Epic wild-card weekend sets up two classic rubber matches in AFC
How the Bengals unknowingly helped the Seahawks beat the Saints
Ravens road dominance continues; James Starks steals spotlight in Philly
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NEW YORK -- What a weekend. What a Saturday -- the best wild-card day ever, in my opinion. What a run by Marshawn Lynch. What resilience by Matt Hasselbeck. What a way to enter the twilight for Peyton Manning. What incredible roster depth by Green Bay on Sunday; that's what beat the Eagles and sent the magical Mike Vick home. And what a setup in the AFC for this weekend: Steelers-Ravens, Pats-Jets. "Come on,'' Terrell Suggs told me after he and the Ravens throttled the Chiefs to get to the NFL's final eight. "This is the game America wanted to see, us and Pittsburgh. And the Patriots and Jets too. That's going to be some great football right there.''
The AFC is quite sane this weekend, with those East and North rivalry matchups. But Green Bay-Atlanta and Seattle-Chicago in the NFC? Just another reason why it never pays to pick the chalk in the NFL. This is the fifth straight season the defending Super Bowl champ didn't win a playoff game. That's the biggest upshot of the weekend -- New Orleans was a very surprising one and done. Check out the sad, recent Super Bowl hangover story:
Went 8-8, didn't make playoffs
Lost to San Diego in divisional round
2007 New York Giants
Lost to Philadelphia in divisional round
Went 9-7, didn't make playoffs
Five other nuggets of the weekend that fascinate me. One: How the Bengals helped Seattle pull it off. Two: How the ghost of Bill Walsh is going to help Jim Harbaugh do his job. Three: The inexplicable Jim Caldwell timeout. Four: The 2011 Hall of Fame dreams that live, and the 11 Hall dreams that ended Sunday. Five: How Brett Favre's favorite general manager had a very, very good weekend. Plus some other observations.
We'll start in the Pacific Northwest, where I think the Seahawks have to be wondering, Did that really happen?
Give the Bengals -- yes, the 4-12 Bengals -- credit for doing something right.
I learned a lot about 35-year-old Matt Hasselbeck Saturday. He can still play and can still throw the beautiful deep ball that attracted Mike Holmgren to him a decade ago. One of the things that makes a player good is that he doesn't get overwhelmed by the moment. And against so many odds, Hasselbeck didn't shrink from the moment in the 41-36 upset of the Saints -- he grabbed it and choked the damn thing.
"I think you're probably overstating what happened here,'' he told me 90 minutes after Seattle, a 10-point 'dog, sent the Saints home early. "Ed Werder asked me the same thing -- like, how did it feel to be a part of one of the big upsets of all time. I just don't see it that way. We all thought we were going to win.''
Well, they're delusional. They must be. Either that or Pete Carroll hypnotized them into thinking that. I credit Hasselbeck. Haven't we all retired him already? This was supposed to be his last game in Seattle. I'd already started wondering which broadcast booth he'd end up in next fall, or which young quarterback he'd be signed to tutor as a backup. But he scorched the Saints early and often, abusing a secondary I was sure would handle him and his weak group of wideouts. He ended up with the four touchdown passes.
Hasselbeck showed how a smart quarterback who's been diligently prepared by a good staff, and who knows exactly how much air to put under the deep ball (attention Mike Vick), is dangerous -- and will be a threat in Chicago Sunday if the Bears aren't careful.
Last week, quarterbacks coach Jedd Fisch and offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates, who should take a bow alongside Hasselbeck for the offensive explosion, installed a play they'd seen the Bengals run against New Orleans five weeks ago. In it, Cincinnati had the tight end dive to cut block a rushing linebacker, then wait a moment, get up and look for an opening in the Saints' D -- while Carson Palmer and the rest of the offense seemed to be going the other way.
The misdirection play confounded the Saints, and the Seahawks stole it for the game plan Saturday. "We just did a good job of scheming them, and that play's a perfect example,'' Hasselbeck said. "It's the kind of play where you've got two or three guys throwing cut blocks, and you sell run, and it looks terrible, but if you run it right, the tight end ought to be able to get free.''
The Saints were up 17-7 early in the second quarter, but Seattle was driving and at the New Orleans' seven-yard line. Tight end John Carlson flailed away at the feet of safety Roman Harper at the snap of the ball and stayed down to "finish'' the block as Harper watched Hasselbeck fade to the right in the pocket. As Hasselbeck got set to throw, up popped Carlson and he ran left from the line. Harper froze in the middle of the field. With Carlson alone at the goal line, Hasselbeck found him for a touchdown pass the quarterback's 5-year-old son Henry could have thrown. Well, with a Nerf football maybe.
"That could have happened to anybody,'' Hasselbeck said. "It didn't have to be Roman Harper. He's a good player, he just happened to be the guy John blocked.''
(Be careful, Matt. Don't do something silly like defend Roman Harper, but more about that in Goat of the Week.)
The other throw I loved from Hasselbeck came in the third quarter, when one of the best cover guys in the league, Jabari Greer, with safety help over the top, appeared to have Mike Williams blanketed up the right seam. There's no way any quarterback could look at that coverage and say, "Hmmmm. Let's go to Mike Williams here.'' But Hasselbeck did. His arcing rainbow -- with terrific protection, by the way -- found Williams' outstretched hands near the goal line. The 38-yard touchdown throw, Hasselbeck's fourth, was the dagger that made it 31-20.
"I was trying to hit [running back Justin] Forsett and let him do something with it in the open field,'' said Hasselbeck, "but he had two guys on him ...''
Well, so did Williams.
"I double-hitched and looked down for Mike, who was just running a clear-out route. He's so big. I just figured I'd throw it up for him with a lot of air underneath it and hope he'd be able to catch up to it.''
A more beautiful, in-stride deep ball Hasselbeck's never thrown. Greer was left to flail away at Williams as he gathered it in for the touchdown.
Hasselbeck credited Pete Carroll for creating an atmosphere of "care about it like I care about it, or you're gone." He said he wasn't thinking that, as a free-agent, this could have been his last game in Seattle, "because we've got like 29 guys in the last year of their contract -- it could be all of our last game.''
And he had just one other thought: how incredible would it be if 8-9 Seattle, the first losing team to make the playoffs, could be back in front of the home crowd at Qwest Field to play the NFC Championship Game. Seattle, the fourth seed in the NFC (and don't think this dramatic win changes my opinion that playoff seeding should be based on record and not by handing home games to undeserving division champs. But that's a diatribe for another day), could host the title game if it's a Seattle-Green Bay matchup, since the Packers are the sixth seed.
"I can't imagine it,'' Hasselbeck said Saturday night. "But we gotta win one, and Green Bay's gotta win two.''
Not anymore: Green Bay's one win away, just like the Seahawks. Talk about your basic story of the year in the NFL.
"F-O-L-K! Folk, Folk, Folk!''
All over New York, scenes like the one I'm about to describe must have been playing out. You see, the Football Night in America studio crew was dismissed after halftime of the Jets-Colts game, and so Rodney Harrison, Dan Patrick and I adjourned to a midtown Manhattan bar for the wrap party a little early and watched the last 10 minutes of the game on TV. Big Jet crowd at the bar, obviously, and Harrison had fun with a few guys who I believe were into their 11th Goose Island IPA when we arrived. And with 2:45 left in the game, the Jets punted to the Colts, who started a drive at their 20, down 14-13. Adam Vinatieri calmly practiced kicking a ball into a net on the Indy sideline.
"Your season's over!'' Harrison said, and the Jet fans knew what he meant. Peyton Manning, 80 yards to go and two-plus minutes left? Uh-oh.
"Watch Peyton,'' Harrison said to me. "This'll be a work of art. I played against this guy seven times, and if he doesn't score right here, I'll jump off the Sears Tower. And if he can't get the touchdown, Adam will win it with eight seconds to go. I've got two Super Bowl rings because of Adam. Amazing guy. Never worries about anything. Never saw him nervous.''
And it played out just like that -- with one unforeseen problem. With 62 seconds left and at the Jet 32, Manning had a third-and-six. He rolled right and picked out Blair White (the wrong guy, I thought), who was closely covered just beyond the first-down marker. Manning threw it anyway. The Jets had two timeouts left. A perfect throw would have converted the first down and allowed the Colts to run the clock down to the single digits and call their final timeout so Vinatieri could do what he was famous for -- make a winning kick in one of the biggest games of the year. But just like everything in this Indianapolis season, the throw was a little off. A little low. White tried to scoop it in, but it hit the ground. Incomplete.
Now the clock was stopped. Fifty-seven seconds to go. Vinatieri drilled the 50-yard kick, making it 16-14 Colts. "Rex,'' Dan Patrick said to me plaintively, "beaten by a foot.''
But even though people in these parts trust Nick Folk to make a field goal the same way they trust Mayor Bloomberg to clear snow, this thing wasn't over. And when Antonio Cromartie, in the underrated big play of the weekend, returned the ensuing kickoff to the Jets' 46, throats got very dry in Colt-land.
Harrison stood up and looked over at the Jets fans. "Your season's not over!'' he yelled, and those guys sent over beers for us.
Mark Sanchez got the Jets to the Colt 34, just in Folk's range (Folk's long enough from 55, but you have no idea if he'll make it) for the winner. And for some reason we still can't figure out, Jim Caldwell used Indy's last timeout here. Incredible call -- New York had but one timeout left, and would have had to burn it to stop the clock before Folk's field goal try. But here came Caldwell, throwing the Jets a lifeline and giving them time to talk it over.
On the sidelines, Sanchez told offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer that instead of playing it safe with a LaDainian Tomlinson run up the gut or a short, safe curl to Dustin Keller, he wanted to throw it up the right side to Braylon Edwards. Either he'd hit Edwards or he'd throw it so the corner couldn't pick it off. "The kid made the call,'' Rex Ryan said. And a perfect throw -- 18 yards to the Colt 14. Folk's 32-yard winner was a little close for comfort, inside the right upright, but the Jets went home happy. As did the guys at the other end of the bar.
"Hey, Darren,'' one of them said to Harrison. "Could you pose for a picture with my wife?''
"He thinks I'm Darren Woodson!'' Harrison said. He laughed, obliged the guy, and we all lifted a glass to Rex. Say what you want about the guy, and we've all said plenty, but in two years he's led the Jets to two playoff appearances. He's gone on the road four times in the playoffs and won three. I know, I know -- the fifth time will be the toughest, Sunday at New England. But he'll remember the most embarrassing day of his coaching career, the 45-3 loss at Foxboro five weeks ago. Some way, somehow, it's going to be a ballgame Sunday.
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