NFL 2015 Wildcard Weekend: The Shank, A Hero Reborn and Thug Life in Cincinnati
At the end of every National Football League season, the refrain is constant: what happened in the regular season means nothing in the playoffs. Teams that struggled through the season (and only got in the postseason because of other teams’ convenient losses) can look like the second coming of the Lombardi-era Green Bay Packers or the Steel Curtain Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s. Each postseason arrives with a glass slipper, awaiting its own Cinderella.
This Wildcard Weekend, named for the fact that teams who did not win a division but made the postseason anyway play then, found its own rhythm and surprises. In doing so, it produced heroes, goats and one of the sloppiest endings in league history. In short, it was the stuff of great drama.
The weekend did not get off to an auspicious start. The opening game saw the Kansas City Chiefs playing the Texans in Houston. The Texans also watched the Chiefs roll to a surprisingly easy 30-0 win. The first play told the story: Knile Davis of K.C. ran the opening kickoff 106 yards for a touchdown. That TD was the first the Chiefs scored on special teams all year, proving “the playoffs are different from the regular season” right off the bat. The Texans never threatened to make it a game, leaving fans with the snoozer of the weekend. The Chiefs, who started off winning their first game of the season against Houston before losing five in a row, now take an 11-game winning streak into Foxboro to face the defending champion New England Patriots next week.
Another team which saw a sudden reversal of fortune in this postseason is the one that Vince Lombardi made great 50 years ago, the Packers. After winning their first six games, everyone in Titletown was talking yet another Super Bowl. Something went seriously wrong from there and the Pack finished with a disappointing 10-6 record. Quarterback (and one-time Super Bowl MVP) Aaron Rodgers looked like a shadow of his former self as he frequently ran for his life behind a porous offensive line, looking in vain for an open receiver. On Sunday in Washington that was not a problem. Although the team whose nickname shall not be named had a come-from-nowhere season to win the NFC East, they were unable to stop the Packers. Rodgers led them to a surprisingly easy 35-18 victory. Two weeks ago, the Packers went to Phoenix and got stomped by the Arizona Cardinals. That does not seem likely with the playoff rematch scheduled for next week.
Every playoff season has to have at least one loser that we can all feel sorry for. This year that sucker wears number 3 for the Minnesota Vikings. Blair Walsh kicks for the Vikes and has been quite reliable all season. That held true for much of Sunday’s game against the Seattle Seahawks. Although heavy underdogs to the two-time NFC champs the Vikings held a 9-7 lead in the fourth quarter. Then Vikings all-world running back Adrian Peterson fumbled, the only chink in his Hall of Fame armor. The Seahawks turned it into a field goal, leaving Minnesota one point behind.
The Vikes drove down to a chip-shot field goal try on the Seattle 10. A 27-yard field goal for Walsh should not be hard to wrap up the victory. Only one problem: Walsh shanked the ball, kicking it to the left. The air could be heard leaving the stadium as the Vikings and their fans watched their dream season end in frustrating fashion. The Seahawks, much as in their NFC Championship win over Green Bay last season, escaped with an unearned but still impressive win. They are off to Charlotte and a date with the 15-1 Carolina Panthers. After the game, Walsh bravely faced the crowd of reporters. He told them that “I can tell you this: it is my fault.” He then started crying and could not be consoled by his deflated teammates.
If fans seek goats easier to scorn than the pitiable Walsh, Saturday night’s game gave them plenty. This fiasco started out with a warning from the League office: no cheap shots, no fights. The hometown team, the Cincinnati Bengals, were playing an old divisional rival, the Steelers. Cincy was playing without their regular starting quarterback, Andy Dalton (who had his cast taken off a broken thumb during the week but could not properly throw or grip the ball yet) and it showed. Backup A.J. McCarron took three quarters to warm up; the Bengals did not score until late. Due to the tough defensive nature of the game, they were only down 15-0. The Bengals scored inside the two-minute warning to take a one-point lead. The team went for a two-point conversion but did not get it. This led to questions of why the team’s best receiver, A.J. Green, was not in for the fateful play. Failing to get a three-point lead, the Bengals defense would have to stop the Steelers one more time to claim their first postseason victory in 25 years.
Of course, this is the team popularly known over the years as the Bungles, a team adept in fetching defeat from the jaws of victory over the years. That team showed up now. Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger reentered the game after suffering a shoulder injury that left him unable to throw deep passes. No problem, he was facing the Bungles. First Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict, a known headhunter, deliberately hit Steelers receiver Antonio Brown in the helmet, forcing him to be examined under the NFL’s concussion protocol which may leave him unable to play next weekend. This caused Cincy to get a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. The thinly-veiled hostility between the teams now out in the open, they met on the field to argue. One of the men in the argument was a Pittsburgh assistant coach, Joey Porter, known as a bit of an instigator during his own playing career. Although a coach on the field should be penalized Porter was not. He did get Cincinnati defensive back Adam (Pac-Man) Jones, another NFL goofball, to lose his cool and brush up against another an official as he ran to the scene of the confrontation. This earned the Bengals another 15-yard penalty. The Steelers were now close enough to try a short field goal. Not having Blair Walsh on the team, Pittsburgh made the kick and escaped with a 18-16 win. Their reward is a trip to face the Denver Broncos with an injured Roethlisberger and possibly without Brown. Still, this team is experienced in the playoffs and should not be considered a pushover.
If there’s one constant in the NFL that holds for both the regular season and postseason it is that a bonehead will always rise. In choosing a Weasel of the Week (WOW) it would be too easy and cruel to give it to Walsh or the no-show Houston offense or Washington defense. In all honesty, there’s no one who has earned this column’s lowest award more than the bookend goofs of the Bungles, Vontaze Burfict and Adam Jones. Hey, guys, it’s not made in Pittsburgh so try not to break it right off the bat, OK?
– Louis Burklow (aka, Hollywood Country Boy), Senior Staff Writer, Phoenix Genesis
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