7 Things I Learned From the Conference Championships
The AFC and NFC Championships are over, and for just the second time in 20 years, we’ve got a pair of one seeds battling it out for the Lombardi.
The last time this happened? 2009, when Peyton Manning’s Colts lost to the New Orleans Saints, of course.
This isn’t the norm in today’s NFL, especially when you consider we’ve recently watched the Steelers, Giants and Packers take it the distance after entering the playoffs as wildcard teams. We’re used to seeing underdogs and “hot” teams, not squads who have been at the top of the league throughout the entire season.
It’s good to see the change though. In a parity-filled sport, it’s nice to watch the clear top-two teams representing their conferences in the Super Bowl.
It's bound to be a great championship. But before we go into two weeks worth of analysis and content around the big game, let's first talk through the things that I learned over the weekend. It may give us a glimpse of what’s to come in Super Bowl XLVIII.
1. Peyton Manning is the NFL’s best quarterback.
Alright, maybe I didn't learn this, but the thought was certainly supported by yesterday's performance. People have wanted the MVP race to be an actual race all year long. They wanted Tom Brady to be talked about in the same breath as Peyton Manning. But regardless of the difference in weapons – the difference in support – it’s very obvious that Peyton Manning was and is the best quarterback of the 2013 season.
This is no knock on Tom Brady, despite my words about him and the MVP award in December. This is all about Manning, who played out of his mind once again, catapulting his team to the Super Bowl for the third time in his Hall of Fame career.
Perhaps this is the game where pundits stop referring to Manning as not being clutch, or a choker in the playoffs. His 400 yards, two touchdowns and 118.4 quarterback rating on 43 passes will do the talking.
2. The Danny Amendola experiment failed.
Though this point could’ve been concluded during the regular season, it’s amazing to see Danny Amendola’s failure of a season on the biggest NFL stage.
The Patriots wideout – a position where New England could have used a lot of help down the stretch – caught zero passes yesterday, including one drop. And it’s not as though he didn’t see the field: Amendola played 41 of the Patriots 59 snaps in Denver yesterday.
In terms of our Net Expected Points data, Amendola was about as efficient as Ted Ginn Jr. and rookie Marlon Brown catching the ball this season. On a per target basis, Amendola was barely better with Tom Brady this season than he was with a carousel of St. Louis signal-callers in the past.
3. Russell Wilson is perfect for Seattle.
Though a lot of folks seem to think that I hate Russell Wilson (because of this), the truth is the exact opposite. And I think it could be because he’s simply impossible to hate.
He’s also perfect for this Seahawks team. Wilson’s an efficient passer (top 10 in Passing NEP on a per drop back basis this season) who can make things happen when a play breaks down. It's the perfect match to a team that plays a bruising, fantastic style of defense - the Seahawks don’t need Wilson to have a stellar day for the team to win. They just need him to be Russell Wilson, a passer who can move the ball down field, winning the field position game, and one that doesn’t turn the ball over often.
Did he miss some passes? Of course. He missed plenty of them. But there’s a reason the team is 15-3 with Wilson under center this season: He gets it done.
4. Doug Baldwin has a lot of potential.
Baldwin finished yesterday’s NFC Championship with six catches for 106 yards, including significant work in the return game (three returns for 109 yards). He was the best Seattle wide receiver on the field by far.
This isn’t a huge surprise to us. Of all the wide receivers with 30 or more catches this season, Baldwin ranked fourth in Reception NEP per target. If not for a lack of volume, Baldwin could have been a much more consistent fantasy football (and real) option than most realize.
5. Colin Kaepernick deserves a lot of credit.
The 49ers passer faced a tough task this week, going into Seattle to face off against the best secondary – by far – in the league this season. In fact, as I noted last week, Seattle’s secondary was actually the 12th-best one we’ve seen since 2000, even though this is a much more efficient NFL in terms of quarterback play.
Kaepernick threw two picks (one at the end of the game), and wasn’t overly effective through the air. But he was resilient, putting the team in a position to win at the end of the game. He had 130 yards on the ground (just 24 fewer yards than what he had through the air), including a long 58-yard run that set up the first touchdown of the game.
There’s a bright future for the 49ers quarterback. During his first year as a starter, Kap had the eighth-best Passing NEP per drop back score of all relevant passers. That rank didn't change this season, as he finished better than Tony Romo, Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady.
6. You never want to mess with Richard Sherman.
Richard Sherman created one of the most epic post-game interviews we’ve ever seen, and whether or not you liked it, there’s one fact that remains obvious: You don’t mess with Richard Sherman. Or his top-ranked defensive unit. That's all.
7. The numbers don’t lie.
After Week 1 of the NFL season, our numbers had the Denver Broncos with a 24.9% chance of getting to the Super Bowl, while the Seahawks had a 10.3% shot. Those were the two highest odds in the AFC and NFC respectively.
Though a lot of folks could have predicted this, our nERD rankings have consistently had these two teams at the top throughout the entire season.
The conference championships could have gone a different way, and this point wouldn’t be nearly as strong as a result. But they didn’t. Denver and Seattle were analytically the two best teams in the NFL. Our algorithms don’t care what their records say, or what seed they were. Plain and simple, they were the two best teams. And that’s why we ranked them the way they did.
Thanks to them for making us look good, guys.