Wildcard Round-Up

In NFL on January 11, 2010 at 9:42 pm

Midway through the 3rd quarter of yesterday’s Cardinals-Packers game in Arizona, it looked as though we were snoozing our way to the end of the tamest Wildcard weekend in living memory. With quarterback Kurt Warner and the hometown Cardinals shredding one of the toughest teams in the league and delighting their home fans with a 31-10 lead, we were well on the way to the fourth lopsided contest of a deeply disappointing couple of days.

But Aaron Rodgers had other ideas.

There’s always a worry how playoff rookies will react on the big occasion. And Packers fans must have feared the worst for the future as their general seemed overawed and uncertain on his first post-season appearance. His first play of the game will still give him nightmares, as he broke right out of the pocket, reached the sideline, and then threw a crazy blind pass across his body into double coverage. Cornerback Dominique Rogers-Cromartie duly picked off the pass and Tim Hightower got the scoreboard ticking with a 1-yard run just a few plays later.

Cardinals receiver early Doucet ships a big hit from Packers safety Atari Bigby

Cardinals receiver Early Doucet ships a big hit from Packers safety Atari Bigby

The Pack’s offense stalked back onto the field looking like they had something to prove. But it was the Arizona defence which once again rattled them into a turnover. This time, hard hitting linebacker Karlos Dansby was the one who stripped Donald Driver following Rodgers’ first completion of the day. This set Kurt Warner up for a quick 15-yarder to wideout Early Doucet, as the Cards shot out to a 14-0 lead and the neutrals grumbled.

Most of those neutrals were then probably flicking around for something else to watch when Neil Rackers nailed a short field goal to put his side 17 points in front at the end of the 1st quarter. A brief flicker from Green Bay seemed to have been extinguished by the ruthless Warner when Rodgers’ 1 yard plunge was cancelled out in short order by another laser to Doucet, and a late drive led admirably by the wildcard rookie ended with just a Mason Crosby field goal.

That left the Cardinals 24-10 in front at the break, and that quickly became 31-10 when Larry Fitzgerald made up for his earlier fumble with a stunning one-handed take to earn himself a 33 yard score from another perfect Warner throw.

It looked like the end of the game right there, but little did we know, the fun was just beginning!

Rodgers showed his grit as he led a composed drive, his offense gobbling up 80 yards in just four minutes to close the gap to 31-17 with Greg Jennings’ 6 yard grab. Coach Mike McCarthy then made a ballsy call as his side comfortably recovered an onside kick which seemed to catch Arizona completely off guard. Three minutes later it was a seven point game, as Rodgers made the most of the short field by tossing a 10 yarder to back up tight end Jordy Nelson.

Jordy Nelson scores a touch down for the Packers

Jordy Nelson scores a touch down for the Packers

That made it 31-24, and the momentum was all green and yellow, and probably wearing one of those cheese hats too.

This Cardinals team have shown their mettle many times before though, and this time it was running back Beanie Wells who reminded us all that running the ball was still allowed. His 42-yard dash set up another Larry Fitzgerald touchdown, and with the Cardinals making a mockery of the number 2 defense in the league, 38-24 looked like it would probably be enough.

But the Packers had other ideas, showing some balance as they methodically worked the ball down the field on their next possession. A desperation 4th and 5 resulted in a glorious Rodgers dart to James Jones for a 30 yard touchdown, and with 14 minutes left on the clock, it was clear that we were witnessing something special.

During the next series, we witnessed something rare, as Arizona’s punter trotted onto the field for the first time, wiped the sleep from his eyes, and shanked a rusty punt just 26 yards.

The Green Bay offence was looking unstoppable now as they mercilessly punished the Cards’ first wasted possession. Two big plays to the in form Jermichael Finley and Donald Driver set up a 1 yard rush for full back John Kuhn, and incredibly, the scores were level at 38 each.

The incredible Kurt Warner had another huge day in Arizona

Kurt Warner must have been feeling pretty frustrated as his stellar efforts were consistently negated. But he stood up off the bench once again to complete another six passes, eventually hitting Steve Breaston for a 17 yard touchdown over the middle.

Proceedings now resembled an exhibition touch football game, and Aaron Rodgers wasn’t about to spoil the points party as he picked at the seams of the Cards fraying defence once again. He passed and scrambled like a seasoned vet, leading his side to the brink of another touchdown at the 2-minute warning.

You knew things had gotten really out of hand when the commentators began speculating whether Cards coach Ken Whisenhunt should instruct his side to wave them in for the tying score, just so they could have extra time to stroll back up the field and win it.

In the end, they may as well have, as Rodgers found Spencer Havner in the end zone to level things up with 1.52 on the clock. As Warner squared his jaw and took to the field once again, we had a chance to marvel at his truly ridiculous stats. Nobody watching believed that he would allow his team to fail and sure enough, five quicksilver completions later Neil Rackers was lining up a regulation 34 yard kick to win the game.

Every onlooker squeezed their eyes shut and prayed. Desert-dwellers for the score, Cheeseheads for the miss, and everyone else for overtime. It was the latter two who were on their feet and pumping the air just moments later, as the curse of the kicker struck once more for the weekend. The frantic Rackers pulled his kick horribly wide, and must have felt mighty silly after showing off earlier by pumping a 55 yard kick off through the uprights.

Anf he must have been studiously avoiding Warner’s icy glare when Green Bay won the toss and chose to receive the kick-off. That left Rodgers and his red-hot crew one more drive from a glorious comeback. They nearly did it in one play. Rodgers overshot an open receiver by just a yard, and that agonising miss hurt so much more just a couple of plays later.

The turnover that ended it all, as Aaron Rodgers is sacked by Cardinals corner Michael Adams

Facing a 3rd and 6, and understandably reluctant to hand the ball back to Warner, Rodgers began jinking around in the pocket as he tried to make something happen. As it turned out, he would have been better off taking the sack. Cornerback Michael Adams crashed through on the blitz and managed to knock the ball loose, and this crazy, crazy game ended with the ball ricocheting off the foot of the tumbling quarterback to float into the hands of a streaking Karlos Dansby, who cantered in for a 17 yard interception return.

The Cardinals bench emptied as the Packers stood motionless with shock. The rest of us just thanked our lucky stars for their grit and skill, which helped serve us up one of the greatest football games in living memory.

Warner continued his outstanding playoff play, and with him at the helm, they will have a chance to knock off anybody.

In the day’s earlier game, the Baltimore Ravens darted out to a similar early lead, but they held on far more comfortably against an ailing New England Patriots side that never really got going.

The key for the Pats in this match up was stopping the run. But things looked ominous for them from the very first play, as Ray Rice burst through a hole in the defensive line to go 83 yards untouched and hand his side an early 7-0 lead.

Seven points became 14 just a few short plays later, as Terrell Suggs stripped Pats quarterback Tom Brady setting up a 1-yard rumble from full back LeRon McClain. When Brady was intercepted on a very un-Brady like throw just a few minutes later, it was the home crowd’s turn to rumble, and those rumbles turned to a chorus of boos as Ray Rice pounded one in again and kicker Billy Cundiff made it 24-0 at the end of the 1st quarter.

New England had no answer to Ray Rice and the Ravens' rushing

With Tom Brady, you would have been crazy to count the Patriots out. But the great man looked desperately out of sorts and received little to no protection from his O-line or help from his receivers. Only the youngster Julian Edelman stepped up and played with real heart. Randy Moss looked uninterested, and Matt Light and co resembled a group of well-oiled turnstiles. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco only had to complete four passes (!) all day as Rice and the rushing attack racked up over 250 yards and their rampaging defence generated turnovers with ease.

The Patriots had gone 8-0 at Gillette Stadium in the regular season, and 11-0 at home in the playoffs since their last loss 1978. Brady himself was 7-0 in home playoff games, and the Patriots had never lost to the Baltimore Ravens. But all of their flaws were ruthlessly exposed on Sunday as Rays Rice and Lewis led their units to a gleeful destruction of their rivals.

Another team to be horribly exposed over the weekend was the Philadelphia Eagles as they were handed a 34-14 lesson by their NFC East rivals, the Dallas Cowboys.

All year they had terrorised defences by firing the ball deep to a talented set of young receivers and blitzing the life out opposing quarterbacks. But all talk of a Superbowl appearance should have been tempered by the knowledge that they had failed to beat a winning team all season, with the exception of a gutted Atlanta Falcons.

Last week in Dallas, Philly’s defensive was battered by their physically bigger opponents, and any adjustments made during the week had little to no effect. Once again on Saturday night, running back Felix Jones smashed the life out of them, pounding his way to 148 yards as Dallas racked up over 200 yards rushing. They also picked the Eagles secondary apart as Tony Romo found himself with all day to pick his passes.

Cowboys QB Tony Romo led his side to another big win over the Eagles

Donovan McNabb’s offence, meanwhile, could come up with no answer. Once again McNabb was terrorised in the pocket and could find no-one open downfield. Andy Reid’s play-calling hardly helped either, as they stubbornly persisted with the deep ball without establishing any kind of base with the running game. Brian Westbrook wasn’t handed the ball once, while Leonard Weaver and LeSean McCoy had only five attempts each for less than 50 yards. Had Dallas not killed themselves with penalties and eased up at the end this could have been even uglier than a 20 point loss, as the Eagles turned in a truly embarrassing effort.

Finally, the opening game of the weekend turned into the dogfight we all expected as the Cincinnati Bengals once again crumbled against the hard-running New York Jets.

Running back Cedric Benson was one of the few Bengals who could hold his head high after their heartbreaking 24-14 home loss. Without his 169 yards on the ground they would have been routed.

Among the villains for the Bungles were the anaemic Carson Palmer at quarterback and unreliable kicker Shane Graham. Palmer followed up his disgraceful effort last week (1-11 for 0 yards and a pick) with less than 150 yards passing for a solitary touchdown and yet another interception. Graham, for his part, missed field goals of 35 and 28 yards, the second of which would have dragged his team within a score with nearly four minutes left on the clock.

The Jets were far too physical for a disappointing Bengals side

The Jets meanwhile, relied on a remarkably mature performance from rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez, along with big days for running back Shonn Greene and tight end Dustin Keller. Sanchez made all the right decisions on offence, while Greene racked up 135 yards on the ground and Keller came up with some big plays.

On defence, their remarkable corner Darrelle Revis blanketed Chad Ochocinco, who once again failed to back up his trash talk with only two receptions, and coach Rex Ryan’s blitz packages were far too much for Palmer and his offensive line.

So next weekend’s line up sees the Cardinals in New Orleans for what promises to be another shootout, the Ravens travelling to Indianapolis to take on Peyton Manning’s Colts, the Cowboys looking to inflict Minnesota’s first home defeat of the season, and the Jets taking on the red-hot Chargers.

Previews are on the way.


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