The NFL’s first round of the playoffs is in the books and I think we now know why they call it a wildcard weekend. The hardest part heading into last weekend was trying to determine who we thought should win the games. Experts across the land couldn’t agree on any of the games. As it turned out, only one of the four home teams walked off the field winners, perhaps an indication that the current format isn’t rewarding the best four teams from each conference with a home playoff game. Looking back, it was the team with the most experience at quarterback that ended up finding victory.
As for the fantasy slant, as is usually the case, offense was at a premium. Defenses set out in stopping the opposing team’s best weapon, and in most cases they were successful. Those of you in playoff challenge type “contests” aren’t going to have many points to add up after this weekend’s games. Hopefully you’ve got most of your players still alive. Let’s get into the games…
Washington 17, at Tampa Bay 10
When I say that offense was at a premium, this was the marquee game of that category. Despite only generating 120 yards in offense, it is the Redskins that are continuing their season as they notch their sixth win in a row. The tone of the game was set early, Tampa had the ball to open the game, but the Washington defense was quick to force a three and out. The Skins had some success moving the ball on their first possession, but the Tampa Bay defense was also up to the task, keeping Washington out of field goal range.
On the Bucs second possession, Chris Simms (198 yards, 2 int) was picked off on the opening play, Lavar Arrington returning the interception to the six yard line. From there it only took one play for Clinton Portis (53 yards, TD) to get into the endzone. On the ensuing possession, the Bucs began to move the ball, but Marcus Robinson scooped up a Carnell Williams (49 yards) and raced 51 yards into the endzone to double the visitors’ lead.
Early in the second quarter, Tampa would get into Matt Bryant’s range and he would connect from 43 yards out to get the home side on the board. John Hall would answer on the next possession from 47 yards out and the teams would enter the half with the Bucs leading 17-3.
Tampa’s defense put the Skins three and out to open up the half, and then the Bucs began to click on offense. Simms would lead the team down the field, and he’d cap the 7 play 51 yard drive by bootlegging to paydirt on third and goal from the two yard line. Again the Buc D was holding Washington’s offense in check, and Tampa was again driving on their first possession in the fourth quarter. From their own 14, they worked the ball to the Redskin 19, but Simms threw incomplete on fourth and one, giving the ball back to the hapless visiting offense.
Things were looking bleak, but with just under four minutes to play, Mark Brunell (41 yards, 1 int) threw an interception and the home crowd came alive. Surely working with the short field (Wash 35 yard line) Tampa would have enough success to tie the score? Facing third and three, Simms’ pass to Edell Shepherd appeared to be good for a touchdown, and the celebration was on. Fireworks at the stadium were set off and there were high fives all around. However, Shepherd was unable to hold the ball when he came down, and despite the replay challenge, the incompletion was upheld. Simms was incomplete on fourth down and Washington had the ball with two and a half minutes to play.
But as was the case all game, they could not get a first down to end the game, giving the ball back with just over a minute to play. Unfortunately, Simms opening pass on the drive was an interception, and the Redskins had their ticket punched to Seattle.
at New England 28, Jacksonville 3
Though the final score may not indicate as much, this was a close game, hard fought by both teams. Both defenses were up to the task in this one, holding their opponent to three and out to open the game. New England was able to move on their second possession, but on a cold and windy night, rather than attempt a 45 yard field goal Adam Vinatieri punted out of field goal formation, the Pats downing the ball at the 4 yard line.
The Jaguars did nothing with the ball, in fact it was not until 4 minutes into the second quarter that they were able to attain a first down. New England went to work, but again the Jags D was up to the task and on fourth and ten from the 30, New England again eschewed a FG attempt, Tom Brady (201 yards, 3 TD) incomplete turning the ball over on downs. New England’s next possession was a success, starting on the Jacksonville 37, the Patriots went the 37 yards in six plays, capped by a Brady to Troy Brown 11 yard TD pass.
On the ensuing possession, Jacksonville did get a first down, and seemed to be finally moving the ball well. Until Alvin Pearman coughed up the ball. The Patriots were unable to take advantage, and again the Jaguar offense clicked. Matt Jones (94 yards) did well in getting chunks of yards here and there, and in the end Josh Scobee was good from 36 yards out to get the visitors on the board.
The second half started much like the first, with the Pats D forcing a three and out, after which the Patriots offense started to assert itself. Kevin Faulk (96 total yards) was running well and New England was moving the ball. Key play in the drive was second and nine from the Jacksonville 20, Brady connected with Ben Watson (91 yards, TD), but he fumbled and luckily Andre Davis recovered at the three. On the next play, David Givens took in a Brady pass to extend the lead.
Another three and out put the Pats offense back on the field, and they would put the game out of reach. On third and thirteen from the Jags 37, Brady found Ben Watson for a short gain, but he was able to shed two tacklers, then rambled down the right side for a 63 yard catch and run into the endzone. On the ensuing possession, Byron Leftwich (179 yards, 1 int) was picked off, and Asante Samuel was able to outrun the limping Leftwich for a 73 yard return to the house.
From there, the harassment of Leftwich continued. Willie McGinest ended up with 4 and a half of the Patriots 6 sacks. Josh Scobee would miss from 41 yards out and New England would essentially run out the clock as David Garrard came on in relief of Leftwich.
Carolina 23, at New York Giants nil
The Giants rushing game had done so well in recent weeks, Tiki Barber winning many a fantasy owner their fantasy title. But on this day, he was held to 41 yards by a defense that set out to stop the run and dared the New York passing game to beat them. It could not. And on the other side, Carolina’s running game simply could not be stopped.
After a scoreless first quarter, the Panthers struck for first blood early in the second. Jake Delhomme hooking up with Steve Smith (84 yards, 2 TD) for a 22 yard score. The Giants were unable to respond to that score, but their defense forced the Panthers to punt with just under two minutes in the half. However, New York couldn’t handle the kick, and after it bounced off a Giant, Carolina was in business at the 15 yard line. New York’s D would hold, and John Kasay connected from 31 yards out to extend the Panthers lead.
The Giants were unable to get the offense going, as it became clear that Carolina was intent on stopping Tiki Barber. Eli Manning (113 yards, 3 int) was unable to shoulder the load. DeShaun Foster (151 yards) continued to run wild, but Carolina too was unable to score on their opening possession of the second half. Manning’s inexperience began to show, as he was picked off deep in the Giants territory on the first play of the ensuing drive. The Panthers then went to the trick play book, Steve Smith scoring from 12 yards out on an end around.
Manning would be picked off on the next possession as well, as New York’s hopes began to fade. Foster continued to run well, and when he took a breather Nick Goings (63 yards) was there to keep the running attack strong. Carolina would cash in again early in the fourth, Kasay good from 45 yards out. The Panthers would then seal the deal with another interception and another Kasay boot after some clock chewing. Carolina moves on.
Pittsburgh 31, at Cincinnati 17
Finally on the card this week was an AFC south rematch, between two bitter rivals. The upstart Bengals hosting the Steelers, new guard versus old guard? Vegas liked the old guard in this one as the game opened up with the visitors a slight favorite. The bad blood began early, and so did the injuries.
After the Steelers had limited success on the opening drive of the game, the fates intervened on Cincinnati’s second play from scrimmage. Carson Palmer hooked up with Chris Henry on a 66 yard bomb, but on the play Kimo von Oelhoffen fell into Palmer’s knee, tearing two ligaments and knocking him out of the game. A few plays later, Henry would fall to the ground injured as well and not return. The Bengals would get some points, Shayne Graham good from 23 yards out to open up the scoring.
The Bengals D would hold, and on their next possession, Rudi Johnson (56 yards, TD) would run well and he capped a 7 play 76 yard drive by scoring from 20 yards out. The Steelers would respond, moving the ball well and Ben Roethlisberger (208 yards, 3 TD) hooked up with Willie Parker (79 total yards) for a 19 yard score. Jon Kitna (197 yards, TD, 2 int) and the Cincy offense was up to respond, and they did. Twice the Steelers stopped Cincinnati on third down, but twice they were penalized (once for unsportsmanlike conduct well after the play was over), keeping the Bengals drive alive. Kitna would make them pay, hooking up with TJ Houshemandzadeh on a 7 yard pass play. The offensive showcase would continue, Pittburgh putting together a 6 play 76 yard scoring drive of their own capped by Big Ben tossing a 5 yard score to Hines Ward.
The second half opened with Rudi Johnson continuing his running ways, gaining 18 yards on the half’s opening play. He’d gain four yards on the next play, then inexplicably, the Bengals would hardly call his number for the rest of the game. Instead, they put their faith in Kitna, and for the time being his success continued. Their drive stalled at the 15 yard line, then things went from bad to worse for the Bengals. Earlier in the game, their holder was able to pull down a high snap, but this time he was not able to do so as Cincy’s FG attempt went awry.
The Steelers went right to work, the combination of Big Ben, Parker, and Jerome Bettis (52 yards, TD) poetry in motion, Bettis capping the 66 yard drive with a nifty 5 yard run to put the Steelers in the lead. Then the Kitna show went badly, a sack, a short pass play, a penalty, then a mishandling of the shotgun snap followed by Kitna fumbling while scrambling around (though he did fall on the ball) put the Pittsburgh offense right back on the field.
On third and three, Pittsburgh went to the trick play book, Antwaan Randle El took the shotgun snap and ran right, then he passed the ball back across the field to Roethlisberger, who found Cedrick Wilson (104 yards, TD) wide open for a 43 yard score. Cincinnati would not recover. Their next possession resulted in a Kitna interception and Jeff Reed would extend the Steeler lead early in the fourth quarter from 21 yards out. Rudi would not see the ball the rest of the game, and Kitna would again be picked off, sealing the Bengals fate and sending the Steelers into Indianapolis next week.