How fun was the NFL’s Divisional Round?
The New England Patriots held off a late rally from the Kansas City Chiefs, the Arizona Cardinals survived one of the wackiest finishes in postseason history, the Carolina Panthers jumped out to a 31-0 lead before outlasting the Seattle Seahawks in the second half, and the Denver Broncos used a late drive from Peyton Manning to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The four games absolutely lived up to the hype.
Here are the 10 best plays from an incredible weekend of postseason football:
Gronk for six
After catching the opening touchdown of the game, tight end Rob Gronkowski put the Patriots up 15 points in the second half with a perfect route and catch. Positioned out wide to the offense’s left, Gronkowski ran a stop-and-go, and Chiefs safety Eric Berry bit hard on the fake. Given an open window to throw, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady hit his All-Pro tight end in stride for the 16-yard score.
Packers running back Eddie Lacy helped put Green Bay into the lead early in the second half by rumblin’, bumblin’ and stumblin’ for 61 yards. He cut back to his right, found a hole and then spun off a tackler at the second level, opening up a huge lane for him to roll his way down the field. The run was painfully slow and far from aesthetically pleasing, but it got the job done. The Packers scored the go-ahead touchdown three plays later.
Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. The Cardinals took the lead late in the fourth quarter on a deflected touchdown from Carson Palmer to Michael Floyd. Palmer threw inside to Larry Fitzgerald, but Packers rookie cornerback Damarious Randall stuck in an arm and broke up the pass. Instead of falling incomplete or resulting in an interception, the pass deflected right into the waiting arms of Floyd for the score.
Back-to-back Hail Mary’s
Fourth and 20 from your own 4-yard line should be an impossible situation to convert, especially on the road in a postseason game. But the Packers somehow pulled it off. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers took the snap and avoided immediate pressure, using space to his left to create a platform to throw down the field. He tossed a frozen rope from the end zone, and Jeff Janis—who had all of two catches during the regular season—hauled in the 61-yard pass behind the coverage to keep the Packers alive.
Now five seconds left. Down seven. Only one play could extend the game for the Packers, and it was a completed Hail Mary in the end zone. Rodgers and Janis made lightning strike twice. The Cardinals brought pressure, but Rodgers again escaped to his left and somehow unleashed another rainbow throw that traveled at least 60 yards in the air. Janis found the ball, out-leaped Patrick Peterson in the end zone and made the incredible catch. The Packers kicked the extra point with no time remaining to send the unbelievable game into overtime.
Fitz for 75
It didn’t take long for the Cardinals to give the Packers a response to their Hail Mary score. On the first play of overtime, quarterback Carson Palmer spun out of a sure sack and threw back to his left to Larry Fitzgerald—who was left wide open by a busted zone coverage. The 32-year-old receiver broke a few tackles before finally being stopped on the Packers’ 5-yard line. His 75-yard catch-and-run set up the game-winner.
Walk-off shovel pass
On the third play of overtime, Larry Fitzgerald sent the Cardinals to the NFC Championship Game. Arizona lined up Fitzgerald to the left of Carson Palmer, who was in the shotgun. Palmer rolled to his right and flipped to his veteran receiver, who simply ran down the line with him. The perfectly executed shovel pass ended with Fitzgerald in the end zone, giving the Cardinals a 26-20 overtime win.
Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart, who returned to the starting lineup after a foot injury, kicked off the proceedings in Carolina with a 59-yard run on the first play of scrimmage. He hesitated at the line of scrimmage before finding an opening, and he sprinted right through the heart of the Seattle defense for a huge gain. Three plays later, Stewart plunged in from four yards out to give Carolina a 7-0 lead.
How do you want to start a playoff game? By scoring 14 points within the first four minutes of play. On Seattle’s second play from scrimmage, the Panthers pressured quarterback Russell Wilson, who threw his desperation dump off behind Marshawn Lynch and into the waiting arms of Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly. He returned the interception 14 yards for a score, and the Panthers suddenly led by 14 points just three minutes and 22 seconds into the first quarter.
Despite trailing by 31 points at half time, the back-to-back defending NFC champions didn’t go down without a fight. Trailing by 17 with roughly six minutes left, Russell Wilson took the snap, rolled to his right and came back to his left, before spinning back to his right and throwing an off-balance prayer to the back of the end zone. Panthers cornerback Josh Norman couldn’t get a hand on the ball, which was caught for a touchdown by Seahawks receiver Jermaine Kearse. It cut the lead to 31-21, but Seattle failed to complete the rally.
The visiting Steelers were well on their way to springing an upset of the Broncos before disaster struck in the fourth quarter. On Denver’s 34-yard line and driving to extend the lead, Pittsburgh gave away the football via a lost fumble from Fitzgerald Toussaint. Cornerback Bradley Roby caused the fumble, and veteran DeMarcus Ware was right there to make the recovery. Given new hope, the Broncos drove down the field and scored the game-winning touchdown on the ensuing possession.