Three takes from the Divisional Round

Divisional Round - Seattle Seahawks v Carolina Panthers

By Conor Allison

Perennially regarded as the strongest week of the NFL season, this year once again saw a memorable Divisional Round. Despite all four on-paper favourites (and home teams) advancing to the Conference Championship stage, it was, mostly, in ways nobody could have predicted. The dramatic twists and turns of the sport is on show weekly, but this weekend still managed to deliver upon expectations and provide instant classics. Below is three thoughts on the fallout of the weekend’s action.

Russell Wilson Country?

On the podium after the team’s 31-24 loss on Sunday, Russell Wilson described this season as the most of fun of his career due to the leadership within the organisation. Whilst Wilson appeared to be referencing the entire team’s presence of leadership, there’s no doubt he developed both on the field and in the locker room this season.

This isn’t to say he has been a passenger in the Seahawks’ rise to prominence, but competing with personas like ‘Beast Mode’ and the ‘Legion of Boom’ has meant that his contribution is always followed with a small asterisk.

“Would he be able to do it without that defense?” or “What if he didn’t have Marshawn Lynch?” are questions (albeit from a minority) now rendered obsolete.

Wilson silenced them in the second half of the season, and in the second half of Sunday’s game. At halftime, he reportedly talked to the locker room about creating the best comeback of all time. When he walked back out onto the field, he came within, in his words, “One more drive”, of delivering it.

With their attention now fixed towards the offseason and rebounding in 2016, it must be noted that some changes sit on the horizon; Marshawn Lynch’s future headlines the uncertainties.

It’s no coincidence that Wilson enjoyed the best stretch of his career with Lynch out of the lineup. In the seven games that closed out the regular season, he amassed 24 touchdowns to just one interception — the Seahawks also won six of those games. In the previous nine weeks, with Lynch in the backfield for six, he struggled, throwing for 10 touchdowns and seven interceptions. The team was 4-5.

Lynch is due $9 million in base salary with a cap number of $11.5 million in 2016. Undrafted rookie free agent Thomas Rawls vastly outperformed the veteran running back this season, and has a cap hit of just $530,000. With disgruntled defensive members Kam Chancellor and Michael Bennett outspoken on their desire for restructured contracts, Lynch is almost certain to become a cap casualty.

Before appeasing their stars, though, there are many other issues to resolve before 2016. Nine players who are starters or regulars in the rotation are set to become free agents. This includes left tackle Russell Okung, right guard J.R. Sweezy, receiver Jermaine Kearse, defensive tackles Brandon Mebane and Ahtyba Rubin, linebacker Bruce Irvin, cornerbacks Jeremy Lane and DeShawn Shead and punter Jon Ryan.

Inevitably, some will depart the pacific northwest, but 2015 showed us that this team lives and dies by Russell Wilson’s play. With a healthy Jimmy Graham and Thomas Rawls accompanying a young, talented roster in 2016, this team will be strong NFC favourites once again.

Brady v Manning XVII 

Even before Peyton Manning took a knee on Sunday night to secure the Broncos’ victory, the eye-rolling clan of media members and fans took to Twitter to sardonically mutter about the Brady v Manning storyline. You could almost see their scoffs behind their take of, “Can’t wait for another week of this”.

In a way, it can be chalked down to a passing comment. That’s all it really is — nobody is vehemently against this matchup, or, at least, they shouldn’t be. To negatively comment at all on the story of Brady v Manning is, to me, crazy.

Manning is a shell of the man who led an all-time offense in 2013, and Brady is currently playing the best football of his career (outside of 2007), but this is the last time we will ever see these two square off. It’s a face-off between, arguably, two of the best three quarterbacks of all time; a face-off that will be remembered as the best of all time.

It won’t be the 2006 AFC Championship Game, but it will be the last time we see the midfield handshake between the pair. One will progress to the Super Bowl — for Brady, a seventh, for Manning, a fourth — and the other will fade away from the field. In Manning’s case, it will likely be the last time.

It falls within the same narrative as the 2012 Super Bowl, when brothers John Harbaugh’s Baltimore and Jim Harbaugh’s San Francisco faced off. People had the same pessimism regarding the coverage in the build-up to that game.

Always root for the story, and hope that, one last time, we see a Manning that can go blow-for-blow with his career nemesis. Or not, if you’re a New England fan.

The greatest quarterback ever?

Over the last few seasons, a narrative has rumbled regarding Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Whilst only through eight seasons as a starter, the need to set the mantle for his spot amongst the all-time greats is well under way.

This isn’t without some sound reasoning, of course. You only need to watch Rodgers’ touchdown to Jeff Janis from Saturday’s game in Arizona to understand the rare physical gifts he possesses. This consistent display of jaw-dropping throws and pocket wizardry, coupled with stats that make for better reading than anybody in the history of the position, will form the start of an interesting debate once Rodgers retires.

Just turning 32-years-old in December, and finishing up his eighth year as a starter, Rodgers still has a long way to go in his career; it’s possible he will play another eight seasons. If he is to compete with the likes of Tom Brady and Joe Montana, though, his postseason record is an area for improvement.

Currently, he has led the Packers to a 7-6 return in the playoffs. The standout is the 2010 Super Bowl triumph, but it can’t remain that way if the debate is to remain a serious one. Having just one ring is a scourge Peyton Manning knows all too well when compared to other all-time greats.

Although team record isn’t necessarily an indication of the quarterback’s success or failure, it’s still relevant in the right context; there’s a reason Brady’s teams are 22-8 and Manning’s are 12-13.

To put Rodgers current exploits in some perspective, he has already been on the receiving end of the same amount of playoff losses as Ben Roethlisberger (11-6) and owns a worse record than Joe Flacco (10-5).

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