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Wild Card Weekend Rewind: Shock and awe in Minnesota and Cincinnati

Wild Card weekend in the NFL playoffs has traditionally been well, wild, for lack of a better term. The 2016 version did not disappoint in shocking moments although the games played were largely of a garbage quality for the most part. Other than a few stand out moments and pieces we’ll get into, this was the 2nd lowest scoring Wild Card weekend since 1984. That statistic really reflects on the product as I can’t tell you any of the games were enjoyable to watch for the full 60 minutes.

But yay, playoff football I guess? Let’s hope it gets better as we move to the Divisional Round. Time to get into it.

More Minnesota heartbreak

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Easily the most discernible event of the weekend, Seahawks-Vikings provided us with a moment that many fans (certainly Vikings people at that mention) won’t forget.

Most expected a similar result to when these two met in the regular season, when the two time defending NFC champion Seahawks rolled in Minnesota 38-7. The Vikings in all basic measure “just couldn’t stand up to the pressure” of the alpha dog in the conference according to most (I was one of these naive people).

Boy did that narrative shift.

Sunday afternoon felt like a completely different story. Frigid temps may have played a role (negative wind chills are always fun), but the Vikings played a perfect game to try and dethrone Seattle. Four times did Minnesota drive into Seattle territory in the red zone with patient playmaking from Teddy Bridgewater but they could only come out with three field goals.

Seattle’s offense was completely bottled up by the Vikings front seven. Other than a one handed Doug Baldwin catch, I don’t think I can name one offensive highlight for the Seahawks through the first three quarters. That’s a testament to how well Minnesota was able to contain Russell Wilson in the pocket and sit on Seattle receivers. For all the talk of the Seahawks pedigree and dominant defense (which also played quite well yesterday actually) the Vikings defensive front matched them play for play. Seattle, without Marshawn Lynch, again and again tried to attack Vikings corner Trae Waynes and exploit Minnesota’s weaknesses, but they just couldn’t.

However things have a funny but heartbreaking way of turning in the playoffs. The Seahawks and Wilson will be the first to tell you that. For all of the discipline and excellent game planning by the Vikings through the first three quarters, it didn’t matter with a fourth quarter Seattle rally, and that’s what should scare future opponents of this team.

A bad snap at the start of the fourth was what started it all.

Russell Wilson, as he’s been known to do, somehow escaped from pressure by Eversen Griffen and Brian Robison to find rookie receiver Tyler Lockett in the middle of the field in a break down in coverage (a godsend for the Seahawks at this point) as Lockett streaked away to set the Seahawks up to score the game’s only touchdown by Doug Baldwin.

Then as bad news is known to pile on, Adrian Peterson, the league’s leading rusher and also leader in fumbles, galloped into the open field, but lost the ball to help Seattle take a field goal to take a 10-9 lead.

Subsequently, Minnesota ends up with the final meaningful possession of the game in the last two minutes. Bridgewater took the Vikings down the field into effective chip shot field goal range with two plays to Kyle Rudolph, one a questionable pass interference call, and one a 24 yard catch and run by the tight end. That’s it. In effect, the job should have been done. Yet here comes that black comedy again.

Blair Walsh, a kicker who was 3/3 kicking in arctic subzero temperature, misses a 27 yard chip shot, and just like that the young Vikings impressive effort was all for naught. Deep stuff with Seattle surviving and moving on.

Several things about all of this.

For all of the talk about how talented and great a running back Peterson is, he was absolutely locked down by the league’s best rushing defense yesterday, only averaging two yards a carry. Then of course in typical fashion, fumble issues that he had early on in his career, that resurfaced this season, plagued the Vikings yet again. Peterson is Minnesota’s best player and in offering no production as well as providing arguably the 2nd most backbreaking play to Minnesota’s season, he really showed off his value or lack thereof for the future.

I’m just speculating, but at this point, Peterson is a 30 year old running back, so one has to wonder how things go for the superstar in Minnesota in the future. He did lead the league in rushing, but he clearly peaked in 2012 with a 2,000 yard season and if his fumble issues are something that’s come back on a semi permanent basis, you have to wonder when Minnesota turns Teddy Bridgewater into the focal point of the offense. The only reason they can’t do that now is because the offensive line is so porous in pass protection, as we get back to the game evidence yesterday.

This wasn’t all about the Vikings choking. The Seattle defense played it’s own practical perfect game. Defensive end Michael Bennett took advantage of the poor Minnesota tackles all afternoon. He essentially took up residence in the backfield. Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman, and Kam Chancellor looked like they were in Super Bowl 48 form. This Seattle defense was the only reason the Vikings hadn’t put the game away by the 4th quarter. Everyone expected this kind of performance from maybe the hottest team in the league and certainly one of the most complete.

However no one saw Minnesota matching that play and that’s where the rub comes in for the Vikings. As they miss out on a date with Arizona, a team they played quite well in the regular season, they can only wonder in a cliche fashion, what could have been.

Teddy Bridgewater will certainly have to develop even more as mentioned. With that of course has to come offensive line upgrades. Matt Kalil and whatever pylons the Vikings are trotting out there just aren’t going to get it done long term if Minnesota is to become a true contender. Bottom 10 in pass protection throughout the season speaks volumes. The defense might already be ready for that elite level. Locking down maybe the NFL’s best offense in the 2nd half of the season proved that.

The Vikings are loaded with young talent defensively that now has playoff experience, and it’ll be interesting to see how they progress into form in the future. Minnesota stands at the precipice. It’s just a matter of how they build on this heartbreak and what cliche lessons they take from this. And no, it’s not the kicker’s fault, at least wholeheartedly. “Laces out” would have helped sure but that’s a chip shot anyway. That kick will be forever embedded into embarrassing NFL playoff lore, but it shouldn’t be, at least for the wrong reasons.

From the Seattle perspective, they now move onto Carolina, a rematch of last year’s meeting in the divisional round, except this time the Panthers are the alpha dog #1 seed. Carolina would have been much better served to have a match-up with Washington or Green Bay as these two teams match up really well and almost mirror each other.

Two teams with mobile playmaking quarterbacks that are excellent in the pocket and also consistently make things happen out of nothing. Two elite defenses with speed and All Pro talent at every level. An aggressive demeanor coaching wise with smart play calling on a regular basis. Carolina and Seattle basically share the same model of winning.

Seattle can’t afford the same offensive mistakes they did on Sunday, as Carolina has just proven to be in a different echelon to capitalize on those kinds of things. In their meeting in the regular seasons where the Panthers escaped Seattle 27-23, they let Cam Newton do that to a tee. Carolina has a better offensive identity than Minnesota with the likely MVP at quarterback in Newton, better receiving options in Greg Olsen and Ted Ginn than anything the Vikings have, and a better defense.

I’ll expect Seattle to rise to the occasion as they have in the past three seasons. It just may come down to which quarterback makes some kind of transcendent play outside of the pocket. Wilson has a history of this, but if anyone still doubts the coming of age of Cam Newton, you might be disappointed next Sunday. Now we only look forward to in my opinion the best most even matchup of divisional weekend.

Self Inflicted Wounds in the “Jungle”

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This was fascinating to say the least.

A backup quarterback in the Bengals’ AJ McCarron playing at home against one of the league’s best passers in Ben Roethlisberger. A very talented Bengals team standing on the verge of the return of their most important player in Andy Dalton if they could just get through Pittsburgh. The chic pick to win the AFC by many in the Steelers just wouldn’t let that Dalton dream happen.

Well actually, the Bengals wouldn’t let that dream happen.

With McCarron struggling to get the Bengals in an offensive rhythm through most of the first three quarters, while the Cincy defense did it’s best to keep the game close and within reach at 15-0 against the prolific Pittsburgh offense, this contest became more about the escalating bad blood between the two teams.

The Bengals and Steelers had already had a few of those “PULL ME BACK, PULL ME BACK” fights in the regular season together. The Bengals of course in also holding plenty of lingering ill will towards Pittsburgh given their history, made this one a potential bad mix of emotion.

The NFL half expected as much, by having officials stand at midfield in the pre game to prevent any confrontations, as so eloquently and obviously pointed out by the John Madden esque’ CBS color man Phil Simms to his partner “Jeeem” Nantz (let’s not forget these two are calling this year’s Super Bowl. Great).

For all of the great efforts by the league, this peace and quiet pre-game with no tension, wouldn’t last.

With the Bengals driving in Pittsburgh territory late in the 3rd quarter, after having done largely nothing offensively, McCarron hit running back Giovanni Bernard on a seemingly harmless dump-off. The Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier tackled Bernard helmet-to-helmet on the catch, but it wasn’t called by the officials, Bernard fumbled and lost possession, and the fuse was lit for the later dramatic and controversial finish.

A player with a history of ill timed personal fouls in the talented Bengals linebacker, Vontaze Burfict, was the person who took the most exception to the play. The next possession, Burfict, albeit cleanly, knocked out Roethlisberger with a shoulder injury, and Burfict LOVED every minute of it. The bad blood began to boil and someone else’s season was now potentially in jeopardy as Landry Jones would have to close the victory for Pittsburgh in the 4th quarter with Roethlisberger going to the locker room.

It turns out Burfict was all Cincy needed to spark a rally, as McCarron found that missing rhythm, and a late touchdown pass to AJ Green in the waning moments of the game felt like the dagger. The Bengals long standing well documented playoff drought really seemed like it was over when on the first play for the Steelers following Green’s score, Jones threw a pick to none other than Burfict, who went wild to rub it in Pittsburgh’s face in celebration (man did this backfire).

Everything was coming up roses for Cincy, except in Adrian Peterson fashion with the first of the final dagger mistakes, with Cincy trying to run out the clock, Jeremy Hill fumbled the ball, giving the Steelers unnecessary life.

Roethlisberger who was being held out, now came back into the game to try and drive the Steelers down the field. No one knew the extent to which his arm was injured, so the Steelers mostly stuck to quick passes. With their season on the line and mistake number two on the way for the Bengals, the Steelers would convert on a short 4th and 3 pass to Antonio Brown to set the Steelers up around midfield.

An incompletion later and the stage for the meltdown with less than 30 seconds to go was set (keep in mind the Steelers had no timeouts).

A seemingly harmless toss to Brown over the middle was broken up, but Mr. Bad Timing, Burfict showed up very late with a very dangerous helmet to helmet hit that now has Brown in the concussion protocol. Mistake #3 and a free 15 yards to the Steelers to set them up with a long field goal to win it. What followed has been the microcosm of the Cincinnati Bengals of the past 10 seasons.

In all out chaos and a developing scrum on the field, Steelers assistant coach Joey Porter found himself on the field, likely to check on the status of Brown. Adam “Pacman” Jones who had turned his reputation around with the Bengals, took exception to Porter’s presence, and in attempting to confront him, made contact with an official, bing-bang-boom, another 15 yards tacked on, and 30 yards in penalties gifted to the Steelers as well as the game. Of course, controversy abound and another Bengals season over in complete disappointment and heartbreak.

No one knows whether to blame the rising tension between the two rivals as a factor here. I’m not gonna blame an individual play like Shazier’s tackle on Bernard as escalating it either. Two players, with a history of bad decision making on the field, in Burfict and Jones, effectively lost all composure in the waning moments, a classic Bengals tale. In the past it would have been the quarterback like Andy Dalton, but McCarron put Cincy in excellent position this time. Two players took major exception in a game they should have won to put the game out of reach for their own team with horrendous discipline.

Is this an indicator of the concerns of red flags of character in the draft as I’ve seen in the past few days? I don’t know if that’s necessarily true as I can’t gather up enough evidence to support that. So many players are designated with character concerns in the draft. Some for minor reasons. Some for major arrests. It’s a nature of the beast that comes with the developing talent pool year after year. Jones and Burfict did have these kinds of concerns when originally coming out of their respective drafts, but to blame the Bengals for taking a chance on Burfict, a very talented player coming out of college, or Jones in free agency is mistaken. So many teams make the same decision all the time, even those with an established winning mindset and culture. Sometimes it blows up in your face, which I hesitate to say that even happened here. I just caution against hot takes like this.

What’s next for the Bengals after this is the most fascinating. All sources have indicated that Marvin Lewis is likely safe in position as Bengals head coach despite a now 0-7 playoff record. Many will question the wisdom of this decision but to blame this loss on the veteran tenured coach is mistaken. Lewis has built this franchise up from the ground up to relevancy. One may blame more the bad luck of injury to Andy Dalton as the reason to which the Bengals aren’t still alive (I stand by the fact that they would have run away from the Steelers if Dalton played). You can’t just throw away the development and culture of a great coach because of two bad “eggs” that so many other teams likely may have taken a chance on.

The Bengals will be in prime position yet again to contend next season, even despite the likely loss of genius offensive coordinator Hue Jackson to a head coaching position. If they can stay healthy, there is no reason to think they can’t end the drought and more. Appropriate action with the roster like Burfict and Jones will probably be taken, but overreaction isn’t the answer. A steady hand with a supremely talented roster is.

As for the Steelers. I think they lucked out here. Facing a Bengals team without Andy Dalton was the first step. Escaping major injury to Roethlisberger and possibly Antonio Brown, the chic pick in the AFC as mentioned now has a seemingly favorable match-up in Denver.

The health of the two star players in Pittsburgh will be something to monitor as obviously the Steelers are a different animal without their quarterback and best receiver in the league. If Brown can’t go after going through the concussion protocol or if Roethlisberger’s injury is in anyway limiting, the Broncos top defense stands in excellent position to take advantage as literally any offense would be hampered without the best receiver in football.

One remains to see how Peyton Manning will do in the cold weather, but he may have an advantage at least in the passing game against a still porous 30th ranked Pittsburgh pass defense. The Steelers themselves have a mountain to climb that depends on health, but it’s not like Denver is some juggernaut, and it’s not like they haven’t done this before. This is something to keep an eye on in Mile High.

Cold reality in Houston

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Down in Houston, Chiefs-Texans was interesting to say the least. Interesting only for the fact to see how low Texans quarterback Brian Hoyer can set the bar for horrendous play by a passer.

From the opening kick in which Chiefs kick returner Kniles Davis took it back for a touchdown, to likely even before the game matchup wise, this wild card contest was never destined to go Houston’s way through no fault of their own. To be fair no one had expectations for this game to necessarily be closely contested however there are things to note.

Brian Hoyer turned in one of the single worst quarterbacking playoff performances of the modern era. There’s no scale for four interceptions, a fumble, less than 50% completions, and 134 yards. The Houston was completely inept and it had everything to do with Hoyer. Kansas City’s defense is good, one of the best of in the NFL with a ferocious front four featuring Tamba Hali, Justin Houston, and Dontari Poe among others. However on Saturday, they barely do any work. Most of Hoyer’s ineptness was all self inflicted. Re-watching specific plays tell the same story. It’s not exactly like any Chiefs were making tremendous plays or fantastic reads on his throws. Hoyer in every case threw passes right to Kansas City defenders.

In fact there was a stretch in the 2nd quarter where the Texans defense had forced a normally turnover free and efficient quarterback in the Chiefs’ Alex Smith into a few interceptions, but yet Hoyer comically gave the ball right back up through all fault of his own. That’s what makes analyzing a 30-0 game here so hard. The Chiefs dominated but it was only in beating an AFC South champion, the worst or 2nd division in the NFL, who has no effective quarterback play. I’m not putting an asterisk on the win. I’m just saying you could tell in advance this game was one of the bigger “gimmes” in recent memory.

The thing to watch for Houston now is who do they look to turn to next season at the position. There’s a nice talent base that the Texans have built up with DeAndre Hopkins, JJ Wattt, and several other pieces on a defense that ranked 2nd in the NFL through the second half of the season. Head coach Bill O’Brien also seemingly knows what he’s doing. He certainly has the locker room in stead or whatever other football cliche of leadership and game planning you can think of. However none of that talent can be maximized without a competent signal caller. Hoyer does not qualify as competent by any means.

Houston’s situation is more a portrait of a league problem. There aren’t enough quality quarterbacks. Outside of your Rodgers, Brady, Roethlisberger etc. etc. there is a significant dip in “quality” then another major drop off to guys like Hoyer. Houston though, put themselves in this situation. While it is still way too early to write off the Jadeveon Clowney #1 overall pick as he has shown plenty of flashes, it’s just about health for him. Does anyone seriously think the Texans wouldn’t have been better off taking Derek Carr at quarterback, who is likely going to light up the league for at least the next 10 seasons in either Oakland or LA? That sentiment from me sounds like a hindsight pick as most scouts wouldn’t have pegged Carr as #1 pick worthy two years ago but it’s still worth mentioning how much better the Texans would be with arguably the best young quarterback this side of Andrew Luck. This Wild Card game (if everything was played in a vacuum) certainly would have been more entertaining, that’s for sure.

From the Kansas City Chiefs side, they did what they had to. They showed up with a solid enough game plan against an extremely inferior team that they also blew out in the regular season. No necessary flash other than the Davis kick return, but that flash element wasn’t needed. Kansas City basically did what it’s done the past three months or so, in playing dominant defense and efficient ball control offense (tight end Travis Kelce broke the ball control actually) and coming out with a victory. There weren’t any relevant reveals of note in my mind other than the fact that Alex Smith, someone who has to went over 300 passes without an interception, really can’t give away the ball if the Chiefs want to pull the upset in New England on Saturday.

This is where the rub comes in.

I don’t know how to read the Chiefs when they play the Patriots. After all, the last time Kansas City played New England, the entire annoying and reactionary sports conversation turned towards “IS TOM BRADY FINISHED?”. Needless to say, these Chiefs did beat up on the eventual Super Bowl champion New England in a now much forgotten 2014 Monday Night Football game.

This Patriots team is by all measures worse. New England was middle of the pack defensively yet top five in DVOA efficiency, but injuries have ravaged the team as a whole. When the Chiefs met the Patriots, the offensive line was in flux for New England, and that was the difference for the monstrous Kansas City pass rush to harass Brady again and again. The offensive again has healthy issues as we don’t have any exact health indicators of who will play at tackle with Nate Solder in out of the lineup. There also goes to note that the 2014 team had Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. The Patriots clearly miss the former as while Malcolm Butler has built on his Super Bowl performance and more, but the Patriots defense is closer to the pathetic 2011 bottom rung unit than to last year’s formidable group. Kansas City doesn’t exactly have the strongest receiving core, but it looks like Jeremy Maclin (who wasn’t with the Chiefs in that Monday night game) should be set to play and work as a matchup issue in the Patriots’ back end.

There’s also the question of how effective Julian Edelman is in his return from a broken foot and whether that Patriots front seven is even all together with the return of someone like Chandler Jones (rumors abound). Edelman has been that safety valve that Brady needs when plays break down. The Patriots’ offense is top five in DVOA efficiency with Edelman in the lineup, and quite average without him. The results in the New England second half slide speak for themselves. What I’m basically saying, is that the Patriots are vulnerable and the Chiefs are in prime position to take advantage.

New England coming off a bye with Bill Belichick has been the toughest team to beat in the modern era, but if Kansas City can avoid mistakes, and exploit the health and flaws of the now similarly Patriots roster like they did last time they met, there definitely might be something to see here.

R-E-L-A-X?

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And now finally to our nation’s capital, where it seems the Kirk Cousins honeymoon and national love affair, has been suspended and completely overshadowed, at least temporarily. In a slight shocker, the return of the nationally expected preseason juggernaut Packers came at quite the opportune moment of Green Bay’s 35-18 over the Redskins.

At the mention of Cousins, he didn’t play awful by any means. 29/46, with 329 yards, and a performance that had Washington quickly up 11-0 on the Packers (can DeSean Jackson seriously learn how to cross goal lines?), was more than admirable. However everything was completely overshadowed, once Aaron Rodgers, someone we haven’t talked about positively and weirdly enough compared to his normal standards recently, just went berserk.

The Redskins defense is far from a quality unit and in the second half of the season, with Cousins posting the league’s best passer rating, helped overshadow that. However the Redskins didn’t exactly beat up on quality competition within their hot run, nor did Cousins face a worthy foe where he would have to keep up shootout wise. The Packers themselves have had recent issues but they do have Aaron Rodgers, and if Aaron Rodgers is protected well, you get what you saw on Sunday.

The statistics don’t tell the full story. While Rodgers only threw for two scores 210 yards, he was in command in a way he hasn’t been since Green Bay got off to a 6-0 start. As many eloquently pointed out, following the slow 11-0 deficit, Rodgers began to make his trademark rocket throws outside the pocket and his receivers began winning jump balls off of perfect passes. The Green Bay offense looked very 2011, where they set numerous offensive records and where Rodgers captured his first MVP.

This game by all extensive measure wasn’t about the Redskins. They were the inferior competition that might have run into the new playoff buzz saw. However they do likely have their quarterback of the future in Cousins. There is a nice offensive foundation and the future seems bright in DC. Nothing more need be said. What I’m weary of for the next few weeks though, is whether they awoke a sleeping giant in Green Bay or whether the Packers took advantage of an inflated team.

As the Packers turn to Arizona on Saturday night, a team that blew them out by 30+ points and that manhandled Rodgers to the tune of 8 sacks and is by all extensive purposes the most complete remaining team in the playoffs, it will be curious to see how they adjust from their last meeting. Arizona isn’t going to give Rodgers the kind of time he received Sunday where he was only pressured five times. In fact, it wouldn’t be out of the question to see them pressure Rodgers as much as they did in their last meeting. The Packers receivers now also get to work against Patrick Peterson and Justin Bethel & co. as there will certainly be much less room to work with in route running. All of the space you saw guys like the previously struggling Davante Adams work with on Sunday won’t be there against an aggressive and physically talented defense. The Cardinals have no weakness defensively even with the loss of Tyrann Mathieu to an ACL tear.

If the Packers are to make anything of this game, it’ll have to be with their own defensive front. Mike Daniels (payday coming) for example, played one of the best games by a defensive end this season against the Redskins, as he completely lived in the offensive backfield. The Packers also sacked Kirk Cousins six times. They’re going to need a similar type of defensive performance against the league’s #1 scoring offense. Carson Palmer, a likely candidate for offensive player of the year, has been by all measure tremendous this season, but Arizona can be had with pressure. I’m not sure if Green Bay is prepared to deliver that pressure necessarily as the Cardinals offensive line is also one of the best in the league in pass protection, but it remains something to watch.

All of the talk of “R-E-L-A-X” may be a little premature for Green Bay in becoming this year’s hot out of nowhere playoff team, but if they can somehow pull off this upset in the desert, all bets are off.

At that point, who are we not to believe Aaron Rodgers anymore when he tells us to calm down? Beware.

-Robert Zeglinski

Robert Zeglinski is a student writer and broadcaster who absolutely loves all the nitty gritty that comes with pro sports. He is currently attending Aurora University in Illinois. You can follow him on Twitter at @ZigZags82 or reach him through email (robertpoduski@gmail.com) for questions or feedback. 

(Photo Credit: cbssports.com, Bleacher Report, cincyjungle.com, sltrib.com, hngn)

 

 

 

 

 

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