LOS ANGELES, January 4, 2015 — And then there were eight. The 2014 playoffs began with four Wildcard games that offered mostly lopsided matchups. There were no thrillers for the ages. Nevertheless, it is still playoff football. Football flags were flown at half-staff on Sunday with the announcement that ESPN announcer Stuart Scott died of brain cancer at age 49. We loved Scott, and he loved football. The main lesson learned on this NFL weekend is to hug your loved ones. No day is guaranteed. The next lesson is to find something you love and embrace it. For leatherheads, that something is football. Football cliches about defense winning championships and experience defeating youth were left unsettled. With that, here are the rest of the NFL 2014-2015 Wildcard lessons learned and not learned.
Carolina Panthers 27, Arizona Cardinals 16 — The Saturday afternoon game was a tale of two quarterbacks. The Cardinals began the season 11-3 but lost a pair of quarterbacks along the way as they slipped from home field advantage to 11-5 and playing a wildcard game with third stringer Ryan Lindley. Lindley face off against Cam Newton, who was playing only a couple weeks after suffering injuries in a serious car accident.
Lindley was awful, throwing for only 81 yards, with 16 yards passing after halftime. Carolina turnovers saw them blow a 10-0 lead to trail 14-13 at halftime, but the Carolina defense was overwhelming the Arizona offense. In the third quarter, Fozzy Whitaker took a screen pass 39 yards for a touchdown to give the Panthers the lead. Arizona fumbled the ensuing kickoff to set up a gift touchdown for the Panthers. In the fourth quarter Lindley was intercepted twice, with Luke Kuechly snatching one and deflecting a pass that caused the other one. The Cardinals finished with 77 total yards, the lowest total in NFL history. Ron Rivera saw his team win their fifth straight while Bruce Arians was left to wonder what might have been if he had a healthy quarterback.
Baltimore Ravens 30, Pittsburgh Steelers 17 — The Saturday night game produced the expected hard-hitting head-knocker. With LeVeon Bell out injured, the Steelers running game was not the same. The Ravens only led 10-9 at halftime but broke the game open in the second half. A 40-yard bomb from Joe Flacco to Tory Smith set up an 11-yard touchdown connection that made it 20-9 Ravens. With the Ravens leading 23-15 in the fourth quarter, the final three Pittsburgh drives all ended in turnovers. Ben Roethlisberger’s first interception led to a 21-yard touchdown pass from Flacco to Crockett Gilmore for a 30-15 Ravens lead.
Flacco finished 18 of 29 for 259 yards and two touchdowns without an interception. Roethlisberger finished 31 of 45 for 334 yards and one touchdown but with two costly interceptions. The Ravens travel to New England for the Divisional game. This was AFC North football, and on this night it was Baltimore who hit Pittsburgh in the mouth.
Indianapolis Colts 26, Cincinnati Bengals 10 — The Sunday morning game should have been called the Tomato Can Bowl. Both the 10-5-1 Bengals and the 11-5 Colts padded their records by beating bad teams and losing badly to good teams. Every year these teams make the playoffs and are easily dispatched by the elite teams. The winner of this game would go on to be waxed out of the playoffs the following week at Denver. The Bengals were without A.J. Green but had him for past playoff losses. The Colts defeated the Bengals 27-0 earlier this season in Indianapolis.
The Colts led only 13-10 at the break but pulled away in the second half. Andrew Luck threw a 36-yard touchdown pass to Moncrief in the third quarter and Adam Vinatieri kicked four field goals on the day. Luck finished 31 of 44 for 376 yards and the one touchdown pass. Andy Dalton finished 18 of 35 for 155 yards without a touchdown. Neither quarterback was intercepted. Marvin Lewis joined Jim Mora in losing six playoff games without a win. “Playoffs? Are you kidding me?” Not for the Bengals, who were eliminated in the opening round for the fourth straight year.
Dallas Cowboys 24, Detroit Lions 20 — Fans of these teams finally had a reason to rejoice after years of frustration. The 11-5 Lions and 12-4 Cowboys offered contrasting styles. Dallas had the glamour on offense with Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, Jason Witten and workhorse DeMarco Murray. Detroit brought the ugly defense led by Ndamokung Suh. Early on it was the Detroit offense overpowering the Dallas defense. Matthew Stafford threw a 51-yard touchdown pass to Golden Tate and Reggie Bush, despite having dated a Kardashian, raced for an 18-yard touchdown run for a 14-0 Lions lead. A pair of Matt Prater field goals had the Lions up 20-7 late in the third quarter.
Dallas came roaring back. A 76-yard touchdown pass from Romo to Terrence Williams got the Cowboys back in. Down 20-17 in the fourth quarter, the Detroit defense could not close out the game. Romo converted on fourth and six and benefitted from defensive holding on another third down. On third and goal from the eight, Romo hit Williams again for their second connection and the first Dallas lead of the game with 2 1/2 minutes remaining. On fourth and three at the Dallas 42 with exactly one minute left, Stafford was sacked and fumbled and the Cowboys recovered. The Lions have still only won one playoff game since 1957 and none since 1991. The win was sweet redemption for Tony Romo and Jason Garrett. It was also sweet for Rod Marinelli, the coach of the 2008 Lions team that went 0-16. He is now the coordinator of the Dallas defense that made the biggest stop when it counted. As for Jerry Jones, he was criticized for years for being impatient and in recent years for being too patient. His patience with Garrett and Romo was rewarded on this day.
The Divisional Playoffs are set.
Saturday: 4) Carolina Panthers at 1) Seattle Seahawks
Sunday: 3) Cowboys at 2) Green Bay Packers
Saturday: 6) Baltimore Ravens at 1) New England Patriots
Sunday: 4) Indianapolis Colts at 2) Denver Broncos