NFL Nation: 2012 Divisional Round

Packers' offense drops the ball

January, 15, 2012
Aaron RodgersAP Photo/Jeffrey PhelpsAaron Rodgers and Green Bay's offense could not get things going against the Giants.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The first inkling came on the Green Bay Packers' seventh offensive play Sunday. On third down from the New York Giants' 29-yard line, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers did what he often does when a play breaks down. So did receiver Greg Jennings.

Rodgers stepped up in the pocket to escape Jacquian Williams, the Giants' blitzing linebacker. Jennings, in turn, took off toward the end zone. The Giants' secondary lost track of him. Jennings turned to look for the ball over his left shoulder. Rodgers threw it over his right. The ball fell incomplete at the 4-yard line, and the Packers settled for a field goal.

At that moment, I turned to someone in the press box and remarked how rarely we have seen the Packers miss easy touchdown opportunities during this historic season.

The Packers' season ended Sunday with an offensive thud, a 37-20 loss to the New York Giants that was wholly out of character and inexplicable on most every level. And I'm sure as you review how the Packers reached such an unsatisfying conclusion, some will recite a well-rehearsed litany of their season-long defensive problems. A few of you will wonder why Lambeau Field is no longer the greatest home-field advantage in NFL postseason history; the Packers are 2-4 in their past six playoff games there after winning 13 consecutively from 1939-2001.

But here, as they say, is the stone-cold truth: One of the most explosive and efficient offenses in NFL history -- the one that almost single-handedly was responsible for a 15-1 regular-season record -- stumbled at the starting line and never regained its footing. Credit goes to the Giants' defense for scheming to take away the deep pass, but independent of that, I think we can agree it's been a while since we've seen the Packers' offense play so poorly. ESPN Stats & Information had it with six drops, tied for the most by any NFL team in a game this season. The Packers committed a season-high four turnovers, including a fumble by Rodgers as he was trying to hit a wide-open Jennings in the third quarter. They had only two plays go for more than 20 yards, a 29-yard run by running back James Starks and a 21-yard pass to receiver Randall Cobb once the game was out of hand.

"This year," receiver Jordy Nelson said, "we've made the easy plays into big plays. And we didn't make the easy plays today. That's what hurts you. Every once in a while, you'll get a big shot, but if you can't make the easy plays, you aren't going to make any plays."

I couldn't have put it better if I tried. Why that happened, however, will be a mental mystery that will haunt the Packers all offseason.

How can you explain how a team that dropped 30 passes in 16 regular season games dropped six in one playoff game? What causes a team to commit four turnovers in one game when it had only 14 in the regular season? What made fullback John Kuhn fumble for the first time in his career? Why didn't Rodgers slide away from Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora, as he usually does, on his third-quarter miscue?

"I ain't God, so I can't tell you why we were out of synch," tight end Jermichael Finley said. "We just didn't play our style of ball."

It would be easy to say the Packers were rusty after a playoff bye week. And I guess we should note that Rodgers hadn't played since Dec. 25 and Jennings since Dec. 11. Is it that simple? Were the Packers rusty? Perhaps, but at some point, you must wonder if we were holding them to an impossible standard.

What Sunday's mistakes told me was how much the Packers grew to depend on elite -- and not just great -- play from their offense on a weekly basis. The Packers were an elite team as long as their offense scored at a rate that left them with the second-highest point total in NFL history. But as soon as a few mistakes piled up, they got wiped out of the playoffs by a team that won its division with a 9-7 record.

"I felt like we had a pretty good rhythm," Rodgers said. "We moved the ball pretty effectively. We just had some drops and some uncharacteristic turnovers. … We just had some chances and didn't make the most of them."

None was more critical than Rodgers' misfire to Finley on third-and-five from the Giants' 39-yard line in the third quarter. With the Packers trailing 20-13, Finley ran a slant route and was wide open for a first down at about the 25-yard line. Rodgers threw him a fastball that sailed wide and off Finley's fingertips. Rodgers was sacked on fourth down, and the Packers never had an opportunity to tie the game again.

"I missed my spot a little bit," Rodgers said. Finley added: "It was out in front of me. I put one hand out. I tried to get it. I have to catch that ball …. It was one of those plays I couldn't make."

Those are the types of plays we grew accustomed to the Packers making this season, be it a sharp throw-and-catch on third-and-5 or an ad lib that leads to Jennings getting wide open in the end zone. To be sure, the Giants ran an aggressive scheme designed to take away their deep pass with "off" coverage but also flood intermediate routes with maximum coverage. Only eight of Rodgers' 46 attempts traveled 15 yards in the air, and he completed only two of them.

But regardless of the situation this season, the Packers have relied on their offense to bail them out. Even as they jogged off the field trailing 20-10 at halftime, there was no sense of panic.

"We thought going in with the way we'd be scoring on offense, the game wasn't that far away from us," said nose tackle B.J. Raji.

For the first time all season, however, the Packers offense dropped the ball -- and the Packers weren't a team equipped to compensate for it. We all know what happened. The Packers will spend the next six months figuring out the how and the why. But in the end, all they'll have to show for one of the greatest regular seasons in team history is one of their most surprising conclusions. Not everyone thought the Packers would repeat as Super Bowl champions, but I'm not sure many thought their offense would bring them down.

Coughlin is becoming a coaching Giant

January, 15, 2012
Eli ManningAP Photo/Darron CummingsTom Coughlin has Eli Manning and the New York Giants just one win away from the Super Bowl.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Deep in the bowels of Lambeau Field on Sunday night, America's youngest 65-year-old practically bounced up to the podium, a grin creasing his famously red face as he broke down his latest huge coaching achievement.

When you push yourself as hard as Tom Coughlin pushes himself, you have to revel in nights like this. The New York Giants had just crushed the 15-1 Green Bay Packers, 37-20, to move into the NFC Championship Game, and Coughlin finds himself in the middle of a postseason run every bit as delightfully surprising as the one on which he took the Giants four years ago.

"Just very happy," Coughlin said, and who can blame him? This is a remarkable coaching achievement he's pulled off. His team looked dead in the water just four weeks ago, sitting at 7-7 and in second place after a miserable home loss to the Redskins. The story in New York was about whether he would be fired if the Giants didn't make the playoffs, and the consensus seemed to be that the Giants would have little choice.

Four games and four victories later, such talk has turned preposterous. Coughlin, whose contract runs through 2012, has put himself in line for a multi-year extension. This run with this team is establishing him -- if he hadn't already done so -- as one of the elite head coaches in the game. If he wins his next two games, he becomes a two-time Super Bowl champion and, quite frankly, people are going to start to ask whether he belongs in the Hall of Fame.

"There's nobody outside of this room who believed we could get where we are right now," Giants left tackle David Diehl said. "You go back a month, and it was all, 'Should Coughlin be fired?' But he knew what we had here, and we knew what we had here, and we used all of that for motivation."

The mark of a great coach is his ability to identify the kind of team and the kind of players he has and coach accordingly. Bum Phillips famously said that what made Don Shula great was that "he could take his'n and beat your'n, or he could take your'n and beat his'n." Coughlin is of that school. At a time when so many coaches seem to be slaves to their own system, or seek to have control over roster construction, Coughlin sees his role more simply. His is not to mope and complain that the team didn't do more in free agency, or that defensive starters dropped like flies in the preseason. His is to figure out how to win with what he has. And as he did four years ago, when he tore through Dallas and Green Bay before taking out the undefeated Patriots in the Super Bowl, he has figured out how to push exactly the right buttons with a roster that didn't look playoff-caliber for most of this season.

"The way the leadership part works is, it starts with the coach," Giants safety Deon Grant said. "And what we have here is a coach who knows his team. He knows how to talk to the veterans in this locker room, when to challenge people, when to lighten up. You want a leader who believes in you, and in order to believe in you, he's got to know you."

[+] EnlargeTom Coughlin
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireNew York's playoff run is establishing Tom Coughlin as one of the league's elite coaches.
Coughlin knows his team. He knew, after that Redskins loss, that the way to approach the following week was to build his players up rather than tear into them. They have responded, and are playing with a champion's level of confidence at exactly the right time of year. No fewer than four players in their locker room said Sunday night, "I knew we were going to win this game," and every single one of them was convincing and sincere.

"We've got a lot of confidence right now," running back Ahmad Bradshaw said. "We've been here before, a lot of us, and we've been here together. And I think that helps us a lot."

This really is starting to feel like four years ago all over again, and the reason why is the seasoned, even-keel performance of the leaders who keyed that playoff run. Eli Manning is playing quarterback at an incredibly high level, and Coughlin is delivering the right message during the week and projecting cool, experienced certainty during the games.

"Our coach is always consistent with his message," defensive lineman Chris Canty said. "That's a big deal, because it makes it easy to buy in. Confidence comes from demonstrated performance, and we have people in our building who have some pretty good records."

Sunday was Coughlin's sixth career playoff road win, one short of the all-time record held by a guy you may have heard of named Tom Landry. That's heady company, and it says a lot about the advantage Coughlin gives the Giants at this time of year. To have a coach who's not going to be surprised or thrown off by any situation, who has shown a sincere belief in you and earned your reciprocal belief in him -- that's the kind of stuff that allows a team to keep its head in intense playoff games.

"Success breeds confidence," Coughlin said. "And right now they're a pretty confident group."

That starts at the top, and while he would scoff at the notion, the fact that the Giants are one of the final four NFL teams left standing is a direct result of one of the finest coaching jobs of Coughlin's fine coaching career.
Lardarius Webb Mitch Stringer/US PresswireLardarius Webb's two interceptions helped Baltimore survive the Texans.
BALTIMORE -- Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs summed up the Baltimore Ravens' ugly 20-13 divisional playoff win over the Houston Texans the best.

"There's a right way to do things, there's a wrong way to do things," Suggs said, "and there's the Ravens' way to do things."

The "Ravens Way" was good enough to beat a Texans team without its top two quarterbacks and top defensive player (Mario Williams). The "Ravens Way" was good enough to win a Super Bowl 11 years ago.

But the "Ravens Way" won't cut it next Sunday in the AFC Championship Game at top-seeded New England. This isn't to say that the Ravens can't win at New England. The Ravens have the talent to beat anyone this season (they're 7-0 against playoff teams). They just have to play much better than they did against the Texans to do so.

The fans know it. The media knows it. And, most importantly, the players know it, too.

How much better do the Ravens need to play to beat the Patriots? "A lot better than today," safety Ed Reed said before repeating himself. "A lot better than today."

The Ravens won't outscore New England if Joe Flacco completes 14 passes and Ray Rice averages 2.9 yards per carry. Baltimore won't slow Tom Brady and the jazzed-up Patriots' offense if it can't stop the run (Arian Foster gained 132 yards) or the top receiver (Andre Johnson had 111 yards receiving). And the Ravens definitely won't beat Bill Belichick if they can't punch the ball into the end zone (like Baltimore failed to do late in the third quarter against Houston).

Wait, how exactly did the Ravens beat Houston today? The Texans turned the ball over four times, including three interceptions by rookie T.J. Yates, and Baltimore converted them into 17 points. It was the classic case of the Texans lost the game more than the Ravens won it.

"It's winning by any means necessary," Reed said succinctly.

The Ravens will get beat up by their critics for a performance like this, especially coming off a bye and playing their first home playoff game in five years. But no one should beat up Baltimore like the Texans did Flacco, who was sacked five times (which ties a season-high).

Baltimore outlasted Houston because it capitalized on Houston's mistakes. A fumble on a punt return deep in Texans territory led to a 1-yard touchdown pass from Flacco to blocking tight end Kris Wilson. An interception by cornerback Lardarius Webb resulted in a 10-yard scoring pass from Flacco to Anquan Boldin.

Those two touchdowns put the Ravens ahead 17-3 in the first quarter, but they needed another big play from Webb in the fourth quarter. His interception was converted into a 44-yard field goal by Billy Cundiff that gave Baltimore a 20-13 cushion.

The Ravens started to bristle at the line of questioning that they should have beat the Texans resoundly.

"You all are acting like we beat a team that eeked into the playoffs," Suggs said. "We played a good team; we played a very good team."

All of these Ravens' positives from this game have to be lumped into the fact that they dropped five passes and failed to record a sack. They managed 11 first downs and were outgained, 315-227.

"We're confident about the things that went well," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "But we're humbled about the things that we need to improve on."

The Ravens didn't need to be humbled. They didn't need a wake-up call. It's not like Baltimore was playing its best entering the postseason. It's been the "Ravens Way" for weeks now.

There was the rout in San Diego (a 34-14 loss) and close calls against Cleveland (20-14 win) and at Cincinnati (24-16 victory). So, how the Ravens beat the Texans fit their trend.

"That's a good football team over there," Rice said, "and I'm never going to apologize for a win."

The Ravens don't need to apologize. They need to shake out of this funk.

Baltimore is the most balanced team left in the playoffs. Only the Ravens had an offense and defense ranked in the top half of the NFL in the regular season. The Patriots, 49ers and Giants all didn't.

The Ravens also have the confidence to win in New England. They did it two years ago when they upset the Patriots, 33-14, in January 2010. That's why the time is now for the Ravens to make their Super Bowl run.

"The only reason you play this game -- the only reason you play this game -- is for the opportunity to go to the Super Bowl," linebacker Ray Lewis said. "We have that opportunity right now."

But, in order for the Ravens to capitalize on that opportunity, the Ravens have to play better than the "Ravens Way."

"[The Patriots] have to play their best game, too," Rice said. "They know that's what the playoffs are about. If they don't play their best game, they'll get beat. If we don't play our best game, we'll get beat. There's a reason why No. 1 and No. 2 are playing each other. It's not David and Goliath. We are right up there with them."

If both teams play their best game, who wins?

"That's what Sunday will tell," he said.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- A few thoughts on the New York Giants' 37-20 playoff victory over the Green Bay Packers on Sunday at Lambeau Field.

What it means: Well, it means the Giants are one game away from the Super Bowl. The defeated the 15-1 Packers on the Packers' home field and now get a chance to avenge another of their regular-season losses next week in San Francisco. It also seems to give credence to the theory that playing at playoff-level intensity in the weeks leading up to the playoffs can give a team an advantage.

Who are these guys?: These are not the same Giants that were losing four straight games to fall to .500 and into second place a little more than a month ago. We knew they were tough, and that Eli Manning was a fourth-quarter assassin. But during those tough November/December days, it did not appear as though the Giants had the manpower to win these kinds of games against these kinds of teams. They are healthier now, and they look as focused, driven and confident as any team left in the field. And they are a legitimate threat to bring home the fourth Super Bowl trophy in franchise history.

Discipline deep: The Giants looked lost in coverage in the first quarter, as they did for most of the season. But they tightened up in the second and made plays in the secondary all day when it counted. Green Bay helped out by dropping its share of passes, but Antrel Rolle led the way for a clearly fired-up Giants secondary, and for maybe the first time all year it looked as though the front four was feeding off what the guys on the back end were doing. Michael Boley got two sacks from the linebacker position as the Giants tried everything they could to get Aaron Rodgers to stop beating them with his legs. Most importantly, the Giants stayed disciplined in the secondary, so that even when they didn't break up the pass, there was a safety and/or a cornerback there to keep the gain from turning into a big, backbreaking one. It wasn't always pretty, but they did an excellent job of keeping the Packers' explosive offense in front of them, and they benefited as a result.

Winning the turnover battle: The Packers are plus-23 in the turnover category during the regular season. But the Kansas City Chiefs -- until Sunday, the only team to have beaten them -- didn't turn the ball over at all against them. And the Giants had a 3-1 turnover edge in Sunday's game. Manning threw an interception, but the Giants recovered three Green Bay fumbles to seize the edge in a category that routinely decides games in the NFL.

Who's No. 1?: Victor Cruz has been the headline-grabber in New York this year, and for good reason. But Hakeem Nicks showed everybody he's still the best wide receiver the Giants have. Nicks turned in the long catch-and-run that's becoming a Giants' staple -- a 66-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter. He caught the Manning Hail Mary in the end zone that gave the Giants a shocking 20-10 halftime lead. He finished with seven catches for 165 yards and made the biggest plays of the day.

Big plays at the right time: The Giants were 8-for-15 on third-down conversions for the game. The Packers were 6-for-11, which might have been the story if the game had swung the other way. But on this day, the Giants had the better offense.

What's next: The Giants will travel to San Francisco, where they will play the 49ers in the NFC Championship game at 6:30 pm ET. The winner of that game will advance to Super Bowl XLVI two weeks later in Indianapolis.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Some thoughts from a stunned Lambeau Field following the Green Bay Packers' 37-20 loss to the New York Giants:

What it means: The Packers saved their worst outing of the season for the playoffs, and it led to an unexpected and deeply disappointing end to a 15-1 season. The Giants outplayed them in every way imaginable, and the Packers didn't look much like a team that had won 21 of its previous 22. The result detracted again from the postseason mystique of Lambeau Field, where the Packers have now lost four of their past six playoff games. Two of those losses have been to the Giants, who also ended the Packers' 2007 season in the NFC Championship Game.

Rare mistakes: Quarterback Aaron Rodgers said during the week that he didn't believe in the concept of "rust" for a team coming off a playoff bye. Call it whatever you want. The Packers made mistakes that simply didn't happen during the regular season. Fullback John Kuhn lost the first fumble of his career. Rodgers missed receiver Greg Jennings for what would have been an easy touchdown in the first quarter. Rodgers also lost a fumble, on a second-quarter sack by Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora, for the first time this season. The normally sure-handed Ryan Grant fumbled for only the second time this season in the fourth quarter. And depending on how tough of a grader you are, the Packers dropped anywhere from four to eight passes. One was a third-quarter pass to Jennings, who had a step on safety Antrel Rolle in single coverage in the end zone.

Defense tightens up: The big fear surrounding the Packers this season was that a hot quarterback would knock them and their porous pass defense out of the playoffs. Things seemed to be headed in that direction after Giants quarterback Eli Manning threw for 274 yards in the first half, capped by a 37-yard pass to receiver Hakeem Nicks on a Hail Mary. But it's going to be tough to affix too much responsibility to the defense for this game. The Packers tightened significantly in the second half, and the Giants didn't have a single first down in the third quarter. Manning threw for 56 yards in the second half. That should have given the Packers' offense enough of an opportunity to even up the game if it was up to it. It wasn't. They couldn't get the ball downfield at all against the Giants defense, and their longest play of the game was a 29-yard run by James Starks in the third quarter.

Key play: Backed by a bit of momentum and hoping to tie the game early in the fourth quarter, the Packers faced a third-and-five at the Giants' 39-yard line. Tight end Jermichael Finley was wide open at about the 25-yard line, but Rodgers' throw was just off his outstretched fingertips. It wasn't immediately clear whether Rodgers overthrew Finley or if Finley stopped his route early. But it was one of the Packers' biggest missed opportunities in this game. Rodgers was sacked on fourth down, and the Giants converted the ensuing possession into a 35-yard field goal to make it a two-score game midway through the fourth quarter.

Injury report: Kuhn didn't return after injuring his right knee in the third quarter.

What's next: The Packers have a young and deep team set up for long-term success. They'll need to address the contract situation of Finley, who is a pending free agent. It will take some time to get over Sunday's disappointment, but the Packers' future should be bright.

BALTIMORE -- Thoughts on the Baltimore Ravens' 20-13 win over the Houston Texans in the divisional playoff game:

What it means: It was an ugly and unimpressive win by the second-seeded Ravens, especially on offense. But Baltimore stepped up when it needed to do so, converting 17 points off three Texans turnovers. The Ravens improved to 9-0 at home and won a playoff game in Baltimore for the first time in 11 years. This also marked the fourth straight season that Baltimore has won a postseason game.

Coming up big: Cornerback Lardarius Webb became the third Ravens player to make two interceptions in a postseason game. His first one led to a touchdown in the first quarter, and his second one turned the momentum in the fourth. Ed Reed picked off Texans rookie quarterback T.J. Yates in the final two minutes of the game for the fourth forced turnover by Baltimore.

Flacco struggles: Joe Flacco threw two touchdowns but he finished 14-of-27 for 184 yards. He didn't get much help from his teammates. There were five drops by receivers. He was also sacked five times. His counterpart, Yates, was 17-of-35 for 175 yards and three interceptions.

Getting run down: The Ravens' usually stout run defense showed major cracks against Houston. Arian Foster ran for 132 yards and one touchdown to become the first running back to gain more than 100 yards against the Ravens in 16 playoff games. The most rushing yards that Baltimore had given up to one running back was 91 against Eddie George in January 2001.

Critical call: Leading by four points (17-13) late in the third quarter, the Ravens decided to go for the touchdown instead of settling for the field goal at the 1-yard line. Ray Rice chose to drive into the middle of the line rather than leap and got stopped short. It ultimately didn't hurt Baltimore.

Converting on mistakes early: The Ravens jumped out to a 17-3 first-quarter lead because they converted two turnovers into two Flacco touchdown passes. A fumble on a punt return (deep in Texans territory) led to a 1-yard Flacco touchdown pass to blocking tight end Kris Wilson, and a Yates interception resulted in a 10-yard scoring pass from Flacco to Anquan Boldin.

What's next: The Ravens advance to their second AFC championship game in four seasons. Baltimore plays at top-seeded New England next Sunday at 3 p.m.
Tim TebowDavid Butler II/US PresswireTim Tebow's memorable run in the 2011 season ended with a 9-for-26 passing performance.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The Denver Broncos lost two games by a score of 45-10 this season. They were two lopsided bookends in an unpredictable journey that ended Saturday night.

In between not looking anything like a playoff team during an Oct. 30 home loss to Detroit and a season-ending thumping at the hands of the much better New England Patriots, the Broncos reinvented themselves and became a team with hope for the future.

“It may be hard to see it now after an embarrassing loss,” Denver tight end Daniel Fells said in a quiet Denver locker room Saturday night, “but there is something there. … We did something this year that was unexpected and there is something good to look forward to in the future.”

That future very likely will include Tim Tebow.

In a season in which Tebow became a household name in non sports-centric households and in which he became a sport's lightning rod like we’ve rarely seen before, the Broncos’ season ended with Tebow not being the story.

While Tebow, who was just 9-of-26 passing for 136 yards, didn’t do much to help his team, Saturday night’s game was not a Tebow-type of game. The Denver Broncos became an unlikely playoff team this season because it played smart, hard football in all three phases of the game in their victories. It became evident early Saturday that the allure of Tebow would be quickly overshadowed by the sheer brilliance of Patriots QB Tom Brady and the stunning dominance of second-year New England tight end Rob Gronkowski.

Tebowing became a national craze and a phrase used daily. Saturday, though, the Broncos were sent packing because they were Bradyed and Gronked.

Brady tied an NFL postseason record with six touchdown passes and his 363 passing yards were a team playoff record. Gronkowski had 10 catches for 145 yards and three touchdowns. TebowMania may be cute and it may be legitimate in the fourth quarter (and overtime) of close games. But it wasn’t that type of party Saturday night.

Brady and company were bent on letting the rest of the NFL playoff field know they are tired of being considered a postseason antique. They’re hunting for their first Super Bowl victory in seven years, TebowMania be damned.

While Denver’s season ended in a fashion that would usually sting an organization, there wasn’t a sense of despair in the locker room. It seemed the players knew this was a season of progress and it was a success, everything considered.

When Denver introduced John Fox as its coach a year ago Friday, there is no way anyone could have imagined the Broncos would advance to the final eight and beat the defending AFC champion Pittsburgh Steelers in the playoffs. This was a team that had the No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 draft. The rebuilding project seemed like it would take years.

That assessment didn’t change when Denver started the season 1-4 before inserting Tebow at quarterback.

“People wanted to close the book on the Broncos,” receiver Matthew Willis said. “But we kept fighting.”

[+] EnlargeJohn Fox
AP Photo/Stephan SavoiaIn his first season as Broncos coach, John Fox, left, adjusted his approach to Tim Tebow's talents.
It all changed after the home loss to Detroit when Fox adjusted his offense to Tebow’s skill set and used the option offense. The Broncos’ offense transformed through the year and adjusted on the fly.

Now, the ride is over and the Broncos must look toward the future.

Tebow said Saturday night he must become more accurate and consistent and he plans to soon start working on what will be his first full offseason as an NFL player. Legendary Denver quarterback John Elway, who is now the Broncos’ football leader, has said he plans to personally work with Tebow in the offseason, focusing on improving the youngster’s footwork.

Elway was in Denver’s locker room after the game and appeared satisfied with the season. He wasn’t ready to chat about the future and has yet to confirm the Broncos will ride with Tebow as their quarterback in 2012. Don’t be surprised, however, if the Broncos commit to Tebow soon.

That’s the direction the players want the team to take. Several Denver players said Saturday night that they believe Tebow will continue to make strides and he is the answer at quarterback.

“He’s our guy,” Denver rookie safety Rahim Moore said. “Our team jells around him. He is only going to get better.”

That could be said of the entire Denver roster. This is a work in progress. Brady and New England’s offense showed there is still much work to be done in Denver defensively. The Patriots compiled 509 yards of offense and they took their foot off the gas in the second half after leading 35-7 at halftime.

Denver needs help on both sides of the ball. But there is no denying this is a well-coached team that tasted unexpected success in a season that may just be scratching the surface of TebowMania, if that’s even possible.
Tom BradyDavid Butler II/US Presswire Tom Brady leads the Patriots into the AFC title game on a nine-game winning streak.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- These are not your 2009-10 New England Patriots.

These Patriots didn't go one-and-done. These Patriots crushed the myth of Tim Tebow with a convincing 45-10 victory over the Denver Broncos.

These Patriots have a killer instinct in the postseason. These Patriots aren't playing around.

Want proof?

New England led by as many as 35 points in the second half -- and starting quarterback Tom Brady played every snap. He threw for 363 yards and tied an NFL playoff record with six touchdown passes.

These Patriots are scary. They saved their most complete game of the season -- on both sides of the football -- for the playoffs.

These Patriots are dangerous. They won an NFL-high ninth game in a row.

These Patriots even brought a few smiles to coach Bill Belichick's face after the game. Everyone knows that's no small feat.

"I'm really happy for the players; I'm really excited for them," Belichick said. "They worked hard, and they put up with me. So they deserve this."

These Patriots have tight end Rob Gronkowski. And Aaron Hernandez. There is no better tight end duo in the NFL.

Gronk tied an NFL record with three first-half touchdowns. He finished with 10 receptions and 145 yards. The 22-year-old could be on his way to a Hall of Fame career.

Hernandez caught four passes for 55 yards. To everyone's surprise, he also is a pretty good running back. Belichick had two weeks to prepare for Denver and added another wrinkle by giving Hernandez five carries for 61 yards. New England's versatile backup tight end, who played some running back in high school, led the team in rushing.

"Everybody makes plays on this team, and that is why our offense is so dangerous," Hernandez said. "It is hard [for the defense] because they don’t know who to cover."

Patriots Pro Bowl guard Brian Waters played most of his career with another great tight end in Kansas City: Tony Gonzalez. But Waters said he's never had two tight ends on the same team who were this talented.

"I mean, what do you do?" Waters asked. "The fact that Gronk is able to block as well as he does and the fact that he can be a mismatch problem anywhere on the football field is a great thing. But his ability to block allows us the ability to do some things with Aaron that a lot of teams can't do."

These Patriots don't have a great defense. But that's OK. At least it played lights-out for one postseason game.

[+] EnlargeRob Gronkowski
Mark L. Baer/US PresswireRob Gronkowski, here making one of his three touchdown catches, leads the Patriots' formidable tight-end duo.
These Patriots held the Broncos to 252 total yards and made Tebow look like a Division II quarterback. He was baffled and battered. He was 9-for-26 for 136 yards and a fumble. He also was sacked five times.

Can these Patriots keep up this level of defense the entire playoffs? Who knows? But New England's defense looked great for one night.

"Really, this was our first four-quarter game," Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich (1.5 sacks) said of the defense. "This is a one-game season now. So coming into this game, we knew the loser is going home and they’re not playing again. So we put in a lot of work."

Enough about the defense. Because New England's offense is averaging 40.5 points in its past four games. These Patriots are extremely hard to beat with that kind of production. On Saturday, these Patriots had 42 points with 11:53 left in the third quarter. How scary is that?

Most importantly, these Patriots have Brady. He looks as sharp and focused as ever. Brady, 34, knows his title window won't stay open forever. He sliced the Broncos with precision and completed 26 of 34 passes.

These Patriots have a chance as long as Brady is at the top of his game. With Drew Brees eliminated Saturday, Aaron Rodgers is the only playoff quarterback remaining on Brady's level. But Brady won't have to see Rodgers unless they meet in Indianapolis.

Speaking of the Super Bowl, these Patriots have an intense sense of urgency to get there. In large part, it comes from Brady, who is already looking beyond Saturday's record-setting performance.

"I think we have eight days until the biggest game of the year," Brady said. "From this point on, everyone will be focused on what we need to do to be better next week and hopefully come out and play for another championship."

These Patriots (14-3) will host the AFC Championship Game next week at Gillette Stadium against the Houston Texans or Baltimore Ravens. These Patriots will be favored at home against either team, especially after a 35-point drubbing of Denver.

This AFC East blogger predicted these Patriots would represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.

These Patriots are one step away from getting the job done.
Vernon DavisEzra Shaw/Getty ImagesVernon Davis, in his sixth year with the 49ers, led his team to a win against New Orleans Saturday.
SAN FRANCISCO — There could be no other way for the San Francisco 49ers.

Alex Smith and Vernon Davis, once the weary symbols for a proud franchise in tatters, had to be the ones delivering San Francisco to its epic 36-32 victory Saturday.

This was how the 49ers would atone for a lost decade — Smith to Davis at Candlestick Park, the Niners advancing to the NFC Championship Game in Jim Harbaugh's magical first season as head coach.

"The Catch" has company in 49ers lore.

Davis, having spent more time in his playbook than his thesaurus lately, proposed "The Grab" to describe the 14-yard touchdown pass he caught from Smith to shock New Orleans and all the doubters in a Red Sea of delirious 49ers fans.

That was the only time Davis, he of seven receptions for 180 yards and two scores, came up short all afternoon.

A quarter-century after John Elway authored "The Drive" for Denver, Smith and Davis did the Broncos one better, albeit without a Super Bowl berth on the line quite yet.

"The Drives" — plural — vanquished Drew Brees and the most prolific offense in NFL history. A 49ers team with five fourth-quarter comeback victories during the regular season needed Smith to outduel Brees not once, but twice in the final three minutes.

"It might be time to give Alex some credit, huh?" Harbaugh said.

Smith passed for three touchdowns, ran 28 yards for another and suffered no interceptions in the biggest game of his life. Brees was often brilliant, especially in the clutch, but he threw two picks and joined a growing list of elite quarterbacks coming up short against the 49ers.

Down 24-23 with 4:02 left, Smith beat the Saints' blitz with a 37-yard sideline strike to Davis — a big-time throw befitting his status as a No. 1 overall draft choice. Then came the 28-yard touchdown run on a quarterback keeper, left tackle Joe Staley leading and leveling Saints safety Isa Abdul-Quddus.

"I've never felt so drained after a football game and I consider myself to be a very in-shape lineman," Staley said.

Brees' immediate answer, a 66-yard scoring strike to Jimmy Graham, would have finished a team with a second-rate quarterback. It would have finished the 49ers in any of the previous eight or nine seasons. All Smith did was complete 5 of 6 passes in the final 1:32, including a 47-yarder to Davis and the 14-yard winner.

Time to reassess.

"He beat Ben Roethlisberger on 'Monday Night Football', he beat Eli Manning in a big game, he beat Drew Brees, he beat Matthew Stafford," safety Donte Whitner said. "I think it's time to start mentioning him as a good quarterback in the National Football League."

The 49ers should not have needed validation for their 13-3 season, but a one-and-done showing against a team with an MVP-caliber quarterback would have strengthened familiar narratives about postseason football in the passing age.

The fact is, the 49ers put the game in Smith's hands to a degree that didn't always seem wise, but the confidence they showed in him became self-fulfilling -- as it was all season.

"We had a lot of confidence in Alex," Staley said. "You saw what he could do today against a great team. He came up huge. Played an amazing game."

The process began a year ago when Harbaugh reached out to Smith and even played catch with him, doing all he could to salvage a player-team relationship both sides previously thought was finally nearing an end. Smith's interest in returning despite all that had come before showed the mettle Harbaugh demanded from the position. Momentum built as Harbaugh heaped praise upon Smith all offseason, installed him as the starter and backed him even when the offense failed to exceed 226 yards in any of its first three games.

Later, with Smith putting up efficient passing stats but hardly carrying the offense, Harbaugh pushed him for the Pro Bowl — up there with Aaron Rodgers and Brees among the elites.

The 49ers called more than twice as many pass plays as runs against New Orleans. Instead of running out the clock before halftime, they pushed for more points and paid with their first turnover since Week 12, a Smith fumble when the Saints sacked him. Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman obviously didn't buy the thinking that San Francisco would have to rush for 200 yards, keeping Brees off the field to better their chances.

[+] EnlargeAlex Smith
Cary Edmondson/US PresswireDespite his breakthrough 2011 season, the 49ers must decide if Alex Smith can lead the franchise to a Super Bowl.
"We were taking some shots all game long," Harbaugh said. "I thought Alex played extremely bold."

The Saints did what they do: blitz and blitz some more. They backed off some in the fourth quarter, but Smith completed all six of his attempts in the quarter when the Saints sent four or fewer rushers, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

The beauty Saturday was that Smith refused to gloat.

"We're still playing — that's what it means and that feels great," Smith said, again wearing his Harbaugh-issued blue work shirt with the "Alex" patch on front.

The shirts reflect the blue-collar mentality Harbaugh has sought to instill.

The game programs issued at Candlestick carried the old Bo Schembechler mantra: "The team, the team, the team."

This was a team victory, of course. The 49ers' defense forced three first-quarter turnovers and five overall. Frank Gore's 42-yard rush came when the 49ers needed it badly. Defensive end Justin Smith willed his way to a third-down sack when the game was slipping away from the 49ers' offense. Harbaugh pointed to the kickoff coverage team.

"We are a much more complete team than anybody gives us credit for," Staley said.

And what more could be said about Davis? No player on the 49ers had more growing up to do than the one San Francisco drafted sixth overall in 2006. Davis has gone from out of control to consummate team player and professional. His impassioned halftime speech came after the 49ers led only 17-14 despite forcing four first-half turnovers.

"One shot, that was the message," Davis said. "We only have one shot and if we don't take advantage of it, we go home. There was a lot of fire in me at that moment. Something just hit me and I had to let it out."

Davis backed up his talk. He beat safety Roman Harper for a 49-yard touchdown early. He had 47- and 37-yard catches late, a 20-yarder in the second quarter and, of course, the winner. The ever-secretive Harbaugh drew laughs by revealing the play's name to be Vernon Post. Davis, having endured the 49ers' recent past, was more reflective.

"Along the way, there has been a lot of stress, doubt and criticism," Davis said. "Especially for Alex. But when I look at that kid, I look at him as a warrior. You can just imagine a little kid standing there and getting picked on in grade school. Rocks thrown at him, spit on. Alex has been there. I just wish him all the best."

Smith allowed himself a fleeting moment of reflection.

"It's been such a great year, such a great group of guys, coaches and players," he said. "We love coming to work every day. I know I do. We get one more week, at least."

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Here are some thoughts on the New England Patriots' 45-10 playoff victory over the Denver Broncos:

What it means: The Patriots won a postseason game for the first time in four years and ended a three-game playoff skid. The AFC East blog said this was the easiest matchup possible for New England, and it turned out that way. Denver was no match for the Patriots, who punched a ticket to the AFC Championship Game and will host the winner of Sunday's divisional game between the Baltimore Ravens and Houston Texans.

Fast starters: New England was criticized for its slow starts in the final two regular-season games. But the Patriots exploded in the playoffs by taking an astounding 35-7 lead at halftime. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady threw five touchdowns in the first two quarters and tight end Rob Gronkowski had eight receptions for 97 yards and three touchdowns at intermission. "Gronk" tied a playoff record for first-half touchdowns. The Broncos had no answer.

Brady ties TD record: Brady wasn't done in the first half. He threw another touchdown in the second half to tie an NFL playoff record. Brady finished with 363 yards, six touchdowns and one interception. Brady also had a 48-yard punt during a quick kick in the fourth quarter.

Don’t forget Hernandez: The Patriots have the best tight-end duo in the NFL. They used both weapons by also getting backup Aaron Hernandez. Usually when you give Patriots head Bill Belichick two weeks, he finds a new wrinkle. New England put Hernandez in the backup where he could show off his tailbacks skills. Hernandez led the Patriots in rushing with 61 yards, including a 43-yard scamper on the first drive. He also caught four passes for 55 yards and a touchdown.

Ninkovich shines: New England needed someone to step up defensively, and the team got a great effort from linebacker Rob Ninkovich. The Patriots baffled Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow with a solid pass rush. Ninkovich tied defensive tackle Vince Wilfork for a game-high 1.5 sacks. Ninkovich also had five tackles and two quarterback pressures.

What's next: The AFC Championship Game comes to Gillette Stadium next weekend. New England will try to advance to its first Super Bowl since losing to the New York Giants following the 2007 season.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A look at a classic playoff mismatch:

What it means: The Broncos’ season ended at 9-9. The Broncos were never in this game as New England was clearly out to show the rest of the playoff field that it means business. The upstart Broncos were nothing more than practice fodder for New England on Saturday night.

Huge gap: The Patriots led 35-7 at the half, and the Broncos could barely do anything on either side of the ball.

Denver still needs help: The Broncos made great strides on defense this season. They were 32nd in the NFL in most statistical categories in 2010. Yet, Denver became a solid unit this season under first-year head coach John Fox and first-year defensive coordinator Dennis Allen. But on Saturday night, the Patriots showed Denver it still has work to do on that side of the ball.

Miller gets jumped: After he fought with two New England offensive linemen late in the game, Denver rookie linebacker Von Miller was hammered by several New England players. Expect Miller to get fined for his actions.

Bradyed and Gronked: We saw New England quarterback Tom Brady and tight end Rob Gronkowski at their finest. Brady tied an NFL postseason record with six touchdown passes. Gronkowski had 10 catches for 145 yards and three touchdowns. They connected at will. Denver had no answer.

Tebow can’t help: Denver quarterback Tim Tebow wasn’t the reason why Denver lost. He started the game well, but as the game got out of hand he got more desperate and couldn’t do much. In a season in which Tebow was memorable, he really didn’t stand out in the finale.

What’s next: The Broncos stagger into the offseason, but they have to feel great about their progress this season. No one would ever had thought the Broncos’ 2011 season would have ended in the divisional round of the playoffs when this team picked No. 2 in the draft.

Saints put too much on Drew Brees

January, 14, 2012
Drew BreesThearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesDrew Brees attempted 63 passes Saturday, 14 more than in any regular-season game this season.
Drew Brees is capable of many great things. But you can’t go to the miracle well 63 times in a game and expect it to produce every time.

That was proved Saturday as Brees and the New Orleans Saints lost 36-32 in a divisional playoff game to the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park.

History will tell us this was one of the best games in playoff annals, coming as it did with four lead changes in the final 5 minutes and San Francisco’s winning touchdown with 9 seconds remaining. History will be right, because this game was exciting all the way around.

But the surrounding hysteria might get in the way of history, so let’s go ahead and go on the record with one very important item that cannot be overlooked: You can’t go deep into the postseason with Brees and Brees alone.

That’s what the Saints tried to do, and it came painfully close to working. They had Brees attempt 63 passes. He completed 40 of them, and it looked like he had the miracle the Saints needed when he hit tight end Jimmy Graham with a 66-yard touchdown pass with 1:37 left.

But football -- particularly when it’s in the postseason and on the road -- is about much more than a quarterback, even if he’s surrounded with Graham, Darren Sproles and Marques Colston.

You must have defense, special teams and a running game. The Saints had none of those things against the 49ers, and that’s why they lost.

They simply asked too much from Brees, and they should have known better.

Just go back and look at New Orleans’ three losses during the regular season. There’s a little lesson here.

In the opener at Lambeau Field, Brees attempted 49 passes -- a number that would end up as his regular-season high. He lost a shootout to Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay, and there’s no shame in that. But look closely at the Saints' other two losses, because they came against inferior opponents. In an Oct. 16 defeat to Tampa Bay, the last game the Buccaneers won, Brees attempted 45 passes.

Oh, and then there’s that inexplicable loss to St. Louis two weeks later. Brees attempted 44 passes in that game. Win either the St. Louis or Tampa Bay game, and the Saints are the No. 2 seed and playing at home, where they were undefeated in the regular season.

There’s a line of demarcation where too much Brees becomes a bad thing. It’s somewhere in the low 40s. Yeah, Brees threw 44 times in victories against Houston and Jacksonville, 45 times in a three-point win over Carolina and 47 in a December victory against Tennessee. But none of those was pretty, and Houston was the only playoff team among that bunch.

In games in which Brees attempted 43 or fewer passes, the Saints were 8-0. They also were at their best in those games. They had a running game, some defense and no huge mistakes by the special teams.

But the Saints apparently didn’t notice that trend. They put too much on Brees on Saturday, and they did have some valid reasons for that. Brees didn’t help matters with two interceptions, and the Saints turned the ball over three times in the first quarter.

They fell behind 17-0. Then, they let Brees bring them back but didn’t do anything to help him. The running game, which had been so much better than last season’s, was nonexistent. Sproles, Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas combined for only 13 rushing attempts and 32 yards.

Thomas left the game with an apparent concussion after losing a fumble near the goal line in the first quarter. Without him, the New Orleans offense became predictable. When Ivory was in the game, it was obvious the Saints were running. When Sproles was in there, it was obvious they were throwing.

And they threw way too often against a defense that can generate pressure. On his 63 drop-backs, Brees was sacked three times. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Brees was under duress an additional 17 times. When under duress, Brees completed five of 16 attempts (31.3 percent). Brees also threw away five passes after throwing away only eight during the regular season and in the first round of the playoffs.

Again, there should have been a lesson from the regular season. The most times Brees was sacked or under duress (17) was in the St. Louis loss. Against Green Bay, Brees was sacked or under duress on 12 of his drop-backs.

The more often you have Brees drop back, the more you’re asking for trouble, especially when you have two All-Pros at guard but very ordinary tackles.

However, the biggest letdown of all came from the defense. It happened twice after Brees brought the Saints all the way back to take the lead.

The New Orleans defense was pretty good in the 2009 championship season, but it’s fallen off dramatically since then. After doing a decent job against the 49ers most of the game, it totally collapsed in the final four minutes.

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
Cary Edmondson/US PresswireWith no running game to help out, Drew Brees faced heavy pressure from the 49ers defense.
The Saints allowed Alex Smith to score on a 28-yard run, the longest of his career. No one should ever confuse the slow-footed Smith with Steve Young. But now, in addition to Young, he’s going to get compared to Joe Montana.

After the late touchdown to Graham, Smith took the 49ers on a drive for the ages. He hit tight end Vernon Davis with a 14-yard touchdown pass to win the game with 9 seconds left. Matched up against strong safety Roman Harper most of the game, Davis finished with seven catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns.

The Saints should have known going into the game that Harper on Davis was a huge mismatch, but they kept letting it happen and they kept making Smith look great when it mattered most.

This game showed what’s been suspected since after the Saints won their Super Bowl. Their defense isn’t that good anymore.

That’s obvious now, and there are bound to be ripples, maybe even big waves, after this loss. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ contract just expired, and there already has been speculation he could be joining his old buddy Jeff Fisher in St. Louis. Coach Sean Payton, who once gave up part of his own salary to get Williams, might not stand in the way of a move after this one.

It’s going to be a busy offseason for the Saints. They must sign Brees to a new contract because his deal is up. The Saints have other expensive potential free agents such as Colston and guard Carl Nicks.

There’s no doubt the Saints will keep Brees and, in the process, probably make him the league’s highest-paid quarterback. But as they look at their salary-cap situation after taking care of Brees, they should take a long, hard look at their roster.

It’s time for some changes. You can do all sorts of flashy things and break lots of records by letting Brees carry your team. But he can win a championship only when he has some help around him.

It’s time to give Brees that help.

Halftime: Patriots 35, Broncos 7

January, 14, 2012
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Random halftime thoughts:

The Broncos are being Brady'd and Gronk'd.

New England quarterback Tom Brady – perhaps a tad upset about being the second-most-talked-about quarterback in this game – is beating down the Denver defense. Brady has thrown five touchdown passes. The Patriots went up 28-7 with a 61-yard touchdown pass to Deion Branch — then scored again on a Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski strike.

As they did in Denver four weeks ago, the New England tight ends are slicing up the Broncos defense. Gronkowski has eight catches for 97 yards and two touchdowns. Aaron Hernandez has two catches for 29 yards but he has three runs for 58 yards.

Denver’s defense is just not giving the Broncos a chance to stay in this game in a game the Patriots are dominating in the field-position battle.

Denver quarterback Tim Tebow is having a decent game. He lost one fumble, but he hasn’t been a major disappointment. Still, Denver just can’t keep drives going.

The Broncos are running the ball well, at least — 100 yards on 21 carries.

Rapid Reaction: 49ers 36, Saints 32

January, 14, 2012

Thoughts on the New Orleans Saints’ 36-32 loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Saturday at Candlestick Park.

What it means: You can’t defy conventional wisdom. In a game that will go down as a postseason classic, the Saints broke almost every rule and tradition. But they still lost in the end, as tight end Vernon Davis scored a touchdown with 9 seconds remaining. That capped a game that had four lead changes in the final 3 minutes, 53 seconds. The Saints came painfully close to proving they could win on the road, outdoors and in the postseason. They almost showed you can turn the ball over five times and still win. They also came close to proving wrong the old adage that defense wins championships. But there were no miracles this time.

What I liked: The game was as exciting as any you’ll ever see. It had drama and surprises from start to finish. San Francisco jumped out to a 17-0 lead at home, but Drew Brees rallied his team and put the Saints right back in the game. New Orleans’ defense played surprisingly well most of the day, right up until the end.

What I didn’t like: New Orleans’ defense folded when it mattered most. Alex Smith, who has never been confused with Tim Tebow, broke loose on a fourth-quarter touchdown run. Then, after Brees put the Saints ahead with a touchdown pass to Jimmy Graham, the defense collapsed again. Smith, who had been considered a bust for most of his career, brought back memories of Steve Young and Joe Montana with his game-winning drive. Davis abused strong safety Roman Harper most of the day, and he did it again when it mattered most.

What’s next: An offseason that’s starting sooner than expected for the Saints. There are some key personnel matters to deal with. Brees is no longer under contract. He undoubtedly will return to the Saints, but he’s going to take up a lot of salary-cap room. With Marques Colston, Carl Nicks and several other key players scheduled to become free agents, the Saints will have to make some big decisions. They also could have change on the coaching staff. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ contract is expiring, and there is speculation he could be joining his old friend Jeff Fisher in St. Louis.