The most exciting weekend in football is in the books and all four victors snuck into the Conference Championship round by a touchdown or less.
New England held off a late surge by Kansas City to win 27-20 (much in part to Alex Smith’s poor clock management):
Wow not sure why they call Alex Smith a game manager cuz they epically failed at managing the clock #KCvsNE
— Untitled (@GamerGyrl10) January 17, 2016
Arizona squeaked by Green Bay 26-20 in overtime after Aaron Rodgers completed his second Hail Mary of the year to force the extra period in miraculous fashion:
Carolina nearly blew a 31-point halftime lead against Seattle to advance 31-24 (fortunately they are better at covering onside kicks than Green Bay):
No onside kick magic for Seattle this time! Thomas Davis recovers the onside kick. Panthers beat Seahawks, 31-24. pic.twitter.com/s96jJDZcs6
— 120 Sports (@120Sports) January 17, 2016
And Peyton Manning finally won a cold weather playoff game, 23-16 over a Steelers team that was the first ever squad to start a postseason game without their leading rusher or their leading receiver:
— Denver Broncos (@Broncos) January 18, 2016
And so…the one thing I said wouldn’t happen just did – all four home teams advanced and for just the second time ever (and the second year in a row) #1 will face #2 in both the AFC and NFC Championship games.
We’ll dig into a proper head-to-head preview later this week but for now let’s look at 3 things we learned about each of the top seeds this past weekend.
New England Patriots
1. Gronk, Gronk, Gronk. He might just be this team’s MVP.
New England’s star TE hauled in 7 catches for 83 yards including a pair of touchdowns. His second score was good enough to etch him into the record books as the NFL’s all-time leader for post-season touchdowns at his position.
That’s Rob Gronkowski’s 8th career postseason Rec TD, passing Dave Casper and Vernon Davis for the most by a TE in NFL postseason history.
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 16, 2016
While Julian Edelmen had more catches for more yards (10, 100), there’s no question that Rob Gronkowski is the primary aerial target for Tom Brady and the Patriots’ offense.
Want to stop New England? Figure out what to do with #87.
2. The Patriots running game is non-existent.
Stephen Jackson led New England on the ground with 6 rushes for 16 yards. The team tallied a grand total of 38.
Injuries suck but Belichick will have to find some way to get something going on the ground if the Patriots are to become the first repeat Super Bowl winners in more than a decade.
3. Bill Belichick is a knuckle-deep nose picker.
1. Carson Palmer won his first career playoff game.
Heading into the game Carson Palmer was ranked fourth on the all-time list of most NFL starts without winning a playoff game (142). He was #1 with 83 regular-season wins without a playoff victory.
Congrats to #3 on getting off of the snide.
Oh, and here’s another fun fact:
— SB Nation NFL (@SBNationNFL) January 18, 2016
2. 8 catches. 176 yards. 1 touchdown. Larry Fitzgerald reclaims number one slot for the playoffs.
This old guy can still ball. Hard.
And he wants a ring. Real bad.
3. Just like the Patriots. The Cards struggled with their postseason rushing game.
David Johnson was one of the leading rushers in the NFL over the second half of the season – but on Saturday in the desert he put up a dud. Fifteen runs, 35 yards.
At least he didn’t average one yard per carry on three tries like his teammate Andre Ellington.
1. Give credit where credit is due. Russell Wilson is a magician. But – you’ve got to play for two halves to win in the playoffs.
If an NFL football game were 63 minutes long instead of just 60, we might very well be talking about the Seattle Seahawks here. After dominating the first half of the game to amass a 31-0 lead, Carolina turned the tables and put up their own goose egg during the final 30 minutes.
They’ll need to close much stronger next week against Arizona.
2. Jonathan Stewart is back.
While Marshawn Lynch went out with a whimper (presuming a 2016 salary cap move could make Sunday’s loss his final game in a Seahawks uniform), Jonathan Stewart stormed back onto the field with a vengeance.
— NFL (@NFL) January 17, 2016
3. The NFL’s top-scoring offense from the regular season is tops in the postseason as well.
Carolina averaged 31.2 PPG despite not suiting up a true #1 receiver.
They do, however, have this guy:
1. Peyton Manning came through when it mattered most. Driving the team to its only touchdown following Fitzgerald Toussaint’s fumble – but overall he just looked OK out there.
Putting up 21 of 37 passing for 222 yards and 0 TDs is a mediocre performance. The Broncos will need to channel the ‘Hall of Fame’ version of their quarterback to beat the Greatest of All Time, Tom Brady.
2. Of course, #18’s numbers might have been a bit better had the Denver receivers not been suffering from a case of butterfingers.
— Denver Broncos (@Broncos) January 18, 2016
3. A winning formula comes through again.
Remember early in the season when Denver was undefeated and all we could talk about was how their offense was struggling?
Fast-forward to the playoffs and there are still some trying to make the case that the #1-seeded Broncos are too one-sided of a football team.
Two years ago this same club was demolished in the Super Bowl by a team whose winning formula was a kickass defense and an offense that did just enough. There’s no doubt now that Coach Kubiak’s formula works – the only question is whether or not it will work two more times.
Fun Fact: Cam Newton, Carson Palmer and Peyton Manning were all #1 overall picks. Tom Brady? #199.