I had the Ravens +3 as my Pick of the Month. I was obviously thrilled to watch them win, but I'll concede that the Titans should have been victorious. Tennessee dominated the game in terms of yardage and time of possession (391-211 and 34:07-25:53). They just fumbled it too many times in Baltimore territory, and they were jobbed because the officials didn't whistle the Ravens on what should have been a delay-of-game penalty. Also, the Titans offense became much less formidable once Chris Johnson left with an injury.
That said, I'll take this win because I've always believed that I was screwed on the Lions-Buccaneers NFL Pick of the Month back in November. It's time to put that blown 17-0 lead to rest.
With that in mind, I'm not the least bit surprised that the Titans self-destructed. The main reason I chose Baltimore as my January NFL Pick of the Month was because the Titans elected to bench their starters in Week 17, meaning the last time everyone played was on Dec. 21. Tennessee had the following mental errors during the contest:
- The Titans had 12 penalties in this game for 89 yards.
- Tennessee botched a snap on a fourth-and-eight in the second quarter.
- The team screwed up yet another snap a drive later.
- LenDale White fumbled the ball when he saw a hot dog on the ground and reached out for it.
- Alge Crumpler fumbled the ball when he saw a hamburger on the ground and reached out for it.
With Tennessee's loss, we can update the chart I posted on my NFL Picks page. Teams that rested their starters in Week 17 have performed accordingly in their first playoff game since 2002:
2008: Titans* - Loss SU, Loss ATS
2008: Colts - Loss SU, Loss ATS
2007: Colts* - Loss SU, Loss ATS
2007: Jaguars - Win SU, Loss ATS
2007: Steelers - Loss SU, Win ATS
2007: Buccaneers - Loss SU, Loss ATS
2006: Eagles - Win SU, Loss ATS
2006: Saints* - Win SU, Loss ATS
2005: Colts* - Loss SU, Loss ATS
2004: Colts - Win SU, Win ATS
2004: Steelers* - Win SU, Loss ATS
2004: Chargers - Loss SU, Loss ATS
2004: Eagles* - Win SU, Win ATS
2002: 49ers - Win SU, Loss ATS
Teams that rested their starters in Week 17 are 7-7 straight up and 3-11 against the spread in their opening postseason contest.
But enough about the Titans and my degenerate betting - let's talk about the team that actually won this contest.
Joe Flacco didn't put up great numbers - 11-of-22 for 161 yards and a touchdown - and his stats really paled in comparison to Kerry Collins' (26-of-42, 281 yards, INT), but he made the big throws when he had to. He picked up nine yards at the end of the game right before Matt Stover's field goal attempt. He had a clutch third-down conversion earlier in the decisive drive. He also had an incredible deep throw on third-and-13, connecting 48 yards downfield with Derrick Mason (5 rec., 78 yards, TD) for a touchdown. Amazingly, Flacco has not thrown a pick or taken a sack in the postseason thus far.
Flacco threw the ball just 22 times. In the Live In-Games Thread, I continuously complained that Cam Cameron was being way too conservative and not throwing enough on first down. But in hindsight, I think he made all the right moves. After all, the Ravens didn't turn the ball over, unlike the Titans. And prior to Saturday evening, no rookie quarterback had ever won two playoff games in NFL history.
Some quick stats. For the Ravens: Willis McGahee: 12 carries, 32 yards. LeRon McClain: 12 carries, 12 yards. For the Titans: Chris Johnson: 11 carries, 72 yards (left the game early). LenDale White: 90 total yards. Justin Gage: 10 catches, 135 yards.
If you really think about, it's really amazing that the Ravens have made it this far. They have a rookie head coach-quarterback combination. They've had to go on the road two weeks in a row in the playoffs as the No. 6 seed. And in the Tennessee contest, the Baltimore players were going down like flies.
Cardinals 33, Panthers 13
When Arizona scored to go up 27-7, the camera panned to Jake Delhomme, who just committed his third turnover of the first half. Delhomme had a very perplexed look on his face. His expression matched mine. What was going on? How were the Cardinals, who played absolutely no defense in the second half of the season, epically debacling an undefeated home team?
In a way, it's a little disheartening. The Cardinals flat-out quit after they clinched the division. They didn't even show up to the Minnesota and New England games. It troubles me that a team can just quit and simply flip on the switch in the playoffs.
But give Arizona credit - for the first time all year, the team played a tough, physical game against a formidable foe on the road. Better late than never, right? The victory clinches the Cardinals' first NFC Championship appearance - ever.
The Panthers had no answer for Larry Fitzgerald. Even without Anquan Boldin across the field, Fitzgerald was able to haul in eight catches for 166 yards and a touchdown. Kurt Warner was 21-of-32 for 220 yards, two scores and a pick.
Carolina also had major problems versus the rush. Tim Hightower and Edgerrin James inexplicably tallied 133 rushing yards on 37 attempts.
The main reason the Panthers lost, however, was the anemic play of Jake Delhomme. Playing on his 34th birthday, Delhomme committed six turnovers - one fumble, five interceptions - and threw into double coverage all evening. Delhomme had five total picks in his postseason career going into this contest.
Thanks to Delhomme playing like a recovering a crack addict, Carolina couldn't move the chains at all. Following a quick opening touchdown, the team's other six first-half drives were comprised of: three three-and-outs, a pair of interceptions and a fumble. The Panthers ran 15 total plays in those six possessions!
Speaking of crack, it seemed as though Carolina's coaching staff completely forgot that Steve Smith and DeAngelo Williams were even on the team. Smith managed just two receptions for 43 yards and a late score, though he was the target of a long pass-interference infraction. Williams, meanwhile, carried the ball just 12 times despite gaining 63 rushing yards.
In the wake of the Carolina and Tennessee losses, it might be time for the NFL to address its postseason bye-week policy. Since 2003, playoff teams with byes are 6-16 against the spread. Since 2005, that figure is 3-11.
Eagles 23, Giants 11
So much for that highly anticipated Giants-Panthers NFC Championship showdown, huh? Make it three road teams that have won in the divisional round. It's worth noting that as of this writing (Steelers-Chargers not included), bye teams are just 6-17 against the spread in their first playoff game since 2003. I'd like to suggest that the NFL should eliminate postseason byes, but what sort of solution could it offer? Eight playoff teams per conference? That's way too many. Perhaps these playoff bye teams should pay CFL or Arena teams to play an exhibition game against them in the week off.
Though this contest was close going into halftime, the Eagles were able to dominate this contest in the second half. Until Brian Westbrook was stuffed twice on a goal-to-go situation in the fourth quarter, I could have sworn that the Eagles and Giants switched jerseys. Philadelphia's short-yardage woes seemed to transfer over to New York; the team was stuffed twice on fourth-and-one in the final quarter.
Another reason the Eagles were able to win this contest by double digits was New York's inability to register a single sack on Donovan McNabb. It's really amazing. The Giants have zero sacks in three games against Philadelphia. In the other 14 contests this season, they accumulated 42 sacks.
Because he didn't take a sack, McNabb was able to put together a solid performance against a very tough Giants defense. McNabb was 22-of-40 for 217 yards, two touchdowns (one rushing, one passing) and two picks. One of McNabb's interceptions was on a tipped ball, while the other came on a desperate throw on third-and-long, which basically ended up being a long punt. Perhaps McNabb's best play was rolling out of the pocket and hooking up for a 21-yard gain with Jason Avant on a third-and-20.
The Giants managed to bottle up Brian Westbrook (18 carries, 36 yards), but they had no answer for the Eagle wideouts. DeSean Jackson, Avant and Kevin Curtis caught four passes each for 81, 43 and 40 yards, respectively.
Meanwhile, Eli Manning really struggled and it was pretty evident that Plaxico Burress' absence was paramount. Manning was 15-of-29 for 169 yards and a pair of picks. Manning's leading receiver in terms of yardage was Kevin Boss, who snagged three balls for 52 yards. Domenik Hixon had two grabs for 37 yards. The Giants' primary yard-gainers were Brandon Jacobs (19 carries, 92 yards) and Derrick Ward (70 total yards).
A lot of history was made in the wake of the Eagles' victory:
- None of the top three seeds in the NFC will be in the conference championship for the first time in NFL history.
- Also for the first time ever, an NFL game ended with a 23-11 score.
- David Akers has hit 18 consecutive field goals in the playoffs, which is an NFL record.
- Both No. 6 seeds have qualified for the championship game for the first time in league history.
- The Giants were the first ever No. 1 seeded defending Super Bowl champion to lose its opening playoff game.
- The Eagles will visit the Cardinals, who will be hosting their first NFC Championship since the beginning of time.
Steelers 35, Chargers 24
NFL purists should probably thank the Steelers for restoring some sanity in the league. Coming into this contest, road teams were 5-2 in the Doggone Playoff. And in this round, all the visiting teams knocked off the hosts coming off a bye.
Though Pittsburgh won the third quarter by just a 7-0 margin, they were able to establish control in that 15-minute span. The Steelers continuously moved the chains and kept the Chargers off the field. Amazingly, San Diego took just one offensive snap in the quarter, holding the football for a mere 17 seconds.
Two plays essentially decided this contest, both of which occurred, as you may guess, in the third quarter. Philip Rivers had a pass tipped at the line of scrimmage that fell into the arms of Larry Foote. A few minutes later, a punt hit Eric Weddle in the helmet, allowing Pittsburgh to recover deep in San Diego territory.
While recovering those turnovers was huge, the most important element for the Steelers, at least going forward, was their dynamic pass protection. They surrendered just one sack to San Diego, and Ben Roethlisbeger pretty much had a clean pocket all evening.
Speaking of Roethlisberger, I was concerned about his ability to play off a concussion. While my worries were validated early on - he had more punt yardage (25) than passing yardage (24) as of the two-minute warning in the second quarter - he finished strong, going 17-of-26 for 181 yards and a score. And in the third quarter alone, Big Ben converted a third-and-seven, third-and-11, third-and-eight and a third-and-three.
Willie Parker stole the show in this contest, rushing for 146 yards and two touchdowns on 27 attempts. Hines Ward paced the team with four receptions and 70 yards.
While Pittsburgh ran the ball extremely well, the Chargers could do nothing on the ground, managing 15 yards on 12 attempts. Darren Sproles was effective aerially, catching five balls for 91 yards and a score. Philip Rivers was 21-of-35 for 308 yards, three touchdowns and a pick.
The Steelers will match up with the Ravens in the AFC Championship. If I'm Mike Tomlin, I sneak Walt Coleman into Heinz Field, knock out the official slated to call the game, stuff him into a closet and "suggest" that Coleman referee the contest in the other zebra's absence.