Wildcard Weekend may have been a dud, but wow – did the action of this thrilling weekend up for it. We saw some fantastic performances from young players and veterans alike, both cementing their place in the memories and hearts of fans across the league.
We should have a great weekend coming up again, but before we look towards the Conference Championships let's take a look back at this past weekend.
Pivotal Match-ups From Divisional Weekend
Baltimore QB Joe Flacco vs Denver's Defense
It goes without saying that Joe Flacco has had his fair share of critics this season, and throughout his career. One would have been hard-pressed to find anyone who would have predicted that Flacco would have out-dueled Peyton Manning (on the road, no less) – but that's exactly what Flacco did on Saturday.
Flacco wasn't perfect in this game, and he got some help from his receivers making big plays, and some Broncos making surprisingly poor ones in the secondary. But you can't allow that to take away from Flacco's day. He was deadly accurate passing down the field, and in spite of having to put up 38 points in a double over time game on the road, he never looked shaken or out of place – as he's been prone to doing in the past.
Maybe Flacco is an elite quarterback, and maybe he isn't. That can be discussed during the offseason. But what he has proven is that he's capable of leading a team to a playoff victory on the road. He's demonstrated that he has the ability to be more than just a game manager, and that's far more that what many of us gave him credit for.
San Francisco's Read Option vs. Green Bay's Front Seven
After the Packers defense shut down the Joe Webb-led read option attack early in their wild card match-up, it seemed reasonable to assume that they could do the same to Colin Kaepernick and 49ers' similar offensive scheme.
Unfortunately for Green Bay, Kaepernick is light years ahead of Webb's talent, and the second year player ended up putting on a show for the ages. And while much has been made of Clay Matthews getting turned completely around while trying to defend the option, much more of the blame should fall on the coaching staff. Com Capers refused to run anything but man coverage in the secondary, meaning that almost any time Kaepernick wanted to run, he'd have tons of space in front of him.
By the second half the Packers defense was demoralized and it resulted in the players all over the field taking terrible angles in pursuit of Kapernick and Frank Gore. The result was one of the most dominating performances by a quarterback in playoff history. The 49ers have a ton of momentum as they head to Atlanta, but the Falcons will have the advantage of seeing exactly what doesn't work as they game plan for the NFC Championship.
Atlanta' WRs Roddy White vs Seattle CB Richard Sherman
This might have been the most anticipated match-up of any this weekend, and it didn't disappoint. Both Roddy White and Richard Sherman made some highlight plays against each other, and like you might expect, it'd be tough to determine a winner at the end of this one.
The game started out with Sherman getting the best of White. Sherman did a solid job of keeping White locked up, and forced Matt Ryan to look elsewhere. That of course, keeps both White and Sherman off of the highlight reels. However, Sherman did earn himself some publicity by showing great athleticism and timing when he knocked a would be touchdown pass away from White early in the game.
White is an extremely talented player, however, and it'd be extremely difficult for even a player of Sherman's caliber to shut him out entirely. White's moment came when he blew by Sherman for a 47 yard touchdown. Along the way Sherman ended up falling over while trying to track the ball, and after White scored he made sure to give Sherman a dose of his own trash talk.
Overall this match-up is almost impossible to call. Sherman kept White quiet most of the game, and White scored when the Falcons needed him too. Hopefully we'll see these teams meet again next year, and these two talents can go at it again.
Houston DT JJ Watt vs New England's Offensive Line
JJ Watt has been without question the best defensive player in the NFL during this season, the key to the success the Texans have had, and there are those that would argue he's should even be awarded the MVP title. It was quite baffling then that he was practically invisible in this one, and that lack of production really hurt Houston's chances.
New England beat Watt two ways. First of all, they were able to successfully double team Watt, something not every opponent has been able to pull off. More importantly though, was the Patriots' second strategy. Watt has a tendency to over-prioritize getting into the backfield, and at times can be undisciplined. New England exploited that by allowing him to get up field as he wanted, and focused instead on getting the ball past him to the second level before he would be able to react. It was a strategy that worked well and will likely be copied in 2013 and beyond.
Russell Wilson didn't end up winning the game for Seattle, but their exit from the playoffs wasn't his fault. His second half was as flawless as one could ask for, and he proved he's a franchise QB. Without question, the future is bright in Seattle.
New England's up and down pass rush and definitely been down lately. The Ravens' offensive line has improved recently and the Patriots will need to get their pass rush fixed this week.
B.J. Raji's play proved once again to be a great indicator to the overall success of the Packers defense. This time around though, Raji struggled against the 49ers; stellar OL, and the rest of the defense suffered.