The NFL playoffs have officially begun, but neither of our first two games were the nail-biting sort of postseason match-ups football fans drool over. Instead of devouring a heaping bowl of chocolate pudding to top off the regular season, spectators instead slowly munched through a basket of slightly stale bread rolls in anticipation of the meal to come.
Don’t get me wrong, Saturday’s action wasn’t “that” bad – but let’s just say we won’t see either of these games replayed on the NFL Network as a means of tribute to a stunningly classic battle.
Carolina advanced with a 27-16 victory over Arizona after holding the Cardinals to a playoff record-low 78 total yards, while the 6th seeded Baltimore Ravens earned the franchise’s first-ever playoff win over the Steelers, 30-17.
This opening pair of contests was mostly foreplay – a warming up of sorts for the good things yet to come; here are a few of the story lines worth noting from the day.
Ryan Lindley’s NFL Career in serious jeopardy following pitiful 82-yard performance
One game does not tell the whole story of any NFL player’s career, and hey, just a few weeks ago Ryan Lindley was puttering around on the San Diego Chargers’ practice squad. But if there’s one giant take-away from the Cardinals’ historically low offensive output on Saturday, it’s this: this dude has no business playing quarterback in the National Football League.
To be fair, Bruce Arians’ options were beyond limited. Having lost both his #1 and #2 quarterbacks with just a few weeks left in the season, the coach was in all likelihood left with two choices that were both destined to end the Cardinals’ season.
However, rookie QB Logan Thomas’ old man took to Twitter in a not-so-subtle attempt to get his boy out on the field:
No comebacks with this dude under center. That’s almost certain.
— Eddie (@TarazonaCigars) January 4, 2015
But let’s face it, the Panthers’ D would have chewed up Thomas and spat him out at Bank of America Stadium just as easily as they did Lindley.
This loss can be attributed to the injury bug and not to Arians’ decision-making skills. Reportedly, Thomas had such a horrendous week in practice that it was a foregone conclusion that Lindley had to be picked to start this game.
With a stalwart defense and promising up-and-coming skill players on offense (John Brown, Michael Floyd, Andre Ellington) this Cardinals team will be in a decent position to get another crack at a postseason win next season, but their quarterback situation is a serious concern, even if Carson Palmer is good to go for week one of 2015. One more injury and the old Trojan star will be forced to hang up the cleats.
The loss is a disappointing end for a team that was once (9-1) and seemingly Super Bowl bound, and without a major contract restructuring, the game may very well be the last for Larry Fitzgerald in a Cardinals uniform.
The future Hall-of-Fame receiver has had his career stifled in a sea of mediocre-to-awful QBs since the retiring of Kurt Warner, so perhaps a change of scenery would be a welcome change for #11?
Seriously, this dude deserves better.
It’s tough to get to the playoffs & come up short. I’m proud of the fellas in the locker room, they all fought hard this season!!
— Larry Fitzgerald (@LarryFitzgerald) January 4, 2015
How far can Carolina ride the Cinderella train?
As for the Panthers, they became just the second team with a losing record to win a playoff game. In five weeks they’ve gone from draft-pick chasers to being two upsets away from playing in the Super Bowl.
But first, they’ll need to win at Seattle or Green Bay. Their divisional-round opponent will be decided with the conclusion of the Dallas-Detroit game.
It seems unlikely that they’d go into either of these venues and win, but the team is riding a five-game win streak and features a defense with the potential to shut down any team’s offensive attack. You just never know – and that’s why they play these games.
Steelers lost offensive balance with Le’Veon Bell on the sidelines
While I was looking for the words to describe how important Le’Veon Bell is to the Pittsburgh offense, I stumbled across this tweet that succinctly tells the story in 140 characters or less:
.@ShaunOHara60 on Steelers without Le’Veon Bell: “That’s like the Rams trying to go and win without Marshall Faulk back in the day.”
— NFL Media PR (@InsideNFLMedia) January 4, 2015
Bell is arguably the best all-around back in the NFL and even a 334-yard effort by Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t enough to keep the Steelers close in this one. Big Ben was clearly trying too hard to make plays as he tossed a pair of interceptions in a pass-happy offensive attack (48 passes, 19 runs).
Regardless of how far Cincy and Baltimore advance in these playoffs, Pittsburgh is my all-out favorite to repeat as AFC North Champions in 2015.
If there’s a silver lining for Le’Veon missing his first shot at postseason play, it’s this: his agent ought to be able to use this Bell-less game film for a very compelling argument for a phat raise.
Flacco poised for another Super Bowl run?
The last time Joe Flacco went on the road and won a tough Wild Card game he took the Ravens all the way to a Super Bowl win and inked himself a brand spanking new $100 million contract.
Head Coach John Harbaugh believes he can do it again. After the game he ceremoniously pronounced Smokin’ Joe (not a real nickname) as the top signal caller in the league.
— NFL (@nfl) January 4, 2015
I’ve got to admit it, dude steps up in the playoffs.
Flacco calmly engineered the Ravens’ offense, throwing for 259 yards on 18/29 passing with two touchdowns and no interceptions. He’ll take his show on the road to Foxboro next week.
Four reasons Baltimore can beat New England
1. History has a tendency to repeat itself – The last time the Ravens played a playoff game at New England was the AFC Championship two years ago. Boom, they knocked off Brady and the Pats 28-13 to advance to the Super Bowl.
Joe Flacco, Terrell Suggs, Torrey Smith, Haloti Ngata, and Marshal Yanda are a few of the stars still around from that squad. Times change, but a little extra confidence and swagger can go a long way.
2. Steve Smith Sr. – Ring-less veteran superstars in the waning moments of their careers have the tendency to find a little extra gas in the tank to win a title on their way out. The Ravens rode Ray Lewis to the promised land, can they do the same with Steve Smith Sr.?
Smith Sr. hauled in 5 catches for 100+ yards against the Steelers to lead the team. Look for more of the same against the Patriots.
3. Baltimore has a pass rush – The Ravens sacked the elusive Roethlisberger five times on Saturday and they’ll be sending the house at Tom Brady, who is less than “mobile”.
Getting to Brady early and often is a blueprint for success against New England.
4. The underdog effect – The Patriots are the #1 seed and under immense pressure to get back into the Super Bowl. The Ravens, on the other hand, have nothing to lose.
Baltimore played in a very tough AFC North division that sent three teams to the playoffs. At times they played just as well as any team in the NFL and so New England would be wise to not look past the Ravens in anticipation of a Patriots-Broncos rematch.