National Football League

Stalter’s Game Notebook: Wild-Card Weekend

+ In two short years, Andrew Luck has already carved out a spot for himself in Colts history. Think about it: He replaced a legend in Peyton Manning. In the midst of a rebuild, he’s taken the Colts to back-to-back playoff appearances. And on Saturday, he spearheaded one of the greatest comebacks in NFL history. Despite throwing three interceptions and benefiting from a dose of good fortune (most quarterbacks would have fallen on Donald Brown’s fumble, while Luck had the foresight to recover it and take it into the end zone), he was sensational. Luck has every intangible that you want in a young quarterback, from intelligence to arm strength to accuracy. But he also comes equipped with poise, confidence and a competitive streak that rivals most current NFL quarterbacks. Perhaps what’s most amazing is that the Colts won this year with two key players: Luck and Robert Mathis, who had a profound impact on Saturday’s game as well. And because of both of those players, I certainly wouldn’t count them out on Saturday night in New England.

+ A lot of the blame for the Chiefs’ epic collapse on Saturday is being placed at the feet of Andy Reid. But Reid had nothing to do with the injuries that plagued six of Kansas City’s starters, including its top two running backs in Jamaal Charles and Knile Davis. He didn’t tell Alex Smith to fumble early in the third quarter and set the Colts up with their first of five second-half scores. (While we’re on the subject, that was a tremendous effort play by Mathis.) It wasn’t his defense that allowed T.Y. Hilton and the rest of the Colts’ receiving corps to run free in Kansas City’s secondary, either. Reid isn’t absolved of any criticism for what happened on Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium, as his conservative play-calling in the second half didn’t help matters. But one could surmise that had Charles not been knocked out of the game, Reid and the Chiefs could have potentially salted away the clock in the second half. Feel free to point the finger at Reid, but it’s simplistic to suggest that Kansas City’s collapse was purely on him.

+ If Alex Smith ever gathers the strength to re-watch the film of this game, the one throw that will keep him up at night is the misfire to Cyrus Gray at the start of the fourth quarter. Gray was wide open down the sideline and could have scored easily had Smith hit him in stride. Instead, Smith overthrew Gray’s diving attempt and the Chiefs went three-and-out. His effort went for naught, but Smith played very well on Saturday, especially in the first half. He used his legs to buy himself more time, he improvised when plays broke down (see the shovel pass he threw to Anthony Sherman for a touchdown in the first quarter) and, for the most part, he was accurate. But his performance will unfortunately be marred by the plays he didn’t make.

+ The Saints stuffed a cork in my mouth on Saturday night. For weeks I’ve lamented how they’re a different team on the road and how they wouldn’t beat a red-hot Eagles team in Philadelphia. At one point, that narrative looked like it was going to play out as Drew Brees struggled and Nick Foles started to catch fire. But despite Brees’ two turnovers, the Saints were able to win the game on the back of Mark Ingram, Khiry Robinson and the rest of New Orleans’ running game. Brees can’t turn the ball over like that again if the Saints hope to spring the upset this weekend in Seattle, but they’ve proven that they can win on the road.

+ The Eagles’ defense was an issue early this season, but it started to come together in the second half of the season. But when they needed one last stop, they couldn’t muster one as the Saints put together a 10-play, 35-yard drive to set up a game-winning 32-yard field goal. On a night when Brees wasn’t his best, the Eagles couldn’t slow down New Orleans’ rushing attack, and it cost them an opportunity to advance to the next round.

+ Andy Dalton was atrocious on Sunday. He played with little poise, left too many plays on the field and kept his eyes on the rush as opposed to the coverage (which is one of the reasons why he was intercepted two times). If you’re a Cincinnati fan, what’s most frustrating is that the defense kept the Bengals in the game. It wasn’t until Dalton threw that back-breaking interception in the third-quarter when reality set in that he was never going to win that game. (He’s struggled with that throw outside the numbers all season.) What’s worse is that in three career playoff games, he’s 0-3 and has turned the ball over seven times. When opponents take away A.J. Green, he turns into a helpless, frantic signal-caller with zero playmaking ability. It has become painfully obvious that he isn’t the long-term answer in Cincinnati.

+ Criticism of Dalton should be high, but credit also must be given to San Diego’s pass rush. John Pagano put together an excellent game plan that took away Green, blanketed the short-to-intermediate area and suffocated Dalton with his pass rush. Kendall Reyes had a hell of a game from his left end spot, but Jarrett Johnson, Melvin Ingram and Thomas Keiser also played well. At one point early in the third quarter, Pagano was in Dalton’s head so much that the quarterback was looking to dive out of plays immediately after the snap.

+ The Chargers rushed for 196 yards on Sunday against a stout Cincinnati front seven, and they did so by manhandling the Bengals’ front four in the running game. The job that Rich Ohrnberger did at center in place of the injured Nick Hardwick cannot be understated. He looked like a snowplow out there. If you’re going to have a realistic chance of beating Peyton Manning, you have to be able to run the ball effectively and limit his opportunities to beat you. If the Chargers can accomplish this weekend what they did accomplished last Sunday in Cincinnati, they’ll have a shot to pull off another upset.

+ Colin Kaepernick was the difference in Green Bay. Even when he made mistakes, he atoned for them with his legs. After he telegraphed the interception to Tramon Williams early in the second quarter, his 42-yard run set Frank Gore up with a 10-yard touchdown that allowed San Fran to retake the lead. After the Niners’ offense went into hibernation in the third quarter and Green Bay was able to retake the lead at 17-13, Kaepernick answered with a picture-perfect touchdown pass to Vernon Davis down the seam. And after he nearly threw a pick-six on the Niners’ final drive, his 11-yard run on third-and-8 set San Francisco up in great position to win the game. On a day when Gore was relatively held in check and the 49ers’ front seven was pounded by Eddie Lacy and Green Bay’s O-line, Kaepernick was still able to run San Francisco to the next round.

+ The 49ers’ offense looks like a completely different unit with a healthy Michael Crabtree. For the life of me, I don’t know why he was allowed to run free in Green Bay’s secondary in the first quarter. Regardless, he’s turned a one-time stagnant offense into a unit that is firing on all cylinders. Not surprisingly, Kaepernick also looks like a different quarterback with Crabtree in the lineup.

+ Save for the witch magic that he used on that fourth-and-2 to escape a sack and find Randall Cobb for a 26-yard completion early in the fourth quarter, Aaron Rodgers’ performance left a lot to be desired. Until Williams intercepted Colin Kaepernick in the second quarter, Rodgers and the Packers’ offense looked lifeless. He took four sacks, which was part San Francisco’s secondary blanketing Green Bay’s receivers, part San Francisco’s pass rush and part Rodgers’ inability to pull the trigger when he had time to throw. Granted, he played well in the second half. But if Lacy hadn’t turned in the performance that he did, the Packers likely would have been blown out. Rodgers wasn’t at fault for Green Bay’s loss, but it’s hard to argue that he did enough to lift them to victory.