Perhaps the most surprising thing about the 2016 NFL divisional playoffs is that there actually were two compelling games on Sunday.
The average margin of victory in the first six games of the playoffs was 18 points. The Falcons beat the Seahawks 36-20 and the Patriots beat the Texans 34-16 in the Saturday snoozers. But Sunday’s games had no such hypnotic effect.
The Packers upset the Cowboys 34-31 in a last-second thriller and the Steelers hung on to edge the Chiefs 18-16 in the nightcap.
Not only were the games more entertaining on Sunday, but we have kickers to thank for it.
Packers beat Cowboys
The early game on Sunday was full of surprises, not the least of which was the fourth-seeded Packers’ dramatic 34-31 win over the top-seeded Cowboys in Dallas.
It wasn’t quite a Hail Mary that brought the Packers to the cusp of victory. In terms of drama, however, Aaron Rodgers threw the closest thing to a Hail Mary that can be completed short of the end zone.
With the score tied 31-31, the Packers faced a third-and-20 from their own 32 with 12 seconds left. They had overtime staring them in the face after blowing an 18-point lead. Rodgers rolled to his left and hit tight end Jared Cook, whose knees were well out of bounds but not on the ground.
His feet were on the ground. More importantly, they were inbounds.
The 36-yard completion moved the Packers into field-goal range, and Mason Crosby kicked the game-winning 51-yard field goal as time ran out to stun the Cowboys and bring their 13-3 season to an abrupt end.
The Packers’ season seemed over when they lost four in a row and fell to 4-6. Now they and the Falcons will close the Georgia Dome next week in the NFC championship game.
Mason Crosby kicks game-tying and game-winning field goals
Mason Crosby’s game-winning kick was the third field goal longer than 50 yards that was made in the last 98 seconds of Sunday’s classic.
It was surprising that the Packers sent Crosby out there to attempt a 56-yard field goal with 1:38 left. Not that it was out of his range. Crosby made a 56-yarder last year. But it was risky in that situation. The Cowboys would have been about 30 yards out of field goal range with a minute and a half left.
But Crosby nailed it. Dan Bailey countered with a 52-yard field goal to tie it, and thanks to Jared Cook’s high-wire reception, Crosby had a chance to give the Packers a walk-off win. His 51-yarder wasn’t as true as his 56-yarder, but it broke just inside the left upright as if it were a slider thrown by a pitcher who’s 60 feet tall.
So, what exactly was surprising about the final minute and a half of this game?
How about this:
The sight of stoic Mike McCarthy with tears in his eyes after Crosby’s kick went through was another thing we saw Sunday that we don’t see every day.
Cowboys calling a screen pass on 2nd-and-1
The Packers’ upset of the Cowboys wouldn’t have happened if weren’t for the Cowboys’ surprising ineptitude.
Dallas fell behind 21-3 midway through the second quarter, but they were riding Ezekiel Elliott back into the game. The Packers led 28-13 in the third quarter, but the rookie running back had run the ball four times for 40 yards on a possession that brought the ball to the Packers’ 19 for a 2nd-and-1.
So what do the Cowboys do? They stopped pounding the ball forward and threw it sideways, and Micah Hyde read Dak Prescott’s screen pass perfectly and intercepted it. In a game in which one more possession might have been enough for the Cowboys to complete their comeback, the squandered red zone opportunity is one of the many developements Sunday that will haunt them for the next eight months.
Le’Veon Bell breaks Steelers’ playoff rushing record for second straight week
Another week, another record for Le’Veon Bell.
The Steelers’ running back ran for 170 yards on 30 carries in Sunday’s 18-16 win over the Chiefs, breaking his own seven-day-old franchise record of 167.
On a day in which the Steelers couldn’t score a touchdown, Bell helped them convert seven of 15 third downs and possess the ball for 34 minutes, 13 seconds.
Of course, Bell isn’t at the top of EVERY Steelers’ postseason rushing list.
Chances are Bell surpasses that mark next week in New England.
Chris Boswell sets postseason field goal record
Chris Boswell picked a good night to set a record for field goals in a single postseason game.
The Steelers scored no touchdowns for the first time since they took a 34-3 beating at Philadelphia in Week 3, but it wasn’t as much of a problem Sunday, because Boswell kicked six field goals, the most by any kicker in a postseason game.
Boswell kicked two field goals each in the first and second quarter to give the Steelers a 12-7 halftime lead. He kicked one in the third quarter to make it 15-7, then answered a Chiefs field goal with his sixth in the fourth quarter to make it 18-10.
It turned out the Steelers needed every one of those points, because Spencer Ware’s 1-yard touchdown run with 2:43 left made it 18-16. The Chiefs made the two-point conversion but it was negated by a holding penalty, and their second attempt failed.
The Steelers got the one first down they needed to run out the clock, and meet the Patriots in the playoffs for the first time in 12 years.
Dion Lewis is back
Tyreek Hill’s season might be over, but there’s still a guy playing who can score touchdowns in all kinds of ways.
Dion Lewis sat out for more than a year after tearing his ACL in 2015. The Patriots running back returned in Week 11 this season and his role gradually increased.
In Saturday night’s 34-16 win over the Texans, he officially regained his status as a dynamic playmaker.
Lewis caught a 13-yard touchdown pass from Tom Brady to give the Patriots a 7-0 lead. When the Texans responded with a field goal, Lewis returned the ensuing kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown and a 14-3 Patriots lead.
The Texans were still hanging around early in the fourth quarter, trailing 24-16 when Logan Ryan intercepted Brock Osweiler and returned it to the Houston 6-yard line. Two plays later, Lewis scored his third touchdown on a 1-yard run.
In a game in which everyone expected the Patriots to get a huge lead and feed LeGarrette Blount to grind out the clock, Blount gained 31 yards and Lewis made history.
Hill accomplished the same feat in the regular season this year.
Lewis did fumble twice, losing one that the Texans turned into a touchdown that cut their deficit to 14-13.
With the Steelers bringing a quarterback with a discernible pulse to Gillette Stadium next Sunday, Lewis needs to work on his ball security. But those fumbles won’t relieve the headache Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler and special teams coach Danny Smith will get trying to prepare for him.
Tom Brady throws two interceptions
Tom Brady matched his regular-season interception total with two on Saturday against the Texans.
It was the first time Brady’s thrown two picks in a game since last year’s AFC championship game, which the Patriots lost at Denver.
Of course it’s not like Brady threw two passes directly at Texans defenders. Even his interceptions come with asterisks. Both of them came on deflections. Michael Floyd couldn’t haul in a pass in the first quarter, and A.J. Bouye snatched it out of the air. Late in the third quarter, Benardrick McKinney tipped a Brady pass into the arms of Andre Hal. The Texans capitalized with a field goal to make the score 24-16, but that was as close as they’d get the rest of the way.
Brady completed 18 of 38 passes for 287 yards with two touchdowns and the two picks.
That’s probably not enough to help the Steelers rest easier this week.
Falcons go 99 yards for touchdown at end of first half
The Seahawks had the Falcons pinned about as deep as a team could be pinned. Neiko Thorpe had the punt timed so perfectly that he downed the ball just before it trickled into the end zone.
There already had been a safety in the game, and the Falcons essentially had a 12-10 lead because of it. Now it looked like the Seahawks could counter with a safety of their own to tie the game.
But Matty Ice had fire in his eyes.
Less than four minutes remained in the first half, and Matt Ryan drove the Falcons 99 yards, two feet and probably 11 inches in nine plays. Starting the drive lined up in the shotgun deep in his own end zone, Ryan didn’t even face a third down and completed seven passes, finding Tevin Coleman for a 14-yard touchdown and a 19-10 Falcons lead with 53 seconds left in the half.
The Falcons went on to win 36-20.
That was essentially the game-winning drive, because by coming out throwing with so little breathing room Ryan sent the message that there was no way the Falcons were going to lose.
Falcons get sacks from unlikely sources
If we were told that Vic Beasley would have no sacks and no quarterback hits Saturday, we’d think that the Seahawks would have a good chance to win the game.
It turns out the Falcons didn’t need any sacks from the NFL’s sack leader to handle the Seahawks. They did sack Russell Wilson three times, but one of the players who sacked him had just two sacks this season, one hasn’t had a sack this season and one hasn’t had a sack in his career.
Brooks Reed, who had just 14 tackles and two sacks this season, was the first to sack Wilson. Reed, the Texans’ second-round draft pick when they took J.J. Watt in the first round in 2011, made three tackles in the game.
The next one to sack Wilson was Ben Garland, and it was worth two points. Wilson tripped over the foot of right guard Rees Odhiambo, who replaced an injured Germain Ifedi, and fell into the end zone. Garland got on him for the safety, which pulled the Falcons to within 10-9.
It was the first career sack for Garland, a converted guard who was cut by the Broncos in 2015 and didn’t play in an NFL game last season.
Jonathan Babineaux has had a few sacks in his career, but the last of his 27 sacks had come in 2015. The 35-year-old veteran found his way back to the quarterback when he brought down Wilson with nine minutes left in the game and the Falcons leading 29-13. Ricardo Allen intercepted Wilson’s third-down pass on the next play and the Falcons converted that turnover into a 36-13 lead.
That might give the Packers’ offensive line a little more to worry about next week than just Beasley.
Devin Hester and Paul Richardson stand out in losing effort
The Seahawks’ season didn’t end the way they wanted it to, but Devin Hester’s career might have ended on a high note individually.
The 34-year-old Hester was signed Jan. 3. The NFL’s all-time leader with 14 punt return touchdowns returned just one kickoff for 20 yards and one punt for five yards in the Seahawks’ wild-card win over the Lions. But he went off Saturday for 194 yards on five kickoff returns. It was the most he’s had in a game since Week 2 of the 2013 season when he was with the Bears.
This is the same person who the Ravens cut a month ago. His performance Saturday might draw some interest from other teams, but the interest might not be mutual.
Paul Richardson’s career, meanwhile, might finally be catching some steam.
Richardson made three highlight-reel catches for 48 yards against the Lions, and kept turning heads Saturday with four more catches for a career-high 83 yards.
The Seahawks might have fallen, but Richardson figures to enter 2017 with his stock rising.