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Wild Card Weekend's best statistics

Posted Jan 11, 2016

There are so many talking points to come out of a wild card weekend that featured big plays, poor weather, controversial moments and a heart-breaking field goal miss that will linger long into the off-season.

But one of the biggest takeaways, for me, has to be the fact that experience does indeed still matter when you step onto the big stage that is the NFL playoffs.

All four road teams won in the wild card round for the first time in NFL history and maybe that shouldn’t come as a surprise given that those teams playing away from home were being marshalled by the more experienced playoff quarterbacks.

Alex Smith beat Brian Hoyer, Ben Roethlisberger defeated A.J. McCarron, Russell Wilson saw off Teddy Bridgewater and Aaron Rodgers bested Kirk Cousins.

Dealing with the big moments in the heat of battle is what helps teams advance along the road to the Super Bowl. Last year, we saw New England and Seattle have to dig deep to keep their Super Bowl march going and this weekend we witnessed some who couldn’t produce or keep their heads when the chips were down.

I’ll get to Blair Walsh’s heart-breaking and career-staining missed field goal in a little while but first let’s look at the kind of late-game melt-down that can only be made by a team finding a way to exit in the opening round of the playoffs for a fifth straight year.

The Cincinnati Bengals found a way to lose on Saturday night when it would have been so much easier to win against their heated and bitter rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers. But the Bengals found a way to lose even when their play on the field had them in position to win – that was when the ill-disciplined and selfish penalties reared their ugly head to end what had once been such a promising campaign.

You’ve probably all seen the plays by now so no need for me to lay out the exact proceedings but let me say this… Vontaze Burfict is dangerous and has no place in this sport when he is dishing out ‘kill shots’ like the one he delivered to Antonio Brown.

That penalty – and it was most definitely a deliberate act that was quite rightly flagged – left Brown unconscious on the floor and with an obvious concussion. And that is a good place to start examining the proceedings that resulted in a win for the Steelers.

In situations like that, those allowed on the field from the sidelines include team doctors, trainers and the head coach. There is nothing in the rule book which states that outside linebacker coaches are given special exemptions. So what the heck was Joey Porter doing more than 50 yards from his own sideline?

Porter was shooting his mouth off and trying to antagonise the Bengals defenders who were already frustrated at the 15-yard penalty. At some point in that melee near the Cincinnati sideline, Adam Jones went after Porter and bumped the official. More yellow flew down onto the rain-soaked field at Paul Brown Stadium and the Cincinnati season was in true self-destruct mode.

Chris Boswell no longer had to deal with a 50-yard game-winning attempt in tricky conditions. Instead, he was presented with a very makeable 35-yarder and he duly obliged to send the Steelers on to Denver.

I’ll get to the Bengals in a moment but let’s not give the Steelers a free pass here. Both teams showed an ugly side to rivalry games in the NFL and both clearly lost their heads in the heat of the battle.

In addition to Porter’s antics, let’s not forget that Pittsburgh offensive line coach Mike Munchak got into it with Bengals safety Reggie Nelson earlier in the game and actually pulled the defensive back’s hair! Mike Tomlin has to do a better job of controlling his coaches in a game of that magnitude.

Then again, he himself has been guilty of over-stepping the mark in the heat of the battle. Do you remember his sideline interference of a Jacoby Jones kick-off return a couple of years ago?

As for the Bengals, they clearly took a chance on a pair of hot-heads in Burfict and Jones and it came back to bite them this weekend. But this is about more than just two players – this is about a team that cannot handle the big stage for whatever reason.

And it is no longer just about Andy Dalton’s playoff mistakes and shortcomings. Cincinnati have not played well in prime time games this season and they let Denver off the hook as well a couple of weeks ago. Had they won that game, Cincy would not even have been playing on Saturday night.

Marvin Lewis has to shoulder a significant amount of the blame for the way Cincinnati lost their heads against Pittsburgh. He reportedly spoke to Burfict before the final drive but I doubt he was telling his star linebacker to go out and take Brown’s head off! He was probably preaching the need for disciplined play but Burfict selfishly went out and played to his own agenda, ignoring his head coach.

I don’t think Lewis should be fired but his team’s performances in big games, in the post-season and on Saturday night certainly make up a recipe for being handed your P45.

I hope – and think – Lewis survives, but he is going to be given a high threshold for success and failure in 2016 given that he is overseeing one of the most talented rosters in the NFL.

Now onto this week’s numbers…

34… Oh Blair Walsh, how are you going to get over this one? You’re the new Gary Anderson! That 34 marks the number of field goals made by Minnesota’s kicker this season – the most in the NFL. But that is not to suggest that Walsh has been without shaky moments. His accuracy rate of 87.2% in 2015 ranked just 13th in the NFL and he did miss 4 extra points from 33 yards. But did we really expect him to miss a game-winner from 27 yards in the final minute when he had already made kicks from 22, 43 and 47 yards. Not me. I thought he would nail the kick with minimum fuss. Instead, Walsh hurried his “laces in” field goal and hooked it wide left. In fact, it didn’t hook all that much. It started a little bit left, drifted a little further and was actually lucky to hit the netting behind the goal-posts it was that bad. As for the whole laces thing, it is not ideal if they are facing you as a kicker but it would not affect direction from that range – it would only affect distance, which is not a factor from 27 yards. Unless… seeing the laces facing him got into Walsh’s head. A more likely deciding factor was the pressure off the edge given that Richard Sherman almost blocked Walsh’s previous kick. For whatever reason, Walsh is going to have to deal with this throughout a long off-season and potentially for years to come – he was in tears in the locker room after the game and that is tough to hear. I can tell you he is a good guy and as nice as they come and he deserved to nail that kick on Sunday.

1… No wonder Aaron Rodgers was smiling on Sunday for the first time in a while as his Green Bay Packers recorded a 35-18 playoff win over the Washington Redskins. Rodgers went into Sunday’s game having been sacked 46 times during the regular season – second-most of any NFL quarterback in 2015. And with a rotating and seemingly revolving door at left tackle, things did not look good for Rodgers when he was sacked in the first quarter for a safety. But that was it for the Packers on Sunday in terms of getting their star man dropped. And that provided Green Bay with a massive boost and some hope for the future. It was also interesting to see the Packers up the tempo when they fell 11-0 behind and also how they turned to and stuck with the running game when offered up favourable looks by the Washington defense. But one of the biggest keys was seeing a happy Rodgers once again. In fact, I would argue that he made a conscious effort of being upbeat, positive and happy given his recent very public shows of frustration when the Packers backed into the playoffs.

11… Another simple but very telling statistic – the Kansas City Chiefs have now won 11 games in a row following their 30-0 drubbing of the Houston Texans in the first round of the AFC playoffs. First, a tip of the hat to Chiefs’ offensive coordinator Doug Pederson (surely with significant input from Andy Reid) for totally negating the all-worldy J.J. Watt early in a one-sided game. KC moved the ball with quick passes from Alex Smith, some read option, some jet sweeps and screens. It was not even done with a huge amount of out of the ordinary blocking – by the time Watt ventured into the backfield, the ball was already gone. That was a great job of coaching that required good execution from the ever-reliable Smith. As for Smith, he once again showed he is a very competent quarterback and an under-rated athlete. And defensively, the Chiefs were rampant, forcing Brian Hoyer to turn the ball over 5 times. Oh and if you’re counting back on the other side of the ball, Watt got banged up and ended the day with just 1 assist. It’s a trip to New England next for the Chiefs and they will feel that – on this form – they are more than capable of extending that league-best winning streak to 12 games.

Monday Musings…

  • There was a lot of silliness coming out of Cincinnati on Saturday night so I missed this one at first. But when offering up reasons for a bitterly disappointing loss, did Bengals quarterback A.J. McCarron really point to it raining heavier when Cincinnati had the football? That’s a new one on me! Here you go, A.J… here are some straws for you to clutch.
  • What an incredible one-handed catch by Doug Baldwin in the Seattle-Minnesota game. Although it wasn’t quite as good as…
  • That’s the catch of the year, Martavis Bryant. And it could be right up there with Odell Beckham Jr. for one of the best ever. Bryant trapped the ball against the back of his thighs as he reeled in a 10-yard pass from Ben Roethlisberger. He had the ball secure and not moving as he got his feet down in the end zone but had to secure the ball all the way to the ground for the touchdown. So even if Bryant had lost the ball five yards out of bounds as he fell to the ground, it would have been an incomplete pass. So how was he going to get the ball safely into his hands while it was trapped against the back of his legs and he was travelling at high speed? The answer is so simple, of course! You just do a forward front flip like an acrobat, switch the ball in front of you and secure your place in the annals of the greatest and most iconic catches in NFL history.
  • Myself and Jeff Reinebold are heading out on tour over the next two weeks and have been blown away by the fan response up and down the country. We’ll be in Newcastle this Wednesday and Edinburgh on Thursday. Then we’re in Manchester on January 20 and Birmingham on January 21. Thanks for your support on this and we cannot wait to get out and meet as many of you as possible over the next two weeks.
  • By the time you read this, Hue Jackson could be the new head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. Good for Hue and he deserves another shot after just one year in charge of Oakland. But I’m just going to say that he didn’t call a good game in Cincinnati on Saturday night.
  • It’s those little things that can make the difference in the playoffs. Russell Wilson took a snap that went over his own head and completed a pass downfield to Tyler Lockett. It was a pivotal moment and sparked a comeback for Seattle, who were trailing 9-0 at the time. And later on a field goal drive, Wilson threw the ball away instead of taking a 20-yard sack. It was another huge play in a field position game.
  • If the Vikings are to build their offense around him and are prepared to sacrifice the likes of Mike Wallace and Kyle Rudolph for a run-first attack, Adrian Peterson has to do better than 23 carries for 45 yards, no matter which defense he is facing. And Peterson has to protect the football better than he did on Sunday – his cough-up presented Seattle with their winning points via a Steven Hauschka field goal.
  • I felt sorry for Jeremy Maclin when he was in tears on Saturday but was pleased to hear he had not suffered a torn ACL but just a high ankle sprain. That said, I would be shocked if Maclin were available to the Chiefs this weekend – Smith will revert to tight end Travis Kelce as his go-to guy.
  • It didn’t pan out for the Washington Redskins on Sunday evening but I am a Kirk Cousins believer and he is about to get paid handsomely in the off-season. He throws with way more confidence and zip than earlier in his career and I think he will get even better in the coming years.
  • The Steelers will, of course, feel good about their win on Saturday evening, but they have to be concerned about an impending trip to Denver with a banged-up trio of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back DeAngelo Williams and wide receiver Antonio Brown. That trio shows just what a war of attrition the NFL can be come playoff time.

Final Thought

And then there were eight. There is some injury news to dig through and digest before we get to next weekend’s divisional round of the playoffs but we could be in for a lot more drama and, dare I say it, an upset or two. I don’t think we’ll see all four road teams winning again, but I do think the games will be competitive and fascinating. While winning on the road is going to be quite a challenge, it is definitely do-able. Would you ever completely write off a team that has won 11 in a row? How about writing off Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks such as Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers? Or how about a Seattle team that always seems to have some mystical forces at play and the stars aligned come playoff time? It should be quite a weekend. If we don’t see you on the road before then, we’ll see you in the studio on Saturday night as we live out the drama of the NFL playoffs all over again. 

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