Let’s be honest: That wasn’t a very good weekend of football.
Now let’s look on the bright side: That’s because the four teams we’ll watch in the conference championships on Sunday — San Francisco at Seattle in the NFC and New England at Denver in the AFC — are the four best teams in the NFL. By a lot.
The 49ers, Seahawks, Patriots and Broncos were all considered strong Super Bowl contenders heading into the season, they all went 13-3 or 12-4 during the season, they were all favored to win this weekend and they all won in convincing fashion. What we have are four superior football teams advancing to the conference championships.
That doesn’t happen every year. The Ravens were 10-6 in their Super Bowl-winning season last year. The Giants were 9-7 the year before that and the Packers 10-6 the year before that. In the NFL in the last few years, the Super Bowl hasn’t featured the best teams. It has featured the teams that got hot in the playoffs.
I like it better this way. The Seahawks and 49ers are great teams with a great rivalry. The Broncos and Patriots are great teams with two Hall of Fame quarterbacks who have battled each other for more than a decade. The combined record of the four teams still in the title hunt is 50-14, the best combined record of the final four teams in the playoffs in the last 15 years. This is what championship football should be like.
Here are my notes from the weekend:
For three quarters, the Broncos looked like the most complete team in the NFL. We all know Denver’s Peyton Manning-led passing game is great, but the Broncos were good all over the place for the first three quarters against the Chargers. Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball were a very strong 1-2 punch running the ball. Denver’s defense held a very good San Diego offense in check for most of the game. Early in the game, even the Broncos’ bad plays looked like flukes, not like major problems. But the Broncos’ fourth-quarter letdown may be a concern: A comfortable 17-0 lead turned into a closer-than-it-should-have-been 24-17 win. The Broncos will need to play well for four quarters to beat the Patriots.
LeGarrette Blount is something special. The Patriots made Blount the focal point of their offense on Saturday, and he rewarded them in a major way, carrying 24 times for 166 yards and four touchdowns. (Blount has only played in one postseason game, and he has more career postseason rushing touchdowns than Barry Sanders and Walter Payton combined.) Blount has always had a phenomenal combination of speed and power, but after a great rookie season in Tampa Bay in 2010, he was largely a forgotten man with the Bucs. Now the Patriots are getting the most out of his talents. One of the primary differences between a bad coach like Greg Schiano and a great coach like Bill Belichick is that Schiano saw Blount as a problem to get rid of, while Belichick saw Blount as an opportunity to make the most of.
Marshawn Lynch is a beast in the playoffs. Lynch has only played in five postseason games in his career, and he has topped 130 rushing yards in three of them: He had 140 yards in Sunday’s win over New Orleans, 132 yards in last year’s win over Washington, and 131 yards in Seattle’s playoff win three years ago over New Orleans, the game in which Lynch reeled off one of the greatest runs in NFL history. Only two players in NFL history — Terrell Davis with five and Thurman Thomas with four — have more 130-yard games in the playoffs than Lynch’s three.
Dan Skuta got the weakest flag of the weekend. Skuta, a 49ers linebacker, made a great play to fight through a block, hit Cam Newton and wrap him up for a sack in the fourth quarter. But the referee somehow claimed that Skuta had committed “roughing the quarterback” by hitting Newton in the head. I’m all for player safety, but the idea that a linebacker can’t tackle a quarterback the way Skuta tackled Newton is ridiculous.
The Panthers needed more from their running backs. Carolina running back DeAngelo Williams, who just finished the third season of a five-year, $43 million contract, gained 13 yards on five carries on Sunday. Carolina fullback Mike Tolbert, who just finished the second year of a four-year, $8.2 million contract, gained 20 yards on eight carries. (Running back Jonathan Stewart, who just finished the second year of a five-year, $36.5 million contract, was inactive with a knee injury.) A team that’s devoting as much salary cap space to running backs needs a lot more production from them than that. Cam Newton, who had 54 yards on 10 carries, was the only Panther who was a consistent threat on the ground.
The Trent Richardson trade was terrible. There are no two ways about it, the Colts made a huge mistake when they gave up their 2014 first-round draft pick to acquire Richardson from the Browns. Richardson ended the playoffs with four carries for a grand total of one yard, with one fumble. That’s horrific. In the regular season Richardson gave the Colts 157 carries for 458 yards, a pathetic average of 2.9 yards a carry. If Richardson can’t show significant improvement in the offseason and the 2014 preseason, can he even make the Colts’ 53-man roster next year?
The Saints’ clock management was abysmal. There will be plenty of blame to go around in New Orleans this week after the Saints’ loss at Seattle. But a big share of the blame should go to coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees, both of whom were responsible for some atrocious clock management. Twice in the fourth quarter Payton and Brees wasted timeouts because they couldn’t get the play called and the offense set in time to avoid a delay of game penalty. And Payton wasted the Saints’ final timeout challenging a Seahawks catch that was clearly ruled correctly on the field. You simply can’t waste all three of your timeouts when you’re trying to come from behind in the fourth quarter, but that’s what the Saints did.
The trumpet national anthem was awesome. Instead of famous singers who try way too hard to put their own spin on “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the Carolina Panthers got trumpeter Jesse McGuire to play the national anthem, and he was outstanding. How about bringing him back for the Super Bowl, NFL? That was an anthem fit for a great game, which this year’s Super Bowl — whether it’s the 49ers or Seahawks, Broncos or Patriots — is virtually guaranteed to be.