It's time to wrap up a pretty exciting weekend of playoff football! Even though, sadly, another week of football is behind us (and, with the potential of a lockout looming, each week of football that passes makes me a little bit more sad) but we have a lot to look forward to next week! The conference championship games are coming and soon, though not too soon, we'll all be watching the Superbowl. But, before we get there, I wanted to offer a few thoughts from each of this week's divisional matchups:
Pittsburg Steelers def. Baltimore Ravens 31-24
This game turned out to be the slugfest everyone predicted. Baltimore is my second team (after my beloved Chicago Bears of course) so I was cheering hard for the Ravens. It was sad to watch them lose but I will never get sick of these harsh slugfests between tough opponents who genuinely detest one another. In my mind, this is what football should be: no love, no bluster, just tough battling on the field. That type of no-punches-pulled rivalry is getting rarer and rarer in any sport-even one as rough as football and it's important to recognize, acknowledge, and cherish the ones that remain. I for one could not have been more pleased to hear Hines Ward tell an interviewer that he would drive right by a stranded Terrell Suggs on the highway and flip him the bird as he passed. In a sports age where "opponents" hug one another after games and slap each other's backs like it's a two hand touch game at a family reunion, that kind of sentiment reminds me of what sports used to be like. It makes me think of every time Michael Jordan used to stare down Patrick Ewing with a look of absolute dislike….and that warms me up inside.
In terms of the actual game, I really enjoyed the tough, exciting battle throughout but was disappointed in Baltimore's decision-making in the last three minutes. I was willing to forgive (somewhat) the team's sloppy play throughout the game because, after all, it was 24-24 with three minutes left and, with Pittsburg pinned deep in their own territory on 3rd and 19, our prospects looked pretty good. But, sadly, it was not to be and it was 100% Baltimore's fault. I will say it every time (and screamed it at the TV as Baltimore was lining up for the play) PREVENT DEFENSE PREVENTS YOU FROM WINNING. There is no truer saying in all of football and for a tough team like Baltimore to apply no pressure and watch Big Ben beat them down the field….it was just awful. Hopefully we'll be back next year and there won't be any prevent play against Pittsburg next season. Hit them in the mouth.
Green Bay Packers def. Atlanta Falcons 48-21
For a player with almost Brady-esque cool under pressure, Matt Ryan's decision-making at the end of the first half was truly awful. The Falcons played a solid (though hardly exceptional) game for most of the first half. Driving in Packer territory while down 21-14, the Falcons could have prudently settled for a field goal and went to the locker room down a measly four points. Instead, Ryan made a poor decision, threw a pass that looked intercepted before Williams even got his hands on it, and saw his team go down 28-14. Needless to say, the Falcons never recovered.
I think there are a few interesting things to take away from this game. First, the Falcons were underrated all season and, because of their poor play against the Packers, they will be underrated next season as well. That should provide some extra motivation for Atlanta to try to 'get over the hump' in the playoffs next season. This team is already very good and, with another great draft (Thomas Dimitroff has three in a row so far going back to 2008) and a few choice free agency additions, the Falcons could be the team to beat next season. On the Packers side, Aaron Rodgers looked absolutely scary while dismantling the Falcons in the Georgia Dome. He has been hot for nearly half a season now (the last five games would be conservative) and was flawless in his second postseason victory. The Packers are the most dangerous team in the NFL right now (I really, really hope I just jinxed them) and the scary thing is that they should be even better next season. As much as I hate them, I can't help but admit that Packer's management has created one of the youngest, most dynamic, and consistent behemoths in the league and should reap the benefits of that for years to come.
Chicago Bears def. Seattle Seahawks 35-24
This game was not nearly as close as it looked. I'm sure Vegas betters were sweating it out at the end watching Pete Carroll windmill his arms while calling for a third onside kick. That said, this one felt like it was over from the first snap. The Bears strangled the Seahawks early and never lost control after taking a 21-0 lead.
I thought there were a couple of interesting things to take away from this game. The Bears looked very good but it is important not to overestimate Chicago ahead of their matchup with the dangerous Packers. The Seahawks loss today was predictable: their home-away split this season was absolutely terrible this season (2-6 away; 5-3 at home). Moreover, Matt Hasslebeck has played well in home playoff games at Qwest Field in Seattle every year but then almost always played poorly and lost in his first playoff game on the road. Those trends go back years for the Seahawks and their odds of being broken by this 7-9 team were always low. Sadly for my beloved Bears, the Packers will not be quite so easy and we have a tough and exciting NFC championship game ahead of us.
New York Jets def. New England Patriots 28-21
This was the biggest shocker of the weekend. The Patriots were huge favorites versus the Jets but New York came up big at important points in this game. The Patriots hung in the game for a long time but a few questionable calls (particularly the first onside kick) and some critical drops cost them the game.
There were a few interesting tidbits to take from this game too. Tom Brady looked out of rhythm throughout the game. Last year, his first back from injury, Brady also looked out of sync with his offense when they were demolished by the Baltimore Ravens. Is two years of inept playoff play by the NFL's former Kings of Clutch the beginning of a new trend? Or it simply because their 2009-10 team was just not very good and their 2011 team had a bad game against a good defense? Time will tell.
That said, I personally was very excited to see a Jets victory. While I like the Patriots better than the Jets, I also watched the Pats beat my Bears into dust during the regular season. I think the Bears match up far better against either the Steelers or Jets than the Patriots (because Tom Brady's penchant for passing to many receivers destroys the Cover 2 scheme) so if they can get through the Packers in the NFC Championship Game then they will have a better Superbowl matchup.
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