In the end, after all the talk and guessing, we got exactly what the numbers told us would happen. Seattle’s power defense jumped on the 49ers’ mistakes while Peyton Manning’s weapons were too much for the Patriots’ team of castaways, setting up a Sunday in New Jersey that has a chance to be one for the ages.
For the third season in a row, Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers ended their season in a game that they’ll have felt unlucky to lose. Two years ago, it was Kyle Williams fumbling away to a hopeless Giants offense in the NFC Championship Game. Last year, it was Jimmy Smith mugging Michael Crabtree in the end zone on fourth-and–Disney World. This year, the 49ers managed to combine the two, with NaVorro Bowman clearly gaining possession of the football from Jermaine Kearse in the shadow of his own end zone, only to drop the football under the strain of a serious leg injury and have it recovered by the Seahawks on what was an unreviewable play. That was only one of a number of plays that seemed to swing a classic NFC Championship Game in Seattle’s favor, most of which seemed to revolve around fumbles.
Of course, the game itself started with a key fumble. Russell Wilson got careless with the football while scrambling away from Aldon Smith on the first play from scrimmage, only for Smith to knock the ball out of Wilson’s hands and recover on the Seattle 15-yard line, setting his team up with an extremely valuable opening possession. It was only through the efforts of indefatigable Seahawks middle linebacker Bobby Wagner that the 49ers didn’t pick up a first down; Wagner basically threw aside a Vernon Davis block and then a Davis hold to take down Colin Kaepernick on a quarterback draw, forcing the 49ers into an early field goal. After the teams traded punts, 49ers return man LaMichael James then muffed a catch inside his own red zone, with rookie Darryl Morris falling on the punt on his own 14-yard line to prevent the Seahawks from enjoying equally advantageous field position.
That led the Niners onto a drive that was so impressive it was easy to wonder whether this was simply their day. A third-down holding penalty on an overzealous Richard Sherman extended the drive, and after Kaepernick ran past spying linebacker K.J. Wright for 12 yards and another first down, he burst out of the pocket on an electric scramble and ran through most of the Seattle team en route to a 58-yard scamper, breaking tackle attempts by Malcolm Smith, Wagner, and Sherman in the process. The 49ers were denied after three shots at the goal line, but after a replay challenge, they rightly chose to go for it on fourth-and-goal from inside the 1-yard line and came up with a plunge from Anthony Dixon to go up 10-0. In the process, they lost left guard Mike Iupati to a broken ankle, and their running game never really recovered. Outside of a 22-yard designed run from Kaepernick, San Francisco ran the ball only 11 more times, producing a total of 26 yards on those carries.
Meanwhile, the Niners were taking advantage of Seattle’s hole at left guard. After surprisingly moving Michael Bowie into the starting lineup at left guard before last week’s game against New Orleans, the team just as unexpectedly left Bowie on the sideline as a scratch this week, pushing James Carpenter back into the lineup. He had a brutal go of it as he rotated with Paul McQuistan, and left tackle Russell Okung wasn’t much better. Both Carpenter and Okung blew cut blocks on the opening third-and-1 of the game for Seattle, allowing Bowman to slice into the backfield for a loss. On the next drive, Seattle faced a third-and-9 and threw a slide protection out against a San Francisco blitz, only for Okung to get caught trying to help McQuistan and for Bowman to slide right past him for a sack. Another protection not properly adjusted on an overload blitz left Carpenter with nobody to block and 49ers linebacker Dan Skuta with nobody in his way, creating an easy sack of Wilson that eventually forced Seattle into a field goal. Okung then got knocked yards backward by Justin Smith on a run before being beaten by Aldon Smith on a fourth-and-6 attempt by the Seahawks at the end of the first half. Center Max Unger had a false start, right tackle Breno Giacomini committed holding, and right guard J.R. Sweezy was subpar in pass blocking all night. San Francisco’s front seven was unblockable during the first half.
At halftime, the Seahawks made a key strategic adjustment that helped get them back on level terms, and it involved yet another contributor from the bottom of their roster. Rookie free agent offensive lineman Alvin Bailey didn’t play a single snap during last week’s win over the Saints, but at the beginning of the third quarter, the Seahawks brought him onto the field as a sixth offensive lineman and used him to help block — or at least confuse — that dominant San Francisco front seven. After Marshawn Lynch ran for just 33 yards on 12 first-half carries, Bailey’s arrival saw Lynch run for 11 yards and then five before springing a 40-yard run off a bad angle by rookie 49ers safety Eric Reid, eventually stumbling his way into the end zone. That play, combined with a mistake from fellow safety Donte Whitner in the second quarter on a 51-yard pass to Doug Baldwin that somehow managed to see the deep receiver get behind the deep safety on an extended play that set up a field goal, put the Seahawks back in the game.
The 49ers continued to ride their fumble luck. After a botched handoff inside the 5-yard line last week nearly cost the 49ers a key drive against Carolina, a similarly poor connection between Kaepernick and Frank Gore on the opening drive of the third quarter nearly produced another fumble, with Gore barely able to hold the ball against his body to keep it off the turf. On the next possession, after a big completion to Crabtree and a designed sweep from Kaepernick got the ball inside the red zone, the 49ers again escaped trouble when Kaepernick was strip-sacked by Michael Bennett, only for center Jonathan Goodwin to recover the fumble. On the very next play, Kaepernick took on the Legion of Boom and won. He put freakish velocity on a 26-yard touchdown pass to Anquan Boldin, despite Boldin being clearly covered by none other than All-World safety Earl Thomas. Thomas could only get his fingertips on the throw, as Kaepernick’s howitzer was enough for the score. It was a move that he would try again later, with poor consequences.
Baldwin, the undrafted Stanford product about whom Harbaugh expressed no interest when he joined the league in 2011, came up with another big play by returning the ensuing kickoff 69 yards to set up a field goal. And then the calls began to go Seattle’s way. Kam Chancellor laid a big hit on Davis on the next drive that appeared to cause another fumble, but the referees ruled the pass incomplete. It should actually have been an eight-yard catch for Davis, who took two full steps after the catch before being hit, while the fumble was caused by the ground and wouldn’t have counted. The Niners would then go three-and-out, but when legendary Niners punter Andy Lee attempted to get off his fourth punt of the game, he was hit by Seahawks special teamer Chris Maragos, who knocked Lee down with a reasonably hard shot to Lee’s plant leg. That, by definition, should be called roughing the kicker, which is a 15-yard penalty. Instead, Maragos was flagged for running into the kicker, which is the five-yard penalty that’s supposed to be called when you hit a punter’s kicking leg. Had either the Davis catch or the punter-roughing been called appropriately, the Niners would have had a first down. Instead, they punted and ran into a bit of their own bad luck.
The Seahawks then took the lead for the first time all game early in the fourth quarter, when a 59-yard drive culminated in a shocking score. A second-down intentional grounding penalty on Wilson eventually pushed the Seahawks into a fourth-and-7 from the 35-yard line. Pete Carroll sent kicker Steven Hauschka out to kick in the hopes of making it a one-point game, but Hauschka seemed to freeze up on the field before returning to the sideline and telling Carroll he thought the team should go for it. Steamboat Steven! Carroll took his kicker’s advice, and on the fourth-down try, a Wilson hard count somehow got Aldon Smith to jump offside. With a free play in tow, Seattle’s receivers made a crucial adjustment and broke off from their previous route assignments to run verticals down the field into the end zone. Wilson lofted a pass up with house money and found a streaking Jermaine Kearse for the score. Kearse beat an overmatched Carlos Rogers, returning to the lineup at less than 100 percent with a hamstring injury, for the biggest touchdown of his career. His day wasn’t done.
Trailing for the first time, San Francisco finally saw its fumble luck run out. Kaepernick held onto the ball too long on a third down and was strip-sacked for the second time, with Bennett picking up the loose ball this time before rumbling to the 6-yard line. Three plays later, a slant to Kearse appeared to take the ball to the 1-yard line, only for Bowman to snatch the ball away before suffering a serious injury and letting go of the ball, which the Seahawks then recovered. Because the referees ruled the play to be a fumble that was recovered by the Seahawks, the play was then unreviewable per league rules, which will only stoke the fire of those who suggest that coaches should be allowed to use their two coach’s challenges to review any aspect of a play they want. Had that been the case — or had Bowman’s strip rightly been ruled an interception, or if even the refs had ruled that Bowman had recovered a fumble and then been down on the ground by contact — the 49ers would have taken over the ball in a key situation. Instead, Bowman’s last great play of an incredible playoff run saw him leave the field with what’s feared to be a torn ACL.
Then, with Bowman carted off and the season likely on the line, the Niners seemingly benefited from a bit of Seahawks largesse. Seattle rightly went for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, given that there was 8:29 to go with the possibility of extending its lead to 10 points. The worst-case scenario was that the 49ers might end up pinned on their goal line, right? Well, as it turns out, no. Wilson and Lynch failed to complete the handoff, with the ball then bouncing backward. San Francisco had three players with a relatively clear path to the football, including Reid and Whitner. Had either of them picked up the fumble, he would have had a convoy of blockers to the opposite end zone for a game-changing touchdown. Only Wilson stood in their way. I’d like to pretend that Wilson made some heroic play to fend off the defenders and save the football, but he got knocked over and the ball bounced off his helmet, making it harder for the defenders to scoop the ball, at which point the Seattle cavalry showed up and managed to recover the fumble. Seattle lost possession, came away without points, and didn’t even have the field position it expected, but that tiny bounce off Wilson’s helmet might have been enough to save the NFC for Seattle.
Two plays later, Kaepernick made his own bad luck. With Seattle dropping into the Cover 3 buzz look that Chris Brown described last week, Kaepernick launched a quick out to Boldin, thinking he could launch the throw over Chancellor’s head.1 With no underneath receiver, Chancellor sunk perfectly to get to Boldin’s route and made an easy interception.
With a second chance to finish the game off, the Seahawks were again sloppy. After moving the chains once, Seattle produced a blown play on first down and then had another bad snap on second down, with Wilson frantically getting out of the pocket to release a pass, only for Kearse — who expected to be legally blocking on what was a designed run play — to be whistled for offensive pass interference. The Seahawks then ran a checkdown before Hauschka returned to the field on fourth-and-11 and hit a 47-yard field goal that put Seattle up six. Interestingly, because it encourages the opposing team to try to win in regulation with a touchdown as opposed to “settling” for a field goal and playing for overtime, Brian Burke’s expected points model thinks a field goal is basically a negligible improvement in that scenario; he suggested afterward that punting was actually the best option, although he admittedly didn’t expect a coach to go along with the idea. Given the strength of the Seattle pass defense, I don’t mind attempting the field goal and daring San Francisco to drive the length of the field for a game-winning touchdown in just less than four minutes.
That set the Niners up in a familiar position: coming away with points on a long drive while using up every second of the clock possible. They pulled the feat off at the end of each half in their home win over Seattle, exhausted the clock down to :03 before kicking the game-winning field goal in Green Bay, and ended a 13-play drive by scoring with 31 seconds left against Carolina in the first half a week ago. With all of their timeouts and Seattle down to one, you could just see it all coming together: The Niners would score a late touchdown, Seattle would rue wasting its timeouts, and I’d have to write 1,500 words about why the Seahawks shouldn’t have just taken the points on the previous fourth down.
Instead, the 49ers came up short. They launched a pretty impressive quick drive, working the ball downfield while avoiding Sherman pretty much altogether. In multi-wideout sets, this meant lining up third receiver Quinton Patton across from Sherman in coverage, basically sacrificing him to Sherman while playing 10-on-10 across the rest of the field. Outside of needing a fourth-and-2 conversion to Gore to keep their season going, the Niners were moving the ball relatively comfortably down the field and had made it into the red zone with 30 seconds left, only for Kaepernick to throw his second pick of the day. For reasons unknown, the Niners moved Crabtree back to Sherman’s side of the field, where Sherman had bottled Crabtree up for most of the day. Kaepernick then threw a fade to Crabtree in the end zone, saying afterward he would “take that matchup every time.” It’s fair for Kaepernick to have such faith in Crabtree, but with two timeouts and four downs to go, why throw a jump ball against the league’s best cornerback? Sherman played the pass perfectly and tipped it to Malcolm Smith for the game-sealing interception.
The Seattle crowd, for what it’s worth, didn’t have a significant impact on this game; the Seahawks committed more false starts (three) than the 49ers (one), had a couple of bad snaps/handoffs, and were otherwise the sloppier team. If you believed there was something innate that prevented the 49ers from winning in Seattle based upon those two blowouts with Kaepernick and Harbaugh around, Sunday proved that isn’t the case. Instead, it was that other bugaboo — turnovers — that forced San Francisco out of the playoffs. The 49ers fell to 2-10 under Harbaugh when they lose the turnover battle, remaining a staggering 39-4-1 when they win. They’ve lost that turnover battle in all three of their playoff defeats under Harbaugh, posting a combined minus-five turnover margin in the process. If they can manage to string together a postseason run without losing the turnover battle, both bad luck and the Legion of Boom combined might not be able to stop them.
Location Is Everything
Sunday didn’t exactly turn out to be a new chapter in the Brady-Manning saga, but it was pretty close. For just the second time in their 15 starts against one another, Peyton Manning whooped Tom Brady’s ass. His five wins include three victories in once-score games, a 40-21 score in Manning’s first win over Brady back in 2005, and this 26-16 win, a final score that undersold the chasm in performance between the two teams. New England’s win expectancy fell to 6 percent within four minutes of the second half starting and never got back into double digits. The Broncos left points on the field with an uncalled holding penalty on Devin McCourty, a dropped touchdown catch by Julius Thomas, and two hyper-conservative calls from John Fox; this very easily could have been a 40-point day for the Broncos. New England had no hope of stopping Manning.
It would be fair to say that part of the problem came when the Patriots finally ran into an injury they couldn’t work through. Having successfully remained afloat through injuries to Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, and Brandon Spikes, the Patriots finally fell apart when they lost Aqib Talib to a Wes Welker hit early in the second quarter. The hit was on the very border of being a penalty; you could argue, as Mike Pereira did, that Welker contacted Talib just about simultaneously as the ball arrived to Demaryius Thomas, making the play a legal block. It was too close to justify getting angry about the ref’s decision, regardless of what it was. In the process, Talib was knocked out of the game with what was initially called a rib injury before becoming a hip injury and then a knee injury. It might very well have been his final snap as a Patriots player, since Talib is an unrestricted free agent.
I don’t think it’s fair to say that’s why the Patriots lost, because Manning was already having a good day before Talib got hurt; before the injury, Manning had started his Sunday 8-of-13 for 111 yards, including a 29-yard deep post to Demaryius Thomas. Once Talib went out of the game, though, Manning absolutely annihilated poor Alfonzo Dennard. Moved into the top spot by default, Thomas beat Dennard at the line of scrimmage over and over again, creating space for lobs over zone coverage. When Dennard kept up, Thomas was able to just jump over him or outmuscle him for catches. I’m sure Bill Belichick would have loved to adjust his coverage, but there just wasn’t much he could do. Demaryius Thomas finished with seven catches on 10 targets for 134 yards and a touchdown.
Manning had a steady stream of receivers who were either beating coverage, being thrown open by Manning, or enjoying the splendor of having both occur at the same time. He finished with an even 400 passing yards on 43 attempts, averaging 9.3 yards per attempt while throwing for two touchdowns. Manning wasn’t sacked once, as a thin Patriots defensive line struggled with the Broncos’ tempo and Denver’s thin air. The Broncos did pick up four offensive holding penalties along the way, but Manning quickly erased them from the board with conversions. His 11 incompletions included a number of drops; I can remember only one bad throw, an out to Welker that Kyle Arrington might have intercepted if he had even tried to locate a football in the air.
New England can’t help the injuries to its front seven, but it can blame only itself for being stuck with bad players in the secondary after Talib. The Patriots are the ones who drafted the likes of Ras-I Dowling and Darius Butler in the second round, failed to develop them, and moved on. They’re the ones that are stuck with rookie Logan Ryan and 2012 seventh-rounder Dennard as their corners behind Talib as well as Arrington — given a four-year, $16 million deal for reasons unknown. With no pass rush and one of the greatest offenses in football on the other side of the field, it’s no surprise the Patriots secondary looked more like a welcoming committee than a group of defenders.
Through all that, Brady didn’t have his best game, either. He was happy to pick on Tony Carter, lining up on the outside for the injured Chris Harris, with Austin Collie somehow back involved with the offense to go 4-for-6 for 57 yards. Brady’s lack of viable receivers are well known, but on Sunday, he was the one missing them for big plays. Early in the game, he had an open Julian Edelman running a deep corner route for what would have been a very comfortable gain, only for the pass to be overthrown by several yards and fall incomplete. Later, during a two-minute drill at the end of the first half, Brady used his eye discipline to lock up a safety and create space for Collie running free down the sideline, only for Brady to then miss the throw. It’s not unreasonable for a good quarterback to miss those two throws, but had Manning been the one missing those throws under the same circumstances, how many people would have suggested it was out of some playoff flaw?
Brady wasn’t the only Patriots player to have a rough game. Left guard Logan Mankins got beat up by Broncos defensive lineman Terrance Knighton, including a move to the inside on a fourth-and-3 attempt at the end of the third quarter that led to a Brady sack. Left tackle Nate Solder was beaten for a sack by Robert Ayers. LeGarrette Blount couldn’t make anybody miss during his brief time in the game, running the ball five times for a total of six yards. Stevan Ridley had just 17 yards on five carries. Danny Amendola was held catchless. Jamie Collins was exposed by Julius Thomas. It might be easier to list the Patriots who played well. Ryan Allen? Edelman? Shane Vereen? Sealver Siliga? Brady played pretty well if you don’t include those two missed throws, I guess. This was a comprehensive victory for the Broncos.
And now, of course, we get to enter the wonderful world of goofy Manning playoff arguments yet again. I wrote about this with regard to LeBron James’s famous Game 6 against the Celtics the night it happened and referenced a series of Manning games as my example. In the 2009 season, Manning put up an incredible AFC Championship Game performance against the Jets and their top-ranked pass defense, going 26-of-39 for 377 yards with three touchdowns when the average quarterback had gone 16-of-31 for 154 against the Jets that year. It was an incredible clutch performance that somehow didn’t count on Manning’s playoff résumé because he then lost to the Saints in the Super Bowl two weeks later, even though the same people who took shots at Manning for losing to the Saints would have said the same things about Manning not being “clutch” had he lost to the Jets.
We heard the same echoes after last year’s loss to the Ravens, and after a dominant game against the Patriots when his team needed him to step up, it’s the same nonsense. Had Manning lost on Sunday, it would have been because Brady owned him and because it was “axiomatic” that Manning loses in big games. Now, even though this contest would have counted as a big game had Manning lost, it won’t count as a big win for Peyton because he now gets to play in the Super Bowl in two weeks. There’s nothing wrong with fairly evaluating Manning’s overall playoff performance and finding it lacking, but it’s unfair to repeatedly reset the bar when he plays really well in an elimination game. For whatever happens two weeks from now in New Jersey, Peyton Manning answered the bell and dominated his biggest rival for the first time in his postseason career. That’s a great performance, regardless of what happens next.