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Here is What Have We Learned from the 2015 Playoffs/Divisional Weekend, thanks to the AP Pro 32 for photos & help in this article.
- INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois never bought the notion Indianapolis couldn’t contend for a Super Bowl this season.He had too much faith in his teammates and coaches to accept that perception.
Now, one day after a surprising 24-13 divisional-round win at Denver, the most unlikely entrant of championship weekend finds itself with a seemingly unlikely Super Bowl scenario.
“We expected to be here, even though no one else may have expected us to be here,” Jean Francois said. “We’re looking at accomplishing something, and we haven’t finished it yet.”
Outsiders aren’t the only ones surprised that the Colts are here.
Just last week, team owner Jim Irsay told reporters he didn’t anticipate things going this smoothly or this fast after he released Peyton Manning in 2012 and started over with a rookie quarterback, a first-time head coach and a first-time general manager.
But Andrew Luck has been better than advertised, Indy has embraced Chuck Pagano and his philosophy and general manager Ryan Grigson has put enough pieces in place to win 11 regular-season games in three straight seasons.
The two-time AFC South champs have gone one step deeper in the playoffs each year of the Luck-Pagano-Grigson era, and now they are just one win away from their third Super Bowl trip in eight years.
“You’re excited that you’ve done so much so soon but you also feel the weight. You know where you have to go,” Irsay said. “We know what we have to do as an organization and that’s to get to the top of the mountain. That’s what our goals are as we go into this playoff run.”
Getting there this time will take a monumental effort.
After eliminating Manning on his home turf, the Colts (13-5) face Tom Brady on his home field. Brady is 13-3 at home in the playoffs, 3-0 against the Colts, including last year’s 43-22 divisional-round drubbing.
It’s exactly the road Irsay expected to face when he told The Associated Press last month that Indy’s likely path to a championship would go through Denver and New England, then either Green Bay or Seattle, who will square off in the NFC championship game.
Most thought winning any of those games would be too much to ask of Indy’s young team. The Colts never saw it that way.
“Faith is believing in what you don’t see or can’t see, and the reward for believing is you’ll get to see it,” Pagano said Monday. “We’ve got a bunch of guys in this building that believe in what we’re doing and believe in each other. If you can’t speak it into existence, it’ll never happen.”
The indications that Indy was ahead of schedule were there most of the season.
During a five-game winning streak in September and October, the Colts allowed 75 points and the run defense was on the verge of cracking the top 10. Andrew Luck was throwing for 300 yards on a weekly basis and led the league in touchdown passes thanks in part to an evolving ground game.
Then, late in the season, the Colts defense played well enough to win five of its last six games despite an uncharacteristic rash of turnovers and penalties. In the locker room, players and coaches insisted they were getting “hot” at just the right time.
The critics, meanwhile, complained Indy’s success was largely built against sub-par teams and pointing to their 2-4 mark against playoff-bound teams and blowout losses at Pittsburgh and Dallas and at home against the Patriots (13-4) as evidence the Colts would be eliminated quickly.
Even a convincing 26-10 wild-card round win over Cincinnati didn’t change those thoughts.
Sunday’s win over Denver will help, even though the Colts remain the biggest underdog left in the playoff field.
The Colts don’t care. They’ve got bigger things on their mind.
- SEATTLE (AP) — In the buildup to their playoff opener, the Seattle Seahawks never acknowledged the history of flameouts that followed Super Bowl champions that made the playoffs the following season.Then again, the entire second half of this season has been about the Seahawks putting history in the past and focusing on the present.
“Guys are playing selfless. There aren’t any egos, there aren’t any agendas, and guys just want to do whatever it takes to win,” Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman said.
“If that means making a tackle, then make the tackle; if that means catching the football, we’re going to catch the football. Guys are playing for one another, they don’t care about stats, nor do they care about anything else.”
Seattle used a bevy of big plays in its 31-17 win over Carolina on Saturday night in an NFC divisional playoff game, becoming the first defending Super Bowl champion to win a playoff game since New England in January 2006.
The Seahawks used two of the longest scoring plays in franchise postseason history and a virtuoso passing performance from Russell Wilson to overwhelm the Panthers and advance to the NFC championship game for the second straight season.
Seattle will host Green Bay in the conference title game next Sunday, a rematch of the first game of the regular season when the Seahawks outscored the Packers 19-6 in the second half for a 36-16 victory.
“It’s going to be one of those for the ages,” Wilson said. “You look forward to that, and I definitely look forward to playing at home.”
The biggest play of Seattle’s victory was Kam Chancellor’s 90-yard interception return for a touchdown midway through the fourth quarter that gave the Seahawks a 21-point lead. But that was just part of a night of big plays from the Seahawks, especially in the pass game.
Seattle had six offensive plays of 25 yards or more, five of those coming in the pass game. Jermaine Kearse had the best day of his career with 129 yards receiving, including a 63-yard touchdown where he pulled in the pass from Wilson with one arm while shielding the defender.
Kearse had two other catches of 33 yards, and Luke Willson had receptions of 29 and 25 yards in the fourth quarter, the second for a touchdown.
The five passes of 25 or more yards tied the most in Wilson’s career. He threw for 268 yards, but 199 of those came on third downs where Wilson was a perfect 8 for 8 passing.
His passer rating of 149.2 was the fifth-highest in postseason history and Wilson now has a career passer rating of 109.6 in the playoffs, the highest all time for any QB with at least 150 pass attempts.
“Sometimes I think I’m made for these situations,” Wilson said. “I just try to be prepared for us. When you’re prepared, you’re never scared. You just go.”
One of the big questions with Green Bay revisiting is will the Packers challenge Sherman this time? In the season opener, Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers did not throw to Sherman’s side once, cutting off one-third of the field. Rodgers’ passer rating of 81.5 in the loss was his second-lowest of the season.
That was long before Seattle started on its current run of defensive dominance. Carolina finished with 362 total yards on Saturday, with most of those coming in the fourth quarter with the Panthers trailing. They were the first team to top 300 total yards against the Seahawks since the New York Giants in Week 10.
Carolina was also the first team to score in the fourth quarter against Seattle since Kansas City in Week 11.
“We’re mad about those seven points,” defensive end Cliff Avril said.
Seattle will again have injury concerns going into the NFC championship game. Center Max Unger re-injured his ankle late in the fourth quarter. Saturday was Unger’s first game since Week 11, having missed the final six games of the regular season with a high-ankle sprain.
Cornerback Byron Maxwell appeared on just four special-teams plays after missing practice during the week with an illness.
And Seattle will be without rookie wide receiver Paul Richardson as well after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Richardson had 13 receptions in the final three games of the regular season and one catch on Saturday before being injured landing hard on the turf jumping for a deep throw.
Richardson also tore the ACL in his left knee in college at Colorado.
- DENVER (AP) — The question was simple: Are you coming back next year?As was the case with almost everything Sunday, Peyton Manning didn’t have much of an answer. Or at least not the ones Broncos fans were looking for.
A few minutes after Denver’s 24-13 loss to Indianapolis in the AFC divisional playoffs, the 38-year-old quarterback was noncommittal about returning for the 2015 season, which would be his fourth in the Mile High City.
Asked in his post game news conference where his mindset is for next season, Manning reiterated what he had said earlier to Broncos play-by-play voice Dave Logan: “I didn’t have a great answer for him.”
Asked again, directly, if he could say “I’m coming back,” Manning didn’t budge, saying he was more focused on the disappointment of the loss to his former team.
“I can’t give a simple answer without processing it,” he said. “I can’t say that. I could not say that.”
A marked contrast from last year at the Super Bowl, when Manning committed to coming back for 2014, or as recently as two weeks ago, when he said he “certainly” planned on being back for 2015 if the Broncos would have him.
Until the middle of November, that never looked as if it was in doubt.
Then, came the 22-7 loss to the Rams that motivated the Broncos to revamp their entire offense, turning a unit that broke NFL records for scoring and passing in 2013 into a grind-it-out operation.
Around then, questions percolated about the health of the 17th-year quarterback. In the aftermath of his 26-for-46, 211-yard performance against his former team — his second home playoff loss in the AFC divisional round in three seasons in Denver — Manning was forthcoming about a thigh bruise he suffered in a Dec. 14 game at San Diego. Yes, it lingered, but it wasn’t bad enough to keep him out of this one.
“Nothing more to it than that,” he said. “And I … felt good with it coming into the day.”
If he’s not injured, that leaves only one obvious explanation for the deterioration of his game.
He’s getting old. Fast.
Stats tell part of the story. Since the Rams game, his quarterback rating has been 84.6, about 13 points below his career average.
Pictures do, too. Even for a quarterback who can’t run, it was hard watching him roll out in the third quarter, then pass up the run and instead throw an incompletion despite a 20-yard gap between him and any defender on a third-and-5.
“Didn’t play well enough today and didn’t play well enough consistently in the second half of the season, especially in the games we lost,” Manning said.
His unwillingness to commit made coach John Fox’s same stance behind the same podium a few minutes earlier seem more understandable.
Asked about a pregame report that he could be available if the Broncos suffered a loss Sunday, Fox hardly shot it down.
“I don’t make those decisions,” he said. “I don’t control that. My intentions are to be a Denver Bronco and have been since I got here.”
It should make Monday, and Tuesday and beyond interesting at Broncos headquarters, where executive vice president John Elway will be meeting with everyone, figuring out whether he needs to go to the “Plan B” that he readily admitted he didn’t have when he threw all his chips in with Manning in the 2012 offseason.
The goal was Super Bowl titles. Instead, Manning is 2-3 in the playoffs with Denver.
Because of uncertainty about his comeback from multiple neck surgeries, Manning didn’t receive a signing bonus when he came to Denver, so the cost of him leaving would be negligible and would free up the $38 million he stands to make over the next two seasons.
Still, Elway spent $60 million in guaranteed money last offseason on long-term contracts to upgrade his defense, which he said was the missing piece after Denver’s 43-8 loss to the Seahawks last season in the Super Bowl.
The idea — one Elway reiterated to Manning at midseason when things started going south — was that the quarterback shouldn’t have to do it all himself.
But the Broncos can’t do it when he’s not playing well, either. And so, it’s time for some soul searching, which for Manning will begin Monday.
It may not be pretty.
“I’ve always taken a pretty accurate look and fair evaluation of myself,” he said. “I think I’m as honest with myself as anybody else is and probably as critical of myself as anybody else is.”
- IRVING, Texas (AP) — DeMarco Murray had no interest in discussing his future with the Dallas Cowboys a day after a division-round loss to Green Bay.Dez Bryant didn’t even show up when the locker room was open to reporters Monday, far from unexpected when he knew the primary topic would be his huge catch that could have set up a late touchdown getting reversed on replay in a 26-21 defeat. Not to mention whether he’ll be back.
The dominant question of the offseason — along with how soon coach Jason Garrett gets a new contract — will be the status of the NFL rushing leader in Murray and the league’s top producer of receiving touchdowns in Bryant.
Both are free agents, and both would take a big chunk of a salary cap that’s still a little tight for the Cowboys even after dumping franchise sacks leader DeMarcus Ware last year.
“I’m not worried about my future,” Murray said shortly after offering a terse “I don’t know” to the question of whether he would be back. “I just lost a big game, the biggest game of my life. Just not worried about it right now. Just relax with my family and get away from it for a little bit.”
Bryant won’t be able to get away from questions about the catch that wasn’t for a long time, maybe until he gets past the divisional round, if that ever happens. It was a play of such magnitude, even defensive players were getting questions about whether it was a catch, and whether the rule should change.
Of course the Cowboys are going to say it was a catch, but several were quick to add that there were other opportunities to get the storied franchise to an NFC championship game for the first time in 19 years. The longest previous gap between conference title games was nine years.
“I looked at it over and over,” defensive end Jeremy Mincey said. “It was definitely frustrating. But it shouldn’t have even came down to one play. We missed some key tackles and that’s what hurt us.”
A season that began with owner Jerry Jones tamping down expectations by telling thousands of fans at a kickoff luncheon that his team faced an “uphill battle” ended with the first playoff berth — and postseason victory — since 2009.
“It didn’t matter what anyone else had to say outside of these walls,” said cornerback Brandon Carr, who didn’t have an interception for the first time in his career and could be asked to take a pay cut if he wants to return.
“It was motivating, entertaining at times. We had a mission and task at hand. Although it was a good season, we still feel like we had much more to prove. We weren’t done with our journey.”
Jones may have a hard time keeping play-caller Scott Linehan, a catalyst for Murray’s huge season, and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli. The former Detroit coach made the Cowboys competitive with several bargain-basement pieces, and Dallas was much better than the league’s worst defense from a year ago.
“We have a special thing going with all the pieces that are in this building right now,” Carr said. “We have something special brewing and the chemistry’s definitely coming around and you can see it on the field.”
Tony Romo was still standing at the end of a season that started with the 34-year-old quarterback coming off back surgery. He missed a game with another back injury, and played through a left knee injury in the loss to the Packers.
Bryant is likely to rejoin Romo because the Cowboys can use the franchise tag on him at least once if they can’t agree on a long-term deal. If Murray returns as well, Romo will also have trusty tight end Jason Witten and a young offensive line considered one of the best in the league.
“You just don’t know how many opportunities like this will come around,” Romo said after the game. “That is the hardest part. You just don’t know. You know everything you had to do to get to this point and now you have to do it again.”