We usually take this time to give you a recap of the previous day’s playoff games with our notes of things learned. But since there wasn’t a real game on yesterday (ok, the Pro Bowl was), we’ll instead turn our gaze backwards to the most memorable playoff performances we’ve seen in the 2011 postseason.
A couple of surprises: no running back has left a definite mark on the playoffs this year despite appearances by Ray Rice, Arian Foster and Frank Gore. And we’re not sure if we’re more surprised that San Francisco’s D showed up twice or that two 49ers offensive performances made it. Now that we’ve piqued your interest, take a look at the performances and get ready to argue the case for your favorite players to get a spot.
10. Joe Flacco vs. The Patriots – AFC Championship — Joe Flacco probably entered this game with many more doubtful eyes on him than he would have liked. After a couple weeks of defending himself to the media and declaring that he should be considered elite too (no Eli), the screenplay for failure was perfectly written. However, that script was misplaced and given to Billy Cundiff by mistake, but Flacco had himself a game for the ages against the Patriots. He spread 22 completed passes to 7 different receivers (keep in mind he plays for the Ravens, not the Packers), including a go-ahead strike to Torrey Smith. Let’s also not forget that Joe put the potential game-ending ball neatly in Lee Evans’ hands, who decided at the last minute that he had something better to do than play football. Had that drop been a completion, not only would Tom Brady and co. been sent packing (much to my delight), but Flacco could have been the worst quarterback since Trent Dilfer to try to get the Lombardi Trophy. — Raj
9. Demaryius Thomas vs. The Steelers – AFC Wildcard — Tim Tebow received most of the glory after this game, but his wide receiver Demaryius Thomas was the one who put the Broncos on his back and won the game for them. DT hauled in 4 of Tebow’s ten completed passes that evening, including receptions of 51, 58, and a whopping 80 yards for a touchdown, the last one becoming the game-winner. He finished with 204 yards, and just over half of them came after the catch. Particularly, on the opening play of overtime he caught Tebows’s laser pass at his own 40 and then proceeded to single-handedly stiff-arm and outrace the Steeler tandem of Ryan Mundy and Ike Taylor for the remaining 60 yards. Of course everyone raved about Tebow, but without Demaryius Thomas’ magic, the Broncos would have been another team from a terrible division that had no business playing in the postseason. — Raj
8. Drew Brees vs. Lions – NFC Wildcard — How do you beat a team when you give up four touchdowns? You score six of your own. The high-powered New Orleans Saints hung 45 points up on a usually stout Detroit defense, 21 coming from the rocket arm of former Super Bowl MVP Drew Brees. Completing almost 77 percent of his passes for 466 yards (which is now the all-time mark for passing yards in a regulation playoff game), Brees continued to rack up numbers at the same torrid pace that led to him breaking Dan Marino’s 1984, single season passing record. — Greg Whitt
7. Megatron vs. Saints – NFC Wildcard — I heard someone say on Twitter recently that they would take Victor Cruz over Calvin Johnson if he had to choose between the two of them today. I thought about this performance against the New Orleans Saints and laughed so hard that I was in pain. Megatron completely disemboweled a Saints defense, who’s game plan was almost exclusively devoted to neutralizing him, in a 45-28 losing effort on January 7. The Detroit Decepticon caught 12 passes for 211 yards and two touchdowns, with half of those receptions accounting for more than 11 yards each. — Greg Whitt
6. Tim Tebow vs. The Steelers – AFC Wildcard — Let’s get the obvious out of the way: this was the worst defensively coached game in NFL playoff history. The Steelers went into zero coverage half the game and dared Tebow to make passes down the field. To his credit, The Southpaw Messiah answered the challenged and tossed the ball for more than 300 yards and an 80 yard touchdown pass to win in overtime. No first-time quarterback has faced more pressure in one playoff game and Tebow rose to the occasion. Even the most ardent hater can’t deny what he did here. — David D.
5. Drew Brees vs. The 49ers — NFC Divisional Round – Look, if Alex Smith doesn’t make that TD drive to eliminate the Saints, Brees’s game would go down as one of the greatest QB performances of all time. But he lost, so it’s forgotten. However, he completed 40 passes, 400+ yards, four touchdowns and two fourth quarter touchdown drives on the road against the best defense we’ve seen since the 2001 Ravens. And let’s not forget he led a comeback after being down 17-0. Vernon Davis’ touchdown eliminated the Saints and a QB performance people should be talking about for decades. — David D.
4. Alex Smith vs. Saints – NFC Divisional Round — Compiling one game-winning drive would have blown our expectations for Smith out of the water. Compiling two within the game’s waning minutes will catapult his play into “best ever” level. His play flickered and faded agains the Giants, but for one game at least, a player many of whom have labelled a bust managed to channel the ghosts of Joe Montana and Steve Young. — A.J.
3. Eli Manning vs. The 49ers – NFC Conference Championship — The younger Manning provided steady, inspired play all season; a trend that continues throughout the playoffs. His performance against the league’s top defense lacked home run plays, but in a rather remarkable statistic, he passed the ball 58 times without turning it over, including numerous clutch third-down completions. This year’s Giants look a lot like that 2007 squad, and Eli is playing like a man possessed. Patriots fans should be worried. — A.J.
2. Vernon Davis vs. The Saints – NFC Divisional Round — If there was ever an MVP for the playoffs, you’d have to believe Vernon Davis falls in the top two. Once infamously dubbed as the guy Mike Singletary “can’t win” with, V.D. (no jokes, people) transformed himself into arguably the first tight end people will take in their fantasy drafts next fall. His performance in the now classic divisional game versus the Saints – seven catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns – put him on another platform. It was the game winner, however, which instantly placed him alongside the likes of Dwight Clark and Terrell Owens to make landmark playoff catches in the organization’s storied history. — J. Tinsley
P.S. – It’s a testament to how good this game is that 30 percent of the list comes from it.
P.P.S. – It’s also a testament to the Saints D that 30 percent of this list comes from people they had to defend.
1. Tom Brady vs. The Broncos – AFC Divisional Round — The fact that he’s always been a vindictive son a of a bitch since getting drafted in the sixth round in 1998 may be Tom Brady’s best quality. As fans, we love that trait in an athlete’s DNA. Hence the reason his half a dozen touchdown performance against Tim Tebow and Denver Broncos (including five in the first half!) was as expected, but still a joy to watch as Tom gave the sports world one of its more lopsided “kiss my ass” games in recent memory. Now, the question remains, can he inflict the same sort of revenge on Eli and the Giants? — J. Tinsley