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AFC North Wildcard Weekend Review

AFC North Wildcard Weekend Review
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This was the third playoff meeting between these rival quarterbacks

Wildcard weekend was full of AFC North teams as three were good enough to make the playoffs, but none were good enough to take advantage of a bye week. Only one survived as the North teams showed off their good, bad, and downright ugly.

Lets recap.

Baltimore Ravens @ Pittsburgh Steelers
Saturday, January 3, 4:30pm
Final:  Ravens 30, Steelers 17

Coach Mike Tomlin said before the game that the winning team would be the one who made the most “splash plays”. He was correct. The Ravens made a few more, but it was the Steelers near misses that really helped the seal a Ravens victory, releasing their Heinz Field playoff demons.

Heading into this game, the Ravens offense had become predictable to opposing defenses, especially over the last four weeks of the regular season. Offensive Gary Kubiak apparently made some adjustments in his run-to-set-up-the-pass mentality early in this one, and used the Steelers aggressiveness against them. The Ravens countered expectations and used play-action passes to set up the run. They gelled in their second drive and marched 80 yards in 10 plays for the game’s first touchdown. Meanwhile, the Steelers were methodical in their first three drives, but had just two field goals to show for it despite holding the ball for nearly 19 of the games first 24 minutes (32 plays, 157 yards in 3 possessions). The first half ended with offsetting field goals and a 10-9 Ravens lead.

If there was a theme in the second half, it was “the NFL is a game of inches”. In the 3rd quarter, the Ravens kicked a field goal in their opening drive and stopped the Steelers in their opener.  That’s when the near misses started to accumulate. With 4 1/2 minutes left in the 3rd, and the Ravens at the Steelers 11 yard line, Joe Flacco went back to pass. Steelers linebacker James Harrison blew past the Ravens rookie left tackle heading inevitabley for a strip sack, halting the Ravens drive with a shot at a touchdown return. Instead, right tackle Kelechi Osemele left his man and came out of nowhere to hit Harrison just as his outstretched hand grazed Flacco’s jersey. Flacco stepped up and to his left, and delivered a touchdown strike to receiver Torrey Smith. After that score, the Ravens stopped the Steelers on an Elvis Dumervil sack just as Pittsburgh was creeping near midfield and potentially into field goal range.  Soon after, the Ravens looked to be taking complete control of the game as they marched past midfield on the ensuing possession after converting a gutsy 4th and 1 at the Steelers 49. That’s when Mike Tomlin’s big splash play occurred and the Steelers recovered Ravens running back Justin Forsett’s fumble, leading to a Ben Roethlisberger touchdown just two plays later, cutting the Ravens lead to just five.

Splash plays and near misses continued during the last five possessions. Justin Tucker hit a 52 yard field goal (that wouldn’t be a big play in most venues, but a 50+ yard field goal is a rarity at Heinz Field), which put the Ravens up by eight. If he missed, the Steelers would have had the ball at the 42 yard line down by five with almost nine minutes to play. Shortly after the ensuing kickoff, Suggs intercepted a Roethlisberger pass with his knees, inches above the ground at the Steelers 21 yard line, and the Ravens immediately hit on a TD pass. This sequence of plays changed the game from a potential game tying or leading drive by the Steelers to a 15 point Ravens lead with eight minutes remaining. The Steelers then drove the field with a woozy quarterback and tight end, resulting in an interception in the end zone with three minutes remaining. And finally, the Steelers blocked a Ravens punt deep in Ravens territory, but instead of having a shot at a TD if the ball was blocked an inch to the left, right, up, or down, the ball sailed out of the endzone for a two point safety, essentially sealing the victory. This game was anything but boring.

What’s Next:  The Ravens travel to the Boston burbs for the 4th time in six Januarys to take on the Patriots in the playoffs  (Saturday, January 10, 4:30pm, NBC).

 

Cincinnati Bengals @ Indianapolis
Sunday, January 4, 1:05pm
Final:  Indy 26, Bengals 10

Bengals needed at least a close game to take on their own playoff demons. What started out  as a promising competitive game, ended as many feared it would. Lackluster on offense, a tired defense, and a challenged coaching staff.

The game started with Indy marching methodically down the field, only facing one 3rd down in their nine-play touchdown drive. The Bengals then took over and looked like they were going to run down Indy’s throat on Sunday, as they used five rushes for 37 yards to drive to Indy’s 39, but found themselves facing a 4th and 3. Instead of going for it with only a 19 yard difference between an incomplete and a touchback, or even kicking a low percentage 57 yard field goal (he would make one  later in the half), Marvin Lewis conservatively punted and set the tone for the rest of the game. Yes they did pin Indy back to the 9 yard line, and they did stop them, and they did have a great balanced touchdown drive to tie the game 7-7. But considering the Bengals history, they needed to show aggressiveness, which they lacked in past playoff games. On the defensive side, the Bengals bottled up the Indy offense after the opening drive, held them to two field goals, and the team went into the locker room at half with confidence as they would receive the 2nd half kickoff.

Unfortunately the 2nd half provided painful viewing for the Bengals faithful as Cincinnati began with five 3-and-outs, wearing out the Bengals defense, resulting in a 26-10 deficit. The Bengals offense did not post a 2nd half first down until there were less than four minutes remaining in the game. During that time, Andy Dalton dropped back 12 times and was 2-9 for 19 yards while being sacked twice. The  running backs had similar success rushing 4 times for 10 yards. The Bengals offense put zero pressure on Indy’s defense, and therefore no pressure on Indy’s offense, who had to do little in this game after struggling down the stretch.

What’s Next:  The Bengals again have to decide what they want to do with the coaching staff and quarterback. Andy Dalton will cost the team $9.6M against the cap whether they keep him or cut him, which really isn’t that much for a starting quarterback, especially one who recently signed a “$115M” contract.

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