NFL 2015 Divisional Playoffs: The One-Touchdown Wonder Weekend
Every year when the National Football League playoffs move into the divisional round, there’s always that game. You know, the contest that looks like such a mismatch that no one wants to watch. This season’s version produced a minor miracle: not only were all four contests appealing with no obvious favorite in all but the quartet were each decided by a touchdown apiece. For football fans the end result was a thrilling, memorable weekend of gridiron action.
The action started in Foxboro where the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots faced the Kansas City Chiefs. Starting the season with a win, then five losses, the Chiefs rode a 10-game winning streak into the playoffs and a first-round win. The Patriots spent much of the year looking ready and more than able to defend their title but late-season stumbles largely due to a series of injuries to offensive linemen caused the team to stumble and lose the top seeding in the American Football Conference (AFC) playoff rankings.
None of this mattered Saturday. The Patriots looked like champions again. Their 27-20 victory was only due to a solid Chiefs squad who, while playing behind much of the game, never gave up. Still, their defense never got to Tom Brady. He looked comfortable throughout the day and it showed. Despite a tough effort by K.C., this game looks like just another in a long series of playoff triumphs of the Brady-Bill Belichick Pats.
The other AFC game highlighted two of the League’s best defenses. The Denver Broncos welcomed Peyton Manning back to starting behind center. In most seasons this would seem routine but not this one. Manning is two months from his 40th birthday and has looked like he suddenly turned old. His passes no longer have the same zip and he can no longer pick apart defenses as he could in his prime. After spending over a month on injured reserve he came back for the last regular-season game. Not starting that day, he came in for the second half and directed Denver to a victory that pushed the team the the AFC’s top ranking.
Facing the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, the game was a battle of the field goals. Pittsburgh led 13-12 in the fourth quarter when a solid Broncos running game helped Manning’s team pull out a 23-16 win. Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was playing despite an injured right shoulder (his throwing arm) from last week’s slugfest win over Cincinnati; like Manning he showed himself a worthy wounded warrior. Unfortunately, the Broncos’ defense is at a championship level. To defeat Brady’s Patriots on Sunday not only that defense but Manning will have to be at the top of their form. Maybe this Manning-Brady showdown (the 17th time the two best quarterbacks of the 21st century to date have played) will be as thrilling as most of the others.
The National Football Conference (NFC) likewise offered a pair of matchups between top teams that did not disappoint. One team has shined above all others in the conference throughout the year: the Carolina Panthers. In his fifth year in the League after winning the 2010 Heisman Trophy at Auburn, Cam Newton has become more than a flashy quarterback; he also burned up the stat sheets and is the odds-on favorite to win the NFL Most Valuable Player award as well. Like Peyton Manning, he has a swarming defense at his back. Both elements were necessary to take on the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday. The two-time defending conference champions started slowly this season and failed to win their division. They recovered and by season’s end looked like a strong contender to go to a third straight Super Bowl.
This was not immediately apparent on Sunday. Carolina opened with a touchdown that effectively mixed Newton’s passes and a series of rushes the Seahawks could not contain. After the kickoff, the Panthers’ defense took its turn. On the first play, running back Marshawn Lynch, a powerful runner who looked recovered from injuries that kept him out a good deal of the year, ran into a wall of Carolina defenders as soon as he took the handoff. Loss of three yards. On the next play, quarterback Russell Wilson was harassed by the defense and tried to throw the ball. Unfortunately, his pass found the hands of Carolina All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly, who ran it back for a touchdown. This quick 14-0 lead swelled to 31-0 by halftime. It was difficult to believe the game was not over already. Seattle head coach Pete Carroll swore after the game that no one in his locker room gave up then. Their second-half play nearly turned the tide. The Panthers’ offense went into hibernation for the rest of the game and the defense only slowed the Seahawks down. The final score was 31-24 and the Seahawks earned a measure of respect if not the actual game. For the Panthers, the question is one of playing a complete game, the one that has marred a consistently-impressive 15-1 season. For now, the team can celebrate the first NFC Championship game to be played in Charlotte next week.
The best game of the weekend did not look much different from Denver-Pittsburgh for much of the contest. The Green Bay Packers, who overcame weakness in their running game and defense to win a first-round playoff game, played the Arizona Cardinals. The Cards have an excellent defense that took them to the playoffs for the second straight year. This year they had a weapon whose absence cost them their first playoff game last year: quarterback Carson Palmer. Tearing up his knee last season, Palmer worked hard to come back (not easy for a 35-year-old who tore up his other knee ten years ago) and looked solid at season’s end. In fact, if not for Newton, he would probably be the 2015 NFL MVP.
Palmer did not show much of this ability through the game. The Packers’ defense effectively shut down the Cardinals, intercepting him twice. Green Bay did not find the scoring easy either and late in the game found themselves down 20-10. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers led his team to a late field goal and the team managed to get the ball back for one last shot at tying it up. As the Packers faced fourth down and 20 to go from their end zone, Rodgers looked shut down but completed a long pass to Jeff Janis, a benchwarming wide receiver who had two Arizona defenders hanging all over him. For the last play, Rodgers found himself forced to hang a Hail Mary pass to the Arizona end zone his only way to push the game to overtime. This had actually happened in a late-season game against the Detroit Lions, so the Packers had done it before. Rodgers planted his feet and heaved a massive throw. Coming down with the catch, in the Arizona end zone, was Jeff Janis. With two Cardinal defenders hanging off of him. Before the last minute of the game Janis had 95 receiving yards in the NFL; now he had 196.
No one including the announcers could believe this turn of events. To start overtime, a little extra drama was added: the referee had to flip the coin a second time (the first time the coin did not flip). Arizona won the toss and elected to receive. On the first play Palmer found the most unlikely of sights: Larry Fitzgerald wide open. Now 32, Fitzgerald has lost a step from the days when he was probably the most feared wide receiver for defensive coaches throughout the League. Still, he looked plenty fast enough as he caught the pass from Palmer and raced 75 yards to the Green Bay four-yard line. Two plays later he caught a shovel pass that he turned into a touchdown and a 26-20 Arizona victory. With the win Palmer finally has a playoff victory. Now his Cardinals are off to face the Panthers. The NFC Championship creates a first for the League: Newton and Palmer (USC 2002) are the first two Heisman-winning quarterbacks to meet for a spot in a Super Bowl. No weasels in any of these games; let’s hope for more of the same on Sunday.
– Louis Burklow (aka, Hollywood Country Boy), Senior Staff Writer, Phoenix Genesis
Feel free to link or print this: just include the PHOENIX GENESIS URL: https://phoenixgenesis.com/
copyright (c) 2016 – All rights reserved.