All right, so maybe it was a mild overstatement to proclaim that it’s all about the quarterbacks in the NFL playoffs.
That certainly wasn’t the case on Saturday in the divisional round, when Seattle and New England won handily at home in difficult weather without needing heroic contributions from the men under center.
The Seahawks and Patriots used old-fashioned power running to reach their respective conference title games. Our old friend Marshawn Lynch set a Seattle franchise record with 140 beastly rushing yards.
LeGarrette Blount, fresh off a record-breaking performance against the Bills two weeks earlier, tied the Pats’ playoff rushing record with 166 yards and scored four touchdowns. Blount became the first player in NFL history with 125 yards and four TDs in a postseason game.
The Pats won, 43-22, without a TD pass from Tom Brady. Russell Wilson didn’t have a TD pass in the Seahawks’ 23-15 win over the Saints. The Pats ran on 20 of their first 30 plays and finished with 234 yards rushing, more than 100 over their season average. The Seahawks rushed for 174 yards as a team, 37 above their season’s norm.
Somewhere, Vince Lombardi and George Halas are smiling. Imagine that, teams running nearly twice as often as they pass in an NFL playoff game, at a time when the rules are designed to favor gunslinging QBs and uptempo passing attacks for a rapt national TV audience.
This is football for us old school types, who were brought up with the idea that playing in all sorts of weather was one of the sport’s basic charms. Rain, wind or snow, chilling cold or suffocating heat, it didn’t matter. A true champion proved itself in any conditions.
The first two weeks of playoffs were contested mainly in northern climes this year, in rain, wind and cold. It seemed fitting for a year when the Super Bowl will be played in New Jersey, where the prospect of a harsh winter storm has organizers anguishing over the weather.
I’m not rooting for a polar vortex, but if they have to play the Super Bowl in bad weather, so what? Critics say the ultimate game should be played in great weather, so the best team can win. But who said a legitimate champion can be determined only in pristine conditions?
Football tests an athlete’s physical and mental toughness. You find out who holds up best in tough circumstances. Adversity reveals the best in coaches too. Bad weather requires a coach to be more creative and flexible, to adjust and make the most judicious use of his personnel.
No one does that better than the Pats’ Bill Belichick, who turned in another brilliant coaching job against Indy and got the Pats to the AFC Championship Game for the third year in a row (the first time they’ve done that), and a staggering eight times in 13 years.
It’s fashionable to knock Belichick because he hasn’t won a Super Bowl in nine years. But as Bills fans can attest, he’s one of the most brilliant coaches ever to put on a headset. This season might have been the finest coaching job of Belichick’s career.
The Pats are playing without their two best defenders, Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo. They’ve rebuilt nearly their entire receiving corps. Aaron Hernandez was charged with murder. Rob Gronkowski is on injured reserve. They let Wes Welker get away to Denver.
Still, they persevered. The defense got better as young players emerged. Belichick took a chance on Blount, who had fallen out of favor in Tampa, and he had the running game ready in time for winter.
Bills fans could feel a little better about the season finale after watching Blount run over the Colts. In retrospect, the loss two weeks ago in the rain seems like a dress rehearsal. It’s clear that Belichick was getting his running game primed for the challenges to come.
Of course, stopping people has always been Belichick’s greatest strength. Andrew Luck was the talk of the NFL after leading the Colts to a stunning comeback win over the Chiefs in the wild-card round. But the Pats were ready for him Saturday night.
Luck had his moments, but the Pats seemed a step ahead for much of the night. Belichick’s defense undressed Luck, same as it did Peyton Manning when he played his first playoff game for Indy against the Patriots almost 10 years earlier to the day.
The numbers are eerily similar: In January of 2004, Manning went 23 for 47 and threw four interceptions in a 24-14 playoff loss in New England. On Saturday night, Luck went 20 for 41 and threw four picks.
So if Belichick has lost his touch, don’t tell that to Luck and the Colts. The Pats laid out a blueprint for how to win playoff games in the winter elements. Maybe the blueprint has faded in an increasingly pass-happy league. But it still works when you need it.
The playoff win was Belichick’s 19th, tying for second all-time with Don Shula. Tom Landry has the record with 20. Belichick can tie the former Cowboys coach in the AFC title game next weekend in Denver, where the Broncos ran for 133 yards in a 24-17 win over the Chargers on Sunday.
Of course, it will be the latest installment in the Brady-Manning rivalry. The NFL gets a dream quarterback matchup in the AFC finale. They’ll get a battle of rising young QBs, Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson, when the Niners and Seahawks meet for the NFC crown.
The quarterbacks will be the story. But if form holds, the road to Super Bowl 48 – and wintry northern New Jersey – will go by the ground.