The divisional round of the NFL postseason saw dominant play in the trenches help two NFC powerhouses advance. In the AFC, a much-maligned defense rose to the occasion, while an underrated running game proved its worth.
Here are the main takeaways from four superb clashes.
Fearsome pass rush is key to a Seattle Super Bowl push
A fearsome pass rush can help the Seattle Seahawks snare their first Super Bowl trophy. An already formidable defense was made even better this offseason when the team signed ends Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett.
The pair destroyed quarterback Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints in a 23-15 win. Head coach Pete Carroll and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn moved them around to create different pass-rush fronts.
The most deadly alignment featured Avril and Bennett on the same side, with Avril at end and Bennett sliding inside to tackle. They combined for a big sack on Brees and hit and hurried him almost every time he dropped back to pass.
With Avril, Bennett, Chris Clemons and Bruce Irvin, Seattle can dominate any of the quarterbacks left in this Super Bowl race.
The Indianapolis Colts must protect Andrew Luck
With Andrew Luck under center, the Indianapolis Colts will be a regular fixture in the playoffs. But they won't progress until they get better at protecting their star asset.
Luck was besieged by pressure against the New England Patriots. He was sacked three times and rarely threw a pass without taking a big hit as he did.
Despite the beating, Luck still made some outstanding plays, even in a 43-22 defeat. He is good enough to win games with his arm, but needs the time in the pocket to do it.
During the regular season, Indianapolis allowed 32 sacks. As a rookie, Luck was sacked 41 times.
That is too many hits for a franchise quarterback to take. Luck would take many more if he hadn't developed movements skills and elusiveness in the pocket.
If the Colts are going to avoid a third-straight early exit from the postseason, they need to keep Luck upright.
Power-based running game is key to New England Patriots' success
The Patriots are in their third AFC title game in three seasons because of their prolific, power-based running game. Few teams in the NFL operate the power scheme as effectively as New England.
The Patriots regularly pull guards to act as lead-blockers for bruising runners like LeGarrette Blount. The 6'0", 250-pounder stomped his way to 166 yards and four touchdowns against the Colts.
With greater balance provided by the run, the Patriots don't miss tight end Rob Gronkowski or a deep threat at wide receiver.
Their relentless rushing attack can continue to control the clock and keep defenses off quarterback Tom Brady.
Carolina Panthers have a major need for speed on offense
Everything they did was slow, painfully slow. Newton took a long time in the huddle, even longer at the line and plays were executed at a snail's pace.
If the Panthers have learned one thing this postseason it's that they need a major overhaul on offense. Greater speed is crucial, both in the backfield and at wide receiver.
But as much as anything else, the Panthers must up the tempo of their attack and pep some life into the man under center.
Offensive line leads the way for the San Francisco 49ers
While their marauding defensive line gets a lot of plaudits, the San Francisco 49ers also possess a rugged offensive front.
The 49ers went into Carolina and pushed around a tough defense thanks the way their offensive line owned the trenches. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick was barely touched, while the Niners also muscled the Panthers in the running game.
The ability to win up front on both sides, makes the 49ers the most dangerous team in this postseason.
Depleted Denver Broncos' defense can still dominate
The Denver Broncos found out that their depleted defense can still be a game-winner. Despite the injury-enforced absence of star playmaker Von Miller, the Broncos smothered the San Diego Chargers.
The defensive brain trust of head coach John Fox and coordinator Jack Del Rio attacked and frustrated quarterback Philip Rivers.
Without Miller, Denver relied on veteran pass-rushers like ex-Charger Shaun Phillips and castoff Jeremy Mincey. The duo delivered, combining for three of the defense's four sacks.
Because of the intense pressure up front, Del Rio was often able to drop seven and even eight into coverage. He used the extra numbers to double-cover the inside seam routes and bracket tight end Antonio Gates.
The plan kept the Chargers stymied until a fourth quarter flourish. While Peyton Manning and his offense were inconsistent, the Denver defense was the key to a 24-17 win.
Fox and Del Rio will have to get even more creative to thwart Brady and the Patriots in the AFC Championship game.
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