It took Peyton Manning more than half a decade to win his first playoff game. His teams often came up short in the postseason, and before long, he earned a reputation for choking, which still lingers today. His successor, Andrew Luck, seemed to be headed down that path. Luck tossed two early interceptions and had a third when the ball bounced out of his receiver's hands and into safety Husain Abdullah's. The Chiefs were up big - they maintained a four-touchdown advantage at one point - and it appeared as though the Indianapolis faithful would wonder how long they'd have to wait for their new franchise signal-caller to achieve success in the postseason.
Well, it wasn't very long. Thanks to a tremendous second-half surge, Luck engineered the second-greatest comeback in NFL history, prevailing even though his team was down 38-10 at some point.
Luck was just unbelievable after intermission. Following a pick immediately after the break, also made by Abdullah, Luck was 17-of-23 for 314 yards, three touchdowns and the one interception that wasn't his fault in the second half. Kansas City simply had no answer for him.
Of course, the Chiefs had their own issues. They lost cornerback Brandon Flowers to a concussion and also saw outside linebacker Justin Houston get banged up. And that was just a fraction of the injuries they incurred. The rest came on offense, with disaster immediately striking when Jamaal Charles exited with a concussion of his own on the very first drive.
Charles' absence didn't actually harm Kansas City's offense very much in the early going, as the team didn't even punt until the 5:58 mark of the third quarter. However, the injuries just kept piling up. Donnie Avery and Junior Hemingway both got hurt, but the major issue following Charles' concussion was Knile Davis' knee. Davis proved to be a solid replacement for Charles, but the Chiefs had nothing behind him. Someone named Cyrus Gray took the field after that and offered Kansas City nothing out of the backfield.
Despite all of these injuries, Alex Smith played to the best of his ability. He went 30-of-46 for 378 yards and four touchdowns. He didn't throw an interception either, but he made a couple of mistakes late. It started when he was strip-sacked by Robert Mathis, which set up an Indianapolis touchdown. Smith then missed an open Gray for a touchdown and followed that up with a poor intentional grounding penalty.
Smith's touchdowns went to Dwayne Bowe (8-150), Avery (1-79), Davis and Anthony Sherman. Bowe had a gain of 63, thanks to pathetic tackling efforts by LaRon Landry and Greg Toler. Both Toler and Vontae Davis didn't look quite right coming back from injuries, and Toler, who was beaten by Avery for the 79-yarder, even left the game after aggravating his injury. They'll need to get healthy for the Hall of Fame quarterback they'll have to battle next week.
Bowe had a big game, as you can see by his numbers, but on Kansas City's last play from scrimmage, a desperation fourth-and-11 attempt, Smith had Bowe open downfield for a big gain to set up a potential game-winning field goal. Bowe, however, inexplicably drifted out of bounds, ending the game.
Davis actually scored twice. In addition to the damage he did as a receiver out of the backfield, he rushed for 67 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries. Davis probably would've been MVP of this game had Kansas City won for his ability to step up in Charles' absence.
Speaking of running backs, Donald Brown handled all but one of the carries for the Colts. He accumulated 55 rushing yards on 11 attempts along with four catches for 47 receiving yards, and he also scored twice. Brown shouldered most of the workload because Trent Richardson lost a fumble on his only carry. Richardson saw the field sparingly after that.
Brown had his own fumble, but Luck had enough awareness to scoop up the loose ball and run it into the end zone. He finished 29-of-45 for 443 yards, five touchdowns (four passing, one rushing) and the three interceptions.
Luck's most prominent target was T.Y. Hilton, as you might expect. Hilton caught a whopping 13 balls for 224 yards and two touchdowns. He also appeared to get injured at some point, but he didn't miss much action. His one mistake, as mentioned, was allowing Abdullah to snatch the ball away for an interception.
The other scores Luck threw went to Brown and Coby Fleener (5-46). Fleener had a drop, as did LaVon Brazill (4-54).
With this victory, the Colts will travel to Denver if the Bengals win. They'll take on the Patriots in New England if San Diego prevails.
Saints 26, Eagles 24
The Saints can't possibly win in the cold. That's all the team heard throughout the week. Much like the Buccaneers in the NFC Championship in 2003, who definitely couldn't prevail in freezing temperatures, an NFC South team proved everyone wrong by winning as underdogs in a playoff game in Philadelphia.
I believed Drew Brees would be the reason the Saints would pull the upset, given that he had a great matchup against Philadelphia's putrid secondary. However, he started off very slowly. He missed an open target downfield for big gain on the opening drive. He then forced an interception on a deep shot to a receiver who wasn't open. He heaved a second pick in Philadelphia territory right to DeMeco Ryans. Brees simply didn't see the linebacker.
Brees led the Saints to just six points in the opening half, going 10-of-18 for just 98 yards and the two picks prior to the break. He caught fire after intermission, however, misfiring on just two of 12 attempted passes. He finished 20-of-30 for 250 yards, one touchdown and the pair of interceptions. Brees made a number of key conversions on third-and-long.
While Brees thrived after intermission, the running game was a constant for the Saints throughout. They bulldozed what was billed to be a strong Philadelphia run defense for 185 rushing yards, as their offensive line pushed around the Eagles' defensive front. Mark Ingram led the way with 97 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries. Khiry Robinson (8-45) and Darren Sproles (4-29) also chipped in with big gains. Philadelphia's defenders looked gassed in the second half, as Ingram and Sproles were able to muscle through tackles.
Had the Saints lost this game, the narrative for them would've been how a couple of injuries helped cost them a victory. Linebacker Parys Haralson going down was big, but the key player to get knocked out was cornerback Keenan Lewis, who limited DeSean Jackson to just one short catch, was knocked out with a concussion in the third quarter. Nick Foles couldn't get anything going before that, but he suddenly began pushing the ball downfield. Replacement Corey White had no chance of covering Jackson, as he immediately gave up a 40-yard reception to the speedy wideout. White was later whistled for a 40-yard pass interference on Jackson, allowing the Eagles to score two plays later.
Nick Foles played relatively well in his first postseason appearance. He went 23-of-33 for 195 yards and two touchdowns. Proving Cris Collinsworth right, he took some bad sacks, including one where he seemingly had 10 seconds in the pocket and failed to throw the ball away. This was huge because a first-and-10 at the New Orleans 15-yard line ultimately transformed into a 48-yard field goal that was missed. Foles was also flagged for a horrible intentional-grounding penalty that disrupted a drive.
Foles could've had a much better day if it wasn't for a Riley Cooper third-down drop during the third quarter. Cooper was set up for a very long gain because of a well-timed pick, but he simply let the ball slip through his hands. It was a crushing drop for the Eagles, who likely would've been set up for a field goal at the very least.
It was surprising to see LeSean McCoy so limited. He gained just 77 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries. He also caught four balls, but for only 15 receiving yards. The Saints were porous against the run during the weeks heading into this matchup, so McCoy's struggles were shocking.
Chip Kelly made a couple of mistakes in his first playoff game. He carelessly burned a timeout in the second half. I also thought he made an error by kicking a field goal on fourth-and-1 at the 7-yard line, down 20-14 in the fourth quarter. Kelly had to know that Brees would score again, so going for it would've been the right move.
Foles' touchdowns went to Cooper (6-68) and Ertz (3-22). Cooper's score came immediately following an Ertz drop in the end zone, so the rookie tight end was very close to snatching two touchdowns.
Some other notes/stats for the Saints:
- Sproles led New Orleans in receptions with four for 31 receiving yards. He was one of the heroes, as he had a nice return prior to the final drive, which was aided by a Cary Williams horse-collar tackle, putting the ball around midfield.
- Jimmy Graham (3-44) appeared to lose a fumble in Philadelphia territory at one point during the first half, but he was ruled down after a review.
- Brees' sole aerial score went to Lance Moore (2-31).
- I'd like to note that the Philadelphia crowd booed when Keenan Lewis was getting up after being down on the ground for so long. Sorry, I just had to troll my Eagle fan friends.
- The Saints, who won their first playoff road game in franchise history, now have to play at the Seahawks, who own the greatest homefield advantage in the NFL.
Chargers 27, Bengals 10
When will the Bengals give up on Andy Dalton? It's a fair question. Dalton failed to throw a single touchdown in two playoff losses prior to this game, but both of those were on the road in Houston. This was a matchup in which he was fully expected to succeed. After all, Kansas City's second-stringers would have defeated this team had the officials recognized an illegal defensive formation. Chase Daniel thrived against San Diego's defense, so no one envisioned Dalton failing, especially given that he was a perfect 8-0 at home this year.
Dalton sucked. He really sucked. The stats will show that he threw for 331 yards and a touchdown on 28-of-50 passing, but he missed receivers all afternoon. He failed to connect with several open targets, but he at least stayed turnover-free in the first half. However, the floodgates opened following intermission. It started when Dalton lost a fumble when diving head-first toward the first-down marker. He then forced an interception under pressure and went on to toss another pick that he telegraphed. Linebacker Melvin Ingram, who has sparked San Diego's defense since his return in Week 14, made the interception. Ingram had a great game.
Dalton rightfully deserves most of the blame, but several other Cincinnati players screwed up. This includes Giovani Bernard, who had a crushing lost fumble inside the San Diego 5-yard line at the end of the first half. Bernard screwed the Bengals out of a potential touchdown, which would've put them up by seven heading into halftime. This game might have gone much differently had Bernard not coughed it up.
After Dalton and Bernard, A.J. Green deserves the most criticism. It's not entirely Green's fault that Dalton couldn't get the ball to him, but the stud wideout needs to do better than three catches for 34 yards. Green had a chance to haul in a reception of about 50 yards to set up Cincinnati inside San Diego's 10-yard line, but the ball simply fell out of his hands. Dalton spent most of the afternoon overthrowing his wideouts, but this was a perfect pass that Green should have been able to reel in.
But enough about the losers. The Chargers, who will move on to play the Broncos next week, were able to prevail with Philip Rivers attempting just 16 passes. Rivers was very good - he went 12-of-16 for 128 yards and a touchdown - but San Diego was able to pick up big chunks of yardage on the ground. Danny Woodhead (15-54, TD) and Ryan Mathews (13-52) both were able to move the chains quite effectively, though Ronnie Brown actually led the team in the stat sheet, thanks to a late 58-yard scoring scamper in garbage time. Mathews aggravated his ankle injury, which is why Brown was on the field.
Rivers was just 5-of-6 in the first half, which would explain why neither Antonio Gates nor Keenan Allen caught a pass prior to intermission. However, both hauled in receptions on the opening drive of the third quarter, though they ultimately didn't do much (Allen: 2-21; Gates: 1-5). In fact, the only Charger who caught more than two passes was also the only one to haul in Rivers' sole touchdown, Ladarius Green (3-34).
Credit San Diego's offensive line for keeping Rivers upright. Rivers took a sack on a blitz during the opening drive, but that was the only other time he was brought down behind the line of scrimmage. Center Nick Hardwick exited the game with a concussion, but replacement Rich Ohrneberger played very well as a replacement.
Some stats/notes for the Bengals:
- Bernard made mistakes, but he led the team in rushing yardage (12-54) and was second in receiving yards (6 receptions, 70 yards), trailing only Marvin Jones, who hauled in eight balls for 130 yards.
- BenJarvus Green-Ellis ran well, mustering 42 yards on eight carries. He did a good job of pushing some piles.
- Dalton's lone aerial score went to Jermaine Gresham (7-64).
49ers 23, Packers 20
The criticism Colin Kaepernick dealt with at the beginning of the season feels like it was years ago. Kaepernick led his team into the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field and came away with a victory, thanks to some extremely clutch plays.
The two big plays occurred on the final drive when Kaepernick converted a third-and-10 and a third-and-8 with a strike to Michael Crabtree and an 11-yard scamper. This helped set up a game-winning Phil Dawson field goal. However, Kaepernick made a number of big plays before this. He fired a 41-yard completion to Crabtree on a fourth-and-6 in the first quarter. He also scampered for gains of 24 on third-and-4 and 42 yards that set up a Frank Gore touchdown toward the end of the second quarter.
Kaepernick went 16-of-30 for 227 yards, one touchdown and an interception to go along with seven scrambles for 98 rushing yards. The pick was a telegraphed throw, picked off by Tramon Williams, who nearly had an earlier interception that was dropped in the end zone. Micah Hyde also had his hands on a ball that he couldn't reel in. This occurred on the final drive of the game, so it ultimately cost Green Bay a victory. Outside of these three passes, Kaepernick played a brilliant game.
It should be noted that Kaepernick did all of this against a Green Bay defense that was missing so many players. Clay Matthews, of course, was already out, but the Packers lost three defenders to injury. Stud corner Sam Shields, as well as linebackers Mike Neal and Andy Mulumba, all suffered knee injuries. Losing Shields was huge, as Green Bay couldn't do anything to stop Kaepernick. The team also saw left tackle David Bakhtiari go out with an injury.
The Packers at least did a good job of stuffing Gore. The aging back was limited to 66 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries. Wipe out a 10-yard burst, and Gore mustered a meager line of 19-56-1.
As you might be able to tell, Crabtree had a huge game. He led the 49ers in receiving yardage by a wide margin, snatching eight balls for 125 yards, including a one-handed acrobatic catch in the first quarter. Not bad for a receiver coming off an Achilles injury. Vernon Davis (2-37) hauled in Kaepernick's sole touchdown.
Kaepernick's late-game heroics are the prevalent storyline for the 49ers, but their ability to dominate the line of scrimmage needs to be emphasized. They put tons of pressure on Aaron Rodgers throughout, sacking him twice early on and four times in total. Aldon Smith, who had two of those sacks and a forced fumble, was an absolute monster despite entering and exiting the game with cramps.
Rodgers struggled at the beginning of each half, but was strong otherwise. He went 17-of-26 for 177 yards and a touchdown. Those numbers aren't very impressive, but considering the amount of heat in his face throughout, he did a great job in his second game back from injury. His score was to Jordy Nelson (7-62), and he nearly had a second touchdown when he somehow ran out of what appeared to be a sack to find Randall Cobb (2-51) downfield for a gain of 26. Cobb landed inside the 5-yard line, which would set up a short rushing touchdown.
Rodgers should've had a much better statistical performance. James Jones (2-20) dropped two passes, including a 40-yarder that would've resulted in a first-and-goal inside the 10-yard line.
Eddie Lacy also had a drop, but that was the only thing he did wrong throughout the afternoon. He ran extremely hard, churning out 81 tough yards on 21 carries. He impressively muscled through some runs, prompting the crowd to chant "Eddie! Eddie!" James Starks also ran well (5-29), though John Kuhn vultured a touchdown and would screw up the Lambeau Leap by slipping before he could jump into the stands.
There were some curious coaching blunders on both sides. The 49ers uncharacteristically wasted two timeouts in the third quarter, one of which was on the first play from scrimmage following intermission. Mike McCarthy, meanwhile, really screwed up when he let the clock drain out at the end of the opening half. The Packers had a chance to score a touchdown, but had to settle for a field goal instead because they ran out of time despite being able to stop the clock with one remaining timeout.
For more thoughts, check out my updated NFL Power Rankings, which will be posted Tuesday morning.