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Here is What Have We Learned from Wildcard Weekend of the 2016 NFL Playoffs, thanks to the AP Pro 32 for photos & help in this article.
- Prep and planning pays off for Packers’ McCarthy, Rodgers– Game-planning sessions can get a little dry sometimes for the Green Bay Packers.Not lately, not with coach Mike McCarthy and quarterback Aaron Rodgers in that same meeting to spice things up — both on and off the field.The Packers are coming off their most impressive offensive outburst in a while after beating the Washington Redskins 35-18 in an NFC wild-card game on Sunday. Rodgers has been more involved in planning of late and don’t expect the routine to change as the Packers prepare to visit the Arizona Cardinals in the divisional round this weekend.
“So Aaron’s been very much involved the last couple weeks. That’s fun having him in the room,” McCarthy said Monday. “Once you get the head coach back in the room, the meetings go an hour longer. And then you get the quarterback in there, now they’re two hours longer.”
The hard work has paid off.
The Packers shook off a sluggish first quarter and 11-0 deficit to race past the Redskins on the road. The offensive line performed well, running backs Eddie Lacy and James Starks each had touchdown runs, and the receivers created big plays.
Rodgers was back in rhythm, enjoying every minute. A TV camera even caught a light moment when the giddy Rodgers walked up behind McCarthy and put two hands on the coach’s shoulders.
It sure didn’t look like there was any friction between the coach and quarterback, which has been a popular topic of speculation during an offensively-challenged season.
“Yeah, I mean I don’t see it the way it’s perceived,” McCarthy said. “So I enjoy our relationship and ‘it’s great that everybody got to see some good clips’ is my answer.”
After handing play-calling duties to associate head coach Tom Clements at the start of the season, McCarthy took the responsibilities back in Week 14 against Dallas. There was a promising win against the Cowboys, but results since then were mixed — until the convincing victory over Washington.
A playoff win means even more after Green Bay ended the regular season with two straight losses.
“I talked a lot the last couple of weeks about being able to turn it on and a lot of you probably thought that was lip service,” Rodgers told reporters after the game, “but we just needed a game like this to get our mojo back and got our confidence going.”
First, they need a little rest. The Packers weren’t going to return to the practice field until Wednesday, though planning meetings for the Cardinals game have begun.
Rodgers’ involvement isn’t entirely new, since he’s usually around on off days when coaches are putting together the game plan, though it appears that he might be a little more involved.
Offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett spoke highly of Rodgers’ football mind. McCarthy said Rodgers asks good questions, “and questions are important in those meetings, because it can be dry … But it’s good to go in there and make sure you hash it out.”
Whatever the reasons behind the rejuvenated offense, the Packers are feeling much better about themselves than this time last week.
The team talked earlier last week about taking on an underdog mentality before McCarthy decided to scrap that theme. For all of their struggles in the regular season, the Packers still know what it takes to win.
“I get what people are saying. We’re not going to be an underdog. We’re no underdog going to Arizona. I don’t care what people think or how we’re picked or things like that. We’re going out there to win, and we expect to win,” McCarthy said.
- Every turnover a trophy for opportunistic Chiefs defense– The Kansas City Chiefs had six interceptions all of last season.They nearly had that many in their 30-0 romp over the Houston Texans on Saturday.Of all the reasons why the Chiefs have won 11 straight games, and ended a 22-year streak without a playoff win, their ability to create turnovers may be the biggest. They’ve gone from one of the worst teams in the NFL at creating them to one of the best — and they have taken care of the ball themselves at the same time.
“They’ve got a real knack for creating issues in the passing game and then capitalizing on bad mistakes,” said Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who will try to avoid all those pitfalls when New England hosts Kansas City in the divisional round on Saturday.
“All their guys seem to catch the ball very well,” McDaniels said. “There are a lot of guys who have vision on the quarterback, and their coverage is tight. They compete and contest every throw and you’re going to have to really do a good job of execution to avoid giving them opportunities.”
During an injury plagued 2014-15 season, the Chiefs only forced seven fumbles and finished with 13 turnovers, tied with the New York Jets for the fewest in the league.
This year? Rookie cornerback Marcus Peters had eight interceptions alone to tie for the league lead. The Chiefs finished with 22 picks as a team, getting them from just about everybody on defense, and added seven fumbles for 29 total takeaways — fifth-best in the NFL.
They also returned a couple of them for touchdowns.
“Any time you can get to the quarterback and put pressure on him, or make him uncomfortable in the pocket, you can create turnovers,” Chiefs pass rusher Justin Houston said. “Every week that’s our plan, that’s our goal: Dominate every snap.”
They did that to perfection last Saturday. Brian Hoyer was under so much pressure that the Texans quarterback grew jittery in the pocket, even fumbling the ball without getting hit. Dontari Poe jumped on the recovery, giving Kansas City prime field position when the game was still up for grabs.
Then there were the interceptions, which put it out of reach.
All-Pro safety Eric Berry had one of them, putting an exclamation mark on his remarkable return from cancer. Peters had another to further validate his rookie of the year candidacy. Fellow cornerback Sean Smith had one. And linebacker Josh Mauga had one at his own goal line to spoil a Houston drive.
The four picks tied for the second-most in a playoff game in franchise history, trailing only a five-interception performance against the Houston Oilers on Dec. 23, 1962.
“I guess it’s good deal,” Berry said. “We wanted to come in and dominate and right now we are just locked in ready for next week. … We are just going to keep on rolling in that demeanor.”
The Patriots should at least make that a little more difficult.
Along with the fact that they’ll be playing at home, Tom Brady and Co. turned the ball over just 14 times, fewer than any other team. The Chiefs had the second-fewest giveaways with 15.
So how have the Chiefs become so good at forcing turnovers?
Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton insists that nothing has changed schematically. In fact, Sutton believes a lot of the improvement boils down to luck and circumstance. Guys are catching interceptions that they might have dropped last season, or hopping on fumbles that the other team used to recover.
But a big part of it has to do with personnel, too.
The Chiefs played much of last season without Berry and linebacker Derrick Johnson, who sustained a season-ending Achilles injury. Both have returned to form this season. When you add Peters, a ball-hawking cornerback chosen in the first round, the defense gets a whole lot stouter.
Not to mention a whole lot more opportunistic.
“We just make our plays,” Peters said, simply. “Just play our style of football.”
- Backup RB’s Todman and Toussaint provide lift for Steelers– Jordan Todman and Fitzgerald Toussaint have spent their respective NFL careers finding work where they could get it, quietly doing their business on the scout team or second string, never wavering in their belief they could be difference makers if given the chance.In the rain on the road with the season in the balance, the two Pittsburgh Steelers reserves did more than just serve as placeholders for injured starter DeAngelo Williams. They proved they can make it in the unforgiving crucible of the playoffs.Todman ran for a game-high 65 yards while Toussaint had 118 yards of total offense in Pittsburgh’s 18-16 wild-card win over the Bengals on Saturday. Though Williams is hopeful his injured right foot will be good enough to go for next weekend’s trip to Denver, the Steelers running game appears to be in good hands either way.
“It’s still unbelievable man,” Toussaint said.
Pittsburgh signed Todman on Sept. 6 after he failed to make the final 53-man roster in Carolina (despite a 49-yard touchdown sprint against the Steelers in the preseason finale) and added Toussaint to the practice squad a day later. They worked most of the year as “in case of emergency, break glass” options behind Williams and Le’Veon Bell. Then Bell tore a ligament in his right knee on Nov. 1 and Williams had his right foot crunched while facing Cleveland in Week 17.
So much for being afterthoughts.
Yet Todman and Toussaint (already being dubbed “TNT” in some social media circles) hardly seemed overcome by the stage or facing the league’s seventh-ranked run defense. Toussaint’s first carry lost a yard but his second was an authoritative burst over left tackle for nine. Todman entered late in the first quarter and darted for 23 yards on consecutive carries.
“I felt like we were pretty good, pretty consistent,” Todman said. “We had a little rhythm.”
They began the night with all of 76 yards rushing on the season — about 1,460 yards less than the two guys they were replacing. Yet Todman and Toussaint kept finding room and taking some of the pressure off quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who had trouble facing an occasional downpour and a Cincinnati pass rush that rarely let him get comfortable.
At 5-foot-10, 200 pounds, Toussaint lacks Bell’s quick feet or subtlety. He was checked for a concussion when a collision sent the top of his helmet crashing onto the bridge of his nose, creating a gash that made him look like a stunt double in “Creed.”
“They ran some tests on me, had me say a couple things,” Toussaint said. “The finger test, I passed it with flying colors and I was good.”
The Steelers needed him to be. The player who came in with three receptions in his brief career played a vital role in Pittsburgh’s last-gasp drive. Trailing by two with less than 90 seconds to go and with Roethlisberger’s range limited thanks to a throbbing right shoulder, Toussaint suddenly became the most dangerous player on the field.
He caught consecutive lobs of seven and 10 yards to push the Steelers toward midfield and only Cincinnati defensive end Michael Johnson’s outstretched arm prevented a surprise draw play from the Pittsburgh 37 from turning into a big gainer.
“When you can go out there and got both guys out there, both making plays (it shows) they have confidence in both of us,” Toussaint said.
A confidence Pittsburgh expects to carry over to Denver. Even if Williams can play, it’s almost a given that Toussaint and Todman will be on the field at some point as the Steelers try to earn a trip to the AFC championship game for the first time in five years.
Whatever jitters they may have carried with them into the postseason are now a distant memory. Todman, who bounced from Minnesota to San Diego to Jacksonville to Carolina before winding up in Pittsburgh, had to wait five years to be indoctrinated into the playoffs. It proved to be well worth it.
“That was probably the most stressful one, the most ups and downs, highs and lows,” he said. “It’s amazing how one little thing can change the outcome of the game.”
Or maybe not so little. The Steelers are still playing thanks in part to contributions from two players who heard head coach Mike Tomlin repeat his “next man up” mantra ad nauseam all season and took it to heart. Sure, there was a lot of chaos in the final seconds. That was new. The Steelers finding a way to win in January was not, no matter who is on the field.
“I just believe in the guys in this room and the way we prepare all week long,” Toussaint said. “That gets us out of stadiums like that.”
- After Blair Walsh’s miss, other heartbreaking postseason kicks– The good news for Blair Walsh is that he’s not alone.OK, “good news” is probably too generous. There probably isn’t much that can pick up the Vikings kicker right now, not after he missed a 27-yard field goal attempt in the closing seconds of Minnesota’s 10-9 wild-card loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday.
Working into the wind and with the temperature at minus-6 degrees, Walsh was given laces to kick by holder Jeff Locke and pulled the attempt well left.
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer called the kick a “chip shot” and said “he’s got to make it.”
Walsh isn’t the first kicker to let down a coach and fan base during the NFL postseason, and he’s not in bad company, either. Hall of Famers and career record holders have all hooked or pushed or come up short in heartbreaking fashion.
Fellow kickers can sympathize.
“We need to make those kicks and we’re paid to do that. But stuff happens,” Redskins kicker Dustin Hopkins said. “I missed an extra point yesterday, and I obviously wish I could have that one back. I feel for the guy. I hate watching other guys miss, just because I’ve been there and I know how it feels.”
Hopkins said laces matter because the ball can move in a different direction if it hits the wrong part of the foot.
Here are a few notables from NFL history who also know how it feels:
JAN STENERUD, KANSAS CITY CHIEFS, 1971 AFC DIVISIONAL ROUND
Stenerud had the worst day of his Hall of Fame career on Christmas 1971 in a divisional playoff loss to Miami — the longest game in NFL history.
Kicking in muddy conditions in Kansas City, Stenerud missed twice in regulation, the second a 31-yarder in the final minute, then had a 42-yard try blocked in the first overtime.
Garo Yepremian gave Miami a 27-24 victory with a 37-yarder in the second overtime. The Dolphins then beat Baltimore to reach the Super Bowl, where they lost to Dallas.
SCOTT NORWOOD, BUFFALO BILLS, 1991 SUPER BOWL
Good ol’ Wide Right. Norwood missed a 47-yard attempt with 8 seconds left in the Super Bowl, allowing the New York Giants to hang on for a 20-19 victory. That was the first of four straight Super Bowl losses for the Bills and by far the most heartbreaking. Buffalo hasn’t been back since.
Norwood returned for the 1991-92 season and had a perfect postseason while the Bills advanced back to the Super Bowl, even making a decisive 44-yard kick to help them beat Denver in the AFC championship game. Buffalo released Norwood after that season and he retired to his home state of Virginia.
GARY ANDERSON, MINNESOTA VIKINGS, 1999 NFC CHAMPIONSHIP
In reality, 1998 was a special year for Anderson. The Vikings led by Randy Moss and Randall Cunningham went 15-1 in the regular season, and Anderson went 94 for 94 on field goals attempts and extra points, becoming the first kicker to go a full season without missing.
The problem was, he picked a poor time for his first miss in about two years. With Minnesota leading 27-20 and 2:11 left, Anderson missed wide left from 38 yards out, allowing Atlanta to march for a tying touchdown and then win it in overtime on Morten Andersen’s 38-yard make.
DOUG BRIEN, NEW YORK JETS, 2005 AFC DIVISIONAL ROUND
Brien missed the biggest kick of his NFL career, and then he did it again just moments later, becoming the first player to miss two field goals in the final 2 minutes of the fourth quarter in a playoff game.
He hit the goal post with a potential go-ahead 47-yarder with 1:58 left, but got a second chance when Steelers rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw an interception on the next drive. Brien got a 43-yard look on the final play of regulation, but missed way left.
In overtime, Pittsburgh’s Jeff Reed hit a 33-yard kick to give Pittsburgh a 20-17 win.
MIKE VANDERJAGT, INDIANAPOLIS COLTS, 2006 DIVISIONAL ROUND
What looked like an easy win for the Steelers devolved into mayhem late, with Indianapolis scoring 15 fourth-quarter points to pull to 21-18. Jerome Bettis then had the original Jeremy Hill moment, fumbling with Pittsburgh trying to run out the clock, and Nick Harper ran the ball back to the Colts 42 before being tripped up by Roethlisberger.
Peyton Manning worked Indianapolis into Pittsburgh territory, setting up a 46-yard attempt for Vanderjagt, at that point the most accurate kicker in NFL history.
Vanderjagt missed wide right with 21 seconds left, and the Steelers ran out the clock to hold off the Colts.
NATE KAEDING, SAN DIEGO CHARGERS, 2010 AFC DIVISIONAL ROUND
Kaeding retired in 2012 having made 86.2 percent of his career field goal attempts, making him the second-most accurate kicker in NFL history. The postseason was never his strong suit, though, a trend that began when he missed a 40-yarder against the Jets in 2005. In an interesting twist, Brien won that game for New York with a 27-yarder.
Kaeding’s postseason struggles continued in 2006, when he missed his first field goal at home in two years on a 54-yard attempt that would’ve tied a game against New England. He also missed kicks in San Diego’s first two games of the 2007 playoffs, extending his streak of postseason games with a missed field goal to four.
All that set up the real heartbreaker for Kaeding, though: a 2010 game against the Jets in which he missed three kicks — from 36, 57 and 40 yards — in a game New York won 17-14. The last miss came with 4:42 left and the Jets leading 17-7.
BILLY CUNDIFF, BALTIMORE RAVENS, 2012 AFC CHAMPIONSHIP
This may be the closest relative to Walsh on the heartbreaking missed kick family tree. With his Ravens down 23-20 to the Patriots and 15 seconds left, Cundiff set up for a 32-yard chip shot in cold weather at Gillette Stadium.
Cundiff pulled the kick way left, and New England took a knee and a trip to Lucas Oil Stadium for the Super Bowl, where Tom Brady and Co. lost to the Giants 21-17.
- Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict suspended for first 3 games next season– Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict was suspended for the first three games of next season as the NFL began handing down punishments on Monday for an ugly wild-card playoff game.The league also is reviewing the conduct of other players and coaches during Pittsburgh’s 18-16 victory at Paul Brown Stadium on Saturday night that turned on penalties against Burfict and Bengals cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones in the final minute.Burfict was penalized for lowering his shoulder and hitting defenseless receiver Antonio Brown in the head after an incompletion with 22 seconds left and the Bengals holding a 16-15 lead. Brown got a concussion from the play.
Burfict had already been fined four times for dangerous plays during the season. He got a $50,000 fine for an illegal hit on a Ravens player a week earlier. Burfict also was fined $69,454 for three penalties against the Steelers on Dec. 13: roughing the passer, grabbing the facemask and unnecessary roughness.
Merton Hanks, the league’s vice president of football operations, said the hit on Brown during the playoff game “placed his opponent at unnecessary risk of injury and should have been avoided.”
While players and coaches from both teams were on the field as Brown was getting examined, Jones went after Steelers coach Joey Porter and got a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. The two penalties moved the ball from the Cincinnati 47-yard line to the 17, and Chris Boswell made a 35-yard kick for the win.
More punishments are expected from the game, which was marred by numerous altercations between players.
Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak got a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct after he grabbed safety Reggie Nelson’s hair on the sideline following a play.
Before the suspension was announced on Monday night, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said that Burfict didn’t “go over the edge” with his hit against Brown.
Although the linebacker has been penalized and fined repeatedly, Lewis said he’s been depicted unfairly for his play.
“It didn’t go over the edge,” Lewis said. “But unfortunately, he can’t have that kind of blow with the guy that’s receiving the pass. But it didn’t go over the edge for the course of the season.
“Let’s not take things out of context, and understand it. Let’s judge the body of work.”
The NFL decided his penalties over the course of a season merited the suspension, which can be appealed.
Steelers linebacker James Harrison, who spent one season in Cincinnati with his locker next to Burfict’s, said in Pittsburgh that Burfict is always pushing the line of what’s accepted.
“There’s times when he’s out of control, and there’s times he’s out of control, but he’s calculated with it,” Harrison said. “It’s a fine line.”
- The Texans still have QB Issues– The Houston Texans dealt with quarterback problems all season, so it was fitting that more struggles at the position ended their season in the wild-card round of the playoffs.Brian Hoyer signed a two-year contract before this season, but his five-turnover debacle in the loss to the Chiefs could have the Texans looking for a new quarterback. Though he had a career-high four interceptions and a fumble in the 30-0 blowout to Kansas City, coach Bill O’Brien was careful not to place all the blame for the defeat on Hoyer.
“I think everybody has to look at themselves and figure out what they can do better,” O’Brien said. “I think at that position, it’s a very difficult position. Obviously, he didn’t play well (Saturday). I mean, that’s obvious. But nobody on offense really lit it up (Saturday), including the coaches.”
Hoyer was asked if he expects to keep his job as Houston’s starter next season.
“That’s nine months away (but) I am going to prepare every day like I am that’s for sure,” he said. “I owe it to those guys in that locker room and these coaches to do everything I can to be a better player the next time I step on the field.”
Struggles by Hoyer got him benched in the season opener and the Texans started Ryan Mallett for four games. But he won just one of those games and soon Hoyer was starting again and Mallett was released after missing a team flight. The Texans had to start both T.J. Yates and Brandon Weeden late in the season when Hoyer missed three games because of two concussions in less than a month.
Their offense got another blow in October when they lost star running back Arian Foster to a season-ending Achilles tendon injury.
Despite all those setbacks, Houston managed win seven of its last nine games to rebound from a 2-5 start and win the AFC South for its first playoff berth since 2012.
They did it with a defense led by J.J. Watt that improved steadily after a slow start to the year. Watt had another standout season, leading the NFL with 17 1/2 sacks to join Reggie White as the only players in history to have three 15-sack seasons in their first five years in the league. He also had 76 tackles, 29 tackles for losses, 50 quarterback hits, batted down eight passes, forced three fumbles and recovered one.
He did it despite fighting through injuries for most of the second-half of the season. He played the last four regular-season games with a broken left hand and dealt with a nagging groin injury for the last couple of months of the season. That groin injury got worse in Houston’s playoff game and he missed most of the second half; he will have surgery Tuesday.
Watt, who won his second Defensive Player of the Year award, last year wasn’t interested in looking at the bright side of what Houston did this season.
“Did we do some good things? Yeah, we obviously turned it around from a crappy situation,” he said. “But I’m not too big into that whole narrative of: ‘Just look at what they did good.’ Because quite frankly at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It’s about results … I want to win a world championship. Until we do that, no, I’m not going to be satisfied and it’s going to hurt whenever we get knocked out before that.”
Watt got help on defense from linebacker Whitney Mercilus who had a career-high 12 sacks to give Texans two players with at least 10 sacks for the first time in franchise history. They also got 13 games out of Jadeveon Clowney, who played just four games as a rookie because of various injuries. The top overall pick in the 2014 draft finished with 4 1/2 sacks after failing to get one in his first season.
Another bright spot for the Texans and perhaps the biggest reason the offense was able to stay afloat amid all the quarterback changes was the career-best season by receiver DeAndre Hopkins. The third-year receiver was named to his first Pro Bowl after finishing third in the NFL with a career-best 1,521 yards receiving and his 11 touchdown catches were a franchise-record.
Now Texans fans must wait to see if Hoyer will return to throw to him next season or if the team will find a new quarterback in the offseason.
- Vikings Blair Walsh trying to get over his miss kick vs. the Seahawks– For the second time in a span of about 18 hours, this time at team headquarters instead of the home stadium, Blair Walsh stood in front of his cubicle and spoke to reporters about his now-infamous 27-yard field goal try that went wide left into the wind.The kick that Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer described as “a chip shot” and one Walsh ought to make.
The kick that could have given the Vikings a win over Seattle in the wild-card playoff game on Sunday.
The kick that will forever overshadow the three others he converted earlier in the subzero cold, the only points Walsh’s team scored against the Seahawks.
“I think it’s important that people understand that, as hard as this is, I’m not a charity case. I’m somebody who’s really confident in my abilities,” Walsh said. “I know that sounds strange, but I’ll be back next year and I’ll be just as good. I know I will.”
Yes, he still managed a smile. Several of them, actually. The bitter disappointment wasn’t as painfully obvious on Walsh’s face as it was the day before, when he sobbed heavily in the locker room after the game. His comments, still, were heavily laced with culpability. Laces in, left hash, cold ball, stiff wind. None of that ultimately mattered.
He had to make it.
“I’ve got to do better than that,” Walsh said.
His miss was the shortest in the NFL this season, according to STATS research. Jason Myers failed to make a 26-yard field goal for Jacksonville on Nov. 15, but that was blocked. So were three other tries that missed from closer than 30 yards in the league this season. The only other non-blocked failed kicks from inside 30 yards were 29-yard attempts, by Adam Vinatieri for Indianapolis on Sept. 21 and Kyle Brindza for Tampa Bay on Oct. 4.
That’s just seven misses in 250 tries, per STATS.
“It’s unfortunate. Personally, I feel really bad for Blair,” New England kicker Stephen Gostkowski said. “Professionally, it’s just part of the game. We’ve all been there. I’ve seen the best of the best miss kicks.”
Gostkowski was far from alone in extending sympathy and support in various ways to Walsh, who expressed appreciation for the kind words from family members, close friends, teammates and Vikings fans. As for the predictable vitriol targeted toward him through social media, well, Walsh was unfazed.
“The people who are going to say mean stuff? That says a lot about them. And I think the people who say kind stuff and go out of their way to be kind toward me, that says a lot about them as well,” said Walsh, whose 34 field goals made during the regular season were the most in the NFL.
So he’ll take a belief in the goodness of people into the offseason, along with confidence, determination and that stinging failure.
“It’s important to realize at the end of the day that it’s football,” Walsh said. “There’s plenty of things that people are going through, battling cancer and sickness and other things, that are real adversity.”