NFL Playoffs 2012: Epic 49ers Comeback, Tom Brady Returns And A Giants Upset

The NFL's Divisional playoff weekend didn't have quite the thrill or the drama that the Wild Card contests brought just a week prior, but still there was plenty of shock, awe and entertainment with how the weekend's games turned out.

All of the Tim Tebow faithful around the country collectively shut their mouths on Saturday, as Tom Brady tied a playoff record with six touchdowns and once again showed the world why he's one of the best in the game.

The NFL's Divisional playoff weekend didn't have quite the thrill or the drama that the Wild Card contests brought just a week prior, but still there was plenty of shock, awe and entertainment with how the weekend's games turned out.

The talk of the weekend surely came out of that little Wisconsin town, as Eli Manning and the New York Giants shocked the football world once again, eliminating Green Bay in ravenous fashion.

The remaining three games didn't hold the same sort of weight as the Giants upset win in Lambeau, but there were still plenty of important tidbits to take away.

Alex Smith finally started to prove his lofty draft status, just seven years into his career, and the 49ers returned to the peak of NFL elite. Tom Brady and the Patriots' quieted all the doubting critics with a 45-10 romping, and Baltimore flexed its defensive muscles, squeaking out a 20-13 win over Houston.

As the NFL's final four now turn the corner and make their way into the home stretch on championship weekend, there's still so much to recap before even jumping into the coming week's storylines.

A San Francisco Treat

Saturday's opener was, for my money at least, the best game of the weekend. The 49ers controlled the tempo just about all afternoon and confused perennial league MVP Drew Brees for the better of three quarters.

Once he figured it all out, the Saints offense was back rolling and yet again looked near unstoppable. While Brees found his rhythm once more so too did former no. 1 overall pick Alex Smith, who has been converting critics all season long.

Smith put forth an amazing effort in his playoff debut, accounting for all four of San Francisco's touchdowns and leading the 49ers offense to successful red zone trips, something that plagued them this season, all afternoon long.

The defense did their part, shutting down Brees potent attack with plenty of coverage disguises and pressure up front. The 49ers forced five turnovers, a season-high for New Orleans, and were able to sack Drew Brees three times on the afternoon, an anomaly since Brees was taken down the fewest of any QB starting all 16 games this season - Rodgers included.

The main point taken away from Saturday's big win remains, when it came down to crunch time the 49ers offense responded like any championship team would. That final drive down field -- 7-plays, 85-yards and a touchdown in just 1:28 - was as if not more impressive thank any of New England's six touchdown drives over the weekend.

The 49ers proved this weekend that they are tough, efficient and have a quarterback, who can take lead them to a title.

The Giants are likely to be the favorite heading into the weekend, but if I were Tom Coughlin and Co. I'd be ready for just about anything come Sunday.

***

The Return of Tom Terrific

It was a long four years. Two playoff losses, a defensive realignment, the extradition of Rany Moss, a torn ACL and a league MVP stood between playoff wins for Tom Brady and the Patriots, but Saturday night's victory in Foxboro was as sweet as they come.

From their very first offensive drive - 4 plays, 72 yards and a 7-yard Wes Welker touchdown - you could just tell that the Patriots were focused. Brady connected with Rob Gronkowski for 10-catches and 145-yards on the night, including three touchdowns - one of which might have been the catch of the year.

It was like watching the ‘Tom Terrific' of old -- as in pre-Giselle, before the long hair and the Brazilian shimmy, and of course pre-UGG endorsements. You know the kid with the short buzz-cut, the insatiable desire to win and that genuine million-dollar smile, well he was back on Saturday.

Brady appeared rejuvenated against the Broncos, like nothing had ever changed, as he zeroed in on targets like the old days and delivered every ball on the money like clockwork. The reigning NFL MVP went to town on the Denver defense, completing 26 of his 34 passes for 363 yards and the aforementioned six touchdowns.

No amount of schemes, disguises or pressure seemed to deter the suddenly renewed boy wonder, who allowed just two defended passes and not once succumbing to the pressure of Pro Bowl pass rushers Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller. He was unstoppable.

The Patriots' defense did more than their part in the win, holding Tim Tebow 9-of-26 passing and bringing down the big bodies QB five times on the night. Vince Wilfork and the Pats' ever criticized defense also found success against the run, slowing the Broncos' powerful ground game to just 3.6 yards per carry.

As always Bill Belichick and his staff were better than ready for Tebow and Broncos on Saturday, now it's time for the real test as the Ravens come head to Foxboro for a showdown of the AFC's top two teams. We'll see how Brady handles the pressure of Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs bearing down on him every play or if the Ravens D is too much for New England to handle.

***

Ravens' D Does It Again

Baltimore busted through the gates flaming hot on Sunday afternoon, scoring each of their opening three possessions for a quick 17-3 lead. The game looked almost to be a wrap by midway through the second quarter, as Joe Flacco had suddenly transformed into Tom Brady and the Ravens defense was as stout as ever.

Those tides turned quick in Baltimore. Arian Foster, 27-rushes for 132-yards and touchdown, and the Texans had very different plans in mind. Houston pulled a quick turnaround before halftime, scoring 10 unanswered and cutting the lead to 17-13 heading into the locker rooms.

The second half was an epic defensive struggle, as both sides flexed their defensive strengths. The Ravens forced rookie quarterback T.J. Yates into two late interceptions, a Baltimore specialty, while the Texans brought the house on Joe Flacco taking the fourth-year QB down five times in the game.

The defenses stood tall all afternoon long, but in the end it was the quarterback play that sealed the outcome. This game was by no means a standard in terms of quarterbacking in the NFL, at times both signal callers looked lost and had trouble finding windows to fit the ball into. Flacco's 97.1 QB rating looks much better than it was and Yates should be given somewhat of a pass as he performed about as well as expected in just his sixth NFL start.

Nonetheless, a late Billy Cundiff field goal cemented the victory for Baltimore and sent a very deserving Texans team home for good.

Heading into New England, the Ravens have plenty of questions to account for, the biggest of which may be Ed Reed's status after suffering a late ankle injury on Sunday. But, injuries aside, it will be Joe Flacco's performance in Foxboro on Sunday that gets the most attention. Facing off against the legendary Tom Brady for a shot at the Super Bowl, now that's the stage to properly judge a quarterback.

***

Lambeau Losers

The Giants are apparently impervious to the frozen tundra of Lambeau field. Heading into Lambeau for the second time in four seasons, Tom Coughlin had his troops ready and New York dropped the mighty Packers in a 37-20 rout.

Eli and the G-Men played David to Aaron Rodgers and the Packer's Goliath on Sunday, slaying the mighty beast and shutting down the league's ‘best player' in a way no other team, even the Chiefs, was able all season.

Manning was the far superior quarterback on Sunday, going 21-of-33 for 330 yards and 3 TDs - including the halftime Hail Mary to Hakeem Nicks that completely altered the game's outcome. Rodgers put together his most pedestrian day of the season going 26-of-46 for 264 yards and tossing just two touchdowns on the day, which also included a season-low 78.5 passer rating.

It was a tough day for Rodgers, who was sacked four times, turned the ball over twice and ultimately lost his championship belt at home to the likes of Giants' LB Michael Boley discount double checking all over the field.

Big Blue may not have wowed anyone with their running game, as usual, or even stopped Green Bay from picking up first down after first down (GB -25, NYG -19) but the Giants utilized their aggressive pass rush and opportunistic defense to pull off a huge upset and move one step closer to repeating their 2007 Super Bowl feat.

Sunday's meeting with San Francisco will likely be their biggest test of the season, as much like the Giants the 49ers just do not relent on defense. Eli will have to bring his ‘A game' once more and the likes of Boley, Antrel Rolle and Jason Pierre-Paul will need to shut down an invigorated 49ers offense if they hope to secure a spot in Indianapolis.

***

Player of the Week: Alex Smith, QB, San Francisco 49ers

24/42, 299, 3 TDs/0 INT, 28-yd TD run

As much as I cringe not putting Tom Brady in this spot, after 363 yards and 6 TDs, but I just can't overlook Smith's unbelievable performance willing the 49ers to victory this weekend.

A newly transformed Smith rediscovered the skills that made the 49ers pass over the league's other MVP candidate Aaron Rodgers for the no. 1 overall pick in 2005. It only took but seven long years to reach this level, but the widely regarded bust QB is finally proving to be the type of quarterback everyone expected, coming out of Utah.

Another couple clutch performances like Saturday and Smith could be looking at not only a hefty raise but the rebirth of a career in San Francisco.

Hats off to Smith for his stellar performance and here's to hoping he continues wearing that awesome blue-collar shirt in postgame press conferences, because I badly want one for myself.

***

Performance to Forget: Tim Tebow, QB, Denver Broncos

All the Tebowmania has, thankfully, subsided and the focus of these playoffs is back on football. A tough performance against a well crafter Belichick defense over the weekend should not take away from all Tebow was able to accomplish this season, but it should well put it in perspective.

America's favorite athlete went just 9-for-26 for 136 yards and 0 TDs in Saturday night's loss, coming back to earth once more. Tebow seemed very confused throughout the night against New England's defensive looks and even when taking off in the run game, he just couldn't find an opening.

The 45-10 loss was actually a lot worse than it seemed, especially against a Patriots' defense that ranked near last in the league in just about every defensive category.

Tebow and the Broncos were in deep from the moment Brady and the Pats' offense touched the football on Saturday. It didn't make matters any better that the Broncos controlled time of possession 33-26, because Brady was on a whole other level and the offense didn't need more than 3:35 to score on any one of their six touchdown drives.

It's not necessarily Tebow's fault that Denver lost so embarrassingly on Saturday, but his inaccuracy sure didn't help.

***

Overlooked Performance of the Week: Hakeem Nicks, WR, New York Giants

Nicks was an absolute game changer, once again, for the Giants on Sunday. All the hype in New York this season has surrounded up and comer Victor Cruz, who salsa danced into the hearts of Giants fans everywhere.

This postseason it's been the Hakeem Nicks show. After a two-touchdown performance against Atlanta in the Wild Card game, Nicks responded on Sunday with seven receptions for 165 yards and 2 TDs.

His biggest catch of the day came just before the halftime whistle sounded. With seven seconds left on the clock from the Packers 37-yard-line, Eli Manning dropped back and heaved up a prayer to the far corner of the end zone. Nicks rose up above Charles Woodson and the rest of the Packers defenders, snatching the free ball away from Woodson and falling to grass below, touchdown in hand.

That was unquestionably the turning point in the game, as the Giants took a 10-point lead into the locker room and re-emerged with a new sense of purpose and focus. Nicks played out of his mind on Sunday and proved to any doubters that he wasn't just the best receiver on the Giants but on that entire field.

Just for Fun: Gronk being Gronk

I couldn’t leave Gronkowski’s huge game out of this column, so I figured I’d show the Gronkster some love with a little video tribute I found on youtube.

I was snooping around for some classic Gronk lingo or another porn star photo to share, but it looks like as candidly hilarious as he is there’s just not as much classic footage as you’d expect.

Anyhow, the 6’6, 265-pound animal lit up the Broncos defense on Saturday night, while reeling in three touchdown passes, including that ridiculous falling snag in the corner of the endzone, and I just couldn’t finish up without showing the big man some love.

GRONK SPIKE!

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