If someone were to tell you that either Drew Brees or Alex Smith would engineer an 85-yard, game-winning drive with a minute and a half remaining, you'd put all of your money on Brees, right?
Well, you'd have to call this a coming-of-age performance for Smith. He really struggled at times, especially in the second and third quarters, but his two late drives were really impressive. When the Saints went up 24-23, I was pissed that they scored with four minutes on the clock because New Orleans has accumulated way too many bulls*** front-door covers this year. I figured Smith would either go three-and-out or commit a turnover, allowing the Saints to go up by at least four points.
So much for that. Smith proved just about everyone wrong, finishing 24-of-42 for 299 yards and three passing touchdowns. He also had a rushing score with a couple of minutes remaining where he looked like Tim Tebow, sprinting out left and down the field for 28 yards.
Of course, if the 49ers found the end zone for the final time with 45 seconds or more, Drew Brees could have easily scored himself. He had a sloppy first half, thanks to great pressure by the San Francisco front, but finished 40-of-63 for 462 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions.
Brees' picks both came prior to intermission, and they were part of four Saint first-half turnovers. Donte Whitner forced a fumble on Pierre Thomas on the opening drive on what was one of the hardest hits I've ever seen. This site's senior editor said it looked like something out of Mike Tyson's Punch-Out. Courtney Roby would later muff a kickoff and then fumble it. There was also a fifth give-away in the third quarter when Darren Sproles coughed up another fumble.
Despite all of this, the Saints were in position to win this contest, which is a testament to how good Brees and all of his weapons are. It's a shame that we won't have a Packers-Saints rematch.
Speaking of Brees' weapons, Sproles caught a whopping 15 balls for 119 receiving yards and a touchdown. He had to do extra because Pierre Thomas was knocked out by Whitner on the aforementioned hit. Meanwhile, Jimmy Graham (5-103, 2 TDs) was also a huge factor despite leaving the contest on the opening drive with what looked like a concussion at first. Marques Colston (9-136, TD) also was a big contributor.
As good as Graham was, he wasn't the best tight end on the field. That was Vernon Davis, who notched seven receptions for 180 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winning score. Davis came off the field crying and hugging teammates, obviously emotional that he was able to help his team win in his first career playoff appearance.
Frank Gore also had a great performance. He only ran the ball 13 times, which was a bit curious, but he mustered 89 rushing yards in the process. He also hauled in seven catches for 38 receiving yards.
Some Niners will have to step up next week. One is Michael Crabtree. He caught a touchdown (4-25 otherwise), but was guilty of three drops, including two on the same possession in the second quarter.
The offensive line will also have to perform better. Smith had no pass protection when he was in third-and-long situations. He was sacked or pressured almost instantly nearly every time, even fumbling twice.
Patriots 45, Broncos 10
Whether you love or hate the Patriots, you have to agree that no one drugs opposing offensive linemen like them. I'm only semi-kidding. I mean, I'm sure there are plausible reasons as to why the Denver front whiffed on the New England pass-rushers all night. For example, it's very possible that Bill Belichick asked Josh McDaniels to kidnap the blockers' loved ones, forcing them to allow sacks as blackmail.
I've never seen an offensive line look so Jekyll and Hyde in a span of a week. The front kept Tim Tebow completely clean against the Steelers, yet the Patriots were in the backfield on almost every single passing down. Tebow had no chance whatsoever, especially with his receivers unable to separate. Denver had 14 negative plays - the most by any team in the NFL this year.
On the rare occasions that Tebow was able to get a clean release off, his receivers would drop passes. The worst infraction of this nature came from last week's hero, Demaryius Thomas, whpo dropped what would have been a first down in New England teritory on a third down during the team's second drive. I counted five drops in total.
Tebow finished just 9-of-26 for 136 yards and only had 13 rushing yards on top of that. Detractors will scoff at his poor stats, but he really had no chance to do anything. There aren't many quarterbacks who can succeed with pressure in their face on nine out of every 10 plays.
A couple of bright spots for Denver: Willis McGahee rushed for 76 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries. Unlike last week, he didn't fumble. Meanwhile, Thomas hauled in six grabs for 93 yards, continuing to show good chemistry with Tebow. The tandem will be much better with an offseason to work with each other.
While Tebow hit the ground more than a dozen times, Tom Brady wasn't sacked at all. There was one occasion in the third quarter when a Denver defender had a clean hit on Brady, but fell down in the backfield. I remember shaking my head and thinking that the Broncos just blew their only opportunity to bring Brady down.
As a consequence, Brady was pretty much flawless, going 26-of-34 for 363 yards, six touchdowns and an interception - the six scores tying an NFL playoff record.
There was a brief stretch in which Brady struggled in the middle of the first half, heaving an interception on one throw, tossing another near-pick and then missing an open Wes Welker. But he recovered on the next drive after the Broncos drew to within 14-7, leading his team on an eight-play, 52 yard drive to give his team another two-score advantage.
The Broncos had no answer for anything New England was doing. Bill Belichick had the genius idea to run the ball with Aaron Hernandez five times, and it worked as his tight end gained 61 rushing yards.
Hernandez also caught four balls for 55 yards and a touchdown, but that paled in comparison to Rob Gronkowski's 10 receptions for 145 yards and three scores, which tied a postseason record. The Broncos doubled Gronkowski last time and really limited him, but they decided to play zone this time, which is a big no-no against Brady. But it's not like they could have done anything to stop New England, save for drugging Brady's offensive linemen.
The other Patriots to score touchdowns were Wes Welker (6-55) and Deion Branch (3-85). Branch had a deep drop in the first half that could have made this result even uglier.
In case you turned the TV off early, a fight broke out at the end of the fourth quarter. It occurred when Brady did a quick punt on third down. Frustrated that the Patriots were fooling around up 45-10 with three minutes remaining, Von Miller hit a New England player after the whistle. This resulted in some pushing and shoving, which escalated to a brawl on the New England sideline. No one was ejected, however, but it makes you wonder what the hell Belichick was thinking by keeping Brady and the other starters out there. Forget running up the score; what if one of them got hurt, or what if one of the players was suspended because of that fight? It was pretty stupid on his part.
Before Patriot fans get excited about this result, they should note that teams that score 40-plus points in the playoffs are just 3-19 against the spread in the following game dating back to 1996. It was 3-18 prior to this weekend, but the Saints fell to the 49ers after lighting up the scoreboard versus Detroit.
Ravens 20, Texans 13
Does anyone think the Ravens have a shot against the Patriots after this performance? Joe Flacco was terrible, the play-calling was worse, while Houston was able to move the chains on Baltimore's defense. New England should be favored by double digits.
Let's review each aspect:
- Flacco went 14-of-27 for 176 yards and two touchdowns, but those numbers don't tell the whole story. He missed open receivers and was very tentative in the pocket. He took five sacks (2.5 each from J.J. Watt and Brooks Reed). Basically, if Flacco's name was "Tim Tebow," ESPN buffoons like Bomani Jones, Merril Hoge and Cris Carter would be calling him the worst quarterback of all time after this performance. The difference between Flacco and Tebow though is that the Baltimore quarterback did have time to throw on some occasions, so his performance has to be more discouraging to Raven fans than what Denver supporters feel about their signal-caller.
- It doesn't help that Flacco once again had awful play-calling. Cam Cameron idiotically forgot to involve Ray Rice early on. Rice finished with 21 carries, gaining 60 rushing yards in the process, but had just four catches. Even worse, Cameron was guilty of some really predictable play-calling at the goal line in the fourth quarter. He did a good job with this in the first quarter, signaling in a play-action pass from Flacco to Kris Wilson, which resulted in a touchdown, so I don't understand why Cameron went back to stupidity when he could have sealed the deal. No, wait. I do understand what happened. Cameron is just that completely inept.
- What happened to Baltimore's run defense? I figured it would be better with Ray Lewis healthy, but Arian Foster managed to rush for 132 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries. This made things easier for T.J. Yates.
Of course, Yates' turnovers made things easier for the Ravens. Yates went 17-of-35 for 184 yards and three interceptions. He could have been picked off on five occasions, but Ed Reed dropped two interceptions in the first half.
Yates' problem wasn't accuracy; in fact, most of his throws were on the money. The issue was that he predetermined where he wanted to go on some of his attempts. He stared down Andre Johnson far too often, including the last real drive of the contest when he foolishly heaved a ball downfield despite being at midfield and having ample time remaining on the clock.
Yates wasn't the only player giving the ball up. Jacoby Jones made one of the dumbest plays in NFL history when he picked up a bouncing punt amid traffic. He predictably fumbled, giving the Ravens a short field and a subsequent touchdown.
Aside from Foster, Johnson was the only Texan to catch more than two balls; he racked up eight receptions for 111, looking extremely healthy. He was understandably dejected afterward, and Foster looked even more frustrated. You have to feel for the Texans, who would probably be the Super Bowl favorites if Matt Schaub were still healthy. Having Schaub in the lineup would make Houston the most balanced team in the league.
As for the Raven wideouts, Flacco was glad to have Anquan Boldin back; coming off minor knee surgery, Boldin hauled in four grabs for 73 yards and a touchdown. The best catch of the day came from Lee Evans, who made an incredible, one-handed grab for a 30-yard gain. It's the only thing Evans has done all year, so we can't yet say that the signing was worth it.
Flacco now has five career playoff victories, but he really needs to improve if he wants to advance to his first Super Bowl. His defense won't be able to bail him out against New England. And speaking of which, Terrell Suggs and the rest of the Baltimore pass rush will have to step up as well. Sacking Yates zero times is simply unacceptable. If they can't get to Tom Brady, they won't have a chance.
Giants 37, Packers 20
I don't want to take anything away from the Giants because they're a very good team that has a great chance of winning the Super Bowl, but the Packers were the ones who truly beat the Packers on Sunday afternoon.
Green Bay's meltdown was truly amazing. The team committed so many unforced errors that had the Lambeau crowd groaning in disgust on nearly every possession. It's almost as if the players ha d the same lack of urgency they typically do in the preseason. Here's the laundry list of dumb mistakes:
- Drops: The Packers had a whopping eight drops by: Greg Jennings (2), Jermichael Finley, James Starks, Tom Crabtree, Ryan Taylor, Ryan Grant and Jordy Nelson. Drops plagued the Packers in their loss to the Chiefs, and that issue festered once again.
- Aaron Rodgers missed a wide-open Jennings for a touchdown on the opening drive. The Packers would have to settle for a field goal.
- John Kuhn lost a fumble in Giants' territory during the second quarter.
- Rodgers then lost a fumble of his own in New York territory on the opening drive of the third quarter.
- Rodgers had a wide-open Finley on a third down with 13 minutes to go, but missed him. He was sacked on the following play, which turned the ball over on downs.
- Grant fumbled the ball away down 10 in the fourth quarter. Chase Blackburn returned it inside the Green Bay 5-yard line. Eli Manning threw the game-sealing touchdown on the very next play to give his team a 30-13 lead.
Another Packer gaffe was a Jennings' lost fumble on the second drive. It was initially ruled a fumble, but then the officials discussed it and said he was down by contact. Tom Coughlin challenged the play because it was pretty apparent that Jennings did in fact fumble. FOX announcers Joe Buck and Troy Aikman were even speculating on where the ball would be spotted. However, official Bill Leavy ruled that Jennings was down and offered no explanation. The Packers maintained possession and would go on to score a touchdown on the drive.
If you're not familiar with Leavy, he's the inept/crooked ref who botched/fixed the Steelers-Seahawks Super Bowl. I don't know how the hell he's still permitted to officiate playoff games. He needs to be fired because allowing him to work another game would be completely irresponsible. He's either bought or just completely awful at his job.
The Packers also screwed themselves defensively. They barely got any pressure on Manning, while their tackling efforts were atrocious. I don't have enough fingers to count how many tackles they missed. It really hurt them when Hakeem Nicks caught an intermediate pass and was able to elude several pitiful defenders to score a 66-yard touchdown.
That wasn't even the craziest Nicks score. Manning launched a Hail Mary on the final play of the first half, and New York Nicks came down with it in the end zone. The Packers covered the Hail Mary very poorly - almost as if they had no idea it was coming. Nicks finished with seven grabs for 165 yards and two touchdowns. Mario Manningham (3-31) also scored. Victor Cruz (5-74) was also a factor.
The quarterback throwing the ball to these guys was absolutely incredible. Manning went 21-of-33 for 330 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. He had no pressure in his face, as mentioned, but what he did on third down was amazing. The Giants were 8-of-16 on third downs, thanks to his clutch throws.
On the other side, Rodgers had good numbers (26-of-46, 264 yards, 2 TDs, INT) despite all of those aforementioned drops. With a non-existent rushing attack, he picked up 66 yards on seven scrambles, most of which came on third down.
One Packer who did not have any drops was Donald Driver, who paced the team with 45 receiving yards and a score. Jennings (4-40), Nelson (3-39) and Finley (4-37) were all huge disappointments.