No Room for Error in the NFL Playoffs
Mistakes doomed the underdogs in this weekend's National Football League playoff games, setting up powerhouse matchups in next Sunday's conference championships.
Seattle Seahawks defeated New Orleans Saints, 23-15
Everyone's talking about Saints wide receiver Marques Colston's inexplicable lateral to end the game and his team's season, but make no mistake: New Orleans gave this one away with puzzling decisions throughout the afternoon.
The Seahawks shut down the Saints for most of the game, holding them scoreless until the fourth quarter, behind relentless pressure on quarterback Drew Brees. You wouldn't know it from his final stat line, but Brees looked uncomfortable throughout the game, completing just five passes for 34 yards in the first half. New Orleans failed to adjust to Seattle's stifling defense, resulting in the underutilization of Jimmy Graham and poor game management. Graham, the league's most prolific tight end with 16 touchdowns and more than 1,200 receiving yards this season, had just one catch for eight yards. With the Saints unable to find their rhythm, Brees was forced to waste two timeouts as the play clock ticked down in the fourth quarter and was still given a five-yard delay-of-game penalty on a late-game drive that resulted in a missed 48-yard field goal.
New Orleans head coach Sean Payton's decision to settle for the field goal in a one-score game with less than four minutes left was just one of several questionable decisions. Kicker Shayne Graham had already missed a 45-yard try on a relatively windy day. On the Seahawks' next drive, Payton burned his final timeout, challenging a third-down pass from Russell Wilson to Doug Baldwin that put Seattle on the New Orleans' 31. Colston's bizarre choice to lateral instead of run out of bounds to set up a Hail Mary on the game's final drive capped off a day of disarray for the Saints.
New England Patriots defeated Indianapolis Colts, 43-22
Andrew Luck couldn't muster more magic, and Tom Brady didn't need to thanks to a historic performance by Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount. Blount scored four touchdowns with 166 yards on 24 carries, becoming the first running back in NFL postseason history with that many scores and at least 150 yards in a single game. Brady took a backseat to the ground game, completing 13 of 25 passes for 198 yards and no touchdowns.
Meanwhile, Luck and the Colts succumbed to sloppy play, throwing four interceptions and going 0-for-2 in the red zone. The Colts couldn't overcome their mistakes a week after their improbable comeback against the Chiefs, with two of Luck's turnovers leading to Patriots touchdowns, including one in the fourth quarter that put the game out of reach.
San Francisco 49ers defeated Carolina Panthers, 23-10
After days of unnecessary drama between Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith and professional wrestling legend Ric Flair, the 49ers did their talking on the field, winning with a well-rounded attack and Carolina's carelessness. Cam Newton threw two interceptions and was sacked five times in his postseason debut. San Francisco's defense allowed little room for error, stopping Carolina in two first-half goal-line stands at the 1-yard line. The Panthers did themselves in with eight penalties that lost them 73 yards, five of which led to first downs for the 49ers.
Meanwhile, Colin Kaepernick, who was drafted in 2011 35 spots behind first-pick Newton, showed off his playoff experience. Kaepernick threw for one touchdown and scored another on the ground, capping off the day by mimicking Newton's "Superman" pose in the end zone. Anquan Boldin was also an unexpected weapon, catching eight passes for 136 yards, while Frank Gore added 84 yards on 17 carries. The 49ers will travel to Seattle next week in a battle of the league's elite defenses and two quarterbacks who like to use their legs.
Denver Broncos defeated San Diego Chargers, 24-17
Peyton Manning won his first playoff game since 2009, shaking some of his postseason demons with a two-touchdown performance. He completed 25 of 36 passes, throwing for 230 yards against a Chargers team that bested him a month before. The Broncos learned from their mistakes in that game, establishing a two-pronged run attack behind 82 yards by Knowshon Moreno and another 52 yards by Montee Ball, while converting nine of 13 third-down plays.
Conversely, San Diego suffered from futility on third down, completing just four of 12 plays for first downs. Although they avoided committing any turnovers, the Chargers couldn't get anything going until late in the game, controlling the ball for just 24 minutes to the Broncos' 35. After taking a 17-0 lead into the fourth quarter, Denver withstood a San Diego comeback to avoid a repeat of last year's collapse against Baltimore, setting up next week's marquee matchup between Manning and old foe Tom Brady.
(Kavitha A. Davidson is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about sports. Follow her on Twitter at @kavithadavidson.)