1. Seattle (14-3). The Seahawks have scored 100 points in their last five games. The running game looks great and the defense looks balanced and strong. The passing game, not so much. Now, I don’t think anyone should form a judgment based on Saturday’s game, because the wind was a passing-game killer. But at some point Seattle’s going to need big plays out of Russell Wilson if the ’Hawks are going to win a Super Bowl.
2. San Francisco (14-4). This is what America wanted, right? The two best teams, in The House That Noise Built.
3. Denver (14-3). This is what America wanted, right? Manning and Brady, for the 15th time? It’s certainly what CBS wanted.
4. New England (13-4). As Someone Who Knows Bill Well once told me: “You’ll never see one game plan that looks like another with the Patriots.” If you gave Belichick Sodium Pentothal right now, I think he’d say he’s thrilled to see his team have a 46-27 run-pass ratio in a playoff game (including two sacks counting as pass plays) because he knows he has a quarterback who can win any game at any venue. I don’t know how far my AFC Super Bowl pick is going, but in this most bizarre of seasons, I think New England can win any game it plays if the secondary holds up.
5. Carolina (12-5). Fun while it lasted. And 2014 was absolutely no fluke, not with that defense, not with that quarterback. GM David Gettleman now has to figure a way to get Cam Newton another receiving weapon. Just not enough depth outside to survive a diminished Steve Smith.
6. San Diego (10-8). Can’t do much better than three close games with the top seed in your conference. Excellent job by GM Tom Telesco, coach Mike McCoy, Philip Rivers and the players in the first year of a new era.
7. New Orleans (12-6). Life is cruel, but it’s time—again—to pack your bags, Shayne Graham.
8. Green Bay (8-8-1). Lots of teams have secondary problems to solve, and Ted Thompson runs one of them. The problem for Thompson is he also has offensive line and defensive tackle problems too.
9. Philadelphia (10-7). Normally, entering the offseason in the NFC East, the outlook would be pretty even for the four teams, seeing as though they knock each other off so regularly. But I think the Eagles have separated themselves from the pack—Dallas’ 5-1 division record notwithstanding.
10. Indianapolis (12-6). Sorry to drop you down into the netherworld here, Colts fans. But any team that allows 44 and 43 points in back-to-back postseason games must be punished. You’re lucky I didn’t drop the Colts out of here entirely for Luck’s Amish neckbeard.
11. Kansas City (11-6). Smart idea, trying to extend Alex Smith. I’d extend a quarterback who piloted my team to more points this year than Drew Brees, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick did with theirs.
12. Arizona (10-6). Gotta work on that 2-4 division record, Cards.
13. Cincinnati (11-6). Re the loss of offensive coordinator Jay Gruden to Washington: You can bet new Cincinnati offensive coordinator Hue Jackson will run it more than 43.8 percent of the snaps in 2014 … and that Gio Bernard and whoever his running mate is next year (BenJarvus Green-Ellis or someone else) will have more than 390 rushing attempts between them. That was the major gripe inside the Cincinnati offices about Gruden—that he didn’t run enough.
14. Pittsburgh (8-8). Any doubt the Steelers paid the right receiver? Antonio Brown: 110 catches, 1,499 yards, eight touchdowns. That’s gotten lost in the postseason folderol but shouldn’t have.
15. Chicago (8-8). Mel Tucker stays as defensive coordinator. Sounds like there were a few Chicago precincts not in favor of Tucker staying. More than a few.
The Awards Section
Offensive Players of the Week
LeGarrette Blount, running back, New England. He set a New England rushing record with his 166 yards on 24 carries, and had rushing touchdowns of 2, 2, 2 and 73 yards as the Patriots ground the Colts down. Six rushing touchdowns for the Patriots. No passing touchdowns. “If you’d have told me we’d have had six touchdowns and no touchdown passes, I’d have told you you’re crazy,” Blount said. What else is crazy: Blount has 355 rushing yards and six scores in New England’s last two games. Not bad for a guy who was supposed to be insurance between two highly drafted Patriot backs, Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen.
Marshawn Lynch, running back, Seattle. He set a Seattle playoff rushing record (is there an echo in here?) with his 140 yards on 28 carries, and anyone who watched the 23-15 Seahawks win over New Orleans didn’t have to think hard when asked, “Who was the best player on the field today?” Lynch was the physical rushing presence a struggling offensive team just had to have; he’s the kind of back who gets four-and-a-half yards when average ones would be stopped for three. His 31-yard touchdown run with 2:40 to play in the fourth quarter iced it for the Seahawks. “I don’t run to get tackled,” said the man of few words after the game.
Defensive Players of the Week
Ahmad Brooks, linebacker, San Francisco. You know, the not very famous mate of NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis, the two Pro Bowlers who combined for 22 tackles, a sack and an interception in the 23-10 win over Carolina. But Brooks stoned a sneaking Cam Newton on the goal line, the biggest single play in the game, the play that turned the game around in the first half, and he sacked Newton 2.5 times as well, the most sacks Brooks has had in a playoff game in his burgeoning career.
Jamie Collins, linebacker, New England. The Patriots saw past Collins’ final year at Southern Miss—the team was 0-12 last fall—and they were very glad they did Saturday night. Collins would have been an apprentice this season if not for the IR-ing of Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes, and against the Colts he played his first complete game of the season, logging all 65 defensive snaps and recording six tackles, a sack of Andrew Luck, an interception off Andrew Luck, two quarterback knockdowns of Andrew Luck, and one Andrew Luck pass defensed. Easy, huh? Now all Collins has to do is repeat that against Peyton Manning at altitude.
Special Teams Player of the Week
Stephen Gostkowski, kicker/punter, New England. After regular punter Ryan Allen Yepremianed a bad punt snap into a safety in the first half and got mauled by the Colts rush (just watch the video to the right), Gostkowski, who had never punted in his eight-year NFL career, booted punts of 53, 35, 43, 52 and 26 yards for a 41.8-yard average … in conditions that included rain and wind gusts up to 29 mph. It was a rugby-type low-release punting style, and it worked in a big pinch for the Patriots.
Coach of the Week
Dante Scarnecchia, offensive line coach, New England. For 30 of his 65 years on earth, Scarnecchia has been an assistant coach for the New England Patriots. Fans of the team should hoist a glass to him this morning. He’s put together a terrific offensive line with but two franchise-type linemen—left tackle Nate Solder and left guard Logan Mankins—and that line (also: center Ryan Wendell, right guard Dan Connolly, right tackle Marcus Cannon, tight end Michael Hoomanawanui) led the way to a 234-yard, six-touchdown running performance that crushed the Colts. “Our offensive line had an amazing performance,” said LeGarrette Blount, who had four of the six touchdowns. Scarnecchia’s way has been vital with a mix-and-match line.
Goat of the Week
Mark Ingram, running back, New Orleans. Biggest single contributor to any of the four losses all weekend. With the Seattle crowd in full nuttiness on the first series of the game Saturday, Drew Brees had a perfect screen set up for Ingram on third down. Guaranteed conversion, and a crowd-silencer. Ingram dropped it. Early in the second quarter, Ingram tried to make three or four hard yards up the middle and was met by defensive end Michael Bennett. Not a particularly hard collision. But Ingram coughed the ball up, the Seahawks recovered, and Marshawn Lynch—the hard-running, elusive back Ingram was drafted to be—ran for a pinball touchdown a moment later, and it was 13-0. Ingram has had a few moments for New Orleans (he was a plus last week in the Wild Card win at Philly), but overall, the first half mirrored his New Orleans career.