With the rest of this off week between the Conference Championships and the Super Bowl, I'll be taking a look back at the playoffs (today) and the season at large (Thursday and Friday) before diving back into Super Bowl coverage next Monday. Today, I want to take a step back and look at how the reputation and perception of playoff participants have changed over the course of these past three weeks. That's right: It's time for a Playoff Stock Watch. Let's start with the players who have seen their stock skyrocket during January and work our way down to the players who've crashed and burned.
Joe Flacco: Just about the easiest person to put in any spot on this list, of course, Flacco has gone from average starter to possible Super Bowl winner and franchise leader in three weeks. It's not that he hasn't won in the playoffs in the past or that his defense has totally abandoned him (they're allowing 19 points per game this year after allowing 16.7 during his first nine postseason starts), but Flacco has been able to put together drives where the other team simply can't stop the Baltimore offense from marching on them. That hasn't happened in the playoffs for Flacco before. He's averaging 9.2 yards per pass and hasn't thrown a single interception in 93 attempts this postseason, only losing a fumble against the Broncos. And most notably, his contract comparable has changed Matts: He's gone from Schaub to Ryan on his next deal, and that should be worth $15-20 million or so over the course of the contract.
Corey Graham: I wrote a bunch about Graham in the AFC Championship preview, but he's going to be a regular cornerback for the Ravens next year, and it's because of how well he's played during these playoffs.
Bryant McKinnie: One month ago, McKinnie was a castoff stuck to the bench in Baltimore. Now, in the second year of a two-year deal, McKinnie's exhibited himself to be a competent left tackle during Baltimore's playoff run. Five games (the three he's played in the playoffs, his Week 17 performance against Cincinnati, and the Super Bowl) doesn't seem like a big enough sample to produce a new deal, but that's about all Jared Gaither needed to play in 2011 to get a four-year, $24.6 million deal with $13.5 million guaranteed this offseason. McKinnie won't get that kind of money, but he's going to get guaranteed money in free agency, which is impressive for a player who looked like he was being forced out of football a month ago.
Jim Caldwell: I didn't think the Caldwell move made sense when the Ravens fired Cam Cameron before Week 15, but it's hard to argue with the move now. The expectation was that Caldwell would heed the calls for returning to a run-heavy attack, but the Ravens have been more aggressive passing the football and have produced big drives in the playoffs when they've needed them. The numbers aren't that staggering — the offense has gone from averaging 25.5 points per game under Cameron to 26.2 points per game with Caldwell — but they've been playing a tougher schedule under the former Colts head coach.
Trindon Holliday: Two return touchdowns in your only playoff game is pretty impressive. Of course, it was also his only loss of the year, which goes to show that Trindon Holliday should never return two kicks or punts for touchdowns in the same game, as it will be a guaranteed defeat for his team.
Julio Jones: Per the Football Outsiders stat DYAR, Jones had the best game of any wide receiver this season in Atlanta's narrow loss to San Francisco last Sunday. You don't really need advanced stats to know that 11 receptions (on 13 targets) for 182 yards with two touchdowns is a good day, of course. Only two receivers had more than 102 yards against San Francisco all season, and they each had extenuating circumstances: Brandon Lloyd (190 yards) did most of his work while his team was down multiple touchdowns in the second half, and Michael Floyd (166 yards) did it against a team with little to play for in Week 17. Jones did it on the biggest stage of the year to date. With that performance to finish his year, Jones gave credence to the idea that he could be the league's best wideout next season.
Colin Kaepernick: Before the season began, Colin Kaepernick was in a three-way competition with Josh Johnson and Scott Tolzien for the right to be the primary backup to Alex Smith. At the mid-season point, he was a sub package player who had stoked some curiosity. By the end of the regular season, he was an entrenched starter. And now, after a stunning game against the Packers and a impressive comeback win over the Falcons in Atlanta, you can make the argument that Kaepernick is the most valuable young quarterback in football. If he continues this postseason run with an MVP-caliber performance in the Super Bowl, well, he might make the argument for you.
Matt Ryan: I'm not going to rehash the clutch debate again, but Ryan led his team to a big lead and then a comeback win over the Seahawks, and had arguably the best game anyone had all year against the 49ers, even though most of it was concentrated in the first half. He looks a lot better than he did this time last year, that's for sure.
Ray Lewis: Lewis hasn't been dominant during these playoffs, but he's done enough on the field and contributed enough as a leader to remind people of just how amazing he's been over his 17-year career. It wouldn't have been the same if Lewis's last game had been during the middle of the regular season without any warning. And if the Ravens win next Sunday, the entire title run is going to be rewritten as a trek to the title for Ray, which will give him a Bettis-esque end to his career.
Tony Gonzalez: On the other hand, if this is it for Gonzalez, he's going to leave at the top of his game. Nobody at his position has ever resembled his level of play, and that's nothing new, but Gonzalez finally won a playoff game for the first time this season and had the two best postseason games of his career over these last two weeks. He was already a lock for Canton, but now he can go in as a player who left a year too early.
Jim Harbaugh: If only because this Harbaugh's stock was already about as high as it could go. I can't say enough wonderful things about what Jim Harbaugh does in terms of in-game decision-making, but nobody else in football seems to do the incredibly important things quite as well as he does. He's the best game-by-game game-planner in football, an honor that Bill Belichick used to hold. Nobody constructs and reconstructs his schemes to adapt to the weaknesses of each opponent like Harbaugh and his crew do. His development of Kaepernick, a second-round pick taken one slot after Andy Dalton, speaks for itself. Oh, by the way, did you know that the 49ers traded up nine slots to get Kaepernick in that year's draft? They gave up three picks in the process, and one of those three selections has also had a very notable postseason. More on him later.
John Harbaugh: The other Harbaugh brother isn't exactly a slouch, of course. Only the Giants, 49ers, and Steelers have a better win percentage in the playoffs since John Harbaugh entered the league in 2008, and Baltimore's 62-30 record across the regular season and the playoffs in that time frame is only topped by the Patriots, who are 63-24. I think Jim has the slightly more notable reputation around the league, despite the fact that the Ravens beat the 49ers on Thanksgiving night last year. If John's Ravens win on Super Sunday, he'll vault ahead.
Russell Wilson: I'm still not convinced the Seahawks haven't actually won that game against the Falcons. If anyone could lead a late comeback two weeks after a game's ended, it's Russell Wilson. You know, the guy who was watching film the day after his season ended instead of talking to the media.
A Number of Players Conspicuous by Their Absence: A catchall group here for players who had their backups or injury replacements look terrible during the playoffs. That includes Christian Ponder, Aqib Talib, and Brian Cushing, each of whom would have dramatically increased his respective team's chances of winning had he been able to stay on the field. "You don't want to be stuck with that guy, do you?" is a wonderful motivator in contract negotiations.
Staying About the Same
Peyton Manning: Yes, Peyton Manning! If you already thought Peyton Manning was some playoff choker who couldn't win the big one, you had your beliefs confirmed. If you thought Peyton Manning was unfairly blamed for the mistakes of his peers, you had your beliefs confirmed. If you're somewhere in between, Manning had a good game, left it in his team's hands, had the game blown, but then threw an unforgivable interception in overtime. That all seems to add up to about average to me. One thing that has changed: Manning's performance against the Ravens looks a lot better, given how poorly Tom Brady fared against them last week.
Adrian Peterson: After one of the greatest regular seasons in league history, Peterson had a 22-carry, 99-yard day against a defense that wasn't even remotely concerned about the opposing quarterback throwing the ball more than five yards downfield. The Vikings lost, but it was hardly Peterson's fault; 10 years from now, everyone will remember that Week 17 game against the Packers to get into the playoffs, but nobody will remember the playoff game the following week.
Richard Sherman: Sherman's playoffs was a mix of great defensive stops with a big play or two for the offense thrown in. He enters the playoffs as a great cornerback and underrated shit-talker and leaves as a great cornerback and perhaps the league's most prominent shit-talker. That's a lateral move.
Thomas DeCoud: Speaking of aggressive celebrations, do you remember DeCoud busting out a full-on crotch chop after breaking up a third-down pass to Vernon Davis to end a 49ers drive in the first quarter last Sunday? Well, Davis had five catches, 106 yards, and a touchdown in him the rest of the way, and most of that came with DeCoud in coverage. DeCoud also got beat up by Zach Miller the previous week. Not the best look for the weak link in Atlanta's secondary.
Andy Dalton: Do you think the Bengals wish they'd selected Colin Kaepernick over Dalton? After his second consecutive postseason loss, Dalton seemingly had the entire world decide that he had reached his ceiling in the first round of the playoffs and that the Bengals should start looking for a new quarterback. As a good rule, if you make it to the playoffs with a rookie quarterback in each of his first two seasons, it's probably worth giving him another shot or two before you make a move away from him. With that being said, the crop of rookie quarterbacks that have sprung up around Dalton almost all seem like superior options.
Matt Prater: Prater earned his big-money contract in Denver by hitting a number of big kicks last season to win games, and Prater backers noted his clutch bona fides by pointing out that he had only missed one fourth-quarter field goal in his entire career. Well, he missed two more fourth-quarter field goals this year, and in the divisional round, he missed his only kick of the day, a 52-yarder (in the thin air of Denver) that might have eventually served as the margin of victory for the Broncos.
B.J. Raji: Raji was one of the worst players on the field in Green Bay's loss to San Francisco, as he was taken out of the game almost single-handedly by 49ers center Jonathan Goodwin.
Wes Welker: Welker had 16 catches for 248 yards in his two playoff games this year. Imagine what his numbers would look like if he hadn't dropped a half-dozen more passes during those two games.
Dashon Goldson: The Pro Bowl safety was burned repeatedly by the Falcons on Sunday, who exploited his aggressiveness with double moves and routes designed to get him alone in coverage against Atlanta's big wideouts. If Julio Jones went past him, Goldson shouldn't be much of a roadblock for Torrey Smith.
Robert Griffin: It's a little unfair that RG3 ends up here, but a bad knee injury will do that to your stock.
Ray Rice: Isn't it weird that the Ravens are in the Super Bowl and their star running back — the guy around whom they built the offense — hasn't had a loud postseason? His cumulative line for the postseason is very mundane: 64 carries, 247 rushing yards (3.9 yards per pop), four catches (on 10 targets) for 69 yards, and as many touchdowns as fumbles lost (two). Bernard Pierce has looked much livelier than Rice when he's had the ball. Baltimore was cutting down Rice's reps during the regular season presumably so he could be a workhorse in the playoffs, but outside of a couple jukes on screen passes, Rice has been a very ordinary back during Baltimore's title chase this year.
Joe Webb: The second most obvious figure to appear at the bottom of the charts, Webb simply couldn't throw the football when his team needed him to.
Clay Matthews: This GIF (courtesy of CBS's Will Brinson).
Aldon Smith: The missing-sacks report for Smith has been filed; whether it's the absence and then limited abilities of his partner in crime, Justin Smith, his own wear-and-tear after a long season, or just the sheer chance that Smith would have a bad four-game stretch hitting town, something's not the same about a guy who was among the league's most exciting pass-rushers before Week 15.
Bruce Irvin: Seattle's version of Aldon Smith wasn't up for the task in the divisional round, as he breathed life into the Atlanta offensive line by failing to stop the Falcons' rushing attack.
Mike Shanahan: This.
Rahim Moore: Again, let's finish with the most obvious candidate for this grouping. Moore goes from being a decent young safety whom most people hadn't heard of to an infamous example of a rookie mistake. I would say that he's the football equivalent of Steve Smith, but there are already two football equivalents of Steve Smith, so it'll probably be hard to point out that I mean the old hockey defenseman as opposed to either of the league's wide receivers. As Jacoby Jones has shown, you can get over a memorably bad postseason play with a big play the following year, so let's hope that Moore comes up with a big pick next January.
Oh, that player who was the primary haul for Kaepernick? That was Rahim Moore. The Broncos traded down and picked up picks they used on Moore, Quinton Carter, and Julius Thomas. You suspect they would prefer to have Kaepernick for themselves these days, even if it was in the Brock Osweiler role as a backup to Peyton Manning.