In a normal year, the four games that comprise the second round of the playoffs are not that great, then the two Conference Championship games are tremendous. This is not a normal year. It was a weekend where hopefully you were able to convince your significant other that you needed to watch every play of all four games. What great action. Next week’s games have a lot to live up to.
It’s a double edged sword though, the games that are now being played are by the best teams in the league, so they are fun to watch. But in the back of your mind, you just know that there are only a handful of games left…and after this weekend, only three games remain. Soon, it will be all over…sigh…
Let’s get into this past week’s action!
at Seattle 20, Washington 10
The weekend’s action got off to a slow start, with top seeded Seattle hosting the red hot Redskins. The Seahawks took the opening kickoff and drove the field with relative ease, but the Washington defense forced a Shaun Alexander fumble to keep Seattle off the scoreboard. Both defenses would step to the forefront, as neither team was able to generate a first down on their next two possessions. Things took a turn for the worst for the home team, with five minutes left to play in the first quarter, Alexander would leave the game with an injury, his day finished.
Early in the second, it was Washington that struck first, John Hall connecting from 26 yards out after a 10 play drive (albeit only 32 yards). Seattle would respond on their ensuing possession, going 74 yards in 12 plays, Matt Hasselbeck (215 yards, TD, rushing TD) finding Darrell Jackson (143 yards, TD) for a 29 yard scoring play. That would be the last of the scoring in the first half.
Seattle’s rushing attack would struggle without Alexander, as would Washington’s with Clinton Portis as both defenses were controlling the play. Seattle would go to the air on their opening drive of the half, Hasselbeck leading the team 81 yards in 10 plays, calling his own number from 6 yards out for the score. The Redskins would respond to that score, but the Seattle defense sacked Mark Brunell (242 yards, TD) and recovered the fumble to put an end to the march. Josh Brown would tack on three more points as a result of the turnover early in the fourth quarter.
Brunell would get Washington going on the ensuing drive, opening things up by finding Chris Cooley (85 yards) for a 52 yards pass and run. Two plays later he found Santana Moss (103 yards, TD) for a 20 yard scoring strike and the game was close once again. Washington’s fortunes would continue to be good, as Seattle would fumble the ensuing kickoff. But Seattle’s D would hold, and Hall would misfire from 36 yards out, keeping the 17-10 score.
With Alexander out, Seattle turned to a combination of Maurice Morris and Mack strong to keep the clock running and the chains moving. Strong in particular had a big play on the drive, busting a 32 yard run on third down and six. The play put Seattle into Brown’s range, and he connected from 31 yards out to extend the lead. With only three minutes remaining, Washington made a valiant effort to get some points on the board, but Brunell’s fourth down pass to Moss went awry and the Seahawks had their ticket into the Conference Championship Game.
at Denver 27, New England 13
I can hear the complaining now, and New Englanders sure love to complain. And on the other side of the fence, there are the Patriot Haters that are jubilant that finally they got their revenge for the “Tuck Rule” game. Whichever side you are on, it’s too bad that this game wasn’t the Championship game, because it was a tremendous game from start to finish. I will say this, two of the three teams that were involved in this game made many mistakes, the New England Patriots made too many, and that cost them the game. The Denver Broncos were able to take advantage of every mistake presented to them, and on a day where they perhaps were not the better team, they move onto the next round, which is ok, because “…that’s why they play the game!”
The game opened up innocently enough. New England had the ball first, and after some minimal success, they were forced to punt. Denver went three and out, and the Defending Superbowl Champions had their second possession of the game. The Patriots would continue to have some success, and when the drive stalled at the Denver 37 yard line, New England went for it on fourth and one, but Tom Brady (341 yards, TD, 2 int) threw incomplete.
Given the opportunity, the Broncos again were unable to mount much on offense. New England set out to stop the Denver rushing attack, and Mike Shanahan was unwilling to let Jake Plummer (197 yards, TD, int) throw the ball. Their only first down after two drives was on a Plummer scramble. But Denver’s defense was up to the task, they stiffened, and the game looked like it would be a field position battle.
The Broncos would get the offense on track in the second quarter. The Patriots had stopped Denver on third and seven from the 26 yard line, but Bill Belichick would accept a Bronco penalty, hoping to push Denver out of field goal range. With the extra down, Plummer found Jeb Putzier for a 24 yard gain to keep the drive alive. Denver would get to the two yard line on first down, but New England stiffened, stuffing Bell and Plummer on successive downs. The Broncos would go for it on fourth down, Plummer throwing a feeble pass to the left side that didn’t have a chance.
The gamble seemed to pay off as New England went three and out, but Plummer was off on the next drive, Asante Samuel making a great interception that the officials had initially ruled out of bounds. Brady and the Patriots would take advantage, Adam Vinatieri connecting for a 40 yard kick to open up the scoring. Another three and out gave the ball back to the Patriots, and with just under three minutes to go, they were looking for more. Unfortunately, Kevin Faulk fumbled the ball away just after the two minute warning. As is usually the case when this happens, team’s throw into the endzone right away, and this time was no different. Plummer’s throw to Ashley Lelie was well covered by Samuel, and when Lelie pulled on Samuel’s shoulder forcing some contact on an uncatchable ball, the back judge flagged the play for pass interference, putting the ball on the one yard line. Mike Anderson (69 yards, 2 TD) would waste no time, getting in on the first play.
New England’s woes would continue on the ensuing kickoff, as Cedric Hobbs put in a nice return of 32 yards, but fumbled when he was hit by the kicker. Denver gladly took the miscue, Jason Elam booting a 50 yard field goal to extend the Bronco lead as the teams went into the locker room for the half.
The third quarter was much of the same, Denver unable to move the ball on offense, New England’s moving the ball with ease. The Patriots would settle for another Vinatieri field goal to close to within 4 points. With just over a minute left in the quarter, the Patriots were driving yet again, the game turned for good. Third and goal from the Denver five, Brady was under pressure and threw an illadvised pass into the end zone. Champ Bailey was in perfect position for the pick, and had open field to return the ball. He outran the last of the Patriot defenders, and around the 10 yardline he was ready to celebrate. He held the ball out in his right arm, but as he got to the goal line, Ben Watson was there to greet him after running 130+ yards in pursuit. The hit knocked Bailey out of bounds and the officials spotted him out of bounds at the one foot line. Since the ball was jarred loose from his arm, New England challenged the play, sure that the ball had traveled thru the endzone for what should have been a touchback. Officials reviewing the play did not agree. Anderson was again good from one yard out to extend the Denver lead.
Undaunted, the Patriots again moved the ball quickly, but this time, Adam Vinatieri was no good from 43 yards out. Time was starting to become a factor and the Broncos were finally able to get one first down on their next possession before having to punt. New England put all their players on the line for the block, with Troy Brown floating back to catch the ball. He was able to get under the ball, but couldn’t handle it, the Broncos easily recovered the muff at the New England 15. Three plays later, Plummer found Rod Smith (96 yards, TD) to put the score at 24-6.
Continuing the trend, Brady hooked up with Deion Branch (153 yards) for a 73 yard pass play to open up the Patriots drive, then found David Givens (54 yards, TD) on the next play, 2 plays, 77 yards, 33 seconds used. Denver then did the same, Rod Smith got open to start the next Denver drive for a 42 yard play, Jason Elam capping the drive from 34 yards out. Just over three minutes remained, down two scores and 90 yards to go, Brady lofted a deep ball down the field, John Lynch came down with the ball, and with no flags on the field, the Broncos had the win and we will see a new Champion crowned in Detroit.
Pittsburgh 21, at Indianapolis 18
Keeping the streak of amazing games going, the heavily favored Colts got back into action against the Steelers. Pittsburgh won the toss, and ripped down the field on a 10 play 84 yard drive, capped by Ben Roethlisberger (197 yards, 2 TD, 1 int) hooking up with Antwaan Randle El for a six yard score. The Colts would go three and out, but the Indy defense would record an interception on the next drive, surely putting their offense in business.
But that was not the case, the Steelers D came to play, and another three and out. Pittsburgh’s offense would go on the attack, and they’d push their lead to 14-nil as Heath Miller (61 yards, TD) scored on a 7 yard pass play. Again the Pittsburgh defense was up to the task, as they harrassed and knocked Peyton Manning (290 yards, TD) down on nearly every pass play. The combination of the Colts showing a little rust and the Steelers coming to play was not a good combination for the home faithful.
In the second quarter, Indianapolis got their offense clicking, going on a 15 play, 96 yard drive that chewed up nearly the entire quarter. Unfortunately, they were stopped short of the goal line and after a difficult half, they opted for the sure points in Mike Vanderjadt. 14-3 was the halftime score.
The third quarter was much of the same, the Colts offense struggling while the Steelers were winning the field position game. On their second possession of the half, Pittsburgh scored again, this time Jerome Bettis (46 yards, TD) getting it done from a yard out. Time was becoming a factor, and the Colts would go for it on the ensuing drive on fourth and two, finding success. Two plays later, Manning hooked up with Dallas Clark (84 yards, TD) for a 50 yard pass and nice run, and the Colts comeback was on.
The Steelers would chew up some of the clock on the ensuing drive, but got no points. Looking to working quickly, Manning clicked with Reggie Wayne (97 yards) to open the drive with a 24 yard gainer. On the next play, Manning was picked off by Troy Polamalu. However he stumbled and lost the ball, and though the call on the field was interception, it was challenged and the ruling was reversed in favor of the home team – incomplete. Another strange call going in favor of the home team. Given the second life, Manning completed the 80 yards drive in just six plays, taking up just over a minute and a half of time. Edgerrin James (56 yards, TD) getting it in on the ground from three yards out. Manning would hit Reggie Wayne for the two point conversion, and suddenly it was a three point game.
The Steelers would not get a first down, forced to punt with two and a half minutes left in regulation. After gaining two yards on first down, Manning would get sacked, throw incomplete, then get sacked on fourth down. 1:20 remained on the clock, and the folks in Pittsburgh were celebrating. Looking to ice the game, Jerome Bettis got the call from the 2 yard line, and he was hit and fumbled. Nick Harper cleanly picked it up off the ground and he was off to the races. As if that turn of events wasn’t enough, somehow Harper was run down (ran into?) Ben Roethlisberger and fell at the Colts 42 yard line.
Given yet another life, Manning again went to work, with 2 timeouts and 61 ticks of the clock to work with. Reggie Wayne was open for 22 yards to start, but then the offense failed. Facing third and two, Manning went for the endzone, leaving Indy with a fourth and two, and a Mike Vanderjadt 46 yard attempt to tie. Pittsburgh called the obligatory timeout to ice him…and it worked. Vanderjadt’s attempt was not close, way wide right, and the Steelers move on to the next round.
Carolina 29, at Chicago 21
Capping off the weekend, the Panthers would pull off the second upset of the day as they proved to be the better team in Chicago. No tremendous comebacks, no unbelievable plays, no controversial calls. Just straight up football where the Panthers took it right to the vaunted Chicago Bear defense on the game’s opening drive.
Carolina took the opening kickoff, and on the second play from scrimmage, Steve Smith (218 yards, 2 TD) got free in the secondardy, taking in a 58 yard pass from Jake Delhomme (319 yards, 3 TD, int) to start off the scoring. Things settled down after that, as both defenses kept their opponent in check. Things looked bleak when Carolina returned a Chicago fumble recovery for a touchdown, but replay reversed the call, keeping the score at 7-0.
The Panthers would open up the second quarter with a John Kasay boot, and later would add another to push the lead to 13-0. This time, the Bears would answer, a 9 play 67 yard drive that resulted in Adrian Peterson hitting paydirt from a yard out. Carolina would answer, as once again, Kasay was good from 37 yards out just before the halftime gun.
The Bears regrouped at the half, and took the opening kick for a nice drive of their own. 8 plays and 68 yards later, Rex Grossman (192 yards, TD, int) found Desmond Clark from a yard out to draw the home team within two. The opening play of the ensuing drive saw Deshaun Foster get hurt, and he would not return. That left things to Steve Smith, as Carolina ran every play thru him, and Chicago was unable to stop him. Midway thru the third, he scored on a 39 yard pass play, the Panthers extending their lead to 9 points.
But the Bears, not known for their offense, would keep the game close. The hard running of Thomas Jones (110 total yards) would get them in range where they’d punch one in from three yards out with little used (never used?) Jason McKie hitting paydirt. Again the Panthers would shrug off the Bears D, driving the field and quickly scoring, Kris Mangum good from a yard out. But the win would still not be easy, Kasay slipped on the PAT, his kick hit the upright leaving the Bears deficit at 8 points.
After a three and out by both sides, the Bears would make the game interesting. The offense was moving, and time was winding down. The Panthers D would do their part to close it out, picking off Grossman at the Panther 37 yard line. However, the offense was unable to run out the clock (despite a valiant effort on an end around by Steve Smith on third down). 1:36 remained, but 80 yards would prove to be too much, Grossman’s fourth and one pass sailed incomplete, and Carolina moves on to the next round.