NFL Conference Championships Review

Richard Sherman made the play of the day, sending the Seattle Seahawks to the Super Bowl to meet Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. Sherman’s postgame effort wasn’t bad either. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

(2) Patriots 16 at (1) Broncos 26
Another AFC Championship loss for Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. Their third loss in the their last five trips and their second to Peyton Manning. Though the Patriots had a fighter’s chance in the 4th quarter, it never felt like a game Denver would lose.

At halftime the Broncos had mostly dominated the game. Although the scoreboard only reflected a 10 point lead, it felt like an improbable rally would be needed for the Patriots to win. It wasn’t long before “improbable rally” changed to “miracle” as Denver marched 90 yards, ate up 7 minutes, and expanded their lead to 17. Granted, the Patriots responded with an impressive drive of their own, but they ultimately came up short on 4th and 3 from the Denver 29. Given Denver’s ability to control the football and thus the clock, the game was all but over before the 4th quarter even began. Denver’s 17 point lead and New England’s inability to put points on the board on their only 3rd quarter possession made New England one dimensional the rest of the way. And without a big play threat, there simply wasn’t enough time to mount any kind of real comeback.

The Patriots found themselves in this position because they couldn’t run the football in the 1st half. The Patriots needed to pound Denver on the ground, grind away at an injury depleted defense and most importantly, keep Manning and the Bronco offense off the field. Instead, Denver flipped the script; Manning picked apart an injury depleted New England secondary with a precision passing attack and the Bronco offense controlled the football at nearly a 2:1 ratio through the first three quarters. Manning and the Broncos took control early and never allowed Brady and the Patriots a chance to climb back in. Credit Manning for silencing all his critics by throwing for 400 yards outdoors. In January. Against his career nemesis. What an amazing season for him.

Let’s also give credit to the Patriots for even getting to the AFC Championship. Do they get this far if the AFC isn’t a horrible conference? Doubtful. Regardless, Brady and Belichick dragged an injury-ravaged, talent-deprived squad within a game of their sixth Super Bowl. That alone is something to marvel at.

Also, while I understand the vitriol for Brady and the Patriots, it doesn’t make sense to call Brady overrated or imply he no-showed on Sunday in Denver. Brady received nothing from his running game, was under siege for four quarters, and his top receiver was Julian Edelman. For reference, Edelman would be Manning’s 5th option if he played for Denver, so let’s ease up on the “Brady choked” narrative. The Patriots were one of the NFL’s final four teams despite playing 75% of the season without four of their top five players (Brady, Gronkowski-injured, Wilfork-injured, Mayo-injured, Hernandez-jailed). They ran into a buzzsaw Sunday. Manning’s offense is simply too good to stop if you can’t hit him and make him antsy in the pocket.

(5) 49ers 17 at (1) Seahawks 23
I stated on Friday that I expected Seattle to take away Colin Kaepernick’s “toys” and force him to win the game all by himself. For 50 minutes he did just that. Kaepernick was great. He already accumulated over 100 rushing yards by that point, another 100 through the air, and he seemed to convert every critical 3rd down. He also made one of the most insanely athletic plays I’ve ever (EVER) seen by a quarterback when he leapt off one foot and fired a bullet 30 yards downfield to Anquan Boldin. I couldn’t believe it when it happened. Jumping off one foot. The torque on the ball. The accuracy. I’m not sure any quarterback in the league makes that play. On that play, and for 83.3% of the game, Kaepernick was the best player on the field.

Then the wheels fell off. Way off.

Obviously, I’m no expert. Nor do I have insider information. However, I like to believe Seattle knew at some point Kaepernick would make the mistakes that have plagued him all season. Credit Seattle for being patient and not changing their game plan. The Seahawks believed their pass rush would eventually get through. They knew their secondary was too good to go 60 minutes against a mediocre passer without a big play. They were right.

The game changed when Kaepernick raced outside the pocket with a little over ten minutes remaining in the 4th. Kaepernick didn’t feel the pressure from behind and fumbled the football. On the 49ers next possession, Kaepernick threw a bad interception. In fact, it was the same throw the Packers dropped in the Wildcard round. Kaepernick wasn’t as lucky this time. Finally, Kaepernick thought it wise to challenge the NFL’s premiere cornerback on 1st down with 30 seconds and two timeouts remaining. He bet on himself and Michael Crabtree. And lost.

Let’s not beat around the bush: Those two interceptions were awful. Just brutal. For three weeks all I heard was how clutch Kaepernick was. Even after he nearly gave away the Green Bay game the Kaepernick apologists persisted he was the greatest playoff quarterback in the league. Fortunes change easily in the NFL. A dropped interception may have masked Kaepernick’s flaws in Lambeau but in sports the truth almost always comes out. Three devastating turnovers in ten minutes ignited the Seahawks and scuttled another Super Bowl appearance for the 49ers. Kaepernick’s “clutchness” was the most overrated storyline of the playoffs. As Rasheed Wallace would say, “ball don’t lie.”

While Kaepernick was stellar and then awful, Russell Wilson was steadily good. That 50 yard improvised bomb to Doug Baldwin seemed to break Wilson out of his six week slump. He was nearly perfect after that. While it was an overall sloppy game, Seattle was more philosophically sound, getting big contributions from every unit. Marshawn Lynch was again spectacular, keeping Seattle in the game while Wilson and the defense settled in.  Though the defense gave up a few big plays, they were mostly dominant, especially when it came to eliminating Frank Gore and Vernon Davis from the 49er offense. Seattle’s special teams were huge, too. Clutch field goals and Baldwin’s kick return after the 49ers took back control were perhaps the game’s biggest swings.

Was the officiating great? No, but after Seattle failed to convert the blown fumble recovery call into points I didn’t believe there was a call that impacted the final score. The best team won because they delivered in the 4th quarter. It’s as simple as that.

As for Richard Sherman… what a guy. Was his postgame rant admirable? No. Was it necessary? No. Was it wrong? No. I mean, the guy just made the biggest play of the day against two guys he plays twice every season and obviously despises. He didn’t curse. He didn’t use any foul language. He didn’t even lie. He IS the best corner in the league. He did shut them down. Two passes were thrown his way. One resulted in a questionable holding call, the other the game deciding interception. His arrogance may not be for you, and that’s understandable, but dude is the best defensive back in the game. He sent his team to the Super Bowl. He had every right to say what he said regardless of whether or not we thought it was appropriate. And let’s not ignore the highlight of that interview: Erin Andrews’ “who was talking about you?” Her tone reminded me of Vince Vaughn in Wedding Crashers. “Why, why, why are you yelling at me?”

Good times.

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