1. Seattle (15-3). The Seahawks were built in the images of Pete Carroll and John Schneider: Play very fast, recklessly and calculating on defense, and physically and with the ability to strike deep when needed on offense. That’s what they’ve done in their eight playoff quarters, and I’m sure nothing will change in Super Bowl 48.
2. Denver (15-3). The single-best performance of Championship Sunday … but after watching the Seattle defensive front swarm and the Seattle secondary break up so many important passes, I say Seattle’s a tick better. If Peyton Manning gets the kind of protection in New Jersey Feb. 2 that he got Sunday, though, this is going to be one of the great Super Bowls.
3. San Francisco (14-5). Kaepernick giveth. Kaepernick taketh away.
4. New England (13-5). It’s obvious: The Pats were outplayed in all ways Sunday. But to take the knocks this team has taken all season, it’s a great accomplishment to have gotten to the Final Four.
5-9. Carolina (12-5), San Diego (10-8), New Orleans (12-6), Green Bay (8-8-1), Philadelphia (10-7).
10-15. Indianapolis (12-6), Kansas City (11-6), Arizona (10-6), Cincinnati (11-6), Pittsburgh (8-8), Chicago (8-8).
The Award Section
Offensive Player of the Week
Peyton Manning, quarterback, Denver. In control for 60 minutes, Manning outplayed his nemesis Tom Brady (he would have outplayed anyone on this day) with a 32-of-43, 400-yard, two-touchdown, no-pick, 118.4-rating game in the 26-16 AFC title victory over the Patriots. He evened his record in the postseason at 11-11, and it’s hard to think of a playoff game (maybe early in his career, in 2003, in the playoff game against defenseless Kansas City) he ever played better.
Defensive Players of the Week
Kam Chancellor, strong safety, Seattle. In the last 20 minutes of Seattle’s NFC’s win, Chancellor made three huge plays: the intimidating crush pass-broken-up on Vernon Davis, the interception of Colin Kaepernick, and then forcing a footstep-hearing Michael Crabtree to short-arm an incompletion with two minutes left in the game. For the game, Chancellor was everywhere, making 11 tackles.
Terrance Knighton, defensive tackle, Denver. Biggest single defensive play of the game for Denver: Pot Roast’s 10-yard sack of Tom Brady on 4th-and-2 late in the third quarter from the Denver 29. But Knighton was impactful in other ways too, including being the backbone on his run-stuffing denial of the New England two-point conversion in the fourth quarter. The man’s going to be a force for Marshawn Lynch to deal with in 13 days.
Special Teams Players of the Week
Ryan Allen, punter, New England. Don’t blame Allen. His three first-half punts (60 yards to the Denver 15-yard line, 55 yards to the Denver 18, 32 yards to the Denver 7) pinned Peyton Manning way back, but the Patriots’ defense couldn’t hold up. Denver drove 73 yards and 93 yards to 10 points off two of those punts. His three punts for a 49.0-yard average were a collective playoff rarity: every one inside the 20.
Doug Baldwin, wide receiver/returner, Seattle. His 51-yard reception in the first half was impactful, because it set up the field goal for Seattle—the lone points for the home team in the first half. But his 69-yard kick-return came at a vital time in the game. Midway through the third quarter, the Niners had just gotten the stunning jump-pass touchdown from Colin Kaepernick, and Baldwin took the ensuing kickoff up the right side for 69 yards. That set up another Seattle field goal and neutered the Niners’ momentum.
Coach of the Week
Dan Quinn, defensive coordinator, Seattle. All season, Quinn has rotated his defensive front intelligently and gotten players like Michael Bennett to accept different roles than they traditionally played. It paid off with a brutish tour-de-force second half against the Niners. The Seahawks forced three turnovers in the final 11 minutes and swarmed around Colin Kaepernick so much that, watching at home, Peyton Manning had to be thinking, “Can we play six offensive linemen against them in the Super Bowl?”
Goat of the Week
Colin Kaepernick, quarterback, San Francisco. Perfect description by Jimmy Johnson on FOX after the Niners lost the heartbreaker in the NFC Championship Game: “He kept them in the game with his legs, but he hurt them with his arm.” Hurt them, as Johnson said, by turning it over three times in the fourth quarter: two interceptions and a strip-sack by Cliff Avril. Kaepernick is a scintillating player who will have many great days in the league. But the fourth quarter he played against a very good defense was the biggest factor in the loss. “I cost us this game,” he said afterward.