(Philadelphia, Pa) — The second leg of the long treacherous road to Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa is in the books and this year’s divisional playoff games delivered high drama along with continuing the trend that the 2008 NFL Season has indeed been one wacky season. The 2008 Divisional round’s theme may have been “Let’s Do It Again” as there were four rematches, but the results from the exciting games were nowhere near a re-run. The Cardinals and Ravens turned the tables on their foes after regular season losses and the Eagles proved that every season is different as they vanquished the defending Super Bowl champion Giants into the off-season with a strong road victory — three out of last four years the Super Bowl champ was sent home in the divisional round.
Given that all four home teams were favored in the divisional playoffs, after a crazy wildcard round where are all four road teams were given the edge, you figured sanity would reappear – going into this divisional weekend, above 75% of teams with a bye in the wildcard round won in the NFL Divisional Playoffs since 1990. However holding to form that anything is possible in this topsy-turvy parity filled league, three road teams walked into hostile environments and gained victories (Cardinals over Panthers, Eagles over Giants, and Ravens over Titans). I guess the only real non-surprise is that the Pittsburgh Steelers continued to dominate in the divisional round of the playoffs by beating the Chargers — entering the game, the Steelers were 10-2 at home in the divisional playoffs. But given the NFL’s uncertain environment where being a high playoff seed doesn’t seem to mean much lately, you have to commend the Steelers organization for defeating a dangerous repeat opponent in Heinz Field.
I must admit that I was glued to my television on Saturday and Sunday as the divisional round was very enjoyable — even if I went 2-2 on my picks (had the AFC side correct). The games showed that persistence, defense, and protecting the ball are the football keys to moving on in the playoffs. The operative phrase is “Moving On”, because winning the battle on the stat sheet means nothing as getting “W’s” is all that matters in the NFL playoffs. Surprising all four teams that scored first this weekend lost, showing that the good teams like a good boxer shake off early blows to deliver knockout punches later on in victorious bouts. The winning teams in the divisional round persistence was led by their defenses as pressure limited scoring opportunities and caused turnovers. The Cardinals formerly lowly defense joined he high-ranking Steelers, Ravens, and Eagles in capitalizing on turnovers and limiting their opponent’s scoring opportunities in wins — all of the winning teams caused at least 2 turnovers including the Cardinals forcing an amazing six against the Panthers.
What will happen next in the Conference Round???? Who knows as the NFL continues one wacky season. Early on I thought that I had a clue who was playoff ready by subscribing to the old-school philosophy that home-field advantage still meant something — think Super Teams like the ’70s Steelers, ’80s Niners, ’90s Cowboys, and ’00s Patriots winning at home during their Super Bowl-winning runs. However with several top seeds falling by the wayside, including both #1 seeds this weekend — No number #1’s in the Super Bowl for the first time since 1997 — times have changed. This year’s teams are following the “Road Warrior” mentality of recent past Super Bowl champions (2005 Steelers and 2007 Giants) as their blueprint for success. The script has been flipped as the lower seeded playoffs teams have turned their “Us Against the World” lockerrooms into thought to be unfathomable wins. Next up is the Conference Round with the unlikely pairing of the NFC’s Number #4 seeded Arizona Cardinals hosting the #6 Philadelphia Eagles (first time ever two non double digit win teams will oppose each other in the conference round) and the AFC’s Number #2 seeded Pittsburgh Steelers, the lone remaining high-seed, hosting the #6 seeded Baltimore Ravens. So right now going into next week’s games, expect the unexpected as teams try to continue to buck the odds in hopes of joining the ’05 Steelers and ’07 Giants, going from an unlikely Wildcard team to holding the Lombardi Trophy.
Baltimore Ravens 13, Tennessee Titans 10
Going into this game you knew it would be black-and-blue affair and the action on the field disappoint. The weather was cold and windy, but it didn’t stop two of the NFL’s best defenses from teeing off on the other teams’ offense. The game was low-scoring and both teams made it a point to stop the run (Ravens only had 50 yards rushing and the Titans dynamic duo Johnson and White were both well under 100 yards). The story of the game for me was how the Titans never capitalized on scoring chances. The Titans had the advantage in first downs (21 to 9), yardage (391 to 211) and clock (34:07 to 25:53). But the home team Titans turned the ball over three times in Ravens’ territory including two fumbles inside the Ravens’ 20-yard line. Ravens veteran kicker Matt Stover (2/2 FGs, 1/1 XP for 7 Pts) nailed a 43-yard field goal with 57 seconds remaining to put the Ravens up, 13-10. Ravens rookie quarterback Joe Flacco was efficient throwing for numbers 11-22, 161 yards, 1 TD and 0 INT as he became the first rookie quarterback to win his first two starts. You have to wonder if the stifling defense and efficient offense Ravens are feeling like their Super Bowl champion 2000 selves. Next up is a trip to Pittsburgh for a “rubber match” with the Steelers.
Arizona 33 Cardinals, Carolina Panthers 13
Do you remember about a month ago when the Cardinals clinched the pathetic NFC West with a weak 9-7 record. Everyone thought the Cards would just be happy to be in the playoffs and have their first home playoff game since 1947. Well everyone welcome to the new Arizona Cardinals as head coach Ken Whisenhunt has his team in position to go to the Super Bowl for the first time ever. One of the NFL’s longest running punchlines — have never been to a Super Bowl and are in the NFC title game for the first time ever — showed the entire country that they are no longer a joke as they dominated the NFC #1 seeded Panthers. The Cardinals ran the ball well (135 yards) and stopped the run (only 78 rushing yards for the Panthers). But the story of the game was the awful play of Carolina Panthers QB Jake Delhomme (see Lloyd’s Lackey) as opposed to the veteran leadership of Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner (21-32, 220 yards, 2 TD, and 1 INT). Warner and receiver Larry Fitzgerald (see Game Balls) were on the right page from the beginning of the game as the Cardinals built a 27-7 halftime lead. Also did you notice how up-and-coming rookie cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie held Carolina receiver Steve Smith without a catch for until the fourth quarter. Last year the Super Bowl was in Arizona’s home stadium, but this year the Cardinals will surprising host the NFC Championship against the equally surprising Eagles. Fans were so excited the NFC title game sold out in six minutes.
Philadelphia Eagles 23, New York Giants 11
I have to admit that I didn’t think my hometown team could get it done against the Giants on the road for the second time, but they did (Thanks for all the calls and Emails friends and family). Early on it looked to be all Giants as the G-Men won the coin toss, decided to receive, and backup running back Ahmad Bradshaw ran the opening kickoff deep into Eagles territory. However kick David Akers stopped Bradshaw from scoring and the Giants started their theme of kicking field goals by converting on a short kick by John Carney. After the fireworks of the Giants’ opening drive, it was all Eagles as their defense harassed Giants quarterback Eli Manning all day. Manning never looked comfortable in pocket as he threw wobbler after wobbler in the windy Meadowlands. The game seemed to be over when Eagles cornerback Asante Samuel intercepted Manning’s first pass on the Giants’ second drive and returned it to the Giants’ 2-yard line. After a quick dive-in touchdown by efficient Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb (22-40, 217 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT, and 16 rushing yards w/ 1 TD – now 9-5 in the playoffs) making the score 7-3, the G-Men had little fight. The Giants had the ball five times inside the Eagles’ 50-yard line and had only 5 field goal attempts to show for it (Carney made three field goals and missed two). The Eagles were outrushed (138 to 59), but on two key 4th downs they were up to the task. Eagles DT Brodrick Bunkley made two crucial fourth down stops to preserve the Birds’ win including stuffing Manning on a fourth-and-1 play and running back Brandon Jacobs on fourth-and-2. Who would have thought it when the Eagles were 5-5-1 after a horrible beating at the hands of the Ravens that they would be going to their unprecedented 5th NFC Championship in 10 years (won 6 of their last 7 including two in the playoffs). The New England Patriots (five) and Pittsburgh Steelers (three) are the only other NFL teams with more than two conference championship game appearances in that span. Next up for the Eagles is tough game against a Cardinals team that they already beat on Thanksgiving 48-20. The Birds cannot have a letdown as they are still the same team that lost to the Redskins twice this year including in Week 16 when their season was supposed to be on the line. With the Cardinals and Eagles making it the to the NFL Final 4, combined 2007 record of four teams is 31-33. It will be fun to see which team left for dead, the Eagles or Cardinals, represents the NFC in the Super Bowl XLIII.
Pittsburgh Steelers 35, San Diego Chargers 24
The Steelers were all business as they knew what was at stake in the last divisional game. All three other home teams lost to lower seeds and the Steelers didn’t want to make it four. On a snowy and muddy Steelers type track, P-Burgh’s boys dusted off veteran running back Willie Parker (see Game Balls) and rode the Super Bowl XL star to victory. The game looked to be evenly matched until the Steelers needing a big play (down 7-0 at the time) got one from receiver Santonio Holmes. The speedy former Ohio State product set a Steelers’ playoff record with a 67-yard punt return for a touchdown that knotted the score. After winning only by a score of 14-10 at the half, a fully healed efficient Ben Roethlisberger (17-26, 181 yards, 1TD, 0 INTs) and the Steelers came out with smoke in their eyes running 13-play touchdown drive that took 7:56 off the clock. From there the Chargers tried in vane to come back, but the Steelers were too much. The game was basically over in the 4th quarter when Parker carried the ball five times for 53 yards and scored the Steelers final touchdown to put them up 35-17. Next up for the Steelers is their hated AFC North rival the Baltimore Ravens. These teams are the NFL’s version of the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s and it will be interesting to see if the Steelers can beat the tough Ray Lewis led Ravens three times in one season.
Arizona Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald — With fellow star 1,000-yard receiver Anquan Boldin sidelined with a hamstring injury, the tall Pro Bowl receiver from the University of Pittsburgh was incredible. Fitzgerald picked up the slack with 8 catches for 166 yards and 1 touchdown as veteran quarterback Kurt Warner couldn’t help but smile. To get things started in the Cardinals rather easy 33-13 victory over the Panthers, Fitzgerald made a circus catch over double-coverage on his first grab. He went on to surpass 100 yards with five minutes left in the second quarter and to no one’s surprise Fitzgerald recovered the Panthers desperation onside kick in the final minutes of the Cardinals’ win.
Other Honorees: Pittsburgh Steelers RB Willie Parker (Had his most carries since week 2 with 27 rushes for 146 yards and 2 TDs. Had his first postseason 100-yard game); Pittsburgh Steelers LB Lamar Woodley (The Steelers “D” was stifling against the Chargers and Woodley was everywhere producing 5 TKLs and 2 sacks); Philadelphia Eagles kicker David Akers (Was huge in beating the G-Men connecting on 3 for 3 FGs and 2 XP’s for 11 points plus tackling Bradshaw on the opening kickoff. Also set an NFL record with 18 straight made field goals in the playoffs); Philadelphia Eagles S Brian Dawkins (helped stuff the Giants on two 4th down attempts finishing with 10 TKls); Baltimore Ravens S Jim Leonhard (Stopped two huge Titans drives. Before halftime he recovered a fumble and in the fourth quarter the small former Wisconsin star forced a fumble at the Baltimore 9).
Carolina Panthers QB Jake Delhomme – The former NFL Europe quarterback looked like he belonged back in the minor leagues. Delhomme (17-34, 205 yards, 1 TD, 5 INT and 1 fumble) accounted for six turnovers by himself and the Cardinals scored 23 of their 33 points off of those takeaways. Also only got the ball to All-World receiver Steve Smith only twice including a garbage touchdown. It will be interesting to see if on the hot-seat head coach John Fox brings Delhomme back for a salary of $11 Million dollars next year after such a disastrous game
Other Dishonorees — NY Giants QB Eli Manning (The deer-in-the-headlights look was back as Manning struggle against the Eagles throwing wobbly pass after wobbly pass. The former first overall pick finished with numbers 15-29, 169 yards, 0 TD, and 2 INTs as his playoffs record fell to 8-7 for his career); Carolina Panthers DE Julius Peppers (After a bust out season producing 14.5 sacks, the former UNC star got no pressure on Warner finishing with only 2 TKLs); Tennessee Titans QB Kerry Collins (I had a feeling that playing the Ravens again was not going to be good for the former Giants Super Bowl quarterback. Collins looked a little frazzled at times finishing with numbers 26-42, 281 yards, 0 TD, and 1 INT); NY Giants receivers (Anyone wondering if the G-Men would miss Plaxico Burress got their answer as Hixon, Smith, and Toomer only had 6 receptions for 80 yards)
Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)