Brady-Manning MMXIV, 49ers at Seahawks. It really took us over four months to sort that out.
Do you feel vindicated or cheated? Is all right with the world, or are we stuck in a rut? Is the lack of surprise a satisfying surprise, in a league that has made surprises unsurprising?
Sure, we at least had our doubts about the 49ers, when they were recruiting Stanford walk-ons for the skill positions, and the Patriots, when they made every game a final-play cannonball into the deep end of the rulebook. There was some non-manufactured drama, but not much. There were few true believers in the other playoff teams outside their home cities, particularly in the AFC. Here is a link to my Seahawks-49ers de facto NFC Championship preview, prewritten for our mutual convenience. It was published on July 22 as a "Welcome to Training Camp" article. I don't reference it because I think I am Nostradamus. Just the opposite: I post it because all of us were thinking the same thing in mid-summer, and predicting the NFC championship was like figuring out what date Thanksgiving will fall on next year. And as for Broncos-Patriots, this is just how 21st century America rolls.
Enough! You watched the games, so I don't have to write much about them. You saw Skittles rain down on Marshawn Lynch, observed the quilted lining of Philip Rivers' parka as he flapped angrily on the sidelines like a frustrated ostrich, saw the laces on Shayne Graham's field goal attempt more clearly than he did. Looking backward gets us nowhere, now that we have come full circle. It is time to look forward.
As an early preview of the conference championships, let's rank the final four teams all sorts of ways. Some of the rankings will be obvious, others obscure, some analytic, a few silly. Powering the rankings will be information from the Football Outsiders database, but the number crunching will be mixed with observations from this weekend and a little gut guessing. We will touch on major matchups when they come up, but it is far too early in the process to predict winners from two pairs of kissing cousins. Unless you wrote about an inevitable Seahawks-Broncos Super Bowl in late September, that is.
You can't rank playoff teams without ranking quarterbacks! It's un-Internetian!
1. TIE -- Patriots-Broncos, Peyton Manning-Tom Brady. Manning had the superior season by any earthly measure, and none of it will matter if he cannot win next week! There, we have covered this entire discussion in 21 words! That means I won't have to write any Manning-Brady stuff this week, right? Editors? Editors? Sigh. I am writing nothing but Brady-Manning stuff this week.
2. TIE -- Seahawks-49ers, Colin Kaepernick-Russell Wilson. Oh, this whole segment was such a copout. But take a look at their statistics. Wilson's are better, but Kaepernick's No. 2 and No. 3 receivers for most of the season would not have made the Broncos scout team. Both quarterbacks have been in do-what-needs-to-get-done mode throughout the playoffs. Translation: Both are talented but still developing, and they are easier to praise as gritty game managers when their defenses are holding outstanding opponents under 17 points.
Claiming any of these four teams has some edge based on the quarterbacks is simply searching for the face of Elvis on an enchilada. And if you are still on the "Manning chokes" train, watch the fourth quarter of the Broncos' 24-17 win over the Chargers, when Manning was about the only person in the Broncos organization who was not losing his composure.
Important Non-Quarterback Guy: Celebrating the big-name player who will be credited with the 4.5 percent of the success left over after the quarterback, head coach, quarterback's parents, and "momentum" get their share. Some of these guys deserve a little more than 4.5 percent.
1. 49ers: Anquan Boldin. Boldin's major Sunday contributions included: (a) Convincing Jim Harbaugh to tone down his Classy Fred Blassie routine on the sideline, when officials got fed up with the coach's histrionics and called unsportsmanlike conduct, (b) the 45-yard catch early in the third quarter that broke the game open, (c) Jedi mind tricking the officials into not throwing a flag when Boldin head-butted a defender on the 49ers touchdown drive in the second quarter, even though the officials flagged the Panthers for the exact same thing earlier in the game, (d) accounting for 69.3 percent of his team's passing offense, which is only slightly higher than his season figure. The 49ers would have been an 8-8 team without Boldin, who has built a Hall of Fame resume in the last 12 months.
2. Seahawks: Marshawn Lynch. Beast mode. Beast mode. BEEEEEAAAAASSSST MOOOOOOOODE. Here's some bonus coverage on Lynch, as well as some unsung members of his supporting cast.
3. Broncos: Wes Welker. Welker caught four passes for 31 yards in the last Brady-Manning Bowl and six passes for 38 yards and a touchdown on Sunday. Due to his obvious history with the quarterbacks, he will be the most talked about 31-to-38-yard producer in the NFL world this week. Welker's top competition for attention on the roster is Von Notmiller, the gaping void left by Von Miller. I have an exclusive interview with the void scheduled for Tuesday; the empty space promises to be more open and informative than Bill Belichick. Shaun Phillips and Robert Ayers have done a fine job of filling in for Miller, but when you stare into the void, the void moves to the Broncos secondary.
4. Patriots: The Patriots Way. No non-Welker or non-Gronk can upstage mighty Apollo. Instead of hearing about some individual Patriots player this week, we will instead dwell on the Lourdes-like powers of the water supply in Patriots headquarters, which grant the team magical ability to reclaim and rehabilitate the likes of LeGarrette Blount and Alfonzo Dennard. It's The Patriots Way, and while they lost The Way in May, they got it back Saturday. That's how magic works. It works through selection bias.
Blount and Dennard had great games on Saturday, and of course Bill Belichick has a remarkable, 13-year track record of finding and developing players to fit his systems while adapting his systems to roster realities. But signing a tackle breaker to break tackles (eventually, after losing his coaches' confidence several times in the regular season) is not Archimedes-level inspiration, just good roster management. If we could please put a cap on the "surprise contributions by unfamiliar players are indicators of superhuman brilliance/underlying righteousness/divine favor" angle, that would be swell, Boston media. It's not what you are saying, but how you say it.
Red Zone Offense
Settling for field goals will not get you to the Super Bowl. Unless the Seahawks-49ers game is an 18-15 final either way. Which is possible.
1. Broncos: Peyton Manning completed 71.8 percent of his red-zone passes and threw 37 red-zone touchdowns with zero interceptions this year. 'Nuff said.
2. Patriots: Balance and risk aversion are the keys here. Brady completes just 50.6 percent of his red-zone passes, but Saturday reminded us that the Patriots are a running team, wearing last year's passing-team clothes. Stevan Ridley averages 3.2 yards per carry in the red zone (a good figure in a region where yards are tough and stuffs are common), and Blount adds battering-ram capability. The Patriots come away with field goals more often than they did in years past, but they rarely play themselves out of scoring opportunities.
3. 49ers: Vernon Davis had eight red-zone touchdowns in the regular season and a ninth on Sunday. Boldin adds six. The Gore-Kaepernick rushing threat is a big deal in the red zone, of course, but the 49ers get many of their big goal-to-go plays through the air. Phil Dawson's 18 field goals within 40 yards reveal that the 49ers can still improve in the red zone (they were awful two years ago), but there is a theme among the Final Four teams: If you get to the red zone a ton of times, avoid turnovers and play solid defense, a field goal now and then will add up. In the regular season and early playoffs, anyway.
4. Seahawks: Marshawn Lynch averages just 2.4 yards per rush in the red zone, as opponents can take an all-hands-in-the-box approach to stopping him. Russell Wilson has thrown 19 touchdown passes but just one interception -- great efficiency, but the Seahawks sometimes seem at a loss when the field constricts. They also know they can beat most opponents with field goals, which surely shapes some of their conservative red-zone tactics. On Saturday, that conservatism made life harder for the Seahawks than it had to be, and it only gets harder from here.
Red Zone Defense
The yang to the settle-for-three yin.
1. Seahawks: Great red-zone defense, of course, and good luck earning a chance to face it. No team has reached the red zone more than three times against the Seahawks defense since the Rams in Week 9. And the Rams were 0-4 on touchdown conversions in that game.
2. 49ers: The 49ers red-zone defense does not grade particularly well statistically -- 32nd in red zone rushing defense according to Football Outsiders. Don't send angry letters! The culprits were early-season games against the Packers, Seahawks and Colts, all of whom moved the ball extremely well through the red zone against the 49ers. Anyway, you saw the Panthers get stoned at the goal line on play after play on Sunday. The 49ers defensive front can clobber any opponent when just a yard or two is at stake, and Ahmad Brooks keeps a trampoline handy for over-the-top defensive stops. The 49ers pass defense is even stingier than the run defense near the red zone, which may be why the Panthers took all of their receivers off the field at the goal line, crossing their fingers with Cam Newton/Mike Tolbert dives. The 49ers' red-zone advantage against the Seahawks offense is one of their biggest edges, in a game that leans heavily toward the Seahawks by most indicators.
3. Patriots: The Patriots grade out as league-average in this category. They put together a fine goal-line stand against the Colts, but stopping Trent Richardson no longer even counts as a positive. To move the statistical needle these days, you have to get him to fumble after a six-yard loss, then hang Ryan Grigson upside-down out a window, L.A. Confidential-style, until he apologizes for the trade.
4. Broncos: One of the few truly bad units in this entire ranking exercise, the Broncos red-zone defense ranked 26th in the NFL according to Football Outsiders. Their pass defense was bad, but the Broncos were also an easy team to punch the ball in against in goal-to-go situations. Opponents picked up 13 touchdowns and three additional first downs on 29 carries inside the 10-yard line. Match the Broncos goal-line defense with the Patriots red-zone offense, and the Patriots should come away from most of their sustained drives with seven points.
Heroism, quantified when possible. Remember that the defense plays as much of a role in a comeback as the offense does. Tony Romo is standing over my shoulder, ordering me to type that.
1. Broncos: You don't want to read this, hear this, think about this or believe this, but the Broncos have the best offense in the NFL when playing from behind, and they are better suited to drive down the field for one necessary score than any other team. Any. Other. Team.
2. Patriots: You are probably aware of this general storyline. If you are curious, the Colts would only have ranked in the middle of the pack, below the Patriots and Chargers: they had some amazing comebacks on their resume, but also a few games (the Rams, for example) where they fell down and then fell harder. If there were a special "28-point comeback" category, the Colts might win, but most good teams have little experience in those situations.
3. Seahawks: The Texans game leaps to mind. The Seahawks defense can force turnovers to spur comebacks, and they can prevent leads from getting out of hand. That said, the Seahawks ran 593 plays while leading and 232 while trailing, so our data set on their come-from-behind chops is a little choppy.
4. 49ers: Kaepernick completes just 54.4 percent of his passes when trailing. The 49ers trail even less frequently than the Seahawks (190 plays to 601), so we have little to draw from, but their offense is built for nine-minute drives, not 90-second ones. They came back against the Seahawks, of course, but we are not really thinking about one-point deficits when we are talking "comeback."
You know what's better than coming back? Never having to come back.
1. 49ers: Colin Kaepernick becomes Hannibal in the fourth quarter, and he marches his elephants out of Carthage, over the Alps, past all the lane closures the Romans could muster on the Appian Way, straight down the gullet of any team trying to come back.
As their drive at the start of the fourth quarter on Sunday demonstrated, the 49ers can warp time and space when holding a lead. Most teams could get a 39-yard run from Frank Gore or execute a 13-play, eight-minute drive, but only the 49ers can accomplish both on the same drive, despite the fact that Gore only needed a few seconds to generate half of the yardage. The 49ers accomplished the same non-Newtonian, temporal, quantum-handoff feat against the Seahawks a few weeks ago (though they did so to take the lead, not hold it), so the skill cannot be written off as something they do against weaker opponents. Just the opposite: The more stout the defense (Panthers, Cardinals), the more punishing the slow ride.
2. Seahawks: Almost as good as the 49ers in this regard. The Seahawks defense can step on an opponent's chest, but their offense is not quite as efficient at sucking time down a gravity well.
3. Broncos: See the Chargers game. The Broncos' method for holding leads is to score over 40 points. If their offense gives their defense a chance to keep an opponent close, their defense will give up some 49-yard fourth-quarter passes to wide-open receivers. A fun Football Outsiders stat: Opponents started their average drive against the Broncos trailing by 7.52 points, the highest differential in the NFL. (The 49ers and Seahawks were second and third in this odd little category.) In short, the Broncos defense can hold a lead, as long as giving up a touchdown still leaves them a half point ahead.
And what's up with that onside-kick strategy, Broncos? Anticipating an onside kick, the Broncos introduced a "hands team" consisting mostly of linebackers, with Eric Decker standing behind them. Their plan was to have Decker hurdle the linebackers to make a leaping catch or, barring that, to ricochet the football to a spot occupied entirely by Chargers. The only missing, bad idea was placing backup quarterback Brock Osweiler in the middle of the formation, to swat back the onside kick Dikembe Mutombo-style.
4. Patriots: The Jets comeback from a 21-10 halftime deficit weighs heavily here, as do the endless games decided in the final minute. The Patriots don't have the pull-away ability that the other remaining teams now have, and that the Patriots themselves once had, back when we accused them of running up the score all the time.
A handful of third-and-15 conversions can cover a lot of offensive sins.
1. Broncos: Manning's third-and-17 completion to Julius Thomas late in the fourth quarter tells you most of what you need to know: what Manning lacks in velocity these days, he makes up for with all that Manning stuff. For the record, the Chargers had the best third-and-long offense in the NFL this year, which helps explain how they came as far as they did.
2. 49ers: Colin Kaepernick's completion percentage and yards per attempt are higher on third down than they are on first and second down, which is not how it is supposed to happen. His completion rates go from 55.7 on first down to 56.8 on second down, then 63.4 on third down. His yards per rush also go up. There are several explanations for Kaepernick's out-of-kilter third-down effectiveness. Many of them are named Anquan Boldin, the receiver who produced 27 first downs and 13 receptions of 20-plus yards on third down in the regular season. The 49ers may be just a little too conservative with Kaepernick on early downs. But then again, conservatism works for them.
3. Patriots: Brady completes just 59.6 percent of his passes on third down and was sacked 20 times in 161 attempts. With their current receiving corps, the Patriots are not built for third-and-long, though they excel at avoiding it.
4. Seahawks: The Seahawks have the best third-and-short offense in the NFL, but the further they get off offensive schedule, the weaker they become. A quick look at Saturday's game tape confirms this.
Get off the field!
1. Seahawks: On the other hand, your best bet against the Seahawks defense on third-and-long may be a defensive holding penalty. Which probably won't be called.
2. Niners: The 49ers will trade a few big plays for lots of sacks and turnovers. When you break down tape and numbers, the subtle differences among great defenses emerge: the 49ers are awesome at sticking you with third-and-12 but only above average at stopping you there. When you think about it, that's a fair trade-off.
3. Patriots: Opponents are just 5-of-26 on third down and 10-15 yards, which is excellent, but they are 5-of-18 on third down and 16-plus yards, which means there have been a few catastrophic lapses. Remember that ranking behind the Seahawks and 49ers in a defensive category is not the same thing at being bad at something.
4. Broncos: Playing pass defense like the Broncos secondary is the same thing as being bad at something.
Field Position Stuff
Wherein the author drones on and on about kick coverage units and other elements of special teams minutiae, because someone has to.
1. Niners: Sound field position football has been a hallmark of 49ers football since Jim Harbaugh arrived. They build their roster and their gameplans around field position concepts. Andy Lee remains one of the best punters in the NFL, Harbaugh consistently assembles great coverage units, and the team strives to develop great return men: LaMichael James has been quietly effective since he acquired the job this year. The run-heavy ball-control tactics and sack happy defense also work in tandem to slowly shackle opponents to their own goalpost.
2. Patriots: Field position differential was one of the Patriots' secret weapons this year. Stephen Gostkowski finished second in the NFL in kickoff touchbacks, keeping opponents pinned at the 20 when starting drives. Consistent kickoff returns allowed the Patriots to start their average drive at the 29.7 yard line (fourth in NFL), and the average Patriots drive covers 33.7 yards, so they get plenty of chances to punt and pin when they don't score.
3. Seahawks: Their crazy turnover differential fuels the Seahawks field position advantage: when you are always intercepting passes but rarely giving up the football, you are going to tilt the field. A ball control offense and defense that forces tons of three-and-outs also help.
4. Broncos: Mile High Stadium plays havoc on special teams statistics: there are tons of touchbacks, so lots of drives start at the 20-yard line. The Broncos return game is fine when it gets a chance, while their kick coverage teams are terrible. The main reason the Broncos do not gain a major field position edge is that their defense allows too many productive drives.
Sick Of Them Factor
Rating how thoroughly the team has worn out it's mass media welcome due to weeks or decades of crummy, wearying, resentment-inducing excellence.
1. Patriots: A choking cloud of smug has settled over the continental United States east of I-91.
2. Broncos: My God, it's really happening. Another Brady-Manning Bowl, with the Roman numerals and the self-referential hype. It's absorbed much of my adult life. I didn't even have children when I wrote my first Brady-Manning preview, and now my oldest plays Call of Duty and gets most of the jokes in reruns of Futurama! This is wonderful. This is unbearable. This is an ironic, demonic punishment, all the filet mignon you can eat for all eternity. I love them. I loathe them. After Sunday, the excruciating ecstasy stops. At least until next year.
3. 49ers: Three straight trips to the NFC Championship have bred familiarity. Harbaugh's sideline behavior breeds contempt. Watching Harbaugh impersonate an angry fan who inherited the souls of the ten most obnoxious college basketball coaches in history makes me yearn to stare at Bill Belichick standing in the rain, draped in old garbage bags. But I know others feel differently.
4. Seahawks: The Seahawks are unfamiliar enough to a national offense, young enough and interesting enough that their story still feels fresh. But please, no more (1) Skittles, (2) Richard Sherman when there are about 19 other great defenders to talk about, (3) decibel meters, particularly analog ones that look like they are ripped out of a 1970s stereo system, and (4) guys throwing fish around after commercials.
In which we either pretend all of that magical stuff is real, or pretend to be too rational and scientific to admit that, deep down, we really believe that some of this magical stuff is real.
1. Patriots: Duh.
2. 49ers: They have been here and done this, so it is all business as usual. Which is why last year's Super Bowl was won by Bart Starr and the Packers.
3. Seahawks: The team's postseason history, save for one Super Bowl run, is pretty terrible. And frankly, unless you are a Seahawks fan, do you even have clear memories of their Super Bowl run? It was eight years ago -- more recent than the last Patriots Super Bowl victory -- yet it feels like something excavated or imagined. Try to remember being in a state of mind that made you excited about the fates of Matt Hasselbeck and Darrell Jackson. Tough, isn't it? They magically appeared in the Super Bowl, watched the Steelers jog through a walkthrough while referees made party hats out of rulebook pages, then vanished from our collective memory like a predawn dream.
4. Broncos: That inescapable feeling that everything from the Wes Welker signing through the final plays of Sunday evening was just the set up for a seismic pratfall can seep into the most skeptical and analytical of hearts. It also explains why this season turned out to be so predictable. Events were simply fated, and fate is a cruel lady.