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NFL Divisional play-off round: Review

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The Denver Broncos, New England Patriots, San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks will contest this year’s NFL Championship Games, after the quartet emerged victorious from their respective playoff matches last weekend.

The divisional round of the post-season produced four exciting and entertaining matches which saw the end of the Chargers, Colts, Panthers and Saints’ hopes of Super Bowl success in 2013.

Next week, Denver and New England will clash for the second time this season. The Patriots won the first match at the Gillette Stadium, but the Broncos are a much tougher prospect at the Mile High. NFC West rivals the 49ers and the Seahawks won a game apiece in their two match-ups during the regular season, and are set for an intriguing decider to settle who will progress furthest this year. But first, here’s a quick recap of how last weekend’s action unfolded…

Divisional Match One: Seattle Seahawks (NFC West winners) def. New Orleans Saints (NFC wildcard)

The Seattle Seahawks advanced to the NFC Championship Game for only the second time in their history as they defeated the New Orleans Saints 23-15.

Marshawn Lynch ran for 140 yards and two touchdowns for the home side while placekicker Steven Hauschka also split the uprights three times in blustery conditions.

Drew Brees, who completed 24 of his 43 pass attempts for 309 yards and a touchdown, was left frustrated by a typically stubborn Seahawks defence, who prevented the Saints from even getting on the scoreboard until the fourth quarter.

Seattle last made the title game in 2005, defeating the Carolina Panthers 34-14, but fell short in their one and only Super Bowl appearance, losing out 21-10 to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Seahawks built themselves a formidable 16 point during the first half of Saturday’s action, with Hauschka scoring from 38, 49 and 26-yards while Lynch rushed for a 15 yard score following Mark Ingram’s fumble.

After a scoreless third quarter, the hosts had one foot in the title game. However, Khiry Robinson’s touchdown, combined with Ingram’s successful two point conversion, gave the visitors hope – halving their deficit.

But Lynch’s second score of the day, a 31-yard effort, made the game all but safe with only 2:40 left on the clock: the touchdown causing Seahawks’ coach Pete Carroll to jump delightedly into the arms of offensive line coach Tom Cable in celebration.

Marques Colston’s late touchdown catch provided the Saints with a degree of consolation as they exited the playoffs via a second loss of the year in Seattle.

Divisional Match Two: New England Patriots (AFC East winners) def. Indianapolis Colts (AFC South winners)

LeGarrette Blount made a franchise record four touchdown runs as his New England Patriots side advanced to their third consecutive AFC Championship Game with a comfortable 43-22 victory over the Indianapolis Colts.

The home side’s running game dominated the visitors as Blount ran for 166 yards from his 24 carries, while Stevan Ridley made an additional 52 yards from his 14 attempts, scoring twice.
Andrew Luck threw multiple interceptions for the second game running, four on this occasion, but unlike against the Kansas City Chiefs he was unable to lead a late Colts revival.

Victory means the Patriots will be playing in their eighth Championship game since the turn of the century, a remarkable achievement in a period spanning just fourteen seasons. Success in the 2013 title game would also mark their eighth win, which would draw them level with the Pittsburgh Steelers in a list of the most successful franchises in the fixture.

Following Blount’s opening score New England led the match from start to finish, never letting their lead slip to less than six points. The former Buccaneers running back, who went undrafted in 2010, scored twice in the opening quarter to initially give the Patriots a 14-0 lead.
LaVon Brazill caught the first of his career-high two touchdown passes, this one from 38-yards, to briefly narrow the gap, before Blount made his way to the Colts’ end zone for a third time.

However, the Colts never say die attitude ensured they went into the break only nine points behind as Adam Vinatieri – the Patriots kicker between 1996 and 2005 – scored from 36-yards and Ryan Allen’s fumble in his own end zone was declared dead and, as a result, a safety.
In fact, the visitors would have briefly envisaged another stunning comeback when Vinatieri struck again to make the score 21-15.

The team’s traded touchdown scores in the third quarter thanks to Ridley’s 3-yard run and Brazill’s 35 yard pass reception, but the Patriots running back also added a two point conversion to ensure his team still led by seven heading into the fourth quarter.

But any faint hopes the Colts had of overturning the Patriots and ending their unbeaten home record came to an end when Blunt ran in a 73-yard score, perhaps emphasising the tiredness of an Indianapolis team that had endured a gruelling wildcard game. Ridley added insult to injury with the Patriots’ sixth touchdown in the pouring Massachusetts rain.

Divisional Match Three: San Francisco 49ers (NFC wildcard) def. Carolina Panthers (NFC South winners)

The San Francisco 49ers advanced to the NFC Championship Game for a third successive season as they defeated the Carolina Panthers 23-10, avenging their regular season defeat against the same team in November.

Quarterback Colin Kaepernick was again on form as he threw one touchdown pass and ran for another to ensure the 49ers were the only team to emerge victorious from a divisional playoff game on the road in 2013.

But there were outstanding performances all over the pitch for San Francisco: Anquan Boldin had eight catches for 136 yards, Frank Gore ran for 84 yards on 17 carries and defensively they kept Cam Newton at bay, intercepting him twice and sacking him four times, while stopping their hosts twice on the 1-yard line.

Having lost in the title game to the New York Giants two years ago, before last year beating the Atlanta Falcons, only to lose the Super Bowl to the Baltimore Ravens, this could yet be the year for this generation of 49ers players.

In what was a tight affair throughout, it was the boot of 49ers kicker Phil Dawson that proved vital early on as he scored from 49 and 33-yards to give his side a 6-0 first quarter lead.
Steve Smith’s 31-yard touchdown reception edged the Panthers ahead, while Graham Gano extended the lead to four before Vernon Davis’ touchdown ensured it was the visitors who went into the half-time interval leading.

Kaepernick’s 4-yard touchdown run extended the 49ers lead, and Dawson’s third successful kick ensured the match somewhat petered out, with the Panthers scoreless in the second-half.

Divisional Match Four: Denver Broncos (AFC West winners) def. San Diego Chargers (AFC wildcard)

The Denver Broncos survived a storming comeback from the San Diego Chargers as they edged to a 24-17 win and advanced to the AFC Championship Game.

Denver, who were stunned by a momentous comeback by the eventual Super Bowl Champions, the Baltimore Ravens, at the same stage last year, were apparently cruising at 17-0 heading into the fourth quarter, but a trio of scores from the Chargers had them sweating on the result right to the end.

Thankfully for the Broncos, Peyton Manning was on hand to guide them into the title game for the first time in eight seasons, meaning the injury to cornerback Chris Harris Jr. didn’t end up costing them their vengeance over the only team to beat them in their home stadium this year.
The result brings to a close a momentous second-half of the season for the Chargers, who stormed into the playoffs after going from 5:7 to 9:7 to steal the sixth seed from under the noses of the Miami Dolphins and the Ravens, before they stunned the Cincinnati Bengals in their wildcard match.

Demaryius Thomas’s 2-yard touchdown reception from Manning was the only score of the first quarter, while Wes Welker – making his return to the Broncos team after injury – doubled the home side’s advantage mid-way through the second quarter.

Matt Prater’s 45-yard field goal made it 17 unanswered points in the third quarter, before Harris limped off and the game changed. Philip Rivers launched the first of his two touchdown throws to Keenan Allen and, after Knowshon Moreno briefly re-established the Broncos three score advantage, found the same receiver to make it 24-14.

Nick Novak’s 30-yard effort closed the gap to seven points with 3:53 left on the clock. But, despite being third and 17 to go on their own 20-yard line less than a minute later, the Broncos clung on, with the Chargers failing to stop them on third down on three separate occasions.

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