NFL Divisional Round Pain and GainHelen H. Richardson/The Denver Post/Getty Images
Wild-card weekend was a nearly perfect weekend of football, and it’s because what we got out of it is exactly what we hoped for. The first round of the NFL playoffs is supposed to be about craziness. We want 45-44 wins, and weird upsets, and Beast Mode runs.
The divisional round is when it all starts becoming about a little something more. Now the blue bloods of the regular season are back. The stakes have returned. While the wild-card round occasionally feels like a set of play-in games, this weekend is where the tournament begins, and with that, it’s where the chance to add or detract from legacies really kicks in. To break down what’s there to be won or lost this weekend, we came up with a crude little measure of what’s on the line. It’s pretty simple: On a scale of 0 to 10, how much do these guys have at stake this weekend? And we start where any conversation about playoff football does.
This is familiar territory. Manning has everything to lose Sunday. He could throw for 600 yards and eight touchdowns, and it wouldn’t matter. The Broncos are supposed to beat a Chargers team that barely — and illegally — got into the playoffs. If they don’t, we get another offseason of talk about cold weather and playoff failure, and we also get deprived of a Manning-Brady or Manning-Colts AFC Championship Game.
I think people know that Carolina’s defense is good, but I’m still not sure everyone knows why. The Panthers got two prime-time games this year, but one of them was that blowout loss at New Orleans in which everything seemed to crumble.
Kuechly’s monster game came in that hard-to-watch Week 16 game that kicked off at noon along with eight other games carrying playoff implications. Kuechly is going to the Pro Bowl and his name recognition is there among football fans, but of everyone playing this weekend, he might have the most “Wait, who was that?” potential among people casually tuning in for the first time.
The conditions at Lambeau slowed down San Francisco’s plans of pushing the ball down the middle of the field to Vernon Davis, but it was clearly part of the game plan. At various points Sunday, Kuechly will be tasked with either chasing Davis down the seam or keeping Colin Kaepernick in the pocket. Those are visible, obvious plays, and along with his knack for being around the ball constantly, Kuechly should get plenty of screen time.
Five head-coaching jobs remain, and the 49ers’ offensive coordinator has been connected with at least two of them. It would be hard to top the job Roman did in last year’s playoffs — I can’t remember an NFL defense being more thoroughly outschemed than the Packers in the divisional round — but a big offensive showing against the Panthers would be a start.
It seemed like the weather had a lot to do with the 49ers’ passing game not fully coming to life last week. With Michael Crabtree back, Roman finally has a full deck with which to work, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he still has a few wrinkles we haven’t seen yet.
Roman has plenty of NFL experience to go along with his time at Stanford, but it still feels like he would be closer to an outside-the-box hire than a lot of the candidates being thrown around right now. The Niners weren’t just willing to use the pistol and incorporate read-option plays into their offense — they were a step ahead in the variations and concepts that made those plays borderline unstoppable for stretches. There’s been creativity in this offense that we don’t see in many other places, and Roman will need a bit more Sunday against this Panthers defense.
At this point, the Seahawks might be wishing their Monday Night Football beatdown of the Saints hadn’t been so thorough. Seattle is a heavy favorite against a Hall of Fame–caliber quarterback and a Super Bowl–winning coach, but considering its season, that’s how it should be.
This is the best team in the NFC, and that’s still fresh territory for Carroll and for the Seahawks. Carroll’s shtick since returning to the NFL has been that of a loose, new-age outsider whose success has come in part because of his willingness to be different. That’s a fine approach with teams building toward status as a contender, but now, Carroll’s team sits at the top. If the Seahawks do get tripped up against the Saints, it’s going to seem like a disappointment. Carroll has earned plenty of leeway with the job he has done, but his team is deep and complete enough that blame for a loss this weekend will ultimately fall on him.
Eric Weddle’s beard
Not many casual football fans are tuning into Chargers games, so the majesty of the small animal living on Weddle’s face has gone underappreciated for much of this year. No more. My only advice is to not stare directly at it for too long.
The Legend of Luck really started rolling last week, and it feels like it might just keep on moving right through Foxborough. If the Colts win, Luck has slain a legend, and his place among the league’s best quarterbacks is secure. If the Colts lose, they lose to Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, and it’s just a small hiccup in the maturation of Luck and the franchise. To many, he can do no wrong at this point, and with that roster, that’s a fair way to frame it. The only downside to a Luck loss is the possibility that the Seahawks not only win this weekend, but head all the way to the Super Bowl, ensuring that the Russell Wilson–Luck debate endures for at least another offseason.
Being the first overall pick and the team’s quarterback inherently makes Newton the face of the Panthers, but somehow, he probably hasn’t gotten enough credit for the season Carolina had. The Panthers’ defense is rightly cited as Carolina’s strong point, but Newton really has been excellent without much around him.
With just how good Carolina was this year, it’s easy to forget that its rise happened all at once, and that this is Newton’s first career playoff game. He isn’t lumped in with the Gang of Four group, but Newton is only five months older than Luck. He’s six months younger than Wilson and a full 18 months younger than Colin Kaepernick. Newton belongs in any conversation about great young quarterbacks, and Sunday is his chance to show it. The problem is that if Carolina does falter on offense, and the Panthers lose the sort of 10-9 affair they won in San Francisco, it’s likely Newton that shoulders the blame, despite a group of weapons that makes the Niners look like the Greatest Show on Turf.
If Frank Gore rushes for 483 yards next season, he moves into the top 25 all time in rushing yards. That’s somewhat surprising, but Gore really has had the textbook “good, but not great” career. He’s been a reliable back for nine seasons, but I don’t know if he’s ever been of the three best running backs in the league, let alone one of the 25 best running backs ever. San Francisco’s Super Bowl run last year was all about Kaepernick, but these playoffs could go a long way in defining Gore’s legacy, one way or the other. The Panthers are one of the best teams in the league at defending the run, which would make a huge game from Gore this weekend even more impressive.
Tom Brady and Bill Belichick
Even with their recent postseason struggles, it feels like Brady and Belichick are playing with house money this year. With Brady’s depleted receiving corps and Belichick’s tattered defense, there’s an argument that this season was the best job done by either. This team had no business winning 12 games and has no business going to the AFC Championship Game. If it does, Brady and Belichick will be the reason, and if it doesn’t, there will be 20 other reasons why.
At a few points in his career, it seemed as if Rivers was the best quarterback to come out of that 2004 class. But as Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning each won a couple of Super Bowls, Rivers never moved beyond a few great statistical seasons. Sunday would be the defining win of Rivers’s career and the high point of a third act no one saw coming.
After last weekend, Kaepernick’s work in the 2013 playoffs is probably done. Going on the road and beating Aaron Rodgers in a playoff game isn’t a small feat, and for all his problems this year, Kaepernick’s ability to change games in the playoffs with his legs carried over. A loss in Carolina won’t have anyone questioning whether Kaepernick is the guy in San Francisco, but a win pushes him back toward the Wilson/Luck class of young quarterbacks. This 49ers roster is good enough to win the Super Bowl even with an average Kaepernick. If he’s playing well, they become terrifying.
His huge game against Kansas City — 13 catches for 224 yards and two touchdowns on 18 targets — already made him the breakout star of the playoffs, and the Patriots’ secondary isn’t exactly Seattle’s. By the end of the weekend, Hilton may finally be considered the guy many thought he could be during stretches this season.
The Seahawks’ pass defense is good — like, really good. Seattle was no. 1 in pass defense DVOA, but what’s more fun is looking at the traditional numbers it gave up this year. In 16 games, the Seahawks allowed 2,752 yards and 59 percent of passes to be completed, for a passer rating of 63.4. If that were one player, he would be the worst quarterback in the league — by a lot. The Seahawks turn pretty much every quarterback they play into Brandon Weeden with a separated throwing shoulder.
For the most part, the face of that success has been Richard Sherman, who seems really uncomfortable with all the attention. Sherman deserves every bit of that praise as one of the best corners in football, but his Legion of Boom secondary mate Earl Thomas is in the very same class. Thomas is probably the best cover safety in the league and is just as responsible for Seattle’s ball hawking ways.
New Orleans’s passing game is dependent on big plays down the middle of the field, to both Jimmy Graham and others. This should be a game in which Thomas is in a position to make more than a couple of huge plays. Most probably wouldn’t consider him the best player on Seattle’s defense, but after this weekend, that may change.
It feels strange to say that Brees — a Super Bowl–winning quarterback — is short on memorable playoff wins, but he sort of is. New Orleans’s Super Bowl run had its share, with Brett Favre’s late interception and Brees outdueling Peyton Manning, but the Saints’ title in 2009 went through New Orleans, where Brees and Sean Payton have been great seemingly since they stepped into town.
The Saints’ road struggles haven’t been as pronounced over the past eight years as they were this regular season, but Brees’s playoff résumé still lacks that NFL Films–worthy win with the wind blustering and the stadium shaking and Brees under center on third-and-9 down by five in the fourth quarter. He shouldn’t need it, not with what he and Payton have done in New Orleans. But a win in Seattle would probably be the most impressive of his career — in the league’s toughest building, against the best pass defense in football, in a place where his last two trips have been borderline embarrassing.
It says something that for Brady and Manning, this game means very little in comparison to what will come next, and for Brees, it means so much more. Brees is the next name mentioned after those two in any conversation about the best quarterbacks of this generation, and this trip to Seattle is his best chance in a while to close the gap.