This is what it’s all about, eight teams battling it out for the right to move onto the next round of the playoffs. Win and the season continues, lose and there is a long offseason to think about what might have been. In the NFC, the seeds held serve, but barely. In the AFC, the wildcard weekend winners both advanced. Four very close games took place, let’s get right into the action…
Indianapolis 15, at Baltimore 9
A funny thing has happened, the Colts are proving that they really can play defense. Have they been pulling a page out of the Patriots playbook and playing possum the last six weeks or so of the regular season? Indianapolis is winning with defense, and it’s a good thing. Peyton Manning (170 yards, 2 int) had another subpar day, but that was to be sort of expected against the vaunted Ravens defense. On the other side of the ball, the Colts held the Baltimore offense in check. The difference in this game was Adam Vinatieri (5 FG). Automatic Adam connected on two first quarter field goals, and after the Ravens got a kick of their own to halve the score, Vinatieri nailed a 51 yarder to give the Colts the 9-3 halftime edge.
The second half was much the same, both defenses holding the opposing offense out of the endzone, and again it was Vinatieri extending the Colts lead to 12-3. Baltimore would halve the score again, Matt Stover good from 51 yards out, but that would be the last gasp for the Ravens. Vinatieri was good once more midway thru the fourth, and the Indy defense called out checkmate against a Ravens offense that had no answers on this day. Colts advance to the Conference Championship game.
at New Orleans 27, Philadelphia 24
So it was up to Philadelphia to try and put an end to the dream season for the Saints. Jeff Garcia (240 yards, TD) was riding a long winning streak, and the Eagles were looking to pull the upset and keep their season going. Early on the teams were feeling each other out, a John Carney field goal the only points in the first fifteen. Carney would double the Saints lead, but the Eagles would strike back via the big play. Garcia found Donte Stallworth (100 yards, TD) free behind the secondary, and 75 yards later Philadelphia was in the lead. The Saints would march right back, riding the hot hand of Duece McAllister (143 yards, TD) down the field, Reggie Bush (52 yards, TD) finishing off a nice drive with a 4 yard run to paydirt. Philadelphia would respond, as Brian Westbrook (116 yards, 2 TD) finished off an Eagle drive with a one yard score.
The second half opened with a bang for the visitors, Westbrook breaking a long one, his 52 yard run putting the Eagles in front 21-13. New Orleans would not fold, and again on the legs of their two headed monster, they sliced up the Eagles defense, this time Duece McAllister scoring from 5 yards out. McAllister was good again later in the third quarter, this time from 11 yards out, and the Saints were looking like they’d blow the game out.
But Philadelphia would not go away quietly. The Eagles were able to move the ball quickly, and got to the Saints one yard line, second and goal. The New Orleans defense had a chance to make their mark, and they did just that. Westbrook found no room on second down, and Garcia’s third down pass lost 2 yards and Philly reluctantly settled for a short field goal. David Akers was good from 24 yards out, but that would be the last time the visitors would challenge. Three and outs for both sides gave the Saints the ball, and they went on a time consuming drive that looked like it would chew up the remaining time in the game. But with three and a half minutes to play, Drew Brees misfired on a pitch to Reggie Bush, and the Eagles had life with the fumble recovery. Again it was the Saints D that came to the rescue, stopping Philly on three downs, then after a false start penalty pushed the visitors to fourth and fifteen, the Eagles punted the ball away, and this time New Orleans got that elusive first down to clinch the win.
at Chicago 27, Seattle 24 (overtime)
With two teams having punched their tickets to the Conference Finals, it was up to the two #1 seeds to prove they were deserving of their regular season finish. And on this day, the Bears would somehow find a way to win against a scrappy Seattle bunch. As is usually the case, the scoring was hard to come by early on, which was not a surprise given the strength of the Bears defense. Chicago was able to enough in the first quarter to crack the scoreboard, Thomas Jones (66 yards, 2 TD) scoring on a 9 yard run to open the scoring. Seattle would equalize early in the second frame, Matt Hasselbeck (195 yards, TD, int) finding Nate Burleson for a 16 yard score.
One play later, Bernard Berrian (105 yards, TD) took in a 68 yard bomb from Rex Grossman (282 yards, TD, int) and the Bears quickly retook the lead. Seattle continued a methodical pace, short gains here and there, Shaun Alexander (108 yards, 2 TD) capping off a nice drive with a 4 yard scoring run. The Bears would quickly respond just before the half, again Thomas Jones doing the deed, this time from 7 yards out.
The second half, at least the third quarter, belonged to Seattle. They began to assert themselves offensively, and defensively they held the Bears offense in check. Shaun Alexander scored the second of his TDs on the day, a nifty 13 yard run, and the visitors had the lead and were smelling upset. That was something the Bears faithful would not stand for. Cheering their heroes on, Chicago was on the move at the start of the fourth quarter. Four plays into the final session, Grossman was picked off near the goal line, and the Seahawks were in business. But on the very next play, the Chicago defense pulled the same trick, giving their offense another chance.
But again, defense ruled and both teams went three and out. And then Devin Hester got his hands on a punt, and ran, and ran, and ran all the way to the endzone for a 66 yard return. However, a yellow hankie was on the field, holding would wipe out the score. Chicago’s offense would respond to that miscue, Robbie Gould tying the score from 41 yards out with just under five minutes to play. Both teams would have their chances in the final two minutes, but overtime was in the cards.
The visitors had first dips in the extra session, Alexander getting things going with a 10 yard run on first down. But that’s as far as Seattle would go, Chicago would have a chance of their own. And this time they would not fail. Grossman connected on a 36 yard pass play with little used Rashied Davis, and the Bears were in range. Gould was true from 49 yards out, and the Bears advance.
New England 24, at San Diego 21
And so there was only one more ticket left to the Final Four dance. A scrappy New England team travelling to San Diego to play a confident Chargers squad. Early on, it looked like the Chargers were going to have their way on the ground, as LaDainian Tomlinson (123 yards, 2 TD) picked up big chunks of yardage at a time. But when they needed a stop, the Patriots got it, and the Chargers were held scoreless. Meanwhile, the San Diego defense was having its way with the New England offense. Tom Brady (280 yards, 2 TD, 3 int) was having his troubles, and the Chargers were also winning the field position game.
Midway thru the first quarter was perhaps one of the two plays of the game. San Diego was driving, but New England was able to force the Chargers into a fourth and eleven from the 30 yard line. Deciding against going for the 47 yard kick with his pro bowl kicker (and possibly installing some confidence in him), Marty Shottenheimer decided to go for it, and on fourth down Philip Rivers (230 yards, int) was sacked for a 5 yard loss, plus he fumbled on the play. Shottenheimer had dented the confidence of his QB and PK all on the same play. New England took possession, and moved the ball only a little ways, but that was enough for Bill Belichick to send out his rookie kicker for a 50 yard attempt, and Stephen Gostkowski was true for the early 3-nil Patriot lead. A subtle coaching decision on both sides that would come back to haunt or pay dividends later in the game.
That said, the Chargers and specifically, Tomlinson took over the game. Tomlinson couldn’t be stopped, he scored from a yard out, then a long run of his set up a Michael Turner 6 yard run, and the Chargers were looking like they were in control. New England tried to mix in a no huddle attack, and to an extent it worked. With two minutes to play, it paid dividends as Tom Brady found Jabar Jaffney in the back of the end zone with four ticks left in the half.
The teams would play it close to the vest in the third quarter, New England containing the Chargers running game, while the Chargers continued to frustrate the Patriot offense. New England would struggle in the third quarter, but a Charger unnecessary roughness penalty after stopping New England on third down kept a drive going, putting the Pats into Gostkowski’s range, he was good from 34 yards out to draw New England within a point. San Diego would again get it done on the ground, Tomlinson scoring on San Diego’s first possession of the fourth quarter, his 3 yard run giving the home crowd something to cheer about.
Time was becoming a factor, and on the ensuing drive, New England would be the beneficiary of the play of the game. On third and five, Brady’s pass over the middle was picked off, but in the runback, Troy Brown stripped the ball, New England recovered and their offense was back in business. Given the second life, Brady made no mistake this time, he quickly hooked up with Jaffney for 7 and 12 yards, then found Reche Caldwell in the end zone for a 4 yard score. New England went for two, and the direct snap went to Kevin Faulk, who found his way up the middle to tie the score.
Perhaps panicking a bit, San Diego went to the air after Tomlinson got 5 yards on first down, but Rivers misfired twice, and the Chargers were forced to punt. Again Brady went to work, on the field and on the clock. Brady found Daniel Graham over the middle for a 19 yard pickup on first down, then later in the drive, Reche Caldwell and Brady hooked up for a 49 yard play on third and ten, and New England was in business on the Charger 17. A couple of runs to chew the clock put Gostkowski on the field, and he was true from 31 yards out.
But there was still time, no timeouts, but 70 ticks of the clock remained. Rivers opened up by finding Antonio Gates for a 14 yard pickup. Gates was good for another 4 yards, then Eric Parker was open for a 21 yard gainer to the New England 36. After racing to the line to spike the ball, eight seconds remained and Nate Kaeding was sent on the field for his first attempt of the day, a long 54 yard attempt. The ball was down, but the kick was short, and the Patriots escape with the win, setting up show down next week in Indianapolis for the right to go to the Super Bowl.