25 Things We Learned from Wild Card Round of NFL Playoffs

Russell S. Baxter@@BaxFootballGuruContributor IJanuary 7, 2013

25 Things We Learned from Wild Card Round of NFL Playoffs

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    It was a somewhat interesting and consistent start to the 2012 postseason.

    Interesting because the more things change, the more they stay the same.

    Consistent because when you consider that the four games produced totals of 32, 33, 34 and 38 points, it was nearly déjà vu all over again with each passing contest.

    But before we look forward to what many consider the NFL’s best weekend, let’s look back at what we may or may not have learned from the first installment on the road to Super Bowl XLVII.

25. Arian Foster Loves the Postseason

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    The Houston Texans are alive and well once again.

    Last year in the playoffs, you could have made a case that, at least in the first two rounds, that Texans running back Arian Foster was the best player in the 2011 NFL postseason.

    After rolling up 153 yards rushing and a pair of scores in a 31-10 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, Foster responded with 132 yards on the ground and the team’s lone touchdown in a 20-13 loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

    On Saturday at Houston against the Bengals once again, the Texans’ offense bogged down far too many times. But there was Foster, gaining 174 yards from scrimmage and again scoring the team’s only touchdown, this time in 19-13 victory.

    So in three career postseason games, Foster has rushed for 425 yards and four touchdowns, plus caught 16 passes for 85 yards. That’s 510 yards from scrimmage, a very solid 170 yards per game.

    It could be an interesting Sunday next week at Foxborough against the New England Patriots.

24. Andy Dalton Doesn't Love the Postseason

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    The drought continues.

    The Cincinnati Bengals have not won a playoff game since defeating the Houston Oilers in the 1990 Wild Card Playoffs at since-demolished Riverfront Stadium/Cinergy Field (take your pick).

    That means that Bengals’ head coach Marvin Lewis remains winless in the postseason at 0-4, although the sideline leader does deserve a little credit considering he has now seen three of those losses in the last four years.

    Quarterback Andy Dalton has led the club to the playoffs twice in as many seasons, but it hasn’t been a pleasant experience. While the Bengals are looking for that elusive postseason win, Dalton is looking for that elusive playoff touchdown pass.

    In two playoff losses to the Houston Texans, the Bengals’ signal-caller has been sacked six times and thrown four interceptions. And it’s certainly not the way you draw it up when it comes to trying to advance in the playoffs.

    Better luck next season for Dalton and his gang.

23. Cincinnati’s Defense Bears Watching in 2013

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    Last season, the Cincinnati Bengals parlayed a 6-2 start and despite a 3-5 finish, managed to reach the playoffs.

    This season, these same Bengals overcame a 3-5 start and won seven of its final eight games to make back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time since the 1981 and ’82 seasons.

    In 2011, the Bengals’ defense got off to a solid start but started to crumble in the final two months and was pushed around down the stretch.

    This past season, Mike Zimmer’s unit gave up just eight offensive touchdowns in its final eight regular-season games, then allowed just one touchdown in Saturday’s 19-13 loss to the Houston Texans.

    Cincinnati finished in the league’s Top 10 in total yards and points allowed. And only the Broncos and Rams (52) had more sacks than the Bengals (51), who also forced 30 turnovers.

    Led by one of the deepest defensive fronts in the league and a veteran secondary, keep an eye on this unit in 2013, as it could be on the verge of bigger and much better things.

22. Matt Schaub Doesn’t Look Like Matt Schaub

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    It’s hard to put a finger on what’s bothering Houston Texans quarterback Matt Schaub these days…if anything.

    In any case, the Pro Bowl quarterback has not looked comfortable for more than a month and appears to be “pushing” the ball rather than throwing it.

    During the team’s 11-1 start, Schaub threw more than twice as many touchdown passes (21) as interceptions (nine) and was sacked just 15 times in those dozen contests.

    But in the five games since then, including Saturday’s 19-13 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, the Texans’ signal-caller has thrown for one score and been picked off four times. In the Wild Card win over Cincinnati, he provided Marvin Lewis’ team its only touchdown of the afternoon courtesy of a pick six.

    Still, the encouraging thing about Saturday’s win was the fact that Schaub wasn’t sacked, something that had happened a dozen times in the previous four games. If the Texans’ offensive line can keep him out of harm’s way this week against the New England Patriots, things could get very interesting.

21. Houston’s Defense Is Still Formidable

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    They’re baaaccck…maybe?

    It had been a rocky few months for Wade Phillips’ Houston Texans’ defensive unit. Entering the weekend’s Wild Card contest with the Cincinnati Bengals, it had been a reversal of fortunes for Phillips’ side of the ball.

    The Texans had allowed 188 points, including 21 offensive touchdowns, in their last seven games. That was in stark contrast to the team’s 8-1 start, when Gary Kubiak’s club had given up just 143 points and 13 offensive touchdowns (six of those in a 42-24 loss to the Green Bay Packers).

    This past weekend, Phillips’ club limited the Bengals to 198 yards of total offense and did not allow the Cincinnati offense to score a touchdown in the 19-13 decision.

    As everyone knows, the Texans’ season seemed to take a wrong turn via a 42-14 loss to the New England Patriots in Week 14 at Foxborough. It will be interesting to see if Kubiak’s club can get their show back on track.

20. Aaron Rodgers Loves the Postseason

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    No doubt Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was finally happy to win a playoff game in front of the home fans.

    When he and the Pack captured Super Bowl XLV, Mike McCarthy’s team took the long way to a title, winning postseason games at Philadelphia, Atlanta and Chicago before besting the Pittsburgh Steelers for their 13th NFL championship.

    A season ago, Rodgers finally had his chance to start a playoff game at Lambeau Field but it proved to be a frustrating experience for him and his team as the Pack fell, 37-20, to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants.

    In Saturday night’s 24-10 win over the Minnesota Vikings, Rodgers hit on 23-of-33 passes for 274 yards and a score. In seven career postseason starts (5-2), Rodgers has thrown 16 touchdown passes and only four interceptions.

    It could be a very interesting Saturday night at San Francisco.

19. The Packers Defense Needs Charles Woodson

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    John Waite once or twice sung “I ain't missing you.”

    But the vocalist (obviously) never tried to stop Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson.

    Back in Week 13 at Lambeau Field, the workhorse runner rolled up 210 yards rushing, including an 82-yard score, in a 23-14 loss to the Green Bay Packers.

    Four weeks later, Peterson ran for 34 times for 199 yards and a touchdown in a 37-34 win over the Pack, clinching a playoff berth for Leslie Frazier’s team.

    Packers’ veteran defender Charles Woodson wasn’t around for either of those games, but he was there Saturday night, totaling six tackles in Green Bay’s 24-10 win, five of those stops on Peterson.

    And while the Vikings’ runner still managed 99 yards on the evening and Woodson made his share of stops downfield, Peterson’s longest run was just 18 yards.

    The Green Bay defense will need a similar or better effort against the San Francisco 49ers’ ground attack this coming weekend.

18. Leslie Frazier Deserves Some Praise

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    Yes, the Minnesota Vikings once again won’t be going to the Super Bowl, something the franchise did with regularity in the late 1960s and mid-1970s.

    But when you consider how far this version of the Purple Gang came in one impressive year, you have to give head coach Leslie Frazier his deserved due.

    Entering December, a 4-2 start by the club had morphed into a 6-6 record after back-to-back road losses to the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers. But thanks to running back Adrian Peterson, some timely passing from Christian Ponder and just enough defense from defensive end Jared Allen and Co., Minnesota won its last four games and captured a Wild Card berth.

    And all of this was made even more impressive that Frazier’s team entered 2012 with a combined nine wins over the previous two seasons (2010-11) and riding an 11-game losing streak to divisional rivals.

    Not bad. Not bad at all.

17. The Packers Can Run the Football

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    It hasn’t been for a lack of trying.

    The Green Bay Packers finished 20th in the National Football League this season in rushing yards per game (106.4). But Mike McCarthy’s team ranked 16th in the league in rushing attempts per game (27.1), a bit of a turnaround considering only six clubs ran the ball less often than the Packers in 2011.

    On Saturday night, the Minnesota Vikings outrushed McCarthy’s squad, 167-76. But by game’s end, it was the Packers (31) who totaled more rushing plays than the Vikings (29).

    Green Bay used a stable of backs to pick up those 76 yards and their longest run of the night was just 10 yards. But keeping the Minnesota defense off-balance as much as possible was one key to the 24-10 win.

    The yards won’t come easy this week against the San Francisco 49ers, who rank fourth in the league in rushing defense. But that won’t stop McCarthy and Co. from trying.

16. Youth Continues to Be Served

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    The Indianapolis Colts rolled up 419 total yards on the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday.

    Unfortunately, Chuck Pagano’s team never rolled into the end zone.

    The Colts were limited to three field goals in the 24-9 Wild Card loss. But led by quarterback Andrew Luck, the future looks quite bright, at least on the offensive side of the ball, as the team’s 2012 draft class continued to be served.

    Indianapolis rolled up 152 yards rushing, 126 of that by rookies Vick Ballard (91) and Luck (35). The Colts’ signal-caller completed 28-of-54 passes for 288 yards and an interception.

    And while veteran Reggie Wayne led the team with nine catches for 114 yards, rookies in wideout T.Y. Hilton (8-66), tight ends Dwayne Allen (4-51) and Coby Fleener (3-25), wide receiver LaVon Brazil (1-17) and Ballard (1-3) combined for 17 of Luck’s 28 completions, good for more than half (162) of Luck’s 288 yards.

    Now if the Colts’ 2013 draft can make a similar impression on the defensive side of the ball, look out…

15. Adam Vinatieri Can Still Get It Done (Well...)

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    Best known for his clutch performances with the New England Patriots, placekicker Adam Vinatieri has made his share of big kicks over the last seven seasons for the Indianapolis Colts.

    The last time the Colts played a playoff game at Baltimore, it was Vinatieri who provided all the points for his team in a 15-6 win over the Ravens in the 2006 AFC Divisional Round.

    That victory propelled the team to the AFC Championship Game, where they defeated the New England Patriots, 38-34, en route to a 29-17 win over the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI.

    On Sunday, the league’s ninth all-time leading scorer extended his own NFL postseason records for field goals and points by hitting on kicks of 47, 52 and 26 yards.

    Unfortunately, it was a 40-yard miss wide right in the fourth quarter that would have narrowed the Colts’ deficit at the time to 17-12. Instead, the Ravens followed that up with a touchdown that sealed a 24-9 victory.

    Despite that one miss, Vinatieri continues to deliver after 17 NFL seasons. And don’t be surprised if he and the Colts are back in the playoffs in 2013, he’s up to his old clutch tricks once again.

14. Paul Kruger Is a Nightmare

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    With veteran linebackers Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis sidelined most of the season with injuries, someone had to step up for the Baltimore Ravens’ defense.

    Enter outside linebacker Paul Kruger, who led the team with nine sacks in 2012 and on Sunday helped lead John Harbaugh’s team to a 24-9 win over the Indianapolis Colts.

    The young defender totaled four tackles and had 2.5 of the team’s three sacks of quarterback Andrew Luck. Kruger also knocked down a pass and forced a fumble. And while the Ravens were credited with 10 hits on Luck on Sunday, the former Utah standout was credited with five of those.

    It will be interesting to see if he can have similar success against Denver Broncos’ quarterback Peyton Manning this weekend.

13. Joe Flacco Digs the Long Ball

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    It had been a fairly quiet afternoon for Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco on Sunday.

    With just over a minute left before halftime, the much-maligned signal-caller had completed 4 of 11 passes for 61 yards.

    Suddenly, a quick flip to running back Ray Rice produced 47 yards and quickly, a tie game turned into a 10-3 Baltimore lead following a touchdown blast from Vonta Leach. Still, Flacco had completed just two passes for 30 yards to his wide receivers in the first half.

    But go deep, young man. In the third quarter, Flacco found veteran wideout Anquan Boldin long twice for gains of 50 and 46 yards. This approach seemed to loosen up the Indianapolis Colts defense a bit and when it was all said and done, Flacco wound up with 282 yards through the air and two scores in the team’s 24-9 win over the Colts.

    Don’t be surprised if this is the Ravens’ strategy early in the game against the Denver Broncos rather than later.

12. Anquan Boldin Can Still Come Up Big

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    Veterans can be served as well.

    With the emergence of youngsters like talented wideout Torrey Smith and reliable tight end Dennis Pitta, it’s sometimes forgotten that it’s wide receiver Anquan Boldin that led the team in receptions (again) in 2012.

    The one-time Arizona Cardinals’ standout totaled a team-high 65 catches for 921 yards and four touchdowns during the regular-season.  But since Smith (eight) and Pitta (seven) combined for 15 scores in 2012, Boldin seemingly takes a back seat in some ways.

    Seemingly, that is…

    On Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts, Boldin led the way with five catches for 145 yards and a score in the 24-9 win. What made his performance somewhat more impressive was the fact the quarterback Joe Flacco had targeted Boldin just twice in the first half with no success.

    So it was quite a final 30 minutes for Boldin and the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday. Against the Denver Broncos this weekend, you may not want to wait so long.

11. Ray Lewis Looks Like…Ray Lewis

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    We found out in a hurry that the man can still dance…

    And we found out all day on Sunday that the man can still play…

    We had not seen Baltimore Ravens inside linebacker Ray Lewis the last two-plus months.  And it’s safe to say that the Indianapolis Colts certainly didn’t miss him this past weekend.

    Lewis’ impressive return saw him total a game-high 13 tackles in the team’s 24-9 win. He also knocked down an Andrew Luck pass, one that was very catchable.

    Lewis has now played his final game at Baltimore but his team moves on this week to face the Denver Broncos, who defeated the Ravens, 34-17, in Week 15.

    And considering his club has dropped nine straight games to quarterback Peyton Manning (including playoffs), this may be the end for one of the great careers in NFL history.

10. Colts Deserve Their Due

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    It’s simple math.

    A 15-point loss can’t diminish an 11-win season.

    Congratulations to the Indianapolis Colts, who were destined to finish in the AFC South basement only to flip the script on those expectations, rebounding from a 2-14 disaster to an 11-5 record and a berth in the 2012 playoffs.

    Kudos to new general manager Ryan Grigson, who got the most out of a rookie draft class that would go on to score 22 of the team’s 40 touchdowns this season.

    Props to rookie quarterback Andrew Luck and veteran wideout Reggie Wayne, both who proved to be good for each other, with the latter helping Luck grow into a front-line quarterback.

    Cheers to offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who unfortunately missed the Wild Card Game vs. the Ravens but didn’t miss much else filling in at head coach.

    And finally, speaking of head coach, a big congratulations to Chuck Pagano. Not only for all those victories on the field but posting a win in the greatest contest of all.

9. Still Better to Be Lucky (Part 1)…

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    It proved to be one of the pivotal plays of the Seattle Seahawks' 24-14 win over the Washington Redskins.

    Down 14-3 in the second quarter but driving, Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson fumbles, potentially killing the opportunity for a potential score. But the ball is scooped up by one hand by Marshawn-on-the-spot Marshawn Lynch, who races down the left sidelines for a 20-yard gain and a first down at the Redskins’ 36-yard line.

    Five plays later, Wilson flips a four-yard touchdown pass to Michael Robinson and Seattle narrows the lead to 14-10.

    But the football gods giveth and the football gods taketh away, because…

8. Still Better to Be Lucky (Part 2)...

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    Now trailing just 14-13 at halftime and with the ball to start the third quarter, Pete Carroll’s team hopes to build on the momentum from the second quarter.

    And the drive gets off to a good start when running back Marshawn Lynch runs for 26 yards on the Seattle Seahawks’ first play from scrimmage after intermission.

    Seven plays later and with 2nd-and-1 from the Washington one-yard line, Lynch is on his way to the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown…

    Except for the fact that he no longer has the football, thanks to Redskins defensive tackle Barry Cofield. Defensive end Jarvis Jenkins recovers, and this time the good fortune belongs to Mike Shanahan’s team.

    Of course, Lynch and the Seahawks would have the last laugh in the 24-14 win. And the best thing about this great game is the fact that the ball isn’t round.

7. Marshawn Lynch Won’t Be Tackled in Playoffs

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    Depending on your perspective that day, it was one of the great runs in NFL playoff history or some of the worst tackling you’d ever seen.

    In the 2010 Wild Card Playoffs, Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch ripped off a 67-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter against the New Orleans Saints in which seemingly the entire Saints’ roster had a shot at tackling him. In all honesty, it was a tremendous example of determination by the hard-running Lynch.

    On Sunday at Washington, Lynch had another one of those moments as he dragged his share of Redskins for a 27-yard scoring run midway through the fourth quarter that put his team ahead to stay on the way to a 24-14 win.

    Yes, we’re aware that Lynch was also limited to two yards on four carries in a playoff loss to the Chicago Bears in 2010. But it’s pretty obvious that he needs the carries if he’s going to do his damage to opposing defenses.

6. Seahawks Can Win a Road Playoff Game

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    It wasn’t easy, but Pete Carroll’s Seattle Seahawks continue to prove that they can win football games no matter where they’re played.

    And while some like to focus on the team’s 3-5 regular-season road record, Sunday’s 24-14 win over the Washington Redskins was actually the club’s third straight victory away from home, having beaten the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field and the Buffalo Bills in Toronto in recent Sundays.

    But this was a sweet win because it gave the Seahawks only their second victory in 10 postseason road games and snapped an eight-game postseason road losing streak in the process. And it must be a rookie quarterback thing.

    On Sunday, Seattle got the best of Redskins Pro Bowler Robert Griffin III. Nearly 30 years ago, Chuck Knox’s Seahawks stunned the Miami Dolphins in the Orange Bowl, 27-20, in the 1983 AFC Divisional Playoffs.

    That would be Don Shula’s Dolphins, led by rookie quarterback Dan Marino.

    Who knew?

5. Redskins Tired of Playing Seahawks in Playoffs

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    This may be getting a little ridiculous.

    The Washington Redskins have now made three appearances in the playoffs since 2005.

    Seven seasons ago and under the guidance of head coach Joe Gibbs, quarterback Mark Brunell and company led the ‘Skins to a 17-10 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Wild Card Game. But Washington’s season ended with a 20-10 loss to the Super Bowl-bound Seattle Seahawks a week later.

    In 2007, Gibbs and Co. were back, this time with quarterback Todd Collins (who wound up as a late-season replacement for then-starter Jason Campbell). But it was another trip to the Pacific Northwest and it proved to be a 35-14 loss in the Wild Card Playoffs.

    On Sunday, the Redskins were hoping RG3 would be the charm. But as we saw, Pete Carroll’s team rallied from a 14-0 first-quarter deficit and ended Washington’s season, at FedEx Field to boot.

4. Want a Rematch (or Three)

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    If the Washington Redskins had managed to hold onto a 14-0 lead on Sunday vs. the Seattle Seahawks, all four of the Divisional Playoff matchups next weekend would have been matchups from the regular season.

    In Week 1 at Lambeau Field, the San Francisco 49ers ended the Green Bay Packers 13-game home regular-season winning streak with a 30-22 win. Now Aaron Rodgers and Co. head to Candlestick Park for the sixth playoff meeting between these franchises.

    In Week 14 on a Monday night at Gillette Stadium, the New England Patriots manhandled the Houston Texans, 42-14, in a game perhaps not even as close as that final score may indicate. Now Gary Kubiak’s club heads north this weekend looking for revenge.

    And six days after that contest, the Denver Broncos went into Baltimore and came away with a 34-17 victory, their first-ever road win over the Ravens. Now Ray Lewis heads to the Mile High City this Saturday hoping his latest tilt vs. Peyton Manning isn’t his last.

    It’s gonna be fun…

3. Home-Field Advantage Is Still Alive and Well

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    We came pretty darn close to a clean sweep in Wild Card Weekend.

    Last season, home teams were a perfect 4-0 in the first round of the NFL playoffs. And we nearly saw that again in 2012 as only the Washington Redskins, or more specifically the visiting Seattle Seahawks, prevented another perfect Saturday and Sunday for the hosts.

    Still, being at home the last two years in the first round of the playoffs has had its advantages as those teams have gone a combined 7-1. That’s quite a turnaround considering that in the previous four Wild Card Rounds, home clubs were a combined 7-9.

    Since the current playoff format began in 1990, the only time all four home teams won on Wild Card weekend was 2000, 2006 and 2011. And over those 23 postseasons, the host squads are a tidy 30 games above .500 (61-31).

    When it’s all said and done, don’t worry about who you’re playing. Just make sure you’re playing them in your building.

2. Defense Still Matters a Lot...

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    Apparently, NFL offenses spent a little too much time celebrating the New Year.

    In all seriousness, this first round of the playoffs saw all of these defensive units have their moments. Hence, not one of the eight teams this weekend scored more than 24 points.

    The Cincinnati Bengals failed to score an offensive touchdown at Houston, while the Indianapolis Colts never reached the end zone at all at Baltimore.

    The winning Green Bay Packers, Baltimore Ravens and Seattle Seahawks all hit the 24-point mark exactly in their wins, while the other five teams, including the winning Houston Texans, scored fewer than 20 points.

    It’s been said before. It may be a quarterback-driven league, but you better bring some defense to the postseason tournament.

1. So Does the Running Game

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    There were some impressive numbers put up by numerous teams this weekend, and we’re not talking through the air.

    While no quarterback threw for at least 300 yards in the four Wild Card Games, we did see three 100-yard rushing performances over the weekend in the Houston Texans’ Arian Foster (140), the Baltimore Ravens’ Bernard Pierce (103) and the Seattle Seahawks’ Marshawn Lynch (132).

    Five of the eight clubs this weekend totaled at least 30 rushing plays (including all four winners), and five of the eight teams ran for at least 150 yards in their contests.

    In fact, the only two teams that failed to rush for at least 100 yards this weekend were the Cincinnati Bengals (80) and the Green Bay Packers, although the latter managed that figure on a ball-controlling 31 carries.

    The next round of the playoffs includes Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers, all of whom threw at least 30 touchdown passes this season. But it will be interesting to see their teams' game plans next Saturday and Sunday.