Man, the NFL strikes again. A potential Lockout to begin the 2011 season could destroy the good will the league has built with football fans across the country and globe this past decade. But for now, it's all good, as the first weekend of the 2010 NFL Playoffs was just about as exciting as a TV or league executive could have ever imagined in their most profit-fueled dreams.
Four games, three road winners, and only one contest decided by more than five points and not hanging in the balance in the game's final moments. If your a fan of drama or find yourself rooting for the underdog when all other variables are equal, you got your wish this weekend for the most part.
The action got off to a great start Saturday afternoon when the much-maligned Seattle Seahawks hosted the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints. No home team had ever been as big an underdog in playoff history as the Seahawks, but leading up to the game, a part of me believed the Saints might have trouble getting past this one. I wrote about it on SB Nation Pittsburgh as well as here on BTSC. But I can't honestly say I believed Seattle would pull out the win, only that I thought they'd give New Orleans a much closer game than most anticipated.
Let's not spend too much time on the exciting upset, but a couple of quick comments about the game. First, I love how the networks and media are dubbing this win the 'greatest and most improbably win in NFL playoff history', or something to that effect. No doubt an impressive and improbable win. But the biggest upset in NFL playoff history? Uhhhh. No, not quite. What about Broadway Joe Namath guaranteeing a Jets' victory over the Colts in Super Bowl III? Or Tom Brady and the Patriots vanquishing Kurt Warner and The Greatest Show On Turf in SB XVIII? Or the Giants taking down the undefeated Pats in the title game a few years ago? Or the expansion Jags taking down the mighty Broncos in the Divisional Round of the 1996 playoffs? I could go on and on and on. I guess that's no surprise. What just happened is always the craziest, most exciting, and utterly improbably we've ever witnessed.
That said, Seattle's win sure was thrilling.
How about the 67-yard TD run by Marshawn Lynch that more or less clinched the game for Seattle. Now if we must get hyperbolic, I actually feel entirely comfortable categorizing that run as one of the, if not the greatest, run in NFL playoff history. By my count, Lynch broke eight tackles on the play. I actually had just walked into a bar to catch the end of the game and then settle in for the evening tilt when Lynch broke off the scintillating run. Seattle football fans have, shall we say, disappointed me on more than one occasion. That is if we can shift the focus to football and off MLS Soccer long enough for me to be disappointed. But at that moment when Lynch willed his way to the endzone and his team to victory, the Seattle fans I was around went bananas. Like good football fans should do when they witness a historically memorable play like that. You all know I'm a Drew Brees fan, and I hated to see them get dealt a fatal blow like that. But a fairly big part of me smiled as I watched a sea of fans erupt as they watched Lynch will his way to the endzone and his team on to the second round.
* The New York Jets and the Indianapolis Colts were next in line on Saturday night. Though their game lacked the same offensive fireworks, it was equally as entertaining, and the ending certainly kept viewers on the edge of their seat. The first 30 minutes featured a lone Indianapolis touchdown, and it was Indy's defense more than New York's that really looked impressive. Colts defenders were playing awfully fast that night, and despite having some success running the football, the Jets weren't able to string much together until after intermission. Credit Rex Ryan for whatever he did to get his guys ready to play more physical and with a greater sense of urgency once they returned from the locker room at half. The Jets embarked on a 10-play 63-yard TD drive start the second half. Then after a Colts FG helped regain the lead for Indy near the end of the third quarter, the Jets put together an even more impressive drive to take their first lead of the game, a 17-yard masterpiece that covered 87 yards and consumed nearly 10 minutes of game clock.
Let's fast forward to the end of the game where Indianapolis thought they had things in control following Adam Vinatieri's 50 yard field goal with 0:53 seconds remaining. But the special teams of the Colts didn't do its part on the ensuing kickoff as Antonio Cromartie took the ball out near midfield with a 43-yard kickoff return. From there (with the help of a questionable timeout call by Colts head coach Jim Caldwell), the Jets were able to move the ball into FG range and win it at the gun. The Steelers are 12-4 in large part because they've been nails all year covering kicks and punts. With the Steelers and Ravens likely to be engaged in a close game next Saturday, and with both teams fairly evenly matched in all respects, you've got to believe that special teams and turnovers will be the deciding factors.
* We'll get in to what the Ravens were able to accomplish over the Chiefs in their 30-7 drubbing later today and early this week, but needless to say, a job well done by the Rat Birds handling their business on the road in a hostile environment. After a sluggish start, the Ravens put their foot on the throat of the Chiefs and didn't let up until the fourth quarter with the outcome long since it doubt. I was particularly impressed by Joe Flacco's play - namely the wide array of throws. He threw the ball with touch underneath when need be, he took appropriate shots down the field, and he hung tough in the pocket when he had to prior to his target breaking open. Flacco's TD strike to Anquan Boldin in the third quarter stands out as a good example of Flacco standing tall in the pocket and throwing a perfect ball through a small window under pressure. He'll need to play as well, if not better, against the Steelers next weekend. But the reason I cautioned against overlooking Baltimore as a legit Super Bowl threat was the improved play of Flacco and the Ravens offense the last month or so of the season. More on them later.
* And finally, the afternoon game on Sunday between the Philadelphia Eagles and the visiting Green Bay Packers. I didn't have the opportunity to watch all of this one, but it played out very much like I expected it to. The Packers remind me of the Steelers of '05: a dangerous, complete team that had high expectations all year only to backdoor into the playoffs as the No. 6 seed before getting hot and going the distance. And yes, I do think the Packers will keep the comparison up and make it to the Super Bowl. They travel to Atlanta next weekend to take on the top seeded Falcons at the Georgia Dome where Matt Ryan has lost just twice in three years.