Divisional Weekend's best statistics

Posted Jan 18, 2016

After a fascinating weekend in the playoffs which saw all four games go down to the wire, Neil Reynolds has trawled through the game recaps to bring you the best statistics.

It was another weekend of thrilling NFL playoff action that delivered on all fronts. We had a game for the ages in Arizona, a referee who couldn’t toss a coin at the start of overtime, a furious comeback attempt in Charlotte and a whole collection of big plays and drama.

In other words, the NFL served up a whole smorgasbord of talking points – probably more than I can tackle here in a single column, but I’ll give it a go as we begin to digest the fact that just four teams remain on the road to Super Bowl 50.

But before we get to those four teams, I want to kick off this week’s column by looking at the 2016 chances of those who fell away over the weekend. Off-season additions/subtractions and injuries will, of course, be a factor but the Kansas City Chiefs, Green Bay Packers, Seattle Seahawks and Pittsburgh Steelers should all be in the Super Bowl mix next season.

All four of those teams faced some pretty big adversity in 2015 and they fought through it for as long as they could. All four are very well coached and I think that is a big reason why they were able to go as far as they did when others might have fallen much earlier.

The Chiefs were 1-5 but rebounded to put together a run they can be proud of. Do you know how miserable a losing locker room in the NFL can be? Let me tell you, it is a horrible place and asking questions of players in those circumstances is no easy task.

But instead of letting that misery pervade into everything they did, the Chiefs – led by a veteran and proven head coach in Andy Reid – bounced back and still gave New England all they could handle on Saturday, even with some key injuries (no Jamaal Charles for much of the season and banged up stars in Jeremy Maclin and Justin Houston).

The Packers were much maligned on offense for the final 10 weeks of the year but look how hard they were to dispose of in the divisional round with Aaron Rodgers unleashing haymaker after haymaker downfield.

Rodgers showed the heart and spirit of a true champion in Arizona and his Hail Mary bomb to Jeff Janis will live long in the memory. With Rodgers at the helm, the Packers always have a Super Bowl chance and that will especially be the case when the sorely missed Jordy Nelson returns to the fray at receiver.

Seattle simply never know when they are beaten and that is a testament to the coaching of Pete Carroll and the leadership in their locker room. They re-ignited that old NFL phrase about never getting beaten but simply running out of time – had there been another five minutes to play in Charlotte, I have no doubt the Seahawks would be in the NFC Championship Game.

They will most likely move on from Marshawn Lynch at running back, but the Seahawks will be in fine shape with their defense already in place and with Russell Wilson growing into an elite pocket passer, as well as a dangerous and calculated runner.

Seattle’s core is strong and allows them a chance to win each and every year and I fully expect Wilson to grace a few more Super Bowls before his playing days are done and dusted.

Finally, the Steelers lost Big Ben a couple of times during the course of the regular season and he was running on fumes in the Divisional Playoff game in Denver. LeVeon Bell was lost in mid-season, his replacement DeAngelo Williams was missing for the post-season and the league’s best receiver over the past two years – Antonio Brown – was also sidelined for the Denver clash. At left tackle, Levin Beachum was injured and none of that mentions that Pittsburgh never had Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey for the entire year.

Pittsburgh will score points for fun next year and they have a young and improving defense that is much better than its numbers might suggest. That is a unit that should progress even further under Keith Butler in 2016.

So while they are contemplating a long off-season for now, the future is bright for Kansas City, Green Bay, Seattle and Pittsburgh.

Now onto this week’s numbers…

0 and 0… The New England Patriots went into Saturday’s contest with the Kansas City Chiefs expecting to have their hands full with a pass rush featuring Justin Houston (even though he was slowed by injury), Tamba Hali and Dee Ford at linebacker and the likes of Allen Bailey and Dontari Poe along the defensive line. Tom Brady took quite the beating in the closing weeks of the regular season but he was well protected over the weekend, especially by his tackles, Sebastian Vollmer and Marcus Cannon. Brady was not sacked, was not knocked down and each of those guys gave up just 1 QB pressure. That is a big reason why the Patriots ran out 27-20 winners.

8-176-1… Larry Fitzgerald might be one of the most unselfish and committed of team leaders in the entire NFL and that’s why it was so good to see him serve as Carson Palmer’s comfort blanket on Saturday night during the Arizona Cardinals’ 26-20 overtime win. I thought Palmer was shaky for long periods of the game as he went in search of his first career playoff victory. But Fitzgerald provided him with a consistent and reliable target. He had just 1 catch at halftime but ended the night with 8 for 176 and the all-important game-winning score in overtime. Fitzgerald made plays all over the field, working out wide and in the slot as he has done all season. That willingness to play wherever his team needs him is another example of Fitzgerald’s unselfishness as a player.

5 of 5… With Peyton Manning looking out of sorts, Brandon McManus is a nice weapon for the Denver Broncos to have. He kicked all 5 of his field goal attempts on Sunday as the Broncos ran out 23-16 winners over Pittsburgh. I’ll get onto Manning in my final thought at the end of this column but McManus and the Denver defense bailed him out on Sunday because I didn’t think he played particularly well.

Monday Musings…

  • It spoke volumes to me that Thomas Davis was on the hands team for the Carolina Panthers and reeling in the onside kick at the end of the game against Seattle. Luke Kuechly was also out there, as was Greg Olsen. That’s some serious commitment to win from Carolina’s team leaders and it was a heck of a grab from Davis.
  • There were too many good catches to list here this weekend… But one of my favourites was the sideline-tapping effort by Tyler Lockett in that Seattle-Carolina game.
  • Julian Edelman goes such a long way towards protecting Tom Brady that they should list him as an offensive lineman/receiver. With Edelman making quick moves and quick decisions to get open, Brady can get the ball out of his hands so fast. Edelman had 10 catches for 100 yards against KC and should be even healthier and sharper against Denver.
  • One of the great images of the weekend came after Russell Wilson scrambled away from pressure and threw a late touchdown strike to Jermaine Kearse at the back of the end zone. The TV cameras immediately caught Cam Newton rolling his eyes and if the pictures could speak, they would have said: “Damn, that boy is good!”
  • Davante Adams must have been shifting nervously in his seat as he watched Jeff Janis and Jared Abbrederis go off on Saturday night for the Green Bay Packers. It has been a lost year for Adams and he will go into training camp with some fresh competition at receiver.
  • I understand the bad blood that exists between the Bengals and Steelers, but when Cincinnati players such as George Iloka and Jeremy Hill take to Twitter to celebrate Pittsburgh’s loss to Denver it just makes them look bitter and twisted. You’re out, guys, and you have to take some of the blame for that, surely?
  • Rodgers had completed one of the most remarkable comebacks in NFL history and then he might as well have gone off for an early shower because he never set foot on the field again. That doesn’t feel right to me. In college football, teams get equal number of chances to win in overtime. Surely that would have been a fairer end to a great game between the Cardinals and Packers? It certainly didn’t feel right that Rodgers was powerless to impact the overtime period in the same way as he had done so dramatically late in the fourth quarter. This may be something the NFL’s Competition Committee takes a look at during the off-season.
  • I think we should all admire the hunger and desire of Tom Brady. Even though he has already played in six Super Bowls and won four of them, Brady plays the game like he is chasing his first Vince Lombardi Trophy. For evidence, go back and watch that scramble he made to the goal-line where he gets tagged violently on the back of the head by Chiefs safety Tyvon Branch. Tom has the Super Bowl rings in the bank but remains as hungry as ever.
  • There were certainly some brave calls over the weekend, such as Bruce Arians blitzing Aaron Rodgers on the Hail Mary play or Belichick calling for Brady to throw late against KC on a pass that was almost a disastrous interception.
  • I think it will be interesting to see what Chip Kelly can do in San Francisco but let’s not kid ourselves here – this is a team in need of a massive re-boot and we don’t know if they have their franchise quarterback in place. Whether Kelly can “fix” Colin Kaepernick remains to be seen but let’s note that Philadelphia’s quarterbacks have hardly covered themselves in glory in recent years.

Final Thought

It’s been a few hours now since the Broncos beat the Steelers to advance to the AFC Championship Game and I maintain that Denver’s best shot at winning that contest would come if they benched Peyton Manning. There is no doubt that Manning offers Denver a better mental edge and boasts the all-important playoff experience, but his declining physical skills are evident and he is so limited in terms of the throws he can make. And he was supposed to be well rested on Sunday night, which makes his form even more troubling. More than what Manning offered will be necessary to defeat New England on Sunday. I have concerns over some of Brock Osweiler’s game, but I think he offers more upside than Manning. Given Manning’s vast experience and standing in the game, there is no way the Broncos make the move back to Osweiler this Sunday. But I definitely think they should when New England come to town. If they don’t, Denver are going to need to rely on their hard-hitting and talented defence more than at any other stage in this 2015 campaign.

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