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NFL: Colts Stun Broncos In Divisional Round

football

The NFL’s divisional round is arguably the greatest weekend in all of sports on an annual basis. The eight teams left standing by this point are undoubtedly the best the NFL has to offer, and they played out four fantastic encounters over this past weekend. Eight became four after some tremendous clashes that simply whizzed by and, before we begin hyping Championship weekend, we should take some time to review all the action from another classic divisional round in the NFL.

Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots (31-35)

The New England Patriots had to dig deep into their bag of tricks to pull out the win here, being given a wild ride by the wild card team. The Patriots ran for the grand total of 14 yards on Saturday, as the dominant defensive front refused to give them any ground. Tom Brady was then forced into fifty passing attempts, completing 33 of those for 367 yards and three touchdowns, but also a costly (if inevitable, given the number of throws) pick that led to a touchdown drive to swing momentum away from New England. The Pats were down 14 points on two separate occasions, but were able to exploit a weak secondary to come out with the win, albeit via a Julian Edelman touchdown pass and some interesting offensive line formations with players declaring themselves ineligible at the last second, which caused infinite confusion for the defense. The Patriots were able to exploit the middle for huge gains, with Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola, the forgotten man in this offense who caught Edelman’s touchdown pass, making huge gains. Every yard was needed, as the defense gave up their most points since the blowout to the Kansas City Chiefs in week four. Still, they advance onto the AFC Championship game with home field advantage, and must be feeling pretty good now.

The Baltimore Ravens gave the home team the fright of their lives when they rocked into Foxboro showing no fear and striding out to an early fourteen point lead. Justin Forsett picked up a huge 129 yards on 24 carries, while a plethora of guys stood up to make plays in the receiving game against an intimidating secondary. They protected Joe Flacco, pressured and sacked Brady while dominating time of possession, and were just beaten by some Bill Belichick brilliance in the end. The confusion that ran through the heart of a depleted secondary was their ultimate undoing, but the Ravens can sure be proud of a barnstorming performance on Saturday evening, albeit a fruitless one.

Carolina Panthers at Seattle Seahawks (17-31)

The Seattle Seahawks advance to a home game for the NFC Championship after knocking out the NFC South champions with an efficient performance in front of the Twelfth Man. The defense forced three turnovers from Cam Newton, including a late pick-six by Kam Chancellor that put the game away. Offensively, Russell Wilson completed 15/22 passes for a stunning 268 yards and three touchdowns, including several clutch third down conversions.  Jermaine Kearse took three receptions for 129 yards and a touchdown, as it became clear that the big play possibilities were far greater for the Seahawks. With Chancellor playing an other-worldly game, leaping over linemen to block field goal attempts and generally wreaking havoc, the Seahawks looked more like the 2013 vintage than ever before. They can now beat teams in all three phases, and anyone who fancies raising the Super Bowl will have to go through the ‘Hawks.

The Carolina Panthers gave a respectable account of themselves in this one, running the reigning Super Bowl champions close until the fourth quarter. Kelvin Benjamin gave one final dominant rookie performance by claiming seven balls for 75 yards and two touchdowns, despite the ferocious coverage all around him. Jonathan Stewart took 13 carries for seventy yards, as the Panthers found a surprising amount of offensive gains. Cam Newton’s three turnovers were backbreaking though, in a situation where the Panthers had to at least break even in the turnover battle. The young quarterback is undoubtedly talented, but just that bit too erratic throwing the ball to be able to beat a phenomenal defense on the road. The Panthers will likely rebuild again in the off-season, but they have plenty of pieces in place to return to the playoffs next year for the third successive time.

Dallas Cowboys at Green Bay Packers (21-26)

Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers won the battle of the hobbled quarterbacks, with a close-fought win at home over the previously undefeated road team. Rodgers was evidently limping for large portions of this game, but still managed to throw 24/35 for 316 yards and three touchdown passes. Imagine what he could do when fully healthy. Rodgers was forced to remain inside the pocket for the game, drastically affecting his typical style, but he is undoubtedly a top pocket-passer above all else. Although he was something of an immobile target for the defense, his protection really stepped up for him, only giving up one sack in the game. Eddie Lacy also contributed a huge 101 yard game just when it was most necessary, taking the pressure off his quarterback. With Randall Cobb and Davante Adams both going over a hundred yards receiving, it would be tough for any offense to keep pace with the Packers. Their defense gave up big gains on the ground though, and Marshawn Lynch will be licking his lips preparing for the NFC Championship showdown. That being said, Julius Peppers was able to make a number of plays to slow down DeMarco Murray, including forcing a fumble when the league’s leading rusher may have been thinking of a huge touchdown run. The defense also got to Tony Romo several times, bypassing the much ballyhooed offensive line to make decisive game-changing plays that send them to the NFC decider next week.

For the Dallas Cowboys, it all begins and ends with Dez Bryant’s catch that was overruled for failing to maintain possession. It took the Cowboys from first and goal at the one to turning the ball over, as Romo’s pass had come on fourth down. It was a devastating call for the Cowboys, but the correct one, and one that sucked all the life out of their challenge. They never possessed the ball again. It was Romo’s best throw of the day, on a day when his personal injury collection increased even further in the face of constant pressure, and would have entirely altered a one-score game. DeMarco Murray’s huge day was overshadowed by this play, but also by a defense that was routinely picked apart by the man most likely to be declared NFL MVP. It is that side of the ball the Cowboys most improve upon if they are to go further next year, but with Murray and Bryant out of contract, priorities lie elsewhere.

Indianapolis Colts at Denver Broncos (24-13)

The Indianapolis Colts provided the shock of the weekend, riding into Mile High and turning over the home team. The irony of Peyton Manning’s successor in Indianapolis toppling his new team was not lost on anyone and, while Andrew Luck was not exactly perfect all night, the young quarterback put his team into a position to win and was certainly the best quarterback to grace the field. Luck tossed 27/43 for 265 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. Not stellar numbers, and not as good as you would have thought needed for a road win in the playoffs, but a tremendous effort by the offensive line, who didn’t give up a single sack, and a determination to stick to the ground game despite its limitations gave Luck enough opportunities to throw the two decisive touchdowns. The real star for the Colts was the secondary though, with Vontae Davis and Greg Toler playing tight coverage on the receivers, with the rest of the defense protecting the middle of the field and short routes, forcing Manning to beat them deep, which he couldn’t do. They gave up a worrying amount of yards on the ground, which will be a concern heading into the AFC Championship game, but even getting that far is a huge step for this young team. They now look forward to a decider in New England.

The Denver Broncos put in the most disappointing performance of any of the final eight, with Peyton Manning’s arm strength coming under severe scrutiny once more. John Fox has left his post as head coach in the aftermath of the defeat, and change seems certain for a Broncos team in win-now mode. Manning completed 26/46 for 211 yards and a touchdown, but that is a pretty poor return from a quarterback of Manning’s calibre on that number of throws. Once the game stretched to a two-score game in the fourth quarter, it was clear to everyone that this is not the same Peyton, and there was no fear of a late rally. With a pass rush incapable of getting to Andrew Luck in time, the defense was under pressure and, although they picked him off twice, the game eked away further and further every time the Colts put points on the board. With a number of star players and coaches out of contract, interesting outsiders and possibly facing retirement, who knows what kind of team Denver will be fielding next September.

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