Grantland logo

NFL Divisional-Round Winners and Losers: Andrew Luck’s Rise, Peyton Manning’s Fall, and the Tragedy of Dez Bryant’s Hands

Goodnight, Peyton.

Winners

The Colts

For most of the members of the Colts, the feeling was so fresh, they couldn’t manage words. As they left the field and spilled down the tunnel at Mile High, some whooped. Some hugged. Chuck Pagano — wearing a smile that refused to leave — stumbled by, his arm around his wife, Tina. Andrew Luck gave a series of hand-shattering high fives. It was Cory Redding who spoke — for everyone.

“Nobody thought we could do it!” Redding bellowed. “Nobody gave us a chance.”

Not many did. By kickoff, the Colts were just shy of being double-digit underdogs in Denver. Indy made quick work of the Bengals a week ago, but these were the Broncos: Peyton Manning — a version of him, at least — those receivers, those corners, and that pass rush. Indianapolis was Andrew Luck and not much else. With a paltry running game and a group of receivers that couldn’t quite compare to Manning’s, it seemed like the Colts would need the best of Luck’s best days to sneak by the Broncos. They didn’t get it. Luck had his moments, but he still punted two interceptions Denver’s way and finished only 27-of-43. What made this win even sweeter is that Indy didn’t need more from him.

The Colts got a little bit from everyone last night. A reshuffled offensive line stonewalled a nightmare-inducing pass-rush duo. Luck wasn’t sacked all day, as Joe Reitz and Anthony Castonzo held up against Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware. Jonathan Newsome, a fifth-round pick who’d been a rotation player all year, had one of only two sacks on the day, when he swiped the ball from Manning’s hand early in the second quarter. Hakeem Nicks boxed out a Broncos defender to catch a laser in the end zone. Dwayne Allen did the same. The Indianapolis run defense, which has lagged at times this year, mostly held C.J. Anderson in check. When it came time for the Colts to salt away the game, Boom Herron and his offensive line ground away more than eight minutes of fourth-quarter clock.

To stun a team like the Broncos, the Colts needed help from unexpected places, but they also needed their scattered stars to be stars, full stop. This offseason, both teams handed out deals fit for a no. 1 cornerback. Vontae Davis got $36 million for four years of work, with $20 million of that guaranteed. Aqib Talib got even more from the Broncos: $57 million over six years, with $5.5 million more in guarantees than Davis. Only one of them played like the shutdown cover man he was thought to be 10 months ago.

Davis was nearly flawless for the Colts last night, breaking up a pair of passes to end a third-quarter drive the Broncos desperately needed and helping to hold Demaryius Thomas to just five catches on 12 targets. All season, Davis has been the best player on a defense now headed to a conference championship game. Indy’s three-year journey from 2-14 to football in late January is defined by Luck, but Davis arrived around the same time, as a player the Dolphins were willing to walk away from for just a second-round pick. After three seasons as a Colt, Davis is now among the best cornerbacks in football. “I just had to make a decision,” he says of his transformation. “And I decided.”

The Colts defense, as a whole, played the best it has all season, but Luck’s scattered moments of brilliance were still the lasting impression from the biggest win of his career. His best throw of the day came on third-and-16 as Indy was driving with a four-point lead. At the back of his drop, Luck lofted the ball over the Denver linebackers and just in front of the Broncos safeties, directly into the waiting hands of Coby Fleener for a 32-yard gain. Three plays later, he fired the missile to Nicks for his second touchdown throw of the day. In the span of just a few snaps, the breadth of his ability was in full view.

That Luck’s trip to the AFC Championship Game had to come at Manning’s expense makes the succession story almost too convenient. Luck refused to talk about his game as it related to Manning’s, just as he’s avoided any sort of comparison in the past. At this point, how one relates to the other isn’t important to the Colts, aside from Manning’s 2011 injury allowing them to stumble into life with Luck. The Colts will be underdogs again in Foxborough next week, and despite their showing in Denver, this is still a roster that falls a level short of what the Patriots, Packers, and Seahawks have built. It’s likely the Colts will still have to wait for their Super Bowl run. At quarterback, though, they’re all set. Asking Luck to live up to all he was supposed to be for Indianapolis was close to an impossible task, but he is everything we were told he’d be. And he might be more.

Every Patriots Receiver

It wouldn’t be a Patriots playoff win if at least one player didn’t pull off something that has nothing to do with his position. Julian Edelman’s perfect throw to Danny Amendola for a 51-yard score was better than any ball Ryan Lindley threw a week ago. It didn’t hurt that Edelman added eight catches for 74 yards in his normal role, either.

New England wasn’t subtle with its game plan on Saturday. With proper time to throw, Tom Brady was always going to have an advantage over the Baltimore secondary, and the Patriots’ decision to throw 51 times while committing only seven carries to the running game was designed to exploit that. Brady had his moments — the throw to Brandon LaFell down the left sideline couldn’t have been any better — but as a group, New England’s pass-catchers shredded the back end of the Ravens defense. Coming to the end of his second straight disappointing season, Amendola had maybe his best game as a Patriot, while Rob Gronkowski was the same guy we’ve seen all season.

The Patriots may not throw even half as many times against the Colts next week as they did on Saturday. The past two games against Indianapolis have been run-heavy affairs for New England. But what they did against Baltimore was just another example of what makes the Patriots offense so hard to deal with. No matter what your weakness is, the Patriots will find it, and they’ll hammer away it at until something breaks.

Divisional Playoffs - Dallas Cowboys v Green Bay PackersAl Bello/Getty Images

Davante Adams

In the final four games of the Packers’ season, Davante Adams caught a total of four passes for a measly 29 yards. Despite a healthy snap count and some promising flashes early in his rookie year, the second-round pick out of Fresno State had all but disappeared from the Green Bay offense by the end of December. It’s safe to say that as of yesterday, he’s made his way back.

On the same field as Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, Adams was the most dangerous receiver the Packers had yesterday. He hauled in seven passes from a gimpy Aaron Rodgers, but what helped to down the Cowboys was everything Adams did after his catches. More than once, Adams took a ball near the line of scrimmage and turned it into a chunk of yards for the Packers offense, including a 46-yard touchdown that might have left J.J. Wilcox’s cleats and soul embedded in the Lambeau Field turf for all time.

With a limping Rodgers unable to extend plays, and with the Cowboys defense clamping down on the Green Bay running game for much of the second half, the Packers were searching for an element they hadn’t needed at home all year. Adams was it. The Packers offense was wholly uninspiring the last time it traveled to Seattle, and as Green Bay prepares for a return trip, two things are different. The first is that Bryan Bulaga is slated to play the entire game at right tackle. The second is Adams. He saw barely any action on opening night, and now, his return to the offense comes at a perfect time. The Packers will need all the playmaking ability they can get.

NFC Divisional Playoffs - Carolina Panthers v Seattle SeahawksHarry How/Getty Images

The Seahawks Pass Rush

When Seattle was at its best last year, its defense was a force at every level. No team pressured a higher percentage of opponent dropbacks than the Seahawks last season, and it was the combination of rushers and the league’s best secondary that transformed them into a historically great pass defense. The pass rush has come and gone this season, but on Saturday, it was out in full force.

Part of the Panthers’ late-season surge was their offensive line coalescing at the end of a fairly rough year. Against Seattle, players like Byron Bell were back to being full-on liabilities. Cliff Avril had his way with the Panthers’ left tackle; and with Michael Bennett on his destruction tour of the NFC’s right tackles, Cam Newton didn’t stand much of a chance. Seattle sacked Newton only twice, but he was hit eight times and bothered the entire game.

The Packers were arguably the best pass-blocking line in the league this season — the Panthers they are not. But when the Seahawks’ front four are playing well, it often doesn’t matter who’s tasked with blocking them. The best version of this Seattle defense is the one terrorizing receivers and quarterbacks alike, and at this point, that’s exactly where it is.

Losers

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

Catches

Leave it to the worst rule in sports to spoil an otherwise incredible game. “What is a catch, and why?” remains the great question of our time. The newest entry in the collection of controversial calls that help decide Cowboys games isn’t quite like the last one. By the letter of the law, Gene Steratore and his crew made the right choice on Dez Bryant’s almost-catch, but that says more about the law than it does anything else.

The nature of the current rule does make some sense. If the language about making a move common to the game weren’t present, plenty of should-be incomplete passes would turn into fumbles. But if Bryant’s play isn’t a catch, we need a new definition. I’m sure the league and the competition committee have a reason for why a ball that comes out after a player hits the ground isn’t a catch, but I’m not sure it’s a good one. It’s about time the NFL opted for the Potter Stewart method of defining a catch: We should know one when we see it.

The Panthers Secondary

All year, the Seahawks’ quietly impressive offense was built around their historically effective running game. When Seattle needed points, it got them on the ground. The pieces of that ground game were mortal against Carolina, averaging just 3.6 yards on 28 carries, but the Seahawks’ famously pedestrian receiving corps more than made up for it.

The combination of Jermaine Kearse, Doug Baldwin, and Luke Willson lit the Panthers secondary on fire Saturday. There’s not much any of the Carolina corners could have done on Kearse’s absurd one-handed, 63-yard touchdown, but for the most part, Seattle’s guys had their way with Carolina’s makeshift group of defensive backs like Bené Benwikere and Tre Boston.

The Panthers’ salary-cap struggles guaranteed they’d be thin at a few positions in 2014, and having to start two rookies in Boston and Benwikere is a perfect example of that. Both had their share of promising moments in the second half of the season, but relying on middle-round rookies in the playoffs spelled inevitable doom for a Panthers team that barely snuck in. Carolina’s roster is full of young cornerstones that should keep the team relevant for a while, but GM Dave Gettleman has his share of work to do this offseason.

Denver Broncos vs. Indianapolis Colts in an AFC divisional playoff gameAaron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post via Getty Images

The Broncos

It wasn’t supposed to end like this. When John Elway was swinging his checkbook around this spring, snagging free-agent prizes like Aqib Talib and DeMarcus Ware, the benefits were twofold. The central plan was that players of that ilk would get the Broncos over the championship threshold they failed to meet a year ago, but the secondary strategy was that even if Peyton Manning fell back to earth a bit, Denver would have enough talent elsewhere to remain at the top of the AFC.

The Broncos’ problem yesterday was that Manning didn’t just fall back to earth — he fell right through it. Injured or not, Manning was a liability for Denver yesterday following the Broncos’ opening-drive score. The Colts came into the game with a clearly defined plan. They were going to make Manning beat them over the top, and early on, it was obvious he couldn’t. The main culprit in Manning’s 26-of-46 day were awful overthrows on tempting go routes down the sideline, of which he completed exactly one all day. Outside of the beautiful ball to Julius Thomas on the Broncos’ first drive, Manning came up empty while throwing deep, and without that down-the-field threat, the Broncos offense stalled the entire game.

Manning’s awful day will take center stage for the Broncos moving forward, but their early exit had just as much to do with the failings of those big offseason moves. Talib, he of the $25.5 million guaranteed, was a wreck last night. He struggled whenever Denver asked him to stay with T.Y. Hilton, and on top of that, he added two automatic first downs for a Colts offense that wasn’t having trouble racking them up on their own. Ware was blanked by Anthony Castonzo: no hits, no sacks. T.J. Ward was left chasing Coby Fleener on the tight end’s drive-changing 32-yard reception.

Denver’s master plan went awry in almost every way it could, and after last night, the foundation of that plan is now in serious question. Manning couldn’t say following the game whether he’d be back next season. At this point, Broncos fans should probably be hoping he was hurt down the stretch. Because if he wasn’t, if the version of Peyton Manning we saw last night is a permanent phenomenon, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he walked away this summer. It’s difficult to imagine that this — a struggling Peyton Manning petering out as fans filed toward the exits — could be the final scene of his career, but it’s no harder than it would have been to imagine the Broncos going home in the second week of January.