Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 17, 2016

The Usurpers Are Dismissed In Round Two

The first weekend of the NFL’s postseason tournament saw nothing but upsets, at least based on the seedings in both the NFC and AFC brackets. Looking back one week later, it’s clear that meme says more about how the playoff bracket is structured than about the supposedly surprising outcomes.

Because the NFL grants the first four seeds in both conferences to the division champions, this year’s bracket featured both Wild Card entrants with better season records than at least one division winner in each conference. In the AFC Kansas City finished 11-5 on the strength of ten consecutive wins, becoming the first team in league history to have both a five game losing streak and a ten game winning streak in the same campaign. Still Kansas City was forced to go on the road as the fifth seed, but got to face a Houston team that had barely won the AFC South title with a 9-7 mark. For Houston fans the result was ugly from start to finish, as K.C. routed the Texans 30-0.

It was a similar scene in the NFC, where the 10-6 Green Bay Packers finished a game behind the Vikings in the NFC North, and thus had to travel to Washington to face the 9-7 winners of the NFC East. While Washington finished the season with four consecutive wins, none of their regular season victories came against a team with a winning record. The visitors spotted Washington an early 11-0 lead, but Green Bay then scored on five consecutive possessions to cement a 35-18 victory.

The other two Wild Card games could be viewed, at least on paper, as more legitimate upsets. Minnesota had wrested the NFC North title away from Green Bay and had a better record than the Seattle Seahawks. The Vikings also had the supremely inhospitable environment of the open-air U.S. Bank Stadium, where game time temperatures were five below zero with a wind chill some twenty degrees colder. But hidden within the Seahawks final regular season record of 10-6 was the fact that after a mid-November loss to Arizona their mark stood at 4-5. Seattle arrived in frozen Minneapolis as a hot team, and managed to stay just warm enough to survive when Minnesota kicker Blair Walsh missed a short field goal with 22 seconds to play.

As for the game between Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, while it’s true that the Bengals were two games better overall than their AFC North rival and had a better record within both the division and the conference, the reality is that every contest between these bitter foes is a tossup. In this case the brawl was called “one of the ugliest and dirtiest contests in the modern era of the sport” by Bleacher Report columnist Mike Freeman. It was ugly and dirty play at the end that gifted 30 yards in penalties to Pittsburgh, allowing the Steelers to escape with a late winning field goal.

So despite the brackets and the conventional wisdom, perhaps Wild Card weekend was not quite as upset-filled as it seemed in the moment. Still the certain truth is that for the first time since the twelve-team format was adopted in the 1990-91 season, all four road teams emerged victorious on the tournament’s first weekend.
Even before the first divisional round game began in Foxborough on Saturday afternoon, it was a virtual certainty that the string of upsets, either real or imagined, would not extend to a full eight games. Thanks once again to the structure of the NFL playoffs, the visiting teams in the second round come into the contests at a considerable disadvantage.

First of course, they are on the road, playing in a hostile environment. But of greater importance is that the four road teams are all facing opponents who have had that most prized reward at the end of the brutal and violent, albeit enormously popular, sixteen game NFL regular season – a week off. The top two seeds in each conference use that week to recover and rejuvenate aching and often damaged bones, muscles and ligaments, before facing a team that has had to play on through its injuries just for the chance to take the field. It is an advantage not to be underestimated.

So while there were those who thought that in Kansas City’s eleven-game winning streak, or in the potential distraction of the off-field problems of Patriots defensive lineman Chandler Jones, there might be the elements of an upset of New England; the reality turned out to be very different. The Patriots opening drive covered 80 yards in 11 plays, capped by a touchdown pass from Tom Brady to Rob Gronkowski.

The tight end, who had been listed as questionable all week, finished the game with seven catches and two scores. A Kansas City touchdown with just over a minute to play made the final score 27-20; a classic case of a score that was far closer than the game it represented.

Saturday night Arizona hosted Green Bay in a game that was exceedingly dull until it was outrageously crazy. The first half featured a touchdown by the Cardinals matched by two field goals by the Packers. Most of the second half passed with Green Bay adding a touchdown of their own while Arizona tacked on a field goal.

Then in the closing minutes, with the Packers leading 13-10, Arizona’s Carson Palmer manufactured a drive that ended with a deflected pass falling into the hands of wide receiver Michael Floyd for the go-ahead score. In the final three minutes Green Bay turned the ball over on downs, Arizona added a field goal to push the lead to seven, and then Aaron Rodgers launched a successful Hail Mary pass for the second time this season, tying the score on a 41-yard toss as time expired. But Palmer quickly found Larry Fitzgerald for a 75-yard catch and run on the first play of overtime. Two plays later the Cardinals quarterback shoveled a pass to Fitzgerald in the backfield and the receiver raced around end for the winning score.

Whatever hope Seattle had for an upset of top-seeded Carolina died quickly on Sunday afternoon. The Panthers scored on the game’s opening drive, thanks largely to a 59-yard rumble by running back Jonathan Stewart. Then on the Seahawk’s second play from scrimmage quarterback Russell Wilson was victimized by a pick-six, making the score 14-0. By halftime it was 31-0 Carolina, and while Seattle rallied fiercely in the second half the margin was too great to overcome.

Finally attention turned to Denver, where Pittsburgh hoped to recreate their run to the Super Bowl at the end of the 2005-06 season. That year the Steelers were the sixth seed. They beat the Bengals on the road in the Wild Card round and then beat Peyton Manning at Indianapolis one week later, before winning the AFC Conference championship and beating the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL. This year they were the sixth seed, had beaten Cincinnati one week earlier, and were again facing Manning, this time wearing Broncos orange.

For much of a tight defensive struggle it looked like Ben Roethlisberger and company might keep their dream alive. But with the Steelers clinging to a 13-12 lead in the fourth quarter, Manning led a 13-play, 65-yard drive that ate nearly seven minutes off the clock. The drive turned on a 31-yard completion from Manning to Bennie Fowler on a third and twelve play. C.J. Anderson eventually punched the ball in from less than a yard for Denver’s first touchdown in twenty-three offensive possessions in the playoffs. In the closing minutes the two teams matched field goals for a 23-16 final.

So after all the focus on upsets just one week ago, the number one seed will host the number two in both conference championship games. In the AFC it’s that song we all know by heart, Brady versus Manning. This will be the seventeenth time we’ve sung along. The rivalry has been dominated by the New England quarterback, but this edition will be played on Manning’s turf in Denver. In the NFC Carolina will host Arizona. At least there we will see some variety, for the Panthers and Cardinals are not the first two teams that come to mind when one thinks of NFC dominance. But make no mistake, in the NFL playoffs, order has been restored.

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