NFL Divisional Playoffs: It’s a Wild, Wild WeekendBy Brian Chase
The second round of the NFL playoffs took place this weekend, and it has been one of the greatest in recent memory. Two games went into overtime; the other two went down to the last second. You had offensive showcases, defensive brawls, and about everything in between. This column gives a brief synopsis of all four games and then my AFC and NFC Championship picks. So let’s get to it:
Carolina at St. Louis:
This sloppy game, full of Carolina penalties and Rams missing tackles, came down to two matchups: quarterback Jake Delhomme and coach John Fox of the Panthers versus QB Marc Bulger and coach Mike Martz of the Rams. The Panthers ended up winning both those matchups and the game 29-23 in double overtime. Jake Delhomme won because he was accurate at the end of the game and made the final, 69-yard touchdown pass to receiver Steve Smith. Bulger lost it because he made three interceptions, including the one in overtime. Fox won the coaching battle because he kept running the ball even when Carolina’s star running back, Stephen Davis, went out with an injury and because he designed the defense that kept the Rams offense from running away with the game. Martz lost because at the end of regulation, he waited for the field goal and overtime instead of making attempts at the end zone, which he had time to do. The poor play and decision making of the Rams at the end of the game ensures that Kurt Warner will be the Rams QB next season.
Tennessee at New England:
This game was a grinding, defensive exhibition, played very close by both teams. The four degree weather, thought by some to give the Pats an edge, didn’t seem to faze the Titans as they matched the Pats score for score. The game started, after one Titans possession, with touchdowns by both offenses, probably because the defenses needed time to adjust. In the first half, New England made two key plays: Rodney Harrison of the Pats intercepted Tennessee QB Steve McNair, which set up the Patriots only other touchdown, and then in the second quarter, the Pats blocked a Titans field goal, which ended up being the difference between winning the game and going to overtime. Tennessee did score in the third quarter and also recovered a Pats fumble, but the Pats’ defense kept bailing them out, and in the end the Patriots used a poor punt by the Titans to set up Adam Vinatieri’s winning field goal, ending the game at 17-14 Patriots.
Indianapolis at Kansas City:
As much as the Titans-Pats game was defensive, this game was offensive. How offensive? There was not a single punt in the entire game, a first in NFL postseason history. Every time the Indianapolis Colts touched the ball, they scored, excepting two possessions at the end of each half, when time ran out on them. And that was good, because the Colts’ defense was not much more effective than the Chiefs’. The Chiefs had only two possessions on which they did not score, one because of a very bad pass interference call on Chiefs’ tightend Tony Gonzalez followed by a missed field goal, and the other because of a fumble by Chiefs running back Priest Holmes. The pivotal moment came in the fourth quarter when Chiefs’ coach Dick Vermeil chose not to onside kick and trusted his defense to stop the Colts, which of course they couldn’t do. The Colts ran off the clock and won the game, 38-31. On a personal note, this proves to me as a Chiefs fan that our Defensive Coordinator, Greg Robinson, must be fired if we are to have any chance to make the Super Bowl next year.
Green Bay at Philadelphia:
A lot of people though the Packers were destined to win this game, and until overtime, it looked as though they were right. The Pack aggressively blitzed on defense and sacked Philly QB Donovan McNabb four times during the first half and eight times total. The Packers used a fumble caused by one of those early sacks to set up their first touchdown and then a long run by RB Ahman Green to set up the other. The Packers could have had another touchdown in the second quarter, but the Eagles held them on the one-yard line on fourth down to keep Green Bay from scoring. Once Green Bay was ahead, they eased the pressure off McNabb, and he led Philly back with scores in the second and fourth quarter. The Packers kicked a field goal to lead, but couldn’t keep McNabb from converting on fourth and 26 to set up the tying field goal. In overtime, the Packers stopped the Eagles’ initial drive, only to see their future Hall of Fame QB, Brett Favre, throw a desperate toss that was intercepted. This allowed the Eagles to score a second field goal to win it, 20-17.
And now my picks for the championship games (season prediction record: 6-6):
Carolina at Philadelphia:
The Eagles did not impress me against Green Bay. McNabb could not get any pass protection to save his life, and they could not stop Green Bay’s running offense. Carolina is primarily a running team, and so Philly’s weakness plays right into their hands. Plus, Carolina coach John Fox is smart enough to note Green Bay’s blitz packages and use them to exploit the Eagles. Those two factors, more than McNabb’s excellent passing skills or Carolina’s suspect passing game, will decide this contest in Carolina’s favor. Carolina wins, 20-14.
Indianapolis at New England:
My logic tells me the Patriots have the better chance to win this game. It tells me Patriots coach Bill Belichick will have out-planned Indy coach Tony Dungy, and the Pats defense will be able to stem a Colts offense that has been red-hot. It tells me that the Colts defense is not great, and the Pats will ride roughshod over it, much like the last time these two teams met. But something else in me, maybe my right-brain, says that the Colts, led by quarterback and NFL MVP Peyton Manning, won’t be stopped that easily. This side says that the Pats offense is one-dimensional, that the Colts offense is playing the best it has all year, and that neither the cold nor the crowd of Foxboro will bother Manning, much as the KC crowd didn’t bother him last weekend. Well, I’m throwing caution to the wind and picking the Colts to win a close revenge game, 38-35. And if I am wrong, let me be mocked and ridiculed for doubting the redoubtable Patriots.