Divisional Wrap-up: A Crop of Classics

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Somewhere between a league icon possibly retiring, a wildly controversial call deciding a game, and a quasi-illegal formation run rampant, the divisional round delivered an engrossing set of games this weekend. While there’s plenty to talk about, let’s start with the game of the week, where the Ravens were dispatched in an instant classic:

Ravens-Patriots: You’re Thinking Right

Just when they needed it, the Patriots brought an old playoff favorite out of the mothballs: the big comeback. New England started the Brady-Belichick era with a double-digit second-half comeback, beating the Oakland Raiders in the Tuck Rule Game after trailing 13-3 in the third quarter. On Saturday afternoon, nine days shy of 13 years later, Tom Brady delivered a reprise. With no running game to speak of, he and the Patriots clawed their way back from a 14-0 start and a 28-14 third-quarter deficit that left them with a win expectancy of 8 percent to win 35-31. His second big playoff comeback might not be quite as memorable as the first, but given his advancing years, Brady might cherish this one even more.

How did the Patriots do it? Well, some shenanigans were involved, but more on that in a second. Saturday was all about attacking weak links in the opposing team’s secondary, and the Patriots did that by going after Rashaan Melvin and Matt Elam. Elam, a former first-round pick who lost his starting job to Will Hill, moved into the slot early as part of Baltimore’s three-safety sets, only for the Patriots to target him with throws to the likes of Brandon Bolden and Danny Amendola. Elam missed 16 tackles this season, and that continued on Saturday. Bolden made Elam miss on New England’s first play from scrimmage to create a first down before Amendola shook an Elam tackle attempt on his 15-yard touchdown catch.

While the Ravens took Elam off the field after that gaffe and limited him to 14 defensive snaps, they could make no such switch with Melvin, and the Patriots torched him. It’s not Melvin’s fault, really. With an unimaginable five cornerbacks on injured reserve, the Ravens were forced to sign Melvin off of the Miami practice squad in November. After he suited up for his first NFL game in Week 15, the desperate Ravens pushed Melvin into the starting lineup, where he managed to keep his head above water during his first three starts across from Lardarius Webb.

Watch Saturday’s game tape and you’ll see that Brady’s first read is to the left on just about every single pass play. It was Melvin who was staring, unmoving, into the backfield, possibly expecting safety help, as Julian Edelman wound up and threw a touchdown pass to a streaking Amendola on a play pundits really should have described as “a Wes Welker type throwing to a Wes Welker type.”

On the game-winning drive, Melvin went through a brutal sequence on the final four plays that may very well have knocked the Ravens out of the Lombardi hunt. First, on a third-and-6, Melvin missed a tackle on Amendola that allowed the suddenly shifty receiver to pick up a first down. Brady then completed a stick route to Michael Hoomanawanui in front of Melvin for nine yards and followed that with an out to Edelman, again in front of Melvin, for six more and a first down. The Ravens then pressed Melvin to the line, only for Brandon LaFell to beat him there and Brady to drop a dime over Melvin’s head for the game-winning score.

The final numbers aren’t pretty. I’m always hesitant to assign individual defensive backs targets, especially without seeing the All-22 film, but my best guess has the Patriots targeting Melvin a whopping 18 times on Saturday night. Those 18 throws produced 14 completions, 213 yards, seven first downs, and two touchdowns. If you prefer to split it by side, the combination of Brady and Edelman went 25-of-35 for 321 yards, four touchdowns, and one pick to the left side, where Melvin stayed virtually all game, producing a 92.6 QBR. The Patriots were 9-of-16 for 97 yards and a 65.9 QBR on their throws to the rest of the field.

Some of those throws to the left weren’t on Melvin. One was a touchdown pass to Rob Gronkowski on an impossible-to-cover slant versus Will Hill. That throw completed a drive in which the Patriots busted out, depending on how you look at it, either one of the niftier in-game coaching adjustments you’ll ever see or a quasi-illegal substitution pattern that the referees failed to properly control.

The Patriots lost center Bryan Stork during the first half to a knee injury that could keep him out for next week’s conference championship game. Stork’s ascension into the starting lineup in Week 4 played a huge part in solidifying what had been a porous Patriots offensive line, and while New England had a pair of guards with experience playing center in Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell, the new line didn’t take. Wendell moved to center, while backup Josh Kline came in to take over at right guard, but Kline struggled mightily; the Patriots repeatedly struggled with Baltimore linemen penetrating into the backfield on running plays and eventually gave up on the run altogether, going the entire second half without handing the ball to a running back even once.

With Kline struggling, the Patriots stumbled on a novel solution: Use four offensive linemen. They repeatedly went with an unbalanced line, alternating between plays in which Hoomanawanui and Shane Vereen were employed as offensive linemen, ineligible to go downfield or catch forward passes.

On the first play, they lined up Hoomanawanui at the end of the line, with Nate Solder at left guard next to the center, Wendell. For all intents and purposes, it looked like Hoomanawanui was the left tackle, but it was actually an unbalanced line, with Solder as the left tackle. Hoomanawanui was actually a tight end on this play, eligible to catch a pass. The right tackle was actually Vereen, who was lined up on the line of scrimmage in the slot. Gronkowski was lined up between Sebastian Vollmer (who the Ravens thought was playing right tackle, but was really right guard) and Vereen, but because he was off of the line of scrimmage, Gronkowski was also an eligible receiver, just like a running back lined up in the backfield is an eligible receiver behind a typical five-man offensive line.

The Patriots didn’t want to block the Ravens rush with four men, but Hoomanawanui ran a simple stick route and Brady threw it instantly for an easy first down. That confused me, so let’s all look at the GIF of the play together. Watch what Vereen does in the slot:


Nothing about that play is illegal. It’s tricky as hell to catch up and cover if you’re not looking for it, because the slot receiver turned right tackle gives himself up like he’s trying out for the Arkansas State punt team, the apparent left tackle runs a legal pass route, and the ball’s out so quick that by the time you’re pointing fingers, Hoomanawanui is 10 yards upfield.

Four plays later, the Patriots did the same thing, with Vereen and Hoomanawanui both staying at home as “blockers” split out on the right side, while Brady hit an open Edelman on another stick route on an overloaded left side for an easy completion. Edelman was actually in the slot, but the left tackle, Gronk, ran a parallel stick route, while Vollmer technically was off the line of scrimmage as a blocker:


Then, two plays after that, they went back to the first play they ran. The stick route to their “left tackle,” Hoomanawanui, picked up another first down:


This did not make John Harbaugh very happy. (I’ll spare you the GIF of that one.) Harbaugh picked up an unsportsmanlike conduct flag for walking onto the field to yell at the officials, but since it was first-and-goal, the foul on the Baltimore bench counted for only five yards. Despite what can be characterized only as supertroll comments from the Patriots afterward suggesting that Harbaugh needed to read the rulebook, Harbaugh was not arguing that the Patriots were completing passes to ineligible receivers.

Instead, he was arguing that his team didn’t have the proper time to make substitutions or identify who the eligible receivers actually were after the players had reported to referee Bill Vinovich. By my count, the Patriots ran those three plays between six and 10 seconds after Vinovich identified the ineligible players over the PA. Harbaugh then admitted that he deliberately took the penalty to call attention to how impossible of a task this was. While Vinovich’s crew told Harbaugh after the drive that they would give his team the appropriate time to make those subs, the Patriots scored a touchdown on the drive and then never went back to the tactic again.

Did Harbaugh have a legitimate gripe? Yes and no. There’s nothing illegal about what the Patriots were doing. Running unbalanced lines, moving blockers around a formation, and confusing a defense is all legal, and given the importance of the moment, this was a great time to unleash something confusing. At the same time, defenses are supposed to have the right to make substitutions if the offense makes a late change, with the umpire standing over the football until the defense has had the opportunity to substitute accordingly.

The loophole in that logic comes from the fact that the Patriots really weren’t making mass subs; they were replacing Kline, an offensive lineman, with a skill position player, Hoomanawanui, and then repositioning their skill position players in ways that were deliberately confusing to the defense. The Patriots weren’t technically doing anything illegal, because the rulebook doesn’t account for a change in receiver eligibility, even if the spirit of the law would seem to suggest that the Ravens should have had more of a chance to identify the Patriots’ formation. I suspect that the league will quietly tell the Patriots to cut that out and make an according change to the rulebook this offseason. I also suspect the Ravens will probably not find that to be a satisfying conclusion.1 I can’t fault the Patriots for employing the tactic, but if you thought it had the faint whiff of some tactic you’d see playing Madden online, I wouldn’t disagree.

Baltimore could have overcome New England’s strategic gambit with a little more luck in the first half. While the Ravens went up 14-0 and held a 21-14 lead at halftime after they turned a Brady interception into an Owen Daniels touchdown, they could have stretched their lead even further with a pair of critical fumble recoveries. The ever-busy Amendola fumbled the first kickoff of the game away, and while he was surrounding by frantically pointing Ravens, Chris Jones somehow fell on the football for a recovery. A Ravens recovery would have been worth nearly 4.4 points and swung their win expectancy from 76 percent to 88 percent. Edelman then fumbled at midfield in the second quarter, but, despite being surrounded by three Ravens, managed to recover and continue a drive that ended in a touchdown.

The Ravens got out to that early lead and stayed wildly impressive on offense throughout the first half thanks to a surprisingly dominant performance from their offensive line. It’s no accident that the Ravens were comfortable going five wide on the half-ending touchdown pass to Daniels; the New England pass rush got virtually no pressure on Joe Flacco all day, finishing with no sacks and just four quarterback hits among 45 Flacco dropbacks.

The Baltimore running game also flourished, with Justin Forsett repeatedly waiting patiently in the hole to find creases on stretch plays before bursting into a suddenly open lane for chunks of yardage. He had 10 carries for 78 yards in an efficient first half. After the whistle, the Patriots stiffened up. Forsett was still credible, but his 14 second-half carries managed to pick up only 51 yards.

With the running game slowing down, third downs ended up being what untied the Baltimore offense. The Ravens went just 1-for-9 on third down during the game, including an 0-for-5 mark in the second half that prevented them from extending possessions and keeping the Patriots offense off the field. While they did pick up a third down on a Darrelle Revis holding penalty, their main way of extending drives came on fourth down, where they went 3-for-3. One of these was a bomb to Torrey Smith that included a declined pass interference call on Brandon Browner (we all saw it coming!) and a taunting foul on Smith, neither of which mattered when Forsett took a swing pass to the house on the next play.

And then, of course, there was Flacco. With the Ravens stacking their receivers in the slot or in reduced splits to put the sideline-friendly Patriots cornerbacks in uncomfortable, awkward spots before beating the zone coverages behind, Flacco produced such a masterful first half that I actually thought I saw the boss’s Flacco column singing hosannas on the screen. He went 17-of-22 for 146 yards and three scores before the break.

Afterward, things did not go quite as well. The Patriots seemed to play more man coverage after intermission, even as Browner left the game with a knee injury. Flacco produced 146 more yards after halftime, but it was as part of an 11-for-23 performance that included a touchdown and two critical picks. Was it proof that Flacco never really had the clutch gene or whatever we’re supposed to believe athletes have in key moments all along?

It’s impossible to say. I know you can look at Flacco’s postseason history and see that the first seven games of his playoff career were basically a mess — he barely completed 53 percent of his passes, averaged 5.7 yards per attempt, and threw more interceptions (seven) than touchdowns (four) — before he went on a seven-game hot streak, throwing 17 touchdowns against one pick while winning a Super Bowl. We can see now that Flacco’s first seven postseason games were terrible and yet had absolutely no predictive value whatsoever for what he would do in his next seven games. I’m not sure I believe that Games 8-14 can tell us very much about what he’ll do over his next seven playoff contests, either.

Instead, you have to take the whole picture into account. Flacco’s playoff passer rating, after all this, is now at 88.6. His regular-season passer rating is basically the same, 84.8. To me, that suggests he’s basically the same guy in the postseason.

And yet the NFL playoffs are so unique that we almost always have to draw some meaning out of small samples. You can craft an entire postseason legacy out of a couple hundred passes in a way that you can’t in other sports. Imagine judging Dirk Nowitzki or Derek Jeter on their first 15 playoff games. That’s a blip in baseball or basketball. We’re sure about Andy Dalton’s playoff abilities after just four games.

At the end of the day, it’s all football. Here’s what Joe Flacco saw just before he threw the interception that basically2 ended his team’s season:


You can see exactly why Flacco threw the pass. He had Torrey Smith with a step up the sidelines against Logan Ryan, with Duron Harmon looking like a single-high safety who was too far away to close on the football. Flacco was wrong. Harmon was always looking at that side of the field, and the Patriots had double coverage on the one other receiver they were worried about (Daniels) on the other side. Flacco frantically gets the throw out to try to beat Harmon, but his throw is slightly off, and Flacco misses to the wrong side of Smith’s body. If he misses out of bounds, the game continues. Because the Patriots did just enough to fool him and because he missed ever so slightly to the wrong side, it was an easy interception for Harmon.

There’s nothing innate that has anything to do with the playoffs about that play. It’s a read and a throw and a mistake, just like the one Flacco made earlier in the game on a wheel route to Kyle Juszczyk on a pass that Jamie Collins should have picked off near the end zone. Or, surely, like a handful of plays he made during that 2012 Super Bowl run. The margins are impossibly thin in the NFL playoffs. When it comes to judging players, they’re also the only margins we get.

NFC Divisional Playoffs - Carolina Panthers v Seattle SeahawksOtto Greule Jr./Getty Images

Panthers-Seahawks: Having an Average Weekend

Sometimes, we all forget that this is Russell Wilson’s team. It’s true that quarterbacks usually get too much of the credit, and in a way, it’s refreshing to see the defense and the overwhelming running game get most of the headlines in Seattle. Richard Sherman and Marshawn Lynch are more interesting than Wilson, who admittedly has the personality of a brand’s Twitter account talking in the first person, but there’s a reason the Seahawks became the Seahawks only when Wilson showed up and kicked into high gear about halfway into his rookie season. Seattle might have been able to get by with that great defense and a mediocre day from Lynch against Carolina, but the reason the team sailed through to the conference championship for the second consecutive year so comfortably is its somehow still underrated quarterback.

Wilson still gets painted in some circles as a game manager, simply avoiding mistakes along the way as the rest of the Seattle roster beats down opponents en route to victories. It’s hard to reconcile that with how Wilson plays and how much he has to do for this Seahawks offense, especially when the running game isn’t there. Outside of one 25-yard run from Lynch, the Panthers committed to stopping the run on Saturday night and managed to do so, holding the Seahawks to an even 100 yards on 28 rush attempts, an average of 3.6 yards per carry. Carolina’s game plan surely involved getting Wilson in third-and-long, and on the 10 third downs on which Wilson dropped back to throw, he needed an average of seven yards to convert.

When Seattle needed those third downs, though, Wilson came through and delivered. Throwing to the likes of Jermaine Kearse, Luke Willson, and Ricardo Lockette, Wilson was incredible when possessions were on the line. On those third downs, Wilson went 8-of-8 for 199 yards, three touchdowns, and seven first downs. The one completion that didn’t net a first down was a checkdown that put the Seahawks in field goal range, only for Lockette to blow it by picking up a taunting penalty. While he did go down for two sacks, Wilson had a perfect passer rating of 158.3 on third downs, the first time that’s happened in a playoff game since Ben Roethlisberger did it to the Bengals in the Kimo von Oelhoffen game in 2005.

It wasn’t just what Wilson did, of course; it was how he did it. This wasn’t the sort of game in which Wilson broke a half-dozen sack attempts in the backfield before finding a receiver who had finally freed himself on the sidelines after eight seconds of coverage. This was Wilson dropping back and hitting receivers. The most beautiful throw, of course, was the 63-yard touchdown pass to Kearse, a 35-yard touch pass that Wilson dropped in the bucket over rookie Panthers cornerback Bené Benwikere. It was Wilson anticipating two free rushers and instantly progressing past the blitz to an open Willson for a 25-yard score. It seems weird to disqualify Wilson’s past exploits based on what he can do as a scrambler, but even if you choose to do that, you can’t take away what he was doing on Saturday night.

And really, this isn’t anything new for Seattle’s star quarterback. He’s been raising his game in the playoffs for three years now to a greater extent than the players around him. Lynch, for example, has averaged 19 carries and 88 rushing yards per game during the regular season over the past three seasons. In Seattle’s six playoff games with Wilson over that time frame, Lynch has averaged … 19 carries for 87 rushing yards. Seattle’s defense has allowed a staggering 15.2 points per game since 2012 during the regular season; in the playoffs, that’s risen slightly to 16.8 points per contest.

Wilson, though, has gotten better. His passer rating, already a robust 98.6 during the regular season, is now in stratospheric postseason heights after Saturday’s display. After a nearly flawless effort, Wilson has posted a passer rating of 109.6 in the postseason. He’s off to one of the best six-game starts to a postseason career any quarterback has had since the merger, ranking as one of the six quarterbacks to start off with a passer rating of 100 or more:

That’s pretty impressive company. And Jake Delhomme too! The only quarterback with a touchdown-to-interception ratio close to Wilson is Drew Brees. These numbers also don’t include Wilson’s work as a rushing quarterback, most of which came with a pair of 60-yard games during the 2012 playoffs against Washington and Atlanta. It has to count as one of the most auspicious debuts for a postseason career in league history. Given what we just talked about with Flacco, I’m not sure I’d want to assign Wilson some level of postseason-specific skill that’s going to stick around, but unlike Flacco’s case, this represents the entirety of Wilson’s postseason career. Even if you think it’s just chance, Wilson has been wildly impressive so far.

Even with Wilson’s efforts, the Panthers were able to keep this a one-score game for the first 50 minutes of the contest because of how they were able to exploit the weakness in the Seattle defense. Here, the faults were even more obvious than they were for Baltimore. You can surmise that Cam Newton didn’t really want to challenge Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman, although he did nearly beat Sherman for a touchdown and fit a nice throw into the seam between Thomas and Sherman to Greg Olsen just before throwing a pick-six.

The other side of Seattle’s Cover 3 normally belongs to Byron Maxwell, and while Maxwell is clearly the weak link in Seattle’s secondary, he’s still regarded as an above-average cornerback. Maxwell was sick during the week and limited to four special-teams snaps on Saturday, leaving the Seahawks to start Tharold Simon at cornerback. The Panthers repeatedly went after Simon’s side of the field, targeting him with curl and dig routes, throws that were safe havens for Newton for most of the contest.

On throws to the left side of the field, where Simon was left alone in coverage (or given the help of nickelback Jeremy Lane) for most of the day, Newton was 16-of-21, picking up 169 yards, 11 first downs, and two touchdowns, including a slant across Simon’s face for the first Carolina score of the day. Newton’s QBR on those throws was an impressive 94.3.

Elsewhere, on his throws to the remainder of the field, Newton’s QBR was, well, 0.3. Throwing between the hashmarks and to the right side, Newton went 7-of-15 for 77 yards, three first downs, and two interceptions. One was basically a punt, a bomb that Newton tried to place past Sherman and failed. The other was the Kam Chancellor pick-six that ended the contest, a throw on which Brenton Bersin was literally knocked down and crawling on Simon’s side of the field, leading Newton to look in the other direction, identify an open Ed Dickson one beat too late, and draw Chancellor3 to the football for an easy game-sealing touchdown.

I suspect the Seahawks will not come away from this performance feeling especially impressed with themselves. They let the Panthers do far too much on offense, the running game was bottled up, and the Seahawks made a number of mental mistakes to level the playing field, including a pair of taunting penalties that likely cost them six points. Then again, Seattle was thoroughly unimpressive in this game last year, needing a late surge to overcome its NFC South opposition, the Saints, 23-15. And things worked out fine for the team in the long run.

Denver Broncos vs. Indianapolis Colts in an AFC divisional playoff gameJohn Leyba/The Denver Post/Getty Images

Colts-Broncos: Dance of the Hours

If this is the end, it arrived and went without glory. I’m not sure what I pictured when I thought about how Peyton Manning’s career might finish. I think I expected him to be effective until the final snap, that the end of the road for the greatest quarterback in the history of professional football might come after a doctor’s meeting in March or after a successful season that brought him some final level of satisfaction. I know I didn’t think it would be what we saw Sunday night.

Instead, despite both my best-informed estimates and hopes, Denver’s rapidly shifting game plan over the past month was not a sign the Broncos were saving the few bullets left in Manning’s right arm for a postseason run. It was an attempt to shift the focus away from a quarterback who wasn’t capable of his former brilliance. Manning’s struggles were laid bare and confirmed Sunday, as the Colts showed no fear of their former franchise quarterback in a comprehensive 24-13 victory in Denver.

What was most noticeable about the Colts defense in this game was just how unafraid they were of Manning. It’s one thing for the Seahawks to play Cover 3 Buzz in the Super Bowl and dare Manning to throw over the top. They’re the Seahawks, and they were still worried about Manning fitting in a steady stream of efficient completions underneath, as he would versus those Seahawks in Week 3 this season. Indy wasn’t worried about Denver’s big, athletic receivers running past them or jumping over them. They weren’t scared because they seemed to know that Manning wouldn’t be able to find them.

Indy played press man coverage across the board on so many key snaps on Sunday, and while the old Broncos — let alone the old Colts with Manning  might have run all kinds of pick plays to free up receivers or found Manning capable of throwing over the top for a big gain on at least an occasional basis, the Colts dared Manning to beat them over and over again and never had the future Hall of Famer call their bluff.

Manning was limited to meekly trying to poke holes with option routes and shallow crosses, using his anticipation and knowledge of the breaks to try to get passes out before the trailing Colts defenders would look for the football. When Manning would try to throw over the top, his passes came nowhere near his intended receiver. He threw 12 passes that traveled 15 yards or more in the air, completing just two for a total of 49 yards. Manning’s QBR on those throws, 7.2, is the third-worst performance he’s had on deep throws since returning from his neck surgeries.

The numbers seem secondary. Before a meaningless final drive, Manning left the field with scarcely believable numbers. While the game was still a competitive contest, Manning was 21-of-40 for 152 yards. Even that might oversell how much of an exhausting effort it felt like and how small the windows seemed to be. I wouldn’t want to suggest that Manning got a ton of help from his receivers. Demaryius Thomas dropped a pair of catchable passes near the line of scrimmage. Julius Thomas continued to look like a shell of his former self during those brief moments when you actually noticed he was on the field. Manning’s receivers seemed to suddenly develop a weird habit of finishing their patterns short of the sticks, a problem that arguably owes something to where Manning was placing his passes. Denver finished just 4-of-16 on third down, preventing it from ever getting any sort of long drives going. Broncos fans will look back at this game and remember C.J. Anderson’s heroic effort to break a pair of tackles on a fourth-down conversion as one of the few highlights worth remembering.

As bad as Manning looked on his own, the Colts deserve a lot of credit for how they performed. Chuck Pagano implemented an aggressive game plan and trusted an inconsistent defense to execute it, even after they somehow ended up with LaRon Landry in coverage on two big plays during Denver’s lone touchdown drive. Vontae Davis, in particular, delivered a monster performance. He knocked away five Manning passes, nearly coming away with a pick to seal up the game in the fourth quarter. There were three Pro Bowl cornerbacks on the field, but Davis was in a class of his own.

Aqib Talib and Chris Harris would have a bright stretch during a brief respite for Denver in the fourth quarter, but otherwise, they spent most of the day chasing around shadows. The Denver pass rush simply failed to show up for work, as a group centered on the one-two punch of Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware was held to zero sacks and just four knockdowns of Andrew Luck on 45 dropbacks. Indianapolis’s much-maligned offensive line, particularly tackles Anthony Castonzo and Joe Reitz, deserves an enormous amount of credit for holding up against stars who were supposed to be out of their league.

It was no coincidence that the Colts had the confidence to go five-wide on a crucial second-half third-and-16, with Luck using the space to find Coby Fleener against overmatched rookie linebacker Todd Davis for 32 yards. The Colts would score three plays later, when Luck had ample time to wander around in the pocket before Hakeem Nicks was able to work his way in front of Bradley Roby for a crucial touchdown. The Colts went up 21-10 and were never one play away from trailing the rest of the way.

It’s natural to present this win as a changing of the guard, that Luck is somehow taking Manning’s place at the throne by virtue of beating his Indianapolis predecessor in what might have been Manning’s final game. Maybe it is. More likely, Luck belonged here already. He took that place last year when he led the Colts back against the Chiefs. While Luck played well Sunday — his two interceptions were essentially arm punts — this was a team victory for Indianapolis.

The more notable transition might have been internal, with the Colts leaving Trent Richardson inactive as a healthy scratch. So many of the frustrations of the past were tied up in Richardson and the idea that the team would never reach its goals with mediocrities like him surrounding Luck. Having made it to the wild-card round before losing during Luck’s rookie season, they’ve now advanced one round further in each of his subsequent seasons. They will now try to overcome a Patriots team that’s beaten Luck three times by three touchdowns or more, a problem they’ll be happy to face in the AFC Championship Game.

As for Manning, his refusal to commit to another season after the game was telling. It was only a couple of weeks ago that both Manning and the players around him insisted he had no plans of retiring; now, in light of this overwhelming defeat, Manning suggests he will evaluate his 2015 status in the weeks to come.

He may be without the coaches who have worked with him during his time in Denver. Rumors swirled Sunday morning that the Broncos would consider firing John Fox if he failed to deliver a playoff victory, a seemingly cruel fate for a coach who has gone 46-18 while making the playoffs in each of his four seasons with the Broncos. The move would possibly allow the Broncos to promote offensive coordinator Adam Gase to head coach in lieu of losing Gase to another team, although his stock might also wane after Sunday’s disappointing display. In any case, Manning acknowledged that a coaching shakeup would affect any possible decision for him to return in 2015.

It seemed downright unspeakable as recently as a few months ago, but the Broncos could even consider moving on from Manning if they feel like his $21.5 million cap hit for 2015 is too much of a burden. Manning’s 2015 base salary of $19 million becomes guaranteed if he’s on the roster for the final day of the 2014 league year, which will come on March 9. If the Broncos release Manning before that date, they would save $16.5 million on their 2015 cap, money they could apply to extensions for the likes of Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, and Terrance Knighton. Denver’s quarterback depth chart would then consist solely of 2012 second-rounder Brock Osweiler.

The alternative to all of that, of course, is that Manning walks into retirement. If he leaves, we’ll eventually forget about this game and remember a greatness that extended deep into his final season, when he still managed to finish among the league leaders in just about every statistical category. It would seem weird that Manning posted one of the greatest seasons in NFL history in 2013 and was done a year later, but stranger things have happened. Jim Brown and Barry Sanders retired in the prime of their careers.

For Manning, you would understand if there’s nothing left to accomplish. He has his Super Bowl ring and his passing touchdown record. He would retire 2,147 yards short of Brett Favre’s passing yardage record, but Manning may not feel the need to set any more records. He may very well just feel the need to live up to expectations, to play at the level people expect when they watch Peyton Manning play. Sunday was the first time on a big stage that it felt like Manning might never match those expectations again. Now, it’s up to Manning to choose whether it’s also the last.

Divisional Playoffs - Dallas Cowboys v Green Bay PackersMike McGinnis/Getty Images

Cowboys-Packers: Feel It All Around

Somehow, it happened again. After last week’s Cowboys playoff game was easily reduced to a game-changing questionable call, this week’s edition was even further boiled down to your opinion of the biggest decision of the divisional round, Dez Bryant’s 31-yard reception on fourth-and-2 that was overturned upon replay review. On the surface, the story was the same. Break down the play and what it meant even further and you see that everything was different.

Of course, the obvious difference is who benefited from the call. Last week, it was the Cowboys who reaped the rewards from the decision to pick up the flag thrown on Anthony Hitchens for pass interference. This time around, the Cowboys were the ones on the short end. Depending on how capable you are of constructing conspiracy theories, a crucial call going against the Cowboys either proves the NFL was trying to cover up last week’s obvious plot to fix the playoffs in favor of Dallas or suggests that the Packers have a way cooler party bus for Dean Blandino than the Cowboys did.

More realistically, the most meaningful gap between the call made by Pete Morelli’s crew and the decision made by Gene Steratore’s all-star group this week is the accuracy. Morelli got the call wrong; he wiped away a penalty on Hitchens that should have stood, either as pass interference or defensive holding. Steratore’s call, as made upon review, was the correct one. By the letter of the law, Bryant didn’t maintain control of the ball when he hit the ground. That’s an incomplete pass, and while it took a Packers challenge to get the call right, the system worked as it was supposed to. The only disagreement I can imagine is if somebody wanted to argue that the evidence wasn’t overwhelming enough to overturn the call, which I would say is debatable.

Of course, you can argue that the rule itself doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense, and I think you would be right. If you asked 30 Helens who just happened to be football fans whether Bryant’s amazing play was a catch, I suspect most of them would agree. You could make the case that Bryant was reaching for the end zone after catching the football, although I don’t know if that’s what really happened. Defining what is and isn’t a catch is, despite most protests to the contrary, arbitrary and almost entirely subject to the whims of the observer. I’d be all for writing up a different definition of what represents a catch in the future, but I also don’t think the NFL will ever come to a definition that holds up without at some point creating controversy.

Unlike the Hitchens play, the Bryant decision had a far more meaningful impact on who actually won the football game. Given that the Lions maintained possession and faced a fourth-and-1 with the lead, the missed pass interference call didn’t affect their win expectancy dramatically. According to Advanced Football Analytics, the call shifted their win expectancy by only about 12 percentage points.

This time, Bryant’s would-be catch was the biggest play of the game. When it was initially ruled a catch, the Cowboys became favorites to win the contest. After being down five and facing fourth-and-2 from the Packers’ 32-yard line, they now had possession on the 1-yard line with a new set of downs and 4:42 to go. The AFA model leaves the Cowboys with about a 55 percent chance of winning.4

Instead, when the call was overturned, the Cowboys were down five, minutes away from receiving the football, and likely stuck overcoming about 80 yards of field position if they even found a chance to return a punt. Their chances of winning after the call was overturned were somewhere in the 15 percent range, for a win expectancy swing of 40 percentage points. Indeed, when the Packers picked up a pair of third-down conversions on throws to Davante Adams and Randall Cobb, it meant the Cowboys offense would never touch the ball again.

The furor over the call masks a stunning second-half effort from Aaron Rodgers, who turned things on after looking limited during an inconsistent first half. Rodgers’s now-infamous calf didn’t appear to have healed all that much, with the MVP candidate struggling to step into throws, notably sailing a couple of corner routes to Cobb that should have been completions. The Packers took 26 of their 65 snaps in the pistol and put Rodgers under center for just the final three kneeldowns of the game, but they were unable to rely heavily on Eddie Lacy, who gained 45 yards on the opening drive before missing much of the first half because of an asthma attack.

After halftime, though, Rodgers seemed to ignore his limitations and play like his usual self. While he needed to skip to the line of scrimmage at times during the first half, Rodgers settled down and delivered one of the best halves he’s ever produced in the playoffs, going 15-of-20 for 226 yards with two touchdowns. He found a target in Cowboys cornerback Sterling Moore, who was beaten by Cobb and, more notably, Adams. Adams ran a dig route past Moore for the 46-yard touchdown that brought the Packers within one point, and when Green Bay was up late and needed a third-down conversion, it was Adams who dragged a Rodgers pass away from Moore and shoved him aside to pick up 26 critical yards.

Like the Ravens, the Cowboys might have been able to seal up the game before the Bryant non-catch with a couple of breaks on fumbles earlier in the contest. While each team recovered three fumbles, the Packers picked up what might have been the two biggest fumbles of the contest, both in the second half. The first was when Julius Peppers stripped DeMarco Murray on an off-tackle run in the third quarter, with Datone Jones recovering for the Packers. It was disheartening to see fumble woes return for the otherwise excellent Murray, but Cowboys fans had to have been more upset with the context. While losing the ball on the 42-yard line is relatively innocuous, Troy Aikman noted that Murray had nothing but daylight in front of him and would have probably scored if he got past Peppers, who shed All-Pro guard Zack Martin to force the fumble and was wonderful all afternoon.

Then, after Tony Romo led a six-play, 80-yard drive to put the Cowboys up by eight points in the third quarter, Cobb fumbled on the ensuing kickoff. Green Bay was lucky to come away with a recovery — if Dallas had fallen on the football, it almost surely would have gone up by a minimum of 11 points, which would have totally changed the tactics for each team. The Cowboys might have had a shot to run out the clock with what had been a very effective running game in the fourth quarter instead of needing to throw to catch up. Instead of Dallas going up 24-13 or even 28-13, Green Bay recovered the football and quickly drove 90 yards for a touchdown to make the score 21-20. From that point forward, the game was a crapshoot.

If there’s any silver lining, it’s that this is the rare Dallas playoff loss that Cowboys backers can remember with their heads held high. Romo and Jason Garrett, at the helm of so many disappointments in big games over the past several seasons, delivered solid performances in a game the Cowboys might have deserved to win. Romo took a couple of ill-advised sacks, and Dallas built its offensive attack around the running game, but he also made a bunch of plays when he needed to, going 15-of-19 for 191 yards with two touchdowns and zero picks.

Garrett, meanwhile, maintained his aggressive streak from a week ago and went for it on the fourth-and-2 call that decided the game. You can quibble with choosing to throw a fade to Bryant as opposed to simply handing the ball off to Murray, but the Cowboys came away with a pass that hit Bryant in the hands and very likely should have been caught. Some, in fact, would say it was.

Filed Under: 2015 NFL Playoffs, New England Patriots, Baltimore Ravens, Indianapolis Colts, Denver Broncos, Seattle Seahawks, Carolina Panthers, Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers


Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell