Before scaring the hell out of Erin Andrews and setting social media ablaze with his unfiltered thoughts on Michael Crabtree, Richard Sherman made the play of the game. Despite the corner’s assertions, Crabtree is far from mediocre. Yet Sherman stayed stride-for-stride with the receiver down the right sideline, turned his body, leapt into the air and stretched out his left arm to deflect a would-be go-ahead touchdown pass from Colin Kaepernick. Malcolm Smith came up with the interception, securing the Seahawks’ spot in Super Bowl XLVIII.
“There are not many guys who can make a play on this ball,” said Troy Aikman as the Seattle crowd boomed in the background.
Chip Kelly frequently calls the NFL a player’s league, and that sequence with under 30 ticks remaining Sunday night demonstrated his point. The fate of two franchises came down to a one-on-one matchup. If Sherman doesn’t get his paw on that ball, the Niners are playing for the title in New Jersey in two weeks. But he did, so the Seahawks advance.
Credit Seattle for hitting on Sherman in the fifth round back in 2011. That is one of many wise personnel moves that has allowed the Seahawks to climb to these heights. They have a strong coach-quarterback duo in Pete Carroll and Russell Wilson, no doubt. But that doesn't make them unique among the final four. Belichick-Brady, Fox-Manning, Harbaugh-Kaepernick. Strong pairings across the board. The deeper you get into the postseason, the greater the chance you have of running into these kind of one-twos, so you better have other difference-makers on the roster as well.
Denver had Demaryius Thomas -- a 2010 first-round pick -- come through. Tight end Julius Thomas (a fourth-round selection in '11) also had a pretty big day in the AFC Championship win over New England. The list goes on for both winning teams.
The question for the Eagles is: which developing players on this roster have a chance at becoming bona fide playmakers? Out of the young core, there are four that stick out to me:
1) Fletcher Cox: The former first-round pick went through some growing pains while transitioning to a new role in a 3-4 but still finished with a team-best 21 hurries and added three sacks.
"I think when he has another year in the scheme, he will continue to get better," said Howie Roseman, via the team's website. "I think the future is incredibly bright for Fletcher Cox because there are not a lot of guys who have his skill set, and then he works hard at it."
2) Mychal Kendricks: Though up and down in pass coverage in particular, Kendricks totaled 137 tackles, four sacks, three interceptions and recovered four fumbles.
3) Brandon Boykin: Finished second in the league in interceptions (behind Sherman, actually) despite being on the field for roughly half the defensive snaps.
"We need playmakers on defense," said Roseman. "Mychal and Brandon Boykin are big-time playmakers, they make plays. That doesn't mean everything is going to be perfect on every play, but it's hard to get the ball back and we need to get the ball back for our offense, and they do a great job."
4) Zach Ertz: The rookie out of Stanford showed some big-play ability and finished with 36 catches for 469 yards with four touchdowns.
Just how close are the Eagles from being in the same class as the Seahawks and Broncos? That will be debated for a good portion of the offseason. Safe to say they still have a ways to go. Part of the key to catching up is to have some of these young players grow to their full potential. That's essential in a league where fates are often decided by a singular play, as they were Sunday evening.
WHAT YOU MISSED
From Connor Barwin’s role to Chip Kelly’s love for DeMeco Ryans, Sheil offers three leftovers.
Matt Barkley's future and more addressed in the latest Twitter Mailbag.
Our "Crystal Ball" series wraps with a look at free agents Kurt Coleman, Colt Anderson, Clifton Geathers and Donnie Jones.
WHAT THEY'RE SAYING
Jeff McLane on the job Roseman has done since wrestling power away from Joe Banner.
It is only one winning season, and the Eagles are still a long way from having the sustained success of the Reid-Banner regime, but the changes implemented by the 38-year-old GM had a direct effect on this season's 10-6 mark and the promise the future holds.
The last two drafts have produced eight players who project as starters next season. Free agency has been a mixed bag, but the signings of mid-tier talents haven't bogged down the Eagles with guaranteed contracts beyond the first year.
And the most important change was the hiring of Kelly, whatever role Roseman played along with Lurie and team president Don Smolenski in landing the innovative coach.
Reuben Frank caught up with the 32-year-old Evan Mathis, who is heading to his first Pro Bowl.
“I’ve always dreamed big and worked hard to attain my goals,” Mathis said. “Early in my career, it was tough to aim so high and fall so short.
“I learned from all the experiences and stayed relentless despite the circumstances. Had I just been content being in the league, I wouldn't have lasted long.”
Sheil is in Mobile, Alabama for the Senior Bowl.We'll have it all covered for you this week.