1. Seattle (13-3). Didn’t think I’d see Percy Harvin (who has played 20 snaps all season and caught one ball) play football again this season. But if he practices well this week, looks like he’ll see the field Saturday in the divisional game versus New Orleans.
2. San Francisco (13-4). Colin Kaepernick has run for 279 yards in two playoff games against the Packers. I sense a trend.
3. Denver (13-3). The NFL didn’t have enough drama this year. To reach the Super Bowl, Peyton Manning will have to beat his old offensive coordinator (Mike McCoy) and either Tom Brady or his successor in Indy, Andrew Luck.
4. Carolina (12-4). Two big, physical helpers to Cam Newton and the Carolina passing game this year—Greg Olsen and Mike Tolbert—combined to catch 100 balls for 1,000 yards. Exactly.
5. New England (12-4). On the playoff bye weekend, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels got interviewed by the Browns. Not sure he’ll get the gig (my friend and longtime Browns beatman Tony Grossi thinks Denver offensive coordinator Adam Gase has a very good shot), but the interview with McDaniels Saturday in New England went quite well.
6. New Orleans (12-5). Tremendous second half by Drew Brees. Now I’m thinking the long shot in Seattle isn’t such a long shot after all, especially with the Seahawks looking pretty mortal on offense since wiping out the Saints in December.
7. Indianapolis (12-5). Andrew Luck laughs at big deficits.
8. Philadelphia (10-7). I expected Nick Foles to make more plays early Saturday night, but that was a pretty big stage, and he did lead Philly to 17 points in the final 20 minutes. Bright future for him, and the Eagles.
9. Kansas City (11-6). I realize a pair of key members of the secondary were gone down the stretch, but the lack of a rush on Andrew Luck and any defensive cohesion in the second half was galling.
10. Green Bay (8-8-1). The Packers need reinforcements; Bryan Bulaga, Casey Hayward and Clay Matthews to get healthy; to figure out who kidnapped B.J. Raji … and basically Ted Thompson to have his best offseason. Is that too much to ask?
11. San Diego (10-7). As Philip Rivers told FOX, “We were left for dead five weeks ago, at 5-7.” And now they’re dangerous enough to be scary to Denver.
12. Arizona (10-6). I bet Carson Palmer, watching Sunday, truly felt sorry for Andy Dalton. He’s been there. He’s not the kind of guy to laugh at his successor falling so flat.
13. Cincinnati (11-6). It’s one thing for fans to not trust Andy Dalton, and those from Lima to Lexington surely won’t in 2014. But Dalton’s biggest problem going forward is that his own locker room isn’t going to trust him, regardless of what the players and coaches say publicly.
14. Pittsburgh (8-8). The Steelers would have given the Chargers a much better game than Cincinnati did.
15. Chicago (8-8). Well, Phil Emery got the quarterback signed, and kept the Bears out of the QB business this offseason. Didn’t love the contract, but at least it’s one spot Chicago doesn’t have to worry about.
The Award Section
Offensive Players of the Week
Colin Kaepernick, quarterback, San Francisco. What must have been going through the head of Kaepernick Sunday, pulling into the parking lot at Lambeau Field, the same place this Packers-idolizer once posed in front of in a Brett Favre jersey? Whatever emotion he had about it, Kaepernick kept it bottled before, during and after the 23-20 playoff victory over the Packers Sunday evening in brutal cold. Kaepernick’s legs (seven carries, 98 yards, including the crucial 11-yard run around left end that put the Niners in field-goal range to win) were better than his arm (16 of 30, one touchdown, one pick, 227 yards, a couple of big misses), but you throw a brick in 10-below wind chill and see how easy it is.
Terron Armstead, left tackle, New Orleans. The third start for the third-round rookie from Arkansas-Pine Bluff was his biggest by far, and Armstead repaid the faith Sean Payton had in him (or maybe desperation, not faith) by keeping the heat off Drew Brees from the right side of the Philly defense. The Eagles had two sacks (for one measly yard) and two more significant pressures in the Saints’ Saturday night upset. Armstead, quick and combative, jousted effectively with Eagle pass rusher Trent Cole and won much more than he lost. Cole had five tackles and one sack, but watching the game, Armstead pushed Cole around pretty consistently.
Andrew Luck, quarterback, Indianapolis. He dug himself a very big hole in the biggest game of his pro career, and the day looked grim when Luck’s second pick helped the Chiefs build a 38-10 lead early in the third quarter, while his third should have put the game out of reach for Kansas City late in the third. But somehow, Luck had enough presence to throw three second-half touchdowns, and even more presence to pick up a bouncing fumble near the goal line and stretch it over for a bizarre but vital score in the 45-44 Indy win. Let the unauthorized Luck biographies (plural) be contracted out.
Defensive Players of the Week
Donald Butler, linebacker, San Diego. Made the single biggest play of the game late in the second quarter, when Gio Bernard grabbed a pass from Andy Dalton and turned upfield inside the 10-yard line to try to score a touchdown to break open a 7-7 game. Butler stripped Bernard (the play was upheld on review) and prevented Cincinnati from taking the lead. And in the second half Butler was everywhere, finishing with a game-high 12 tackles, two for losses, the best San Diego defensive player on the field in a crushing victory over the Bengals.
Aldon Smith, outside linebacker, San Francisco. Smith must have made 10 disruptive plays Sunday—either causing a penalty, chasing Aaron Rodgers out of the pocket, pressuring him severely or sacking (1.5) him in the 23-20 Niners victory. Already can’t wait to see the Aldon Smith versus Cam Newton duel Sunday in Charlotte.
Special Teams Players of the Week
Phil Dawson, kicker, San Francisco. Keyed the first playoff victory of his life—and Dawson turns 39 later this month—with the winning 33-yard field goal at the final gun at Green Bay. With the wind chill around minus-14, Dawson calmly ended the game that no one watching at home wanted to end. “Worth the wait,” he tweeted afterward. Dawson scored the first six points of the game, too, when Niners drives stalled deep in Packers tundra.
Darrell Stuckey, safety, San Diego. What tremendous pursuit on the San Diego punt team by the fourth-year safety from Kansas. On the first Chargers punt of the day, he sprinted down to drop Bengals returner Brandon Tate for a one-yard loss, and later in the half smothered Tate for a five-yard loss. Strong and slithery, Stuckey was the best special-teamer in the field on wild-card weekend.
Coach of the Week
Sean Payton, head coach, New Orleans. Made all the right calls all week, including poking fun at the Saints’ 3-5 road record this year. Payton was lively Saturday night in Philadelphia, airing out his special teams and showing confidence in both the running game (94 yards in the first half, 91 in the second) and recently interception-prone Drew Brees, which paid off in the second half. Payton will figure out some way to mind-game his team into thinking the 34-7 loss in Seattle a month ago was a total fluke.
Goats of the Week
A pair of Andies:
Andy Dalton, quarterback, Cincinnati. Needing a playoff win to get off the schneid after two bad postseason performances in 2011 and ’12, Dalton took a 10-7 lead into the second half, with the ball. His first four series in the half ended thusly: taking a sack to force fourth down, fumbling on a boneheaded forward dive without being touched, throwing a pressured interception right into Chargers corner Shareece Wright’s hands, and throwing another interception to Chargers linebacker Melvin Ingram. The Chargers responded thusly: touchdown, field goal, field goal and a punt wedging Cincinnati deep in its territory. Ballgame.
Andy Reid, head coach, Kansas City. After the year he’s had, after the incredible Kansas City turnaround from moribund franchise to important contender, this almost seems unfair. But it’s reality. Reid has to take a hit for the Chiefs’ clock management and use of timeouts in the fourth quarter at Indianapolis. There are many things the Chiefs will look back on and say, “That killed us.” This one is the biggest: KC took its first and second timeouts on successive plays on a mid-fourth-quarter drive, and the third timeout, inexplicably, immediately after the two-minute warning. A colossal, ridiculous waste of timeouts. That is just dumb football.
The Colts took over at their 43 to run out the clock with 1:55 left and a 45-44 lead. Kansas City had no timeouts left. Andrew Luck kneeled down three times to end it. Now, I’m not saying the Chiefs could have stopped a middle-school team by the time the Colts went to run the clock out. But let’s say the Chiefs didn’t waste their timeouts stupidly. The Colts likely would have run on the first two plays and made the Chiefs use them. Faced with a third down and, say, five, yards to go with 1:42 to play, my guess is Luck would have tried a pass to convert. An incompletion would have forced the Colts to punt, and the Chiefs would have gotten the ball back with a timeout left, 1:30 to play and perhaps 50 yards to travel to get into range for a winning field goal. Again, that scenario is unlikely because of how easily the Colts had driven through the Chiefs. But it sure as heck is more possible than letting the Colts take the ball over with 1:55 remaining and having no timeouts.