By PATRICK SLACK
NFC: San Francisco 45, Green Bay 31
What a performance by San Francisco quarterback Collin Kaepernick.
After throwing a pick-six on the opening drive of the game, Kaepernick came back and absolutely tore up the Packers’ defense throughout Saturday night’s contest, throwing for 263 yards and running for another 181, in the process making 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh look like a genius.
Earlier in the season, after Kaepernick had filled in for then-starter Alex Smith because of a concussion, Harbaugh opted to stick with the youngster despite Smith having led San Francisco to last year’s NFC championship game while also in the midst of a strong first half of this season.
Harbaugh rolled the dice, opting for the big-play capability of Kaepernick, and at least for one week, was rewarded.
On the flip side, it was apparent a long time ago, all the way back to the “reception that wasn’t,” against Seattle in week two, that this wasn’t going to be Green Bay’s year.
The Packers went 15-1 a year ago, but couldn’t seem to get rolling this year while suffering numerous injuries.
Although the Minnesota Vikings were young this year and have the ability to improve going into next year, there’s a good chance Green Bay will be even better too.
NFC: Atlanta 30, Seattle 28
In a classic case of scoring a go-ahead touchdown too soon, Seattle overcame a three-touchdown deficit to take a 28-27 lead with 31 seconds remaining, only for Atlanta to drive back down the field for a last-second 49-year field goal to pull out the win.
It would be hard to overstate the importance of the victory for Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan, who has done remarkable work in the regular season in the early stages of his career, yet hadn’t come through with a playoff win heading into Sunday.
He played a great first half, only to miss on a few key throws that could have drained the clock in the fourth quarter.
However, being able to hit two key mid-range throws to set up Matt Bryant’s game-winner instantly transformed him from a stat-padding regular season standout into a franchise cornerstone and one of the game’s elite passers.
AFC: New England 41, Houston 28
Tom Brady was at it again with a monster playoff performance, while Houston once again shriveled under the pressure.
It’s hard to see Houston making a Super Bowl run with Matt Schaub at quarterback, and after getting mauled by the Patriots for the second time this year, major repairs to what was supposed to be an elite defense also appear to be in order.
AFC: Baltimore 38, Denver 35 (2OT)
In the marquee game of the weekend, there’s really no other way to put it than to say that Denver choked away a chance to host the AFC title game.
Inexplicably, Denver head coach John Fox didn’t allow quarterback Peyton Manning a chance to drive down the field to at least get a field goal with three time outs at the end of the first half and two at the end of the second half.
Odds are, the worst case scenario in both opportunities would be that neither team would score.
At least at the end of the first half, if Baltimore somehow forced a turnover and got points, Denver would have had the second half to respond.
At the end of the fourth quarter, Denver opted for the 50-50 toss-up of overtime rather than even take a shot.
Even if the Broncos wouldn’t have been able to score at the end of the fourth, they would have been in no worse of a position than they were in overtime, and the odds of them being able to score than the Ravens in that final minute were much greater than 50-50.
Not that Fox deserves all of the blame.
The Denver defense was woefully unprepared for Joe Flacco’s desperation heave that tied the game in the final minute, and Manning threw one of the worst passes of his career that set up Baltimore’s game-winning field goal in extra play.
Manning dropped to 9-11 in his career in the postseason with the loss, and while he deserves plenty of credit for getting the Colts and now Broncos into so many playoff games, posting a sub-.500 record in the playoffs, including several losses at home, puts him a notch below Brady as the top quarterback of this generation.