NFL Playoffs: Sunday’s Slate Finally Delivers Some Great Action
After six less-than-exciting games to open the NFL playoffs, Sunday’s slate of action delivers some much-needed great football.
The NFL playoffs are supposed to bring out the best of both sides, allowing for some of the best football action of the year to take place. Over the first six games this January, that was far from the case.
Competitive and stirring football was not in the cards, and the parade of blowout after blowout, and uncompetitive game after uncompetitive game began on day one of the Wildcard round last Saturday.
The Oakland Raiders and Houston Texans opened the postseason, and with Derek Carr out because of his broken leg, this game was never really as close as the score suggested. Connor Cook became the first Super Bowl era quarterback to make his first career start in a playoff game, and he was no match for Houston’s highly-talented defense. Even still, the Raiders only lost by 13 points, 27-14, making it the closest final score of the first six games.
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The Detroit Lions and Seattle Seahawks followed up later that night, and it was a close game through three quarters. Seattle entered the final 15 minutes with a 10-6 lead, but ran away with it at the end. The Seahawks ended the game with 16 unanswered points in the final frame, turning it into a mostly uninteresting fourth quarter.
The Pittsburgh Steelers and Miami Dolphins opened the action last Sunday, and from the very beginning, it was all Pittsburgh. The Dolphins had no answer for wide receiver Antonio Brown in the first quarter, as he scored the first two touchdowns of the game, and Le’Veon Bell took over after that. He set a team playoff record with 167 rushing yards, and also scored twice to help complete the 30-12 rout.
Wildcard weekend wrapped up with the Green Bay Packers and New York Giants, and this was actually a very good game for about a half. Green Bay held a 7-6 lead in the waning second of the first half, but a patented Aaron Rodgers hail mary for a touchdown put them up by eight at the break. The Packers outscored the Giants 24-7 the rest of the way, giving them the largest margin of victory of the weekend at 38-13.
That first weekend of NFL action was completely overshadowed on Monday night by the NCAA National Championship game. The Auburn Tigers and Alabama Crimson Tide combined to play one of the best games of football possible, with Deshaun Watson leading an epic comeback and throwing a last-second, game-winning touchdown. While the National Championship’s ratings rose four percent from the previous year, each of the four NFL games fell in ratings from last season (games in the same time slot), by as much as 17 percent.
The first day of the divisional round didn’t offer much different. The Atlanta Falcons jumped out to an early lead over the Seahawks, and rode that momentum to a big second half. They beat Seattle 36-20. The New England Patriots put up an early 11-point lead, and while Houston made a nice comeback attempt in the second quarter, they didn’t have enough firepower to keep up with the top-seeded Patriots. New England walked to a 34-16 victory.
The average margin of victory in those six games was 18.3 points, and not a single game was within 10 points with under 10 minutes to play.
Sunday’s divisional round action offered a much-needed respite from the blowout-laden football that had been put forth. It was exactly what the league needed.
The Packers and Dallas Cowboys got the party started on Sunday, and it turned out to be one of the best games of the season. In the early going, it looked like it would be just another blowout as Green Bay forged ahead with a 21-3 lead in the second quarter. Dak Prescott and company had different ideas, and fought back.
Dallas finished the first half with 10 straight points, making it a one-possession contest, but were shut out in the third quarter. Green Bay’s early third-quarter score made it 28-13, but Dallas wasn’t done yet.
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Prescott threw a pair of touchdowns in the fourth quarter, one each to Jason Witten and Dez Bryant, and added a two-point conversion, also to Bryant, to completely erase the deficit that was once 18 points and tie the game.
Aaron Rodgers and his crew took the ball back and drove down the field, getting into field goal range for his kicker Mason Crosby. Within the dome of AT&T Stadium, Crosby was true from 56 yards, sneaking his kick just above the crossbar and through the right upright. With 2:35 on the clock, Prescott was back on the field.
Showing the poise and demeanor beyond his years that he’d shown all season, Prescott led Dallas down the field with three completions to put them within range for their own kicker, Dan Bailey. Bailey made his own 52-yard attempt, tying the game again but leaving plenty of time, 35 seconds, for Rodgers.
Rodgers made one big play, avoiding the pass rush and third down before firing a strike down the field. Tight end Jared Cook, somehow, someway, made the grab and stayed in bounds, giving Crosby a chance to put the final nail in the Cowboys’ coffin. From 51 yards away, Crosby hammered that nail straight through as the clock reached nothing but zeroes.
The Dallas-Green Bay contest was easily the best game of the playoffs up to that point, not that there had been much competition. It had everything that a fan could ask for: a huge comeback, a furious back-and-forth in the final minutes, and NFL kickers earning their paychecks with a combined three 50-plus yard field goals in the final three minutes.
The Steelers and Chiefs had a tough act to follow after that, and while it wasn’t necessarily as exciting as the day’s early game, it was still a great ballgame. The Steelers and Chiefs locked horns in a strong defensive struggle, and again, it was a kicker that shined. Pittsburgh kicker Chris Boswell kicked a playoff record six field goals, not missing a single kick, accounting for all of the Steelers’ points.
Drama was also abundant. The Chiefs trailed by eight points with 9:49 left on the clock when Alex Smith and the offense took over. Methodically and meticulously, the Chiefs drove the ball down the field, converting twice on fourth down. After one of those fourth-down conversions, a three-yard pass to little-used fullback Anthony Sherman, Spencer Ware went right up the middle for a score.
The Chiefs went for two, and were successful on the first attempt when Smith found Demarcus Robinson. But a flag, holding on left tackle Eric Fisher, wiped it off the board and Kansa City’s second try fell short. From there, the Steelers ran out the clock to put the finishing touches on the 18-16 victory.
A day of football like this couldn’t have come at a better time. The six consecutive blowouts were wearing a bit thin on the fans, and these two games, these two down-to-the-wire, nitty gritty, nail-biting games were enough to grab and keep the attention of fans, even neutral ones. Those two games alone dropped the playoffs’ average margin of victory from 18.3 points to 14.4.
Conference Champion Sunday will have to follow up, and follow in the steps of this Sunday’s tremendous action. The NFC Championship starts the day, with the Falcons hosting the Packers, while the AFC Championship, with the Patriots hosting the Steelers, brings up the rear.