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

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.

The NFL also keeps a stat called "hurries" in which, according to an official scorer's opinion, the QB is forced to throw the ball sooner than he would choose. On this day, they could have given Luck a "hurry" on every one of his 54 throws.

Indianapolis, who finished 11-5, are regarded by most observes as the AFC's team of the future. Against Baltimore, though, their young and relatively inexperience offensive line simply couldn't control the Ravens' front seven inside the Baltimore 35-yard line. The Colts got there just six times and had to settle for three field goals from Adam Vinatieri, a missed kick from the 23 yards out, an interception, and a lost fumble.

Flacco may not be the most stylish quarterback in the league, but whether or not his passes have a perfect spiral doesn't matter to the scoreboard. In the fourth quarter, with the Ravens leading 17-9, he threw an 18-yard pass just good enough for his superb wide receiver, Anquan Boldin, to pull in for the TD that crushed any spirit the Colts might still have had at that point.

This gave Flacco the odd distinction of being the only quarterback in the Super Bowl era to have won at least one playoff game in each of his first five pro seasons. He'll need to do that and more next week, and Ray Lewis will have to pick on someone his own age—the Broncos Peyton Manning, who's 36—when the teams meet in Denver next Saturday.

redskins seahwaks 615 ap.jpg
AP Images / Matt Slocum

Seattle Seahawks beat Washington Redskins, 24-14

Early in the second quarter of the NFC Wild Card match between Washington and Seattle, things looked good for the Redskins. As they say in the movies, a little too good. The Redskins had marched 80 yards on their opening possession, which was capped with a TD pass by Robert Griffin III. Early in the second quarter, buoyed by excellent field position, Washington began another march, which would lead to a second RG3 pass.

But three plays before the TD, the nightmare began. Griffin, the most spectacularly talented passer and runner to appear in the NFL this century, was hit near the sidelines and staggered awkwardly back before falling. One of the radio announcers said it looked as if Griffin was "acting." It looked like that to me, too, when I saw it later on TV. From that moment on, though, the dream season of Griffin, his coach Mike Shanahan, and the entire Washington Redskins team began to fall apart.

Griffin had shown great poise for a first-year man. Many promising rookie passers either throw too much or carry the ball themselves too much; Griffin worked the offense without trying to be the offense. He made everyone around him, including running back Alfred Morris, look better. But with his knee hurting again—he first injured a minor ligament in a December 9 game against the Baltimore Ravens—his minor mobility went with it.

Though he set a rushing record for rookie RBs, RG3, as the season went on, learned how to use his mobility to give his receivers an extra second or two to break loose from coverage. But unable to move quickly to his right or left, he became a rather pedestrian pocket passer, and the Redskins went through six consecutive possessions of three-plays-and-punt. Meanwhile, the Seahawks, who have had the most devastating offensive in the league over the last third of the season, slowly and inexorably went from a 14 point deficit to within just one point at the half, 14-13, and then, finally in the fourth, snowed the Redskins under with 11 unanswered points in a 24-24 win.

With a little more than seven minutes to play, Griffin, playing out of the shotgun formation, failed to hold onto a center snap when his knee again buckled. This time he went down and stayed down for more than a minute. More than 80,000 Washington fans in attendance—along with millions of RG3 fans throughout the country and, no doubt, cores of television executives who had been calculating the ratings Griffin was going to bring them—got a cold feeling in the pits of their stomachs.

Presented by

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

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