All four divisional playoff games exceeded fans' expectations. That rarely happens, mainly because of all the pre-game hype from the media, but these games really had something for everyone. The four winning quarterbacks (five, really, since the Chargers needed two) were nothing short of spectacular. Tom Brady, Brett Favre, Philip Rivers, Billy Volek and Eli Manning combined to complete 79 percent of their passes (73-of-92) for 11 touchdowns and just one interception. All four starters had a passer rating of at least 132.
Brady completed 26 of 28 passes -- the completion rate of 92.9 percent is an NFL record for any game, regular-season or playoffs (minimum 20 attempts) -- and he easily could have completed 100 percent if not for two drops. Brett Favre extended his record for consecutive post-season games with at least one TD pass to 17. As for Eli Manning and Philip Rivers -- the first and fourth picks, respectively, in the 2004 draft -- all they did was lead their teams to unlikely road playoff wins. While the extraordinary quarterback play was evident, I thought the coaching performances were equally masterful in all four games. Here's a look at what I mean:
It's not uncommon for playoff teams -- especially the ones that had a bye -- to unveil something new in the postseason. And after the Packers fell behind 14-0 in the first 4:11 of the game, they went to an offensive formation I've never seen before. They had a running back and two fullbacks in the game. It wasn't exactly a "full-house backfield" -- Ryan Grant lined up in an I-formation, but the two fullbacks were split off, just a little behind the tackles. Just to be sure, I called Cowboys linebackers coach Paul Pasqualoni -- who obviously was watching this game with an eye toward a potential meeting in the NFC title game -- and he had never seen this formation either.
Of course, it worked to perfection, as Grant ran for 201 yards -- the seventh-highest total ever in a playoff game -- and scored three touchdowns. Not bad for a guy who gained all of 27 yards in the first six games of the season. Meanwhile, if an offensive lineman could ever earn MVP honors in a game, Packers right tackle Mark Tauscher would have gotten it here for the job he did against Patrick Kerney. He pitched a shutout -- holding the NFL's leader in sacks without a tackle or a sack. He basically negated Seattle's best defensive player.
Most everyone agrees that you have to pressure Brady in order to have success against New England, and the Jaguars looked good when they opened the game with a sack by John Henderson. But for most of the game, Jacksonville played a 3-3-5 defense with hopes of frustrating Brady by taking away the long ball and forcing him to settle for short passes. The plan was very well executed -- the problem was that Brady killed them with patience. Sure, Brady passed for only 262 yards -- less than usual for him -- but he just took what the defense gave him and played it to near perfection. (For what it's worth, Jacksonville does seem poised to be a very dangerous team in 2008. They are a young team with lots of cap space. The biggest need is a big-time wide receiver.)
San Diego had to overcome a lot in this game -- not least of which was traveling cross-country to play the early game (basically 10 a.m. on the body clock), along with playing in front of a loud crowd against the No. 1 scoring defense in the NFL. Oh yeah, and Peyton Manning. With San Diego down 7-0 and the Colts driving, Marvin Harrison fumbled and the Chargers went 78 yards in 10 plays to tie the game. I have always thought Norv Turner was one of the better play-callers in the NFL and he proved it Sunday. San Diego had four scoring drives of over 74 yards. I thought his call of the screen pass on the last play of the third quarter was special. Darren Sproles took it 56 yards to give the Chargers a 24-21 lead. He also did a good job of exploiting the Colts' 5-foot-8 defensive back Tim Jennings with the height of receivers Vincent Jackson and Chris Chambers. In addition, even though tight end Antonio Gates might not have been healthy enough to make a big impact, Turner had him in there probably more as a diversion. And I think that helped keep safety Bob Sanders a little preoccupied.
There's always been a lot of talk about the Dallas-Washington and Dallas-Philadelphia rivalries, but from a players standpoint I think it's Giants-Cowboys that is the fiercest NFC East rivalry. A lot was said before this game by several Cowboys players who felt pretty good about their chances of winning. A high percentage of the time, a team that scores right before the half in a close game usually goes on to win. Dallas took a 14-7 lead with 53 seconds left in the first half after a 90-yard, 20-play drive that took 10:28. It looked pretty good for the Cowboys at that opint, but things changed quickly as the Giants needed just 47 seconds to tie the game at halftime. In the second half, the Giants played what amounted to a nine-man front, with the two safeties there most of the time, to stop the Cowboys' running game that had 106 yards in the first half. Cornerback R.W. McQuarters was the real hero, as the secondary was missing three corners for most of the second half. Meanwhile, Manning and his team did not commit a turnover for the second week in a row after being the only playoff team with a negative turnover margin (minus-9) in the regular season.