BALTIMORE -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight as the NFL's slow-starting but fast-finishing wild-card weekend fades into the distance....
? Sunday was supposed to be a triumphant and historic day in the NFL, with the league's three magnificent and telegenic rookie quarterbacks -- Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson -- all making their first career playoff starts, the kind of commercial for the league's bright shining future that money can't buy.
But the state of Griffin III's injured right knee kind of marred all that. Taking nothing away from Wilson's great play in leading Seattle to its first road playoff win since 1983, a 24-14 comeback victory at Washington, the story of the day and the weekend was the Redskins' dubious decision-making in regards to the health of their franchise quarterback.
Even though Griffin from late in first quarter on was clearly limping significantly on the right knee he sprained four weeks ago Sunday in a win over Baltimore, the Redskins kept their young star in the game until his knee badly buckled midway through the fourth quarter as he tried to corral an errant shotgun snap. He left the game, and we can only hope he didn't severely hurt his knee and impact his chances to continue his meteoric rise in 2013. Even if he's OK, he could have been seriously hurt and that's chance enough the Redskins took.
The Redskins and head coach Mike Shanahan are probably going to get buried for this call, and they deserve to. It was apparent Griffin was playing on one leg for much of this game, and Shanahan should have pulled the plug on him at the very latest as soon as Washington fell behind 21-14 on Marshawn Lynch's 27-yard mid-fourth-quarter touchdown run. Griffin's knee basically gave out on the next Redskins possession, as a stunned FedEx Field crowd and players on both teams held their breath.
After all, it's not as if Washington doesn't have a capable backup quarterback. The Redskins made what seemed to be a frivolous decision to draft Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins in the fourth round in April, and then watched as it paid off handsomely when Cousins won the Baltimore game in relief of Griffin and started and won in Week 15 at Cleveland. A healthy Cousins has already proved to be more effective than a damaged Griffin, and yet the Redskins unwisely hesitated before being forced to make that move on Sunday.
The short-term goal of winning a wild-card game and keeping Washington's storybook 2012 season alive seems to have clouded Shanahan's judgment, and that's inexcusable when you're talking about a talent like Griffin, who hopefully will be the face of the Redskins franchise for years to come. If his knee isn't seriously injured or requiring surgery, the impact of Sunday's developments will be lessened. But his knee looked to be bent at a gruesome angle on the field, and he stayed down on the field long enough to inspire fears that he might have torn his ACL or other ligaments.
Griffin and Luck, the top two picks in the draft, wound up losing their playoff debuts, with Luck's Colts falling 24-9 at Baltimore in a first-round game earlier Sunday. Wilson, the plucky and still under-appreciated third-round pick, moves on with a Seattle team that now journeys to top-seeded Atlanta next Sunday.
But for a league that has plenty invested in the future exploits of these three remarkable rookie passers, Sunday wasn't the celebration it first seemed it would be. Let's hope Griffin's future remains as bright as it appeared at the start of Sunday's games.
? While we're at it, shouldn't that chewed-up grass they call a playing surface at FedEx Field come under some scrutiny in light of Griffin's knee buckling? I was at the Week 14 Redskins game against the Ravens, and the field was less than ideal in spots that day as well. Seems to me it might be worth some of Daniel Snyder's money to make sure FedEx looks and plays like an NFL quality field, even if it means ditching grass for an artificial surface in 2013.
If you're going to have a running quarterback like Griffin, better have him running on the best possible surface.
? I also think Griffin's two knee injuries in the season's final month are going to prompt an offseason-long discussion on how he can continue to play his electrifying style of quarterback and remain healthy. Because at this rate, he's going to have a Gale Sayers shooting-star kind of career. Short but spectacular.
Griffin sounds as if he already started getting the message after his knee sprain against the Ravens. He has to limit the pounding he takes, and run away from contact at every opportunity. And Washington might have to scale back how much read-option offense they ask Griffin to run, even though that's part of what makes him so difficult to defend. But then again, if Griffin isn't on the field, defending him isn't an issue at all.
? It was an almost impossible choice, but I voted for Seattle's Wilson as the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year in last week's AP balloting, and after Sunday, I'm feeling fine about that choice. Team results don't mean everything in an individual award, of course, but Wilson and the Seahawks will play on while Luck's Colts and Griffin's Redskins are going home for the offseason.
Does anyone who calls themselves a judge of NFL talent still think Wilson is too short at 5-foot-10 or whatever he is? You can argue Wilson has a better team around him than Luck or Griffin, but all three wound up in the playoffs, and only Wilson found a way to get his team a win -- on the road no less, where Seattle went 3-5 this regular season, and hadn't won in the playoffs since 1983.
It wasn't just that Wilson was 15 of 26 for 187 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions, adding 67 yards rushing on eight scrambles. Did you see him downfield blocking in front of Marshawn Lynch runs? And it's his presence and leadership for the Seahawks that has clearly transformed Seattle into a dangerous team in this Super Bowl tournament. Wilson has a knack for playing the position, and even if he does things his own way, and his measurables are less than ideal, the results speak for themselves.
Credit to Pete Carroll and the Seahawks for giving him the chance to convince them that his third-round draft status wasn't the end of the story. I watched Wilson play in person several times at Wisconsin in 2011, and I came away convinced there was something about his game that outweighed his lack of NFL height. He may be short, but he stood the tallest of any of the league's glamor rookie quarterbacks on this day.
? His best games tend to always get over-looked, but I think Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco, the potential free agent, probably made himself some serious money on Sunday. (Probably from the Ravens, who almost have to re-sign him, I would think). Flacco wasn't outstanding, but he got the most out of his 12 completions on 23 attempts, getting 282 yards out of them (23.5 yards per completion), with two touchdowns, no picks and a sterling 125.6 passer rating.
Flacco is the first quarterback in NFL history to win at least one playoff game in each of his first five seasons in the league, breaking the tie he was in with Cleveland's Otto Graham. And anytime you're mentioned with Graham, you're not in bad company. Flacco has his flaws, but six playoff wins in his first five seasons are nothing to sneeze at. When he's on, he can do some damage against a defense, as the Colts can attest.
? Even before I looked up at the TV screen, how did I know that just had to be Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman in a postgame jawing match with a vanquished Redskins player? I suppose once you trash talk NFL legend Tom Brady, you've put yourself on the league's Most Likely To Talk Smack list forever more.
But it's going to be Redskins offensive tackle Trent Williams who will wind up the loser in more ways than one after this little altercation was caught by TV cameras. Williams should know by now that there's a penalty for illegal hands to the face.
? OK, so we know Houston can stay home and beat Cincinnati in the first round of the playoffs, two years running, but nothing about the Texans' win on Saturday gave us a lot of confidence Gary Kubiak's team will be prepared for the much bigger test that awaits next Sunday against New England.
The Patriots, of course, crushed the Texans 42-14 in Foxboro on Monday night of Week 14, and a case can be made that Houston has never fully recovered its self-confidence in the wake of that primetime beating. Rest assured, four field goals and one touchdown won't get it done against the Patriots, as it did against the anemic Bengals offense.
Counting Saturday's win, Houston is now 4-4 this season against teams that made the playoffs, with recent road losses at New England and at Indianapolis. The Texans should be more prepared for the Patriots thanks to their recent meeting, but will anyone like their chances of closing the 28-point gap that existed between the teams five weeks ago? Not me.
? Houston's Matt Schaub had more pressure on him this weekend than any other player on the eight first-round participants, and it showed. The Texans quarterback looked tight in the first half, and his pick-6 to Bengals cornerback Leon Hall gave Cincinnati way more life (and a 7-6 lead) than it deserved, statistically speaking.
The cold reality in Houston is this: A loss next week at the Patriots only matches what the Texans did last year, losing in the divisional round at Baltimore. And in that light, the contract extension Houston granted Schaub earlier this season is not going to be money well spent.
? I generally detest the rush to judgment on every young quarterback in the NFL, because going by today's standards, slow-developing but Hall of Fame careers by guys like Johnny Unitas, Len Dawson and Bart Starr would have never happened, but the Bengals do have to be a bit concerned about which way second-year passer Andy Dalton is trending.
On the plus side, Dalton has quarterbacked the Bengals to their first consecutive playoff trips in 30 years and already has two postseason starts to his credit. But in the two biggest games of Cincinnati's season -- the 13-10 playoff-clinching Week 16 win at Pittsburgh and Saturday's 19-13 playoff loss at Houston -- Dalton essentially didn't show up, leading the Bengals to just two field goals and no touchdowns in each game. Cincy's superb defense scored the lone Bengals touchdown in each game, both on pick-6s by Hall.
By the eyeball test, Dalton is playing worse the longer he plays in the NFL. He finished 14 of 30 for a mere 127 yards and one interception against Houston, but was just 4 of 10 for 3 yards passing in the first half, and no, that isn't a typo. Dalton threw three interceptions in his playoff loss at Houston last season, and that sort of thing does happen to rookie quarterbacks. But in year two, improvement in that same playoff setting wasn't apparent.
? Mea culpa alert. On Saturday afternoon, I tweeted that it was about time Jay Gruden's name started heating up on the NFL head coach carousel, after the Eagles asked permission to speak to the Bengals offensive coordinator for their opening. But later that afternoon, Gruden probably didn't help his head coaching chances with the Bengals' game plan against the Texans.
No passes thrown in the direction of Cincy Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green until midway through the third quarter? Hard to defend that approach, and by that I mean it's easier to defend the Bengals offense when Green is ignored. Green is hands down Cincinnati's best playmaker, and I'm not sure why the Bengals were so slow to get him the ball.
But then again, Gruden did get an Andy Dalton-quarterbacked offense to the playoffs for two years in a row, so maybe that's the real accomplishment in his two-season body of work in Cincinnati.
* Alas, the Bengals still haven't won a playoff game since Sam Wyche was their head coach and making speeches about keeping women media members out of the locker room. That last postseason victory for Cincy came at home against the Houston Oilers in 1990, and just writing the word "Oilers'' tells you it was a while back.
In the 10-year Marvin Lewis coaching era, the Bengals have now gone one-and-done in the playoffs four times: 2005, 2009, 2011 and 2012. By Cincy standards, Saturday's six-point loss at Houston was a nail-biter. The Bengals in 2005 lost by 14 at home to Pittsburgh in the first round. In 2009, Cincinnati lost at home to the Jets by 10 points in the first round, and in 2011, the Bengals lost by 21 points at Houston in the first round.
? I didn't see a dominant Packers team against Minnesota, but it was plenty good enough, and I think it'll serve them well to have played this week in advance of their divisional-round trip to San Francisco next Saturday. The Packers might benefit from getting a W under their belts, and quarterback Aaron Rodgers getting his first career home playoff win was a hurdle he needed to clear after last season's bitter one-and-done against the Giants.
It wouldn't surprise me to see Green Bay win at San Francisco, especially if the 49ers">49ers look sluggish early from their two-week break. Wouldn't that be irony, given that the first-round bye would have belonged to the Packers and not the 49ers were it not for a certain blown call at the end of Green Bay's Week 3 loss at Seattle?
* So I heard the argument Sunday morning that Minnesota's meltdown at Green Bay proved that Adrian Peterson isn't the league's MVP, because he didn't make much difference in the Vikings' loss, and thus the best quarterback in the game (Aaron Rodgers in this case) was the most pivotal player on the field. And by extension, as the theory goes, that means Peyton Manning, or Rodgers, or Tom Brady had to be the MVP.
OK, but I can flip that around and say what I saw proven out Saturday night is that Peterson got a pretty mediocre team to the playoffs, and quarterback Christian Ponder's absence only underlined how little else Minnesota has going for itself offensively. Repeat after me, there were no "wrong'' choices among the top-tier MVP candidates this year. None.
* And to think there was some thought that Minnesota backup quarterback Joe Webb might push starter Christian Ponder for the top job at some point in the near future. Not based on that hide-your-eyes performance by Webb against the Packers. Granted, a spot start is tough duty. But Webb looked overmatched by the Green Bay defense, and that doesn't even really begin to describe his showing. He was bouncing balls yards in front of his receivers, throwing balls up for grabs whenever he was under severe pressure, and looking very much like a guy who hadn't thrown a pass all season.
I'm not sure, but I think it was the worst showing by a quarterback in the playoffs I've ever seen.
? It seems to happen a lot this way, but the NFL's divisional round next weekend will be rematch central. Three of the four games will be rematches, and if Washington had beaten visiting Seattle on Sunday, we would have gone 4-for-4 in the rematch department.
In the Green Bay at San Francisco rematch, I'm convinced the Packers could win, but I did pick the 49ers to take this game when SI.com had us predict the entire postseason bracket last week. San Francisco won 30-22 at Green Bay in Week 1, and it wasn't really that close in a game the 49ers manhandled the Packers physically.
Ditto for the Houston at New England rematch. The Patriots mauled the Texans 42-14 in Foxboro in Week 14, on a Monday night. Houston should show up more than it did that night, but if it's not a New England-Denver AFC title game, I'll be shocked blue in the face.
Only the Seattle at Atlanta game on Sunday isn't a repeat of sorts. I know this: Nobody will take the field next weekend with more pressure on them than Atlanta's Matt Ryan, whose 0-3 career record has been hung around his neck all year. I like the Seahawks in this one, because Wilson and teammates are playing with house money at this point, and they're a hot, confident team that can really run the ball and play defense.
? Used to live in the Baltimore-Washington area, and this is the best day in recent NFL history around here, with both the Ravens and Redskins hosting playoff games on the same day, about 30 miles apart. The Ravens and Redskins had never before made the postseason in the same season, and 1976 was the last time Washington and the Baltimore Colts were both in the playoffs. The Colts won the AFC East that season at 11-3, and the Redskins earned the NFC wild-card berth at 10-4.
Been a pretty good sports year all around in Baltimore-Washington area. If I would have told you at the beginning of 2012 that the Nationals, Orioles, Redskins and Ravens would all make the playoffs, you would have bought about 25 percent of that premise.
? Expand the NFL playoffs? No thanks. After watching this weekend's first-round games, which largely lacked drama, I'd say 12 teams is plenty. And I'm willing to bet the league's smartest folks, even with the ever-rising TV ratings the playoffs earn, will come to the same logical conclusion again this offseason when the topic comes up for debate.
? A lot of people I've talked to in the league thought Ken Whisenhunt and Buffalo were a marriage waiting to happen, and others said Lovie Smith would be a good fit for a 4-3 team that needs to get more out of its defensive front seven. But that said, I've heard good things about Doug Marrone, the Bills new head coach.
He has the leadership skills and organizational acumen you're looking for, and has gotten the most out of the talent he's had to work with. And he's also reportedly had Bill Parcells in his corner, recommending him to teams. That never hurts.
But as far as his three seasons spent as the Saints offensive coordinator under Sean Payton (2006-08), that's more of an OC-Lite position, because Payton was his own playcaller and oversaw every facet of the offense. Marrone also spent four years as Herm Edwards' offensive line coach with the Jets, so the NFL portion of his resume isn't the deepest I've ever seen.
Getting the best coach is much more important than hiring a big name, and maybe Marrone's hiring will end up being a masterstroke by the Bills. But he starts his new gig without much enthusiasm being sparked by his arrival in Buffalo, and at this point the Bills and their track record don't deserve the benefit of the doubt.