-0 Denver lead at halftime. Wes Welker dropped a deep pass -- well that's really not anything new -- on third-and-11 and Matt Prater missed a 47-yard field goal after missing one kick all season. Once again Denver was low on possessions (eight), high on dropped passes (at least six) and minus-two in the turnover department.
Yet with all of the mistakes, Denver led 17-0 to start the fourth quarter thanks to a strong defensive effort and a poor performance from San Diego's offense. The running game was still a big part of the plan, but the Broncos shut it down (15 carries for 55 yards) and Philip Rivers faced an unexpectedly strong pass rush. At halftime, Rivers had just 20 yards passing. Even with the deficit the Chargers kept sticking to the run and using most of the play clock. Manning toyed with his snap count to draw San Diego offsides five times, the most by any team in a game since 2001 (credit to ESPN for stat).
Manning continued passing in the fourth quarter before turning it over to the running game, which was strong, to finish the drive for a 24-7 lead with 8:12 left. At that point, all the talk was about another Manning-Brady AFC Championship in one week. While everyone pulled the plug on the Chargers, Denver's defense inflicted PTSD on the fans when Rivers launched a bomb down the right side of the field to a wide open Keenan Allen for 49 yards on fourth-and-5. Ex-Charger Quentin Jammer looked like he was being a double agent on the coverage. Allen finished the drive with a touchdown and it wasn't quite over yet. San Diego had to go onside kick with the lack of stops on defense, and sure enough, Decker failed to come down with that ball too on a very good kick by Nick Novak. The Chargers recovered and started driving again with Allen continuing to get open despite being far and away the best receiver on the field.
Denver did force a field goal, but we had a 24-17 game with 3:51 left. This was eerily similar to the Baltimore playoff loss now with Denver needing to execute in the four-minute offense, leading by seven. I wrote about this over 10 months ago, saying that the Broncos could not let that moment beat them twice by being too aggressive in the same situation. Last season the Broncos handed it off five times before punting and watching the Jacoby Jones-Rahim Moore play tie the game. This time Manning had to get more involved, but the last thing he could do was force a throw that turned into an interception.
Once Denver started the drive with a false start, a run for minus-2 yards and a low drop by Demaryius Thomas to set up third-and-17, it seemed likely Rivers was getting that ball back with Allen getting a chance to play the Jones role. But Manning stepped up under pressure and found a wide open Julius Thomas for a 21-yard gain on a great catch. That was huge, but another third down was needed later. Manning went right back to the tight end for nine yards on third-and-6. The Chargers needed a miracle at that point, but Denver converted one more third down with a run to ice the game. Denver also put away the Chargers in San Diego this season with a similar four-minute drive.
The Broncos did not punt on any of their eight drives. The ending was closer than Denver would have liked, but the learning experience from last year paid off and the offense ended the game on its own terms as it should.
This 2013 season will end with the four teams it should end with.
Fourth-quarter comebacks: 73 (71 wins)
Game-winning drives: 90
Games with 4QC opportunity: 162/264 (61.4 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 42