Since we're rolling in chronological order here, this article is going to end up a tad anti-climactic. In an almost uniformly excellent Wild Card Weekend, no game filled the thrill meter quite like the Colts' astonishing comeback against Kansas City. You couldn't have asked for a better tone-setter, and it was a game that will be referenced throughout the next decade whenever the talking heads discuss Andrew Luck's ascendancy within the NFL firmament.
Of course, every great comeback needs an ugly start, and you won't find many uglier than the one that Indy endured. After the Alex Smith Short Passing Extravaganza and the start of what would become the T.Y. Hilton Show got the teams knotted at seven apiece, the bottom fell out for the Colts. Comical tackling at the safety position and Greg Toler running like a dad in a backyard Turkey Bowl contributed to a pair of quick-strike drives for the Chiefs. A 16-play second quarter march put another touchdown on the board. The defense wasn't solely to blame, as the Colts' offense teed up another two scores for Kansas City. Luck's ill-advised throw to Donald Brown got snagged by a diving Husain Abdullah. Trent Richardson — who has regressed from "slow starter" to "questionable acquisition" to "potential double agent" after his Week 3 trade — coughed up an awful fumble. Once the Chiefs had cashed in on those gifts, the score stood at 38-10 and Lucas Oil Stadium was deader than disco.
But then, the comeback began.
Every comeback needs an initial spark, and the Colts got theirs when free agent rookie Da'Rick Rogers outfought Chiefs' corner Sean Smith for the ball for a 46-yard gain that set up Donald Brown's 10-yard scoring scamper.
Every comeback needs a major momentum-turner, and the Colts got theirs when stud OLB Robert Mathis hauled down Alex Smith for a strip-sack turnover that set up another Colts TD drive and made it a two-score game.
Not every comeback needs an additional dramatic reversal, but this one got some anyway when Abdullah picked off his second pass of the game.
And finally, every comeback needs a lot of luck — and after his third interception, Luck was a force to be reckoned with. Whether it was firing an absolute laser to Coby Fleener in the end zone, converting key third downs on scrambles or simply picking the Chiefs' secondary apart on the move, Luck put on a show for the ages. Luck enjoyed some luck of his own, as a goal-line fumble bounced right into his hands and teed him up for an over-the-top dive that brought the Colts within three. Kansas City answered with a field goal, but Luck's note-perfect 64-yard strike to T.Y. Hilton provided the final 45-44 margin.
It was a bitter loss for the Chiefs, and one that was hardly deserved on the offensive side of the ball. When you consider that a good 40 percent of Andy Reid's game plan probably went in the toilet after Jamaal Charles' first-quarter concussion, Alex Smith and company turned in an impressive effort that suffered only from some second-half conservatism. The defense ... did less well. When Tamba Hali and Justin Houston were both getting after it early, Kansas City looked like the ferocious bunch from the season's first half. But as Hali seemed to fade in the second half, the Chiefs were unable to protect a Brandon Flowers-deprived secondary from Luck's depredations.
For the Colts, it was a game that announced Andrew Luck's arrival among the game's quarterbacking elite while setting them up for an exciting showdown with Tom Brady and the Pats in Foxboro. While a 30-24 defeat seems likely, if Pep Hamilton turns Luck loose and keeps his sunk cost in Trent Richardson firmly stapled to the bench then the Colts have every shot at springing the upset.
New Orleans 26, Philadelphia 24
The Saints are undoubtedly Supermen in the Superdome. Road games had been their Kryptonite for much of the 2013 season. That unsightly 3-5 road mark meant that their chances of overcoming a surging Eagles squad in a cold-weather night game were viewed with some skepticism. But Brees and company delivered, and the Saints silenced their doubters en route to a 26-24 victory.
Brees is Brees. Nick Foles acquitted himself admirably during his first 12 games as the Eagles' starter. But the ground game figured to be a major component in this contest, and New Orleans' achievements on both sides of the line of scrimmage told the tale. On offense, the Saints featured a hammering one-two punch of Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson that consistently kept the offense ahead of the chains. Ingram ran with a decisiveness and flair that have been all too seldom seen given his first-round pedigree, and Robinson chipped in 45 yards on eight punishing carries of his own. On the other side of the ball, the Saint's often-dubious run defense predictably allowed some outside escapes from Shady McCoy. Guys like Brodrick Bunkley and Cam Jordan did a good job of gumming up the works inside, and McCoy's ultimate 21 carries, 77 yards and one touchdown line was a lot less damage than could have been expected.
(Photo via Geoff Burke - USA Today Sports Images)
Neither QB approached their regular-season heights in the passing game. Brees managed a quality 8.3 yards per pass attempt while hitting some big shots to Robert Meachem and Ben Watson, but a pair of interceptions kept him in check and snuffed out promising drives. Foles turned in a capable and turnover-free effort, but outside of a 40-yarder to DeSean Jackson the Saints' secondary was able to curtail Foles' trademark deep strikes. Of course, it looked as though short and mistake-free would win the day when the Eagles' fourth quarter drive culminated in a go-ahead throw to Zach Ertz on one of Chip Kelly's trademark McCoy/Jackson criss-cross calls in the red zone. But 4:54 proved plenty of time for New Orleans to seal the deal.
Darren Sproles had a quiet night by his standards, but made his presence felt with a 35-yard kick return that drew an additional 15-yard horsecollar penalty. From there, the Saint's OL took over as Khiry Robinson runs and Drew Brees sneaks on third down powered the Saints all the way to the Philly 14. As the clock struck 0's, newly acquired kicker Shayne Graham punched through his fourth field goal of the night to send the Saints home as winners.
It was a disappointing end for Chip Kelly's bunch, but his first season in Philly was an unqualified success. Kelly proved that his offensive concepts could translate into a punishing ground game.
For the Saints, it was a welcome return to winning ways on the road and a testament to the quality of their recently-reshuffled offensive line. Unfortunately for New Orleans, that line will face a far tougher test this week against the Seahawks. Seattle isn't invulnerable against the run, and a tremendous output from Ingram and Robinson could keep the Saints in it until the end. But the Legion of Boom's airtight air defense should rise to the fore and help key a 35-24 Seahawks win in the Divisional round.
San Diego 27, Cincinnati 10
Only one of the weekend's Wild Card matchups ended in a decisive victory, and the outcome may have been decisive enough to help the Bengals' front office make some tough decisions on Andy Dalton's future during the offseason. The overmatched Dalton turned in a third straight underwhelming postseason performance, and his foibles proved too much for the Bengals to overcome in their (not coincidentally) third straight Wild Card round defeat.
Chargers coach Mike McCoy gained a ton of early-season plaudits for reviving a moribund Chargers' passing game with the use of quick drops and timing throws that kept Philip Rivers from reprising his role as a 2012 punching bag. Rivers' passing performance stayed strong throughout the season, but along the way something even more unexpected happened — the Chargers' much-maligned offensive line started to key a legitimately punishing ground game. Ryan Mathews had been known less for breaking big runs and more for just breaking, but he spent the back half of 2013 as a between-the-tackles terror who was among the league's leading rushers during the second half of the season. He and the line kept it up against the Bengals, as Mathews continually kept the Chargers ahead of the chains. Danny Woodhead was productive as well, grinding out 54 yards on 15 carries while notching the game's opening TD. The fourth-quarter coup de grace was delivered by the third member of San Diego's Backfield of Misfit Toys when The Artist Formerly Known as Ronnie Brown lumbered for a 58-yard score against the Bengals' dispirited D.
(Photo via Andrew Weber - USA Today Sports Images)
That defense was dispirited in part because of its own failings, but a far bigger factor was the horror show put on by the Cincinnati offense. Make no mistake — the Chargers' defense was the least-imposing unit on either side of the ball that any team brought into the 2013 playoffs. But that frequently victimized bunch had no trouble turning the tables on Andy Dalton, happily scooping up a third turnover when Dalton's ill-advised attempt to re-create a Slip N' Slide commercial went horribly wrong and resulted in an embarrassing unforced fumble and then forcing a pair of interceptions. A.J. Green was a non-factor against one of the league's most absurd set of starting corners, and garbage-time yardage did little to conceal the putridity of Dalton's day. Rookie sensation Giovani Bernard wasn't blameless, as his second quarter red zone fumble and some untimely drops in the passing game snuffed out critical drives and yanked points right off the board. But this offense lives and dies with Andy Dalton's mistakes, and they died easy against a poor defense on Sunday.
For the Bengals, this loss should cause them to confront the likelihood that Dalton is the Queen City version of Gen. George B. McClellan — an incompetent commander who will cause a wealth of other advantages to be squandered for as long as he's allowed to remain in command. A fairly stacked roster could mean that Cincy could contend for years to come, but success can be fleeting in the NFL. Injury and free agency can ravage even the strongest roster at any time, so Cincinnati should commit to finding a signal caller who can get the most out of the players they have.
For the Chargers, it was a laudable road win that validated both Mike McCoy's inaugural season and Philip Rivers' resurgence. An A+ effort from Rivers could keep the Chargers close against a vulnerable Broncos' secondary, but a 38-24 defeat should write the end to an impressive Chargers season.
San Francisco 23, Green Bay 20
The final game of Wild Card Weekend certainly didn't lack for drama, and old-school NFL fans got to revel in a hard-nosed affair on Lambeau's historic frozen tundra.
While Colin Kaepernick is more than capable of spinning it in the air and the Eddie Lacy version of the Packers can get it done on the ground, the frigid and windy conditions figured to benefit the visiting 49ers. But Green Bay gave as good as they got in the physicality department throughout the first half, with Lacy answering every physical Frank Gore run with one of his own and the Packers proving more than capable of doling out punishing hits. Where they seemed less capable was in the secondary, as Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin had their way with every defensive back not named Tramon Williams. Williams made a big first-half impact when he picked off a pass aimed for Vernon Davis, and the following Packers drive put Green Bay up 7-6.
Massive assignment busts against the read option spelled the Packers' doom in last year's playoffs, and one awful bust proved their undoing in this one. With the 49ers facing third-and-eight with less than two minutes to go, one goal stood paramount — don't let Kaepernick beat you with his legs. While he'd enjoyed a good degree of success working over the Packers' depleted secondary with Michael Crabtree, the frigid conditions and blustering wind made a 10-yard completion a dicey prospect. Dom Capers elected to man up, blitz Kaepernick and hopefully force a quick and wild throw. Green Bay's Jarrett Bush blitzed from the corner, and his alignment and assignment dictated that he couldn't let Kaepernick escape outside of him. But Bush got greedy, tried to work inside of his blocker for a sack and then got faked off his feet when Kaepernick pumped. After that, it was all over but the crying, as Kaepernick glided outside for an unchallenged first down and a few more Gore runs teed up the clinching Phil Dawson field goal.
(Photo via Mike Dinovo - USA Today Sports Images)
Packers fans had to rankle at a fourth straight loss to the now-hated Harbaugh 49ers, but they can be proud of what their depleted team brought to the table. The "home-field advantage" was anything but, as wind and weather did little to help Aaron Rodgers attack the San Francisco secondary. The Pack nonetheless turned in a tough and physical effort, and if this roster can avoid a third-straight injury-riddled season in 2014 then Aaron Rodgers is a good bet to lift his second Lombardi trophy.
The 49ers have six days to recover from frostbite and prepare to do battle with the Panthers in Charlotte. Few teams in the league resemble each other as closely as San Francisco and Carolina, and the Panthers' razor-thin Week Ten win was a testament to how evenly these squads are matched. The rematch may be too close to call, but with Michael Crabtree factored in let's go ahead and call it a 20-17 road win for the Niners.