Saturday’s start of the postseason went according to form, as the division champion No. 3 seeds in each conference advanced by winning at home, eliminating the wild card No. 6 seeds. But the similarities between the two games end there.
In Houston, the Texans won an ugly game over the Bengals but did nothing to suggest that they have much of a chance of winning next weekend at New England — let alone winning two more games to get to the Super Bowl. In Green Bay, however, the Packers looked like legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
Before I go on: Yes, the Vikings were hamstrung by losing starting quarterback Christian Ponder to an elbow injury, and the Packers may not have won so convincingly if they weren’t playing against the Vikings’ overmatched backup quarterback, Joe Webb, who hadn’t thrown a pass all season. The Packers’ defense won’t get that lucky again in the playoffs.
But what really struck me about the Packers on Sunday is that they were winning for the same reason that they won the Super Bowl two years ago, and the same reason that they were the NFL’s best team in the regular season one year ago. That reason is Aaron Rodgers, who has played the quarterback position as well as it has ever been played over the last three years. With Rodgers running the offense, there’s every reason to believe the Packers can win at San Francisco next weekend, and then win again (either at Atlanta or back at home in Green Bay) in the NFC Championship Game. These Packers have a Super Bowl feel to them.
The Texans are another story. Quarterback Matt Schaub had his first playoff start, and he did not impress. Schaub handed the Bengals a second-quarter lead with a terrible pass that was intercepted by Cincinnati’s Leon Hall and returned for a touchdown, and Schaub routinely fizzled in Bengals territory, which is why the Texans had to settle for four field goals. The Texans opened as 9.5-point underdogs against the Patriots, and it’s almost impossible to see them winning in New England.
But it’s not at all difficult to see the Packers winning in San Francisco. There’s a lot to like about this Green Bay team, starting with a great quarterback.
Here are my other thoughts on Saturday’s action:
Duane Brown was my favorite lineman of the day. Brown, the Texans’ Pro Bowl left tackle, did a great job protecting Matt Schaub on pass plays, did a great job opening holes for Arian Foster on run plays, and did a particularly excellent job springing Foster on a 17-yard run in the first quarter: On that play, Foster ran directly behind a Brown block on which Brown completely destroyed Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict. In a defensive battle between the Bengals and Texans, Brown may have been the best offensive player on the field.
The Bengals’ linebackers had a long day. Burfict wasn’t the only Bengals linebacker who couldn’t get off his blocks. Bengals middle linebacker Rey Maualuga was repeatedly pushed out fo the way as Texans running back Arian Foster gained 140 yards on 32 carries. A big part of the Texans’ game plan was running up the middle at Maualuga. It worked.
What was Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden thinking? It’s hard to imagine a worse offensive game plan than the Bengals came out with, in which they completely ignored their best player, receiver A.J. Green. Amazingly, it was midway through the third quarter before the Bengals threw a single pass in Green’s direction. Green is an excellent receiver, and when the Bengals finally started throwing to him, he caught three straight passes, picking up 57 yards and single-handedly giving Cincinnati its first scoring drive. How on earth did it take the Bengals so long to get Green the ball?
NFL coaches need to learn when to put away their challenge flags. After Lions coach Jim Schwartz made a fool of himself on Thanksgiving by throwing a challenge flag on a play on which the Texans had been wrongly awarded a touchdown, every NFL coach should have learned: Scoring plays and turnovers are always automatically reviewed, and if a coach throws his challenge flag after a scoring play or a turnover, he gets a 15-yard penalty and the play isn’t reviewed. But not every NFL coach has learned. Last week Packers coach Mike McCarthy wrongly challenged a scoring play, and on Saturday Bengals coach Marvin Lewis took out his flag and appeared to be considering throwing it after the Bengals were ruled on the field to have thrown an interception. As it turned out, another official came in and overruled the official who initially ruled it an interception, and so the whole thing was moot. But coaches have got to get it through their heads: If it’s a scoring play or a turnover, keep your flag buried in your pocket.
Too bad Adrian Peterson’s great season had to end like that. Peterson recovering from a torn ACL to rush for 2,097 yards in 2012 was one of the great accomplishments in NFL history. It’s a shame that the Vikings were reduced to running a neutered offense in a playoff loss, an offense that couldn’t get out of its own way enough to give Peterson room to operate. Unfortunately for Peterson, he was playing with a backup quarterback, on the road against a team that may be bound for the Super Bowl.