What appeared to be a slate of four highly competitive contests in the divisional round turned out to be mostly the opposite.
The rested teams appeared to have a major advantage with fresh legs and pent-up adrenaline—at least for 3 1/2 games. The one outlier was the New York Jets, led by their charismatic and carefree head coach Rex Ryan.
The weekend festivities kicked off with the Arizona Cardinals visiting the Superdome to play the New Orleans Saints in a game that had all the makings of a shootout. It turned out that way on one side, but apparently the Cards did not get the memo.
After Tim Hightower broke through the line, going the distance on the first play from scrimmage to give Arizona a quick 7-0 lead, it was all Saints from then on in, as they rolled up a 45-14 win.
Drew Brees returned to the form he showed over the first 13 weeks, carving up the Cardinals' weary secondary with surgical precision. He was also given a tremendous boost by the Saints' energetic defense—which made life miserable for the otherwise red-hot Kurt Warner—as well as by Reggie Bush. With his bootylicious girlfriend looking on from a luxury suite above, Bush put on a show from wire to wire.
Appearing to be operating at a different speed than the Cardinals defenders, Bush raced for spectacular touchdowns on a 46-yard run in the first quarter and an 83-yard punt return in the third quarter. Overall, he accumulated 84 yards rushing on only five carries, 24 yards receiving on four catches, and 109 total yards on punt returns. He inflicted some serious damage on the Cards while hardly breaking a sweat.
In Saturday's late game, the Indianapolis Colts appeared to have shed the disappointment of their coach packing it in on their undefeated season, jumping out to an early lead and riding their defense to an easy 20-3 decision over the Baltimore Ravens.
The Colts' game plan was to key in on Ray Rice and force second-year QB Joe Flacco to beat them throwing to his substandard set of receivers.
Heading into the contest, the Ravens appeared to have a favorable matchup, pitting their fifth-ranked rushing offense against the Colts' 24th-ranked run defense. Stacking defenders to stop the run first—especially with the advantage of having the week off—Indianapolis provided little room for Rice to operate, exposing the Ravens' one-dimensional offense. It did not bode well for the Ravens when they fell behind by a couple of touchdowns and had to play catch-up.
With half the promising weekend already filled with lopsided games, NFL fans were pumped for a Cowboys-Vikings game on Sunday that surely would not follow suit.
Dallas came into the game with a five-game winning streak and exuding an air of invincibility. Minnesota had home-field advantage, an NFL-best nine Pro Bowlers, and a legendary quarterback on its side. This was going to be a slugfest played to a dramatic finish.
Wrong again. Apparently the 'Boys didn't get the memo, either.
While the Cowboys squandered opportunities, Brett Favre and Sidney Rice seized the moment. The pair hooked up for six connections, totaling 141 yards and three touchdowns.
Meanwhile, the Vikings defensive line was throwing the Cowboys around like crash test dummies, and had QB Tony Romo running for his life. The pressure resulted in six sacks, getting the best of Romo, as he fumbled the ball three times (two lost) and threw one unbelievably bad shot-put interception. It was a long day for Romo, but the Vikings defense clearly won this battle in the trenches.
Minnesota and Favre were giddy with excitement as they mounted a big lead and never let the Cowboys seriously challenge. For good measure, Favre called an audible with a 27-3 lead and under two minutes left in the game to pile on with a run-up-the-score TD pass.
The weekend finished with the upstart New York Jets taking on the AFC's hottest team. The Chargers entered the postseason on an 11-game winning skein, but faced a Jets team full of bravado along with a defensive resume to validate it.
The first half of action played out much the same way as the three earlier games. The Bolts appeared to have more energy, swarming to shut down the Jets' top-ranked run game. Unfortunately for them, missed field goals and penalties limited them to a 7-0 halftime lead.
After the break, the momentum seemed to shift, with the Jets continuing to wear down the Chargers with their pounding running game and suffocating defense. The Jets harassed Philip Rivers into throwing two second-half interceptions (three for the game, which he had never done before), leaving him looking flustered.
Rookie signal-caller Mark Sanchez capitalized on the last pick to fire a TD strike, giving his team a 10-7 lead at the outset of the fourth quarter. A few minutes later, fellow rookie Shonn Greene burst through the middle for a 53-yard touchdown run that seemed to break the Chargers' spirit. New York held on to defeat a somewhat stunned San Diego team.
Is it possible to have a "do-over" in the vote for NFL Coach of the Year?
- Colts (14-2): Colts looked fresh and hungry for a title
- Saints (13-3): Picked up where they left off in Week 14
- Vikings (12-4): Greater energy overwhelmed 'Boys at line
- Jets (9-7): Two dimensions and the Dilfer approach works
- Chargers (13-3): Fell apart in second half in all three phases
- Cowboys(11-5): Was this the same team that crushed Philly?
- Packers (11-5): Best team out of the Super Bowl hunt
- Cardinals (10-6): Rested Saints beat up Warner and Cards
- Ravens (9-7): Colts dared Ravens to win via the air
- Eagles (11-5): No more "do-overs": season's over
- Patriots (10-6): What happened to "The Team of the Decade?"
- Bengals (10-6): Crashed after a promising start to season
- Steelers (9-7): Pulled out another—but too little, too late
- Texans (9-7): First winning season, but no postseason
- Falcons (9-7): Strong finish to disappointing season
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