LANDOVER, Md. — Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we recap the NFL’s wild and woolly wild-card round, while watching Green Bay and Washington face off in FedEx Field...
• Richard Sherman was right to immediately hit his knees and bow down. The Seattle cornerback knew the football gods had been kind to him and the rest of his relieved Seahawks teammates, and it required homage to be paid. Vikings kicker Blair Walsh had converted 33 of 34 field goal attempts shorter than 30 yards in his career before lining up for that game-winning 27-yard try with 22 seconds remaining. Then he missed it. Badly. A shank for the ages.
Could a third straight Super Bowl trip for Seattle be sparked by such a fortuitous failure? The Seahawks somehow survived 10–9 at frigid Minnesota on Sunday, and that can’t be the scenario for which the rest of the NFC was rooting. The two-time defending conference champs are still alive, and perhaps now they will be fueled by the lucky break they had no right to even dream of getting.
If nothing else, this improbable Seattle victory will serve to reignite that belief among the Seahawks that something is at work here. Something big. Something along the lines of football fate. Maybe not since Tony Romo bobbled away that perfect snap on a chip-shot game-winning field goal try in the 2006 postseason has a Seattle playoff game ended more happily and unexpectedly for the team.
These Seahawks do make things interesting, don’t they? They never make it easy on themselves. Think of their past three postseason games: The 16-point fourth-quarter rally to stun Green Bay in overtime in the NFC championship game; the 10-point fourth-quarter lead they blew in the Super Bowl, with Malcolm Butler’s goal line interception crushing their own comeback; and now Sunday’s wild turn of events, being shut out for three quarters and then storming back to take a 10–9 lead, only to dodge one last threat. It was the fourth time Seattle won a playoff game under Pete Carroll after trailing by at least nine points.
The last playoff game the Seahawks won comfortably came in last year’s NFC divisional round, at home against Carolina, a 31–17 win. Which brings us neatly to their next challenge, a trip to the No. 1 seeded Panthers for next Sunday’s NFC Divisional game. Seattle will be the underdogs this time, and looking to avenge one of its worst losses of the regular season, when it blew a 23–14 fourth-quarter lead and lost 27–23 to visiting Carolina in Week 6. Cam Newton found tight end Greg Olsen from 26 yards out for the game-winning touchdown inside the final minute of that game, ending the Panthers’ five-game losing streak to Carroll’s Seahawks.
While this is the best Panthers team Seattle has ever faced, the Seahawks will enter with the confidence that they can compete with 15–1 Carolina, and perhaps are strengthened by their near-death experience on Sunday in the ice box that was Minneapolis.
Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson is known for his knack for finding a way, and this Seattle team has reflected his resourcefulness for most of the second half of the season. Even before Walsh missed his game-deciding gimme, Wilson had a fourth-quarter Houdini act of his own, when a shotgun snap sailed past him, but he still had the composure to go to the ground to scoop it up, elude two pass rushers and then find Tyler Lockett downfield for a 35-yard pass that set up Seattle’s only touchdown of the game.
Wilson’s what-did-I-just-see type of play helped Seattle cut Minnesota’s lead to 9–7, and started the Seahawks on their way to an unlikely victory. How far they go from here could wind up being the story of the NFC playoffs. Maybe Sunday’s good fortune in Minnesota was the first step in a three-peat that will prove a tougher task than either of Seattle previous two Super Bowl runs. But who knows, that first big break might be all the Seahawks end up needing.
• Blair Walsh’s excruciating wide left will be the one-sentence memory of Minnesota’s missed opportunity against Seattle, but Adrian Peterson’s fumbling problem is one of the main reasons the Vikings are going home and the Seahawks are moving on. Peterson saw Seattle safety Kam Chancellor strip him of the ball on an 8-yard fourth-quarter reception, and the Seahawks used that turnover to convert a long field goal and seize the 10–9 lead that eventually became the winning margin. When the best player on your team makes a mistake that proves that costly, it’s difficult to pin the entire defeat on the kicker, even if a 27-yarder has to be automatic in the NFL. Peterson’s fumbling has been his high-profile flaw all season, and it just helped end Minnesota’s year, and deny the Vikings their first playoff win since the 2009 NFC Divisional round.
• The frustration with the never-changing status quo in Cincinnati—the Bengals’ five consecutive one-and-done playoff exits—has to be reaching full boil after Saturday night’s 18-16 debacle of a loss to Pittsburgh. Just when you thought there was no way Cincinnati could avoid losing in the first round of the playoffs, the Bengals somehow managed to do it, in mind-blowing fashion.
If I’m team owner Mike Brown, I’m not cutting head coach Marvin Lewis loose, even if he strengthened his grip on the title of being the league’s most successful regular-season coach to never win in the postseason. Lewis certainly bears some blame for his Bengals coming unglued and beating themselves against the Steelers, because he’s the head coach and the buck stops with him. Those are his guys out there.
But the reality is, rather than running off by far the most successful coach in franchise history, the Bengals would be better off getting rid of the two knuckleheads directly culpable for the late-game personal foul penalties that set up Pittsburgh’s chip-shot game-winning field goal: Linebacker Vontaze Burfict and cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones.
You certainly can’t absolve running back Jeremy Hill for the fumble that precipitated the Steelers’ comeback, and that inexplicable mistake will haunt him all off-season. But what Burtfict and Jones did has to rip the heart out of the rest of the locker room, and I feel bad for the more clear-thinking Bengals players who played their butts off to help Cincinnati dig out of a 15-0 fourth-quarter deficit and take a 16-15 lead.
No shock, of course, that it was Burfict and Jones. If you made a list in the pregame of the Bengals players who were most likely to hurt the home team’s cause due to emotional out-bursts or out-of-control behavior, you would have had No. 55 and 24 as 1-2. Cincinnati has lived with their on-the-edge on-field act for years, of course, and thrived a lot because of it. But not this time. This time the Bengals once-promising season died because of the two players who couldn’t keep their cool when the game was at its hottest.
It must be maddening to be a Bengals fan. Never more so than late Saturday night, forever to be known in Cincinnati lore as the Eve of Self-Destruction.
• Then again, if you had to elect the Steelers assistant coach most likely to come on the field and incite some late-game shenanigans with opposing players, it would have been linebackers coach Joey Porter, in a landslide, with no other votes being cast. Porter always was eager to mix it up when he played, and there he was in the middle of it again Saturday night. The officials could have easily flagged him for his role in the argument with Jones, although that does nothing to excuse Jones putting his hands on anyone. Porter’s move was a master-stroke if he went looking for exactly the trouble he caused.
• I know Hill grasped the reality of the situation and knew the one thing he absolutely could not do was fumble in that situation, but he still ran as if it was the middle of the second quarter, rather than having two arms wrapped around the ball in the final two minutes of what could have been the first Bengals playoff win in 25 years.
The victory formation wasn’t quite in order for Cincinnati due to the math of the game clock, but I’ll bet the Bengals now wish they would have gone ultra-conservative and taken three kneel-downs and either tried a field goal or bled the clock down as much as possible. There probably wouldn’t have been enough time for Pittsburgh to assemble much of a drive, especially given how Ben Roethlisberger’s injured throwing shoulder kept him from throwing anything close to a deep pattern.
Football intelligence, knowing what to do and when to do it in a game, seems to be an ever-fading skill.
• After digesting the events of Saturday night in Cincinnati as much as possible, I’m left with the realization that the NFL has a style of game on its hands that simply cannot be officiated consistently and efficiently. The action is too fast and the athletes too explosive. The rulebook is too complicated, with too many subjective determinations to be made in a world that wants instant clarity, complete uniformity and application of the rules in all instances. And that just doesn’t seem possible any more.
Just the debate on whether the pivotal helmet-to-helmet hit by Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier on Bengals running back Giovani Bernard included cases made by both sides—illegal or legal hit—that cited the rule book. Some said it was exactly the kind of contact that is allowed on a running back once he has established himself as a runner and is not in a defenseless position, and others were just as adamant that leading with the crown of the helmet is always a foul. And then there’s the whole question of whether the Steelers were cheated out of a potential fumble return touchdown by a quick whistle on the play.
Does anyone really have much optimism that a sense of legitimate consistency is even within reach in terms of NFL officiating? Not me. It has a game-by-game patchwork feel to it, with no real consensus on much of anything. Except that there’s so much riding on seemingly every call and every outcome.
• Lost in the shuffle of that ridiculous ending in Cincinnati was the near-miraculous touchdown catch made by Pittsburgh’s Martavis Bryant in the third quarter. Given the tiny bit of real estate he had to work with, the somersault he had to execute to complete the play, and his ability to pin the ball against the back of his thigh, and then butt, I’m giving Bryant higher marks for the difficulty of that grab than even Odell Beckham Jr.’s one-handed masterpiece last season.
But that’s just me. I viewed that catch as sheer perfection, but turns out the Russian judge only gave Bryant a series of 9’s.
• And while we’re at it, Hill’s fumble and the Bengals' buffoonery on defense served to overshadow a very impressive fourth-quarter comeback authored by A.J. McCarron. The Bengals' second-year quarterback was calm and cool in the clutch, and despite dreadfully rainy conditions, his 23 of 41 passing for 212 yards, with one touchdown and one interception, should have been good enough to win the game. McCarron’s 25-yard go-ahead scoring pass to A.J. Green was a highlight moment that absolutely nobody was talking about after that game.
• I have Denver as obviously the biggest winner in the wild-card round, because if Pittsburgh’s gritty win at Cincinnati means quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and receiver Antonio Brown (concussion protocol) are either out or considerable less than their usual starring-role selves against the Broncos, Denver’s route to hosting another AFC Championship Game just got considerably easier. Who would have expected Peyton Manning to perhaps be the healthiest quarterback in next Sunday’s game?
Pittsburgh may have won the battle but lost the war. And the Broncos owe the Bengals quite the solid in the future.
• I can’t really blame Houston fans for making Kansas City their new arch enemy. First the Royals rallied past the Astros in baseball’s American League Divisional series in October, winning the five-game series 3-2. Now the Chiefs have followed suit, routing the Texans 30-0 in the NFL’s wild-card round. And come to think of it, before Saturday afternoon, Kansas City’s most recent playoff win came in Houston as well, in January 1994, when the Chiefs beat the now defunct-Oilers in the Astrodome in the AFC Divisional round.
• How fitting that Brian Hoyer’s nightmare five-turnover afternoon meant Houston’s season-long quarterback troubles came back to bite the Texans one final time this season. Finding anything that worked for long at quarterback was Houston’s weak link from Week 1 of 2015, and things came full circle with Hoyer’s disintegration in the blowout against the Chiefs.
With the 21st pick in the 2016 NFL Draft—or wherever they wind up picking—the Houston Texans select.... a quarterback to give them options besides Hoyer and third-year veteran Tom Savage next season. Hoyer is right. One bad day doesn’t make a career. But one horrible game in the playoffs can definitely end a tenure. He had nine turnovers all season, then committed more than half that total in his first career playoff start.
• The Chiefs have now won 11 games in a row, a streak notable in that it’s more than all but five teams in the NFL won all regular season. Since Kansas City last lost a game, in Week 6 at Minnesota, every other AFC team has at least four losses, including the playoffs. That’s a remarkable statistic, and speaks to how viable the Chiefs might be as a darkhorse Super Bowl contender in the wide-open AFC.
As for the NFC, Carolina and Arizona have just one loss after Week 6, but that still doesn’t match Kansas City’s remarkable double-digit run.
• I think what the NFL really lacks is more pregame shots on TV of Houston’s J.J. Watt on the field, getting ready to play. There were only about 87 or so of those Saturday on ESPN, before the Chiefs-Texans action got started. Anybody familiar with the notion of over-kill at the networks? Do the Texans even have any other players, or it just Watt out there by himself?
And I really like Watt, and have since I watched him play at Wisconsin while living in Madison. But good Lord, how tired is that particular visual at this point?
• Everyone I talk to within the league has a version of the same scouting report on new Dolphins head coach Adam Gase: He’s smart, with incredible work habits, and really knows his stuff on the offensive side of the ball. I’ve talked to Gase a couple times and he strikes me as a guy players will love to play for and follow.
But, and it’s potentially meaningless, but if he wins early in Miami and gets everyone in the Dolphins locker room to buy into his program, there are some sources I’ve talked to who worry that Gase’s more cerebral temperament and personality won’t be of the command-the-room, leader-of-men variety as a head coach.
Of course, they said the same thing about the soft-spoken Tony Dungy once upon a time, so take that label for what it’s worth. But clearly Joe Philbin’s understated, mild-mannered style didn’t play well in Miami, perhaps prompting the Dolphins to go with the more fiery Dan Campbell in their 12-game interim head coaching tenure this season.
Again, if Gase, 37, wins enough, and early enough, the players will buy whatever he’s selling. That’s the way the NFL always works. But the Dolphins haven’t won enough in a long time, which is one reason Gase got this job. If Miami struggles again in 2016, it’ll be interesting to see if he can handle that locker room, where the likes of the strong-willed Ndamukong Suh resides and could theoretically present a challenge to a young, rookie head coach.
• I have nothing medically to go on in regards to the condition of his comeback from sports hernia surgery, but my hunch is Marshawn Lynch opting at the last minute to not make the trip to Minnesota with the Seahawks won’t be remembered favorably by many within the organization. Seattle gave Lynch the majority of the first-team snaps in practice all week, and that probably built up the expectation that Lynch would be able to go against the Vikings.
Who knows if Lynch was getting some unknown message across to the Seahawks' decision-makers with his late-week change of status, or if he had a setback in practice that limited his effectiveness? But it seems clear now that we’ve likely seen the last of Beast Mode in Seattle after this season ends. His $9.5 million base salary and $11.5-million cap number will not provide him the benefit of the doubt after his largely lost season in Seattle.
• I'm not crazy about the Chiefs' chances to go into Foxboro next Saturday and knock off the No. 2 seeded Patriots, especially if Kansas City’s No. 1 receiver, Jeremy Maclin, is slowed significantly by the ankle sprain he suffered at Houston. But Kansas City’s speed rushers on defense could give Tom Brady and his make-shift offensive line all kind of problems, and for that reason the Chiefs are a very tricky matchup for the Patriots.
The Chiefs won’t be able to beat New England if they leave as many points on the field as they did in the first half in Houston, but who can forget that 41–14 flogging Kansas City laid on the Patriots in Week 4 of 2014, the game that inspired the infamous “We’re on to Cincinnati” mantra from Bill Belichick. The Chiefs' defensive front against the New England offensive line has the makings of a matchup that K.C. could dominate.