It isn't usual when the narrative leading up to the game comes exactly to fruition, but that's exactly what happened in this thriller. The Ravens, who were said to have New England's number after beating them in the playoffs twice in the past five postseasons, established separate 14-point leads in each half. It appeared as though the Patriots would suffer another unceremonious early January exit, but Tom Brady rallied his team and led them to a four-point victory with a touchdown to Brandon LaFell in the final few minutes.
Things weren't looking good for Brady when he was uncharacteristically intercepted prior to halftime and allowed Baltimore to march down the field for a scoring drive, but he was sharp following intermission, going Brady 18-of-26 for 165 yards and two touchdowns in the second half. This was despite missing center Bryan Stork, who went down with an injury. Brady methodically moved the chains on many drives, spreading the ball around, as a whopping six players registered at least four receptions.
Brady's overall numbers looked like this: 33-of-50 for 367 yards, four touchdowns (three passing, one rushing). His final score to LaFell moved him ahead of Joe Montana for most passing touchdowns in NFL playoff history. Aside from the scores, Brady's best throws were a pair of third-and-long conversions to Rob Gronkowski (7-108, TD), both of which helped the team on drives that ultimately concluded in the end zone.
Gronkowski was actually second on the team with 13 targets. He was one behind Julian Edelman, who snagged eight of 14 balls thrown to him for 74 yards. Edelman didn't have a receiving touchdown, and he also was very fortunate to recover his own fumble among multiple Ravens, but he did manage to throw a score to Danny Amendola (5-81, 2 TDs) on a 51-yard pass that was a perfect spiral. Amendola nearly had a sixth reception, but a first-down conversion of his was reversed early on, as the officials correctly ruled that the ball touched the ground.
The other Patriots who caught four-plus balls were: LaFell (5-62, TD), Michael Hoomanawanui (4-43) and Shane Vereen (4-39). Vereen appeared to fumble the ball on what turned out to be the game-winning drive, but replay ruled that his knee was down before the ball came loose.
Vereen ran the ball just once, yet he nearly led the team in rushing. Brandon Bolden (3 carries, 7 yards) actually paced the Patriots versus Baltimore's stout ground defense. LeGarrette Blount had just one rushing yard on three attempts.
As for the Ravens, it appeared as though they were going to run away with this game when they established a 28-14 lead in the third quarter. Joe Flacco was a machine, as he at one point had 17 passing touchdowns compared to no interceptions in his previous six playoff games. And then he became human. Flacco heaved his first pick into double coverage to Devin McCourty, and then the same thing happened later on a last-chance comeback attempt; Flacco fired the ball into the end zone toward Torrey Smith, but safety Duron Harmon snatched the pick to effectively clinch the victory.
Flacco, who began the game 8-of-8 for 100 yards and a touchdown, finished 28-of-45 for 292 yards, four touchdowns and the two interceptions. Part of the reason he was so successful was because the Patriots couldn't get any pressure on him. His offensive line was fantastic despite the fact that Eugene Monroe did not play in this game.
Flacco, like Brady, spread the ball around extensively, as the Ravens also had six players who caught four passes. The two Smiths led the way with three grabs each. Torrey had 62 yards, while Steve, who had the misfortune of going up against Darrelle Revis, logged 44 yards and a touchdown. The latter Smith made some tough catches and also drew a couple of penalties on Revis. The officials actually missed an infraction in the red zone during the fourth quarter, so the Ravens should've had a better chance at scoring a touchdown instead of a field goal, which ultimately decided the game.
The other Ravens who produced were: Owen Daniels (4-41, TD), Marlon Brown (5-39), Michael Campanaro (4-39) and Kyle Juszczyk (4-29). Meanwhile, Kamar Aiken and Justin Forsett reeled in Flacco's other touchdowns.
Speaking of Forsett, he ran extremely well, gashing the Patriots for 129 yards on 24 carries. The Patriots handled the rush better in the second half, but they still had major problems containing Baltimore's ground attack at times. There's no doubt that the Broncos took notice.
Seahawks 31, Panthers 17
The Seahawks won this game by two touchdowns and were ahead by three scores late in the fourth quarter, but this game was very much in doubt well into the second half. Seattle led by just four at intermission, though the advantage could've been much greater. The problem was that the team constantly hurt itself by either making mistakes or blowing opportunities.
An early Seattle drive produced no points, but it should have. Ricardo Lockette was flagged for taunting when he threw the ball at the opposing corner, which took the team out of field-goal range. Richard Sherman then dropped what looked like a pick-six, which was sandwiched in between two Carolina fumbles that Seattle failed to recover. Earl Thomas then let the ball hit the ground on an interception, which set up the Panthers with a field goal. That kick was actually blocked by Kam Chancellor, who had a great game. However, the officials incorrectly ruled that Chancellor ran into the kicker; Graham Gano flopped, which shouldn't have even mattered because Chancellor changed the trajectory of the attempt.
The Panthers went into the break down 14-10, though they were extremely fortunate it wasn't 24-7. The Seahawks appeared to be in jeopardy of potentially blowing a victory despite being a 12-point favorite, but they got their act together in the second half, finishing on a very strong note. They hit some big plays and finally took advantage of a turnover, as Chancellor brought a pick-six 90 yards to the house to seal the win.
Russell Wilson had an outstanding performance. He went 15-of-22 for 268 yards and three touchdowns to go along with 22 rushing yards on seven scrambles. Wilson endured some drops, including two by Cooper Helfet, but he didn't allow that to deter him. He fired some well-placed bombs to his receivers, including a 63-yard score to Jermaine Kearse.
Speaking of Kearse, he led the Seahawks with 129 receiving yards on three catches. Only three other Seattle players caught more than one pass: Luke Willson (4-68, TD), Doug Baldwin (3-38, TD) and Marshawn Lynch. Wilson targeted Paul Richardson for a touchdown, but the pass fell incomplete, and the rookie receiver sprained his knee.
Max Unger also got hurt. This occurred on one of the final plays of the contest, as the center, who had been out of the lineup since Week 11, rolled his ankle again. It's unclear how serious this tweak was, but the Seahawks will definitely need their star center back in the lineup against an actual playoff-caliber opponent next week.
Unger's presence was expected to open things up for Marshawn Lynch, but Beast Mode couldn't get on track for the most part. Lynch was limited to 59 yards on 14 carries, and most of that came on a 25-yard burst in the second half, which could've been a longer gain had Lynch not barely stepped out of bounds.
The Panthers, meanwhile, didn't look like they were going to be very competitive in the first quarter. Jerricho Cotchery opened by dropping a pass that was nearly picked off. Cam Newton was nearly intercepted on two other occasions after actually being picked by Richard Sherman, and the team fumbled twice and was lucky to recover both times. Carolina had several three-and-outs to open the contest, but everything changed when starting cornerback Byron Maxwell left the game with a shortness of breath. Newton then recognized the mismatch, targeting backup corner Tharold Simon on most of his throws.
Newton had a ton of success moving the chains this way, but he had to dink and dunk doing so because of the Seattle edge in the trenches. As with any dink-and-dunk offense, Carolina's scoring unit was disrupted by mistakes, such as penalties, drops and sacks. It's clear that the team needs to upgrade the offensive line as well as the receiving corps this offseason.
Newton finished 23-of-36 for 246 yards, two touchdowns and a pair of interceptions. He played well considering the competition, but the picks were a killer, and as mentioned, things could've been much worse for him. It should be noted that he was effective on the ground, gaining 37 yards on 11 scrambles.
Both of Newton's touchdowns went to Kelvin Benjamin, who had seven catches for 75 yards. He was one of only two Panthers to accumulate more than 35 receiving yards, and the other was Greg Olsen (4-58).
The Panthers ran well at times, which was a bit of a surprise. Jonathan Stewart was guilty of an early lost fumble, but he finished with 70 yards on 13 carries.
Packers 26, Cowboys 21
The Cowboys benefited from some horrible officiating in last week's victory over the Lions, so it's almost fitting that the big call in this contest went against them. Two wrongs don't make a right, however, and the officials, for the second week in a row, incorrectly decided a game.
The big call, of course, was Dez Bryant's reception that took the ball down to the Green Bay 1-yard line with a few minutes remaining in regulation. Bryant caught the ball, made a few steps and then fell just short of the goal line. This was initially ruled a reception, but replay review deemed it an incompletion. Dallas turned the ball over on downs and never got another possession. The Packers were able to prevail, allowing them to advance to the NFC Championship in Seattle.
The ruling was incorrect, and the reception should've stood. Bryant made a football move when he took a few steps and dived toward the end zone. The ball barely grazed the ground, but Bryant never really lost control, though that shouldn't have mattered anyway. Because Bryant made a football move, it was a reception by NFL rule. The Cowboys, who are now aware of how the Lions felt, were royally screwed by incompetent officiating.
Having said that, I don't want to take much away from the Packers, who deserve to be in the NFC Championship. There was some concern about Aaron Rodgers' calf heading into this contest, and it definitely appeared to hinder him early on. Rodgers, at one point, was just 9-of-17 for 90 yards, as some of his passes sailed on him. The injury also prevented him from scrambling at all; his only "rushes" were four kneel-downs.
Rodgers, however, got into a great rhythm in the second half, as he became an unstoppable force. He finished 24-of-35 for 316 yards and three touchdowns. He turned the ball over once, though that was really rookie center Corey Linsley's fault because he snapped the ball before Rodgers was ready. Rodgers threw some absolute darts to his receivers in the fourth quarter, particularly Davante Adams, who got open quite easily against overmatched corner Sterling Moore. It really helped Rodgers that his offensive line held up extremely well following halftime. It struggled to protect Rodgers early on, but that changed as the afternoon progressed.
Adams actually led the team in receiving yardage, as he caught seven balls for 117 yards and a touchdown. Adams was as fantastic as the numbers indicate; he beat Moore and juked an inept J.J. Wilcox when he ran into the end zone. He then broke out of a poor Moore tackle on a big gain to move the chains on Green Bay's final drive when the team successfully ran out the clock. Randall Cobb (8-116) also made a big catch on that possession, and he earlier reeled in an impressive reception in which he was barely able to tap his feet inbounds.
Jordy Nelson (2-22) wasn't as productive, as he saw just five targets. He had a big drop on a third down. Andrew Quarless (4-31) and Richard Rodgers (1-13) hauled in Rodgers' other touchdowns.
The Packers opened the game by pounding the ball with Eddie Lacy, who generated 45 yards on the first drive. The coaching staff inexplicably went away from him for the remainder of the initial half, but went back to him afterward. He did not disappoint, finishing with 101 yards on just 19 carries.
The Cowboys also moved the chains well on the ground, as DeMarco Murray accumulated 123 yards and a touchdown on 25 attempts. However, he let his team down with a lost fumble, his first since Week 8. The turnover led to a Green Bay field goal.
Romo misfired on just four of his passes, going 15-of-19 for 191 yards and two touchdowns. He had trouble getting up after hitting Jason Witten on a completion, and whatever injury he sustained hindered his mobility for the rest of the afternoon. Romo was sacked twice on back-to-back plays on the ensuing drive.
Dallas' leader in receiving yardage was Witten (6-71), who was the only Cowboy player over 40. Bryant (3-38) disappointed those who used him in FanDuel, though, as mentioned, he was screwed out of a great, leaping reception that may have won Dallas the game. Meanwhile, Romo's touchdowns went to Terrance Williams (1-38) and Tyler Clutts.
Colts 24, Broncos 13
The Colts opened the game by going three-and-out, and then they watched the Broncos march down the field on a touchdown drive. It appeared as though this contest would be a demolition, and it was. Except, the Colts dominated from that point on.
Indianapolis outscored Denver the rest of the way, 24-6. This was a complete loss by the Broncos. Their defense couldn't put any pressure on Andrew Luck, who dissected Denver throughout the afternoon. Meanwhile, the Broncos couldn't do anything offensively following the initial possession. Peyton Manning had yet another epic playoff choke job, as he spent the entire contest overthrowing players and heaving weak-armed throws. No one in the media wanted to mention it because they feared offending Manning, but the future Hall of Fame quarterback had a decaying arm down the stretch, beginning with the second half of the Kansas City contest. There was talk that Manning was healthier during the week, but that didn't appear to be the case at all.
I'd like to focus on Luck though, as he is the more significant quarterback in the NFL at this point. Luck, unlike Manning, has proven to be extremely clutch in his young career. He has made so many fourth-quarter comebacks early on, and that type of play has transitioned to the playoffs. He was so sharp in this contest, beating the quarterback he displaced as the starter of the Colts.
Luck finished 27-of-43 for 265 yards, two touchdowns and a pair of interceptions. The picks were both like punts on third-and-long situations where Luck just tried desperately to make something happen. He also had a 20-yard scramble. Some of Luck's best passes came on third downs. He fired a ball to Donte Moncrief on a third-and-6 through a tight window, and then floated a perfect pass to Coby Fleener for a gain of 32 on a third-and-16. Another key conversion was when Luck hit T.Y. Hilton on one of the few plays in which he had pressure in his face on a third-and-9.
Luck's leading receiver was Hilton (4-72), the only Colt with more than 50 receiving yards. Luck spread the ball around, as Fleener (3-49), Moncrief (2-32), Dan Herron (8-32), Dwayne Allen (4-30, TD) and Hakeem Nicks (2-24, TD) all contributed.
The Colts, who didn't even activate Trent Richardson, barely ran in the first half. Luck had 24 attempts compared to 11 rushes by Dan Herron (23-63, TD) by intermission. However, Indianapolis was able to move the chains on the ground when it absolutely needed to. The team controlled the clock for eight minutes on a fourth-quarter drive, setting up a field goal that put the team up two possessions, effectively sealing the victory.
It's not like Manning could even score once, so the final field goal may have been irrelevant. Manning's numbers were 26-of-46 for only 211 yards and a touchdown. He also lost a fumble on a strip-sack. Manning's stats don't look terrible, but some of his completions occurred in garbage time, so that enhanced his yardage and already-hideous YPA (4.59). He was also nearly picked a couple of times, as the crowd frequently booed him throughout the second half.
Perhaps Manning will get healthy next year, but he looked done as an elite quarterback late in the season, though I'm sure he would've found some way to lose in the playoffs even if he were 100 percent.
Manning wasn't the only Bronco who struggled. Demaryius Thomas had an awful performance. The stat box shows that Thomas caught five balls for 59 yards and a touchdown, but he had a pair of drops that could've gone for big gains. Emmanuel Sanders (7-46), meanwhile, couldn't get on track with Manning. The veteran quarterback continuously missed his speedy receiver on downfield throws.
Julius Thomas was actually Manning's most reliable weapon in this contest, as he caught six of seven targets for 53 yards. He nearly scored a touchdown twice on the opening drive, but was tackled at the 2-yard line and then interfered with in the end zone.
The Broncos ran well at times, as C.J. Anderson gained 80 yards on 18 carries. He broke free for an early 22-yarder from near his own goal line and later muscled away two tackles in the backfield to convert a fourth-and-1. Anderson, who also caught six balls for 29 receiving yards, wasn't given enough touches. With Manning clearly ailing, Denver should have run the ball more often.
For more thoughts, check out my updated NFL Power Rankings, which will be posted Tuesday morning.