NFL 2015-16 Divisional Weekend

Five Quick Hits

* Best wishes to Chris Mortensen, who is battling throat cancer. Mort cares about football, which too many media members don't, and he really laid the groundwork for today's "insiders" like Jay Glazer and Adam Schefter.

* Most of the NFL's head coaching vacancies have now been filled, including two teams, the Buccaneers and Giants, that fired their head coaches and promoted the offensive coordinator.

* The Rams and, by all accounts, the Chargers as well, are returning to Los Angeles. It's strange that such a large market lacked an NFL team for so long, but it's also strange to go from zero teams to two, all of a sudden.

* Early in the second quarter, Danny Amendola laid as dirty and malicious a hit as I saw all season (other than Odell Beckham in the game when he lost his mind). The play drew an unnecessary roughness penalty, but from that point on the field it's half the distance to the goal, which meant that Amendola's sucker shot cost the Patriots 2½ yards.

* The NFL needs a better way to deal with plays like that. Amendola was head-hunting. When a player deliberately tries to injure someone else, that can't just be a 15-yard penalty, and certainly not a 2½-yard penalty. The league gets so bogged down by a rulebook that tries to account for every situation, it's gotten light years away from common sense, and common decency.

Divisional Roundups

New England Patriots 27, Kansas City Chiefs 20

Sort of a dull game, especially compared to the thriller that followed it in Arizona. This was a typical Patriots' win: they did what they had to do, and avoided major mistakes. Tom Brady, Julian Edelman, and Rob Gronkowski all looked healthy, and the offensive line played well against a tough Kansas City front.

But the story of this game was the Chiefs' failure to capitalize on opportunities. Kansas City had more yards and more first downs than New England, including 10 rushing first downs, granted that several of them were by Alex Smith. The Chiefs converted 12 third downs, which is excellent, and they held 37:51 time of possession, a full quarter more than the Patriots (22:09). Yet they lost, and the game wasn't as close as the score implies: New England was comfortably in control from the early moments of the game.

The Chiefs settled for short field goals, dropped interceptions, and comically mismanaged the clock. At the end of the first half, they took a delay of game penalty on 3rd-and-goal from the 9-yard line, but that was just an appetizer for the end of the game. Down 27-13, the Chiefs took over with 6:29 remaining and all three timeouts. That's plenty of time to score a TD, force a three-and-out, and score again to force overtime. But the Chiefs showed no sense of urgency, instead stringing together a 16-play, 5:16 drive that effectively ended the game.

The phrase "two-minute drill" is synonymous with offensive effort to produce a quick score, but it took the Chiefs two minutes just to reach midfield. They were running medium-range passes and taking their time on huddles between every play. They finally reached the red zone, and — hallelujah — went no-huddle, with 3:00 remaining. Albert Wilson caught a pass at the 5-yard line, but dove in bounds to the 1 instead of going out to stop the clock. Charcandrick West got stuffed on a run, and they didn't run another play before the two-minute warning. How can a team in hurry-up mode, with its season on the line, run two plays in 1:00, never mind that they missed the two-minute warning?

Coming out of the break, they immediately drew a false start penalty, and ran four more plays before they finally found the end zone. It's 27-20 now, but there's only 1:18 left, and you need a miracle. The Patriots recovered the onside kick, picked up a first down, and ran out the clock. I don't know whether to blame Andy Reid, Doug Pederson, Alex Smith, or some combination, but it was an unforgivable lack of urgency and awareness.

Arizona Cardinals 26, Green Bay Packers 20 (OT)

The Packers lost in overtime for the second year in a row, in a crazy game with as dramatic a finale as you could ask for. Troy Aikman called last year's loss to Seattle "as improbable of a win as I've ever witnessed." At the end of Saturday's game, Cris Collinsworth marveled, "There is no reality television that can match the drama we just saw."

Let's pick it up in the fourth quarter. Green Bay was ahead 13-10, but the Cardinals had 1st-and-goal at the 10-yard line, when Carson Palmer threw a prayer high into the corner of the end zone and got intercepted. It was a terrible decision by Palmer, who could have and should have been more cautious in that situation. The Packers punted, though, and Arizona bounced back with a 7-minute TD drive. The scoring play came on a deflection by Green Bay's Damarious Randall, that rebounded to Michael Floyd in the end zone. The officials also missed a clear offensive pass interference by Arizona on the play.

The Packers went four-and-out, failing to convert on 4th-and-5 from their own 25-yard line, so the Cardinals took over up 17-13 with 2:38 left. An incomplete pass on 2nd down stopped the clock, so after Arizona's field goal, the Packers got the ball back with 1:50 remaining and no timeouts. Aaron Rodgers threw an incompletion, got sacked at the 4-yard line, and threw another incompletion. Now it's 4th-and-20 from the Green Bay 4, down 20-13 with :55 left in the game. And Jeff Janis gets open for a 60-yard gain to keep the game alive. Two plays and a penalty later, there are five seconds left. The Packers have the ball at the Arizona 41. And against all odds, Aaron Rodgers completes another Hail Mary, only slightly less improbable than the game-winner at Detroit in Week 13.

On the overtime coin flip, the Packers call tails, but Clete Blakeman's toss doesn't flip, which requires a do-over. The Cardinals win the re-do anyway, and on the first play, Carson Palmer scrambles to his right, throws across the field to Larry Fitzgerald, and Fitz runs all the way down the field, eluding and breaking several tackles, for a 75-yard gain. Two plays later, Fitzgerald walks in on a shovel pass. Let's recap the final 16 minutes of the game: end zone INT, go-ahead TD on a deflected pass, questionable clock management, successful conversion on 4th-and-20, successful Hail Mary, flubbed coin toss, 75-yard gain by an aging legend on the first play of overtime. Incredible.

The Packers have whined about not getting the ball in overtime, so let's be clear on something: college overtime rules are stupid. I don't believe the NFL's current system is the optimal way to do overtime, but it's better than the college system. All the Packers needed to do to give their offense a chance was not allow a touchdown. They failed, and so they lost. I'm okay with that.

Carolina Panthers 31, Seattle Seahawks 21

Home field advantage appeared to play a role in both of Sunday's games. Playing in windy Mile High, the Broncos handled the kicking game much better than Pittsburgh, and looked fresher in the fourth quarter. In Carolina, the Panthers seemed prepared for the poor field conditions, and took advantage to get an early lead that Seattle never recovered from.

Jonathan Stewart ran 59 yards on the first play from scrimmage, and the Seahawks looked like they were on their heels immediately, rather like the Texans after Knile Davis' opening kickoff return TD in Houston a week ago. Carolina bolted to a 31-0 halftime lead, and although the Panthers seemed to lose focus in the second half, Seattle's comeback attempt was too little, too late.

The Seahawks got shut out in the first half for only the second time all season, but for the second time in a row. Until last week, their most recent first half shutout was the NFC Championship Game against Green Bay. At halftime of that game, Russell Wilson was 2/9 for 12 yards, with 3 interceptions, a passer rating of 0.0, and 2 sacks. This Sunday, Seattle's first three possessions saw Wilson with two completions, a sack, and two interceptions, one of them returned for a Carolina touchdown. He's a great player, but he needs to play more consistently, and in particular, he needs to start faster. You can't ask your team to consistently dig out of a hole in the second half.

Carolina was the only team to go undefeated at home this season. The Panthers also led the NFL in takeaways and turnover differential. On Sunday, they didn't turn the ball over, and two early interceptions by Wilson helped build that early lead. Carolina was the best team in the regular season, and on Sunday, the Panthers played just like they did all season.

Denver Broncos 23, Pittsburgh Steelers 16

Denver won with defense and special teams. Brandon McManus kicked five field goals, four of them beyond 40 yards. Omar Bolden set up their first score with a long punt return. And Kayvon Webster had a superb day in kick coverage, including a punt downed at the 3-yard line, a perfectly-timed tackle, and a forced fumble.

Ben Roethlisberger passed for 339 yards, only the second time all season a QB had topped 300 against the Broncos. The first was ... also Big Ben, in Week 15. But the Steelers clearly weren't operating at full capacity. Missing all-pro Antonio Brown, and their top two RBs, the Steelers stuttered to just 13 points, hindered by their 2-of-12 third down rate and 0-for-2 on fourth downs. Martavis Bryant had a huge game, including a 40-yard end-around and 154 receiving yards. But Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman combined for 45 yards on 17 rushes (2.65 avg), and Toussaint had a critical fumble in the fourth quarter.

Peyton Manning was good enough, avoiding turnovers and creating a few first downs, in a game Denver could control with defense and special teams. But he's clearly not the same player he was even a couple of years ago, and the Bronco offense was not impressive on Sunday.

Conference Championship Forecasts

One of these matchups was predictable, but how many people foresaw a Cardinals/Panthers NFC Championship before the season began? Both games feature the top two seeds in the conference. Any Brady/Manning matchup is worth tuning in for, but Arizona and Carolina were the two best teams in the league this season, and that's a must-see game as well.

New England Patriots @ Denver Broncos

This will be the 10th AFC Championship Game for Tom Brady, and the fifth for Peyton Manning. It will also represent their fourth head-to-head matchup with a Super Bowl berth on the line. Brady's Patriots won in 2003, Manning's Colts won in 2006, and Manning's Broncos won in 2013.

I think New England ties the series this year. The Bronco offense just doesn't have enough firepower right now. The game is in Denver, and the Broncos won when they met in Week 12, but the Patriots are the healthiest they've been in months. They're more consistent, and more dynamic, and I don't think the Broncos can score on them. It's a low-scoring game, but New England wins by 8.

Arizona Cardinals @ Carolina Panthers

Whoever wins the turnover battle will win the game. The Cardinals looked vulnerable on Saturday, winning a nail-biter that required some luck. The Panthers nearly blew a huge lead in the second half, which was a trend late in the season. They need to play 60 minutes.

Both teams have some injuries in the secondary. The Cardinals lost Tyrann Mathieu at the end of Week 15. The Panthers put Charles Tillman and Bene' Benwikere on injured reserve. That's probably a bigger deal for Carolina — even though Mathieu is by far the most valuable player in the group — because Arizona has so many dangerous receivers, and uses a lot of three- and four-receiver sets. Can the Panthers match up?

Predicting this game is a coin flip, and my coin flips this postseason have been worse than Clete Blakeman's, but my gut says Carolina, so let's say the Panthers win a close one.

Here's a link to last week's column, with wild card summaries and divisional round predictions.

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