Arguably, the most amazing part of last weekend's exciting wild-card round was the close scores of the four contests.
San Francisco and New Orleans each won on the final play of the game, while the Indianapolis Colts staged one of the greatest comebacks in playoff history, overcoming a 28-point deficit to beat the Kansas City Chiefs 45-44. The only comfortable margin of defeat came in the Cincinnati-San Diego game, where the Chargers grabbed a surprising 27-10 win.
Since 2003, an average of 42.5 percent of playoff games have been decided by seven points or fewer. From 1990 to 2002, the percentage of seven-point-or-fewer games was 30.8.
The trend is understandable when you look at the evolution of offenses around the NFL combined with the caliber of QBs usually found in the playoffs. The NFL transitioned into a quarterback-driven league during the late '90s, beginning with Peyton Manning's use of the three-receiver set and play calls at the line of scrimmage, and then was advanced once Tom Brady took control in New England.
The 2004 draft added Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers, and in recent years Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, Andrew Luck and Cam Newton have added to the excitement of quarterbacks capable of engineering late-game heroics.
In the past, teams won by playing solid defense and relying on their power running attack. They would wear opponents out and break open games in the second half. Now, no lead is safe and close contests are becoming a postseason fixture.
Here are the top 10 trends from the divisional round:
1. Beating the odds: Wins by No. 6 seeds New Orleans and San Diego last week set them up with dates against the top teams in their respective conferences. Perhaps the weirdest stat of recent playoff years is how No. 6 seeds have won six of the past eight games against No. 1 seeds. That's something that rarely happened in the past. When the NFL added a sixth playoff team to each conference back in 1990, teams seeded sixth lost their first nine meetings against the conference's top team. That changed in 2005 when the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Indianapolis Colts 21-18. The realignment after the Houston Texans entered the league in 2002 is partly responsible for the change. In that year, the NFL went to four divisions in each conference. The two wild cards from each conference were stronger, better teams than the pre-2002 wild cards as long as the conference was strong. In the mid-2000s, the AFC was the dominant conference. The Steelers were in their prime and Roethlisberger was establishing himself as an elite quarterback. This year, the NFC is the better conference and the New Orleans Saints are better than most 5-seeds. They were four points short of beating Carolina in Week 16, a win that would have given them a bye behind Seattle, their divisional-round opponent Saturday.
2. No fear of the road: The San Francisco 49ers have been road warriors this season. They went 6-2 in away games during the regular season, including a win in London, and opened the playoffs by dropping the Packers at Lambeau Field on one of the coldest days in playoff history. Next up: They'll try to avenge a Week 10 loss to the Panthers in Carolina. That game was one of the most physical of the season and this one should be, too. The 49ers haven't lost a game since Michael Crabtree returned, and the passing offense continues to improve with him in the lineup. San Francisco's road success may have factored in oddsmakers making the 49ers the only road favorite in the divisional round. Still, in a conference as tough as the NFC, it will be hard to put together three road wins to get to MetLife Stadium in February. To go to the Super Bowl, the 49ers would have to beat Aaron Rodgers, Newton and either Wilson or Drew Brees. That's tough. While the 49ers are in decent health, they could come out of Sunday's game pretty banged up, which could hurt them should they reach the NFC title game.
3. Let them play: There were only 31 penalties called during last week's four wild-card games. The league average is 14 a game. Officials let teams play in the first round of the playoffs and that might be the case again this week. Pete Morelli is doing the New England-Indianapolis game and he throws the fewest flags per game at 10.3. Terry McAulay (12.7) works the Seattle-New Orleans game; Clete Blakeman, who will officiate the Denver-San Diego contest, is seventh on the scale at 13.13; and Carl Cheffers (S.F.-Carolina) ranks 11th with 13.7 a game. In other words, the four referees are below the league average for penalties, which indicates the eight teams will be allowed to play. There are a few things to watch. The Seahawks' secondary will have to watch its technique on pass coverage as McAulay called 18 interference penalties, tied for third most among the referees. Still, that's not a lot at slightly more than one interference call per game. Offensive linemen in the 49ers-Panthers game might be on alert as well, as Cheffers' crew called 55 holding penalties -- most in the league.
4. The unknown is a concern for the Saints: Percy Harvin is the mystery man of the divisional round. He was limited to one catch and one kick return this season due to hip surgery, but he's participating fully in practices and is expected to play Saturday against the Saints. When healthy, the lightning-fast Harvin is one of the most electrifying players in football. While it is unlikely Harvin will play the entire game, he creates major headaches for Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. The Saints' defense has to be aware of him on every play he is on the field. During the final month of the season, the Seahawks' passing offense struggled as receivers couldn't get good separation. How the Seahawks will use Harvin to ignite the attack is anyone's guess.
5. An unknown for the Panthers: Steve Smith suffered a PCL knee injury in Week 16. Though he vows to play Sunday, he doesn't know how effective he can be. Smith, who caught 64 passes for 745 yards during the regular season, is Newton's main target. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula has changed the Panthers' offense and it has allowed Newton to grow. Newton's completion percentage has gone from 57.7 last season to 61.7, but if Smith is able to perform at only around 70 percent because of the knee injury, the Panthers could be in trouble. Brandon LaFell has improved, but he's never caught more than 50 passes in a season. The third receiver, Ted Ginn Jr., was only a returner for the 49ers before coming over to the Panthers. To win, the Panthers need a solid performance from Smith.
6. How can the Chargers be 9½-point underdogs? In the big picture, you can see why the Chargers are underdogs. They needed three other contending AFC teams to lose in the final week of the regular season to secure the No. 6 seed. They needed to win in Week 17 to stay above .500 and finish 9-7. Still, their recent history against the Broncos in Denver and their success against Peyton Manning makes you wonder. The Chargers have won six of their past eight games in Denver, including a 27-20 victory in Week 15. The Chargers beat Manning twice during the playoffs when he was in Indianapolis. Sure, the Broncos have an offense that scored more than 600 points this season and one of the best home-field advantages in football. Manning threw for 55 touchdowns this season and the Chargers' defense is beatable. But 9½ points are a lot for a team that doesn't seem to be intimidated by the Broncos.
7. The Pats are strong but vulnerable: Once again, it's January and the Patriots are in their normal place. Since 2010, they've won between 12 and 14 regular-season games each year. Until the Patriots reach the playoffs, it's hard to determine how good they are. Brady had a remarkable season adjusting to new pass-catchers along with the losses of Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. Bill Belichick did an incredible job scrambling with a defense that lost Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and now Brandon Spikes. You can usually bet on the Patriots going 12-4 during the regular season. They are a hedge bet in the playoffs. Since the 2009 season, they are 3-4 in the playoffs, and that's with home-field advantage. In fact, Brady is only 7-7 in his past 14 playoff games. Clearly, the Patriots have the edge in Saturday's meeting against Indianapolis. They just have to be wary of a Colts comeback.
8. Pressure's on Brees: Brees normally isn't bothered by pressure. He's won playoff games and has a Super Bowl ring. But so much falls on his right arm Saturday against the Seahawks. He has to battle crowd noise and perhaps the best secondary in football. Brees already has a place in playoff history. His career playoff average of 323 passing yards is the highest of any quarterback in NFL history. Kurt Warner averaged 304. Dan Fouts averaged 303.6. They are the only quarterbacks with five playoff games of experience to average more than 300 passing yards. But until the Saints had success running the ball like they did last week against Philadelphia, they weren't able to win a playoff road game. To win against Seattle, Brees has to make sure he doesn't repeat his habit of throwing interceptions in road games. One or two interceptions could be the difference between a Saints win or loss.
9. Luck is in similar position: As much as offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton tried to make Luck's job easier by scheme, the success or failure of the Colts falls on Luck's abilities at quarterback. The Reggie Wayne injury took away Luck's most reliable receiver, but he's somehow found a way to get the ball to T.Y. Hilton. In the past two games, including the playoffs, Luck has targeted Hilton 33 times. Hilton has 24 catches for 379 yards. The Patriots have Aqib Talib to cover him. Talib had only 38 passes completed against him during his Pro Bowl season. He allowed only three touchdowns. If Talib stops Hilton, Luck might have trouble getting the ball to other targets.
10. To blitz or not to blitz: In the first meeting against the 49ers, the Panthers rushed four defenders and didn't have much trouble containing Kaepernick, who completed eight of 17 passes against seven-man pass coverage. He was sacked four times and intercepted once. Of course, Kaepernick didn't have Michael Crabtree in that game. He figures to target Crabtree eight to 12 times. If he gets passes to Crabtree or the other pass-catchers, the Panthers may be forced to use an extra defender to challenge the 49ers' quarterback. Panthers coach Ron Rivera will have an interesting, strategic chess match with Jim Harbaugh of the 49ers.