Wild Card Weekend removes most of the posers

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Wild Card weekend finally arrived and for some teams, Oakland and Detroit, it was a few weeks late while for others, Seattle and Houston, it provided them with a renewed sense that a Super Bowl run is very much in the cards. However, history shows us that if anything, the wild card winners are simply being afforded a prolonged stay of execution. This may be true for Saturday’s winner, but for Sunday’s, it might be the start of a march to this year’s Super Bowl.

This weekend also showed fans just how important home field advantage and a healthy quarterback are to NFL success. Teams that take care of business on the road during the regular season, avoid disastrous three or four game skids, and arrive to the post season in reasonable health are the ones who really have a shot at winning the Super Bowl. However, do any of these teams want to face red hot Pittsburgh or Green Bay?

Wild Card teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers or Green Bay Packers often go on a deep run. They are in a nice rhythm and having the extra week off only serves to break that rhythm. As a wild card team, they continue to just roll along and go on a deep run. Still, if you polled players, they’d tell you they would take a week off and home field advantage over any other option.

The NFL post season also shows us the fine line between being viewed as successful or being seen as a disappointment. Detroit could easily have been a four-win team this year if they had not won so many tight games. Not only would they be looking at a high draft pick next year, they would be in search of a new coaching staff. Instead, they were a playoff team.

Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Moore
shake hands after Sunday’s game.

Houston, had they not lost J.J. Watt for the season and had such poor quarterback play, could well have been a 12 or 13 win team and a real threat of winning it all. Instead, they are fortunate they hail from the AFC South and were blessed to play a quarterbackless team in Oakland this past weekend.

While Miami enjoyed a nice turn around this season, will anyone be surprised if next year they limp to a 6 and 10 season?  Look what happened to last year’s Super Bow teams. Both Denver and Carolina struggled to find success and failed to make the playoffs this year. Success is fleeting for most in the NFL so teams have to enjoy it while they have it.

From here on out, no one will move on without outplaying their opponent, coming up with big plays when it matters most, and in some cases, getting a break or two from the officials. Teams will play with a sense of urgency they lack from time to time in the regular season, mistakes will be critical, and being able to overcome adversity will be a must. This is what makes the NFL post season far more enjoyable than the meaningless college bowl season. Simply put, it’s now or never for teams still playing because for most, a deep playoff run is a thing of rarity in the NFL. Players know this and respond, to the delight of football fans everywhere.

Houston 27 – Oakland 14

When your starting quarterback is making his first ever professional start after serving as your third string caller all season, you have to plan for the worst and hope for the best.  When that quarterback completes only 18 of 45 passes and tosses three interceptions, well, not even Brock Osweiler can blow the game. As a result, the Houston Texans rode the arm of Oakland Raider Connor Cook and his inexperience to a 27-14 victory, despite Osweiler’s typical sub-200-yard game.

Oakland Raiders QB Connor Cook

This game really proved nothing. Raider fans will never know how far this team could have gone had Derek Carr never been injured in week 16. Would they have won the AFC West and enjoyed a bye week instead of having to start a third string rookie in a wild card game?  Would they have exposed the obvious weakness the Texans have at quarterback and run away in a blow out? We will never know.  

What we do know is it takes a tremendous amount of good fortune to go along with your talent to get to the Super Bowl.  

This game, more than any other, makes me appreciate what the New England Patriots have done for so long. They have kept Tom Brady upright for the most part. They find ways to replace one player after another despite injuries, retirements, free agency, and trades. They prepare for opponents like no other team ever has. And then they go out and take care of business without making excuses.  

This is all new territory for Oakland. They are not blessed with Jimmy Garappolo for their back up quarterback. They have not gotten used to the expectation of maintaining a winning culture without there being any excuses. Time will tell if they get there, but for now, this year will be a reminder of just how cruel the NFL can be to some teams while at the same time another team, the Houston Texans, can live for another week when perhaps they had no business playing in the post season in the first place.

Seattle 26 – Detroit 6

Seattle showed the Lions, and the rest of the NFL, you do not want to play a win or take all game against them in front of their home fans. Detroit showed you do not want to play the Seahawks in a win or take all game while on a three-game losing streak.  

Thomas Rawls of the Seattle Seahawks
after scoring a TD

Thomas Rawls ran for a franchise playoff record 161 yards while the Seahawk defense held the Lions to just two field goals. The end result was after a tight scoring game through three quarters, with the weight of the Seahawk ground and pound and having played three other playoff teams and losing, crushed whatever will was left in the Lions players.

Detroit fans will get to spend another winter wondering what it is like for their team to win a playoff game. They’ll wonder what would have happened had they just won one of those final three games and had a much needed bye week before the playoffs. Most of all, they can wonder if they will ever live to see the day their team wins a post season game.

Now we get to hear Seattle yak for another week about how great they are. The truth is, they are not that good and were fortunate to play a team limping into the playoffs at home. Now they get to go on the road where the stakes are higher, the crowds less friendly, and their next opponent is rested and lying in wait to do to them what they just did to Detroit.

Pittsburgh 30 – Miami 12

All you need to know is when Le’Veon Bell runs for 167 yards, Antonio Brown catches passes for 124 yards, and Ben Rothlisberger tosses two first quarter touchdown passes, the Pittsburgh Steelers are almost impossible to beat. Such was the case Sunday as the Steelers crushed the over matched Miami Dolphins and won their eighth straight game. 

Antonio Brown scoring a TD
in the first quarter of the game

So much has been made of Aaron Rogers predicting Green Bay would win their final six games that we forgot to see just how much of a groove the Steelers are in. Their mediocre start to the season is long forgotten and this team might well be the most dangerous team in the AFC. Next week they have the Kansas City Chiefs in the difficult environment of Arrowhead Stadium, but know this, Pittsburgh will not be intimidated.  This is a seasoned bunch of warriors who will make the Chiefs earn a victory.

If Pittsburgh is hot and able to move the ball both on the ground and through the air, the Chiefs will have to rely on the arm of Alex Smith or their special teams play to create big plays. Neither will be an easy task. This might be coach Andy Reid’s best chance to make it back to the Super Bowl, but no division winner with a first round bye has a more difficult task than he has.

Dolphin fans will claim their season was hurt by the loss of Ryan Tannehill — they’re wrong. They did not suffer nearly as much as Oakland did when they lost their starting quarterback. They got about as far as they could expect to this year and with head coach Adam Gase having a year under his belt, he can go about implementing the necessary changes to get this team to move up to the next level. Perhaps if they do, they might be a tougher out in next year’s post season.

Green Bay 38 – New York Giants 17

So Odell Beckam, Jr. and his mates think nothing about partying in Miami on their day off. They think nothing of warming up in frigid Green Bay without their shirt on. Now they have the rest of the winter and off season to learn how to think, oh, and to play post season football.

Eli Manning of the New York Giants passed for 299 yards with one TD and one interception on Sunday,
but it wasn’t enough to win against the Packers
(Claudia Gestro)

In what many felt would be the weekend’s best wild card game, all it turned out to be was another clunker. Nice job Giants. Now we know what a wild card game would have looked like if the Jets had played.

Aaron Rogers had a great game if it had been played in sunny Miami. Instead, he had one of the greatest post season games ever completing 25 of 40 passes for 362 yards and four touchdowns in the most difficult conditions imaginable (Temperatures were in the low teens).  

It’s not like the Giants are not use to these conditions. Eli Manning has done much better than his mediocre numbers in similar conditions before. The difference was simple: the Packers took this game far more seriously than the Giants and showed their end of the regular season run was not a fluke. They are operating at their best, although they may need to be able to run the ball better if they want to get to the Super Bowl. However, no lead will be safe against Green Bay as long as Rogers continues to play at his current super human level.  

Dallas vs Green Bay could well be a game for the ages and should both Green Bay and Seattle win next week, the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field could be hosting one more game this year.

NCAA Championship

Usually, when two teams meet up in a rematch for a championship, one of two things happen: it fails to live up to the first game or it surpasses it. Since Alabama won a thriller last year 45-40, it’s not likely this year’s game will surpass it.  

With that in mind, we then have to look at which team is considerably better than a year ago. In college football, with the turn over of players, it can be tough to tell. Clemson struggled at times this year and star quarterback Deshaun Watson tossed 17 interceptions this season. It’s possible he either does not have as many weapons or is more concerned with not getting injured and seeing his NFL stock drop.  He will not hold back in this game.

Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban getting showered with Gatorade after winning
the 2012 National Championship

Alabama has a true freshman starting at quarterback and it remains to be seen how well he does in a championship game. However, so far there is no sign of this being a problem. That might change this time since Nick Saban told offensive coordinator Lane Kiffen not to bother working this week while handing over the play calling duties to Steve Sarkisian. Some people think this might not bode well, but Nick Saban does not make such moves out of desperation. He knows what he is doing.

Based on their semifinal performances, both Bama and Clemson look pretty impressive, so who has the edge?  

My money is on Nick Saban until someone comes along and proves otherwise. He may not have made it in the NFL, but this guy knows college ball better than anyone EVER. He will find a way to pressure Watson on offense and he will wear down Clemson’s very good defense with a lot of pounding the ball.

When it is all said and done, I see a lower scoring game than last year with Alabama pulling away late to win 31 to 17.

•••• •••• ••••• •••• ••••

UPDATE, January 10:It was the rematch for the ages. The Clemson Tigers pulled off a great upset, defeating Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide with just seconds left on the clock. It was a two-yard pass from DeShaun Watson to Hunter Renfrow that finally sealed the win for Clemson, but it was the preceding two passes and one pass interference call that set up the game-winning pass.

The lead changed four times in the fourth quarter. Going into half time Alabama was ahead by a touchdown, but Watson and the Clemson offense finally wore down the highly rated Alabama defense.

Clemson ended Alabama’s 26-game winning streak and beat a #1 team for the first time. It was also the first time a Nick Saban coached team lost a National Championship game.

All photos are YouTube screenshots unless otherwise noted
Top photo: Packers wide receiver Randall Cobb catching “Hail Mary” from Aaron Rodgers
in the end zone to end the first half against the New York Giants Sunday