Divisional playoffs: What we learned

From efficient quarterback performances to some wily coaching moves to a surprise defense, the divisional playoffs provided further proof of the strengths of the playoff teams.

New England Patriots 35, Baltimore Ravens 31
If you can’t run effectively, don’t: The Patriots likely knew it would be a struggle to run the ball against a stout defensive like the Ravens, who finished the season with the No. 4-ranked run defense. The Patriots tried early, then didn’t. For the game, the Patriots rushed only 13 times for a measly 14 yards. In the second half, they ran the ball only four times for minus-3 yards. Instead, they relied on what has always gotten them deep into the playoffs: Tom Brady. In the second half, Brady was 18-for-26 for 165 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. The Ravens, meanwhile, tried to keep it balanced as they twice gave up 14-point leads in game.

Coaching matters: John Harbaugh can complain all he wants about the Patriots’ use of four offensive linemen and having one of the receivers be ineligible, but if it’s legal then New England coach Bill Belichick should be applauded for once again throwing an unscouted wrinkle that the Ravens didn’t know how to handle. That’s the kind of coaching that has made Belichick a legend. And don’t forget about his use of Julian Edelman on a wide receiver pass to Danny Amendola that went for a 51-yard touchdown in the second half.

No down bigger than third down: It’s hard to fathom how the Ravens could have even built up their two 14-point leads when they were only 1-for-9 in converting third downs. It’s further proof of just how proficient they were on first and second down at times. Meanwhile, the Patriots were 6-for-11 on third down to keep their drives moving, despite having fewer offensive plays and losing the time-of-possession edge.

Explosive plays win: The Ravens didn’t have any plays go for more than 22 yards. The Patriots had four – a 51-yard touchdown, a 23-yard touchdown and gains of 46 (leading to New England’s first touchdown) and 23 yards (leading to New England’s second touchdown to make tie the game T 14 after trailing 14-0).

Seattle Seahawks 31, Carolina Panthers 17
Turnovers thwart early competitiveness: The Seahawks punted away their first three possessions, running only a combined 13 plays on those drives, but they were able to get a late first-quarter touchdown when Cam Newton fumbled a snap that Seattle recovered at Carolina’s 28-yard line.

Wilson more efficient: Newton had more completions than Russell Wilson had pass attempts, but Wilson was more efficient, hitting on 15 of 22 attempts for 268 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions – a passer rating of 149.2 while averaging 10.3 yards per pass play compared to Newton averaging 6.1 yards per pass play.

Pressuring Newton: Both quarterbacks were sacked twice, but Newton was hurried eight times compared to Wilson feeling the heat only twice.

Green Bay Packers 26, Dallas Cowboys 21
“Through the catch” strikes again: Last weekend, the Detroit Lions felt wronged by a flag that was picked up when it was initially ruled pass interference on the Cowboys. This time, the Lions were brought back into the conversation in the Cowboys game, even though Detroit wasn’t playing. How? Back in 2010, Detroit’s Calvin Johnson was ruled to not have completed a catch against the Chicago Bears because he didn’t complete the catch. This time, it was Tony Romo throwing a 31-yard, fourth-down pass to Dez Bryant that was initially ruled a catch at the 1-yard line with 4:42 remaining. But after reviewing the play, referee Gene Steratore ruled that Bryant didn’t maintain control “throughout the process,” turning the ball over to the Packers. They gained two first downs and ran out the clock to win the game. NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino tweeted after the play that, “By rule he must hold onto it throughout entire process of contacting the ground. He didn’t so it is incomplete.”

The Lions’ official Twitter account tweeted after the game: “Sorry @DallasCowboys. We know the feeling.” That tweet included a picture of Johnson’s overturned catch from 2010.

The kicker? Steratore was the infamous official in Johnson’s catch that was reversed in 2010.

Rodgers’ mobility: Throughout the game, Aaron Rodgers was clearly affected by his left calf injury, but he looked more willing to move in the pocket in the second half. Although harassed often, he took only one sack, threw for 316 yards and three touchdowns and avoided an interception. Rogers is famous for extending plays with his feet, even if he isn’t running, but he did that with fewer steps against the Cowboys. On his first touchdown, a healthy and fully mobile Rodgers might have run for a 4-yard touchdown up the middle. He still moved up in the pocket, but as he neared the line of scrimmage he fired a bullet to Andrew Quarles in the back of the end zone for the first touchdown. In a game in which he and Tony Romo were both efficient and each team produced a 100-yard runner, Rodgers was able to overcome his mobility limitations enough to save the win.

Indianapolis Colts 24, Denver Broncos 13
Beating the Man(ning): Billed as the old versus the new quarterbacks of the Colts, Andrew Luck showed why he is revered as one of the best in the game already and Peyton Manning showed why critics have had concerns about his play of late. Luck wasn’t flawless, but he was pretty darn good against the No. 3 defense in the league. He threw two interceptions, but rebounded for two touchdowns, too. Neither team eclipsed 100 yards rushing, and the passing statistics were nearly the same between Luck and Manning. Luck’s line: 27 of 43 for 265 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions and a 76.2 rating. Manning: 26 of 46 for 211 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions and a 75.5 rating. But Luck didn’t take a sack and Manning took two, losing a fumble that led to a Colts touchdown. The biggest difference? Luck averaged 6.2 yards per pass play; Manning averaged only 4.2. Luck also got the Colts into the red zone four times, capitalizing with a touchdown on three of those while the Broncos were only inside the 20-yard line once.

Colts find a defense: Many figured Manning should have his way with the Indianapolis defense, ranked 11th during the regular season, but cornerback Vontae Davis had five passes defensed, and a key play in the game came when Jonathan Newsome stripped Manning of the football and Jerrell Freeman recovered at the Denver 41-yard line. To wit: 59 of Manning’s 211 passing yards came on the final drive when the Colts already had a two-possession lead. Remember, this was the Colts defense that gave up 522 yards and six touchdowns to Ben Roethlisberger during a regular-season game. Demaryius Thomas was held to five catches on 12 targets for 59 yards, and Emmanuel Sanders had seven catches on 15 targets for 46 yards. Wes Welker had only one catch for 20 yards.

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