NFL 2014 Wild Card Weekend

The Bengals Lose Again

If the Bengals want to shake a reputation for choking, this is not the way to do it. Andy Dalton was not terrible, but he was bad. Including sacks and rushing, Dalton had 42 plays for 178 yards — 4.2 per play. He had no TDs, a lost fumble, and a 63.4 passer rating. He was playing with a really depleted receiving corps, against a pretty good pass defense, but you just have to produce more offense than that if you expect to win a playoff game.

The announcing team of Jim Nantz and Phil Simms supported Dalton, and I'm sympathetic to their position, but Nantz compared Dalton to Y.A. Tittle, whom he said was the only other QB to make four consecutive postseasons without winning a game. "Did people ever say that Tittle couldn't win big games?" Nantz asked rhetorically. He obviously assumed the answer was no, but yes, they did. Tittle himself wrote in the August 23, 1965, Sports Illustrated, "The football writers began to say that Tittle could not win the big games — I guess by that they meant the championship games. I have won some very big games — and I have lost some, too."

The Tittle comparison doesn't work for several reasons. (1) Tittle is a Hall of Famer. There's no indication that Dalton is on that path. (2) Tittle's teams never won a championship. If you're arguing that we shouldn't judge Dalton by his playoff failures, don't compare him to a guy who never overcame them. (3) Tittle did face criticism for his performance in big games, and he has ever since. Red Hickey, who coached Tittle in San Francisco and created the shotgun formation, explained why he doesn't list Tittle among the great quarterbacks: "Tittle never won a championship ... [Bobby] Layne, as bad as he looked throwing the ball, was a winner."

I believe Andy Dalton is good enough to win a championship. He's not Peyton Manning or Aaron Rodgers; if Dalton was the best player on a team, that team would never win a Super Bowl. But he's good enough that with the right players around him, Dalton could quarterback a championship team. It's hard to judge him too harshly on a game like this, missing his best wide receiver and his his top tight end.

The idea of firing a head coach and quarterback who have made four consecutive playoff runs seems loony to me.

Wild Card Roundups

Carolina Panthers 27, Arizona Cardinals 16

"This has been a special teams fiasco tonight." ESPN's Mike Tirico said that near the end of this game, and it foreshadowed a weekend full of incredible special teams meltdowns. Let's recap the horror:

Arizona Cardinals

* First quarter: 20-yard punt gives Carolina possession in Cardinals territory
* First quarter: 28-yard punt
* First quarter: 33-yard punt, mercifully mishandled
* Second quarter: 31-yard punt gives Carolina possession at Cardinals' 34-yard line
* Third quarter: 31-yard punt gives Carolina possession at Cardinals' 38-yard line
* Third quarter: Ted Ginn runs out kickoff from 8 yards deep in end zone, tackled at own 8, fumbles, recovered by Carolina at Cardinals' 3-yard line

Jon Gruden and Tirico basically blamed the loss on punter Drew Butler. The offense was equally awful, so that isn't accurate or fair, but Butler punted 9 times, and only two of the nine went over 40 yards, one of them on a bounce following an error by the Panthers' returner.

Carolina Panthers

* First quarter: Brenton Bersin's mishandled punt sets up Arizona TD
* Second quarter: Missed 43-yard FG
* Second quarter: Bersin lets punt bounce, loses 15 yards of field position
* Fourth quarter: 40-yard punt into end zone, touchback (20 yard net)
* Fourth quarter: Brad Nortman fumbles punt snap, rushes for 6 yards on 4th-and-17

Bersin's turnover in the first quarter provided a critical swing of momentum, enough that Carolina's 10-0 lead turned into a 14-13 halftime deficit; the Panthers didn't really recover until the third quarter — in part due to two more special teams miscues.

The only play worse than the litany of special teams disasters was the final one. The Panthers led 27-16 with :03 left on the clock. Down by 11 points with three seconds remaining, it was literally impossible for the Cardinals to win. For reasons totally beyond my understanding, Bruce Arians called for one of those plays with the laterals. You cannot accomplish anything positive at that point. All you can do is get someone hurt, or lose so much yardage that you set a playoff record for worst offense.

The Cardinals haven't been the same since they lost Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton, and on Saturday, Arizona's offense was impotent. The Cardinals rushed 15 times for 27 yards (1.8 per carry), while Ryan Lindley's 32 dropbacks produced 51 yards, a touchdown, and 2 interceptions. Rodney Harrison called Lindley "a third-string quarterback who looked scared to death back there." Lindley needed help, and the Cardinals didn't give it to him. The team set a postseason record for fewest yards of offense (78).

The Panthers have now won five games in a row, holding each opponent to under 20 points.

Worst special teams disaster in this game: Ginn's fumbled kickoff return. Bringing a kickoff out of the end zone is a foolish risk. Returners fumble about three times as often as they score touchdowns — it's more likely that your gamble will result in catastrophe than points.

Baltimore Ravens 30, Pittsburgh Steelers 17

Maybe Le'Veon Bell is even more important than we thought. This was Pittsburgh's lowest score in nearly two months, since a Week 10 loss to the Jets. The Steelers' offense, which had been tearing the league apart all season, and the last month in particular, vanished in this game. But when you add Haloti Ngata to the Ravens and subtract Bell from the Steelers, you're talking about different teams than we saw over the past four weeks.

The Steelers' last three drives all ended in turnovers, as we saw the 800th instance of Ben Roethlisberger playing when he was too hurt to help the team — but that was late in the game, when the Steelers were already behind. The Steelers settled for too many field goals, the Ravens converted too many long third downs, and Pittsburgh committed 114 yards of penalties. Just in the last two quarters, you've got two 15-yard penalties and a 32-yard pass interference, plus a critical offensive holding call on Kelvin Beachum, which nullified a 19-yard touchdown pass. Ben got intercepted a few plays later and the drive produced no points. Nail in the coffin.

It's hard not to think the game would have looked a lot different with a healthy Le'Veon Bell on the field. Everyone has injuries — Baltimore's secondary is incredibly beat-up — but Bell is an all-pro, a top-10 MVP candidate, and the Steelers really don't have a backup. They used a lot of Ben Tate, who just signed last week and doesn't know the offense. Tate was in the backfield when the Steelers blew a blocking assignment and nearly got Roethlisberger killed. Bell is a good pass blocker, and he's an explosive playmaker; the offense looked substantially different without that element.

Worst special teams disaster in this game: Baltimore had a punt blocked out of the end zone for safety, but that was late in the fourth quarter, with the result nearly decided. In the second quarter, the Ravens had 12 men on field for a field goal attempt, giving Pittsburgh a first down, and that could have been a big deal if the ball had bounced a little differently later in the game.

Indianapolis Colts 26, Cincinnati Bengals 10

The Colts were a bad matchup for Cincinnati. The Bengals scored fewer points in two games against Indianapolis (10) than in any other game against any opponent this season. That said, it's hard to understand Cincinnati's offensive game plan. With RB Jeremy Hill on a roll, and facing a team whose run defense is suspect, the Bengals gave Giovani Bernard and Hill a combined 16 carries, compared to over 40 dropbacks for Andy Dalton.

Indianapolis didn't look particularly sharp, but the Bengals were simply outgunned. The clear theme of the wild card round was the significance of injuries. The Cardinals played without their top two quarterbacks and couldn't score. The Steelers' offense fell apart without Le'Veon Bell. And the Bengals couldn't generate anything without A.J. Green.

Worst special teams disaster in this game: Late in the third quarter, Adam Jones fielded a kickoff at the back of the end zone, nine yards deep, and ran it out to only the 13-yard line.

Dallas Cowboys 24, Detroit Lions 20

Let's start with the pass interference, get that out of the way. I didn't have a problem with the non-call; in fact, I thought it was a shame that Detroit would get a critical first down on the penalty. A few points, though:

1. I was rooting for the Cowboys. I'm not a Cowboys fan — I grew up hating them — and I have nothing against the Lions. But (1) I picked the Cowboys to win, and I like looking smart; (2) I think it's outrageous that Ndamukong Suh was allowed to play; and (3) the Cowboys played so well at the end of the season, I think the playoffs are more interesting with them advancing to face teams like Green Bay and Seattle.

2. I thought it was a ticky-tack call. Mike Pereira knows a lot more about the rules than I do, and he felt pretty strongly that it was pass interference, but I just didn't see that much contact, and I think we've put way too much into this "guy didn't turn around" thing. Did he actually interfere? It looked borderline to me, and I wouldn't have thrown a flag.

3. If I were a Lions fan, I would probably be pretty pissed. The call itself I believe was borderline, but picking up the flag felt fishy. It's one thing not to call a penalty, but it's another to throw the flag, announce it to the audience, and then change your mind and say it's fourth down.

Controversy aside, Detroit gave this game away in the last 20 minutes. The Lions led 20-7 halfway through the third quarter. Dallas drove, converted a 3rd-and-10, had a touchdown nullified by penalty (which really dents bias accusations and conspiracy theories), and scored a TD anyway: 20-14. The Lions went three-and-out, and Dallas drove for a field goal: 20-17.

And then Jim Caldwell Jim Caldwelled the game. The Lions drove to about midfield, and following the pass interference controversy, had 4th-and-1 at the Dallas 46, with 8:25 remaining. That's too far for a field goal (64 yards), maybe a little too close for a punt (26 net yards on a touchback). Your opponent is building some momentum on offense, so there's every reason to go for the first down: get close enough to score and expand the lead, kill some time, and give your defense a rest. Caldwell had the offense try to draw Dallas offsides, but it didn't work and he took a delay of game penalty — this after a 5-yard running into the kicker penalty set up the Lions' first touchdown drive, and they're taking 4th-and-6 — and then punted. It's not the craziest thing I've ever seen, but Caldwell is way too conservative for my taste, and the plan did not work. Sam Martin's punt went off the side of his foot, out of bounds for a net of only 10 yards (after the delay penalty!). Detroit had 4th-and-1 at the Dallas 46, and the Cowboys took over at their own 41.

They drove for the go-ahead touchdown, 24-20. The Lions got the ball back with 2:32 left and promptly lost a fumble, saved only by the carelessness of rookie Demarcus Lawrence, who fumbled it right back. Detroit drove to about midfield before Lawrence redeemed himself with the game-clinching fumble recovery. I don't know how you could watch this game and say the Lions deserved to advance. I don't know how you could say that about Dallas, either, but the Lions didn't play well and should only blame themselves.

Worst special teams disaster in this game: Either the running into the kicker penalty in the first quarter, or the 10-yard punt in the fourth.

Divisional Forecasts

No one in the wild card round looked impressive. I'm picking all the top seeds, the teams that got byes.

Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots

Third postseason meeting in the last four years. They split the first two, New England winning in 2011 and Baltimore in 2012. The Ravens also knocked New England out of the playoffs in 2009.

There are reasons to believe in both teams. The Patriots were the best team in the AFC this year, clinching home field advantage before Week 17. However, they also rested many starters in the last week of the regular season, and lost to the Bills, meaning they'll go three weeks between meaningful games. That's often been a losing strategy in the postseason, with teams showing obvious rust after so much time off.

The Ravens are battle-tested, they're not just happy to be in the playoffs, and they're not intimidated by the Patriots. New England is tough at home, but that advantage hasn't been evident in the postseason. But the Ravens beat a sluggish Steeler team missing its MVP, whereas the Patriots seem reasonably healthy and should bring a lot more firepower. Pats by a touchdown.

Carolina Panthers at Seattle Seahawks

The Panthers are double-digit underdogs. You've got an 8-8-1 team going into Seattle, where the Seahawks have lost twice in the last two years, to face a team that played its best football at the end of the season. There are also questions about how healthy Cam Newton is; he took a beating on Saturday.

The Panthers can run and they can play defense, which means they should be able to compete with anyone. But the Seahawks are a complete team: explosive offense, dominant defense, great home field advantage. The Panthers weren't impressive against a struggling Cardinals team, and they'll need much more to beat Seattle. The Seahawks have beaten Carolina each of the last three seasons, and I say they get number four this weekend, winning a low-scoring game by double-digits.

Dallas Cowboys at Green Bay Packers

The Cowboys were not impressive on Sunday. It's great they managed a comeback, but they played sloppy and unfocused for much of the game, and that kind of effort won't be enough against the Packers. The biggest concern is the Dallas defense. It's been good enough for much of the year, but gave up some big plays against the Lions, and the Cowboys haven't faced an offense like this.

The Packers have been killers at home, 8-0, including wins over the Patriots, Lions, Panthers, and Eagles. Their average score in home games this year was 39-20, and that includes some second-half letdowns after they built up a big lead. The Cowboys were perfect on the road, but that ends Sunday. The Packers advance, winning by 10 in a shootout.

Indianapolis Colts at Denver Broncos

The Peyton Manning Bowl. The Broncos, and Manning in particular, didn't look quite as sharp at the end of the season. The bye could exacerbate that, put them out of rhythm, or it could give the league's oldest quarterback a much-needed rest and get his explosive tight end healthy for the postseason. The Broncos should attack Indianapolis the same way New England has: the Colts will worry about Manning and the pass game, so you punish them with a ground attack. The Colts are comparably one-dimensional, and they don't have the juice to stay with Denver. Broncos by a touchdown.

* * *

Finally, a Sports Central tradition, our annual All-Loser Team: an all-star team made up entirely of players whose teams missed the postseason. If this team could actually be assembled, it would beat any and every team in the playoffs.

2014 NFL All-Loser Team

QB Drew Brees, NO
RB Arian Foster, HOU
WR Julio Jones, ATL
WR Odell Beckham, NYG
WR DeSean Jackson, WAS
TE Martellus Bennett, CHI
C Nick Mangold, NYJ
G Mike Iupati, SF
G Joel Bitonio, CLE
OT Jason Peters, PHI
OT Joe Thomas, CLE

DT Aaron Donald, STL
DT Marcell Dareus, BUF
DE J.J. Watt, HOU
LB Justin Houston, KC
LB Lavonte David, TB
LB Alec Ogletree, STL
LB Chris Borland, SF
CB Brent Grimes, MIA
CB Joe Haden, CLE
FS Harrison Smith, MIN
SS Antoine Bethea, SF

K Matt Bryant, ATL
P Johnny Hekker, STL
KR De'Anthony Thomas, KC
ST Darrell Stuckey, SD

Offensive Loser of the Year: Julio Jones, ATL
Defensive Loser of the Year: J.J. Watt, HOU
Most Valuable Loser: J.J. Watt, HOU
Coach of the Losers: Mike Zimmer, MIN

Our actual 2014 NFL All-Pro Team was published last week, along with awards including MVP, Coach of the Year, and Offensive and Defensive Rookies of the Year.

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