Recapping Championship Sunday
If we've carried anything over from the NFL playoffs the last few years, it's to not be surprised when unexpected results occur. Much like the NCAA Tournament in college basketball, it is not uncommon to see the "hottest" team survive and advance rather than the better team. Professional football, as well as college hoops, produces many more shocking upsets in the postseason than, say the NBA and to a lesser extent, Major League Baseball. A big reason why is that an NFL playoff round consists of a single game, whereas the NBA has series that seem to drag on for months.
Taking a look back at the 2011 playoffs, do you think the Jets really would have moved on to the AFC Championship if, rather than a sixty-minute affair, they had to endure a full seven-game series against the Patriots? Then again, at that point in time the Patriots had already been caught with video cameras in the stands directed at the Jets' sidelines. How about last season, when the fourth-seeded Ravens stunned the top-seeded Broncos in the divisional round? I'd bet my house, my two dogs, and maybe even my sister on Denver over Baltimore in a series format. As a Giants fan, too, I know perfectly well the magic that can occur in a one-game, winner takes all scenario.
All that brings us to this season. Not to say we haven't had minor upsets occur the last few weeks (How you living, Andy Dalton?), but all things considered the "Final Four" was probably the four best squads in the offseason and for a good portion of the regular season. Patriots, Broncos, 49ers, and Seahawks-the two top seeds in the AFC plus the two best in the NFC. Yes, Championship Sunday was set up to be outstanding, nail-biting, must-watch football. Only one of them really lived up to the hype, however. In the end, the Super Bowl will pit the greatest offense we've seen in a while against the best, most consistent defense (at least the secondary) in the NFL. But my Super Bowl preview doesn't come out until next week. For the sake of this column, let's relive Championship Sunday and figure out exactly how we've come to a Broncos-Seahawks bowl.
Brady-Manning was all we ever heard about leading up to Sunday, but perhaps the real storyline should have been "Brady's weapons vs. Manning's weapons." As we saw on Sunday, that was the genuine difference in the Broncos' 26-16 win. Consider this: Due to multiple factors including Peyton Manning's brilliancy, his elite receiving package, and the severely decimated New England defense, Tom Brady and the Patriots had only eight possessions on offense. On their opening two drives, both of which were three-and-outs, Brady was forced to put his trust in Austin Collie and Matthew Slater, who had one career catch. On the other side of the ball, Manning was putting on a clinic, orchestrating methodical drives that must have felt excruciatingly long to Tom and Gisele. Then again, look who is on the receiving end of Manning's often wobbly deliveries. Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Wes Welker and tight end Julius Thomas make up the most complete pass-catching bundle in the NFL. Brady, meanwhile? He's connecting with dudes named Collie, Slater, Hoomanawanui and Mulligan. That has to want to make Tom throw back an Appletini or twelve.
In addition to the Broncos' glaring advantage in offensive weapons (Speaking of weapons, what say you, Aaron Hernandez?), Denver was able to contain a Pats running attack that was all-universe against the Colts only a week earlier. LeGarrette Blount, proving once again that he is a mediocre-at-best back in the league (he can thank the O-line for his career day versus Indy) had 6 yards on the afternoon. Shane Vereen led New England with 34 rushing yards. So the running game was Lennay Kekua-like, the Broncos dominated the time of possession stat (Denver had the ball for 36 minutes, also known as 60 percent of the game), and we were reminded that this Patriots group is totally not built to play from behind. And please, don't argue with me on that by bringing up the 24-point comeback victory the Pats pulled off against the Broncos in Week 12. This is the playoffs, people.
Manning improved his record against Brady to 5-10, but the cooler tidbits to me from this one are as follows: First, Mother Nature could not have been any nicer to Manning, as the weather was in the 60's and very sunny. Second, Broncos punter Britton Colquitt has punted one time in the playoffs.
On to the NFC West showdown in the other conference championship, I really hope that viewers remember more from this one than Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman's postgame rant. Don't get me wrong, I'm in love with what he said. Was it one of the most appalling, most captivating interviews in sports in recent memory? Yes, and seriously, what's the last interview involving Erin Andrews that you were totally drawn more to the subject than to Erin? Still, that interview itself had absolutely nothing to do with the 23-17 outcome. So let's focus on what did contribute to Seattle's win.
I want to throw kudos toward the entire Seahawks defensive unit, also known as the Legion of Boom. After 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick ran wild in the first half, Seattle limited Kaepernick to a single big run in the final 30 minutes. As if that adjustment wasn't impressive enough, the Legion of Boom shut down big-game Vernon Davis, who not only had a fabulous regular season but tends to shine in the playoffs. And, as quiet as Blount was for the Pats, Frank Gore provided just as little of an impact with his 11 rush, 14-yard stinker. Out of three fourth-quarter 49er drives, Kaepernick threw two interceptions and also lost a fumble. Seattle's defense can undoubtedly talk the talk, but they continue to prove that they walk the walk just as efficiently.
Another facet of the NFC Championship that will hopefully be talked about for a while is the legend of Russell Wilson. Wilson never puts up Brees or Brady-like numbers, but the guy wins. And he wins with a shoddy offensive line and the services of no-namers like Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse, both of whom are solid but unknown to the average football fan. The eventual go-ahead game-winning score, a 35-yard 4th-down link-up between Wilson and Kearse, was equal parts heady and special. Wilson drew 49er Aldon Smith offside, using the free play to take a chance and deliver a pretty pigskin over the outstretched 49ers secondary into the hands of Kearse. That was one of two Seattle touchdowns on the afternoon, as the other was a typical beastmode sprint. Marshawn Lynch is capable of two things at all times: tasting the rainbow and having a field day against any defense.
Before we part, I go back to Sherman for a minute. Hate him or love him, it doesn't matter. He doesn't really care and, if you really don't think he's the best cornerback in football, ask yourself how many guys can make the play that he did to vault the Seahawks into the Super Bowl? He blanketed Crabtree the entire route, wasn't fooled at all by the 49ers gameplan, and had the presence of mind to realize he wasn't going to intercept the pass. So what does he do? He tips it to teammate Malcolm Smith. After being avoided all game long by Kaepernick, San Francisco thought they were being cute and attempted to catch Sherman sleeping. The man doesn't sleep though. He talks, talks some more, and balls out. Now he'll be balling out against Peyton Manning and the Broncos in the Super Bowl.
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