The NFL Divisional round is in the books, and the weekend's slate of games produced the league's final four. Heading into the conference championships are the No. 1 seed Panthers and the No. 2 seed Cardinals in the NFC and the No. 1 seed Broncos vs. the No. 2 seed Patriots in the AFC. Yes, we're down to the league's top four seeds, and yes, we've got Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady coming up, so get ready for the predictable media onslaught onto that narrative.
Here's how we got there.
Rob Gronkowski came up big for New England once again on Saturday, as the All-Pro tight end caught two touchdown passes from Tom Brady to push his career postseason total eight, a new NFL record. Brady added a score on a quarterback sneak, and Stephen Gostkowski kicked two field goals to help the the Patriots secure their fifth-straight AFC title game berth. Kansas City made it interesting late by cutting the lead to 27-20, but in doing so, used over five minutes of fourth quarter clock with bungled time management. A failed onside kick effectively ended the game. The Patriots benefited from the bye week and got Julian Edelman back into the fold, and he quickly bounced back into form with 10 catches for 100 yards. New England looks like the team to beat in the AFC once again.
The Packers-Cardinals tilt on Saturday night was predictably crazy, and another Hail Mary pass by Aaron Rodgers -- caught in the end zone by Jeff Janis as time ran out -- sent the game into overtime. From there, following a coin toss flub, it was the Larry Fitzgerald show. Fitzgerald took the first pass of overtime 75 yards downfield before he was caught at the Green Bay 5-yard line. He later reeled in a little shovel pass and ran it into the end zone two plays later to secure the victory for the Cardinals. In the end, the Packers gave the Cardinals a true challenge in their place. Carson Palmer struggled for much of the game, throwing two picks and narrowly avoiding a few others, but not even another Rodgers miracle was enough for Green Bay to get out of the desert with a win.
Green Bay's luck runs out after failing to cover Larry Fitzgerald in OT
The Panthers held serve on their turf as well, and will host the NFC Championship next week after surviving a furious Seahawks' comeback attempt in the second half. Carolina dominated the first half in almost every way imaginable as they raced out to a 31-0 lead and it looked like it would be a completely one-sided affair. But the Seahawks chipped their way back, scoring 24 unanswered points of their own before ultimately running out of time, failing on an onside kick that sealed the deal. The Panthers ruled in the trenches, getting excellent push in the run game with their offensive line while constantly harassing Russell Wilson with their defensive line. They played balanced and physical, and look more than ready to host the high-flying Cardinals next week for a chance to go to the Super Bowl.
Finally, the Broncos won a tough battle against the Steelers at Mile High Stadium to advance to the AFC Championship, and did so with a smothering pass defense, an effective pass rush and the accurate kicking leg of Brandon McManus, who hit five field goals. Peyton Manning wasn't exactly impressive in passing for 222 yards on 37 attempts, but he did not turn the ball over, something that had plagued him earlier in the year. Denver's ground game combined for 109 yards and a touchdown on 33 carries, and C.J. Anderson had several key runs, including the go-ahead touchdown with three minutes left in the game. The win means the road to the Super Bowl in the AFC continues to go through Denver, and Manning will have another shot at Tom Brady and the Patriots next week. That should be fun.
As for those teams that were sent packing this weekend, questions abound.
Kansas City's incredible season ends short of the ultimate goal, but it's hard to overlook in the turnaround the Chiefs engineered after a 1-5 start. The Chiefs put together 11 straight wins (including last week's Wild Card victory over the Texans) before falling to the Patriots. Now, they have to deal with some important offseason issues. What do they do with impending free agents Tamba Hali, Derrick Johnson, Eric Berry and Sean Smith? What's the future hold for Jamaal Charles, and will he come back at full health? Who will Kansas City turn to as offensive coordinator after Doug Pederson heads to Philly as the Eagles' new head coach? Kansas City still has a great core group of defenders and really took steps forward on offense with the help of Jeremy Maclin at receiver this year, but there are challenges ahead and the AFC West will likely remain competitive.
The Packers will head back to Wisconsin and look to get healthy over the offseason. Despite the injury situation that plagued them all year, they'll have to look long and hard at what went wrong on offense for the second part of the season and try to figure out who will get play-calling duties in 2016, whether it's Mike McCarthy or otherwise. They'll have to figure out if Eddie Lacy looks like the future at running back and they'll have questions on defense as well. Shoring up an offensive line that failed to protect Aaron Rodgers during the second half of the year is on their priority list as well.
The Seahawks put up a valiant effort to erase an atrocious first half in Carolina, but now have many offseason questions to answer going into 2016. Will Marshawn Lynch be back? Will Jimmy Graham get healthy, and even if he does, will he be worth the $9 million cap hit? What will happen with several key free agents, including Russell Okung, J.R. Sweezy, Jeremy Lane, Brandon Mebane, Ahtyba Rubin, Jermaine Kearse and Bruce Irvin? Will Kam Chancellor hold out, and does Michael Bennett deserve a raise? The good news is that Russell Wilson took a huge step forward in the second half of the year and it looks like Seattle might keep its defensive coordinator this season.
Finally, Pittsburgh overcame a seemingly insurmountable amount of injuries this year to make a run into the playoffs and they'll likely continue to have one of the most explosive offenses in the league in 2016, particularly with Le'Veon Bell's return. But, they will have to iron out some issues in their pass defense while continuing to develop what looks to be a solid core on that side of the ball.
Final scores for the Divisional Round
New England Patriots 27, Kansas City Chiefs 20
Arizona Cardinals 26, Green Bay Packers 20
Carolina Panthers 31, Seattle Seahawks 24
Denver Broncos 23, Pittsburgh Steelers 16
Water Cooler talking points:
Arm yourself with a few essential tidbits from this weekend's action ... impress your coworkers around the water cooler.
Tom Brady, sneak master
The Patriots did something they do from time to time and almost completely abandoned the run game against the Chiefs on Saturday, starting out with 16 passes to just one run. In fact, Patriots running backs only carried the rock seven times all game -- and Brady almost matched that number with his six totes. Brady scrambled a few times, and dove over the top for yet another successful quarterback sneak, this time producing a 1-yard touchdown run. I've asked myself several times over the years if Brady has ever failed at a quarterback sneak, and Bill Barnwell provided an answer to that this weekend, pointing out that Brady is now 95 for 104 on third and fourth down with a yard to go during his career, an absurd conversion rate.
In fact, with Brady's sixth career rushing touchdown on Sunday, he weirdly sits even with or above some of the all time greats on the NFL's postseason rushing touchdowns list, including LaDainian Tomlinson, Jim Brown and Barry Sanders. Steve Young (eight postseason rushing touchdowns) is the only quarterback on that list above Brady.
Panthers rush attacks Seattle
Speaking of rushing, the Panthers absolutely ran over the Seahawks in the first half and it really didn't take long to establish that dominance in the trenches. Jonathan Stewart took the first snap of the game right up the gut for 59 yards and didn't look back. He finished with 106 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries -- that's the first time he scored two touchdowns in a game since Carolina's Week 6 win over the Seahawks, and the first time that any runner eclipsed 100 yards on the Seahawks all year.
Carolina finished with 144 yards and two touchdowns rushing on 41 attempts.
Cam Newton is on a tear
The run game isn't the only thing that Carolina has going. Cam Newton has been absolutely nails over the Panthers' last 10 games. In those games, Carolina is 9-1 and he's thrown for 25 touchdowns to just two interceptions at 8.19 yards per attempt (while adding six rushing touchdowns). Newton can celebrate all he wants -- he's completely dominated the league.
Ben Roethlisberger reaches new playoff benchmark
With Ben Roethlisberger's 339 yards passing against Denver, he passes greats like Terry Bradshaw, Troy Aikman, Jim Kelly, Donovan McNabb and Kurt Warner on the all-time playoffs passing yards list, as Pro Football Reference points out. Big Ben now has 4,052 postseason passing yards in his career, seventh on the list all-time behind only Brady, Manning, Brett Favre, Joe Montana, John Elway and Dan Marino. That's some pretty incredible company.
C.J. Anderson may be huge for the Broncos
The Broncos offense may struggle to move the football and score next week against the Patriots, but C.J. Anderson could be the real key. Manning has just one touchdown pass and eight interceptions in his six home games this season, and before Anderson rushed the football into the end zone with three minutes left in the game on Sunday, Denver had gone a full 22 straight possessions of postseason football without scoring a touchdown.
Here's the good news: Anderson finished the day with 72 yards on 15 carries -- 4.8 yards per carry -- and per PFF's Mike Clay, Anderson leads the NFL in yards per carry since Week 6, and is third in the NFL in yards per carry after contact. Getting Anderson going early next week could be the difference for the Broncos.
Here's why that crazy Steelers-Broncos touchback was in fact a touchback.
Peyton Manning fell over trying to avoid a sack and it worked out great for the Broncos.
Steelers RB Fitzgerald Toussaint was well prepared to dance after scoring the first TD of his career.
Look at the Broncos' brilliant effort to pin the Steelers on a punt.
Thomas Davis helped clinch a Panthers NFC title game berth with this onside kick recovery.
The Panthers sacked Russell Wilson then did the dance from a Future video.
Little girl explodes with joy when Panthers hand her touchdown ball.
The five ridiculous things that made Packers-Cardinals the best NFL playoff ending we can remember.
Aaron Rodgers completed two passes for 101 yards on his OT-forcing, Hail Mary drive.
Larry Fitzgerald won Cardinals-Packers all by himself in overtime.
Packers send Cardinals to OT on preposterous 41-yard Aaron Rodgers Hail Mary.
The Cardinals banked a miracle go-ahead touchdown off a Packer DB's arm.
Eddie Lacy spins, huffs and puffs for a huge 61-yard run.
Andy Reid's clock management ruined any chance of a Chiefs comeback.
One of the worst throws of Tom Brady's career turned into a game-clinching completion.
Alex Smith survived four sacks and his own lineman to complete a perfect pass.
Jared Allen may be out for the season.