LOS ANGELES, January 11, 2015 — What makes the Divisional round of the playoffs so exciting is that this the where all of the upsets take place. This year was no exception as another party-crasher sent a heavy favorite home. Two quarterbacks for the ages and one of the most ferocious defenses of all time ended up where everybody expected them to when the playoffs began. Another first ballot Hall of Fame quarterback ended up home early again. With that, here is the NFL 2014-2015 Divisionals lessons learned and not learned.
New England Patriots 35, Baltimore Ravens 31 — The Saturday afternoon game is now an instant classic. Three times in the previous four years the Ravens have had to go on the road at New England in the playoffs. All three times the Ravens outplayed the Patriots, winning two of those games. Now Baltimore had to go through New England again. Again for large stretches of the game Baltimore outplayed New England. Again the Patriots came back.
Joe Flacco moved easily against the New England defense, throwing four touchdown passes and powering the Ravens to a 28-14 third quarter lead. The vaunted Baltimore defense could not close the door like they did two years ago. With the Patriots down 28-21, Bill Bellichick went to his bag of tricks. Danny Amendola threw his first NFL pass, a halfback option that went for a 51-yard touchdown to Julian Edelman for a 28-28 game.
After the Ravens kicked a field goal, Brady then threw his third touchdown pass. With five minutes left the Patriots had their first lead of the game despite only 19 yards rushing. On first and ten from the New England 36 with 2:14 to play, Flacco went for all the marbles and was intercepted in the end zone. The Ravens got it back at their own 48 with four seconds left. Flacco’s Hail Mary was well thrown but still fell incomplete. Steve Smith was shoved to the ground but defensive pass interference on the Hail Mary is never called. The Evil Empire of Football escaped with another playoff win after being outplayed. Brady finished 33 of 50 for 367 yards. New England hosts the AFC Title Game in one week.
Seattle Seahawks 31, Carolina Panthers 17 — The Saturday night game went as expected. For three straight regular seasons, the Seahawks went on the road into Carolina and won. All three of those games were defensive slugfests. This year Seattle started 3-3 but finished with a 12-4 record. After starting 3-8-1, the Panthers won four straight and then their wildcard playoff game. Even though the game was in Seattle, both teams known for defense produced another hard-hitting slobber-knocker. Seattle clung to a 14-10 lead after three quarters.
The fourth quarter was all Seattle. Russell Wilson hit Luke Willson for a 25-yard touchdown with 10 1/2 minutes left in regulation. With a 24-10 Seahawks lead, the Legion of Boom did the rest. With the Panthers in the red zone looking to make it a one-score game, Kam Chancellor intercepted Cam Newton and raced 89 yards for the dagger with six minutes to play. Earlier in the game Chancellor twice leapt over the entire Carolina offensive line in attempting to block a field goal. For the second straight year, the NFC Title Game goes through Seattle.
Green Bay Packers 26, Dallas Cowboys 21 — The Sunday morning game honored history. It was 1966 and 1967 when the Green Bay Packers and the Dallas Cowboys played two of the greatest NFL Title Games in pro football history. Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry gave us the Ice Bowl. Jerry Kramer wedged Jethro Pugh with, “the block.” In 1995, these teams again met with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. Emmett Smith ran over Green Bay in the fourth quarter on the way to a Dallas dynasty. One year later Green Bay ascended to the mountaintop with a gunslinger.
The 2014 battle of 12-4 teams had Aaron Rodgers nursing an injured calf, pass-happy Mike McCarthy came out running the football. It was Dallas pounding the rock with DeMarco Murray as the Cowboys built a 21-13 third quarter lead. Aaron Rodgers threw touchdown passes to DeVonte Adams and non-relative Richard Rodgers to give the Packers the 26-21 lead with nine minutes left in regulation.
With four minutes left Dallas faced fourth and two at the Dallas 33. Jason Garrett decided to go for it and play-caller Bill Callahan went for it all. Tony Romo went bombs away to Dez Bryant. Bryant was well defended, but somehow made an acrobatic catch at the one yard line. Mike McCarthy challenged the call will be debated in bars by letterheads for decades to come. officials reversed the call and declared an incomplete pass. At the two-minute warning the Packers faced third and 11 at the Dallas 35 with the Cowboys out of timeouts.
Obviously in that situation you run the ball. Instead Mike McCarthy called a pass. If Aaron Rodgers was not the league MVP before, he certainly is now. His 13-yard completion to Randall Cobb allowed the Packers to kneel on the ball. Both quarterbacks played well. Romo finished 15 of 19 with two touchdowns. Rodgers was 24 of 35 for 316 yards and three touchdowns. Neither one was intercepted. Both coaches played to win rather than not to lose in this fine football game that is now also an instant classic. Last week the Cowboys benefitted from a controversial call. This week the call went against them. As for the Packers, they are back in the NFC Title Game for the first time since 2010. They will be on the road, but they were then as well.
Indianapolis Colts at Denver Broncos — The Sunday afternoon game appeared to be a mismatch, a tune-up for Denver before the AFC Title Game rematch from last year that seemed pre-ordained before this season started. The Sunday afternoon game was supposed to be a mismatch, a tune-up for Denver before the AFC Title Game rematch from last year that seemed pre-ordained before this season started. As ESPN umber-announcer Chris Berman reminds us, “That’s why they play the games.” Peyton Manning threw a touchdown pass on the first Denver series for a quick 7-0 Broncos lead. Nobody could have expected it would be Denver’s last trip to the end zone.
Andrew Luck led a pair of second quarter scoring drives to put the Colts up 14-7. In the third quarter the home crowd got very nervous when Luck threw a 15-yard touchdown pass to Hakeem Nicks to make it 21-10 Colts. With Indianapolis leading 21-13 early in the fourth quarter, the Colts just pounded and grounded the Denver defense into dust. 13 plays bled over 8 minutes off of the clock. Adam Vinatieri hit a 30-yard field goal with four minutes left to lock up the shocking upset.
The Broncos were done, forced to add 2014 to the ghosts of 1984, 1996 and 2012 playoff heartbreaks at home. The Colts were supposed to be tomato cans. Instead they just hit Denver in the mouth. Chuck Pagano’s team showed that “Chuck Strong” now applies to life on the football field as well as off of it. The Colts will be expected to lose badly on the road in the AFC Title Game. They will not care what the rest of us expect. They were supposed to lose this one. The AFC Title Game dream matchup of Manning against Brady will not take place this year. For the eleventh straight season, a lower seeded team knocked off a team with a first round bye.
The Conference Title Games are set. Both games will be played on Sunday, January 18, 2015. Times are Eastern.
NFC: 3:00 p.m. on FOX — 2) Green Bay Packers at 1) Seattle Seahawks
AFC: 6:30 p.m. on CBS — 4) Indianapolis Colts at 1) New England Patriots