New Orleans is so close, you can almost taste the gumbo…at least that’s what four teams are thinking right now.

The Atlanta Falcons, Baltimore Ravens, New England Patriots and the San Fransisco 49ers are all one victory away from bringing it back to the bottom of the map for Super Bowl XLVII. The Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs (per usual) was memorable to say the least. Heavy favorites and records each fell. We saw epic comebacks that were topped only by even more epic comebacks in the same game. And what weekend of playoff games would be complete without a few lives being ruined? (God, I hope Rahim Moore doesn’t have a twitter).

Speaking of Rahim Moore and the Denver Broncos, it was in our Divisional Round picks column that HHSR expected that the Broncos would not only get off to a slow start, but would struggle with the Baltimore Ravens. While we fell short of predicting a Ravens win (we expected them to lose to the Patriots this week), all the signs of a possible Broncos egg-laying, a Denver Omelet if you will, were readily available. Taking nothing away from Baltimore, specifically, the #1 seed expectations, the extra week layoff, and (most importantly in this observer’s opinion) having a team that was not battle-tested were all telltale signs.

And then there’s Peyton Manning.

Much of my longstanding criticism of Peyton Manning stems directly from his own greatness and the expectations that accompanies that greatness. This is a man who, as a starting quarterback in the NFL, is an eye-popping 42 games over .500 for his career in the regular season. For perspective’s sake, this means that if he lost every game for the next two and a half seasons, he’d still be ABOVE .500 for his career. After Saturday night’s debacle against the Ravens, however, he is a meager 9-11 lifetime in the playoffs.

Peyton apologists are quick to overlook his sub-par record for various reasons. Some of the most popular include: “Peyton never had a good defense (Colts)”, “Peyton’s coach was terrible (Caldwell)” and “Those mistakes weren’t Peyton’s fault (Tracy Porter pick in the Super Bowl)”.

Coincidentally, variations of all three of these excuses came into play in last week’s loss to the Ravens. Manning’s pick six in the first quarter went off of Eric Decker’s hands, but Decker was also interfered with by the defensive back (not called). Head coach John Fox made several questionable decisions that hindered the Broncos chances for victory. Most notably, Fox took the ball out of Peyton’s hands on two separate occasions inside the final 75 seconds of regulation, when 18 still had the chance to win it for Denver. And, of course, the reprehensible defensive effort by Rahim Moore (#26) on Joe Flacco’s pass to Jacoby Jones could easily land him in the free agent pool this summer.

It is for these reasons that many have excused Peyton Manning’s three turnover performance (which led to 17 points) and have completely looked the other way on his horrendous overtime interception inside of Denver territory, which led to BMore’s game-winning field goal. Even the critical takes haven’t been all that scathing.

Here’s the point: After the dust settled from horrible officiating, the Jones TD and John Fox’s best Coach Homer impersonation, Peyton Manning, the man many are convinced is the greatest quarterback to ever play the position, had the ball on his own 38-yard line (with the clock rendered obsolete), needing only about 25 yards to move his team into position for a would-be game-winning field goal…

And he didn’t get it done.

That inexcusable Favre-like interception came at a time when winning was still within his grasp; Peyton letting it slip away in the playoffs is something we should’ve grown accustomed to by now.

He’s obviously one of the very best to ever pick up the pigskin, but in the name of objectivity, we should no longer cover for his mistakes. If you want to pin the blame for Denver’s loss on Moore, Fox, the refs or someone else, so be it. But lapses from officials, coaches and teammates are an occupational hazard that comes with the job of quarterback. Ultimately, Manning’s role is to navigate his team through difficult circumstances and come out on top, just like he has 68.8% of the time in his regular season career.

Peyton ends his first playoff game with an unhappy press conference, followed by cleaning out his locker. Stop me if you’ve heard this before.

Sidebar: If we rewarded quarterbacks in spite of their teammates’ mistakes, Tom Brady would have five or six rings right now (Reche Caldwell in the ’07 AFC Championship, New England’s defense on Eli’s game winning drive in the ’08 Super Bowl, Wes Welker in the ’12 Super Bowl). But the record book clearly states he’s only won three.

As immensely talented as Manning is, until further notice he is nothing more than a glorified Tony Romo. He puts up gaudy statistics (Romo is fifth in NFL history his career passer rating) and owns many records, but when it’s money time and expectations reach their apex, history has shown he’ll roll snake eyes.

Obviously, when dissecting the game’s all-time greats, you must split a few hairs, which is what we’re doing here. But to this point, no field general in NFL history has lost more playoff games than Peyton Manning. He is 0-4 in cold-weather playoff games (sub 40 degrees). His teams have been “one-and done” in the playoffs eight times. He stumbled into one ring — “stumbled” because in the four game stretch during his Super Bowl run of ’06, he threw three TDs and seven INTs, with an average passer rating of 68.1 — and when you look beyond that one season, his struggles are even more glaring. Manning’s 9-11 record drops to a mind-blowing 5-11 in all years excluding 2006.

Peyton is more than capable of winning another Super Bowl or two in his career. But he’s done nothing to earn the benefit of the doubt heading into the playoffs, and therefore, we cannot consider him to be in the echelon of the Montana’s, Bradshaw’s or Brady’s.The sooner people stop gifting him top 5 of all-time status, the easier it will be to accept his postseason shortcomings.

NFC Championship- San Fransisco 49ers at Atlanta Falcons

As of now, HHSR is 6-2 at picking games in these NFL playoffs (8-0 against the spread — yeah, I do that too, although it’s not seen on the site). Unlike (seemingly) most pundits, one team we did have advancing last week was the San Fransisco 49ers.

Probably the most impressive performance last weekend was delivered by the Niners, as they dropped the Packers 45-31. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick burst onto the national scene on Saturday night, running past the Green Bay again and again, to the point that it looked like the high school game tape he gave to college recruiters. Kaepernikus set an NFL record for rushing yards in a a game by a quarterback (regular season or playoffs) with 181, and totaled four TDs. Wide receiver Michael Crabtree is flourishing under Kaepernick and is finally looking like the star player he wants us to believe he is (can a guy dress anymore like a douchebag in his postgame interview?), hauling in nine grabs for 119 yards and two scores.

Still, the major damage was done on the ground. As a team, San Fran ran for 323 yards (Those are Madden on rookie type numbers!) and Green Bay could never stop the bleeding.

The Atlanta Falcons, on the other hand, were the focus of last week’s column. Matt Ryan, Tony Gonzalez and Mike Smith finally got that elusive first playoff win, although they didn’t make it easy on themselves. The Falcons couldn’t wait to blow a 27-7 second half lead to the Seattle Seahawks, who took a 28-27 lead with 31 seconds remaining. Undaunted, Ryan stepped up and took control of his own destiny with two big throws that put Atlanta in position to make the game winning field goal.

After that game, there’s not a doubt in my mind that the Seahawks were the better team. But after a wretched first half, Seattle was unable to defeat a quality team on the road, having only played 30 quality minutes of football.

The 49ers and Falcons did not meet during the regular season, but in a sense, they met last week. Seattle is practically a carbon copy of the 49ers. Both are extremely physical and typically dominate in the trenches on both sides of the ball. Each team boasts an efficient ground game, punctuated by a young quarterback adept at running the read option.

However, it will be difficult to expect the same outcome when the two meet on Sunday in the Georgia Dome.

Look who crashed the Niners game last week! But what is Tity 2 Chanz to do now that his new team is playing his old team?

Once the Seahawks let Russell Wilson loose in the 2nd half, Atlanta had no answer. As we pointed out last week, the Falcons were similarly flummoxed by Cam Newton in two games earlier this season. Well, the Falcons worst nightmare is rolling into “The House that Deion Built” this Sunday.

Sidebar: Speaking of the Falcons, the 49ers, the Georgia Dome and Deion Sanders

Kaepernick’s passing was incredibly accurate against the Packers (pick six notwithstanding). He faced little pressure from Green Bay, as did Wilson versus Atlanta. The Falcons were 28th in the league in sacks this year, and got to Wilson only twice last week.

If this game is close, it’s pretty safe to say now that Matt Ryan is more than capable of pulling out the W. He’s now engineered 16 fourth quarter comebacks and 23 game-winning drives in his five-year career, including six this season, and once more last week against the Seahawks.

But in the end, even if Kaepernick doesn’t turn in the transcendent performance from last week, it’s San Fransisco’s chameleon-like way of adapting to a game’s cadence (also mentioned in last week’s article) that makes them so difficult to beat. We know Atlanta probably won’t be able to run the ball effectively, and their Super Bowl chances hinge on the right arm of Matty Ice. But the 49ers can win a shootout with the Falcons; they can also win a 9-6 game over Atlanta, or most anyone else.

We’ve been getting cute with the NFC for long enough. The 49ers are the best team and will represent the conference in the Super Bowl.

Sidebar: While putting the finishing touches on this column, I came across the story about Michael Crabtree getting questioned for SEXUAL ASSAULT! No clue exactly how this could or will impact Sunday’s early game, but for now, the pick remains the same.

AFC Championship- Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots

Isn’t weird that Rahim Moore may be most responsible for the Ravens shot at the Super Bowl, when just last year, it was Sterling Moore (no relation) that kept them out (insert “lees is Moore” pun, here)?

By now, you’re all aware that the Patriots escaped Gillette Stadium with a victory last season in the AFC Championship game. You also may have heard that Sunday might be Ray Lewis’ last game. The Ravens are also coming off of an extremely emotional victory and squaring off against an arch rival with a Super Bowl trip at stake.

What does all this mean?

It means the Ravens definitely shouldn’t be eight point underdogs and will be playing with twice as much pride as you saw last week in Denver. At the start of last season, Eli Manning boldly claimed he was an “elite” quarterback…he went on to win the Super Bowl. This season, Ravens QB Joe Flacco said the same thing…he’s now one win away from the Super Bowl, and he’s been spectacular in the playoffs to this point (613 yards, 5 TDs, 0 INTs, 120.9 average passer rating in two wins). This couldn’t have worked out better for Smokin’ Joe, who is playing for a ring, and new contract.

Sidebar: If this worked for Eli & Flacco, it’s clear now what Brandon Weeden must do.

Is it too soon to call Ray Lewis’ Ravens a team of destiny?

Baltimore also switched up their offensive line at the start of the playoffs, which has yielded increased pass protection for Pretty Flacco. They’ve allowed only one sack per game during the playoffs, down from 2.4 per game during the season. Subsequently the offense has benefited from this O-line change— specifically, Flacco has had the necessary time to throw downfield against the Colts and Broncos.

Expect them to attempt a similar game plan on Sunday, and if successful, they can absolutely pull the upset once again. In their first meeting against the Pats this year (B.A.T. or Before Aqib Talib), Flacco completed passes of 41, 38, 27, 25, 24 and 20 yards. The Ravens also won the game, which helped inspire this article.

Working against the Ravens is the fact that this older team just played five (plus) quarters in high altitude last week. Also working against the Ravens is that Tom Brady will be in uniform for the Patriots on Sunday. Even with a freshly injured Gronker (Rob Gronkowski broke the same forearm again, in a different place, and will be out the remainder of the postseason), the Pats still whipped the Houston Texans last weekend 41-28.

Brady was near flawless in that game, climbing the pocket repeatedly and rendering the Houston pass rush meaningless as he found open receivers again and again. Baltimore must find a way to get pressure on Brady, who was fantastic at sliding protection against the Texans. Last week, the Ravens were only able to get to Manning after Knownshon Moreno, Denver’s best backfield pass protector, left the game with an injury.

Few teams, though, have had more success against Tom Terrific than John Harbaugh’s crew. Brady has split his last two playoff games (both at home) against the Ravens and has thrown for only two touchdowns, compared to five interceptions. Baltimore is very capable, but has largely been more bark than bite over the last decade. The Ravens have been the “sexy” pick to come out the AFC many times since winning it all in the 2000 season, but have failed to deliver each year. With that said, HHSR will believe Baltimore is the AFC champs when we see it.

Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are ridiculously close to rarefied air for quarterbacks and coaches. The duo are entering their seventh AFC Championship Game. If you remove his 2008 season that he missed due to injury, Brady has gotten his team to within one game of the Super Bowl 7 of his 11 years as the starter.

Sidebar: The Browns have not made the AFC title game in 23 years.

Brady now owns the record for most playoff wins by a starting quarterback. A win Sunday would send him to his record sixth game on Super Sunday. At 35, Brady knows he can ill afford to squander any more of these opportunities (better still, for his sake, no Mannings are standing in his way!); and there is no reason to go against our preseason AFC pick. Brady will improve on his sparkling 5-1 AFC title game record.

If the 49ers and Patriots wind up battling in New Orleans, it will be for more than just the Super Bowl— it will be for this man’s crown.

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