BASN’s Wildcard Weekend Review

By Lloyd Vance
Updated: January 7, 2009

NFL PHILADELPHIA – The 2008 NFL Playoffs Wildcard round is in the books and Thank Goodness unlike it’s poor little brother, BCS College Football, NFL postseason games are decided on the field and not paper.

On a weekend where all four wildcard road teams were considered to be favorites by Vegas, the action on the field showed that sometimes prognosticators’ crystal balls are not always correct.

It was a tale of two days as Saturday’s games showed that home field advantage still means something as the Cardinals and Chargers defended their turf with wins.

However, Sunday’s games proved that recent “Road Warrior” Super Bowl champions (2005 Steelers and 2007 Giants) had the correct blueprint for success as the Ravens and Eagles pushed home teams right out of the playoffs.

What we did learn from this years’ wildcard round is that a recipe of Strong Quarterback Play (i.e. Taking Care of the Football), Good Attacking Defense, a Balanced Offensive Attack based first in the Run, Sound Special Teams Play, and Limiting Penalties usually leads to moving onto the next round in the playoffs.

However before the Chargers, Ravens, Eagles and Chargers puff out their chest some more, I will offer a word of caution. This was only the first step of a long treacherous three-game stretch on the road to Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa.

Sure a wildcard win can propel a team — the last three recent Super Bowl Champions (Steelers, Colts, and Giants) all won on Wildcard weekend — but now this past week’s wildcard winners need to forget about celebrating and start getting ready for their divisional opponents.

Even though a large portion of the world believes in the “2007 New York Giants’ Blueprint” winning 3 games on the road to Super Bowl is easily possible, I still subscribe to conventional wisdom which shows teams that have a bye in the first round of the NFL playoffs have a chance of making it to the Super Bowl — since 1990, teams with first round byes won in the divisional round about 77.9% of the time.

Game Notes

Cardinals 30, Falcons 24

Everyone thought the Cardinals leaky defense would be overmatched by the Falcons high-powered offense led by borderline MVP candidate running back Michael Turner and NFL Rookie of the Year quarterback Matt Ryan. But the Cardinals in their first home playoff game since 1947 made it a point to stop the Falcons dynamic pair. Turner was never really a factor as he was limited to only 42 yards on 18 carries and as a team the Falcons — regular season 2nd ranked rushing offense– only had 60 rushing yards. Ryan looked like the real deal in the first half as the Falcons led 17-14 at the half with the former Boston College star well on his way to setting a rookie playoff completion record of 26 completion (broke the record held by the late Sammy Baugh). However the story of the entire game was the harassment of Ryan by the Cardinals defense. Ken Whisenhunt’s defense made Ryan look like a rookie making his first postseason start collecting three sacks, two interceptions, returning a fumble for a touchdown and adding a safety. The other stars for the Cardinals were veteran quarterback Kurt Warner, who looked like his former Super Bowl-winning self (19-32, 271, 2 TD, 1 INT) and “Mr. Lost & Found”, running back Edgerrin James. I don’t know if it was James acting like a former Pro Bowl veteran or his upcoming free agent status, but the NFL’s 11th ranked All-time rusher, who has been in moth balls since 7 games in the 2008 season, ran tough and hard gaining 73 yards on 16 carries. Next up for the Cardinals is a trip to Carolina to face a Panthers team that they lost to 27-23 in week 8. The Cardinals will be trying to reverse their current (0-5) East Coast swoon this season — outscored 202-102 in the five losses.

Chargers 23, Colts 17 (OT)

Familiarity made for one of the best games of the playoffs so far — even though these two teams are in separate divisions, they have played against each other four times in the past two seasons. The match-up was supposed to be Peyton Manning and the Colts versus the Chargers and marquee running back LaDainain Tomlinson. Manning lived up to his end throwing for over 300 yards, but L.T (five carries for 25 yards and a touchdown) bailed out of the contest after the first half. Leaving miraculous little running back Darren Sproles (See Game Balls) to carry the load for the Bolts — reminds me of former Kansas Chiefs great Noland “Superbug” Smith. Sproles and TE Antonio Gates (game-high eight receptions for 87 yards) made all of the plays down the stretch for the Chargers as the Colts fell apart in their first playoff game for the sixth time in nine years. The tight game came down to a fantastic overtime ending — BTW: With everyone calling for a revamping of the NFL’s sudden death overtime rules, I am okay with the current format which I greatly like over college’s crazy possession after possession format — where the Chargers fueled by the Colts penalties and their inability to stop them on 3rd downs, won the game. Sproles ended the game with a 22-yard scamper through a beleaguered Colts’ defense on the Chargers’ first possession of overtime. The climatic ending marked only the seventh time in the 25 overtime playoff games that the winning score came via a touchdown. The Chargers will look to make it 6 straight wins as they travel to face a well rested Steelers squad in the Divisional Round.

Ravens 27, Dolphins 9

When it comes to playoff football, I always like teams that run the ball and attack on defense. That is the 2008 Ravens squad to a “T”. Fueled by a defense that caused the AFC East champion Dolphins, who had NFL-record-low 13 turnovers this season, into giving away the ball five times, the Ravens (NFL-high 34 takeaways) made this one into a laugher early. Dolphins quarterback Chad Pennington (See Lloyd’s Lackey) was never comfortable in the pocket and it showed as the Ravens defense scored 14 points off his mistakes. The Ravens defense have been the main story, but you have to like the veteran type of rookie quarterback Joe Flacco – became only the third rookie quarterback since 1970 to win a playoff game as a starter, joining Ben Roethlisberger and Shaun King. Flacco’s numbers were not great (9-23, 135, 0 TD, 0 INT and 1 rushing TD), but he did just enough to keep Rex Ryan’s Ravens defense in the game at key moments. The Ravens finished with only 286 total offensive yards, but 151 yards came via the run giving head coach John Harbaugh his first postseason “W”. Harbaugh became the ninth rookie head coach since 1990 to win his first playoff game with last being Sean Payton in 2006. Next up for the Ravens is a huge black-and-blue game versus the Titans and their old friend from Super Bowl XXXV quarterback Kerry Collins.

Eagles 26, Vikings 14

These two teams that knew each other well engaged in a game that was close for the majority of play. But in the end, the Eagles experience on defense (Brian Dawkins flying around the ball for 6 TKLs, 1 sack, and 1 FF), big plays in all phases (62-yard punt return by DeSean Jackson, kicker David Akers 4 for 4 on Field Goals including a 51-yarder, Asante Samuel’s 44-yard interception return for a touchdown and Brian Westbrook’s 71-yard screen pass touchdown gamebreaker), and efficient play by quarterback Donovan McNabb (23-34, 300, 1TD, 1 INT) led to a huge Birds first-round win. The largest praise from this game should go to Jim Johnson’s Eagles defense, who limited Vikings star rusher Adrian Peterson to 83 yards rushing (had 40 yards on one touchdown run), caused two turnovers and limited the Vikings to only two 3rd down conversions in the 2nd half. The Eagles now have won 5 of their last 6 games after a 5-5-1 start that included McNabb being benched against the Ravens. Even when the game was 16-14 for a good portion of the 2nd half, I never thought the Vikings would win this game as Eagles head coach Andy Reid continued his mastery in wildcard games (4-0). The Eagles along with the Chargers remain the hottest team in the NFL and they have a quiet veteran confidence that should make them a tough out in the playoffs. A very interesting battle with familiar foe, the New York Giants, awaits in the Meadowlands and it should be another classic battle of two bitter division rivals. The Giants and Eagles split their two prior 2008 meetings, with the road team winning both. The Giants won 36-31 in Philadelphia in Week 10, and the Eagles won 20-14 at Giants Stadium in Week 14.

Some Lloyd’s Leftovers from the Wildcard Round includes:

Ed Reed is the “Real Deal’

No disrespect to 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison, but Baltimore “Ball Hawk” safety Ed Reed is the best defensive player in football – has an NFL best 11 INTs in only 17 games. Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said of Reed after the Ravens’ huge win,”He’s maybe the best player in the game”. Reed’s line from the game read 1 TKL, 2 INT, and 1 TD.

See Ya Later Award-winners

Offensive Rookie of the Year Matt Ryan and Coach of the Year Mike Smith lost to the Cardinals, NFL MVP Peyton Manning lost in O.T to San Diego – by the way 6 loss in 9 opening round games, and Comeback Player of the Year Chad Pennington took his pop-gun to the sidelines courtesy of the Ravens swarming defense.

Maybe you don’t want the Regular Season MVP after all

With Peyton and the Colts losing to the Chargers, it marked the ninth consecutive year that the Super Bowl champion won’t include the league’s MVP. My how the regular season doesn’t mean much in playoff wins anymore as the last MVP to play on a Super Bowl champ was quarterback Kurt Warner, who in his past life led the St. Louis Rams to the title in 1999.

Maybe the NFL is not recession proof after all

The Cardinals in hosting their first playoff home game in 61 years needed two 24-hour blackout extensions from the league to get their sell-out (lifted local television blackout) and the Vikings had over 8,000 playoff tickets available on the Friday before their first home playoff game since 2000.

Game Balls

San Diego Chargers RB Darren Sproles

With star running back LaDainian Tomlinson sidelined in the second half with a groin injury (seems to be a recurring playoff problem), the Mighty Mite from Kansas State was incredible. After shaking off a costly fumble at the Colts 2-yard line, Sproles showed that he is a 5’6 stick of dynamite. He produced a top-five all-time NFL all-purpose performance of 328 yards (Chargers Record) including 23 rushes for 105 yards and two touchdowns, 45 yards on five receptions, and 178 yards on kickoff/punt returns. Sproles also closed out the Chargers overtime thriller with a 22-yard game-winning gallop.

Honorable Mention

Philadelphia Eagles CB Asante Samuel

All the money and praise that the Eagles heaped on Samuel, who is the best “Plant and Come Forward” corner in NFL, when they signed him as the biggest free agent of 2008 was worth it in the Birds’ win over the Vikings. Samuel (1 TKL and 1 INT) jumped a Tarvaris Jackson route and returned the pick 44 yards for a game-changing touchdown. Samuel’s interception return was his fourth career playoff touchdown return moving him ahead of Oakland Raiders defensive back Willie Brown in the NFL record books.

San Diego Chargers Punter Steve Scifres

I know I usually stay away from part-time players, but Scifres was dazzling in the Chargers overtime win over the Colts. Whenever the Colts looked like they would mount a drive, Scifres was there to pin them in deep. Thanks to Scifres, Peyton and Colts started drives at their 10-yard line, 15-yard line, 3-yard line, 5-yard line, 9-yard line, and 1-yard line. Scifres looked like legendary punter Ray Guy as he finished with incredible numbers of six punts for 310.2 yards (52.7-yard average) and a net of 51.7-yards. Also additional kudos go out to Philadelphia Eagles punter Sav Rocca (was 4 for 4 in having his punts downed inside the 20-yard line).

Other Honorees

Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed (See Above)

Baltimore Ravens Defense

Produced 5 turnovers including 4 interceptions and one forced fumble, which directly led to 14 points. Also the Dolphins had just five first downs in the first half

Philadelphia Eagles QB Donovan McNabb

Now 6-0 in first round playoff games and had his second straight 300-yard playoff game

Philadelphia Eagles RB Brian Westbrook

121 total yards including a 71-yard screen pass touchdown that broke the game open in the win over the Vikings.

Lloyd’s Lackey

Miami Dolphins QB Chad Pennington

Maybe the J-E-T-S were correct in stepping way from Pennington this past off-season. Pennington was harassed and flustered all game by the Ravens attacking and it showed in his numbers (25-38, 252 yards, 1 TD, 4 INTs including one returned for a touchdown). Pennington’s four interceptions were over half the amount that he through the entire regular season (7).

Other Dishonorees

The Indianapolis Colts

Lost a close OT game, but they had only 64 rushing yards and produced 9 penalties for 74 yards.

Indianapolis Colts LB Clint Session

Had a bad third down 15-yd facemask penalty in overtime and then was very nasty to a cameraman after the game.

Minnesota Vikings QB Tarvaris Jackson

Even when it was 16-14, did anyone really think this third year starter could led the Vikings back. Finished with pedestrian numbers 15-35, 164 yards, 0 TDs and 1 INT that returned for a touchdown.