The NFL Playoffs Begin With Tickets to Studs and Duds

After four weeks of meaningless preseason games and 17 weeks of football that twisted and turned, beginning with an injury that cost the Patriots NFL Playoff tickets and gave every team a chance to fill the void in the Super Bowl, the wild card round of the postseason finally began.

Saturday proved to be an exciting start. The first game featured two teams that many did not expect to make the postseason, the Atlanta Falcons and the Arizona Cardinals. I had become enamored with the Falcons and their incredible story. This story took them from a shattered franchise thanks to the actions of Michael Vick to a second year surge thanks to a roster full of young talent.

I was sure that Matt Ryan would continue playing like a veteran and that the team would continue rolling after winning five of their six games to enter the playoffs. I though Michael Turner would have a career day against a soft Cardinals defense. However, it was the Arizona Cardinals that will play next week. They won 30-24 thanks to a suffocating defense and despite losing star receiver Anquan Boldin to a hamstring injury in the second quarter.

Kurt Warner threw two touchdown passes. One came early in the game off a flea flicker. The pass floated deep to a double covered Larry Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald and the two defenders jumped, but it was Fitzgerald who came down in the end zone with the 42 yard pass. The second came off a seemingly mundane short drop off to Boldin. Boldin turned the quarter and sprinted up the sidelines, turning a seven yard gain into a 71-yard touchdown. He left the game with a hamstring injury on the run and would not return.

Sure Ryan finished the quarterback doing his best John Elway impression, ending the half with a two-yard touchdown pass to Justin Peelle and giving the Falcons a 17-14 lead. The second half proved to be his undoing. He had a pick in the first half, but it was the short armed handoff to Jerious Norwood that turned into a 27-yard fumble return for a touchdown by the Cardinals safety Antrel Rolle.

Edgerrin James kept the ball moving on the ground proving to those fans at the University of Phoenix Stadium that Arizona could do more than rely on the arm of Warner. The Cardinals would score later in the third on a four yard Tim Hightower run forcing Ryan to take risks.

Ryan held the ball too long and was called down in his own end zone when he was wrapped by Card defenders. The call could have gone either way, but his desperate pass was seconds too late and the game seemed out of reach. Still, Ryan began working form a 30-17 deficit and put together an impressive drive that closed the gap to 30-24, but the Cardinals were able to waste four minutes and keep Ryan off the field, cementing the victory.

The second game featured two teams on winning streaks. The Indianapolis Colts had won nine straight and the San Diego Chargers had won four straight, including the division winning in Week 17. The game was teeming with history too. Last year in the second round of the playoffs the Chargers shocked the NFL with a win over the Colts.

This time the Colts came in favored again and again the Chargers played the role of the upset. San Diego won 23-17 in overtime in an exciting game that had a strong performance from NFL MVP Peyton Manning and LT’s backup, Darren Sproles.

Manning threw for 310 yards and a touchdown, but suffered from an offense devoid of a running game. The Colts could not stop Sproles in any facet of the game. Sproles finished with 105 yards rushing and two touchdowns, five receptions for 45 yards, 106 kick off return yards, and 72 punt return yards after taking over for an injured LT.

The Chargers special teams did more then simply have great returns for great field position. San Diego punter Mike Scifres punted six times and each time put Indianapolis deep inside its own 20. He averaged 52.7 yards a kick with a long of 67.

In the end it was the Colts who helped the Chargers the most, committing costly penalties that set up the game tying field goal at the end of the fourth quarter and set up Sproles for the 22-yard game winning touchdown in overtime.

Sunday proved to be a le down after Saturday’s games. The day began with the Baltimore Ravens at the Miami Dolphins. The Ravens decimated the Dolphins 27-9. The stats do not do justice to the level of dominance of Baltimore.

Chad Pennington may have thrown for 252 yards and a touchdown, but he also had four picks, including one returned for a touchdown by Ed Reed. He was also sacked three times and the Wildcat formation was fruitless against Baltimore.

Joe Flacco only completed 9 of 23 passes for 135 yards, but he seemed to hit have all those completions for big plays. Willis McGahee had a big 48 yard run and finished with 62 yards on seven carries and Le’Ron McClain had 75 yards on 19 carries in a game that had the Ravens running down the clock from the opening minutes of the third quarter on.

The second Sunday game was between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Minnesota Vikings. The Vikings came in as favorite despite barely beating the second string of the New York Giants. The Eagles entered the playoffs in spectacular fashion, tearing apart the Cowboys with defense and forcing turnovers.

I felt the story line coming into the game was the match up of two quarterbacks who have reclaimed their starting roles after losing them earlier in the season. The difference in the 26-14 Eagles win was that Donovan McNabb earned his way back while Tavaris Jackson returned under centre thanks to the back injury to Gus Frerotte.

Philadelphia was not able to establish a run game, but was able to come through with big plays. It was the 44-yard interception return by Asante Samuel that kick started the lingering doubt of Jackson by the Viking fans in the Metrodome and it was the screen pass to Brian Westbrook that went for a 71-yard touchdown in the middle of the fourth that broke the game open 23-14 and left the next round beyond the Vikings grasp.

Adrian Peterson had two touchdowns, one on a 40 yard run where he came through the line barely touched to begin the second quarter and one from thre yards out to end the quarter. Still, he only managed 83 yards on 20 carries thanks to the underwhelming performance by Jackson.

A Peterson facing nine men at all times could do little to keep the game close in the end and McNabb’s ability to feel the pass rush coming and move in the pocket kept the Eagles offense on the field.

Next Saturday the Baltimore Ravens go to LP Field to play the Tennessee Titans and the Arizona Cardinals travel to Bank of America Stadium to play the Carolina Panthers. On Sunday, The Philadelphia Eagles meet the division rival New York Giants at Giants Stadium and the San Diego Chargers travel from the West Coast to the freezing cold at Heinz Field to play the Pittsburgh Steelers.