NFL Wildcard Weekend Recap

Demaryius Thomas is still running, the Saints are still marching, the Falcon offense is still scoreless, and the Bengals still haven’t come out of the locker room for the 2nd half in Houston. Oh yeah, some quarterback in Denver put on a show, too. I think his name is Tebow.

Before we get into recapping the weekend’s events, let’s first thank the NFL league office for protecting quarterbacks and wide receivers like their rhythmic gymnasts, and also for making the rules regarding fumbles so confusing that even NFL officials blew two very big calls in two different games. So, thank you, NFL league office. I can’t wait until Synchronize Swimming replaces NFL football on the most dangerous sports list.

(6) Bengals 10 at (3) Texans 31
No surprises here. The team with the better run game and the superior defense advanced. That usually happens in the playoffs, especially with two rookies at quarterback.

Although the score doesn’t reflect it, this was a tightly contested game throughout the first half until an outstanding interception by rookie J.J. Watt was returned for a touchdown in the closing minutes of the 2nd quarter. The game changed after that play, and the young Bengals never recovered.

It’d be easy to point blame at Andy Dalton and accuse him of being outplayed by fellow rookie TJ Yates. While that may be true to an extent, Yates had two very important luxuries that Dalton was without; a running game and time.

The Texan offense led by Arian Foster racked up nearly 200 rushing yards at over five yards per carry. The Bengals mustered only 76 yards at four yards a clip. Yates didn’t have to carry his offense. Sure, he made plays when necessary, but the burden of offensive production fell on Foster and the Houston offensive line. Dalton was responsible for the entire Bengal offense. Cincinnati would only get what Dalton could create and unfortunately for Dalton and the Bengals, he was rarely afforded time to create anything as he was under heavy pressure all afternoon. His three interceptions look bad, but one was a Hail Mary attempt on 4th down. The other two were simply fantastic plays by the defense.

I’m not exonerating Dalton by any means. He needed to play better regardless of his situation. To blame him, though, when his defense failed to make big plays on multiple occasions, his running game was non-existent, and his receivers showed their inexperience would be unfair.

Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis didn’t have his best day, either. Lewis was out of challenges before halftime. His second challenge was completely emotional. The replay clearly showed the play was called correctly. You can’t enter the 2nd half of a playoff game without any challenges. You just can’t. Lewis needed to breath deep before throwing that second flag after seeing only one replay. His emotions got the best of him.

The playoffs are also about making plays. Chris Crocker dropped a sure pick six in the 3rd Quarter with the Bengals trailing by a touchdown. Instead of a tie game, the Texans converted a 3rd down the next play and scored two plays after that when Andre Johnson left Pacman Jones tripping over himself. At that point, the Bengals were done. You could see it on their faces, in their frustration, and their effort on the field.

All is not lost in Cincinnati, though. The Bengals are a young and talented team with what appears to be a franchise quarterback, talented young receivers, and a strong defense. More importantly, the Bengals get an additional 1st round pick this year from the Carson Palmer trade as well as an additional 2nd round pick in 2013 to further improve their roster. While it didn’t turn out as they may have hoped, playoff experience for such a young team is an important part of building a winning franchise.

(6) Lions 28 at (3) Saints 45
To no one’s surprise, the Lions got defensive after losing to the Saints when reporters and news outlets used terms like “torched” when referring to Saturday night’s outcome. Sorry fellas, but when you surrender 35 points in the 2nd half, “torched” is an understatement.

This much we know; if the Saints were the top seed in the NFC, they’d be a shoe-in for the Superbowl. Drew Brees is simply unbeatable inside the Superdome. Sure, it took him the whole 1st half to find his groove, but once he found it, it was over for the Lions. Brees is playing on another level right now. The 49ers can only hope a change of scenery will derail the Saints high-octane offense.

Similar to Saturday’s early game, this was another tale of two halves. The Lions played sound football in the 1st half. The offense scored two touchdowns on drives of more than 80 yards and limited the Saints offense to just four possessions. The defense kept Drew Brees at bay by getting decent pressure and keeping everything in front of them. More importantly, the Lions forced two fumbles and should have had a defensive touchdown had the officials not screwed up. It was a great 1st half for the Lions. They executed their game plan to perfection.

The 2nd half? Not so much. Blame Tony Dungy. I rarely watch halftime shows. I use the time to watch another game, get food, or chase my son away from toilets, stoves, computers, and sharp objects. For whatever reason (probably to see Charles Barkley), I tuned into the halftime show and heard Dungy wonder aloud why the Saints weren’t attacking the Lions down the field. Dungy implied the Saints would need to let Brees go downfield in order to open up the game and get the Lions into a shootout. This just in: Tony Dungy knows what he’s talking about.

The Saints stormed out of the half and scored touchdowns on their next five possessions including four completions over 40 yards. The Lions were shell-shocked, stumbling back to their corner like a boxer ready to fall. The defense completely fell apart. The pressure that harassed Brees earlier had disappeared. Receivers were running past the Detroit secondary, the finger pointing and confusing looks began, and the Lions weren’t taking advantage of turnover opportunities like they had in the 1st half.

Offensively, the Lions kept within striking distance until the 4th quarter when the pressure of keeping pace with the Saints offense forced Matthew Stafford into two interceptions. Game over. The Saints now travel to San Francisco to battle the NFC’s top defense and … gasp! … grass.

(5) Falcons 2 at (4) Giants 24
I’m not ready to write off Matt Ryan just yet. Eli Manning looked like he’d never win the Giants anything and then he (kind of) led the Giants to a Superbowl title out of nowhere. Now, Manning is one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks and best big game performers, especially in the 4th quarter.

Back to Ryan. He looked bad on Sunday. The Giants pressure flustered him. It appeared he couldn’t figure out what the defense was doing and he missed open receivers when big plays were there to be had. Most importantly, he looked overwhelmed – Donovan McNabb-ish, if you will. Ryan is still young, but he’s been in the league long enough to know that if you can’t win in the postseason; you won’t be a franchise quarterback for long. 2012 will be a crucial year for Matt Ryan and the Falcons.

Mike Smith also belongs in that category. After three playoff appearances in four years, Smith is one of the NFL’s better coaches. However, coaches who can’t win in the playoffs have even less leeway than quarterbacks who don’t win in the playoffs. Someone should remind Smith of his multiple failures on 4th and short in crucial situations. When you’re on the road with the opportunity to put points on the board in a scoreless game, you kick the field goal. Every. Single. Time. It’s not rocket science. The risk isn’t worth the reward. Take a look:

Risk: Come away from a solid drive against a defense playing at its highest level of the season empty-handed. Plus, your team loses confidence, you ignite the home crowd and you give momentum to the opponent, who, up to that point, hadn’t gotten anything going.

Reward: The POSSIBILITY of four extra points and added confidence to your offense. However, if failing to convert costs your offense 45% of its confidence, converting only gains you 25%. Again, the risk in that situation isn’t worth the reward.

Although the Falcons played poorly, the Giants and Eli Manning deserve credit for pummeling Atlanta. The New York defense allowed less than 250 total yards to the NFL’s 10th ranked offense and pitched a shutout against the 7th best scoring team. As I mentioned in my Wildcard picks, the Packers are a little nervous. Expect plenty of nightmarish flashbacks to the 2007 NFC Championship Game throughout the Wisconsin region this week.

(5) Steelers 23 at (4) Broncos 29
I don’t think there’s anything left to say about Tim Tebow that hasn’t already been said. His performance on Sunday was undeniably the highlight of the weekend, followed very closely by the announcement of McDonalds Double Cheeseburger Value Meal for $3.29. (Seriously, it’s like Christmas in January.)

Tebow continually finds ways to surprise his teammates, opponents, and anyone who has ever watched a football game. Last week, Tebow couldn’t find the ocean from the beach. This week, he’s fitting spirals into basketball sized holes while throwing for over 300 yards against the NFL’s TOP RANKED PASS DEFENSE (all caps for emphasis). Are you kidding me?

I’m as shocked as anyone, and I even predicted this type of game from the Broncos:

I don’t see how this is an easy win for the Steelers. They’ll struggle to move the ball and score because they can’t run the football all that well. With Roethlisberger’s knee injury and limited mobility/escapability, the Bronco pass rush should have opportunities to create big plays.

To review; low scoring affair (whoops!), outcome could hinge on one or two big plays, Pittsburgh’s best weapon is gimpy, and although the magic has dissolved, Tim Tebow has pulled off crazier things before. I’m just saying.

Regardless of what I said on Friday, I’m still amazed by the outcome. Here are some other points worth mentioning from the Mile High Surprise.

  • Ron Winter (the head official) didn’t have his best day, but he originally made the right call on the backwards pass that was later ruled an incompletion. If you go back and watch the play, Winter doesn’t blow his whistle or make any move to end the play. He knew it was a fumble so he let the play continue. Why he backed down and allowed one of the side judges to make the call is beyond me. It almost cost the Broncos a postseason victory.
  • I know many people don’t like Phil Simms, but he was right on with his assessment of the Steelers offense on Sunday. Simms wondered aloud why the Steelers weren’t spreading the Broncos out a la the Buffalo Bills or New England Patriots. When they finally did, the Steelers moved up and down the field and scored 17 2nd half points.
  • The Steelers clearly missed Ryan Clarke at safety. His replacement, Ryan Mundy could be found chasing Bronco receivers and missing open field tackles most of the afternoon.
  • The arrogance of the Steeler defense was unbelievable. Even while Tebow was converting big plays down field, the defense continually allowed receivers to get beyond the secondary. Although the Broncos only scored 3 points in the 2nd half, they moved the ball and chewed precious time off the clock. Denver didn’t have a single three-and-out in the 2nd half. Tebow was effective in the option and the Steelers struggled to stop one of football’s oldest plays. For one of the league’s best units, that’s inexcusable. Obviously, a day to forget for the Steeler defense.
  • The Steelers blew this game back in the 1st quarter when they were dominating but ended up kicking field goals instead of scoring touchdowns. A 14-0 lead would have forced Denver into a more pass oriented offense, allowing the Steelers to tee off on Tebow. Instead, Pittsburgh only had a 6-0 lead and gave Tebow and the Broncos time to gain confidence. In two big plays – a 51 yard bomb to Demaryius Thomas and a 30 yard TD to Eddie Royal – the Broncos took a 7-6 lead and grabbed momentum.
  • Tim Tebow. He had a rough start, but the aforementioned bomb to Thomas appeared to settle him down. He was equally as dangerous in the ground game. The Steelers had no answer for him. There are followers. There are leaders. And then there’s Tim Tebow. After the victory, my father-in law sent me a text that read, “Tebow.” My response: “Tebow.” I think that says it all.

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