Let’s be honest: Carolina’s victory over Seattle had little to do with Cam Newton. And that’s not a knock on him by any means—it’s a reflection of the Panthers’ play on the line of scrimmage.
The players in the trenches rarely get the credit they deserve but it was impressive to watch Carolina manhandle Seattle up front—on both sides of the ball—for an entire half of football.
Seattle’s defensive-line play was a strength of their team all season and they couldn’t get anything going in the pass-rush department. Newton wasn’t under pressure at all and Carolina controlled the run game from the outset—Jonathan Stewart’s first run went for almost 60 yards.
On defence, the Carolina front four—especially the two defensive tackles—obliterated the interior of the Seattle offensive line. It was reminiscent of Seattle’s dominance over Denver in Super Bowl 48 and further proof of the value of being great on the lines. That’s what helped the New York Giants upset those great New England Patriots teams in two previous Super Bowls.
If Carolina continues to dominate up front, they’re going to win it all this year.
Here's what else we learned this weekend:
Slow starts a recurring issue for Seahawks: It was telling of Seattle's character to watch the Seahawks fight back in the second half against Carolina, but they ran out of time to overcome a 31-point deficit. Pete Carroll had his typical game-management issues, but he needs to get to the root of a bigger problem: the team’s slow starts in playoff games. Seattle has had particularly slow starts—on offence especially—in each of their last four playoff games, dating back to last season. In Carroll’s tenure in Seattle, his teams have been outscored 159–106 in the first half of playoff games while they have outscored opponents 208–103 in the second half.
Some have made mention of their troubles in 10 a.m. (local time) starts. There’s something to that given they have yet to score a first-half point in Seattle's last four playoff games that have started at 1 p.m ET, but that’s hardly their only issue considering they were ineffective in three quarters against Green Bay last year at home and weren’t particularly good, scoring just three points by halftime, in the 2013 NFC Championship win over San Francisco.
The Seahawks are so good at halftime adjustments that they’re usually able to rally back, but it sure would be convenient for them if they didn’t have to overcome so many big deficits in playoff games.
Cardinals have some adjustments to make: Larry Fitzgerald was brilliant on Saturday night, adding another tour de force performance to his Hall of Fame career, but overall the Cardinals play was rather concerning. Carson Palmer looked finicky from the pocket (outside of the final play), the offensive line couldn’t protect Green Bay’s pressure packages and the team allowed a 4th-and-20 conversion and a Hail Mary on the same drive. Some of that had to do with Bruce Arians’ over-the-top (and kind of silly) aggressiveness, but the leaky effort on both sides of the ball was not consistent with their strong regular-season play. Carolina is a much more physical team than Green Bay and they need to get their play cleaned up—especially in the interior of their offensive line—to have a chance to win on the road in the NFC Championship Game.
Patriots clean up their No. 1 weakness: Well, we’ve talked a lot about offensive lines in here. But that was the biggest focus for New England heading into Saturday’s game with the Kansas City Chiefs. The line had been a total sieve down the stretch for the Patriots, as the team dropped four of their final six games of the regular season. Injuries and inexeperience were a major issue but New England completely cleaned up their play up front in the victory over Kansas City. Sebastian Vollmer returned to the lineup and was reliable at left tackle, and the group held up well against one of the best pass-rushing units in the league. Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels focused on getting the ball out quickly to negate any pass rush and the strategy worked to perfection. The Patriots’ front five will have a huge task going up against the most aggressive and best front seven (Denver) in football in the AFC Championship Game on the road next Sunday, so we’ll have to see if it was a sign of things to come or a one-week mirage. It’s hard to bet against Brady, but this won’t be easy.
Seattle well built for sustained success: I’m not one for hot takes, and boy were there plenty of them during the first half on Sunday. So let’s get this clear: The Seahawks aren’t done by any means. Yes, the NFL’s salary-cap system is designed to break teams apart but when you look at the organizations that have had sustained success over the past decade, the one constant is clear: the franchise quarterback. Look at the Pittsburgh Steelers, New England Patriots and Green Bay Packers as the best examples. And the Seahawks' most important development of the season by far was the improved play of Russell Wilson. This is his team now. Marshawn Lynch won’t be back next year. The defence won’t likely be as potent. But Wilson is what will ultimately determine the progression of this franchise. Or maybe an offensive line that can keep him from running for his life. Sunday’s up-and-down performance was clear evidence of his impact on the game.
Steelers did the most they could: The Pittsburgh Steelers have nothing to be ashamed about. They were right there in a road playoff game with an injury-depleted lineup. Pittsburgh had an injured quarterback do as much as he could, considering the Steelers were without their top target in Antonio Brown. The game was swung on a fumble from a third-string running back who carried the ball 18 times all season. In the big picture, the Steelers should be pretty pleased with their long-term outlook. Ben Roethlisberger is in the prime of his career. They’ll have all their top offensive contributors back and Le’Veon Bell should be healthy and suspension-free. The offensive line got better. The defence showed signs of improvement in the post-season and should be the focus of their upcoming draft. Overall, the outlook is promising and there’s no reason to expect any sort of drop-off.