Unlike my Winners / Losers Articles from the Regular Season, I am going to give my impressions of all eight teams from the four divisional round games this weekend. I will present the recaps in the order the games were played.
Arizona Cardinals 14 at New Orleans Saints 45
So much for another record shootout. The Saints held up their end of the bargain by scoring 35 first half points and cruising to a 45-14 third quarter advantage that ended up being the final score. It was certainly a shootout, but only one team remembered to load their guns.
QB Drew Brees went 23 for 32 with 247 yards, three touchdowns and no picks. The other star was RB Reggie Bush, who had 84 yards rushing, 24 yards receiving, 109 yards in punt returns and scored on a 46-yard run and 83-yard punt return.
The defense also did a great job of stopping the Cardinals offense. After allowing a 70-yard touchdown run to Cardinals RB Tim Hightower, they gave up only 31 yards rushing the rest of the game. The Saints held QB Kurt Warner to 17 attempts in 26 completions for 205 yards and no touchdowns with one pick. That snapped Warner's streak of 12 consecutive playoff games with a touchdown pass.
WR Larry Fitzgerald was held to six receptions for 77 yards and no touchdowns. That snapped a five-game touchdown streak for Fitzgerald. They also forced a fumble by WR Early Docket. Those two turnovers resulted in 14 points for the Saints and were a big reason the Cardinals found themselves down 35-14 at the half. The margin for error was small, and the Cardinals could not overcome their mistakes.
This looked like the Saints team that started 13-0. They were efficient in the air, were able to pound the ball on the ground and forced timely turnovers. The Saints were explosive. If this team shows up in the NFC Championship, the Minnesota Vikings will have their work cut out for them. The crowd is going to be loud and wanting to see a Saints victory.
The Saints' only other NFC Championship Game appearance was 2006 in Chicago, and this team has never hosted a NFC Championship or appeared in a Super Bowl. This franchise is hungry for a Super Bowl, and the fans can taste it. The Superdome will be rocking this Sunday.
As for the Arizona Cardinals, it is a disappointing but mostly successful season. Last year the Cardinals were the surprise of the NFL. They followed that up with a second consecutive division title and an impressive 51-45 OT playoff win over the Green Bay Packers. The only times the Cardinals went to back-to-back playoff games was 1974 and 1975, when they were in St. Louis, and 1947 and 1948, when they were in Chicago.
This is a franchise that is starving for relevancy, and they found that this year by following up last year's Super Bowl runner-up season with another good season. This cannot be considered the same old Cardinals anymore; the culture has changed, and the Cardinals expect to win every year.
That said, this team was so inconsistent. They beat the New York Giants 24-17 in New York only to lose 34-21 to Carolina, thank to five interceptions by Warner. They beat the Minnesota Vikings this year 31-10 and followed that up with a 24-9 loss in San Francisco where they turned the ball over seven times. They beat the Packers 51-45 and Warner had more touchdown passes (5) than incompletions (4). They followed that up with a 45-14 loss to the Saints. This team struggled to put together back-to-back performances against good teams this year.
This team is at a crossroads, as Warner is 38 going on 39 and may decide to retire. I said the culture changed, but no one is more responsible for that than Warner, and the Cardinals need him if they are going to win the division in 2010. They do not have another quarterback that appears to be viable on their roster; backup QB Matt Leinart has proved inadequate. This team has a lot of talent on both sides of the ball but has some question marks heading into the offseason and needs to improve its consistency.
It will be interesting to see if they can win the division for a third straight year or if the surging San Francisco 49ers can take the title away from them in 2010. They need Warner back to have a realistic shot at the division, but you wonder how much he has left in the tank at this stage of his NFL career and whether he is willing to play another season. Other than Warner, no one knows how those concussions are affecting him.
Baltimore Ravens 3 at Indianapolis Colts 20
The Colts too survive and advance to the next level. It was not an overly pretty game. Four-time MVP QB Peyton Manning was just 30-of-44 for 246 yards passing, two touchdowns, one pick and a QB rating of 87.9. The Colts could not run the ball well, rushing 25 times for 42 yards and no touchdowns.
WR Reggie Wayne led all Indy receivers with eight catches for 63 yards and one touchdown. There are plenty of teams that have lost with those numbers. The Colts made sure they were not one of those teams.
What the Colts did is hustle, and they wanted it more than the Ravens. When S Ed Reed intercepted Manning, WR Pierre Garcon could have quit on the play. Instead, he chased Reed down and forced a fumble, and the Colts avoided disaster. When RB Ray Rice broke a long run, DE Raheem Brock hustled after Rice and forced a fumble.
The Colts did not play their best game of the season from an offensive standpoint, but when they needed to make the plays, they made them, and the defense showed up big, holding Rice to 67 yards rushing, 60 yards receiving and no touchdowns. QB Joe Flacco was held to 189 yards passing, no touchdown passes and two picks. It was a stellar effort, and if the Colts play defense at that level, they will be almost impossible to beat.
Their next opponent is a very similar opponent, the New York Jets. It is a team that runs the ball well and plays good defense but is also limited in the passing game. If the Colts can score 20 points, it will probably be enough for them to advance to their second Super Bowl in four years. While the Jets are going to be a tough opponent, the Colts have to be happy the Chargers are not coming to town. San Diego has ended Indy's season the last two years.
As for the Baltimore Ravens, I don't know how many years they are going to try to win with a strong running game and defense, but this is a team that has not won a Super Bowl since 2000 with that formula. They have little in the way of a vertical passing game. This was the first year they had a 3,500-yard passer since 1996, so the passing game is coming along under second-year QB Joe Flacco. It is much better than some of the anemic passing offenses the Ravens have had in past years; he finally gives them reason to believe they have a franchise quarterback.
That said, the Ravens have never had a 100-yard receiver in a playoff game, and that includes five games with Flacco. It was nice to beat the Patriots 33-14 and to do so with only 10 passing attempts and 34 yards passing. The problem is the Ravens cannot stretch the field on offense against good teams, and when they are behind early in games, they cannot catch up. This team was down 17-3 at halftime, and it was painful to watch them try to get back into that game. The Colts needed only a field goal in the second half; the Ravens never seriously challenged the Colts in this game.
Teams can win with a run first mentality in college. In the NFL, there were 10 quarterbacks who broke 4,000 yards passing in 2009, and Flacco ranked just 15th in passing yards. The rule changes in 2004 have made it a quarterback-friendly league. If the Ravens are going to win in the playoffs, they have to find a receiver that can stretch the field and make big plays. They have to be able to overcome 14-point deficits.
WR Derrick Mason has been a steady veteran, but he is a possession receiver. Teams need possession receivers to win games too, but all of their receivers and tight ends are possession receivers. The Ravens had only 52 passing plays of 20-plus yards. Only the Bengals and Jets had fewer among the playoff teams.
The Jets have been able to reach the conference championship game, but the Ravens did that last year too. I just think to win four consecutive games running the ball and playing defense and not falling behind is a tough task. It is good to play defense and run the ball, as those are also necessary elements for winning Super Bowls, but the reason the Steelers have won two Super Bowls in the last four years is they have weapons to go down the field in addition to those other elements. They can come from behind.
In the playoffs, it is not uncommon to fall behind, and teams have to be able to play from both ahead and behind. The Ravens cannot do that right now.
The other thing the Ravens have to work on is shooting themselves in the foot. They had a big pass interference call that set the Colts up for their second touchdown. They had a long return called back for holding. They intercepted a pass but fumbled the ball. Teams cannot do that in the playoffs on the road if they want to win. The Ravens led the NFL in penalty yards and were tied for third with the most penalties. They need to stop making mistakes at inopportune times if they want to advance to a Super Bowl in 2010.
Dallas Cowboys 3 at Minnesota Vikings 34
I do not know what you say about this team and their ageless quarterback. The Vikings dominated the hottest team in the NFL from the start of the game to the finish. It started with the defense. The Cowboys were averaging 399.4 yards per game in the regular season, 131.4 of those yards coming on the ground. The Vikings held them to just 248 yards rushing, only 93 of them coming on the ground.
QB Tony Romo turned the ball over three times and was sacked six times. The Cowboys are a big play team, but their longest rush was 17 yards and their longest pass was 22 yards. The Vikings defense came into this game to prove a point, and they dominated from the start.
That gave the Vikings offense all the help they needed. QB Brett Favre continued his amazing run at 40 years old with 15 completions in 24 attempts for 244 yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions and a QB rating of 134.4. The four touchdown passes were Favre's most in 23 career playoff games. WR Sidney Rice had six receptions for 141 yards and three touchdowns, which set a Minnesota playoff record. Once they had the lead, RB Adrian Peterson gained 63 tough yards on 26 carries, but it was enough to control the clock. He needs to play better if they are going to beat the Saints next week.
I think this game validates the Favre experiment. The Vikings had a talented team and won the NFC North in 2008 at 10-6 but lost their first playoff game at home to the Philadelphia Eagles. This team had its eye on the Super Bowl, and the Vikings are a lot closer to that goal this year. They went 12-4 and not only won the division, but gained a first round bye as well. Now they won a playoff game by 31 points and are in the NFC Championship.
All but one team fails to win the Super Bowl, and just because the Vikings dominated this week doesn't mean they will win the Super Bowl. The Colts and Saints both dominated, but it is impossible for all three teams to win the Super Bowl.
It is easy to say Super Bowl or bust, but no team can say with certainty that it will win the Super Bowl at the start of the season. Ask the 2007 Patriots, who many people thought were a 100 percent lock to bring home the trophy. The Vikings are not only better than last year; this is their first realistic chance to win a Super Bowl since they played in NFC Championship appearances in 1998 and 2000. They would not be in this position without Favre, which makes the move a success. He has brought a lot of excitement to the Twin Cities that has not been there in recent years. He changed the culture.
As for the Dallas Cowboys, that was about as sad of a performance both on the field and how a certain linebacker and head coach reacted to that loss. I have absolutely no respect for how LB Keith Brooking and head coach Wade Philips handled that loss. The story should have been about the Vikings smoked the Cowboys; instead they wanted to make the story about the running up the score. Brooking called the Vikings classless, and Phillips accused the Vikings of running up the score.
Personally, I think both were classless for trying to deflect from the real story; the Cowboys stunk in nearly every area of the game. That was a player and coach trying to deflect how badly the team played. Brooking is not a high school or amateur athlete. Phillips is not a parent coaching his kids. They are professionals, and the Cowboys pay them millions to do their job.
Phillips and his troops were down 27-3 in that game with 7:41 remaining in the game. If he wants the Vikings to stop playing, he needs to not use his timeouts (he used all three), take QB Tony Romo out of the game, and start calling fullback dives. I would not have respected the Vikings if they left in their starters to run up the score on the Dallas backups that were trying to run out the clock.
Phillips was trying to come back in that game, and while the Cowboys were probably not coming back in that game, stranger things have happened. The Oilers blew a 32-point lead to the Bills in the 1992 Wild Card Round. The Cardinals blew a 31-10 lead to the Packers last week and had to pull that game out in OT. The Cardinals and Steelers scored 23 combined points in the fourth quarter of last year's Super Bowl.
All the Cowboys did is talk about what a good team they were this week, and the Vikings took them at their word. The Vikings have had a few games this season where they let teams back in the game in the fourth quarter, and they did not want to let their foot off the gas. The Cowboys gave them no reason to do that by calling plays that indicated they thought a comeback was possible and leaving their starters in the game.
It was a three-possession game, and the Vikings had the ball deep in Cowboys territory. It was 4th-and-3. They did not want to kick a field goal and risk a block. They could have run the ball, but Dallas stacked the line. They could have thrown for a first down, but the Cowboys covered that. Therefore, Favre threw a pass and scored a touchdown. If you want the dogs called off, you have to call off the dogs too. Put three in the box and give them the first down on the ground. Dallas did not do that, and they got what they deserved.
The Cowboys should be embarrassed on all levels; running up the score was the least of their problems. They had allowed 31 points in their last four games. They gave up 34 points on Sunday. Romo averaged 280 yards passing per game in the regular season. He had only 198 yards passing on Sunday despite being behind the entire game. Romo had not turned the ball over twice since Week Two. He had one interception, two lost fumbles and six sacks.
The only thing the Cowboys did well was hold Peterson to 63 yards on 26 carries with no touchdowns. This team underachieved on Sunday. They could have played better, but they did not. That is the story.
Dallas removed the monkey from its back by winning a playoff game; a week later, they suffered the second worst playoff loss in Dallas history in a game many experts thought they could win. The NFL is a what have you done for me lately business; now the Cowboys have to listen to their critics talk about them coming up small in the playoffs yet again.
The good news is the last time the Cowboys lost a playoff game this bad was 1991, when they lost in Detroit 38-6. The Cowboys would go on to win three of the next four Super Bowls with a 10-1 record in the playoffs those four seasons. There is hope, but whether the score was 27-3 or 34-3, the story was going to be the horrible game they played up there. One play did not change that, and assertions that the Vikings ran up the score should not make us forget how badly Dallas played.
New York Jets 17 at San Diego Chargers 14
It is pretty amazing that the Jets are in a position to advance to the Super Bowl. They were 7-7 and virtually eliminated from the playoffs; even their own head coach admitted so. They lucked into the Colts and Bengals resting for the postseason, and when the dust settled, they were in the playoffs.
Instead of being happy to be there, they went to Cincinnati and won a playoff game. Few people game them a chance to beat the Chargers. The Chargers were 13-3 and won their last 11 games. This was supposed to be the hottest team in the NFL going into the playoffs, and many people thought this was the year they would win the AFC and possibly the Super Bowl. Talk about momentum being all the rage was the storyline heading into the playoffs, and nobody had more momentum than the Chargers.
The Jets did not buy into that hype. The Jets controlled the game on the ground with rookie RB Shonn Greene rushing for 128 of the team's 169 yards rushing. Rookie QB Mark Sanchez was steady with 12 completions in 23 attempts for 100 yards, one touchdown, one pick and a QB rating of 60.1. The Jets scored 17 points, and the way their defense has been playing, that was enough. They held the Chargers to 61 yards rushing, but more impressively controlled QB Philip Rivers, who had 298 yards but only threw one touchdown and had two picks, giving him a rating of 76.9, or about 30 points under his season average.
The Jets consistently stopped the Chargers in the red zone and benefited from 10 Charger penalties for 87 yards and three missed field goals. The result was a Jet win, and they move on to play Indianapolis. Most people will not give them a chance there either, but keep in mind that when the Colts pulled the starters, the score was only 15-10 in the third quarter. The Jets are going to believe they can stay in that game, and if they keep doing the things they are doing, I believe they will make a game out of that.
Imagine if they win this game and the Vikings manage to win their game. It will be the other Favre Bowl--not the one between the Packers and the Vikings, but the one between the Vikings and the Jets, a team that Favre left without much fanfare last year. The Vikings have been a Super Bowl favorite most of the year, but when the Jets were sitting at 5-6, I do not think anyone thought they would play in the Super Bowl, much less have the possibility of playing in that game against their former teammate that left the Big Apple with very little love.
As for the San Diego Chargers, I think this is a disastrous loss for this team. The Chargers have had a reputation for coming up small in the playoffs at home when they are expected to contend for a Super Bowl. In 2006, they had the No. 1 Seed and managed to lose to the New England Patriots 24-21. This is the first time since 2006 that people thought the Chargers were a legitimate favorite for the Super Bowl, and they responded by not winning a game, losing to a team with a rookie QB.
The game was so embarrassing on so many levels. RB LaDainian Tomlinson had not been strong on the season with just 730 yards rushing. Still, this was his best remaining chance to go to the Super Bowl with the Chargers and may have been his last game there. You would have hoped he would have played like RB Edgerrin James did in the same situation for the Cardinals last year, especially seeing how small he came up in the playoffs in 2007 and 2008 due to injuries. Instead, he had 12 rushes for 24 yards. Apparently all his energy was lost in the Electric Glide video shoot.
The 1985 Bears Super Bowl Shuffle was actually cool because they won the Super Bowl. No one wants to do the Electric Glide if the star of the video runs for 24 yards. There was little chance for that video to be hip, but whatever small chance existed was destroyed by that lackluster performance.
K Nate Kaeding was the All-Pro First Team Kicker and had three misses on the season. He responded by going 0-for-3 on field goals, two of the misses coming from inside 40 yards. That is unacceptable. Kaeding is the most accurate kicker in NFL history at 87.2 percent. He is just 8-for-15 in the playoffs and has missed kicks in three playoff games that would have won the game or sent it to OT.
Some people have the Adam Vinatieri gene for clutchness. Kaeding has the Mike Vanderjagt gene. He can kick straight until the playoffs. Once January arrives, his foot goes into hibernation.
Then there is Rivers. He played well, but not well enough to win. You would have hoped for better than a 76.1 QB rating and two picks from a guy many people thought should have been more involved in the MVP conversation. One of those picks was not his fault. It was a fluke play that bounced off WR Vincent Jackson's leg into the air and into the hands of All-Pro CB Darrelle Revis. The Chargers had one of those games where if it were not for bad luck, they would not have had any luck at all. They also created that back luck with bad play.
You have to wonder where they go from here. They have been in the playoffs five of the last six years and have been considered one of the most talented teams in the NFL during that time. They have zero Super Bowl appearances to show for that. If they could not make it this year, what will it take? It is never easy to win a Super Bowl, but it was not going to be any easier than this year. The Chargers blew another golden opportunity.