Here are some final thoughts on last week's wild-card action, and my forecast on the upcoming divisional round.
Final thoughts — Texans over Bengals
I thought it t was precisely the style of combat the Bengals wanted — a murky, slow-paced thing that would allow them to hang within striking distance all afternoon. Their defense withstood 420 yards of methodic Texans offense — including the 100-plus in rushing yards they anticipated conceding to Arian Foster, the classy, slashing tailback.
But the Bengals bit down hard inside the red zone and held the Houston attack to a quartet of field goals and a single touchdown drive. They even got the haymaker, the stunning defensive score you need to pull off this kind of road upset — CB Leon Hall robbing Matt Schaub on an out pattern and racing 21 yards for an early touchdown. Blend in seven untimely Texans penalties and, yes indeed, the upset formula was cooking right along.
Except, for the Bengals to prevail, the Cincy offense also needed to throw some fists into the fight at some point. It never did. The Andy Dalton-to-A.J. Green connection didn’t get going until the second half, but that was all right because it was only a 9-7 contest at intermission and 16-10 at the close of the third quarter. Houston DE J.J. Watt did all he could to wreck the game, but there were still plays to be made and Dalton’s passing never found a snappy cadence. Once again, the playoff setting was too big for him. The last Cincinnati drive died at the Houston 36, Dalton passing for eight yards to WR Marvin Jones … when the Bengals needed 11.
The Cincy defense wasn’t punishing but it held up nobly. It held the Texans' receivers to minimal after-the-catch yardage and, again, locked down nicely whenever Schaub moved into scoring range.
But where was DT Geno Atkins, who was supposed to have his national coming-out party? He did nothing in the game. Atkins, the next Clubber Lang. He’d been destructive all year — 12½ sacks for this raging inside rusher — but all I saw him do was bounce between the right and left tackle spots and get blobbed by a trio of no-name Houston guards, Wade Smith, Ben Jones (rookie) and Brandon Brooks (another rookie). The stat keepers gave Atkins one solo tackle. I hoped to see a lot more action, some real prime-time heroics, from one of the rising stars of the interior world.
Still, Atkins’ defensive cohorts made up for him. Offensively, however, it’s clear the Bengals need harsher weapons. And Dalton couldn’t do much with what he had.
Preview — Texans at Patriots (-9)
It was billed as the top matchup of the AFC regular season, an early December evening in Foxborough back in Week 14, and the Texans’ first-half possessions went punt, interception, punt, punt, missed fourth-down attempt. Going into intermission they trailed 21-0, to Tom Brady and his swift, lightning strikes, and Houston has been a deflated team ever since.
The Patriots did their damage that day without Rob Gronkowski, the Goliath tight end, who is now back from a snapped forearm and will play in Sunday’s rematch. “Good grief,” Wade Phillips, the Houston defensive coordinator, is saying. “One more flippin’ headache.”
If the Texans were going to show any defensive muscle this postseason I thought it would be against Cincinnati, at home, against a quarterback who had little chance of really dicing them up or bombing them to death. Dalton took his deep shots last Saturday but could never zero in. If he hits on one or two more of those longies then I think we’re doing a Ravens-Pats writeup this weekend. His downfield people were open. And the Texans don’t have enough monsters in their front seven to mess with Brady, who doesn’t miss those throws.
I think the Patriots will push, push, push for an early two-score lead and force Schaub into being a catch-up quarterback. They want him in there cocking and reloading, impatient, dodging around and trying to force something over the middle. He’s calmer when he can rely on Foster’s cutbacks and first-down dives.
Foster (15-46-1 rushing, 4-39-0 receiving) did little in the competitive part of November’s game, as Houston’s scheme was to pass early and get the Patriots backpedaling. But Schaub was erratic and he took some sacks, and any hopes of reaching the ball-control chapter of the game plan disappeared as New England’s lead ballooned.
I don’t think the score will spin as far out of control like it did last time, the 42-14 runaway. But psychologically the Texans aren’t right. They’ll throw some hard punches early; they’ll hang in there longer. But I think the first stretch of bad breaks that come their way — turnovers, cheap interference call, etc. — will rip the life out of them. Not that there is much life left anyway. Patriots 36, Texans 17
Final thoughts — Packers over Vikings
Bulletin 5:45 p.m. ET — QB Christian Ponder inactive for Vikings playoff at Green Bay. Joe Webb named the starter.
That tremor instantly destroyed all the pregame angles and buildup and sent the pointspread rocketing.
Could the Packers' defense finally get its clamps around Adrian Peterson? Could the Vikings play ball control and keep those splendid Packers weapons off the field. Could Ponder handle the cold, the playoff pressure? Could he come through on the road? None of it mattered anymore.
Webb, the third-year backup with zero passing attempts this season, was being asked to breeze in and take down the Packers. Maybe with a couple of weeks of work under his belt it could be done. But cold turkey like this? He never had a chance.
I cringed when I heard the good news-bad news pronouncement from Mike Mayock, NBC’s effusive colorman who was working the Bengals-Texans contest. Mayock’s in love with every player, in case you didn’t know.
The bad news, he told us, was that the Vikings lost their starting quarterback. All in agreement say, “Aye.”
“The good news is, Joe Webb is a completely different kind of quarterback. He’s got great ability to escape … He can run with the football …”
Webb’s first half consisted of frantric scrambles and a pair of Garo Yepremian masquerades, straight out of Super Bowl VII. Twice, as the Packers were taking him down, he flung the ball high over his head, way up for grabs, whoop-whoop-whoop! The hot potato routine. You were waiting for Mike Bass to come flashing out of the stands to catch it, and it’s six for the Redskins.
So whaddaya want? The guy hadn’t played in a year and four days. That’s what ya got.
Meanwhile, Aaron Rodgers had a clean 23-for-33 performance, nothing unworldly … DuJuan Harris put forth some shifty running early on … the Packers' "D" held Peterson to 99 yards … oh, lord, why go on.
Like I said, after the bulletin on Ponder being inactive none of it mattered anyway.
Preview — Packers at 49ers (-3)
I wonder if Jim Harbaugh will turn his frenetic young quarterback loose and have him put it in the sky. Or will he hand Colin Kaepernick the Vikings’ game plan and tell him to deal with the Packers that way — a relentless ground surge, Frank Gore and that curious assortment of Niners backs, who surely will get their yards. Just how will the 49ers attack?
That’s the curious issue. The rest of it we know … well, most of it. We know the Packers' ballcarriers will get shredded out there, and we know Aaron Rodgers will be spreading people out and looking for his fancy collection of wideouts.
And the Niners believe if they get bang Rodgers around, like they did in their rousing Week One assault at Lambeau Field (three sacks), then things should eventually turn their way.
At Lambeau Field, the Niners' plot was to man their front with just a pair of down linemen — DTs Justin Smith and Ray McDonald — and let their linebackers and stand-up rushers dance around and create a kaleidoscope of fronts and coverages. Harbaugh talked about his “gap-short” strategy, and the 49ers keep it on hand for flimsy ground operations like Green Bay’s. The Niners have enough defensive talent to travel that way.
“Gap-short” or not, this time Smith might be absent due to an arm injury. He’s their main run plugger and if he sits out or is ineffective then, OK, the Pack rushes for 80 yards instead of 40. And Rodgers will still be out there rifling away and gathering points to see if he can shift the game back to Kaepernick’s arm. Then it becomes strictly a Rodgers vs. Kaepernick thing. Rodgers wins. Packers 24, 49ers 23
Final thoughts — Ravens over Colts
It’s a combination that hasn’t shown much sizzle in a while — Joe Flacco to Anquan Boldin — but it bailed out a Ravens offense that couldn’t find a good friend anywhere. Ray Rice had some bursts of action and delivered the ball downfield, but after he lost his second fumble at the beginning of the fourth quarter, the coaches put him on ice. Bernard Pierce, a hammer-type back, stepped up and banged out the second-best day of his young career. But it was Boldin, with 145 yards of deep action on Colts CB Cassius Vaughn, and later Darius Butler, who allowed Baltimore to pull away for good.
Yes, Andrew Luck & Co. were held to a trio of field goals, but I can’t imagine the Ravens are too satisfied with the way they played defense last Sunday. I can count at least two occasions where they had Luck buried for a sack and he escaped and kept the action going.
The Colts had seven drives of 46 yards or longer and ate up 419 total on the day. They owned the ball for almost two-thirds of the game. And as the CBS commentators raved on about the last days of Ray Lewis and his spasmodic tribal dance, the Colts were churning out 9-of-20 third downs and gaining 5.1 yards per rush on the day.
The problem for Luck is that he has no real sabers in his cabinet, no fine weaponry on display. Those days are coming. For now he’s out there swinging his pocketknives. He’s feeding it to little guys like T.Y. Hilton and Donnie Avery and watching them dodge and squirt around, and the Ravens were saying, “That’s cute, just keep out of our endzone.” Luck's only serious guy is 34-year-old Reggie Wayne, and Luck dialed him up 18 times. Wayne grabbed nine passes, all 20 yards and less, giving him the busiest hands on the field.
However, Boldin’s catches, his ability to muscle up and get those long throws, won the game.
Preview — Ravens at Broncos (-9)
How will the Ravens play Peyton Manning this time? Last time (back in Week 15) they played from behind, down 3-0, then 10-0, and then the Flacco served up his own kill shot, a 98-yard interception return by CB Chris Harris late in the first half that really sent the game spiraling away as the Broncos won 34-17. The Ravens are typically an out-of-business club when they have to play from way behind.
It sounds blasphemous, but looking back over his 13-3 season, Manning hasn’t had to do much, has he? Other than winning at Baltimore, the Broncos haven’t played a high-brow competitor since … since? Cincinnati in Week Nine? New Orleans in Week Eight? Not exactly high-brow? OK, how about New England, in Week Five, the time the Pats rushed for 251 yards and whipped Denver by 10.
I understand, you play who’s on your schedule. But spending the past two months crushing piñatas like Cleveland and Kansas City and Oakland and Tampa Bay doesn’t dazzle me much. I think about that Grinnell College sophomore who scored 138 points against Faith Baptist Bible a couple months ago, launching up 400 or 500 wild threes, trying to erase some Division III record. Look, kid, go do that against Louisville or Georgetown and I’ll be impressed.
I think the Broncos are ripe to be taken out here. Hey, let’s not forget all the grief Manning has taken over the years, for being so brilliant during his September-thru-Decembers and so herky-jerky at times during the postseason.
And this is his first cold-weather playoff contest since 2006 when he served up two interceptions and a 39.6 passer rating against … you guessed it, Baltimore. Game-time temperature is said to be about 20º degrees and dropping.
No, these aren’t your mother’s Ravens. They’re aged and they’re scarred and their stars are burning out. Maybe they’ll blitz their punter or drop 12 guys into coverage, but somehow I think they’ll find a way to win, against an immortal who has been awfully mortal when the stakes turn higher. Ravens 21, Broncos 20
Final thoughts — Seahawks over Redskins
Early on it looked like a runaway, the way the ’Skins whooshed out of the gate. Woe to all you RG3 doubters. Washington came out faster than Seattle and their creative run/pass mix and misdirection had the Seahawks' legs twisted and spinning in knots. An early 14-0 lead, and the game was teetering, just a play or so away from bursting into a surprise Redskins rout.
Then, on their third possession, Washington’s play-calling changed. The swishing and swooshing evaporated. Griffin stopped moving around. He was handing it directly to his backs. He wasn’t leaning into his throws and firing, and he stiffened up in the pocket.
Yep, that right knee. And from the second quarter onward the issue was whether the Redskins' defense could hold on and preserve that fast lead, or would fatigue defeat them at the end?
Fatigue won. Over the last 45 minutes of the action, Seattle kept it for 30 minutes. Griffin was never himself, and Seahawks-Redskins eroded into the same type of Joe Webb game we had seen the night before, one side clearly battling away at half-strength.
Say what you want about Pete Carroll, but he won’t shrivel up in a tricky spot. I wonder if he was thinking about his decision a few years back, USC vs. Texas, for the national championship, when he went for it on fourth down late. He didn’t want to give the ball back to Vince Young, who had been running wild for Texas. So he sent his big back against a packed Longhorns line and the play got stuffed and Pete came up a loser.
This time, on 4th-and-1 at the Redskins' 32 he went for it again, another verse of keep-away. He had a 10-point Seattle lead late and Carroll could have pooched it away, but the Seahawks came out in a power-I. Was he really going to muscle it in there again, sending his baby bull Marshawn Lynch into the line, which of course, the ’Skins' defense would be drooling for?
Nope, instead the call was a little play-action number for his terrific little quarterback, Russell Wilson, and a six-yard flip to TE Zach Miller kept the ball in Seahawks hands.
But by that point the air had long been out of the game. For selfish reasons you wish they could play it all over again, this time with a healthy Griffin out there, running around and in his dancing shoes.
Preview — Seahawks at Falcons (-1)
At a glance, this might be the best matchup on the board, but my tersest writeup. The Seattle run is over. The speed of the game indoors will be a too much for the Wilson, who is 0-3 in dome games this year (Arizona, St. Louis, Detroit). Lynch only had 20 carries against Washington but they were punishing ones, the Redskins peppering him with helmets and fist and whatever else they could find. As another bruiser, Jim Brown, used to say, “The body replenishes … eventually.” Lynch won’t be as effective for that reason.
I think Atlanta will shoot out early and get their points fast, no feeling-out part of the game to sit through. Just Matt Ryan searing it downfield, in a crazy act of revenge on the world, on all those Falcons doubters, and the scoreboard rings up from there. Falcons 28, Seahawks 13
Tom Danyluk is an award-winning freelance writer based in Chicago. His book on pro football, "The Super '70s," is available at Amazon.com. You can contact Tom at Danyluk1@yahoo.com.