NFL 2009-2010–Divisionals Recap

December has become January, and the Wild Cards have given way to the Divisional Round of the Playoffs.

Enough talk. Let’s get to football.

Arizona Cardinals @ New Orleans Saints–Sean Payton saw his Saints start 13-0 before losing 3 straight. Ken Whisenhunt saw his pinball machine win a war of attrition in the wildcard last week 51-45 in overtime. This would ignite the debate of rest vs. rust, and the offenses were expected to put the game on tilt.  On the very first play from scrimmage, a shellshocked New Orleans crowd watched Tim Hightower race through the line for a 68 yard touchdown run and 7-0 Cardinals lead 19 seconds into the game. Drew Brees calmly led the Saints on a 10 play, 5 minute drive. A pair of completions to Jeremy Shockey set up a one yard Hamilton run to tie the game 7-7.

On the next series for the Cardinals, the first play was far less successful. Kurt Warner completed a pass to Jeremy Urban for a 30 yard gain, but Urban fumbled the ball and Darren Sharper returned it to the Arizona 37. Brees hit Shockey from 20 yards out to put the Saints up 14-7 with 3 1/2 quarters still to play. The Cardinals punted, and the already thin Arizona defense saw Dominique Rogers-Cromartie go down with an injury. On the next play, several mistackles allowed Reggie Bush to break off a 46 yard touchdown run to have the Saints up 21-7.

In the second quarter the Cardinals dodged a major bullet. Warner went deep and was intercepted by Darren Sharper, but a questionable roughing the passer call kept the Cardinals on the move. Beanie Wells ran it in from 4 yards out to get the Cardinals back within 21-14. The Saints kept the foot on the accelerator as a perfectly executed flea flicker became a 44 yard touchdown pass from Brees to Devry Henderson to have the Saints up 28-14.

Warner, under heavy pressure, threw an interception to Will Smith. To make matters worse, Warner got rocked on the interception return. With a short field, Brees hit Henderson for a 4 yard touchdown to have the Saints up 35-14 with just over one minute left in the half. Warner remained injured on the bench as Matt Leinart came in, effectively ending the game because he is Matt Leinart. Leinart did complete passes to Larry Fitzgerald and Jeremy Urban, but a 51 yard Neil Rackers field goal attempt at the halftime gun was just short.

Kurt Warner came back for the Cardinals to start the third quarter, but Arizona failed to move the ball as he faced heavy pressure. Brees moved the Saints again. A couple of near touchdown completions fell just short, and the Saints settled for a 43 yard field goal and 38-14 lead. The Cardinals punted again, and Reggie Bush delivered the knockout blow by returning it 83 yards for another touchdown. The Saints had put the game away midway through the third quarter, and would be playing in the NFC Title Game on their home field. 45-14 Saints

Baltimore Ravens @ Indianapolis Colts–Although the Ravens only lost to the Colts 17-15 in Baltimore earlier this year, the game was expected to be different in Indy on the carpet. John Harbaugh saw his Ravens throttle New England on the road last week. As for the Colts, the seamless transition from Tony Dungy to Jim Caldwell was helped by the only 4 time MVP Peyton Manning. Manning went right to work at the outset, but the drive stalled at the Baltimore 27. Former Ravens kicker Matt Stover has been given the nod over injured Adam Vinatieri for the Colts, and his 44 yard kick had the Colts up 3-0 early on.

Joe Flacco responded well by bringing the Ravens 87 yards in 15 plays. On 3rd and goal from the 6, Flacco threw right into the arms of Colts defender Antoine Bethe, who appeared ready to race 100 yards in the other direction. Bethea dropped the interception, allowing Billy Cundiff to kick the 25 yard field goal to tie the game 3-3 after an 8 minute drive.

The rest of the half became a war of attrition. The Ravens defense was dictating the pace of the game to the Colts offense. Neither side could move until very late in the half. Manning led an 8 minute, 14 play, 75 yard drive, including a 4th down conversion gamble by Jim Caldwell that barely picked up the first down. At the 2 minute warning, on 1st and goal from the 10, Manning hit Austin Collie to give the Colts the 10-3 lead.

The Ravens failed to move the ball, and Manning got the ball back with 90 seconds in the half and 2 timeouts. A critical pass interference call on the defense had the Colts in the red zone. A pass to the end zone by Collie would have been a touchdown had Collie not gotten belted by Ray Lewis. However, Lewis was flagged for helmet to helmet contact on Collie, and the Colts had 1st and goal at the 7 with 17 seconds left. With 7 seconds left and no timeouts, Caldwell was considering the field goal when Manning asked for one more play from the 4. Most coaches would kick the field goal, but most coaches do not have the field general. Manning fired a strike to Reggie Wayne that just barely reached beyond the goal line as the Colts led 17-3 at halftime.

The defenses took over again, but with 6 minutes left in the third quarter, a wild sequence of events took place. Facing 4th and 3 at the Indy 45, Flacco fired incomplete and the Colts got the ball back on downs. Manning went back to pass, fired deep, and was intercepted by Ed Reed. Reed returned it about 30 yards when the ball was punched out of his hand. Dallas Clark recovered it to give the Colts the ball back. A few plays later Manning fired and was intercepted by Ed Reed again. Reed returned it all the way to the Indy 5 yard line. Yet again the Ravens killed themselves as the interception was nullified by defensive pass interference. Indy took over at the Baltimore 37. 90 seconds into the fourth quarter, Stover nailed a 33 yard field goal to put the Colts up 20-3 and pretty much turn out the lights.

With 9 minutes to play, Ray Rice barreled over tacklers, but then coughed up the ball to the Colts. With 5 minutes to play Flacco went deep and was intercepted by Antoine Bethea to snuff out any remaining hope. The expected matchup of the Colts offense and the Ravens defense was overshadowed by a stifling Colts defense and an offense that did just enough. That was enough for the Colts to be at home next weekend for the AFC Title Game. 20-3 Colts

Dallas Cowboys @ Minnesota Vikings–Several weeks ago Wade Phillips and Tony Romo were walking the plank before back to back wins over Philadelphia launched them to a division championship and date with Minnesota. Away from the 1.2 billion Jerry Jones Metropolis, they would face the Vikings. Brett Favre may or may not be in his final season, but nobody wants to discuss that now. Vikings coach Brad Childress is bald and catholic.

Despite a jacked up Minnesota crowd, early on it was Dallas moving the ball. A promising drive ended when Romo got sacked and fumbled, and Minnesota recovered on their own 35. Favre got sacked and Minnesota went 3 and out. Dallas moved the ball again, but on 4th and 1 from the Minnesota 31, Wade Phillips decided not to gamble. The 48 yard field goal by Sean Suisham was no good, since this year kickers are a gamble anyway. Despite controlling the clock, the game remained scoreless. Then it happened. The 4-Ever Man did it again. Favre went back, and unleashed a bomb to Sidney Rice, who caught it in stride to Sidney Rice for a 47 yard touchdown and a 7-0 Vikings lead.

In the second quarter the Cowboys continued to move the ball well, as Romo directed the Cowboys with relative ease to a 1st and goal at the 10. Again the Cowboys bogged down, and a sack of Romo led to another field goal attempt. From 33 yards out, Suisham connected, and the Cowboys were within 7-3. Favre then put on a clinic on his next drive, with running plays from Adrian Peterson mixed in with short passes. From the Dallas 15, Favre rolled out, avoided a sack of a defender clutching his Jersey, and fired to Rice again for the touchdown as the Vikings led 14-3 midway through the second quarter.

Disaster continued to befall Dallas as Romo got hit by Jared Allen, leading to Romo’s 3rd fumble of the game and 2nd lost one. Minnesota took over at the Dallas 17 with a chance to end the suspense. A quick completion to Bernard Berrian set up 1st and goal at the 6. The drive went nowhere after that, and the 24 yard field goal by Ryan Longwell had the Vikings up 17-3 with 4 minutes left in the half. The half ended with Dallas fumbling a punt, falling on it, and a failed hail mary when Romo was eventually sacked.

In the third quarter the Vikings punted, and Dallas had excellent field position. Again the Cowboys moved the ball, and again they self-destructed. Back to back sacks led to another missed field goal by Suisham, a 49 yarder just wide. Favre moved the Vikings in position for a 53 yard Longwell field goal, but Brad Childress opted for the punt instead. A perfect punt had the Cowboys starting their next drive from the 2 yard line. After an exchange of punts, Romo, under heavy pressure, was intercepted, giving the Vikings the ball at the Cowboys 18 as the third quarter came to a close. The Dallas defense again held, but a 28 yard Longwell field goal seconds into the fourth quarter had the Vikings in command 20-3.

Midway through the fourth quarter, Favre delivered the dagger, connecting with Rice  third time, again on a long touchdown bomb of 45 yards. With 2 minutes to go, Favre threw his 4th touchdown pass to end the scoring,. an 11 yarder to Vicente Shiancoe. Dallas was done for the year, and the 40 year old Iron Man was on his way to New Orleans for another NFC Title Game. 34-3 Vikings

New York Jets @ San Diego Chargers–Rex Ryan has a defense that his father Buddy can be proud of, as the 9-7 Jets knocked around Cincinnati on the road last week. This week they face the pinball machine offense of Philip Rivers and the Chargers in San Diego. Norv Turner has seen his Chargers win 11 straight, but knows that if this team does not go deep into the playoffs, the naysayers like myself will continue to howl. These teams met 5 years ago in the playoffs. The Chargers were heavily favored, but San Diego kicker Nate Kaeding missed a pair of critical field goals, as the Jets won on the road in overtime. Kaeding has had a great season, but that Jets game may still haunt him.

The Jets wanted a slow pace, and they got it as both teams early on settled in for a long hard slog. The Chargers had some success moving the ball, but Nate Kaeding missed a 36 yard field goal. The Jets could not get anything going on offense. Early in the second quarter, defensive pass interference on the Jets had the Chargers in the red zone. From 15 yards out, Rivers hit Chris Wilson in the back of the end zone for a touchdown and a 7-0 Chargers lead. The Jets reached the San Diego 38 when Rex Ryan decided to punt on 4th and 5. Nate Kaeding missed a 57 yard field goal to close the half.

The Jets took the second half kickoff, and 5 minutes later they faced 4th and 1 at the San Diego 28. Rex Ryan could have challenged the spot of the ball, but instead he called a timeout. He decided to kick the field goal on the road, and Jay Feely nailed the 46 yard kick to get the Jets to within 7-3. The Jets got the ball back, but under heavy pressure Sanchez forced a ball into coverage that was deflected and intercepted. Rivers then went deep, yet a ball that was bobbled and juggled somehow never hit the ground, bouncing off a player’s leg before Darrell Revis intercepted it while on the ground to give the ball back to the Jets.

The Jets punted, forcing the Chargers to start at their own 4. Rivers was intercepted again at the very end of the third quarter in his own territory, and Jim Leonard returned it to the San Diego 16. One play later a routine running play was followed by a defensive personal foul for a headbutt. The fourth quarter began with the Jets facing 1st and goal from the San Diego 8. 90 secodns later, on 3rd and goal from the 2, Sanchez rolled out, bought time, and fired a strike to Justin Keller. The Jets led 10-7 and looked for the stunning upset.

The Chargers began by Antonio Cromartie fumbling the ensuing kickoff. Darren Sproles fell on it to save the Chargers from disaster. On 3rd and long, Rivers got nailed and another fumble ensued. The Chargers recovered and punted. Jerricho Cotcherry took the booming kick from Mike Scifres at his own 8 and got it back to the Jets 34 with 9 1/2 minutes in regulation. On 3rd and 4, Sanchez threw a short bullet to Cotcherry for the 1st down. From the New York 47, one play changed the game. A handoff up the middle turned a desired time consuming drive into a quick score. Sean Greene, who is not Jewish, barreled over a tackler and raced 53 yards for a score in front of a dumbstruck San Diego crowd. With 7 1/2 minutes to play, the Jets led 17-7. Hitting an opponent in the mouth is an overused cliche, but this Rex Ryan team was belting San Diego on both sides of the ball.

The key would be if the Jets could hold on. San Diego took over after a short kickoff on their own 48. Rivers passed them to a 4th and 2 at the New York 23. Norv Turner brought in Nate Kaeding for the 40 yard kick. Kaeding had already missed from 48 and 57, but he had never missed 3 kicks in one game. Now he has. With 4 1/2 minutes left, he missed it. Rex Ryan pumped his fists. The Jets ran 3 straight plays, forcing the Chargers to use their timeouts. The Chargers took the punt at their own 37 with 3:45 left.

Rivers went deep to Vincent Jackson. He was well covered, but made an acrobatic catch at the Jets 20. Rex Ryan challenged that his feet came down inbounds. The play was ruled a catch, but in a bizarre episode, Vincent Jackson was flagged 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct for kicking the challenge flag. San Diego was moved back to the New York 35 with 3 minutes to play. Rivers hit Sproles for 19 yards to the Jets 16. Rivers hit Jackson at the one foot line, and then snuck it in himself for the touchdown. The Chargers had only one timeout and 2:14 on the clock as they lined up for the onsides kick. Every Jets fan on Earth had la lump in their throats.

Punter Mike Scifres kicked it instead of Kaeding. The kick was perfect, but the Jets grabbed it out of the air. The hope was that the running game would finish things so Sanchez would not have to risk a throw. From the San Diego 38, a handoff went nowhere as the 2 minute warning hit. Another handoff picked up 4 yards as San Diego took their last timeout with 1:55 left. Green ran for 5 yards. With everything on the line, the Jets faced 4th and 1 at the San Diego 29. The decision of a lifetime awaited, and Rex Ryan decided to go for it. This man has balls of steel. 1:09 remained, and failing to convert meant the Chargers needed only a field goal to tie. Converting it ended the game. Thomas Jones, who had been a human battering ram all game, did it one more time. He picked up the first down. Ballgame!

The losing culture of the Jets is now officially over. There are no more ghosts. Rex Ryan talked all year, and he backed it up. As for Norv Turner, I have been his toughest critic, but don’t blame this on him. This game was very similar to the 1995 playoffs. Marty Schottenheimer had the 13-3 Chiefs and they faced the 9-7 Colts. The Colts wona shocker 10-7 when Chiefs quarterback STeve Bono threw 3 interceptions and Lin Elliot missed 3 field goals. This game had 2 Rivers picks and 3 Kaeding misses. I will never forget the commentary after Elliot’s last miss.

Paul Maguire: I hate Kickers. They should be paid $50 a game.

Joe Theismann: Lin Elliot is the loneliest man in Kansas City. It will be a long flight.

Maguire: It doesn’t matter because Lin Elliott’s not going to be a Chief next year. They might not let him on the plane or drop him overboard. Forget $50. They should be paid 25 cents.

(Lin Elliott was not a Chief the next year. As for Kaeding, we shall see.)

Yes, a Norv Turner team blew up when it counted, but this was a case of getting out-physicaled. With everything on the line, Rex Ryan trusted his players. Some say the Jets have no shot against Indy next week, but they have been counted out the whole season. 17-14 Jets

Four teams remain.

AFC Title Game: New York Jets @ Indianapolis Colts

NFC Title Game: Minnesota Vikings @ New Orleans Saints

One week from now we will have our Super Bowl contenders.

I am already chomping at the bit.

Bring it on!


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