What a Wild Weekend

What a Wild…Wild…Wild Card Weekend

Wow! The opening weekend of the NFL playoffs did not disappoint. The four games from Wild Card Weekend all had their special, memorable moments. Records were broken and overall there were highs, lows, and plenty of fireworks. The historic comeback and record breaking performance by the Indianapolis Colts started off the weekend with a bang and the other three games followed right in line. Let’s take a look at how each of the four games played out.

 

Indianapolis Colts 45

Kansas City Chiefs 44

 

This was a clear tale of two halves. Alex Smith and the Chiefs dominated the opening 30 minutes, jumping out quickly to a 24-7 lead and took an astonishing 31-10 lead into the half. After Andrew Luck threw an interception on the opening play of the second half, the Chiefs capitalized right away, scoring a touchdown with 13:39 to go in the third quarter to take a 38-10 lead. From there, the Andrew Luck show began. After getting the ball back, Luck led the Colts right down the field for a score, capped by a 10-yard Donald Brown touchdown run. After a Robert Mathis strip-sack, the Colts scored quickly again to narrow the gap to 38-24. Still down two scores, the Colts now had a quarter and a half, and a fired up Lucas Oil Stadium crowd, to mount the comeback.

That’s exactly what happened. Despite mixing in his third pick of the game in the second half, Andrew luck led the Colts on three more touchdown drives, including a 5-yard touchdown after he recovered a Donald Brown goal line fumble, and the game winning 64-yard touchdown pass to T.Y. Hilton with 4:21 remaining on one of the prettiest throws you will ever see. The Colts completed the comeback to win the game 45-44 in one of the most memorable playoff games in recent memory. The 28-point revival was the second largest in NFL playoff history.

In the purest of sports ironies, after the Chiefs rested many of their key players in Week 17 to prevent major disasters, the injury Gods struck down hard on Kansas City. The Chiefs managed to jump out to what, at the time, seemed like an insurmountable lead despite losing MVP candidate Jamaal Charles minutes into the game. Then, after backup Running Back Knile Davis filled in admirably for Charles (100 total yards, 7 receptions, 2 total touchdowns), he too went down with a knee injury and would not return. The Chiefs also suffered injuries in the game to Wide Receiver Donnie Avery (79-yard touchdown catch) and pro bowl defenders Justin Houston and Brandon Flowers.

Players of note: Alex Smith finished with one of the best performances of his career, passing for 378 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions (one lost fumble), despite losing his best offensive weapon on the opening drive. Smith also added 57 yards with his legs, including some key scrambles to extend drives. My predicted X-factor turned out to be a NON-factor as Trent Richardson got just one carry and lost a fumble on the same play. He did not receive another touch the rest of the game as Donald Brown continued to shine as the Colts primary runner and pass catcher out of the backfield.

Co-MVPs: Andrew Luck and T.Y. Hilton

It’s impossible to pick one guy over the other. The QB-WR duo combined for a record setting day and together led the Colts to the improbable win. Luck remained poised throughout the game, despite three interceptions and facing a 28-point deficit and ended up with five total touchdowns and the fifth highest passing yardage game in NFL history (443). Hilton was Luck’s favorite target all day, as the second year receiver hauled in a franchise playoff record 13 receptions for 224 yards and two touchdowns, including the game winner. You can never count out Andrew Luck – the kid is special.

Disappointment of the Game: Defense

This distinction could have fallen a number of ways: the number of devastating injuries to key players, not getting to witness the special talent of Jamaal Charles in the playoffs, or to Andy Reid and the entire Chiefs team for blowing a 28-point lead. However, NFL postseason football should be all about defense – or at least some semblance of it — and this game featured none. The two defenses combined to allow 1,049 yards and 58 first downs. The Colts are going to have to tune up that defense quickly or they will be blown right out of Mile High Stadium next week by Peyton Manning and company.

 

New Orleans Saints 26

Philadelphia Eagles 24

 

In what was projected to be the offensive shootout of the opening round, the Saints/Eagles game began with a completely different composition. Following a game that saw 89 points light up the scoreboard in Indianapolis, the two high powered offenses managed just 13 points combined in the first half as each defense held strong and made up for the complete lack of defense from the 4:30 game on Saturday. Despite outgaining Philadelphia by 70 yards in the first half, two Drew Brees interceptions led to a 7-6 halftime deficit for New Orleans. It didn’t help the Saints to be without leading rusher Pierre Thomas, who missed the game due to injury.

Out of the tunnel to begin the second half, the offenses started to wake up. After a quick 3-and-out by the defense, Drew Brees and the Saints offense took the ball at midfield and went right down the field in six plays to score their first touchdown of the game (Lance Moore 24-yard touchdown reception), regaining the lead 13-7. After stopping the Eagles once again, the Saints went on a near 5-minute touchdown drive to go up 20-7, which was promptly answered by a LeSean McCoy touchdown run to cut the deficit back to 20-14, heading into the fourth quarter. As expected, Brees was the key to the Saints offensive turnaround, finishing the third quarter 7-8 for 99 yards and one touchdown/no interceptions.

Each team traded field goals to start the fourth quarter and then the Eagles finally regained the lead 24-23 after a Nick Foles to Zach Ertz 3-yard touchdown pass with 4:58 remaining. However, a long kickoff return by Darren Sproles, plus a 15-yard horse collar penalty, put the Saints across midfield, only needing a field goal to pull out a win. From there, Sean Payton and Drew Brees engineered the clock perfectly, manufactured a 5-minute drive to run out the clock, and Shayne Graham kicked the game winning 32-yard field goal, providing the Saints with a 26-24 victory and the first road victory in franchise history. The win sets up a rematch with Seattle next Saturday, where the Saints were blasted 34-7 on Monday Night Football in week 13.

 

Players of note: With leading rusher Pierre Thomas out with an injury, Mark Ingram answered the call as the workhorse, rushing for 97 yards and a touchdown (3 catches/17 yards) as the Saints primary back, giving the generally high octane passing attack a little more balance that kept the aggressive Eagles defense on its toes all night. NFL rushing champion LeSean McCoy was held to just 77 yards and one touchdown on 21 carries.

MVP: Shayne Graham has played for seemingly every NFL team in his long career, including a brief stint with the Saints to begin his career. After terrible inconsistency by Garrett Hartley over the last two seasons, Graham was re-signed by the Saints on December 17, 2013. He rewarded the Saints for his second chance on this night by going 4-4 (36, 46, 35, 32) on field goals, including the game winning 32-yard field goal as time expired.

Stats of the Game: Surprisingly, the Saints were not led to victory by 400+ yards from the golden arm of Drew Brees. Rather, this game was ultimately won by the banged up New Orleans defense. The Saints allowed just 256 total yards to an Eagles offense that averaged 417 per game during the regular season, and in total, the Saints offense outgained the Eagles by 178 yards. The Saints won the time of possession battle 35 minutes to 25 minutes, which was fueled by third down efficiency (NO: 7-13; PHI: 3-12 (2-2 on 4th). Despite losing the turnover battle 2-0, the Saints defense held strong all night to help earn a date with Seattle next week.   

 

San Diego Chargers 27

Cincinnati Bengals 10

 

There’s the old cliché that says “well, it’s better to get there and lose then to not have gotten there at all, because at least you had a chance.” If I’m a Cincinnati Bengals fan, I call bullshit. The Bengals have not won a playoff game in 23 years. Specifically for the last three seasons, the team has looked strong in the regular season and made the playoffs, this year winning the North division, with hopes of ending this playoff losing streak and making some noise in the AFC. This year, the team looked so resilient and balanced for the entire season that some analysts were even picking the Bengals to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl at MetLife Stadium on February 2nd.

One thing that I forgot when I picked the Bengals over the Chargers this week, and what the analysts must have forgotten about as well, is that Andy Dalton sucks. S-U-C-K-S… SUCKS! In what is now three career playoff starts, Dalton sports a 0-3 record and the Bengals lost these games by a combined 44 points, with the offense only managing 11 points per game. In those games, Dalton completed just 57% of his passes, with one touchdown, six interceptions and a lost fumble, all equating to a quarterback rating of 56.2[1]. Yesterday was just par for the course, as Dalton finished the game 29-51 and had three turnovers in the second half, including two brutal interceptions and a lost fumble despite going untouched. His decision making and accuracy throughout were very poor. If I’m a Bengal fan, I’m hoping that it’s just one more season (his contract expires after next season) of suffering through Andy Dalton-led games, regular season or playoffs.

I’m not spending a lot of time on this game – it was essentially unwatchable and was easily the least intriguing/entertaining game of the weekend, as predicted. There are no real stats to throw out and nothing much to analyze. The Bengals lost in heartless fashion (again), despite being the largest favorite of the weekend at -7.5 and going through the entire season undefeated, winning all eight games at home.

I stand by my earlier prediction that the Chargers cannot win the Super Bowl. Of the eight teams remaining, I believe they are the only team without a shot to hoist the Lombardi trophy – and having to travel to Denver next weekend, who has revenge on the mind, does not help their chances either. But I do need to formally apologize to old Philly Rivers. I expected him to fail this week and instead he went out and managed a brilliant victory. While only throwing 16 passes (12/16), he made some key throws to extend drives and made plays when it counted the most. More importantly, he avoided big mistakes – the Bengals feasted on defensive opportunities this year, forcing 41 turnovers and scoring six touchdowns during the regular season. Great game, Phil. However, opposing Peyton Manning is as far from opposing Andy Dalton as it gets.

Players of Note: Andy Dalton sucks.

MVP: Anyone not named Andy Dalton.

LVP: You guessed it! Andy Dalton.  

 

 

San Francisco 49ers 23

Green Bay Packers 20

 

This game took years off my life. Before the game, one of my best friends said to me “you’re getting worked up — over a game that you have no control over?” It was a completely logical question with no possible rational answer that I could give her. I could only respond, “Yes.” I’m not sure what it is about sports, particularly with teams that we root for, that makes men act the way that they do. We’re not getting paid, have no stake in the outcome one way or the other, and will still have to get up and go to work the next day whether the team wins or loses. That is, unless your team blows the Super Bowl, you find yourself in an insomnia-laced stupor, and are literally too tired to go in the next day. I’m not proud. Yet, for some reason, these games become like life and death. They become games filled with anxiety, stress, and plenty of foul language. I felt more nervous yesterday than Jim Harbaugh looks – and that man is wound so tight he makes everyone feel a little uncomfortable. All of the above happened yesterday for me, but thankfully, Colin Kaepernick made it all okay.

In frigid temperatures, including wind chills that reached -14 degrees, the 49ers added another chapter to their recent owning of the Green Bay Packers. Granted, the Packers, most specifically their much maligned 2013 defense, played fantastic. Without their best defensive player, Clay Matthews, the Packers held the Niners to 23 points, with the help of two important goal line stands early in the game, which kept the game from getting out of reach. In the end, Colin Kaepernick and the stout San Francisco defense were able to conquer the freezing temperatures as well as one of the game’s top quarterbacks, to earn a date in much warmer Carolina next week.

From the opening kickoff, San Francisco looked very good. After a quick 3-and-out to begin the game, the Niner offense took the ball and went down the field. Despite getting inside the 5 yard line for a first-and-goal, Kap and crew could not punch it in, settling for a field goal. After yet another stop by the defense, it was more of the same, going right down the field, only hoping this time for seven to jump out to a bigger lead, knowing Aaron Rodgers was bound to get hot. After another Packer goal line stand, with help from a blatant missed pass interference call, the Niners again settled for a field goal and a 6-0. This is where the stress began to rise. After a Kap interception on the next drive, the Packers went right down the field with their best drive of the game to that point, culminating with a Rodgers-Nelson touchdown.

It was pretty deflating to have outplayed Green Bay so significantly, yet find them down 7-6. Fear that they had missed their early opportunities began to creep in. However, the resilient offense came alive with a three minute drive that ended with a Frank Gore 10-yard touchdown run. After a Crosby field goal as the half expired, it was nice to be up 13-10 but the thought that it could really be 21-6 San Francisco was impossible to ignore.

After a scoreless third quarter, each team traded touchdowns on their opening possessions of the fourth quarter and after a second Mason Crosby field goal with 5:06 remaining, the score stood at 20-20. My first thought after the field goal crossed through was “okay… just one long, sustained drive and they can run out the clock and win the game, never giving Rodgers the ball back.” That’s what I wished would happen… not necessarily what I thought would happen. Well, color me surprised. The offense used up the remaining 5:06 with a thorough 14 play drive that went 65 yards before knocking in the winning field goal. The key play was Kaepernick’s third down scamper inside of two minutes, and the game ended the way all 49ers fans, including myself, wanted… with Aaron Rodgers on the sidelines. The winning 33-yard field goal was both stressful and stressless. The seconds leading up to that kick were exhausting. But after a Green Bay rusher jumped offside, it did not matter that the kick was almost blocked or that it narrowly flew through the right upright, because Dawson would have gotten another crack, five yards closer. But, like he has done all year, old reliable placed the Niners in the Divisional Round next week and the sigh of relief I felt was more than I could describe.

See you in Carolina… where the high temperature is expected to be a sweat-inducing 62 degrees.

 

Quote of the Night: “It’s not cold. It’s all mental.” Colin Kaepernick when asked by Erin Andrews in a post-game interview how cold it was during the game.

 

Stats of the Game: San Francisco outgained the Packers by 100 yards. It was truly a fantastic performance as a unit, holding down one of the most prolific offenses in the NFL. Through 59:57 of play, the score was tied 20-20 and almost every other measurable statistic, other than total yards, was close. In the end, after a Phil Dawson field goal (he has made 32 of last 33 attempts), San Francisco led in the one stat that mattered most – the score – earning the 23-20 victory.

 

San Francisco

Green Bay

First Downs

22

18

Total Plays

62

61

Total Drives

10

10

Penalties

2

3

Time of Possession

29:03

30:54

 

MVP: Despite the performance of a defensive unit that held Aaron Rodgers to his lowest passing yardage total in his playoff career (177), and a strong performance by wide receiver Michael Crabtree (my lone X-factor to not embarrass me), Colin Kaepernick was easily the most impressive player in Lambeau Sunday. Just like he did a year ago, Kaepernick controlled the Packers with some laser throws, especially to his favorite target Crabtree, who reeled in eight of Kap’s 16 completions for 125 yards. But once again, on this day, the difference in the game was Kaepernick’s ability to scramble outside the pocket and turn dead plays into long gains that just demoralize a defense. While it was not the record setting 181-yard explosion of last year in Candlestick, he picked up 98 rushing yards, none bigger than the 11-yard gain on 3rd and 8 with under two minutes to go. This first down (after a huge block from Frank Gore) allowed San Francisco to kill the remaining time on the clock and kick the winning field goal as time expired, never giving Rodgers the change to break the hearts of Niner-Nation. It was a tremendous drive engineered by Kaepernick that chewed up the remaining 5:06 of the clock.

Frustrating Issue of the Game: Despite getting the victory, the 49ers cannot beat Carolina or Seattle, let alone win the Super Bowl, without cleaning up its management of the play clock and timeouts. I’ve witnessed the same problem all season long. The 49ers burn through timeouts in a half faster than Tony Siragusa burns through a Five-Dollar Footlong. A usual culprit of wasted timeouts during the season was the ever-overzealous Jim Harbaugh, who can’t help himself when it comes to throwing the red challenge flag. I swear the man is a robot. A play will go down, Harbaugh immediately gets all riled up, and slings the flag onto the field just like he throws the pigskin during pregame warmups. Just like that, one challenge and one timeout down the drain.

There were no such challenge issues on Sunday. However, this was mainly due to the fact that San Francisco had wasted timeouts so fast in each half that a challenge was virtually impossible. Just as they had all year, disarray and dysfunction at the line of scrimmage led to Colin Kaepernick burning quick timeouts. Before the 9:00 mark in the first quarter, San Francisco was already down to one timeout after two near delay of game penalties. That was infuriating enough. It got even worse in the second half after Kaepernick burned a timeout before the first play of the second half… yes, I said THE FIRST PLAY OF THE SECOND HALF. If a team gets one play right, it should be the first play of either half, given all of the preparation and planning time they have leading up. To make the wasted timeout sting a little more – the next play was an incompletion. No positive yards – one timeout gone. Then, even MORE infuriating was when the second timeout was blown.

Again, early in the third quarter, Kaepernick signaled for a timeout as the play clock approached zero. Generally, I am in favor of taking the delay of game penalty and using the next play to get back some yardage, saving the timeout for a critical spot late in the game. In this case, I wasn’t as upset because the Niners were on the cusp on field goal range in a close game and points were at a premium. Satisfaction quickly turned into frustration when Kaepernick took a sack on the very next play after the timeout, knocking the offense out of field goal range, forcing a punt. It turned out a delay of game** penalty would have been the better option. Burning timeouts is one thing. Not capitalizing on the use of such timeouts is thereby wasting timeouts and often comes back to bite teams at the end of games. Luckily, notwithstanding all the stress, the Niners escaped and are moving on. But, this issue needs to be addressed now, because they will not be invincible going forward and at some point on the path to the Super Bowl, those timeouts might prove more valuable than ever. Exit soapbox.

**Fun fact: even with all of the burned timeouts during the season to avoid delay of game penalties, San Francisco STILL lead all teams in 2013 with 11 delay of game penalties, the only team with double digits in that category[2]. OY! Am I right, Doogie Shratweiser?




[1] http://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/D/DaltAn00/gamelog/post/

[2] http://www.nflpenalties.com/penalty/delay-of-game?year=2013

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