What Have We Learned From Divisional Weekend of the 2016 NFL Playoffs

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Bruce Arians

Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians celebrates after an NFL divisional playoff football game against the Green Bay Packers, Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016, in Glendale, Ariz. The Cardinals won 26-20 in overtime. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Here is What Have We Learned from Divisional Weekend of the 2016 NFL Playoffs, thanks to the AP Pro 32 for photos & help in this article.

Ups

  • After wild victory, Cardinals’ Coach Bruce Arians eyes tough Panthers– His first playoff victory as an NFL head coach behind him, Arizona’s Bruce Arians turned his attention to Carolina and the challenge of facing the powerful Panthers on the road.”It’s kind of like back in college, getting ready for the wishbone,” Arians said on Monday.

    “You don’t see the quarterback in this league run (with that) power very often. So they give you so many different, unique sets that you have to account for.”

    Basically, a team has to defend two running backs, and trying to tackle Cam Newton, Arians said, is like trying to take down a tight end.

    Plus Newton is “throwing the ball down the field extremely accurately right now, and (with) a lot of confidence,” Arians said.

    Arians called Newton “a very special guy and the things you can do with him, because he’s so big and strong, you don’t have to worry about getting hurt running the football with him.”

    The Cardinals plan a 30-play walk-through on Tuesday, then a regular practice schedule the next three days in advance of Sunday’s NFC championship game.

    Asked what impressed him most about the Panthers’ 31-24 victory over Seattle on Sunday, Arians said, “how fast they started — the passion, the energy they came out with.”

    Carolina took a 31-0 halftime lead, but had to hold off a Seahawks’ second-half surge.

    The Cardinals, meanwhile, persevered through a bizarre series of events to pull out a 26-20 overtime victory over Green Bay on Saturday night, setting up a matchup of the top two seeds in the NFC this weekend.

    Aaron Rodgers completed what amounted to two desperation passes to Jeff Janis in the final minute, one a 60-yard gain on fourth-and-20 from the Packers 4-yard line, followed by a 41-yarder to tie the game on the final play of regulation.

    Then came the coin flip, repeated because it didn’t flip the first time, and Arizona won the toss.

    “Forty-five or whatever, 50 years, I’ve been doing it, I ain’t never seen it never flip,” Arians said.

    Larry Fitzgerald took a short pass and bolted downfield for a 75-yard gain on the first play of overtime, then scored two plays later on a 5-yard shovel pass from Carson Palmer to give Arizona the win.

    Palmer and Newton will present a contrast in styles.

    “One’s a classic drop-back player from the pocket,” Arians said. “The other is a phenomenal athlete who can throw the football.”

    Palmer got the first playoff victory of his 13-year NFL career, but he wasn’t sharp much of the night.

    Arians said he and his quarterback learned “not to be conservative in the first half when you’re picking your plays.”

    The coach allows Palmer to pick a series of favorite plays to run early in every game plan.

    “We talked about it,” Arians said. “This was a game where he picked a lot of shorter completions early, instead of going for them like we normally do. I think that was part of ‘I don’t want to screw this up.’ Now that we don’t have to worry about doing that anymore, we can go back to being ourselves.”

    For the second game in a row, the Cardinals had trouble running the ball, gaining just 40 yards on 19 attempts. Arians put the blame on the offensive line, saying there weren’t many holes for David Johnson to run through.

    Arians knows all about the concerns that have been expressed about the condition of the playing field at Carolina, but he was having none of it.

    “I don’t care if we’re playing in a parking lot,” he said. “It’s the championship — be aware of it and have the proper shoes.”

    Notes: Arians said there were no injuries of significance in the Green Bay game. … The Cardinals are 7-1 on the road this season. … Fitzgerald’s 176 yards receiving are a franchise postseason record, breaking the record of 166 he set at Carolina in the divisional round of the 2008 season.

  •  Peyton Manning & Tom Brady to meet in AFC championship game for the 4th time– The last time Tom Brady and the New England Patriots came to Denver, Peyton Manning watched the game on television from inside the locker room.Not next Sunday, though. The Broncos quarterback will take in his customary spot in the huddle.

    Manning meets Brady for a 17th time — with a trip to Super Bowl 50 at stake.

    Perhaps it’s only fitting these two quarterbacks meet in the AFC title game, since Manning didn’t get to suit up against New England on Nov. 29 because of a foot injury. That game was a thriller, too, with Brock Osweiler leading the Broncos to a 30-24 overtime victory.

    Manning’s foot is healed — at least as healed as it’s going to get for now — and he guided the Broncos to a 23-16 win over Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday.

    Brady is still vintage Brady, passing, bootlegging and QB sneaking the Super Bowl champion Patriots past the Chiefs on Saturday and into the AFC title game for a fifth straight season.

    Brady’s Patriots opened as a 3 1/2-point favorite over Manning’s Broncos.

    Manning didn’t want to start reflecting on the rivalry with Brady right away. “We’ll deal with that on Wednesday,” he said.

    Manning is now 12-13 in the playoffs over his career. This one, though, possibly means a little more, given his comeback from a foot ailment that sidelined him for six weeks.

    “It’s been a unique season, a lot of new things have happened this season, kind of like tonight,” said Manning, who replaced Osweiler in the season finale, leading the Broncos to a win over San Diego to secure the No. 1 seed. “We stayed patient tonight. We never really got frustrated and that served us well tonight and it served me well this season.”

    Denver surrendered 339 yards passing to Roethlisberger, who entered the game with a sore shoulder. The challenge doesn’t get any easier.

    Brady has long gotten the better of Manning, who is 5-11 lifetime against his counterpart, but 2-2 in the playoffs, including a win two years ago in this stadium.

    “I’m honored to be a part of it and I’m looking forward to playing next week in the AFC championship,” Manning said.

    But this is hardly the same Manning anymore. He doesn’t rely on his arm nearly as much as his ability to decipher schemes. He also leans heavily on the running game.

    And Denver’s top-ranked defense, too.

    “Our defense is guiding us. Let’s make that clear. They played great all season,” Manning said. “They were dominant today against a high-powered offense.”

    Manning and Brady were paired on this stage following the 2013 season, when the Broncos held on for a 26-16 to advance to the Super Bowl.

    It was a game that may be best remembered for a hit by Wes Welker on Aqib Talib, which knocked the then-Patriots cornerback out of the game and opened up things for Manning, who threw for 400 yards that afternoon.

    Talib is with the Broncos now and a big reason for the success of the defense.

    “We’ve had a lot of different players contribute to our success when we’ve been successful,” Broncos coach Gary Kubiak said. “I told them it would take them all today. It sure did. It will continue to take all of us as we move forward.”

    Brady has one of his security blankets back in Julian Edelman, who returned from a broken foot on Saturday to help the Patriots beat Kansas City. Of course, Brady also has tight end Rob Gronkowski.

    “They’re one of the best teams in the AFC,” Broncos linebacker Von Miller said. “Let’s go out and play and see who wants the Super Bowl.”

  • Panthers to meet Cardinals in NFC championship game– Cam Newton. Larry Fitzgerald.Two of the biggest stars playing for the two highest scoring teams with a Super Bowl berth on the line.

    Welcome to the NFC championship game — the Arizona Cardinals and Carolina Panthers next Sunday in Charlotte, North Carolina.

    The Panthers held on to beat the Seattle Seahawks 31-24 on Sunday, knocking the two-time defending NFC champs out of the postseason with their 12th straight home win.

    Now they’ll host the NFC championship game for the first time in franchise history.

    “To get something that you’ve never got, you have to do something that you’ve never done,” Newton said of the team’s quest to win its first Super Bowl.

    The Cardinals (14-3) beat the Green Bay Packers 26-20 in overtime on Saturday night to advance.

    The Panthers and Cardinals have not played this season, but this has the potential to be a high-scoring matchup. The Panthers averaged more than 31 points this season and the Cardinals were a close second at 30.5.

    Fitzgerald had eight catches for 176 yards and a touchdown in the win over the Packers, but Carson Palmer struggled most of the game with inaccurate passes.

    “It’s easy to dwell on (bad plays),” said Palmer, who like Newton is a former No. 1 pick and Heisman Trophy winner. “But the experience I have, I’ve learned from a lot of opportunities and situations. You’ve got to forget about it and move on. There is no other thought.”

    Newton said the key will be to not make mistakes and, if the team gets a lead, to not let off the gas.

    “We were conservative, but at the end of the day, you have to trust coaching,” Newton said. “We had a great plan coming in. We just got to keep putting it back together.

    “We’re getting a lot of guys back, watch this film, get better on it and get ready for Arizona.”

    Arizona won in its only other NFC championship game appearance in 2008 before losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers 27-23 in the Super Bowl.

    It is Carolina’s fourth appearance in the NFC title game, but first since 2005. The Panthers are 1-2 in their previous three appearances, reaching the Super Bowl in 2003 before losing 32-29 on a late field goal to the New England Patriots.

    “It’s pretty special, it’s hard to do,” tight end Greg Olsen said of hosting the game. “When you’re the No. 1 seed coming off the regular season your destiny is in your own hands and we took care of business against what has been the pinnacle of the NFC the last few years, so this was a big step forward as an organization.”

    This is the third time since 2008 the Panthers have hosted the Cardinals in a playoff game.

    The Cardinals upset Jake Delhomme and the No. 2-seeded Panthers 33-13 in the divisional playoffs in 2008. The Panthers got some measure of revenge last year when they defeated the Cardinals 27-16 in the wild-card round last season, although Arizona was on its fourth quarterback of the season in Ryan Lindley.

    “A lot of us wouldn’t mind going back there to Carolina and playing those guys again since they beat us last year when we had a lot of injuries,” Cardinals cornerback Justin Bethel said.

    If the game is close, Olsen said the Panthers are well prepared.

    “I guess we’re used to it — I know we have some strong tickers,” Olsen said. “We have been through some drama and some stress, but we have a lot of character in this room and guys who understand what it means for the Panthers and play for one another. We just have to play it until the end.”

Middle

  • The Rams return to Los Angeles & is once again the LA Rams– The Rams are moving back to Los Angeles, maybe with company.The San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders might end up staying put, although the leadership of both teams didn’t come close to making that commitment Tuesday night. Or one of them could be headed to L.A., too.

    A long day of votes and re-votes ended with 30 of 32 NFL owners approving Rams owner Stan Kroenke’s ambitious plan to move his team from St. Louis to the site of the old Hollywood Park racetrack in Inglewood, California, about 10 miles from downtown LA. The Chargers have a yearlong option to join the Rams, followed by the Raiders if the San Diego franchise declines.

    The Raiders and Chargers had a competing proposal to share a new stadium in nearby Carson, but neither option got the 24 votes needed for approval. After another negotiating session in the afternoon, Kroenke’s $1.8 billion project prevailed.

    The decision ends the NFL’s 21-year absence from the nation’s second-largest media market.

    “I often said over those 21 years what we need is a great facility,” Commissioner Roger Goodell said at a news conference about 11 hours after the meetings began. “I think what happened over the last years is we had two outstanding opportunities, both of these stadium projects were outstanding.”

    Chargers chairman Dean Spanos was asked if he intended to play in Los Angeles in 2016.

    “I’m going to take a day off tomorrow I think,” Spanos said. “This has really been excruciating for everyone. It’s very difficult to say right now I’m going to do this or do that.”

    Oakland is still in debt from a renovation 20 years ago when the Raiders moved back from Los Angeles. City officials have said they won’t seek help from taxpayers with a new stadium, and asked the NFL for more time to develop a project in a response to the Raiders’ relocation plan. The NFL gave it to them.

    “We’ll see where the Raider nation ends up here,” said owner Mark Davis, who was equally noncommittal in comments to reporters outside the news conference. “We’ll be working really hard to find us a home. So for our fans and everything else, don’t feel bad. We’ll get it right.”

    Ray Perez, a 28-year-old Raiders fan from Sacramento who goes by the moniker Dr. Death, traveled to the Houston meeting in his usual Black Hole garb and was cautiously optimistic after hearing the news.

    “I will not be completely, fully thrilled until the ink dries on paper and we know we’re staying in Oakland in a new stadium,” Perez said. “I’m very happy, very happy. But I’m not going to be overjoyed until we sign a stadium deal to keep the Raiders in Oakland with our own stadium.”

    The Chargers play 120 miles south of Inglewood in aging Qualcomm Stadium. The Raiders played in Los Angeles from 1982-94 and currently split a facility with baseball’s Athletics, the last remaining combination stadium.

    The Rams — based in the LA area from 1946-94 — will likely have a temporary home at the Los Angeles Coliseum until the new stadium is ready in 2019. It’s unclear where the Chargers would play if they move.

    San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer says the city and county will negotiate with the Chargers, but “are not interested in a charade by the Chargers if they continue to pursue Los Angeles.”

    St. Louis had a plan for an open-air, $1.1 billion stadium along the Mississippi River north of the Gateway Arch to replace the Edward Jones Dome. But Kroenke mostly ignored the city’s overtures, and Goodell said the requirement of at least $200 million from the NFL was double what league policy allowed.

    Kroenke also has said St. Louis’ economy makes it difficult for an NFL franchise to thrive there.

    “We understand the emotions involved of our fans,” he said. “We made a decision and worked long and hard at the various alternatives. When they didn’t succeed, we worked this one to this point.”

    The last NFL franchise to move was the Houston Oilers — led by current Rams coach and California native Jeff Fisher — to Tennessee in 1997. The Raiders and Rams both left Los Angeles after the 1994 season.

    “It is troubling that the league would allow for the relocation of a team when a home market has worked in good faith and presented a strong and viable proposal,” Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said. “We will review the NFL’s decision thoroughly before determining what next steps to take.”

    Goodell offered the first signal the NFL might be intent on making a decision it delayed six weeks earlier in the Dallas area. Days before the Houston meeting, he issued a report to all 32 teams that deemed the venues in all three existing cities inadequate and questioned the stadium proposals.

    The relocation agreement gives the Chargers and Raiders $100 million each if they build new stadiums in their current markets, but a stadium plan is required within a year.

    The Rams also have to wait at least a year to negotiate naming rights on the new stadium unless they reach a deal with a second team before then.

    “It’s been going on for like two years that we’ve been working on this,” said Houston owner Bob McNair, who beat out Los Angeles in a bid for an expansion franchise that debuted in 2002. “We’re quite pleased with the outcome and look forward to the development of a real NFL campus out in Los Angeles.”

 Downs

  • Chiefs head into offseason with cornerstones in question– When they took over the Chiefs four years ago, general manager John Dorsey and coach Andy Reid had the luxury of several cornerstones upon which to rebuild the ailing organization.Those cornerstones could soon be playing elsewhere. Or not at all.

    After a season-ending 27-20 defeat in New England on Saturday that snapped Kansas City’s franchise-record 11-game win streak, defensive stalwarts such as linebackers Tamba Hali and Derrick Johnson and safeties Eric Berry and Husain Abdullah are due to become free agents.

    So are cornerback Sean Smith, defensive tackles Mike DeVito and Jaye Howard, offensive linemen Jeff Allen and Donald Stephenson, and even backup quarterback Chase Daniel.

    “I can’t tell you I look at the list and it shocks me,” Reid said. “That’s not where I am with it. I know some of these guys are going to return. That’s how it rolls. Which ones and how it works into the (salary) cap and all that, that’s Dorsey’s baby there”

    Reid said that Dorsey is already at work on the situation, even though free agency doesn’t begin until March. But not all of the decisions will be entirely up to him.

    Here are the biggest free-agency situations looming this offseason:

    HALI TO RETIRE? The linebacker said after Saturday’s game he will spend some time contemplating his future. He dealt with swelling in his knees much of the season, and rarely practiced. After more than a decade as one of the game’s top pass rushers, he could ultimately decide to call it quits.

    But if he does come back, it would likely be with Kansas City. Hali values the organization that drafted him so much that he willingly restructured his deal to remain with it this season.

    “I’m proud of the fact that we call ourselves family,” he said. “I’m proud of the family. We rally and it’s unfortunate to end this way, but it’s a season that you can remember.”

    JOHNSON’S RETURN: One of the only players to be with the Chiefs longer than Hali is Johnson, who returned from a season-ending Achilles tendon injury to prove he’s still among the NFL’s best. The 33-year-old linebacker has said many times he hopes to finish his career in Kansas City.

    CORNERBACK CONUNDRUM: The 28-year-old Smith has become a standout in the secondary, a physical cornerback who perfectly fits the man-to-man defense of coordinator Bob Sutton. Smith was one of the first notable free agents to sign when Dorsey and Reid took over, and has professed his love for the club. Then again, physical cornerbacks in their prime demand a hefty price tag.

    OTHER BIG NAMES: Also demanding hefty price tags are run-stuffing defensive tackles like Howard, who earned a base salary of $660,000 during a breakout season. And versatile offensive linemen such as Allen, who can play guard or tackle and later this season finally started to show some of the mean streak Reid values so much. Kansas City needs to retain depth along both of its lines.

    BERRY STRONG: Of all the free agent situations, Berry’s is the most intriguing.

    The fifth overall pick of Kansas City in 2010, Berry has been among the game’s best safeties for years. But his relationship with the organization reached a different plateau this past year, when the Chiefs stood by him during his diagnosis, treatment and recovery from lymphoma.

    Just months after his final round of treatment, Berry returned to the practice field, and he went on to have one of the best seasons of his career — he was voted an All-Pro for the second time.

    “Obviously,” Berry replied, when asked if he wants to return to the Chiefs. “This is family. At the same time, we’ll sit down and talk about it when we talk about it. But right now I’m just thankful for my teammates, my coaches and everybody that has something to do with me being back on the field this year. This is something special. Like I said, we’ll talk about it.”

    Reid declined to address the pending free agents specifically, but he did make an exception for Berry, another sign that their relationship has transcended the football field.

    “I don’t want to get into ranking the guys, you can figure all that out,” Reid said. “I think he wants to be here. We want him to be here. The agents and our people need to get with him, they’ll deal with all that, work through all that. But I like Eric Berry. I can tell you, I love Eric Berry.”

  • What happens with Marshawn Lynch next in Seattle– Marshawn Lynch strolled through the locker room he’s called home for most of the past six seasons on Monday followed closely by a pack of cameras.Whether this was Lynch’s final time in the Seattle Seahawks locker room remains to be determined.

    “I don’t know how that’s going to go,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said on Monday. “I don’t know how any of these guys are going to go right now. I don’t know.”

    The future of Lynch in Seattle is one of the big questions the Seahawks face entering the offseason.

    After an injury-filled season where Lynch played in just seven regular-season games, the Seahawks must determine whether it’s time to move on or keep “Beast Mode” around for another season at a hefty cost.

    All signs point to the marriage ending, especially with Lynch costing $11.5 million against Seattle’s salary cap for the 2016 season if he returns.

    But no one was willing to go so far as make declarative statements one day after Seattle’s season ended in a 31-24 loss to Carolina in the NFC divisional playoff game.

    “We’ll figure it out. It depends on how he comes back and how he works at it and all that kind of stuff,” Carroll said. “He had a difficult year physically.”

    Lynch was limited to just 111 carries and 417 yards in the regular season because of a hamstring injury early in the season and abdominal surgery in late November that sidelined him for the final seven games of the regular season.

    Lynch appeared ready to return for the NFC wild-card game at Minnesota, but backed out of making the trip to Minneapolis on the Friday before the game telling the team he didn’t think he could play.

    Lynch returned for Sunday’s game at Carolina, but was barely a factor in the run game with Seattle quickly falling behind 14-0 and trailing 31-0 at halftime. Lynch had six carries for 20 yards and caught two passes.

    While Lynch was out, rookie Thomas Rawls emerged as a potential replacement long term. Rawls led Seattle with 890 yards rushing in the regular season and averaged 5.6 yards per carry before suffering a broken ankle in Week 14 at Baltimore. Rawls said Monday he’ll be out of his cast in the next few weeks.

    “I let things work out the way that they work out,” Rawls said. “Everything is out of my control. What I can control is going out there and preparing, and showing what I can do. Everything thing else is for the guys upstairs.”

  • Steelers running back Fitzgerald Toussaint fumble costs the Steelers in Denver– Ben Roethlisberger folded himself into the chair next to running back Fitz Toussaint in the locker room, leaned in for a 60-second conversation, and when it was over, Big Ben gave the backup to the backup two reassuring slaps on the shoulder.Roethlisberger told the runner it wasn’t his fault the Steelers lost Sunday.

    But not even Big Ben could convince Toussaint it was true.

    “I have to protect the ball. There’s no excuse for that,” he said.

    His fumble, with 9:52 left in the fourth quarter, was the only turnover of the day and it led to Denver’s only touchdown of the day — the go-ahead score with 3 minutes left that sparked the Broncos to a 23-16 victory.

    Denver moves on to the AFC title game. Pittsburgh goes home.

    The Steelers (11-7) were ahead by one and in scoring range when Broncos cornerback Bradley Roby punched the ball out of Toussaint’s hand as he was going to the ground. DeMarcus Ware recovered it.

    Over the next 6:52, Peyton Manning led the Broncos on a methodical, 65-yard march — their first drive of the day inside the Pittsburgh 10. It all played out like a slow-moving nightmare to the second-year player, promoted from the practice squad in November, with the injuries piling up.

    “Over and over in my head, kept thinking, I could’ve protected the ball a little more,” Toussaint said of his thoughts during Denver’s go-ahead drive. “Obviously, they made a great play. You’ve got to give them credit, but in that situation, I put it on myself.”

    Toussaint is a third-stringer, who came into the game with a grand total of 100 yards in the 2015 regular and postseason combined. He almost certainly wouldn’t have been carrying the ball in a pressure situation like that had Pittsburgh’s starter, DeAngelo Williams, not been out with a foot injury.

    Receiver Antonio Brown was out, too, courtesy of Vontaze Burfict’s hit to his head in last week’s wild-card playoff win over Cincinnati.

    And Roethlisberger was playing with a banged-up shoulder, also thanks to Burfict, who landed on the QB hard, about an hour before he ended Brown’s season.

    It’s been that kind of season for the Steelers — filled with injuries, stops and starts, pockets of unstoppable offense, inexplicable letdowns and, of course, a never-ending dose of injuries to top players.

    Yet for 3½ quarters, this game felt like Pittsburgh’s.

    Roethlisberger, who finished with 339 yards, connected with his second-tier receivers (mostly Martavis Bryant, who caught nine passes for 154 yards) for three plays of 35 yards or more, several of them targeting Roby. The defense kept Denver out of the end zone. The Steelers avoided turnovers.

    Toussaint, while not spectacular, was part of the success. His plunge in from a yard gave Pittsburgh a 7-6 lead in the first quarter and the Steelers played with the lead most of the game.

    “We watched TV and heard all the people saying, no team has won a postseason game without their leading receiver and their leading rusher,” Steelers offensive lineman David DeCastro said. “They said we didn’t have a chance. We knew they were counting us out.”

    The upset-in-the-making turned into something else after Roby made his play.

    In the end, a team that milked more out of the season than could be reasonably expected came up a turnover and a touchdown short.

    “Bottom line, you lose the turnover battle in a hostile environment against good people and it’s going to cost you,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “And it cost us today.”

    Asked about coming close and making it this far, Tomlin cut off the question: “We’re not into that.”

    Back in the locker room, Roethlisberger tried to convince the running back that this loss wasn’t his fault.

    It’s a message that will sink in on the flight home, and over the next few weeks, while the bumps and bruises are healing. But as he slowly got dressed Sunday evening, Toussaint was still feeling the pain.

    “I hate losing,” he said. “I definitely hate not holding onto the football. Especially when it’s in a position like that.”

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