The Divisional round of NFL playoffs delivered two ho-hum affairs on Sunday, but it was followed up with two nail-biters on Monday.
The top seeded Dallas Cowboys went in as substantial favourites at home against the Green Bay Packers, yet the majority were expecting a close game.
Just when it appeared certain overtime would be needed, Aaron Rodgers went to the well.
With just 12 seconds left and on his own 33-yard line, the pass he made on third and 20 will go down in Packers folklore. Running to his left he threw across his body, down the sideline for a 35 yard gain to journeyman Jared Cook, who dragged his toes superbly for easily the best clutch catch he ever made.
It set up Mason Crosby for yet another 50 plus metre field goal attempt (he connected 90 seconds earlier on a 56 yard attempt) and he delivered again, this time scraping it in from 51 yards.
The win was set up by a superb first half from the Packers offence and a defence that was limiting Cowboys star running back Ezekiel Elliot to few yards on each carry.
They led 21-3 early in the second quarter before Dallas opened up their passing attack and rookie quarterback Dak Prescott started finding WR Dez Bryant.
It’s hard to fault Dallas’ decision to try and dominate with Elliot early, however they may rue their decision to not bring pressure on Rodgers in the first half.
When they did blitz in the second it was done quite effectively. Rodgers was unable to stay in the pocket and wait for his receivers to uncover. The results were either a sack or a ball thrown before Rodgers wanted to.
While Dallas enjoyed a stellar season with two long term finds at important positions at quarterback and RB, they find themselves in the same position as they did last year – their defence remains a star edge rusher away from being able to pressure the opposing quarterback regularly without resorting to blitz packages.
The Steelers vs Chiefs game was a close result but didn’t reach the heights of the earlier match. The Chiefs appeared to have tied the game at 18 all, but a dubious holding call on much maligned former no.1 overall pick Eric Fischer, led to a retry that was unsuccessful from the 12-yard line.
The Chiefs offensive display was a litany of miscues. Quarterback Alex Smith missed two reads where the Steelers defence had blown coverages and left receivers absurdly wide open while The receivers dropped a number of well-delivered balls.
The entire offence had costly penalties, none more than tight end Travis Kelce’s personal foul late in the fourth quarter.
Kelce delivered a post-game locker room tirade at the refs on the aforementioned holding call. Like Odell Beckham Jr, he needs to see how his immature behaviour hurts his own team far more than any call.
The game delivered two statistics that were unusual – the Chiefs became the first playoff team to lose when scoring two TD’s and not conceding any while the Steelers became just the sixth team to win a playoff game by only kicking field goals.
On Sunday, the Falcons vs Seahawks game turned on the proverbial dime during a special teams punt return. Leading 10-7, newly signed punt returner Devin Hester took the ball 90 yards, only for a holding call to negate the return and place the Seahawks at their own two yard line.
When Russell Wilson tripped on the ensuing play and the Falcons recorded a safety, the momentum had shifted. From there the Falcons were untroubled, with their offensive line paving the way for huge gains by both running backs Freeman and Coleman.
The Falcons invested in the o-line in the off-season, singing Mack and Levitre and both additions have been a great success for them. It has also allowed Matt Ryan more time to throw and the running game has thrived.
The Texans had hoped their no.1 defence would keep them in the game against the Patriots.
That unit created turnovers and as a result they trailed by just one possession early in the fourth quarter before a pass that has come to define Brock Osweiller’s season came again; an overthrow on a mid-level crossing route for DeAndre Hopkins that resulted in an interception.
The ensuing one-yard touchdown run by Dion Lewis gave the Patriots a two-touchdown lead and it was game over. Dion Lewis also became the first player in a playoff game to record three TD’s by different methods (kickoff return, receiving and rushing).
The theme from last week continues in the Conference Championship games – both are rematches of regular season games.
The Packers on the road to the Falcons is a rematch from week eight when the Falcons won a high-scoring affair 33-32 after five lead changes, with Rodgers throwing for four TDs and Ryan three.
Despite owning the leading pass rusher in the game (Vic Beasley with 15.5) the Falcons rank lower than the Giants and Cowboys for total sacks (equal 16th with 34). If the Falcons cannot pressure Rodgers, then they too will most likely lose.
The Steelers at Patriots is a rematch from week seven when the Patriots won 27-16. Blount ran for 127 yards two Td’s, Bell on the other hand only 84 yards and 0 Tds. Landry Jones was at quarterback though for Steelers.
The Patriots were the fourth best team against the run (and are the best p.p.g. wise) with Belechick the master at taking away the preferred option for moving the ball from an opposing offence.
The Steelers can win by throwing the ball but Roethlisberger has developed a habit of throwing a couple of passes every game that can be intercepted. He’ll need to curb that habit and deliver a perfect game if the Steelers are to win in Foxborough.