10 Takeaways From the NFL Divisional Playoffs

By Vincent Frank

After this weekend’s slate of NFL Divisional Playoff matchups, the final four has been decided. From Russell Wilson and the Legion of Boom laying the hammer down against the Carolina Panthers to Andrew Luck’s Indianapolis Colts going into Denver and defeating the Broncos, there were some great overall performances.

Meanwhile, both the New England Patriots and Green Bay Packers held serve at home against what were pretty darn good football teams.

Here are 10 takeaways from the NFL Divisional Playoffs.

1. Inconsistent NFL Rules and Bad Officiating Marring the Playoffs Thus Far

Following the controversial end to the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys game on Sunday afternoon, we have seen either horrible officiating or some shoddy rules help decide the outcome of football games in each of the past two weeks.

This time it came in the form of the “Calvin Johnson Rule,” in which Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant seemingly made a potential game-winning catch of a Tony Romo pass down to the Packers one-yard line with his team down by five towards the end of final quarter. After initially ruling it a catch, officials overturned the call on review. That essentially ended Dallas’ hopes of winning the game.

This comes on the heals of a controversial call at the end of the Cowboys-Lions wild card game last weekend. A play that helped send Dallas to this weekend’s playoff action.¬†No matter who you are rooting for, no one wants to see officiating help dictate the outcomes of football games. While we can’t assess what would have happened at the end of each game, playoff matchups should be decided by players, not officials. It’s that simple.

2. The Seattle Seahawks are the Odds-On Favorites to Repeat as Champions

Courtesy of Seahawks.com: Seattle is the obvious choice to earn a second straight title.

Courtesy of Seahawks.com: Seattle is the obvious choice to earn a second straight title.

Now prepared to host a Packers team that it beat by 20 points at home in Week 1, Pete Carroll’s squad has to be considered the favorites to become the first repeat Super Bowl champions since the New England Patriots in 2003 and 2004. In an outcome that most people predicted, Seattle absolutely laid the wood against Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers on Saturday night. Russell Wilson accounted for 290 yards and three scores while avoiding a single turnover. Meanwhile, Seattle’s defense forced three turnovers on the night.

It really is simple. If Seattle continues to avoid turnovers on offense and is able to make some big plays on that side of the ball, its defense will do the rest. There is not a team remaining in the playoffs that can beat the Seahawks if they play like we have seen over the past two months.

3. Aaron Rodgers’ Gritty Performance Was One for the Ages

The injury to Rodgers’ calf was more than noticeable during the Packers game against Dallas on Sunday. Unable to really do anything outside of hang in the pocket and improvise when pressure came his way, Rodgers struggled a great deal out of the gate. Writing another chapter in what has been a storybook career, Rodgers was able to shake off the rust (and the injury) to lead Green Bay to its first NFC Championship game in four seasons. It appears that he was moving better in the second half, but was still unable to run down the field with his teammates after the Packers earned a first down.

This didn’t stop Rodgers from leading two impressive touchdown-scoring drives in the final 20 minutes of regulation to lead his team back from an eight-point deficit. Overall, Rodgers completed 24-of-36 passes for over 300 yards with three touchdowns and zero interceptions. Postseason included, the MVP candidate has now thrown 28 touchdowns compared to zero interceptions in his last nine home starts. Now prepared to lead his team on the road against the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Championship game, Rodgers will look to write yet another chapter in what has been an already Hall of Fame worthy career.

4. Andrew Luck’s Career-Defining Moment

Courtesy of Colts.com: Sunday's win defined Luck's progression from young QB to grizzled veteran.

Courtesy of Colts.com: Sunday’s win defined Luck’s progression from young QB to grizzled veteran.

Luck may not have played great football on Sunday in Denver. The Colts defense may have bailed them out big time against what was a struggling Broncos offense. But at the end of the day, the only thing that matters is that Indianapolis is making its first trip to the conference title with Luck under center. It is doing so after beating the best quarterback in its franchise history in potentially the final game of his career. Talk about things going full circle.

As it is, Luck matured from a talented regular season quarterback to someone that showed he can lead his team deep into the playoffs with the odds stacked against him. No one really gave the Colts a chance in this one, but the team was able to dominate the trenches in a performance that rivals what the franchise had done early in Manning’s career with the team. For that, Sunday’s performance may very well be the first of many career-defining moments for Luck and his Colts.

5. Thoughts of Tom Brady’s Demise Were Greatly Exaggerated

New England put up a total 14 rushing yards in its game against the Baltimore Ravens, which represents the lowest figure for a winning team in the history of the playoffs. Continually bailing the rest of his team out and showing he was the best player in the field, Brady was still able to lead the Patriots to five touchdown-scoring drives of 60-plus yards. When the clock struck zero on the Ravens season, the future Hall of Famer finished with 367 passing yards and three scores in an impressive 35-31 victory.

Remember earlier in the season when Brady and the Patriots were struggling? There was a ton of talk about that being the end of the road for what has been one of the most successful stretches for a franchise in the history of the league. The defining moment during that time came following a 41-14 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs back in Week 4. That game saw Brady put up just 159 yards and two interceptions. From that point on, the Patriots have won 11 of 13 games with Brady himself accounting for 33 touchdowns compared to nine interceptions. They will now host Andrew Luck and the Colts for a chance to earn a sixth Super Bowl appearance with Brady under center.

6. Thoughts of Peyton Manning’s Demise Were Not

Manning simply isn’t the same football player that we have seen for the past 15-plus seasons. Whether it’s the thigh injury that has limited him in practice or just father time catching up, Manning looks like a shell of his former self. In Denver’s uninspiring performance against Indianapolis on Sunday, the veteran looked completely lost out there. He had no zip on the ball, struggled maintaining fluidity in the pocket and lacked the accuracy that has come to define his career.

Sunday’s game, which could very well have been Manning’s swan song, saw him complete just 26-of-46 passes for just 211 yards in the 24-13 loss. Now left to contemplate his future in the coming weeks, Manning’s next decision will be the biggest of his career. No one wants to see him go out on the bad note we saw Sunday, but no one would blame him for hanging those cleats up.

7. Russell Wilson’s Imminent Extension

It is being reported that within the next few months, Wilson will become the highest-paid quarterback in the NFL with an annual average salary north of $20 million. No matter what happens moving forward in the playoffs, this is money that he’s earned. Maybe not the most flashy signal caller in the NFL right now, Wilson’s leadership on the field and¬†improvisational skills are undoubtedly the best in the league. What he has done thus far in his career, especially after entering the league as a third-round pick with questions about his height, is something out of Hollywood.

Now on the verge of a second consecutive Super Bowl appearance in just three NFL seasons, Wilson has a chance to show everyone why his early-career success is something we can expect to continue moving forward. Seattle’s front office has built a juggernaut and Wilson is just the guy to lead that franchise in the years to come. The only real drama as it relates to his first veteran contract is whether the dynamic youngster will take a shorter-term deal in order to hopefully cash in later on when the television revenue comes in and the salary cap increases.

8. Davante Adams’ Breakout Performance is a Sign of Things to Come

Courtesy of USA Today: Adams is the breakout start of the playoffs for Green Bay.

Courtesy of USA Today: Adams is the breakout star of the playoffs for Green Bay.

Those of us who were on the Adams bandwagon leading up to the 2014 NFL draft are currently feeling some sort of vindication. Naysayers indicated that he was a product of Fresno State’s scheme and benefited from having Derek Carr at quarterback while playing in a lesser conference. Those skeptics obviously didn’t recognize the talent that was apparent on tape throughout his college career. After an up-and-down regular season that saw him become an important part of the Packers offense, Adams broke out big time against the Cowboys on Sunday. Acting the part of a slippery receiver and doing a tremendous job dropping down between coverage, Adams put up seven receptions for 117 yards and a score.

With Randall Cobb slated to become a free agent, there is a good chance that the Packers will decide to move on from him and insert Adams in the lineup opposite Jordy Nelson next season. After all, that had to be one of the reasons the team exhausted a second-round pick on him this past May. More than that, Adams figures to play an important role if the Packers are going to go into CenturyLink next weekend and upset Seattle. Barring a matchup against Richard Sherman, which seems unlikely at this point, Adams could very well end up putting in a similar performance in the NFC Championship game.

9. Joe Flacco and Tony Romo Prove Their Worth in Defeat

Flacco may have thrown two crucial interceptions in Baltimore’s narrow 35-31 loss to New England on Saturday, but his performance leading up to that game and actually within the confines of the game itself has turned the veteran into a quarterback opposing teams will be fearing in January for years to come. He still put up four touchdown passes and led the Ravens to a ridiculous 428 total yards against a Patriots defense that has been among the best in the NFL in recent months. That in and of itself should tell us what we need to know about Flacco moving forward.

As it relates to Romo, he didn’t necessarily stand out against the Packers on Sunday. Instead, it was nothing more than a workmanlike performance from the much-maligned signal caller. He ended the afternoon completing 15-of-19 passes for 191 yards with two touchdowns and zero interceptions. It was yet another solid effort from a quarterback that has drawn unfair criticism throughout his career. It also represented a transformation of sorts for Romo. Outside of a select few skeptics, most around the football world now view him as one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL. The simple fact that he could go into Lambeau Field and almost lead his team to the NFC Championship game should tell us volumes about where Romo is in his career right now.

10. Conference Championship Game Matchups Decided

And then there were four. Seattle will host Green Bay in the early game on Sunday, while New England will play host to Indianapolis in the evening game. It promises to be a great day for fans of playoff football, but there aren’t a whole heck of a lot of stories to follow here. Sure, Green Bay will look to avenge its blowout loss against Seattle back in Week 1. Andrew Luck will also attempt to lead his Colts to the Super Bowl against a quarterback in Tom Brady who has been to five.

Outside of that, there aren’t the rivalry games that we saw during conference championship weekend last season. Remember when San Francisco went into Seattle to play for the NFC Championship game? What about Tom Brady and Peyton Manning lining up against one another for what was likely the last time in the postseason?

Also, there isn’t a ton of drama here. Barring an upset of epic proportions, Seattle is likely going to be hoisting a second consecutive Lombardi Trophy. It’s heads and shoulders above the other three teams remaining in the playoffs. That takes some of the fun away from it, especially for those of us who don’t have a rooting interest one way or another.

Photo: USA Today