This past weekend was the divisional round of playoff matchups in the NFL. For those of you who do not know, it is the second round, but the first in which the top two seeded teams from each conference participate. They receive a bye for the wild card round.
This is generally considered the best weekend in football. The wild card round is sometimes synonymous with blowouts and mismatches as teams that just missed being a top seed are sometimes pitted against teams that barely backed into a playoff spot by winning their division at 8-8 or 9-7.
However, this weekend taught us a few lessons about life in the NFL, particularly how to achieve playoff success. My NFL lessons from this week are:
1) Tom Brady is without question one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. At first, he was thought of as "The Winner" because of his playoff success, as opposed to Peyton Manning's statistical domination of the pro-football landscape. That perception has changed. Since the 2007 season, when he set the all-time record for passing touchdowns in a season, Brady has been on a warpath, fighting to nab his fourth Super Bowl ring. This weekend was no different. Other than the interception in the second quarter, Brady was perfect Saturday night as he tied the mark for passing touchdowns in a postseason game with six. The Patriots are favored by 7.5 points (that's a lot) this weekend in the AFC Championship game despite having a historically bad defense, and Tom Brady is the reason why.
2) The Broncos will not win a Super Bowl with Tim Tebow unless he drastically changes the way he plays the game. I have always liked Tim Tebow and still do, but after watching the way he struggled against the Patriots' putrid pass defense this weekend, going 9-26 for 136 yards with no touchdowns, I have absolutely no confidence that he can lead this team to a Super Bowl. The Patriots defense was awful all season against the pass, and Tebow looked lost and confused for the entire game. Credit Bill Belichick for creating a defensive scheme that confused Tebow, but to my eyes, it doesn't look like it takes a whole lot to throw him off his game. The option offense only works for so long. Until Tebow can consistently and effectively move the ball through the air, the Broncos will not succeed against top-notch opponents.
3) The 49ers are for real. Coming into the playoffs, the talk was all about Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints and how it was considered the most dangerous team in the NFC. When it barely broke a sweat beating the Detroit Lions and moved into this round, people assumed the Saints would defeat the 49ers in San Francisco and move on to play the Packers for the NFC Championship (more on that in a moment). The 49ers had other plans. The players came out and not only played their own particular brand of smash-mouth football, running the ball effectively and playing absolutely punishing defense, but also proved they can score with the best of them. Quarterback Alex Smith has been revitalized under new coach Jim Harbaugh, and looks like the player the 49ers always expected him to be when it drafted him with the first overall pick in 2005. The 49ers have some dangerous players, and I think everyone should be afraid to play them.
4) Timing is more important than talent. By this I am obviously referencing the Packers and Giants. Despite my history as a die-hard Giant fan, I have absolutely no problem admitting that position-by-position, the Packers are probably the most talented team in the league. That didn't affect the outcome of their game as they lost to the Giants 37-20, despite beating the Giants 38-35 in December. What was different this time around? The Giants got some key players back for this matchup who had been injured the first time these teams played, and the Giants running game was much improved. If you were watching the game, you saw Ahmad Bradshaw's run set up the Hail Mary pass from Eli Manning to Hakeem Nicks that sent the Giants into the half with a 20-10 lead, and it was Brandon Jacobs' 14-yard scamper that iced the game. The Packers looked like they weren't on the same page all game and like their bye week actually ended up hurting them in the long run. On the other hand, the Giants have been fighting for their lives since Week 16 and had momentum and injuries on their side this time around. That certainly accounted for part of the difference. Let's also not forget that the Packers were in the same position last year, needing two late season wins to get into the playoffs and then making a run that ended with a Super Bowl victory.
5) Turnovers lose games. It's an age old saying in the football realm that teams that don't turn the ball over usually are in good positions to win games. That was certainly on display this weekend. The Saints turned the ball over early and found themselves down 17-0. The Texans lost 20-13 to the Ravens, with 17 of those points coming off of Texan turnovers. Houston even had a chance late, but their rookie quarterback T.J. Yates kept picking on Ravens all-galaxy safety Ed Reed (which is downright stupid) resulting in an interception on the Ravens' four yard line. The Packers turned the ball over four times, including three fumbles, two of which happened while they were only down by seven points at different points in the game. When coupled with all of their dropped passes, it created a deficit they couldn't come back from. At this point in the season, you aren't playing teams that you can make mistakes against and still hope to win, and some teams learned that the hard way.
We have officially reached the final four for NFL supremacy. The Patriots and the Ravens will square off on at 3 p.m. Sunday on CBS to see who can escape Foxborough and make it back to the Super Bowl. The Giants will travel to San Francisco to see who can come out on top in a game scheduled to start at 6:30 p.m. Sunday on Fox. Get your popcorn ready.