This weekend saw the Wild Card round of the playoffs with four teams eliminated from the competition, with injuries arguably costing three of the Wild Card teams their place, whilst the Lions left the playoffs with a highly controversial refereeing non-decision.
It is perhaps an indictment of the first three games of the weekend, with an average margin of victory of nearly thirteen points, that the majority of the headlines this week focussed on the Pass Interference flag thrown – and then picked up – in the fourth quarter of the Cowboys-Lions game. The game started superbly for the Lions as they raced to a fourteen point lead, scoring unanswered Touchdowns on each of their first two drives.
On the other side of the ball the second coming of the Great Wall of Dallas seemed to be out-matched for the first time this season, as the Lions Defensive Line, led by All-Pro Ndamukong Suh, and brilliant play-calling from Lions Defensive Co-ordinator Teryl Austin, led to six sacks on Tony Romo and held the league leading Cowboys to just thirty rushing yards in the first half. The half ended 20-7, with the Lions fairly comfortably in control, and receiving the ball to start the second half.
However, on the first play after the kick-off Matthew Stafford threw an interception, giving Dallas the ball in the redzone. Yet, without a first down, and after a thirteen yard sack, Dan Bailey ‘the most accurate kicker in history’ missed a fairly easy field goal and the interception went unpunished. The score remained 20-7 until late in the fourth quarter, as the Cowboys put together a six minute drive culminating on a gutsy call on fourth and one.
Desperately needing points, and against a dominant Defensive Line, Jason Garret and Scott Linehan (Head Coach and Play Caller) decided to hand the ball off to workhorse All-Pro Running Back Demarco Murray, and it paid off as he ran it up the gut, in the end strolling into the endzone behind his Offensive Line, which features three Pro-Bowlers. Suddenly the Cowboys were back in the game, only six points behind with a little over a quarter left.
After the Cowboys scored a field goal, the Lions were in desperate need of a strong drive to pick up some momentum and give their defence a rest. At first they were successful, driving fifty yards in four minutes, leading to third and one on the Dallas 46. As Stafford threw a pass the most infamous moment of the game occurred. Described as everything from ‘blatant pass interference’ to innocent (and two-sided) hand-fighting, Cowboys rookie Linebacker Anthony Hitchens made contact with Tight End Brandon Pettigrew without turning to look for the ball. To the letter of the law this is Pass Interference and an automatic first down, and the back judge threw his flag to signal this penalty. The head linesman announced to the teams, the stadium and the world that this penalty had been enforced, resulting in a first down.
However, after further discussion amongst the referees (who were not working in their usual teams) the penalty was recalled, as it was adjudged to be faceguarding – a penalty in the NCAA but not in the NFL, this is when a defender impedes the receiver’s vision of the ball without making a play on it. There has been a huge amount of debate over this, with many in Detroit blaming the outcome of the game on this call. However, there seem to be several different fouls on the play, Hitchens is guilty (albeit marginally) of holding Pettigrew as he goes on his route (5 yard penalty and automatic first-down), Pettigrew is guilty of pushing off Hitchens to create separation at the end of his route (offensive pass interference, loss of down and ten yard penalty) and in response Hitchens is guilty of defensive pass interference (automatic first down at the spot of the foul), this is not to mention Dez Bryant coming onto the field without his helmet on and trying to ‘debate’ the referees.
Regardless, the result of the play was fourth down, and Lions Head Coach Jim Caldwell elected to punt, not expecting his punter to shank the kick, gaining only ten yards, and giving Dallas the ball in mid-field. However, the Lions defence held strong, as the Cowboys failed to get a first down on their first three plays, and again Garrett was left with a tough decision as he opted to go for it on fourth and six. Romo threw a dart to his long time BFF Jason Witten on a curl route as the familiar pairing combined for twenty-one yards and an absolutely crucial first-down, keeping the drive alive, leading to a Touchdown after a fortuitous defensive holding flag on a failed third down.
The Cowboys had their first lead of the day, with 2:32 left on the clock for Stafford to rally his troops and drive down the field. On the second play of the drive Stafford fumbled, with rookie Defensive End Demarcus Lawrence recovering the ball you could hear the fat lady finishing her warm up. However, less than a second after picking the ball up, Lawrence himself fumbled, which was recovered by Lions Tackle Riley Reiff, giving the ball back to the Lions with a fresh set of downs. Yet the offence which was so strong in the first quarter and so poor since then struggled to move the ball, and it came down to fourth and three, as Stafford dropped back Lawrence rounded Reiff to sack Stafford, forcing a fumble and then recovering it. The Cowboys, after assuming the victory formation, had won the game, and Demarcus Lawrence is still yet to let go of the ball.
In the other NFC Wild Card game, the Panthers rode their Defence to a comfortable win, the Cardinals entered half time with 65 total yards, by the start of the fourth quarter that total was reduced to 63, taking two steps backwards and forgetting to go forwards during the third quarter. They only totalled 77 yards, as third-choice Quarterback Lindley looked terrified, throwing two Touchdowns, and the decimated backfield averaged less than 2.3 yards per carry. Cam Newton had a solid game, whilst Jonathan Stewart performed well, netting over 120 yards at more than 5 yards per clip, but it was the Defence, led by last year’s Defensive MVP Luke Kuechly, that stole the show. Setting up a showdown with the defence in Seattle next weekend.
The Colts-Bengals game was similarly one sided, as the Bengals went one-and-done for the fourth year in a row, as Dalton looked ineffective, not throwing any picks but not throwing much else, either. The Colts run defence, which had been a weakness throughout the regular season stepped up against Rookie of the Year Candidate (well, runner-up candidate as Odell Beckham Jr. has that award wrapped up) Jeremy Hill, holding him to 3.6 yards per carry. Whilst Andrew Luck had arguably his best playoff performance, throwing for nearly four hundred yards, and crucially no picks.
Last week I picked the Steelers to comfortably beat the Ravens, and I spent much of Saturday night/Sunday morning rubbing my eyes in disbelief (as well as exhaustion), as the Ravens comfortably overcame the Steelers. In my defence, however, at the time of writing Le’veon Bell was yet to be revealed as unfit, and this seemed to be the big issue as the Pittsburgh running game had to rely on undrafted rookie free agent Josh Harris and journeyman Ben Tate, the latter had less than a week as a Steeler to learn the playbook. With the lack of a running game Big Ben was forced to make risky plays, resulting in two picks, the second of which could itself be blamed on a minor concussion that briefly removed the Quarterback from play. Despite a down day for Justin Forsett, superior redzone efficiency and shorter fields from turnovers carried the Ravens through to victory, and the divisional round of the playoffs.
Next Week in the NFL: Divisional Round
The playoffs are heating up, with every team left in the competition matching up this weekend. In the NFC, the number one seeded Seahawks host the Panthers in a game that pits the two hottest defences in the league against one another. Whilst Kuechly and Davis represent arguably the best Inside Linebacker pairing in the league, the Seahawks have too much talent elsewhere. Unless Kuechly and co. are able to stop Beast Mode and Russell Wilson, I see very little chance for the Panthers to come away with a victory, as both teams are set up to play the same way, but the defending champions do it better.
The number two seeded Packers take on the Cowboys up in Lambeau, for what is being billed as a repeat of the Ice Bowl – the 1967 NFL Championship game with the winners emerging from the frozen tundra to go to Super Bowl II. In that game Lombardi’s Packers won 21-17, and it would be no suprise if something similar happens this weekend, providing Aaron Rodgers is fit to play after a fortnight of rest since tweaking his calf. In conditions promising to be below freezing, the home field advantage is likely too much for the Cowboys to overcome, however their game arguably suits a frozen tundra better than the Packers’ own, with Running Back Demarco Murray behind the league’s premier Offensiv Line. Which ever way the game goes, this promises to be one of the most exciting games of the weekend, and neither team would be out of place in the Super Bowl.
In the AFC the number one seeded Patriots take on the Ravens in a repeat of the 2012 and 2013 AFC Championship games. Much has been made in the media of the Ravens’ success against the Patriots, but as Tom Brady pointed out – unless they’re bringing Ray Lewis and Ed Reed out of retirement, this is a very different team than the one that beat the Patriots on their way to their second Super Bowl. In another close match, I would give the Patriots the edge, purely because time and again they are able to win tough playoff matches like this. Let us not forget that before the 2013 AFCCG, the Patriots were considered the Raven’s bogey team. However, with Joe Flacco continuing his habit of playing his best games in the playoffs this game really could go either way, especially if an ageing Vince Wilfork has trouble stopping Justin Forsett on the ground.
In a match-up that has the boys at ESPN absolutely salivating, Peyton Manning takes on his old team and the man that replaced him as the Broncos host the Colts. Given the Broncos recent run heavy offence and the increasing frailty of Manning’s arm it is unlikely that the Broncos rely upon their Quarterback too heavily, instead they will hope their resurgent defence and surprising run game will carry them through. Had the Colts not just shown their ability to stop the run against a team with another perennial playoff choking Quarterback, I would have expected the Broncos to advance to the AFCCG for the second year running. However, if Luck can go another game without any turnovers, it would not surprise me to see the Colts overcome the Broncos in the battle of the horses. Either way, watch out for an interception or two to decide the game.
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