In honor of a weekend that went against script (the teams that coasted into the playoffs looked great and the hottest team in the league did not), I’m going to write about all of the games completely positively. I do so because we’ve become too much of a negative, sarcastic society, especially in the blogosphere, and I have the tendency to go negative too often. It will be a challenge.
Saints over Cardinals
We wondered if the Saints could “turn it back on” in time for their divisional round game and they did. The first play reminded too many casual fans of last week’s start to the Patriots/Ravens game, and Saints fans had to be a little nervous as Tim Hightower raced 70 yards for a score. Great teams respond when they have to and the Saints scored touchdowns on five of their first six possessions to end it.
It’s a cliché to say that teams play better with the lead. The Saints’ defense plays better with the lead. They play much looser and tend to get turnovers. The theme for the weekend was get turnovers and win. Another cliché.
It was a curious move when the Saints signed Deuce McAllister, the team’s all-time leading rusher, prior to the playoff game. The ploy worked. While McAllister didn’t play, four different running backs did. Fantasy owners must have been curious when Lynell Hamilton scored the first touchdown. Pierre Thomas had most of the carries. It took three kneel downs at the end, but the Saints had more runs than passes. Watch out, America.
And what happened to Reggie Bush? He was a man possessed. The back-breaking play of a breathless first quarter was his 46-yard touchdown run. He got hit, stood up, hit the accelerator and was gone. Used sparingly, he is explosive and hard to slow down. I think he got a first down or a touchdown on all of his touches. There was talk that the Saints would let him go but I don’t think they can afford to do so.
We even saw the return of Jeremy Shockey. Limping noticeably, he still managed to snare a touchdown pass in the first quarter. He didn’t contribute much for the rest of the contest, but his attitude helped a lot on a team that had to be nervous at first.
You think it will be a challenge to say nice things about the Cardinals? Yes, their defense gave up 70 points in a four-quarter stretch. That’s tough. The D did make the key play to win last week’s game. This week there weren’t plays to be made. Tim Hightower’s game-opening run showed that he’s really turned the corner in his second year. I expect Beanie Wells to be the main ball carrier next year, but Hightower will get his.
Kurt Warner’s tough. On a second-quarter interception, he ran to make the tackle and was knocked off his feet by a fierce block. I don’t think Tom Brady or Peyton Manning even tries to make that tackle. He came back later in the game but it was out of hand at that point. If he retires, I hope fans remember his incredible first-round performance and not Saturday’s game in which the Saints were clearly superior.
Look at it this way. The Cardinals have won playoff games in back to back years. They should build a statue of Ken Whisenhunt.
Colts over Ravens
We wondered if the Colts could get back to playing at a high level after their curious decision to sit ’em down in the middle of a game against the Jets. The offense wasn’t amazing but it was good enough. The defense made sure that the Colts would host the AFC Championship game.
The Colts have never overwhelmed us with their offensive prowess this year. Where they excel is the two-minute offense. That’s where they won the game. Manning hit rookie Austin Collie to take a 10-3 lead. The Ravens went three and out and Manning did it again. That nice man Ray Lewis helped extend the following drive. The touchdown with three seconds made the score 17-3 and the Ravens didn’t have enough offense to rally.
You know from previous columns that I’m not a Ravens fan. I’ll be brief. This team managed to win three road playoff games in two years. Joe Flacco is improving as a quarterback. Ray Rice is sensational. If you’re going to turn the ball over four times, you’re not going to win. The Ravens even managed to turn the ball over on a turnover when Ed Reed fumbled after a long interception return. You can’t overcome that. The Ravens should be the favorites to win the AFC North next year.
Vikings over Cowboys
Bully to you if you started Brett Favre and Sidney Rice this week, as my cohort Mr. Funk did. The Vikings stumbled at the end of the season. They needed a win and an Eagles loss to get a first-round bye and did so. The once dominant defense was giving up yards. Would they break against a plasma hot Cowboy offense?
The game was decided in a first-quarter sequence. The Cowboys drove inside Viking territory three times in a row. They scored zero points. Favre hit Rice on a go pattern for a touchdown. The Vikings made their big plays and the Cowboys stumbled all day.
Favre looked great and he didn’t have to throw a lot of passes. Save that arm for the harsh elements of the Superdome, I say. Adrian Peterson struggled but a smart team keeps giving him the ball. Sidney Rice is the reason why the third-year WR breakout theory will survive for another five years. His best play was when he started blocking, got knocked to the ground, and got up to find an opening down the seam.
The defense was fantastic and reminds us why this team was an early Super Bowl favorite. The NFC Championship game should be as good as we hoped this game would be.
Tony Romo and the Cowboys reversed their usual December fortunes. They, like the Ravens, had an unfortunate time to play at far less than their best. The Vikings kept them from making big plays all day. They found a stud receiver in Miles Austin and Felix Jones looks like the playmaker at RB that they’ve been waiting for. The future is bright.
Jets over Chargers
I feel for Chargers fans. They did what the announcers wanted the Colts and Saints to do. Keep winning. Last year’s hot team heading into the playoffs, the Colts, had the same result. It makes you want to pull out your hair, assuming that you have something to pull.
I felt like this was going to be a tight game. The Jets weren’t doing anything on offense but the Chargers couldn’t move either. I thought that if the Chargers could open up a two-score lead that they would win going away. They never were able to extend the lead.
All I can say about Nate Kaeding is bless you, my son.
In the third quarter Rivers put up what they call a 50/50 ball. It was Vincent Jackson against Darrelle Revis. With Revis you might call this kind of play a 51/49 ball. Jackson had the height advantage but Revis got a hand in there, and somehow, miraculously, the ball bounced into his hands. That was bad fortune.
The Jets pulled ahead 17-7 but the Chargers didn’t give up. Rivers got them into field goal range. We know what happened there. The D held and Rivers led them to a touchdown. There was slightly more than two minutes to go. The Chargers had one time out. I thought they might kick away but they went onside. It was a good kick. The Jets got the ball and ran out the clock.
The Jets kept waiting and waiting and finally brought their running game. They kicked a field goal in the third quarter when it looked like they might go for it. A second interception led to their first touchdown on a play-action pass. The Jets are all run, run, play-action pass but it can work. The last touchdown was a fresh rookie tearing up a beat-up defense. It wasn’t easy but the Jets won two playoff games for the first time since 1982.
I watched the Titans lose on this same weekend last year. I know what Chargers fans are feeling. They’ve been very good for many years and haven’t made the Super Bowl. The team even transformed from a run team to a pass team. That’s not easy to do while staying at a playoff record. Norv Turner is a good coach. There’s nothing to say other than this team should be good again and maybe once they’ll get the good bounces and the straight kicks when it matters. The waiting is the hardest part.