For the first time ever, all four road teams won in one playoff weekend. Shocking, isn’t it? Actually, not really, when you consider three of the road teams were favored, a fourth was a slight one-point underdog, and all four home teams’ quarterbacks were making their first career postseason start.
Add all that up, and it’s same old, same old as we hit the divisional round of the NFL playoffs.
For the Cincinnati Bengals and Minnesota Vikings in particular, the losses could not have been more heartbreaking and gut-wrenching. But the common thread of all four teams — the Bengals and Vikings in particular — was bad karma.
Let’s start with the Texans, because they kicked off the weekend. Actually, when they kicked off, the Chiefs ran it back for a touchdown, and the game was essentially over. The Texans’ lone promising offensive drive was short-circuited by an interception, but also by abysmal coaching by playoff newbie Bill O’Brien.
After running back Alfred Blue tore down the field for Houston, O’Brien got the crowd all excited by bringing in superstar defensive end JJ Watt and massive D-lineman Vince Wilfork on offense. Rather than pound Blue, O’Brien had Watt run straight ahead on a direct snap, and he was denied. One play later, the team’s actual quarterback, Brian Hoyer, threw an interception, and the Texans never got on the scoreboard.
The Chiefs snapped an eight-game playoff losing streak by throttling a team that had no business playing in January, as the 9-7 Texans, starting a career backup QB, were never in the game.
On to the Bengals. This one was ugly. Before the game, I opined that rather than finally being due for a playoff win, the Bengals, often whitewashed in these postseason games, might be due for a heartbreaking loss. This was as bad as it could get, and both players and fans had a hand in it.
First, the players. Head coach Marvin Lewis, the second-longest tenured coach in the NFL, had no control over his Bengals. Vontaze Burfict and Pacman Jones single-handedly gave Pittsburgh the game after the offense, stagnant all night, erased a 15-0 deficit to take a one-point lead with less than two minutes to play.
Burfict appeared to seal the win for Cincinnati, but not before everyone held their collective breaths when he inexplicably ran down the opposite side of the field and through the end zone following an interception. Burfict had been ruled down, but it’s questionable as to whether he actually even knew that. With a chance to run out the clock, running back Jeremy Hill fumbled, and the Steelers, wounded QB and all, had life.
With Ben Roethlisberger unable to throw the ball beyond 10 yards from the line of scrimmage, the Bengals played prevent defense anyway. Following an incompletion, Burfict nearly beheaded Antonio Brown, and Jones made contact with an official to provide Pittsburgh 30 free penalty yards and make Chris Boswell’s game-winning field goal attempt a 35-yard chip shot.
As if this undisciplined (and that’s me being nice with my verbiage) behavior wasn’t bad enough, the fans of Cincinnati followed suit. They began throwing things onto the field early in the second half, conjuring up memories of their cross-town neighbors in Cleveland circa 2001. They hurled bottles and cans at Roethlisberger as he was being carted off with a shoulder injury, and some fans allegedly made remarks wishing death upon Brown as he lay motionless on the ground.
Did these fans and this disorderly group of players who have never tasted playoff success deserve a winner? Absolutely not. Cincinnati got exactly what it deserved. Still, it’s painful to admit that when you factor in that it was to the benefit of the Steelers, a team that very few people not on the Pittsburgh bandwagon want to see have success at this time of year.
After all the madness Saturday had died down, the Vikings got into the mix on Sunday. Their pain might have been worse if for no other reason than their loss actually earned them pity points. Blair Walsh, one of the game’s highest-paid placekickers, completely shanked a 27-yard field goal that would have won the game despite drilling three earlier in the game amid sub-zero temperatures in Minnesota.
Even with the laces in, Walsh had split the uprights on a 47-yarder at the end of the third quarter. But when it mattered most, he choked, and the Vikings fell short. But let’s consider this: as much as Walsh needed to make a chip-shot kick, how can a team expect to win a postseason game when it doesn’t score a single touchdown?
The last time that happened was in 2006, when the Colts got five Adam Vinatieri field goals in a 15-6 road win over the Ravens en route to a Super Bowl XLI win. Peyton Manning can get away with a no-touchdown game; Teddy Bridgewater cannot. When it was all said and done, the two-time defending NFC champions found a way to move on, and the eternally-hard-luck-in-the-playoff Vikings found a new low.
To cap the weekend off, we had another undeserving playoff team showing its true colors against an experienced group with a championship-caliber quarterback. Washington won a putrid NFC East division at 9-7 despite not beating a single team above .500 during the regular year. So for all the love surrounding Kirk “You Like That!” Cousins and his 23-to-3 TD-to-INT ratio the past 10 games, Washington had no business being there, much less beating the Packers.
But it wasn’t just the Skins being playoff imposters with their record; it was acts of premature celebration by its boneheaded players, namely wide receiver DeSean Jackson. Green Bay fell behind 11-0, often a recipe for disaster in the playoffs, but it could have been worse in large part due to Jackson coasting toward the pylon when a TD wasn’t a sure thing. Though initially ruled a score, the play was overturned, and the Skins ultimately had to settle for a field goal.
The Redskins, who haven’t won a postseason game in a decade, acted like they had the game under wraps. Before they knew it, they were playing catch-up. So for all the consternation surrounding the Packers, losers of six of 10 entering the game, they beat an inferior team when they needed to with help from that team’s self-inflicted wounds.
Ultimately, the weekend was as predictable as it was exciting. Personally, I do not share that “exciting” sentiment, because this unnecessary fake drama that has become the NFL’s mantra to keep fans interested in seemingly every game is getting repetitive and uninspired. After all the “drama” ended, we were left with three of the league’s recent powerhouses and one team that steamrolled a very weak opponent. There is hardly anything unique or compelling about that.
As we move on to the divisional weekend, it’s more of the same. The Broncos and Patriots, the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds in the AFC, respectively, have been in this exact position, having earned a bye for four straight years now. The Patriots have now had a bye for six consecutive seasons, having played just one road playoff game since 2006 (in Denver in 2013). The Steelers have won three AFC titles and two Super Bowls over the past decade. And for good measure, unless the Chiefs reach the Super Bowl, it will mark a 21-year span in which only seven franchises have represented the AFC in the big game (the NFC has sent 13 of its 16 clubs during that same time).
Speaking of that NFC, sure, it’s refreshing to see the Carolina Panthers and Arizona Cardinals as the top two seeds, considering each team has reached the Super Bowl just once and has never won one. But gunning for them will be the Seahawks and Packers, respectively, two teams with a combined three NFC championships in the past five years and six in the past 19 seasons.
Ideally, we would see the Chiefs and Broncos square off in the AFC championship game and the Cardinals take on the Panthers in the NFC title game. But it never works that way, does it? Often times, the proverbial challenger to our reigning de facto champion finds ways to choke. Whether it’s hot-dogging when you haven’t won anything yet, shanking an easy kick, or committing an unnecessary, undisciplined penalty, karma often finds a way to keep the little guys down in the dumps.
Time for the likes of the Chiefs, Panthers, and Cardinals to prove me — and the rest of the cynical NFL fandom — wrong.