Each Divisional Round contest featured a Golden Bear on at least one of the two rosters and each of the two Championship Games this Sunday will feature a Golden Bear.
So, let's get straight to the Divisional Round action.
C.J. Anderson: RB, Denver Broncos (12-4, seeded 1st in AFC)
Anderson led the way for the Broncos as they beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 23-16 to advance to the AFC Championship game.
This wasn't the prettiest of games as it featured a shaky Peyton Manning and a lot of drops from the Broncos receivers, but they made the plays when they had to. Most importantly, though, they avoided making a back-breaking mistake. Fitzgerald Touissant could not as his lost fumble was a crucial turning point in favor of the Broncos.
Anderson toted the rock 15 times for a game-high 72 yards rushing to go along with two catches for 11 yards. Oh yeah, he scored the game-winning touchdown too. Here is video of a 34-yard run by Anderson.
Who are the Broncos going to take on in the AFC Championship game? Well, Tom Brady and the Patriots of course. Who else would it be?
Remember when Anderson rumbled down the field for a game-winning touchdown in overtime of their regular season meeting with the Patriots? Well, the Broncos are underdogs now and Anderson isn't too pleased about it.
From the New York Daily News:
Sunday's AFC Championship Game may be a battle between two Hall of Fame quarterbacks, but there's no question who most people view as the favorite: the New England Patriots. And that's caught the eye of the Broncos apparently, as running back C.J. Anderson said Denver is being "disrespected" in the run up to the conference title game.
How, exactly, does he see them being disrespected?
"Oh, you know, 'We don't have a chance.' If that doesn't motivate you, then you are in the wrong business," Anderson said Thursday. "We are supposed to go out there and get killed on Sunday, which is funny to me. Just go out there and play business. That's why you play the game."
The Patriots are three-point favorites despite the game being played in Denver.
Bleacher Report recently wrote an article which states that Anderson might be the key to a Super Bowl run for the Broncos:
The Denver Broncos are one game away from the Super Bowl. In their way is the New England Patriots, a team they beat earlier this year in a Week 12 overtime thriller that ended with a 48-yard touchdown run by C.J. Anderson.
In that first contest against the Patriots, Anderson was the team’s leading rusher with 113 yards on only 15 carries. He scored two touchdowns in that game, and Anderson also chipped in with four catches for 40 yards.
Since Week 8, Anderson has boasted a healthy yards-per-carry average. In fact, his 6.12 yards per carry during that time is the best in the NFL. Anderson’s power game has been helpful as the season wears on, as evidenced by his 2.78 yards-after-contact-per-rush average in that same time frame. That is well above the league average of 1.83 yards after contact per rush from Week 8 until now.
Anderson who can be the most dominant. Measuring in at 5’8", 224 pounds, Anderson is built low to the ground and has the leg drive to power through arm tackles. He’s not incredibly fast, but Anderson is quick and has good burst to—and through—the hole.
With a more physical style, Anderson can deal out big hits. He will also absorb some big hits with those between-the-tackles carries.
Anderson coughed up the ball twice over the last two games of the regular season—the first two fumbles of his pro career. He made sure to take care of the rock during the divisional round against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"During our bye week, we went back to training camp fundamentals of protecting the ball and getting out of bad habits and things of that nature. You have to give it up to our running backs coach, [running backs] coach Eric [Studesville] is always on us about holding onto the ball. That is pretty much what he told me on that last drive: ‘Hold onto it. Don’t give them a chance. Don’t give them life.’"
If the Broncos want to beat up the Patriots, then Anderson is their best option in the backfield.
There is no doubt the strength of the Broncos is on the defensive side of the ball. In a win-or-go-home situation like in the playoffs, the Broncos want to play to the strength of the team.
Running the ball with Anderson does that.
The Broncos can win the time-of-possession battle if they have a sustained and successful ground game. In only four games this year (including the postseason), Anderson has received 14 carries or more. In those contests (all wins), Anderson has had 101, 113, 95 and 72 yards rushing, respectively.
The recipe for a Broncos win can be simple. Get Anderson the ball at least 14 times, and let him do the heavy lifting for the offense. By beating up a defense, the Broncos give their defense time to rest. Anderson has proven that as the game goes on, he gets stronger.
Chris Harper: WR, New England Patriots (12-4, seeded 2nd in AFC)
Harper was not active as the Patriots beat the Kansas City Chiefs 27-20 to advance to the AFC Championship game and set up Brady v. Manning for the 17th time in their historic rivalry.
Brady holds the overall record edge, but Manning has won two of their three AFC Championship game meetings and Brady is just 2-6 all-time in Denver.
The Divisional Round matchup featuring more Cal reps than any other was the showdown between the Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers.
Brandon Mebane (DT) and Marshawn Lynch (RB): Seattle Seahawks (10-6, seeded 6th in the NFC)
The Seahawks began this matchup asleep at the wheel and the Panthers made them pay for it to the tune of a 31-0 halftime lead.
A crucial moment came late in the second quarter when the Seahawks were driving into Panthers territory and decided to go for it on fourth down instead of kicking a 36-yard field goal. The fourth down attempt failed and the Seahawks entered the half on the wrong end of a shutout.
It would prove crucial because during their final drive of the game the Seahawks were down 31-21 and needed a touchdown and field goal to tie it up. If they had just kicked a field goal down 31-0 then they would have been searching for a touchdown to tie it up instead of settling for a field goal and onside kick attempt.
Maybe you can remind me if there was another playoff elimination which featured play-calling mistakes from the Seahawks? My memory is a bit foggy.
Mebane notched two tackles while Lynch rushed six times for 20 yards and caught two passes for 15 yards in what might be his final game as a member of the Seahawks.
This from Michael Fabiano of NFL.com:
Set to turn 30 in April, Lynch will count $11.5 million against the team's salary cap in 2016. Furthermore, the Seahawks would save $6.5 million in cap space if they decided to cut him, which to me is a foregone conclusion. The team also has an heir apparent on the roster, as Thomas Rawls looked like "Beast Mode Jr." during his time as the team's top runner. He rushed for 100-plus yards four times, including a 209-yard performance against the San Francisco 49ers, before suffering a broken ankle in a Week 14 win over the Baltimore Ravens.
At the age of 22 and set to be featured in a run-based offense, Rawls will be a virtual lock to be a top-25 overall selection in 2016 fantasy drafts.
So, where does that leave Lynch?
Well, retirement could be a likely scenario. Lynch is a different kind of dude, and playing football doesn't seem like a "need" for him. He's also had a tremendous career (borderline Hall of Famer?) during his time between Buffalo and Seattle. A big contract offer could push him to return in 2016, but most NFL teams know better than to back up the Brinks truck for a 30-year-old runner with over 3,000 combined regular season and postseason carries on his resume.
If Lynch does come back and earns the top spot on a new team's depth chart, he would still be tough to trust as more than a No. 2 fantasy runner. But if his time with the NFL is over, I'll raise a bag of Skittles in his honor and remember Lynch as one of the best.
Ron Rivera (HC) and Richard Rodgers Sr (Asst. DB's Coach): Carolina Panthers (15-1, 1st seed in NFC)
The Panthers appeared to be strolling towards a blowout victory against the two-time defending NFC Champions, but they were themselves shutout in the second half en-route to a 31-24 hold-onto-your-butts type of victory.
The Panthers have a propensity to start games fast and fade as it goes along and they will have to play better late if they want to beat the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Championship game.
With the Panthers at 16-1 and on the verge of making the Super Bowl it is easy to forget that it hasn't always been so smooth for Rivera in Carolina.
This from Fox Sports:
If you believe what you hear, you might think the mighty 16-1 Carolina Panthers almost made the wrong decision to fire Ron Rivera while at a fork in the road with their coach early in the 2013 season.
The thing is – as GM Dave Gettleman revealed to FOXSports.com’s Alex Marvez in an exclusive Q&A – there never was a fork.
Gettleman was in his first season as GM with the team when a report surfaced that the Panthers had begun doing background checks on head coaching candidates. Carolina was 1-2 and had gotten off to slow starts in each of Rivera’s first two seasons, so his position seemed tenuous -- particularly after he had been left for dead the previous offseason, just before Gettleman was hired.
The only thing is – according to Gettleman – replacing Rivera was the furthest thing from his mind.
"When that (media) report came out when we were 1-2 that we were looking for a head coach I was so f****** furious," he told Marvez. "I got up in the press box when one of the (reporters) came over to me about it and said, ‘This is unbelievable bulls***. It’s unequivocally false.’ I went to Ron after I heard it and said, ‘Talking man-to-man here, that is bulls***.’ Let’s keep working and get this fixed.’ We then went on an eight-game winning streak."
Carolina finished that season 12-4, starting a run of three straight playoff appearances that has Gettleman looking like a genius for the move he didn’t make – or rather, the move he wasn’t even thinking about making.
As if preparing for an NFC Championship game against the Arizona Cardinals isn't tough enough, Rivera and his staff had to take some time to deal with a social media situation involving Shaq Thompson.
This from the Charlotte Observer:
Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera talked with linebacker Shaq Thompson about a vulgar Snapchat video the rookie posted after Sunday’s win.
After Carolina’s 31-24 victory over the Seahawks, Thompson, a former standout at the University of Washington, posted a video to his Snapchat account using three expletives denigrated the Seahawks and their fans.
"I got a message," Thompson began the video, which has since been deleted but was captured elsewhere on the Internet. "(Blank) y’all. (Blank) the Seahawks. Keep pounding (blank)."
Rivera said he has moved on from it.
"I sat down with Shaq," Rivera said Wednesday. "I discussed it. It's over. So we decided the best thing for all of us is to move forward and get ready for Arizona."
What is it that Herm Edwards always says? Think before you press send? Something like that ... maybe Thompson should listen to him.
Aaron Rodgers (QB) and Richard Rodgers (TE): Green Bay Packers (10-6, seeded 5th in NFC)
What is up with the Hail Mary's this year? It's difficult enough to complete one of them, but three in one season? Give me a break!
On a fourth and 20 from the 4-yardline Aaron Rodgers heaved a 60-yard pass to Jeff Janis to keep their season alive. He then heaved another deep bomb for 41 yards and a touchdown to -- you guessed it -- Janis.
Just like that the Packers went from their own four to a touchdown to send the game into overtime. It was incredible stuff.
Even the coin toss was ridiculous in this one as the coin didn't flip as it landed on heads in favor of the Packers. The coin has to flip in the air, though, and the Cardinals won the ensuing toss. Two passes to the legendary Larry Fitzgerald later and the Cardinals were moving on the NFC Championship game and the Packers were heading home with a playoff loss.
Aaron Rodgers went 24 of 44 for 261 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. He also rushed twice for 21 yards. Here are his highlights.
Richard Rodgers caught five passes for 45 yards.
Kevin Seifert of ESPN wrote a great article about the Packers window of opportunity with Aaron Rodgers and how they have not fully taken advantage of having an all-time great quarterback.
Groundhog Day arrived late Saturday night for Aaron Rodgers. The Green Bay Packers quarterback trudged into an interview room below University of Phoenix Stadium and recited a familiar refrain of disappointment about another winning season cut short by a wrenching playoff defeat.
"We'll put this one to bed and be proud of the things we accomplished," he said after the Packers' 26-20 overtime loss to the Arizona Cardinals. "And obviously, we'll think about things that were close in our grasp that we didn't accomplish."
Rodgers has led the Packers to the NFL's second-most victories in the regular season since he ascended to the starting job in 2008. Only Tom Brady and the New England Patriots have done better. The Packers have made the playoffs for seven consecutive years, but it has now been five years since they appeared in or won the Super Bowl.
And suddenly, it seems, the clock is ticking. Rodgers turned 32 last month and will begin his 12th NFL season in September. If championships are the way to measure greatness, then the Packers have failed to fully redeem the gift of a two-time MVP who will go down as one of the best ever.
The window is not shut, of course. There is plenty of recent precedent for elite quarterbacks maintaining skills into their late 30s. And Rodgers, despite a statistical slip that we'll dive into in a moment, has shown no signs of physical decline. But it's fair to ask if the Packers simply have been unlucky during Rodgers' career, or if he is caught in a systemic shortcoming that will limit his impact on history.
"We don't have a loser mentality here," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said this week. "That's in the bricks of this place, and we know the history. We take full responsibility for the expectations here. We're not scared to talk about winning world championships and what you have to do to win world championships. The fact of the matter is we were a successful football team this year, we just did not reach the level of success that we wanted to attain. That's the reality of the game of football in my opinion."
Historically, of course, that hasn't always been the reality of football. By the time he was 32, Brady had won three Super Bowls. So had Joe Montana. Terry Bradshaw won all four of his titles by age 32.
Rodgers wouldn't be alone as a Hall of Fame quarterback with disappointing postseason outcomes -- hello, Warren Moon, Dan Marino and Dan Fouts -- but that perspective won't assuage anyone who hopes for something more than "close."
McCarthy bristled at questions this week about common threads during the Rodgers era, and it's true that each season has ended on its own deficiencies. If there is a relevant theme, however, it's that the Packers have not been able to pivot effectively enough through the ebbs and flows of a typical NFL season. Along the way, Rodgers has proved transcendent but not a miracle worker.
The 2015 season was no exception. The preseason loss of receiver Jordy Nelson helped knock the passing game into a tailspin, one exacerbated by a lack of depth at offensive line that left Rodgers pressured on a career-high 33.4 percent of his dropbacks. Incredibly, the Packers finished with the NFL's seventh-fewest passing yards (3,503). Rodgers had career lows in completion percentage (60.7), yards per attempt (6.7) and first downs per attempt (30.2).
Numbers from the ESPN Stats & Information database help flesh out what happened.
Since 2009, Rodgers had never been pressured on more than on 24.9 percent of his dropbacks. Some of that can be attributed to a newfound courage from defenses, which blitzed him on a career-high 32.2 percent of his dropbacks. (He faced the blitz 28 percent of the time from 2008-14.)
Pressured more than ever, and without a deep replacement for Nelson, Rodgers held the ball for an average of 2.73 seconds before throwing. That was 0.07 seconds more than in any other season, and as recently as 2013, he averaged 2.43 seconds.
In the end, Rodgers threw at or behind the line of scrimmage on 28.5 percent of his passes, by far a career high. He completed a career-low 39 percent of throws that traveled more than 15 yards in the air and was judged by ESPN video analysis to be off target on 20.5 percent of his throws overall. (He had never been higher than 17.3 percent in his career.)
"He's a great player that plays at such a high level the competition is usually with himself trying not to do too much," McCarthy said, "and I think he was really challenged this year more than ever with what he was trying to pick up for with Jordy and so forth."
Rodgers deserves his share of the blame for that, and it doesn't take a football genius to recognize that he wasn't as sharp this season as he has been in others. But it also demonstrates how slight the Packers' margin of error has been over the past eight seasons.
An injury to one receiver and thin depth along the line don't have to be death blows to a team's championship aspirations. Neither does a quarterback's imperfect reaction to that adversity. So the question becomes: What can the Packers do to better navigate these types of relatively typical setbacks?
This, of course, is a problem most every NFL franchise would love to have. Despite their issues, the Packers still won 11 games and were within one overtime of appearing in their second consecutive NFC Championship Game. To be clear, their challenge is to find a way to transition from "very good" to "elite."
The easy target is their largely celebrated method of player acquisition, one that relies almost exclusively on the draft and college free agency. As I've written before, that approach is the envy of team builders around the league, but still requires the Packers to be better at the annual draft crapshoot than everyone else. It's worth noting that the only team with better results over the past eight seasons, the Patriots, have made a habit of signing second-tier veteran free agents for depth and situational purposes.
It might not be reasonable to expect general manager Ted Thompson to change his approach after all these years, and it's impossible to know if it would make a difference anyway. But the Packers no longer have the luxury of planning for a seemingly indefinite future with the NFL's best passer. The events of this season, and Father Time, should add a new urgency to their offseason.
Good luck to the Golden Bears competing for a chance at the Super Bowl this Sunday!