We all wasted our time. Heading into this 2013 NFL season, the four favorites expected to compete for the Lombardi Trophy were the 49ers, Broncos, Patriots, and Seahawks. And sure enough, four and a half months after the season kicked off, we’re down to those very four teams. Think of all the things you could have done with your Sundays! All those hours spent at work wasted reading these diatribes! Trust me: Had I known that it was just going to come down to those four teams, I would have told you in August and gone on vacation for four months.
Here we are, and if I’m being honest, the favorites all sneaking through might be the biggest surprise of all. It seems like every final four in recent years has had some unexpected interloper, like the Ravens a year ago or the Giants the season before that. As the boss noted, this weekend marked the first divisional round since the 2004 playoffs without even one underdog springing an upset.1 Considering that the divisional round went without an underdog victory five out of 10 years during the ’90s, it’s been a steady run with at least one underdog breaking through each year.
Upset in this sense referring to the Vegas line for the game, not the seeding of the teams. Denver, New England, and Seattle were all comfortable favorites, while San Francisco was a slight favorite over Carolina.
Of course, unless you’re a fan of one of the four teams that lost this weekend, you’re probably not complaining. Next Sunday, we’ll see Brady-Manning XV, the latest chapter in a series of games that somehow manages to produce a compelling contest each time out. Then, we’ll get the matchup that might very well become the millennial answer to that quarterback battle, Wilson-Kaepernick IV. Maybe we should have fast-forwarded from August to the end of January, but since we’ve been watching all along, let’s figure out how our four favorites made their way through the divisional round into the conference championships.
Survival of the Coolest
While the Saints could win away from the controlled climate of the Superdome, it’s also fair to say their season was waylaid by two particularly brutal storm systems. In Week 16, a Charlotte downpour produced enough third-quarter rain to stifle any possibility of passing, leaving the pass-happy Saints vulnerable to a last-minute touchdown drive in the sun from Cam Newton. That knocked the Saints into the wild card and turned what would have been a home playoff game in the divisional round into a trip to Seattle, where they spent the entire contest battling heavy rain and wild wind.2 Those same conditions — and an impressive performance by an underrated Saints defense — also slowed down the Seattle offense, which needed a late surge from its weather-resistant running game to seal things up at home.
The Saints likely would have had to travel to Seattle anyway, but they could have delayed that trip until the NFC Championship Game, for which the weather is expected to be relatively mild.
If you plan on buying a pack of Skittles anywhere near New Orleans over the next few years, be prepared to get a dirty look or two. Marshawn Lynch broke Saints fans’ hearts for the second time in three playoff runs on Saturday; this time, though, the BeastQuake was replaced by a steady shaking that rumbled for hours before culminating in another fourth-quarter touchdown. In 2010, Lynch had a relatively pedestrian 57 rushing yards across his first 16 carries before breaking off that legendary 67-yard touchdown, with a 272-yard, four-touchdown game from Matt Hasselbeck producing most of the offense for Seattle.
On Saturday, Russell Wilson and his receivers delivered an uneven performance, especially after the returning Percy Harvin was knocked out of the game in the first half with a concussion. After serving as Seattle’s primary path to points in the 34-7 blowout of the Saints in December, Wilson seemed to throw an endless barrage of incomplete slants as part of a 9-for-18 day that produced only 103 yards through the air. Almost a quarter of the yards (24) came on his biggest play of the day, a lob to Doug Baldwin as a hot read against a big Rob Ryan blitz that echoed a similar Wilson throw from the first contest. After a desperate New Orleans challenge of the catch fell short, Lynch’s 31-yard mini-quake down the sideline seemed to seal up the contest. He finished the day with more first downs (six) than the entire Seahawks passing attack (five).
Seattle’s inability to throw the ball allowed the Saints to get back into the contest — twice — after a brutal first half. Drew Brees was just 5-of-12 for 34 yards in a scheme that was designed to run the ball and try to create easy completions against the swirling winds and the fearsome Seattle pass defense. New Orleans tried to limit the impact of star Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman by coming out in one-wideout sets with that lone wideout on the opposite side of the formation, leaving Sherman matched up against a bulky tight end in run support. The Saints had plenty of success running the football during the first half, with Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson combining for 106 yards on 23 carries, but poor finishing and the absence of the passing game prevented that from turning into much more than trivia. A poor hold from Luke McCown3 helped push a 45-yard field goal into the wind wide, one of two field goals Shayne Graham would miss on the day. A fourth-and-4 conversion attempt from Brees was knocked away by Bobby Wagner. A 16-yard punt on the opening drive gave the Seahawks great field position for their first score of the day. And an Ingram fumble on the New Orleans 24-yard line set up Lynch for the first of his two touchdowns.
As is the case for 99 percent of the football-watching population of America, the only thing I am sure of in terms of the mechanics of holding and kicking a football is that the laces need to be out.
That fumble came courtesy of Seahawks lineman Michael Bennett, who was the most impactful player on either side of the ball for either team on Saturday. Bennett finished the day with only a half-sack, but that woefully underreports his game-changing performance. Not only did he knock the ball out of Ingram’s hands on that fumble, he even recovered the loose ball, a feat also known as a Clowney. Bennett would later strip Brees on that half-sack, with Saints guard Jahri Evans recovering. Evans, a perennial Pro Bowler, was torched by Bennett. Not only did Bennett beat him on that third-down sack of Brees (and do a Rick Rude hip swivel afterward), the Seattle lineman also abused Evans on the fourth-and-4 conversion attempt, forcing Brees off his spot and into a pass that Wagner was able to bat away. Bennett even appeared to force a third fumble, only for Robinson to narrowly be ruled down before the ball came out.
One of the league’s most underrated defenders and a superb two-way defensive lineman, Bennett’s presence on this Seattle roster is a reminder of the competitive advantage the Seahawks enjoy. Squeezed by the veteran free-agent market last offseason, Bennett was able to sign with already-rich Seattle on a one-year, $4.8 million deal because Wilson will make only $681,000 this year. Brees, who has a $17.4 million cap hit, makes more than a million dollars per game. Brees deserves it, but the opportunity cost of paying Brees like a superstar is the chance to sign somebody like Bennett or Cliff Avril when the market collapses and there’s talent sitting around for relatively cheap prices. That’s the depth that helped carry Seattle through this game. New Orleans, meanwhile, is already $9 million over the 2014 cap, and it’s got a pressing free agent who didn’t impress in what might have been his final game with the team.
Jimmy Graham’s biggest impact of the day came before the game ever started, when he knocked Bruce Irvin’s hat off during pregame warm-ups. The Saints actually sat Graham for stretches during their run-heavy first half, but even when he made his way onto the field, the Seahawks ensured he would be a nonfactor. Graham finished with just one catch for eight yards amid his six targets, and that catch came as a checkdown with 26 seconds left that the Seahawks were happy to allow. It’s hard to imagine that the Saints won’t do whatever it takes to bring back their star tight end, but if the league designates him as a wide receiver4 and prevents the Saints from franchising him with the relatively cheap tag afforded to tight ends, they might have to gut the roster to sign him. In New Orleans’s four big losses this year — the two against Seattle, the loss to Carolina, and the blown lead against New England — Graham caught just nine of the 32 passes thrown to him, an inefficient figure for an offense built around hyperefficiency.
Which is a fair assessment because he plays the vast majority of his snaps split out as a wideout.
Even without Graham and with the weather nipping at their cleats, New Orleans launched a fourth-quarter comeback. A pair of long completions to Josh Hill and Marques Colston set up a Robinson plunge, and the two-point conversion brought the Saints within one score at 16-8. After the teams exchanged punts, Sean Payton wisely called for another comeback team’s big play and dialed up a Brees duck that was so badly underthrown that Earl Thomas and Byron Maxwell both went for the interception, merely tipping the pass up to Robert Meachem for a 52-yard completion. The Saints got sloppy afterward, taking a delay of game before the subsequent snap and then burning a timeout to avoid another on second down. Payton called for a screen on third down to likely create an easier fourth-down conversion opportunity, but when that fell incomplete, he was left with few good options and chose to attempt a 48-yard field goal with Shayne Graham, who missed, with Lynch’s run making it a 15-point game three plays later. A two-minute drill touchdown and a recovered onside kick was enough to give the Saints a glimmer of hope, but when Colston curiously tried to start a lateral-fest with three seconds left on the clock and the ability to go out of bounds for a final play, Seattle was able to hold on for a narrow win.
The Colts mostly brought the wrong parts of last week’s amazing comeback victory over the Chiefs with them to New England. The turnovers hopped onto the team flight, with a four-giveaway day meaning that the Colts turned the ball over eight times in the playoffs after just 14 giveaways during the regular season. The freakishly brilliant downfield throws from Andrew Luck showed up, too, as the most exciting — and consistently successful — play of the playoffs remained Luck throwing the ball to somebody out of the camera’s view for a second consecutive week. The overmatched defense, sadly for Colts fans, also showed up in Foxborough. The biggest problem for the Colts was that somebody who was missing a week ago happened to be in Massachusetts on Saturday: a viable starting running back.
It was difficult to compare each of these team’s key acquisitions at running back, what they did on Saturday night, and what they reveal about each team’s respective plan in building a roster. Both de facto Patriots general manager Bill Belichick and actual Colts general manager Ryan Grigson are known for a devotion to the back of their roster and an interest in acquiring undervalued players.
For the Patriots, that meant sending occasional return man Jeff Demps and a seventh-round pick to Tampa Bay for LeGarrette Blount, a power back who had fallen out of favor with Belichick acolyte and doghouse aficionado Greg Schiano by virtue of a lack of versatility and a poor performance in a small sample as the team’s goal-line back. By doing so in the offseason, the Patriots gave themselves four months to see if Blount fit into their system before making a decision on whether to keep him on the roster. New England also insisted that Blount take a pay cut to the veteran’s minimum when making the deal, so if they kept him, Blount would make peanuts. Indy, meanwhile, reacted to the season-ending injury of starting halfback Vick Ballard by sending a first-round pick to the Browns for their starter, Trent Richardson, who then needed to learn the Indianapolis playbook on the fly. Grigson unquestionably saw the deal as an opportunity to buy low on the third overall pick from the 2012 draft, but buying low with a seventh-round pick and a track star in April is much different from buying low with a future first-rounder in September.
Richardson had three carries for a total of one yard, an unquestionable step up from his performance of a week ago, if only because he didn’t fumble. Blount did slightly better, running for 166 yards and four touchdowns on 24 carries, including a 73-yarder that put a lurking Colts comeback on ice early in the fourth quarter. What passed for plodding and lethargic in Tampa was suddenly reincarnated as bruising and direct in New England, as Blount snapped through arm tackles and pushed piles forward for eight first downs. The Colts must have known it was coming, since Blount was handed the football on 24 of his 28 offensive snaps, but there was little they could do to stop it.
In fact, a lot of what happened on Saturday and over the preceding few games could be seen as an indictment of Grigson’s offseason. While the Colts weren’t exactly getting a Wilsonesque bargain with their starting quarterback, Luck’s $5 million cap hold and the cap clearing that Indy had conducted after its 2-14 season left it flush with cash after its surprising 11-5 campaign during Luck’s rookie year. Grigson made moves to upgrade the talent level up and down the roster, but they had little impact on Saturday. Richardson has been spoken for. Safety LaRon Landry badly whiffed on the tackle that sprung Blount for that 73-yard touchdown run. Nose tackle Ricky Jean-Francois and outside linebacker Erik Walden, brought in to improve the league’s worst run defense, were mostly anonymous in allowing the Patriots to run for 234 yards.5 Cornerback Greg Toler, an injury-prone Cardinals backup before signing with Indy to start, went on IR a week ago. And wideout Darrius Heyward-Bey, who could have taken some of the pressure off T.Y. Hilton, was benched before missing this game with injury. Right tackle Gosder Cherilus was the one offseason signing who had a nice game, albeit with a massive cap figure attached.
To be fair, Walden did have more of an impact as a pass-rusher, picking up a sack and knocking Brady down. He had a better game than Jean-Francois.
As has often been the case with the Colts over the past two years, they ebbed and flowed upon the right arm of Luck, who alternated bad throws with unstoppable ones for a second consecutive week. He stared down LaVon Brazill on the opening third down of the game, allowing corner Alfonzo Dennard to nearly take the ensuing interception to the house. His second pick was the result of a muffed catch by fullback Stanley Havili, but the third saw Luck force a pass over the middle of the field in the fourth quarter, only to be cut off by the wildly impressive Jamie Collins, who had an excellent night as a coverage linebacker. Of course, Luck also put together a number of stunning passes for big plays, including a pair of touchdown passes to Brazill and a pair of gorgeous passes to Hilton.
The Colts were helped back into the game in the third quarter by two of those linked plays in an 80-yard, three-play touchdown trip that brought them back to within a touchdown. They might have been even closer with a little bit of help. A second-quarter punt attempt from Patriots rookie Ryan Allen went horribly wrong, as a snap from midfield bounded over his head and bounced all the way to the New England 3-yard line. Allen is unquestionably taught to kick the ball out of the end zone for a safety on such a play, but instead he tried to field the ball and fumbled, with the ball being batted out of the end zone for a safety. It was a fortuitous bit of luck for the Patriots; had Allen been tackled without fumbling or had the fumble been recovered by the Colts, they would have picked up first-and-goal from the 3-yard line.6 While the Colts would have lost the two guaranteed points from the safety with a recovery, possession on the 3-yard line with four downs to go is a far more valuable proposition than the guarantee of a safety and an extra possession. I wrote about this several weeks ago, and while the numbers aren’t exactly the same because the ball wouldn’t be on the 1-yard line (as it was then), the expected return with the ball near the goal line is still far greater than the safety alternative. Allen would injure himself on the play, with Stephen Gostkowski filling in admirably as an emergency punter. With Allen’s status questionable, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Patriots place him on injured reserve and bring in a veteran punter for the remainder of the playoffs.7
Some have suggested that Allen was trying to pass when he picked up the football; that would be a great play, since it would have resulted in an incomplete pass, which would turn the ball over while returning the ball to the original line of scrimmage. In any case, he didn’t have the time to make that sort of play.
That punter will not be former Patriots starter Zoltan Mesko, since Mesko was signed by the Bengals in December and punted for them in the wild-card round, which leaves him ineligible to play for the Patriots.
Instead, the Colts never managed to get any closer than six points behind the Patriots, and when a Luck interception was sandwiched by rushing touchdowns from Blount and Stevan Ridley in the fourth quarter, they fell behind by 21 points with 11 minutes to go. Their hopes weren’t helped when they were stopped on the ensuing drive and Chuck Pagano decided to punt on fourth-and-1 from their own 29-yard line, apparently simultaneously believing in his team to stop the Patriots before scoring three unanswered touchdowns without being able to trust it to pick up one yard. There are many reasons to like Indy — they play in a weak division, Luck is brilliant, Pagano is a great motivator and a very solid defensive schemer — but there’s still a lot of work to be done. The Colts want to resemble the intelligent aggressiveness8 of Belichick and these Patriots, but on Saturday, New England scolded them while resembling an oft-told Roger Ebert put-down: “You can play the notes. Someday, you may be able to play the music.”
To be fair, Belichick did punt in a meaningless situation from the Indianapolis 26-yard line late in the fourth quarter.
Boat Dreams From the Hill
The Riverboat Ron Rivera turnaround this year in Charlotte was marked by overwhelming success. That was both a blessing and a curse. After a dropped fourth-down pass in an early-season loss to the Cardinals, the Panthers converted eight consecutive meaningful fourth-down tries, with all eight either producing touchdowns or coming on drives that would end in touchdowns. Seven of those conversions came in wins. It was such a successful tactic, in fact, that a key question remained: What would Riverboat Ron do when a key fourth-down decision didn’t go the way he planned? Sunday showed both the positive and negative impact of a failed fourth-down conversion, one that eventually seemed to shift the game entirely.
Carolina’s first failed fourth-down conversion on the goal line all season came on the opening play of the second quarter on Sunday. After three runs by Mike Tolbert and Cam Newton could only push the ball from the 6-yard line to the 1, the first quarter ended, leaving Rivera with a few minutes to debate his decision. After some politicking from Newton, Rivera trusted his quarterback and let him try to sneak into the end zone, only for Newton to be stopped a half-yard shy of the goal line.
Part of the logic in going for it on fourth down in this situation is that even a failed conversion leaves the opposing team in rough shape. The 49ers couldn’t have exhibited that much more perfectly than they did. San Francisco’s ensuing possession produced a sneak by Colin Kaepernick for breathing room, a thrown-away pass, and a bad decision from the San Francisco quarterback that should have produced a pick-six, only for Panthers safety Quintin Mikell to drop the gift. And the benefits weren’t done! San Francisco then punted from its own end zone, with a 24-yard return from Ted Ginn (likely owing to San Francisco defending against a block) providing the Panthers with a new set of downs on the San Francisco 31-yard line, leaving them in field goal range before the drive even began. On the first play of the drive, Newton hit a streaking Steve Smith for a 31-yard touchdown.
After a San Francisco punt, the Carolina offense kept humming. With the Panthers pulling out a surprisingly pass-happy scheme while mixing in option elements that they had only used sparingly throughout the season, Carolina drove 79 yards to the San Francisco 1-yard line. There, they were stuffed on a Newton play-action keeper on second down and even lost a yard with a handoff to Tolbert on third down, producing a fourth-and-goal from the 1.5-yard line. Now, with a 7-6 lead and five plays suggesting that his team couldn’t do much against this San Francisco front, Rivera took a delay of game before kicking a field goal to go up 10-6. The game was over and he didn’t even know it.
Should Rivera have kicked? I don’t think so. It’s important to not just assume that the averages are the perfect measures of each team’s probability, but it’s also important to not get caught up in a small sample over the larger sample, either. As Brian Burke noted, the 49ers had allowed touchdowns on 10 of 15 attempts from the 1-yard line over the past two seasons, leaving them worse than the league average. Carolina had scored on 15 of its 19 plays from the 1-yard line, well above the league average. They had been stuffed four times from the 1-yard line on Sunday, but their chances weren’t zero percent, either. A failure would also have pinned San Francisco inside its own 2-yard line, and if you’re going to include the four earlier stuffs by the 49ers as meaningful information, you also have to include their ugly three-and-out as evidence that giving them a possession inside their own 2-yard line was probably going to produce a three-and-out, too. The case for going for it isn’t quite as clear-cut because of the earlier failures, but given how much success the Panthers had enjoyed by going for it on fourth down all season, why not stick with the philosophy that turned around your team and trust that you’ll come up with a big play when you need one?
I hate it when people look back and pick one arbitrary moment as the turning point of a game, but, well, the Panthers basically went downhill from the moment Rivera kicked the field goal. Ironically, during the first game between these two teams, Jim Harbaugh passed on a fourth-and-short in the second quarter with his running game getting beaten up by the Carolina front seven to take a delay of game and kick a field goal. Carolina responded to that by immediately marching downfield and scoring a touchdown. On Sunday, after the Panthers made the conservative call, it was the 49ers who reacted with a score. Kaepernick drove the 49ers 79 yards in just less than four minutes, throwing a touchdown pass to Vernon Davis with five seconds left to give the 49ers an unlikely 13-10 halftime lead. After the Panthers went three-and-out to start the second half, the 49ers produced an 80-yard drive that ended with Kaepernick running past Panthers corner Drayton Florence for a four-yard score. The Panthers were left with a win expectancy of 20 percent at that point, and it wouldn’t rise above 25 percent the rest of the way, with Newton taking two huge sacks to end one drive and throwing an interception to seal the game late in the fourth.
Those were poor plays from Newton, but blaming this loss on him would be extremely harsh. He was extremely impressive before the aforementioned field goal, starting the game 8-for-10 for 136 yards with the touchdown pass to Smith. His two incompletions were an interception tipped in the air en route to its target by his own player and a pass that hit Greg Olsen in the hands. Newton was also Carolina’s primary running back over that stretch, carrying the ball seven times for 40 yards while taking big hits both inside and outside the pocket. He also led drives of nine and 15 plays in the second half, albeit with the subpar endings. Those drives also came without his top receiver, as Smith9 — who caught all four passes thrown to him for a total of 74 yards and a touchdown in the first half — started to feel his sprained knee in the second half and wasn’t targeted after the opening drive of the third quarter. Newton was marching down the field on the 49ers with Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn at wide receiver. That should say a lot.
Your postgame quote of the day from Smith? He suggested that Charlotte should host a Super Bowl, justifying it by noting, “No reason we can’t. Jacksonville ain’t no stellar town.” Can a town have bulletin-board material?
Carolina’s vaunted defense, which put on one of the most impressive performances of the season against this 49ers team the first time they played, also didn’t have a great day. Carolina’s secondary picked up a pair of personal foul penalties in the first quarter that extended two drives, each of which resulted in field goals,10 before Josh Thomas took an unconscionable third personal foul after a third-down stop in the fourth quarter that extinguished Carolina’s already-slim chances of coming back. Those personal fouls were San Francisco’s most effective offensive plays in the first quarter. The dominant front four, sacking Kaepernick in the first contest, failed to sack him once or really get consistent pressure on the 49ers quarterback. Luke Kuechly picked up Carolina’s lone sack of the game on a delayed blitz, but even the All-Pro middle linebacker slipped and fell on Davis’s touchdown catch. Carolina held Davis and Michael Crabtree in check, but Anquan Boldin got the better of rookie Panthers cornerback Melvin White for most of the day, catching eight of his 12 targets for 136 of Kaepernick’s 196 passing yards. Florence, playing as a slot cornerback, was a disaster for most of the contest. And while Frank Gore nearly fumbled away a key possession on a botched handoff inside the Carolina 5-yard line in the third quarter, his 39-yard run on third-and-1 had the 49ers booking their tickets to Seattle.
One of those calls was for a head-butt on Anquan Boldin, which undoubtedly must have felt frustrating for Panthers fans when a later head-butt by Boldin went unnoticed.
I don’t think Rivera’s decision to kick had any tangible lasting impact upon how his team played the rest of the way. There’s no reason his defense should have collapsed upon the offense deciding to kick a field goal, and that’s why his team lost. In a game between two great defenses, though, you never know how many opportunities you’ll get to score touchdowns or how valuable those touchdowns might be. After they kicked the field goal, the Panthers didn’t run a single offensive play inside the red zone until the final meaningless snap. And now, they’ll head to the offseason already cap-strapped by a string of questionable Marty Hurney contracts, with the Falcons and Buccaneers each likely to be significantly better in 2014 than they were in 2013. You have to take your chances when you have them. The Panthers might have just missed theirs.
You could feel it happening to Peyton Manning again. After three quarters of sloppy play against a dismal Chargers team had managed to produce only a 17-0 lead, the Chargers had scored 17 points to Denver’s seven in the fourth quarter, collecting a perfect onside kick along the way, to get within seven points of the Broncos at 24-17. With 3:53 left, Denver’s defensive collapse had spread to its offense. After the Chargers kicked deep,11 the Broncos committed a false start before Knowshon Moreno lost two yards on a carry and Manning had a pass to Demaryius Thomas fall incomplete. It felt like the Broncos defense had no hope of stopping Philip Rivers, whose offense had suddenly come to life. Why shouldn’t the Chargers believe that they were destined to win this game and continue their improbable playoff run? When hadn’t they come up with the big play when they needed one?
The right move, by the way.
And then, almost as soon as the terror arose, it was gone. The Chargers got pressure on Manning with their front four, but despite dropping seven men, they blew the coverage and left Julius Thomas open down the sideline. Manning found him for a 21-yard gain. On the ensuing third down, Manning hit his tight end for nine yards and another conversion. When Moreno picked up five yards on the subsequent third-and-1, the Broncos had their victory. After a game of giving opportunities away, the Broncos finally held on to theirs when they needed to.
To be very clear, the Broncos should not have needed three third-down conversions to lock this game up. It very well should have been finished as a contest early in the third quarter, but the Broncos let a staggering number of opportunities fall by the wayside. After scoring touchdowns on two of their first three possessions (with a Julius Thomas fumble ending the other drive), the Broncos had the opportunity to finish San Diego off early. With the Chargers offense misfiring, Denver forced the Chargers to punt to Eric Decker with 3:36 left in the first half, and Decker nearly took that punt to the house, breaking a number of tackles before being taken down by a turf monster with daylight in front of him after a 47-yard gain.12 No worry: Denver still had the ball on the San Diego 30-yard line with three minutes to go and the ball coming to them for the opening possession of the second half. Two touchdowns and the game would be over.
Decker obsessives/fans of incredibly athletic human beings tripping will note that Decker tripped with a clear path to the end zone against these very same Chargers last season.
It didn’t quite work out that way. Manning worked the ball to the San Diego 4-yard line, but after two failed attempts, a Manning pass was slightly deflected and hit Decker in the chest before bouncing off him and into the hands of Donald Butler for an unlikely interception. On the flip side of halftime, a long Manning drive ended with Wes Welker dropping a likely touchdown catch on a seam route before Matt Prater nearly missed a 45-yard field goal. On the next drive, after Moreno was stuffed on a third-and-2 carry, Prater missed a 47-yarder. You can’t automatically give the Broncos credit for all the points they might have scored, but they left up to 14 points on the field with a number of uncharacteristic mistakes.
Those mistakes were enough to allow San Diego back into the game once it abandoned the run. Having won over the past few weeks with a run-first approach and hoping to keep the ball away from Manning, the Chargers ran the ball 12 times against just 11 Rivers dropbacks in the first half. Those 11 dropbacks didn’t go well: Rivers was 5-of-8 for 20 yards with three sacks, as the absence of right guard Jeromey Clary because of a shoulder injury suffered in practice forced Johnnie Troutman back into the starting lineup for the first time since San Diego began its winning streak. Troutman had a brutal game, allowing at least one sack while getting beat for hurries that blew up a couple more plays. Ryan Mathews had five carries for 26 yards, but his ankle injury prevented him from seeing steady snaps, and after carrying the ball three consecutive times early in the second quarter, he came out of the game and was on the sideline during the second half.13 Danny Woodhead and Ronnie Brown couldn’t match Mathews’s performance, finishing the game with 10 carries for a combined 29 yards. The league’s best third-down offense, which picked up nearly 50 percent of its third-down attempts this season, started this game 3-for-8 (one via penalty) on third downs.
It’s impossible to prove causation, of course, but it’s worth noting that Mathews carried the ball 107 times during the season-ending four-game winning streak, which was 17 more carries than anybody else in football over that time frame and would be a staggering 428-carry pace over an entire season. Mathews suffered his ankle injury during that stretch before aggravating it in the win over the Bengals last week. Coach Mike McCoy wasn’t really interested in slowing Mathews down either, saying, “He’s done a great job of monitoring his body all year long and taking care of himself … if he can handle it, he’s going to take it.” Mathews couldn’t. He’s a tough player, and the Chargers were up against it, but giving a running back that kind of workload is begging for trouble.
After punting on their opening drive of the third quarter, the Chargers got to work throwing the football. They ran two plays at the tail end of the third quarter, but Rivers got to work in the fourth quarter, where he put up a ridiculous line, going 11-for-15 with 173 yards and two touchdowns. A good chunk of that came on throws to Keenan Allen against, of all people, former Chargers cornerback Quentin Jammer. Denver’s fourth cornerback was playing against Allen on the outside after starter Chris Harris went down with an injury, and while the Broncos had Champ Bailey active, they chose to play him in the slot for most of the contest. Allen caught six of the nine passes thrown to him for a total of 142 yards, and outside of a 30-yard catch from Eddie Royal for his only reception of the day, no other Chargers player accrued more than 20 yards or caught a pass for longer than seven yards. It was the Keenan Allen show, and the Broncos were watching like everybody else. The 2013 draft didn’t have an impressive collective rookie year, but if you re-drafted the thing today, Allen might be the first overall pick. He’s been that good as a rookie.
In the end, the Broncos came up with a big conversion when they needed one, and those pesky Chargers were dispatched back to San Diego after an improbable playoff run. And that leaves us with one hell of a Sunday to look forward to: a rematch of a regular-season instant classic followed by the rubber match of the fiercest rivalry in football. I could get used to this best-teams-make-the-final-four thing after all.