Championship Sunday was as close to a pair of heavyweight title bouts as you will ever see in football and not one single punch was thrown (no, i’m not counting Crabtree’s as a punch) . Both games were a tale of two different types of fights though. The AFC bout was utter domination by the Broncos and the NFC bout saw the 49ers and Seahawks literally go body blow, for body blow. There were no jabs in the latter match-up. Nope. Haymakers and uppercuts were the combination the 49ers and Seahawks used to wear each other down. We went in thinking the Brady-Manning rivalry would rival Ali and Frazier. If anything that matchup was liking to a Floyd Mayweather type of performance by Manning – cerebral and strategic with the defeat of his opponent. The 49ers and Seahawks was more like an Arturo Gatti-Mickey Ward bout, with punches flying wildly and connecting at a high percentage.
What I saw from the AFC title game was a methodical and surgical dismantling of New England by Denver. It was clear that the Patriots were lacking firepower in the defensive backfield as they had a hard time matching up with Denver’s bevy of receivers. Matters were made worse when Aqib Talib was blindsided by a questionable “rub” play where Wes Welker leveled the New England cornerback in hopes to free up Demayrius Thomas on a slant route. Note that the Broncos run this play at least 5-10 times per game. They rarely run this play with the physicality that Welker displayed, but the former New England receiver held a team meeting prior to the game in which he showed all the physical plays that the Broncos made throughout the season. He made it a point to show his teammates that, to win against the Patriots, let alone the eventual NFC champion (the NFC is often known as the more physical of the two conferences), the level of physicality must be augmented. For the Patriots, the loss of Talib was major. The Patriots lined up against the Broncos with a lot of two-deep safety looks. None of their corners had enough physicality to re-route the receivers towards the safety help. We saw Demayrius Thomas with a beautiful 30-yard catch from Manning on a play where Dennard had safety help, but he could not leverage Thomas towards the inside of the field. Once Talib was out, New England could not adjust to the big receivers of the Broncos. With the two-deep safety coverage it allowed the Broncos to run the football down the middle, at will, against weak six and seven man fronts. The other Thomas, Julius, Decker and of course Welker, each had solid games but it was Demayrius Thomas, who has averaged 104 receiving yards in his four playoff games, showing why he is in the conversation of being a top-5 receiver in the league. His combination of size and speed is only seen by Calvin Johnson in the league.
The receivers were not the only part of the offensive and defensive units that showed physicality. The offensive and defensive line, dominated the trenches. Zane Beadles and Louis Vasquez, overpowered the Patriots defensive line. Terrance Knighton, who is nicknamed “Pot Roast”, was an absolute disruptive force. LeGarrette Blount, who figured to factor into the game-plan following a 140 yard rushing performance against the Colts, was held to 5 carries and 6 yards. Whether it was Knighton, Sylvester Williams or Shaun Phillips, the Patriots had no answer for the defensive fronts that the Broncos brought to the table. Hence, the Patriots offensive line was man-handled through the entire contest. That resulted in the Broncos secondary, although it has dealt with injuries all season, looking very good against New England’s offense.
Even though the final score was 26-16, it felt like the Broncos won by more. They dominated time of possession (35 minutes to 24 for the Patriots), but again, it was Manning who controlled the pace of the game finding the open receiver at will, throwing quick-hitting passes or long seam-beaters when needed. Conversely, his counterpart Tom Brady, misfired on deep passes to Matthew Slater and Julian Edleman, passes that should have ended up as touchdowns for the Patriots and would have potentially changed the outcome of the game. The Patriots, aside from getting healthy this off-season, desperately need some talent at the wide receiver position, unless Kembrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson develop into bona fide options.
The Broncos had a clear game-plan, which was to play a physical style of football, despite still throwing for 400-yards, completing 32 of 43 passes and two-touchdowns. Even when the Patriots came close in the fourth quarter, I thought John Fox was much less conservative than he was during the Ravens loss last year. During that divisional round game, there were multiple opportunities for Peyton and the Broncos offense to close out the game. This time, Denver threw the football on third downs, completing key passes to the Thomas’ at the end of the game which clinched the victory by winding down the clock.
The legacy game and the ultimate need for either of the quarterbacks to win this game was overblown. Both remain the two best to play the position in our era, regardless of the outcome. But maybe, just maybe, Peyton needed it a tad more than Brady.
The Seahawks and 49ers game-plans were to beat the living crap out of each other. Okay, maybe it wasn’t to that extent, but both teams with similar play-styles, figured to want to impose their will on one another.
The hatred between both teams was no more apparent between the exchange at the end of a great ball-tip by Richard Sherman which led to an interception by Malcolm Smith. The heated post-game interview by Sherman is widely scrutinized from talking heads calling him classless, overly aggressive and surely ensuring that more neutral fans will be rooting for Peyton Manning and the Broncos in the Super Bowl. My thought on it? Look, I was all up in arms about it initially, but when compared to other bland athletes who generally spew the same responses after a contest, I have no issues with Sherman going all Booker-T on Erin Andrews and the world. He has cemented himself as the best cornerback in the league. He was thrown on twice, with the first being a holding penalty against him and the second resulting in the play of the game.Overall, his performance was tremendous, as was the play from the rest of their secondary.
Whatever you call the post-game scrum, it should not take away from what was a terrific performance by the Seahawks defense, which showed why they were the number one defense in the league against the pass. That unit won the game for them with tremendous play from their defensive line and secondary. The Seahawks have the best depth at that position in the league, where they can rotate Red Bryant, Tony McDaniel and Brandon Mebane at the defensive line position. All three players were key in completely shutting down the rushing attack from the 49ers running backs. Where the defense really made an impact was with defensive ends Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett – two free agent pickups, who had great seasons previously with the Lions and Buccaneers respectively – spearheaded a second half effort which pressured Colin Kaepernick and forced him into making bad throws and two strip sacks.
Speaking of Kaepernick, we all need to step back from the criticism of his weaknesses as a quarterback and realize how sensational of an athlete he is. His 58-yard run in the first half was absolutely sensational and puts him alone in quarterbacks who have record two games with at least 100 yards rushing. If you thought that play was jaw-dropping, his jump-throw was an eye-seeking missile that fell perfectly into the hands of Anquan Boldin. Those two plays and his consistent penchant for avoiding the rush and making plays with his legs make Kaepernick the future of the NFL. Yes, his interception to Kam Chancellor was a terrible read, as he did not see the safety staying in the flat. Yes, he needs to go through his progressions better, as the book on him is that he sticks with his first read and throws the football or runs out of the pocket. But his athleticism and raw ability are still what brought his team to three straight NFC title games. I love how he owned up after the game and put the loss on his shoulders, saying that he costed the team the game. Kaepernick, for all his faults, is a tremendous competitor and this loss will only make him a better player.
Ultimately, the stars of the game were Marshawn Lynch and Doug Baldwin. Lynch was persistent in his running style from the start of the game. He kept piles moving and was almost never brought down on first contact, even when he only gained 1 or 2 yards. When he finally broke off a big run of 40-yards, it swung the momentum directly to the side of the Seahawks. Lynch is a quiet leader and the team and the crowd feed off his monstrous runs where he carries opponents on his legs and back.
If you have read my tweets or this blog, I’ve mentioned countless times that the Seahawks receivers were underrated and so-called ‘analysts’ needed to stop calling them no-name receivers. The group of Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse and Golden Tate will never be confused with being elite receivers but, every game, one out of the three makes a big catch over a defender, despite the tallest of them, Kearse, being 6’1. Even with Percy Harvin, this is the smallest unit in the league, but they play bigger than their height, leaping over taller and more physical defenders on a consistent basis. In the biggest game of their careers, the Seahawks got two monumental catches from Baldwin and Kearse, the key reception, being on a 4th and 7 “free-play” where the 49ers jumped in the neutral zone. Russell Wilson had the luxury of throwing a deep pass that if it ended up being incomplete or intercepted, the penalty on San Francisco would’ve repeated the fourth down. Kearse hung on for a massive 35-yard touchdown which put the Seahawks in front in the second half. Wilson had his struggles in the pocket and had too many instances of happy feet. Still, he remains one of the more clutch quarterbacks on third and fourth down.
The game had everything you wanted, except for some questionable officiating. The NFL needs to rewrite the rules for what plays can be reviewed as a fumble by Luke Willson and a clear recovery by NaVarro Bowman could have been a black-eye for the officiating crew of Gene Steratore. On the play, Bowman suffered a gruesome injury and tore his ACL. A devastating blow, Bowman is the heart and soul of the defense and was having a terrific game. The 49ers seemed deflated after the injury and they never really recovered.
This game literally went all the way up to the 11th round. Bodies were sore, players were injured and hearts broken. This was as good as it gets and if we get a Super Bowl as good as this NFC championship game, we will be in for a treat.
Both number one seeds will now go toe-to-toe on February 2nd. It will be the number one passing offense against the number one passing defense. This will surely be one for the ages.
I’ll post my preview of the Super Bowl between the Broncos and Seahawks within the coming days.