The Agony and the Ecstasy of the NFL's Wild Playoff Weekend


It was as dramatic a weekend as you could have hoped for—or, if you're a Redskins, Colts, Vikings, or Bengals fan, feared. Below, my take on the big moments of pro football's first round of playoffs this season:

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Reuters/Tim Sharp

Houston Texans beat Cincinnati Bengals,19-13

This wasn't a game to inspire big ratings or to even make hearts pound for anyone but big fans of the Cincinnati Bengals or the Houston Texans. The names of their respective quarterbacks, Andy Dalton and Matt Schaub, are probably know to very few fans; Bengals' receiver A.J. Green and Texans' defensive lineman J.J. Watt were the real marquee stars in the opening game of the Wild Card round of the playoffs Saturday.

Watt chased Dalton around in the Bengals' backfield all afternoon, and though he got in on only one sack of Cincinnati's passer, he swatted down two other passes, and deflected a third. Finally, in the ultimate humiliation that defensive player can impose on a quarterback, he wagged his finger in Dalton's face after a pass thudded into the turf.

Cincinnati had just 198 yards all day. If Schaub hadn't thrown a terrible second-quarter pass, which Bengals' defensive back Leon Hall intercepted and ran back 17 yards for a touchdown, Cincinnati could probably have kept playing through Sunday and on into Monday without scoring a TD.

The Texans' 19-13 win looked more lopsided on the field than on the scoreboard. With Schaub passing for 262 yards and the sturdy running back Arian Foster gouging out 140 more, the Texans came off more like the team that was the AFC's best through the first half of the year than the one that lost 3 of 4 games in the final month of the regular season. Schaub and Foster will have to do at least as well for the Texans to have a chance against New England Sunday afternoon at Foxborough; the Patriots drubbed them 42-14 on Monday Night Football back on December 10.

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Reuters/Tom Lynn

Green Bay Packers beat Minnesota Vikings, 24-10

The Minnesota Vikings have now played the Green Bay Packers three times this season: a 23-14 victory for the Packers in Wisconsin, a 37-34 OT win for the Vikings in Minnesota, and, now, in the first round of the playoffs, a 24-10 win for Green Bay at Lambeau Field. The games between these two teams this season, taken together, were almost a clinic on how passing beats running in the NFL.

The Vikings Adrian Peterson was the league's leading rusher and may well wind up as this season's MVP. He gained 199 yards in a losing effort against the Packers on Dec. 2 and 210 yards in the Dec 30 victory, but Peterson was scarcely noticeable on Saturday.

After the game, Charles Woodson, the Packers' great veteran safety, told reporters, "No disrespect to [Vikings quarterback Christian] Ponder, but it's about one guy, and that's Adrian Peterson. Our main focus, whether it was Ponder or Webb, was to keep No. 28 from getting off. And if we were going to keep him from getting off, put the ball in the quarterbacks hands, whichever quarterback it was."

Translated from football-ese into English, Woodson meant that it didn't matter to the Packers' defense that Vikings QB Ponder did not play because of an elbow injury. Green Bay had decided to key on Peterson regardless of who took the Minnesota snaps.

I don't think Woodson was being entirely truthful. Ponder, at least, could put the ball downfield and keep the Packers honest, which in football terms means not committing seven or sometime eight men to the line of scrimmage with their eyes on Peterson.

Anyway, after the Packers got a look at the Vikings backup QB Joe Webb, all doubts about winning must have vanished. Webb had not thrown a pass for Minnesota all season and could establish no rhythm with his wide receivers. He spent much of the third and fourth quarters on his back staring upwards at grim, dark January Wisconsin sky. Packer linemen—when they weren't contemptuously jamming Minnesota's wideouts early in the game on the assumption that Peterson would get the ball—spent so much time reaching down to help Webb up that I thought one of them was going to pull his shoulder out of the socket.

Aaron Rodgers attacked the Vikings pass defense, completing several key throws and building up a 17-3 lead at the half, after which it was pretty much irrelevant what Peterson did since giving him the ball for four or five yards merely served to eat up the clock in the second half. Rodgers wound up with 274 yards on 33 passes and no interceptions. The Vikings did succeed in sacking him three times, but you got the feeling that each time Rodgers was simply choosing to go down with the ball rather than put it up for grabs.

All things being equal, or at least close to equal, good passing always beats good running in the NFL. That's because the passing team can strike quickly, establish an early lead, and force the running team to play catch-up. But all things were not close to equal in this game: The Packers had the best passer in football and the Vikings had a second-string QB.

Rogers will have to be at least as sharp for the Packers to beat the 49ers at San Francisco next Saturday night.

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Reuters / Jonathan Ernst

Baltimore Ravens beat Indianapolis Colts, 24-9

Football teams always look for that win-one-for-the-Gipper edge before a big game, but early Sunday afternoon both the Indianapolis Colts and Baltimore Ravens had unusual pregame morale boosts. The Colts' coach Chuck Pagano missed 12 games while undergoing treatment for leukemia and returned to the team just last week. One the Baltimore side, Ray Lewis, who might be the greatest linebacker in NFL history, was playing for the first time since tearing his right triceps on October 13. It was also the last game of the 37-year old Lewis's career—if they lost.

Unfortunately for the Colts, only one of these two inspirational figures actually played in the game. Lewis made 13 tackles against Indianapolis on Sunday, chasing rookie 23-year old quarterback Andrew Luck with such glee that you'd never guess which player was 14 years the senior of the other.

Luck did manage to pass for 288 yards, but it took him 54 throws to do it. The number of passes thrown proved to be a record for a rookie in a playoff game, but it's doubtful that that fact made Luck feel any better. His counterpart on the Ravens, Joe Flacco, who often looks as if he's shot-putting an iron ball when he passes a pigskin, gained almost as many yards, 282, on just 23 throws. Of course, Flacco had more help than Luck in the form of pass blocking. He was hit three times all afternoon and only once for a loss; Luck was sacked three times for a loss of 21 yards and knocked down on nine other attempts.

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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