Wild Card Weekend is officially in the books, and it produced four entertaining games that were rife with juicy storylines.
The New Orleans Saints eschewed their typical aerial assault for a punishing ground game, suffocating the Philadelphia Eagles en route to setting up a rematch next week with Seattle.
The San Diego Chargers won their fifth consecutive game, downing a Cincinnati Bengals team that once again came up small in a big moment.
And the San Francisco 49ers downed the Green Bay Packers in an epic game that featured two wonderful quarterbacks continually escaping pressure and making big-time throw after big-time throw.
As always, there are winners and losers following each playoff round, and thanks to the riveting nature of these games, the victories are sweeter and the losses more bitter.
Here are the winners and losers from NFL Wild Card Weekend 2014.
From the time he was a junior at Stanford, the Andrew Luck Hype Machine has been in overdrive. He spent two full seasons in college as the universally recognized top prospect and was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 draft.
On Saturday night, the Indianapolis Colts quarterback showed he's worthy of the plaudits and hyperbole. With his team facing a 28-point, third-quarter deficit, he began a comeback charge that culminated in an insane 45-44 victory.
The legend of Andrew Luck has officially begun. The rest of the NFL should be very afraid.
The game appeared over when the Chiefs grabbed a 38-10 lead shortly after the second half began. Luck wasn't playing exceptional football at that point, and his final stat line reflects that, as he did throw three interceptions. But he hit the afterburners at that moment and left the Chiefs in his wake, finishing the game with 443 yards passing and four touchdowns.
With a maturity that belies his youth, Luck rallied his team with his play and words. Offensive lineman Anthony Castonzo said after the game, "(Luck) kept telling us, even at 38-10, 'We're going to win this game,'' per Bob Kravitz of the The Indianapolis Star (h/t USA Today).
The seminal play occurred early in the fourth quarter, with the Colts trailing, 41-31, and driving near the Chiefs goal line. Luck handed the ball to running back Donald Brown, who fumbled. If the Chiefs had recovered, who knows how the game would have turned out. But Luck had the presence of mind to grab the football and dive into the end zone, continuing the comeback wave that would eventually overwhelm the Chiefs.
Before the game, Luck was a star. If the Colts had lost 38-10, it wouldn't have made his future (and by proxy, that of the team) any less bright. But this legendary performance elevated him into rarefied air.
The Colts aren't the best team remaining in the AFC playoffs, and they face a stiff challenge next weekend against the New England Patriots. But they have Luck, and with his legend underway, they cannot be counted out of any game.
Awful. Hideous. Grotesque. Disgusting. Unacceptable.
Those adjectives can all be used to describe the play of Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton in the team's season-ending loss to the Chargers.
He was brutal, throwing two atrocious interceptions and losing a fumble when he fell to the ground untouched. He laid his third consecutive egg in the postseason, and the offense hasn't broken the 13-point barrier in any of those losses.
The defeat is a bitter one for the Bengals, who looked poised to claim their first playoff victory since 1990 after completing an 8-0 regular-season schedule at Paul Brown Stadium. But Dalton saved his worst for when it mattered the most.
At times, he didn't look like an NFL-caliber quarterback.
While his arm strength is nothing to write home about, it was his decision making that was sorely lacking. He made several quizzical throws and was wildly inaccurate on others. He hasn't shown much development since entering the league in 2011, and he is clearly the albatross holding back a talented Bengals team.
While Dalton was putrid, there's other blame to be assigned. Star receiver A.J. Green dropped a well-thrown Dalton pass by the Chargers goal line late and with the game still in reach. Rookie running back Giovani Bernard had a costly fumble by the opponent's goal line in the waning moments of the first half. Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden was completely outcoached by Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano.
But Dalton was so dreadful that it's time for the Bengals to ask themselves if it's time to cut their losses and move on.
Forget his gaudy statistical output in an era of inflated passing numbers. Forget his 30-18 record in the regular season.
Once again, Dalton shrunk during the big moment and let down his team. He was the primary reason why the Bengals lost in stunning and spectacular fashion.
The San Francisco 49ers and their electric young quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, took over possession deep in their own territory with under five minutes to play. The tundra at Lambeau Field was appropriately frozen, and the score was knotted at 20.
From there, Kaepernick led the 49ers on a season-defining drive that culminated in a game-winning field goal as time expired, which sent the team to the Divisional Round for the third consecutive season. It was pure brilliance.
He was sensational on the final drive, making plays with both his arm and legs. The two biggest plays both came on third down: a critical 17-yard strike to receiver Michael Crabtree and an 11-yard scamper. In a season when he's been criticized often for a lack of production, Kaepernick got it done in a major way.
With all of his physical tools evident in a dazzling, dizzying display, he proved that he's an ascending talent who is capable of leading his team to victory when the lights are brightest.
The diehard fans of the Kansas City Chiefs deserve so much better than what's been foisted upon them over the last 20 years.
Since Jan. 16, 1994, the Chiefs haven't won a single postseason contest. The heartache started with an AFC Championship loss to Buffalo and continued in painful fashion as they blew a 28-point second-half lead against the Colts on Saturday night.
The loss to Indianapolis might have been the most devastating of them all, given the circumstances. The defeat was dripping with irony.
The defense—which had been the strength of the team on its 9-0 run to start the season—completely collapsed like a house of cards. The offense and quarterback Alex Smith—which had been maligned for most of the season—performed in superb fashion but failed in the game's closing moments while facing a one-point deficit.
And there's the cruel spate of injuries that wreaked havoc on the star-crossed Chiefs. MVP-candidate running back Jamaal Charles was lost on the opening possession due to a concussion. Receiver Donnie Avery and cornerback Brandon Flowers also suffered concussions. Backup running back Knile Davis was carted off with a knee injury. Once again, the die came up snake eyes for Chiefs fans—and in gut-wrenching fashion.
There's the Lin Elliott game against the Colts. The loss to John Elway and Denver following the 1997 season. Two other beatdowns at the hands of the Colts and Peyton Manning. And now, the Chiefs squander the second-largest lead in NFL playoff history and lose once again to the Colts and their new star quarterback, Andrew Luck.
If you're a Chiefs fan, try to take solace in the fact that your team went 11-5 and qualified for the postseason following a 2-14 campaign in 2012. Know that coach Andy Reid and general manager John Dorsey have the team moving in the right direction. Know that Smith played his best when it mattered the most.
And most of all, do your best to forget about this one. There's little doubt that it's going to sting for a while.
When Mike McCoy was named head coach of the San Diego Chargers, it was widely assumed that it would take him at least a year to mold them into a squad capable of competing in the postseason.
Well, things are officially well ahead of schedule, as McCoy's team won its fifth consecutive game, downing the Bengals on Wild Card Weekend to set up a Divisional Round showdown against the Broncos in Denver.
McCoy has pushed all the right buttons since the team fell to 5-7, instilling a win-or-go-home mindset that has lifted the Chargers to heights few thought they'd reach this season.
He should be applauded for committing to the run game. While quarterback Philip Rivers has gotten the lion's share of the credit, and deservedly so, the Chargers have evolved into a run-first football team. They've averaged nearly 40 carries a game over the five-game winning streak and toted the rock 40 times in the victory over Cincinnati.
Rivers only passed the ball 16 times.
McCoy's staff has also done a phenomenal job. Offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt has been marvelous throughout, and defensive coordinator John Pagano has his unit playing at a high level. San Diego is a complete team that is peaking at the right time, which is due in large part to its first-year head coach.
The first win in the Chargers do-or-die stretch came in Denver, and that's where the team will play next weekend in the Divisional Round. Discounting McCoy and the Chargers would be nothing short of foolish.
It was the kind of play that changes the course of NFL history.
With the score knotted at 20 late in the fourth quarter and the 49ers driving toward the winning score, quarterback Colin Kaepernick dropped back to pass. He fired a dart in the flat toward receiver Anquan Boldin, and Packers rookie cornerback Micah Hyde read it the entire way. He deftly stepped in front of Boldin, and nothing stood in front of Hyde but the end zone and the go-ahead touchdown.
But the ball slipped through Hyde's hands and hit the ground. The 49ers would go on to win the game as time expired.
Per Lori Nickel of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Hyde said after the game, "When the ball came my way, I definitely had big eyes. As a DB when the ball comes your way, you think that every time you're going to pick it. I thought I had it."
The rookie certainly deserves credit for taking blame, and he had an otherwise solid game and rookie season. But that dropped interception will be talked about by Packers fans for years as the play that could have eventually made their season a Super one.
We all heard the rhetoric last week. The New Orleans Saints can't win on the road in the postseason. They're a different team away from the friendly confines of the Superdome. They can't win on the strength of their run game and defense.
Well, the Saints heard it, too, and on Saturday night, they told all the critics to shove it with a 26-24 victory in Philadelphia. The win sets up a Divisional Round matchup in Seattle against the Seahawks.
With the Eagles defense hellbent on stopping Brees and the Saints' high-powered aerial attack, coach Sean Payton stuck with the ground game, and it paid enormous dividends.
The Saints ran the ball 36 times for 185 yards, eschewing finesse for raw physicality. In a game where Brees had only 250 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions, the run game and defense made the difference for New Orleans.
In one fell swoop, the Saints proved the doubters wrong. They won on the road in the postseason. They triumphed in cold weather. They emerged victorious with their run game and defense.
The old rhetoric can officially be put to bed. That makes the Saints franchise a major winner of Wild Card Weekend.
If someone had told Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly that his team would hold Saints quarterback Drew Brees to only 20 completions for 250 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions, he would have scoffed at the idea of a loss.
But thanks to a punishing New Orleans ground game and the failings of his own offense, the Eagles fell in the closing moments, ending the storybook first season under Kelly's watch.
The Eagles managed only seven points on their first eight possessions before exploding for 17 on their final three. By the time Kelly figured out the Saints defense, it was too little, too late.
Quarterback Nick Foles played worse than his stat line indicated. He threw for 195 yards and two touchdowns, but looked way too indecisive with the football. Running back LeSean McCoy, who won the regular-season rushing title, carried the ball 21 times for only 77 yards. The Saints defense did a marvelous job of shutting down Kelly's high-octane offense.
Yes, the Eagles defense allowed 185 yards on the ground, but no one expected Philadelphia to emerge victorious on the strength of that unit. It was supposed to win thanks to offensive fireworks, and Foles and company lacked the consistency required to be successful in the postseason.
Kelly had a wonderful first season in Philadelphia, winning 10 games and the NFC East title. But his offense came up empty against the Saints, and the Eagles' season is over as a result.
In Week 13, the Seattle Seahawks crushed the Saints on Monday Night Football, 34-7. In Week 14, they lost to the 49ers, 19-17. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out which team the Seahawks would rather host in the Divisional Round.
By virtue of claiming home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, the Seahawks draw the lowest seed to come out of Wild Card Weekend. If the third-seeded Eagles had downed the sixth-seeded Saints on Saturday night, Philadelphia would have gone to Carolina next weekend, leaving the Seahawks to host the 49ers, who beat the Packers on Sunday.
There's little doubt that Seahawks coach Pete Carroll was rooting hard for New Orleans, and because the Saints won in the final moments, Seattle avoided the 49ers in the next round. Instead. the Seahawks will play a Saints team that they destroyed a little over a month ago.
That makes the Seahawks a major winner from Wild Card Weekend.
If the Bengals had overcome the awful play of quarterback Andy Dalton and beaten the Chargers, they would have played at New England in the Divisional Round.
Take a moment and imagine how that game would have turned out. Patriots coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady hosting Bengals coach Marvin Lewis and Dalton. It wouldn't have been close.
Instead, because the Chargers upset the Bengals, the Patriots draw the Colts and their star quarterback, Andrew Luck, who is coming off a legendary performance against Kansas City. While the Patriots are the better team, you can bet your bottom dollar that Belichick would much rather have gone against Dalton than Luck.
Because they must face a red-hot Luck and a Colts team that has won four straight instead of Dalton and a Bengals squad that flounders when it matters most, the Patriots are Wild Card Weekend losers.