NFL Playoffs Developing Storylines: Divisional Round and Conference Championships

Tom Brady Andrew Luck

In what was the final week during which a team played its first playoff game of the season, the field of teams was quickly cut in half, eliminating four of the last eight franchises vying for the Lombardi Trophy. Both top seeds advanced on Saturday, allowing themselves a relatively relaxing Sunday, waiting to see which team would pay them a visit the following week.

Like the Wild Card Round, the Divisional Round included no shortage of drama, controversy and, therefore, storylines. There were crucial decisions made by referees that would divide the viewing public, as well as baffling twists of gameplans that most people never knew were possible. There was a changing of the guard, and the confirmation of what aspect of play appears to be most critical to postseason success. Through it all, we move forward, charging towards the only storyline that ultimately matters – which team gets to be crowned Super Bowl Championship.

In a short 120 minutes of football, the league’s remaining teams will be cut in half again. Down to two. The ending of the story is near.

Cowboys again at center of officiating controversy.

It’s always something with the Cowboys, isn’t it? Last week, Dallas caught a break in the fourth quarter of its win against Detroit when the Cowboys were not flagged for what could have been two penalties on a critical play that ultimately aided in their victory. This week, Dallas was on the receiving end of an officiating controversy.

The difference, however, is that Detroit’s argument about its non-penalty was valid. Dallas can complain about the Dez Bryant catch that was eventually ruled an ‘incomplete pass,’ but the correct ruling on the field was made.

For anyone who has ever caught anything – a football, a roll of paper towels, a cold – there is an instantaneous moment when possession is gained. It is at this time when the catch is complete. Every pair of eyeballs watching Dez Bryant snare the football from the sky recognized when this occurred. By the laws of common sense, experience, and all things catch-related, the pass was a completion.

By the laws of the National Football League, it wasn’t.

Plain and simple, the rule is put in place to differentiate between opinion and fact. Just because everyone innately knows that Dez Bryant indeed caught the football does not mean that the conclusion was drawn completely objectively. Without a black-and-white set of rules – in this case, the clear-cut procedure that includes going to the ground without allowing the ball to be dislodged via contact with the ground – interpretation would have otherwise been used. While the rule fails to capture the true nature of a catch and should clearly be refined, it does remove any level of opinion from the decision.

Ask the Lions if they would have liked a rule that avoided a ‘judgement call’ last week.

Ravens take exception to Patriots’ unconventional offensive gameplan.

There is only one question that can be asked in response to the Baltimore Ravens’ displeasure about the Patriots’ offensive alignments in the Division Round: was it legal? Once the answer was ‘yes,’ the Ravens were left shouting into the wind.

New England employed an unusual tactic of intentionally misplacing ineligible and eligible receivers, and the Ravens were not only beaten by the move, but infuriated by it. After the game, Ravens’ head coach Jim Harbaugh complained that the team should have had time to identify which players were actually eligible so that they could properly defend the play.


Football is a beautiful, ongoing chess match. Sometimes, unorthodox tactics are needed to create opportunities where they otherwise may not exist. As the long as the move is legal, the fact is that deceiving is not a negative. In fact, it should be applauded.

Why was there no outcry when wide receiver Julian Edelman threw a touchdown pass to Danny Amendola? It obviously couldn’t be because of lack of deception, as the play is designed literally to deceive the defense into thinking the receiver wouldn’t throw the ball. It must simply be because the double pass has been done before. The trick involving the ineligible receivers is a lot more rare and, therefore, not as widely accepted.

That’s also why it was such an impressive play design, making the Ravens look foolish both during and after the game.

Conference Championship games include best possible pairings.

One week into the season, the Packers were pronounced ‘dead’ after an apparent murder in Seattle at the hands of the “team that would repeat as champions.” Opening Night might as well have been played in a different era.

As the season developed and the Seahawks began to return to the form of last year’s team, the Packers tore through the NFC, capturing every accolade possible except the ability to recover from their Week 1 loss in Seattle. Well then, could there possibly exist a better rematch for the NFC Championship Game? The only imperfection on the best possible combination of teams is the status of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. His calf injury downgrades the game slightly.

The AFC Championship Game was guaranteed an excellent matchup regardless of outcome once the Divisional Round field was set. Any combination of Flacco, Manning, Brady, and Luck would have provided must-watch television, with the appeal of another Manning and Brady showdown topping the charts. However, gauging the performances of Luck and Manning head-to-head, it may be for the best that Luck will continue playing.

In fact, Andrew Luck beating Peyton Manning was a makeshift ‘passing of the guard’ from the former Indianapolis Colts superstar to the next. Beating Tom Brady may do the same for the AFC title, as well.

Peyton Manning may have played his last game in the National Football League.

It wasn’t just the home loss in the Divisional Round of the playoffs that sent rumors flying about the possibility of Peyton Manning retiring, but rather the obvious decline in the superstar’s game over the past handful of weeks. Following the game, questions about Manning’s future arose almost instantaneously, fueled by yet another first-game exit from the postseason, and perhaps, none more defining than what had just unfolded.

Manning, typically proficient at downplaying fodder, was unable to hide his indecision when first asked about his plans for the future. Naturally, this did little to squash the debate.

Questions of Manning’s future arose at the conclusion of last season, as well, when the Broncos were blasted by the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII. There was a different aura surrounding the season’s finale, however, as Manning and the Broncos had looked stellar leading into what was eventually a lopsided loss. Therefore, there was a valid belief that the team was simply over-matched by a fantastic Seahawks squad and that the loss, while difficult to accept, was a confined disaster. Under that premise, it was unlikely Manning would walk away from the game without an opportunity to alter his final image.

This time, it’s different.

Manning’s struggles since Thanksgiving had been well-documented, and fit into a pattern that had developed over his illustrious career. Concerns about his potential to rebound in the playoffs were prevalent and ultimately justified. This was not the same case as last year, when the drop-off occurred without warning. All eyes were on Peyton Manning in the playoffs, and neither direction would have been a surprise.

When Manning went down, it became painfully clear that he may not be able to get back up.

Quarterbacks carrying teams to deep playoff runs.

As the old saying goes, ‘defense wins championships.’ Note the word ‘old.’

Maybe in the years prior to the rules assisting in the game being more offense-centered it was true that a stout defense was one of the key ingredients for a Super Bowl Champion, but the tide has shifted heavily in the direction of quarterbacks. In the past 11 Super Bowls, the winning quarterbacks were the following: Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Joe Flacco, and Russell Wilson. Despite what happened on the defensive side of the ball, the winning teams all had the same common thread – a quarterback who has proven to be excellent at times. In each of these cases, the ‘time’ during which excellence prevailed was integral to the team’s championship.

This season, there is a guarantee that the trend will continue, as either Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, or Russell Wilson will win another Super Bowl, or Andrew Luck, arguably with the brightest future of all, will win his first. If compiling a list of ten active quarterbacks most trusted to win a playoff game, each of those four names should appear. Conversely, leading some of the teams ousted from the playoffs in the past two weeks were Cam Newton, Andy Dalton, and Ryan Lindley.

Defense is responsible for keeping games close and ensuring every game is ‘winnable,’ but the quarterbacks, especially in the postseason, are the ones who deliver the fatal blow.

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Mario Mergola
Mario Mergola is a writer, avid sports fan, former ESPN Radio producer, husband, and father who specializes in finding the hidden gems of the less-explored option. Follow @MarioMergola