Playoffs?!!! Playoffs?!!! Are you kidding me? Don't talk to me about playoffs! Playoffs?!!! Jim Mora Sr.'s infamous rant has got to be one of my favorite press conferences of all time. But unlike Coach Mora, I am talkin playoffs. The NFL's wildcard round just finished and its time to find out who the big winners were and who needs to go back to the drawing board. And it is also time to preview next weeks divisonal matchups.
The teams I thought that stood out the most after the dust settled Sunday evening were the Ravens and the Cowboys. The Ravens dominated the Patriots from start to finish, and that is with quarterback Joe Flacco's abysmal 4-10 performance that left many people shaking their heads wondering if a 10.0 rating was even possible. But the Ravens did not need a strong performance from Flacco, instead getting a boost from the run game (if you didn't know Ray Rice's name before, you do now) and a strong defensive performance again led by linebacker Ray Lewis and Safety Ed Reed. The Ravens were harassing Tom Brady all afternoon forcing him into four turnovers, and sacking him 3 times. I can't remember the last time a defense held a Patriot's offense led by Tom Brady to under 200 yards, let alone in the playoffs. Lookout Colts, the Ravens haven't begun to peak. I wonder if Colts head Coach Jim Caldwell would have benched his regulars during the third quarter in week 17 if he knew then that he would be facing Ray Lewis and the Ravens in the divisional round of the playoffs two weeks later.
The other team I thought played particularly well on both sides of the ball was the Dallas Cowboys vs. the Philadelphia Eagles Saturday night. Offensively, they seemed to have a great game plan, with the three headed running back monster committee of Marion Barber, Felix Jones, and Tashard Choice certainly doing their part to get the 'Boys going. In addition, Tony Romo played like the quarterback people expected him to be in the playoffs. On the defensive side of the ball defensive end Demarcus Ware and linebacker Bradie James were forcing Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb into rushing decisions all night. Even Dallas linebacker Bobby Carpenter, an Ohio State graduate, got in on the action making two tackles, and more importantly, recovering two Philadelphia fumbles. This game should have been billed the "We're so over Terrell Owens, we're in the playoffs, and he's at home in Buffalo" given the fact that TO's last two teams were Philadelphia and Dallas, respectively. Owen's absence from Dallas' lineup made Romo's perfomance even more impressive, considering his main target was Miles Austin, someone who when you say his name sounds more like a jazz musician than a wide receiver. In the end, however, it was Austin and the Cowboys, not the Eagles and their speedy receiver Desean Jackson, that made the big plays. Look out Minnesota, too, not only does it appear the Cowboys have solved the December curse, they are also peaking when it counts most, playoff time. How 'bout them Cowboys?!
The biggest disappointment this postseason has to belong to the Cincinnati Bengals. The Bengals. The Bengals had the look of a team who might be a Super Bowl contender after starting the season 9-3; after losing 4 of their last 5 (inlcuding Saturday night's playoff game against the Jets) coaches, players and fans, must be scratching their heads after this one. It included a 169 yard performance by rb Cedric Benson, Carson Palmer looking like he was the rookie qb, not Jets qb Mark Sanchez, and the normally outspoken Chad Ochocinco quieted for the second straight week by Jets cb Darelle Revis. Certainly missing players had taken a toll on Cincinnati, without star rookie linebacker Rey Maualuga, who was injured, and wide receiver Chris Henry, who sadly and unexpected died earlier this season, but doesn't every team have to deal with replacing players at one position or another at this time of season? More importantly, who is going to replace Shayne Graham, who missed two field goals that were almost so close as to be extra points? I must say I for one expected more from the Bengals. I think Cincinnati fans are too, no longer just content with being the best NFL team from the state of Ohio. But their championship dreams will once again have to wait until next season.
The Green Bay Packers have to be scratching their heads, too, after playing their butts off for 60+ minutes agains the Arizona Cardinals only to fumble away their chance to leave town with the victory in overtime. The Packers, down 24-10 at half, clawed their way back to tie the game at 45 under what can only be described as one of the greatest performances by a losing quarterback in the playoffs. Yes that is right, Aaron Rodgers showed why Green Bay chose him over Brett Favre with a performance that I am not even sure Brett himself could duplicate: over 300 yards passing and 4 TDs. But what impressed me more than anything that will show up in a stat sheet seemed to be that Rodgers was making, harder, crisper throws than his predecessor. And if that wasn't enough, he led them into overtime despite an out of this world performance by Arizona qb Kurt Warner, his 152.8 rating falling just short of perfect. Again it fell to a placekicker, this time Arizona's Neil Rackers, who could have clinched the game by making a 34 yard field goal with 4 seconds, missed, sending the game into overtime. But Rodgers brilliant performance couldn't erase his fumble right into the hands of Carlos Dansby, who proceeded to race into the endzone to secure the Cardinals victory. The game left many watching thinking how good will Aaron Rodgers be, yet left Packers fans and players wondering what could have been.
On to the predictions for next week. In the AFC, I see the Ravens and the Chargers advancing. The Ravens are just too hot, and the Colts never do well with two weeks of rest against an agressive defense. Just ask the Patriots, whom the Colts couldn't beat until 2006, the year they actually had to play a wild card game. The Chargers advance on the simple fact that they are able to stretch the field in the way Cincinnati could not; Darelle Revis will not be able to cover Vincent Jackson, Malcom Floyd, and Antonio Gates at the same time. In the NFC, I think it is a little harder to predict. But I am going with the visiting teams in each game, as I believe Dallas is the hot team and Arizona is starting to rediscover the form that led them to the Super Bowl last year.