There is a reason that teams fight tooth and nail all season to get a bye week in the first round of the playoffs, it is because when that home game finally comes after a nice week off, the good bounces and fortuitous breaks always go the way of the home team. Of course, the extra week rest comes in handy as well, but the home cooking makes a huge difference.
The week in the NFC, the Eagles put to rest any doubts about not playing in a month and the Falcons asserted themselves in a rematch of a couple of years ago. In the AFC, the Steelers are happy to still be playing and the Patriots are still in line to defend their Superbowl rings after literally putting the Colts offense on ice.
Let’s just get right into this week’s games…
at Pittsburgh 20, New York Jets 17 (overtime)
The four pack of football games on this weekend began with an overtime barnburner. One or the other things is going to happen to the Steelers as a result of this game. Either this game will serve as their wakeup call and they will storm to the bastille in Jacksonville, or else they have been exposed as a fraudulent top seed in the AFC. Time will tell. The way this game ended overshadowed a justsy performance from a New York Jets team that did not know the word quit. They fought to the end, but it just was not enough.
The tough defensive struggle started off with the home side drawing first blood, Jeff Reed booting a 45 yard field goal on the Steelers’ second possession of the game. The Steeler D picked off the Jets on the next possession giving the offense the ball with only 25 yards to the end zone. Pittsburgh got it done, Jerome Bettis (101 yds, TD) doing the deed from three yards out. Not wanting to fall too far behind, New York put together a nice drive in response, Doug Brien connecting from 42 yards out to get the visitors on the board early in the second quarter. Both teams would exchange punts, then the Jets special teams made some noise as Santana Moss returned a punt 75 yards to tie the score heading into the break.
The second half began much like the first, both offenses struggling to move the ball against a solid defense. On Pitt’s second possession, Ben Roethlistberger was picked off, and Reggie Tongue went 86 yards mostly untouched for the touchdown that put the Jets on top, giving the Jets some hope of pulling off the upset. But the Steelers would run right back down the field, moving into a good position to score when Jerome Bettis uncharacteristically coughed up the ball at the NY 23 yard line early in the fourth quarter. The Jets were unable to seize control of the game, three and punt. Roethlisberger then led his team down the field, where he hit Hines Ward (105 yds, TD) from 4 yards out to tie things up, getting the crowd back into the game. If they only knew what was in store for them…
Six minutes in regulation, Chad Pennington leads his team down the field. The drive not only got the Jets down the field, but chewed up some precious time off the clock. Things would stall out at the Pittsburgh 28, but Doug Brien’s 47 yard field goal at the two minute warning clanged off the crossbar and would not go thru. Now it was the Steelers that had hope! On the very next play, Roethlisberger threw poorly down the left side, the ball overthrown and easily picked off. The Jets were back in business. Alas, New York was content to settle for another long kick, and this time Doug Brien’s 43 yard offering was hooked wide by a big margin.
Overtime was the call, and the Jets won the toss. Their drive would stall just across midfield and it was the Steelers’ turn. It was during this drive that the hard running by Jerome Bettis during the game paid off, Duce Staley came in and was able to gain big chunks of real estate against the winded defense. Staley’s nine yard burst to the 27 yard line put Pittsburgh well within Reed’s range. But for once, a coach was not content with this, the Steelers pressed on and Reed ended things from 33 yards out, allowing the Steelers to host next week’s AFC Championship game.
at Atlanta 47, St.Louis 17
Now I love a good defensive struggle like the next guy, however, the night’s main event was a refreshing opposite to the afternoon matinee. The Falcons wasted no time in getting the scoring started, Michael Vick (119 rush yds) scampered for 47 yards on one play, setting up his short TD pass to Alge Crumpler to get the fireworks started. Not to be outdone, the Rams struck right back, Marc Bulger hooking up with Kevin Curtis (128 yds, TD) for a 57 yard bomb. Atlanta held serve, Warrick Dunn (142 yds, 2 TD) bolting 62 yards untouched down the right side to keep the scoring streak going. Then things got hairy for the visitors.
The Rams could not answer, and the Falcons were able to score on their next possession, Dunn again going down the right side, this time from 19 yards out. Behind the running of Steven Jackson, St.Louis would again close the gap, this time Bulger finding Torry Holt who made a nice grab from 28 yards out. Finally, the Falcons were stopped, Vick putting the ball on the ground after getting his legs tangled up. The Rams would not be able to capatalize and the birds were ready to close things out. Allen Rossum took the Rams punt at his own 32 yard line, and a play was set up that is no doubt bound to be copied, probably even next week. Rossum, in the middle of the field, was flanked by two teammates. When he made the catch, both players made a beeline for the sideline behind him, ready for Rossum to pass him the ball. He made his way towards the right side of the field, faked a lateral, and went up the middle for the touchdown. A backbreaking play, but the Rams, like the Jets were not ready to give up, Jeff Wilkins giving the visitors a rise by connecting from 55 yards out at the halftime gun.
Second half, all Falcons. The Rams punted on their first possession, and thanks to another great return by Rossum, Atlanta cashed in, Vick hooking up with Peerless Price effectively putting an end to the match. A valiant effort from the visitors, but the Falcons move on.
at Philadelphia 27, Minnesota 14
All eyes were on the Eagles to see how they would play after a month layoff. What was clear from the start is that both defenses came to play. The Vikings had first crack at the ball, and they found no success. The Eagles had no success on their first opportunity either. The game’s first first down was not until the Eagles’ second drive, and what a good drive it was. Brian Westbrook (116 total yds, TD) did most of the damage on the drive, which culminated in Donovan McNabb (286 yds, 2 TD) hooking up with Freddy Mitchell for a 2 yard touchdown play. The Eagles would also click on their next possession, this time McNabb hooking up with Westbrook for the score.
Down by two scores, the Vikings came back on their next possession, Daunte Culpepper (316 yds, TD, 2 int, rush TD) finding his way into the end zone after a nifty seven yard scamper. The next drive would signify to all that it was to be Phlly’s day. Aided by a couple of defensive pass interference penalties, the Eagles found themselves first a goal at the four. McNabb found LJ Smith near the goal line, but Smith was surrounded, tackled, and he fumbled the ball….straight up into the air…into the end zone…and directly into the arms of Freddy Mitchell.
Undaunted, Minnesota set out on a long drive in response to that score, however, things stalled out at the three yard line. In field goal formation, the Vikings went for the fake, but a coaching mixup had them calling Randy Moss off the field…when he was to be the only player out in the pattern. Holder Gus Frerotte was back to pass with no one out to catch the pass….opportunity lost. The Vikings did catch a break when McNabb, with no timeouts left, threw across the middle at the 10 yard line and time ran out before Philly could attempt to tack on three points of their own.
The second half saw the Philadelphia defense come to life. On the Vikings’ first two possessions of the half, the defense was there to grab the interception. The Eagles, looking to put the game away after the second pick, went right for the endzone on the first play. From the Viking 31, Freddy Mitchell hauled in a pass down the left side and made an incredible spin move to not only get past a defender, but to stay inbounds…but as he stretched for the goal line, he lost the ball…and after review, the Vikings were correctly given the ball at the 20. Again the Eagles D held….and though the Vikings would add one more score, Marcus Robinson (119 yds, TD) a 32 yard TD catch, it was the Eagles that would go on to victory.
at New England 20, Indianapolis 3
As I said at the beginning of this, things have a way of going for the home team. Case in point, the night’s forecasted snowfall in New England began early, just in time for the start of this game. Cold wind driven rain turned to snow, which by the second half began covering the field. Not the optimal conditions for the Colts. But on this day, the weather conditions may not have mattered. Here was another game where the defenses were in the forefront right from the opening kickoff.
Yardage and first downs were extremely difficult to come by in a first quarter filled by three and outs on both sides. Towards the end of the quarter, New England began moving the ball, thanks mostly to the running of Corey Dillon (144 yds). The Patriots 78 yard drive rested at the one yard line, fourth and goal. They chose to go for it, however, a false start negated a one yard plunge. New England settled for the three points to open up the game’s scoring. The Colts would not be able to respond, and New England would again enjoy the edge in the field position game, upping their lead to six with another FG.
Indy would get things moving, but New England’s Tedy Bruschi would wrestle a pass away from Domanick Rhodes to end a promising Colt drive. The Pats would not take advantage, and Indy would begin moving again. The two minute offense was working to perfection, but Manning was just off the mark in the endzone, so the Colts cut the lead in half just before the half. As it would turn out, those would be the only points scored by the vaunted Colts offense on this day.
New England’s second possession of the second half would start to show their dominance in this game. The running of Dillon and Kevin Faulk would prove to be too much to stop, and Tom Brady capped off the 15 play 88 yard drive by tossing a 5 yard TD to David Givens. It was the longest drive of the season for New England and it chewed up over 8 minutes of clock at a time in the game where the Patriots were heading into a stiff wind. The Colts would not generate much on the ensuing possession, but a nice punt pinned the home team at their own six yard line just as the fourth quarter was under way. Seven minutes, 14 plays, and 94 yards later, the Patriots would grind out another touchdown, this time Brady calling his own number from the one yard line. Just a punishing drive where again, Dillon and Faulk carried the load.
Indianapolis would have to do something quickly, but two plays into their next drive, Reggie Wayne coughed the ball up, and Bruschi was there for the recovery again, essentially ending the suspense. Peyton Manning would put up some numbers in a final drive, but it was a drive that would end with Rodney Harrison making an interception in the end zone. Manning would end up with just over 200 yards passing and no touchdowns on the day. A strong win for the Patriots as they continue their magic hex over Manning and the Colts.