After last week's mostly sloppy four game display of football, you just knew this weekend's four NFL playoff games had to deliver more. The teams were better, the stakes were higher, all four venues were bloodthirsty and raucous. It had to be better.
And it was.
Starting with a see saw, swinging of haymakers in New England and ending with a passing of the torch in Denver (and in between, a game with perhaps the most controversial call in recent memory), these four games delivered. And now we are left with two conference title games that have unquestionably the four best quarterbacks in football playing.
Tom Brady. Andrew Luck. Russell Wilson. Aaron Rodgers.
You can't make an argument that right now anybody else belongs in the conversation with those four. Peyton Manning? He essentially turned in his "elite card" today. Drew Brees? Not anymore. Turnover prone and not even in the postseason coming out of the worst division in football. Joe Flacco? He tried to bang down the door against Brady on Saturday, but wasn't successful. Ben Roethlisberger? He actually just lost to Joe Flacco. Philip Rivers, Matt Stafford, Cam Newton, Colin Kaepernick? No, no, no, no.
These four remaining are truly the best four quarterbacks, three of whom are in the Super Bowl club, and one of whom sent the message Sunday that his admittance is just a matter of time. That's a good place to start, with these winners and losers for this week....
4. Andrew Luck Early in the week, the spread on the Indianapolis-Denver matchup was hovering around seven points in favor of Denver. Then, out of nowhere, on Sunday morning, it shot up to 9.5 points (ten in some places) behind some presumably "sharp money." In short, despite a final six weeks in which he had a QBR rating around 60, Peyton Manning was still the landslide pick over young Andrew Luck. After a quick Broncos touchdown to go up 7-0, the sharps were looking clairvoyant. Then Luck took over, finding eight different receivers on the afternoon, managing the game perfectly (265 yards passing, two touchdowns), and making at least 3 or 4 throws that only a few people on the planet can make. Hell, even his interceptions were not all that terrible, both serving as de facto arm punts on 3rd and long. In the end, Luck now has 1,703 passing yards in his first five postseason games, most in league history. More significantly, he pins the very legend he replaced back in 2012. Torch passed.
2012: Peyton puts over Flacco.
2013: Peyton puts over Wilson.
2014: Peyton puts over Luck.
It's official ... Peyton is Ric Flair.
— Sean Pendergast (@SeanCablinasian) January 12, 2015
(Yes, I just embedded one of my own tweets there. Sue me.)
3. Gary Kubiak Late last night, the Ravens announced that Kubiak would be back next season, despite reported interest from the Bears, Jets, and 49ers for their head coaching positions. The Ravens had the most prolific offensive season in franchise history with Kubiak as the coordinator, and on Sunday night, save one really odd end around call on 3rd and one, Kubiak was about as perfect as you can be play calling an NFL game. The cleansing power of coordinator success is real, and there will be no greater example of this than when Kubiak takes the Bronco job next season after John Fox gets canned for going 6-10 next year.
2. Heart disease and Green Bay area cardiologists Because Packer fans are not eating enough beef and dairy products in the parking lot before the game, here comes this monstrosity....
— Robert Littal (@BSO) January 11, 2015
It's called the "Big Game Burger" (or "Lambeau Burger", of course, named after the Packers' Lambeau Field stadium), and it contains a half pound of certified Angus beef, half a pound of ground bacon, half a pound of ground venison, MORE bacon (regular strips smoked with jalapeno peppers), crispy fried onions, house-made jalapeno cheese, pickles and a secret sauce. Not completely ignoring nutrition, it also contains six slices of tomato and a clump of lettuce. You know, balanced diet and what not.
And in case you're wondering....2400 calories.
1. Gronk The Patriots made the AFC title game last season despite missing Gronkowski, and got about as far as they could without his game changing skills. Tom Brady, like the other three quarterbacks still alive in these playoffs, is special, but without Gronkowski, there is a ceiling (a high one, but not a Super one) on this offense. With no Gronk on Saturday, the Patriots would have lost that game, without question. Seven catches, 108 yards, a touchdown, and afterwards, he celebrated on a vehicle he now owns called "The Sinners Bus." The world is undoubtedly a better place with a healthy Gronk.
4. Stupid catch rules When someday the NFL Network makes it's next Top 10 show of "Most Controversial Calls," this Dez Bryant catch-that-wasn't will undoubtedly make, if not top, the list. It came on a fourth down in Green Bay territory, with Dallas trailing by five. If the initial call stood, it would've been first and goal at the one foot line...
Upon replay, the reversal was the correct interpretation of a completely horrible rule. This is where the age of replay comes back to bite us in the ass as football fans. Sometimes, we get so caught up in the doing a Zapruder analysis of plays on replay, I feel like saying "Why can't we just go with what our eyes told us. Our eyes told us that was an amazing catch." By the way, as long as we are screwing over the Cowboys, can we go back and reverse Butch Johnson's touchdown in Super Bowl XII?
Fast forward to 0:26....
3. Jason Garrett Here's the thing, though...it never should have had to come down to a play here or a play there at the end of the game for the Cowboys. The should have won this game. The Cowboys had a chance to put this game in serious doubt, if not put it away altogether, in the first half. They were controlling the clock, running the football, and Aaron Rodgers was hobbled and inaccurate. Then came this sequence late in the second quarter:
* 2nd and 7 at GB 33 (0:48 remaining): Pass to Jason Witten for seven yards with a VERY generous spot to get a first down. Instead of hurrying up and taking the first down, Garrett calls timeout, the replay official has time to review the spot and they make it 3rd and 1 instead, taking away the first down.
* 3rd and 1 at GB 27 (0:40 remaining): With DeMarco Murray presumably still on the roster, Garrett opts for a shotgun formation on 3rd and 1, Romo bobbles the snap and heaves the ball deep and out of bounds.
* 4th and 1 at GB 27 (0:34 remaining): False start, Cowboys.
* 4th and 6 at GB 32 (0:34 remaining): Dan Bailey has a field goal blocked from 50 yards out.
The Packers go down and get three points before the half. What should've been an absolute worst case up 17-7 with virtually no time left, Garrett mismanaged into a 14-10 lead. He pretty much directly cost them a six point swing within a 48 second span of football, in a game they lost by five. That's terrible strategy.
2. The Denver Broncos "window" The Peyton Maning Era may or may not be over in Denver. We will find out over these next several months. (My early guess: Peyton gets his body healed, and takes one more run at it next season.) The Broncos are so up to their eyeballs in signing bonus money to guys like Aqib Talib and DeMarcus Ware, with likely more big deals to Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas, they almost have to hope Peyton comes back because if he doesn't, who skippers this thing? (They may also need him to take a pay cut. Just saying.) I mean, even a regressing Peyton Manning is still better than two thirds of the league's quarterbacks, right? And if you don't have at least decent quarterback play, what's the point? (All of Houston nods.)
1. Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth Let me say that I like the Michaels/Collinsworth combination on NBC. I think that puts me in the majority on Michaels and in the minority on Collinsworth, at least judging my personal Twitter and conversational poll. So I felt pretty terrible the other night when they were cornered into having to read what amount to a PSA about how awesome and honest Roger Goodell is as they returned from break during the Ravens-Patriots game (recording during the commercial break on Deadspin seemed to confirm it was scripted):
"After interviewing every female employee, after analyzing millions of documents, emails and text messages and searching the computer and the cell phone of the commissioner, the report concluded there is no evidence that Goodell or anyone else in the league received or saw the tape [of Rice punching his then fiancee in the face] prior to it going public," Michaels said.
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Fine, whatever. It's the NFL, it's their product, just...whatever. But then Collinsworth had to pile on with this:
"The decision initially to suspend Ray Rice for two games was a mistake, and the commissioner admitted that," Collinsworth said. "But I never once in all my dealings with the commissioner doubted his integrity. And I think that came out in the report as well."
And now I'm in the majority on Collinsworth as well. Barf.