Patriots 27, Chiefs 20
The Patriots used the week off to regain some banged-up players, so when they took the field it was pretty much business as usual. As per usual New England scored in each quarter, and by the time the Chiefs dented the end zone in the second half the deficit was too much for the deliberate KC offense to overcome.
Extra points: The return of Julian Edelman (10-100, 1-11 rushing) was certainly a welcome event for Tom Brady (28-42-302-2, 6-6-1 rushing), but the real heart of the New England offense remains Rob Gronkowski (7-83-2); defenses simply don’t have an answer. While Andy Reid likes to throw, 50 times is a little much for Alex Smith (29-50-246-1, 9-44 rushing). Even so, the Chiefs ran the ball more than twice as frequently as New England, paced by Charcandrick West (17-61-1, 2-15 receiving). It’ll be a shame to see him reduced to handcuff status next year when Jamaal Charles returns to action.
Cardinals 26, Packers 20 (OT)
This one had everything crazy about today’s NFL all wrapped up into one little game—with overtime. You had a catch that wasn’t a catch… or was it a non-catch that was a catch? You had (another) Hail Mary answered in the affirmative for the Packers. You even had a coin that wouldn’t flip. And in the end, you had one of the game’s best ambassadors taking over to send the Cardinals to the NFC championship game.
Extra points: Carson Palmer (25-41-349-3-2) earned his first playoff win—and he leaned heavily on Larry Fitzgerald (8-176-1) to do so. Arizona’s passing game also got a boost from Michael Floyd (3-26-2) and John Brown (5-82); rookie David Johnson (15-35, 6-43 receiving) also put his pass-catching prowess to good use as the Cards could only muster 40 yards on the ground. Aaron Rodgers (24-44-261-2-1) remained enigmatic, especially without his top three receivers: Jordy Nelson hasn’t played all season, Randall Cobb went down with an injury before making a catch, and Arizona blanked James Jones. That forced Jeff Janis (7-145-2) and Jared Abbrederis (4-55) to step up… just not quite high enough.
Panthers 31, Seahawks 24
Carolina absolutely took it to a stunned Seattle squad, running up a 31-zip halftime lead. But after intermission it was all Seahawks as they clawed back to within a touchdown before failing to convert an onside kick and falling shy of the Super Bowl for the first time in three seasons.
Extra points: Healthy after taking the last few weeks of the regular season off, Jonathan Stewart (19-106-2, 1-5 receiving) got the Panthers started with a 59-yard run on the first play from scrimmage. Cam Newton (16-22-161-1, 11-3 rushing) was less MVP and more efficiency, leaning heavily on favored target Greg Olsen (6-2-77-1) who accounted for more yards than any three other Panthers pass-catchers combined. The return of Seattle’s starting running back was significantly less climatic, as Marshawn Lynch (6-20, 2-15 receiving) was a non factor. Instead, once again it was Russell Wilson (31-48-366-3-2, 3-32 rushing) carrying the offense and relying on what has become the Seahawks’ Big Three receivers—led this time by Jermaine Kearse (11-110-2) and Tyler Lockett (3-75-1) with Doug Baldwin (8-82) failing to find the end zone.
Broncos 23, Steelers 16
One team had a quarterback you knew wasn’t going deep; the other had a wounded QB who allegedly couldn’t unleash the long ball. The former squad—the top-seeded Broncos—relied on defense, field goals and the ground game to put points on the board, while the latter—the injury-ravaged Steelers—took plenty of shots but came up one score short.
Extra points: The narrative continues to be that Peyton Manning (21-37-222) is more hinderance than helper, but he was plagued by drops and used his brain to audible the Broncos into scoring position. Playing on a field significantly shortened by his defense didn’t hurt. Ben Roethlisberger (24-37-339) wasted no time going deep, and with Antonio Brown out he received plenty of help from Martavis Bryant (9-154, 2-40 rushing), Darius Heyward-Bey (2-64) and Sammie Coates (2-61). Fitzgerald Toussaint (12-39-1, 3-2 receiving) also contributed in place of the injured DeAngelo Williams, but it was his late fumble that set up Denver’s deciding touchdown.