DENVER – If the Denver Broncos are going to lose in these playoffs they're going out swinging, unlike last season.
Late in a playoff game against Baltimore last season, the Broncos were content to take some time off the clock with some running plays and punt, even thought they have a Hall-of-Fame quarterback in Peyton Manning. The Ravens completed a miracle touchdown to Jacoby Jones in the final minute of regulation and won in two overtimes.
That wasn't going to happen again on Sunday.
Denver had two chances to sit on the ball, leading 24-17 in the final minutes against San Diego. But on a third-and-17 and a third-and-6, Manning dropped back to pass and hit Julius Thomas for first downs each time. San Diego never got the ball back.
Manning didn't try to conceal that the Ravens loss last year had an effect on those two calls.
"I feel like that game last year forced us to address those types of situations all season long," Manning said when asked about those third downs.
The best thing to say about the Broncos is that they learned from last season's failure. Now they have the chance to show that they've learned from the loss to the Patriots in the regular season, when they host New England in the AFC championship game next Sunday.
Here are the rest of the winners and losers from this weekend's playoff games:
Jim Harbaugh: It's not easy to make it to three NFC championship games in a row. No matter if the 49ers win the Super Bowl or lose to Seattle in a week, it doesn't change what Harbaugh has accomplished in San Francisco.
Harbaugh took over a team that was 6-10 and won 36 regular-season games and five playoff games the past three seasons with it. The roster wasn't bare when he took over, but he has done a great job to get the most out of it. He has had a great playoff performance this year (even if he's a little over-exuberant at times).
The 49ers had two rematches from the regular season in the playoffs, against Green Bay and Carolina, and had a great plan for each one. On Sunday the 49ers took away the Panthers running game (Carolina had 93 yards rushing and 54 came from quarterback Cam Newton) and on the other side of the ball they put quarterback Colin Kaepernick in situations to succeed against a defense that shut him down in the regular season.
The 49ers now have another rematch game, against NFC West rival Seattle. The one thing you can count on is Harbaugh will have his team ready.
Josh McDaniels: Maybe there was more to the story of McDaniels, New England's offensive coordinator, pulling out of consideration for the Cleveland Browns' head coaching job than we know now. The narrative that he felt he needed more time before becoming a head coach again is tidy, and maybe it's true. It also makes sense that he pulled out when he was told he wasn't No. 1 on the Browns list, as the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported.
All that matters is McDaniels probably is making himself an even hotter commodity for whenever he does want to be a serious candidate for some team, regardless of how awful his first coaching job in Denver went.
The Patriots' offense isn't what it has been in years past. Not without Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker, among others, from last season. The Patriots still scored 43 points with Tom Brady completing 13 passes for 198 yards and no touchdowns on Saturday. Instead, it was a power-rushing attack that gained 234 yards and blasted the Colts out of the playoffs. Part of the Patriots' success on offense was the Colts' brutal defense, but credit also should be shared with the coaching staff that takes what it has (LeGarrette Blount, seriously?) and finds a way to win with it.
The Patriots making the NFL's final four with as many players as they lost due to injuries or other reasons is phenomenal. A lot of credit goes to the coaches, and that credit doesn't begin and end with head coach Bill Belichick. McDaniels has had a pretty good season too. And it's fair to assume that he'd enjoy it if he and the Patriots could beat Denver, the team that fired him in his first head-coaching stint.
Sean Payton and Drew Brees: In the end, the Saints lost at the No. 1 seed by eight points, and Brees had over 300 yards passing. But if you saw their 23-15 loss to the Seahawks from beginning to end, you know it wasn't pretty.
The Saints came out very flat and were overwhelmed in the first half. They made mistake after mistake, whether it was shanked punts or dropped passes or simply uncharacteristically bad throws by Brees. Payton is one of the best coaches in football, but the Saints looked oddly unprepared. Just like the first meeting against Seattle, they couldn't get to the things that make them successful, like taking shots at big plays downfield. The rain was a factor, but the Seahawks played in it too. By the time Brees and the Saints heated up, it was too late.
Brees had a few poor games (by his lofty standard) late in the season, and the championship window isn't going to be open for him and the Saints forever. Perhaps Peyton Manning's MVP season at age 37 will reset the bar for when a quarterback's prime ends, but Brees turns 35 on Wednesday. He's one of the best quarterbacks of all time, but once he's not at that level, the Saints will take a big step back too. The Saints' season was far from a failure, but it also seems like a bit of a missed opportunity, considering how good they looked for most of it.
Percy Harvin's health and Seattle's passing game: It's telling that Harvin, who had one catch all season, returned for the playoffs and the Seahawks immediately built a game plan around him.
Seattle has nothing else on the perimeter to make other teams concerned. It's amazing Russell Wilson produced like he did with a crew of receivers that ranks with the Jets and Raiders as the worst in football. Golden Tate is the Seahawks' best, and on a team like the 49ers he'd be the fourth option, far behind Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis. Players like Doug Baldwin and Zach Miller are viable options for the Seahawks, but probably wouldn't be for many other teams.
And that's where Harvin comes in. The Seahawks wanted him to be their game-breaking receiver, but he can't stay healthy. Harvin suffered what looked like a possible concussion on Seattle's first series, was cleared to return, then suffered a concussion before the end of the first half. Without Harvin, Wilson was 2-of-9 for 38 yards the entire second half against Seattle, and didn't get his second completion until less than three minutes remained, on a third-down throw to Baldwin.
It's hard to play a defense as strong as the 49ers' unit being one-dimensional, which Seattle has been the last few weeks as it rides Marshawn Lynch and the running game. Even if Harvin is healthy for the NFC title game next week it's tough for Seattle to depend on him too much. But it's also tough to imagine the Seahawks' breaking out of their offensive slump (Wilson hasn't had more than 206 passing yards in five straight games) with so few weapons on the perimeter.
Momentum from last weekend's great games: OK, this weekend's games were a little weak. The first weekend probably set the bar impossibly high with a few great games. While Saints-Seahawks and Chargers-Broncos were close at the end, they each were one-sided and dull for three quarters. Colts-Patriots and 49ers-Panthers were OK for a while before the better team pulled away.
That's OK, because it sets up one of the classic final fours in NFL history. There haven't been many championship weekends that have featured the four best teams in football with so many fascinating subplots. We may never see another Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning clash mean as much as next week's AFC championship game. And the Seahawks and 49ers now have the best rivalry in the NFL and can settle it on the field with a Super Bowl on the line. And any combination of winners from those two games is going to make for a heck of a Super Bowl.
This weekend had some good, but not great, football. Don't worry, we have three more classic matchups before the 2013-14 season is through.
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