Heading into the NFL’s Wild Card weekend, I wasn’t thinking the warm-weather teams would have great success in the cold weather, although I did think the way San Francisco was playing gave them the advantage over Green Bay. The Saints and Chargers surprised me, and of course the Colts stunned the Chiefs after falling behind by four touchdowns. With that, here are 10 takeaways from the weekend in the NFL:
1. Andrew Luck is the next great quarterback, despite his overall numbers. After his team fell behind 38-10 in the third quarter, Luck completed 17 of 23 passes for 314 yards, three passing touchdowns, an alert fumble recovery/rushing touchdown and one interception. Before that he was 12 of 22 for 129, one touchdown and two interceptions. He’s the classic example of the QB who you don’t pull from the game because he has a chance to pull it out. Here are his last six drives: 3 of 3, 67 yards; 4 of 5, 46 yards, passing TD; 0 of 1, interception (his third); 3 of 5, 67 yards, passing TD; 5 of 6, 59 yards, rush TD; 2 of 3, 75 yards, passing TD. Luck is the essence of the reason that won/loss records are compiled for quarterbacks. He didn’t have a great statistical season, but finds a way for his team to win. If I could choose between Luck, Robert Griffin III, Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson, Andy Dalton, Cam Newton and Nick Foles, each young quarterback who’s been in the playoffs over the last two seasons, I’d take Luck.
2. During the Chiefs’ 9-0 start, they beat one team that turned out to be a playoff team, when they beat the Eagles. In their final eight games (including the playoffs), the Chiefs played playoff teams six times, and lost all six. The two wins Kansas City had during the last eight weeks were against Washington and the Raiders, and they hammered both of them. As troubling for Kansas City fans, the Chiefs had the No. 1 scoring defense in the league during the first nine games, never allowing more than 17 points. In their last eight games, they allowed an average of 29.8, including 27 or more six times and 35 or more in three of those. The Chiefs need to supplement their defensive depth in case they lose a pass rusher next season, and upgrade to the point that they can consistently beat winning teams.
3. The two winning NFC quarterbacks went into the teeth of cold weather and led their teams to game-winning drives to end the game. Drew Brees, who spent most of the season defending his team’s ability to win on the road, engineered a 10-play, 34-yard drive that gobbled up the last 4:54 of the game and set up Shayne Graham’s game-winning, 32-yard field goal at Lincoln Financial Field. And Colin Kaepernick led San Francisco on a tie-breaking, 14-play, 65-yard drive that took the final 5:06,as Phil Dawson booted a 33-yarder to lift San Francisco over Green Bay at Lambeau Field, 23-20. In the cold, Brees completed only one pass during the winning drive, and Kaepernick completed just three. Both orchestrated the winning drives brilliantly, and delivered signature wins for themselves and their teams.
4. Andy Dalton leaves something to be desired. He went 29 of 51 for 334 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. He couldn’t connect with A.J. Green, who was targeted nine times and caught three passes. Dalton wasn’t accurate, wasn’t clutch and couldn’t generate offense when his team needed its quarterback to make plays. In short, he imploded. If Cincinnati wants to move beyond the first round of the playoffs, it needs to upgrade at quarterback. The Bengals have all the other pieces in place except that.
5. Not having Geno Atkins caught up with Cincinnati. The Bengals didn’t get any sacks from their defensive line, and Atkins had six in his first nine games of the season. The Bengals needed push up the middle, and couldn’t generate any. At some point, that injury was going to catch up to Cincinnati – and it did against San Diego on Sunday.
6. The Rams played seven of their 16 games against teams in the final eight, with wins from those seven coming at Indianapolis and against New Orleans. They lost twice each to Seattle and San Francisco, and at Carolina. When NFL Films puts together its Rams highlights video, the Indy and Saints win will be prominent. With the way the Rams beat both of those teams, you’d think they can play with anyone in the league if they win the turnover battle and keep their composure.
7. San Francisco turned in Mike Martz-esque clock and timeout management, but still was able to win the game. When the 49ers used two timeouts in the first six minutes of each half, I figured it would definitely come back to haunt them. But Green Bay couldn’t make a play to force the 49ers to use the last one. Had the Packers been able to get one stop on a 3rd-and-10 with 4:09 left, when Kaepernick hit Michael Crabtree for 17 yards, or on 3rd-and-8 with 1:13 to go, when Kaepernick ran for 11, they could have forced the 49ers to use that last timeout and rush to get the ball into field-goal position. But the Packers’ defense couldn’t make the stop when they needed to, and Jim Harbaugh was able to stop the clock with two seconds left to allow Phil Dawson to kick the winner. If the 49ers have similar clock-management escapades next week in Carolina, it will come back to bite them.
8. From a Rams standpoint, it’s a good thing to have the 49ers practice for at least two extra weeks, snap the ball 63 times and face 61 Packer plays on defense. The Seahawks are going to have to deal with New Orleans next week, and perhaps the two teams will have to play each other for a berth in the Super Bowl two weeks down the road. Every practice, every rep, every game, every play the 49ers and Seahawks participate in is another one that will help wear them down. Even though the NFL offseason programs and training camps have been cut back as much as they have, at some point the accumulation of games those two teams have played over the last several years will have an effect on them, and that will benefit the Rams.
9. It wasn’t too long ago that teams worked their tails off to get a first-round bye and home field throughout the playoffs. With the last three Super Bowl champs coming out of Wild Card weekend, and with three road teams winning this weekend, it appears that where and when you play doesn’t matter nearly as much as how you’re playing. It used to be that Green Bay never lost a home playoff game, but after starting off 13-0 in the postseason at Lambeau Field, they’re 3-5 in their last eight. Warm weather and dome teams go into the cold weather and win. And ultimately, the four teams that won over the weekend had quarterbacks making key plays in the fourth quarter. That’s how you win.
10. Of the eight teams that played this weekend, six – Indianapolis, Kansas City, New Orleans, Philadelphia, San Diego and San Francisco – had coaches who made the playoffs in their first year with the franchise they’re with. Mike McCarthy made it in his second year with Green Bay and missed in Aaron Rodgers’ first year as a starter before making it the last five seasons. In Cincinnati, Marvin Lewis made it in his third year. Of the four teams with byes, Pete Carroll in Seattle and John Fox in Denver made it their first years at the helm, Bill Belichick his second in New England and Ron Rivera his third with Carolina. It’s understandable why fans, media and even owners are so impatient when it comes to building a franchise. Because of that early success, it would seem the pressure to make the playoffs is pretty significant on Jeff Fisher and the Rams next season.
I honestly didn’t have a significant rooting interest in any game this weekend. Of course, next weekend I’m rooting hard for the Indianapolis Colts. I really want to see Luck step up and have a great game at New England.