10 things we learned from Divisional Round Sunday

Jim Harbaugh has been to an NFC Championship Game every year he has coached the Niners.

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Championship Weekend is set in stone, but it’s not too late to look back at how we got here.

The Divisional Round was a treat for football junkies, and traditionalists are happy to see the NFL is resorting to the old-school, grind-it-out mentality of the past. Here are 10 things we learned on Sunday:

John Fox beats Mike McCoy at his own game. While much of the discussion coming into this game was about the Chargers dominating time of possession, it was Peyton Manning and the Denver offense grinding out long drives and bleeding chunks of time off the clock. The Broncos finished with over 35 minutes in time of possession and used the keep-away tactic on the final drive. Facing a third-and-17 with less than three minutes left in the fourth quarter, Manning connected with tight end Julius Thomas for a 21-yard gain. The Chargers ended up using their last two timeouts, but aggressive calls on offense would seal the victory.

Playoff experience matters. It’s easy to point at some of the Panthers’ after-the-whistle mistakes, but they dramatically affected the way this game shook out. A chippy atmosphere didn’t excuse a personal foul call on Mike Mitchell and a head-butting penalty by Captain Munnerlyn. "Some things happened out there," Rivera said. "We don’t want to be pushed around, but we do have to maintain our composure, and that falls on me as the head coach."

Give Chargers credit for not quitting. With a 17-point deficit and just a little over eight minutes remaining in the game, the Chargers continued to believe. Quarterback Philip Rivers noticed rookie wide receiver Keenan Allen had some space on cornerback Quentin Jammer. Allen hauled in the 49-yard pass to extend the drive. Three plays later, Rivers would find Allen for a score. Then, the Chargers were able to recover an onside kick. They moved the ball deep into Denver territory to bring the game within one score with a little under four minutes remaining in the game. Unfortunately, San Diego’s defense was unable to get off the field. In fact, it couldn’t all day. Broncos punter Britton Colquitt wasn’t called upon once all day.

Denver’s interior linemen battled all day. The overriding theme coming into next week’s AFC Championship Game will be the two quarterbacks and their high-flying offenses. Yet, it’s impossible to overlook how each team got itself in this situation. A day after the Patriots ran for 234 yards and six touchdowns, the Broncos had a well-balanced game plan (36 pass plays, 34 run plays), and it all started up front. Not only did the Broncos not allow a sack on Manning, but guards Zane Beadles and Louis Vasquez alongside center Manny Ramirez also got a consistent push against San Diego’s young, athletic defensive line. The Chargers have invested two first-round picks in Kendall Reyes and Corey Liuget, but they were largely non-factors for most of the game, outside of Liuget’s tackle for a loss. Bill Belichick will surely be ready for a heavy dose of the run next week.

Cam Newton’s uneven performance. The Panthers had the ball for only seven meaningful possessions, and two of them ended in turnovers. Newton threw a pass behind wide receiver Brandon LaFell, which led to a Patrick Willis interception in the first quarter. The other turnover was a pass intended for Greg Olsen, but was picked off by safety Donte Whitner late in the game. It wasn’t all bad for Newton, who threw a dime to Steve Smith in the second quarter for a 31-yard touchdown. Newton made some other great throws and was productive in the running game, leading Carolina with 10 carries for 54 yards.

Donald Butler is going to get paid. The Chargers’ fourth-year linebacker is set to test free agency as his rookie contract will expire at the end of the league year. Butler, 25, has been a captain on defense for San Diego the past couple seasons and had his defining moment on a great play before the half to halt a score. Butler was able to make an athletic play, catching a ball that ricocheted from Broncos wide receiver Eric Decker’s hands for an interception and getting both feet in bounds.

Nobody has a better hard count than Manning. Little things make the Broncos quarterback the best in the game. Besides his touchdown and yardage numbers, Manning does many things that don’t show up in a typical box score. Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano was aware of Manning’s ability to check at the line of scrimmage, but likely didn’t prepare the front four for hard counts. Manning was able to draw five neutral-zone infractions, which kept drives alive leading to points.

49ers opponents must pick their poison. Anquan Boldin was acquired from the Ravens for a sixth-round pick this past offseason. He leads the 49ers in receiving this season and had a masterful performance against the Panthers, nabbing eight balls for 136 yards. A week after Michael Crabtree had a big game against the Packers, opponents are forced to give Boldin some respect. 

Chargers must find a better way to protect Rivers. San Diego trotted out 16 different offensive-line combinations this season. Although the Chargers spent a first-round pick on D.J. Fluker last season, they could still use some more stability. Right guard Johnnie Troutman was frequently exposed, and the Broncos sacked Rivers four times. All of the pressure added up to San Diego having just 1 passing yard as a team in the first half.