Monday, January 16, 2017

NFL 2016-17 Divisional Playoffs Wrap-Up: Sunday

The Sunday games were both a lot closer than the Saturday games were.

Now, we have a clearer picture of how Super Bowl LI will shape up, at least in terms of the match-up.

On the NFC side, there will be a high-flying offense led by a red hot quarterback. The question is whether it will be Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons, who would be a new face to the Super Bowl, or if it will be Aaron Rodgers and his Green Bay Packers, who are trying to get back to the big dance for after a six year absence.

As for the AFC side of things, whatever teams wins the championship game will set a record with a ninth Super Bowl appearance, as both the Patriots and the Steelers are tied with the Broncos and the Cowboys for most appearances in the big game, with eight.

Also, prior to yesterday's games, home teams had sported a perfect 6-0 record to this point in the playoffs. Yesterday, however, the home teams were 0-2. So, let's take a look at yesterday's games, to see how it wound up being the Steelers and the Packers to earn a trip to the championship games, at the expense of the hometown Cowboys and Chiefs.

Sunday Games:

Green Bay



Green Bay 34, Dallas 31 - Wow! What a game!

Of course, it did not appear like it was going to be much of a game for a while there, as the Pack exploded early and often, at one point even building up an 18-point lead in Big D!

Still, the Cowboys came back, and made a game of it. Boy, did they ever make a game of it!

Really, what it all came down to was the fourth quarter. The final two minutes of the final quarter, to be exact.

The game was tied, 28-28. The Packers were driving the ball and in scoring position. Dallas's defense tightened up enough to prevent what might have been a catastrophic touchdown, although the Packers still got a field goal.

With little time remaining, the situation seemed dire for Dallas. My son even said that it was over, the Packers had won.

Yet, Dallas fought back, moving the ball surprisingly quickly (perhaps too quickly, in retrospect) down the field, and getting themselves into scoring position). But the drive stalled, and instead of the winning, go ahead touchdown, they had to settle for a field goal that, at that point, still seemed good enough to force the game into overtime.

Who knew that the Packers would get the miracle throw and catch from Rodgers to Jared Cook, who did a brilliant job of catching the ball while keeping his feet and lower legs in bounds. At first, he was ruled out of bounds, although another official overruled that call. The replay showed that he had indeed brought the ball down, making a successful catch, and in the process putting the Packers in position to make the field goal.

Dallas tried icing the kicker, Mason Crosby, by calling a timeout just before the play was called. The ball went through the uprights, but since time had been called, it did not count.

That can be jarring, but he showed no ill effects when not much later, he did it again. And this time, it did count.

Green Bay won, and Dallas's seemingly incredible season was over, just like that. 

The Packers, who not that long ago were 4-6 and in third place in their division, and looked very much like a team that was  destined to miss the playoffs, instead ran the table and won their remaining six regular season games to not only qualify for the postseason, but to outright win the NFC North in the process. Then, they beat the Giants last weekend, and now, won an impressive road game in Big D, to qualify for next weekend's NFC Championship Game in Atlanta. 

What a team! 

What a game!



Kansas City

Pittsburgh 18, Kansas City 16 - Sometimes, you make a pick in a game and almost instantly regret it. That was the case with my prediction last week for this game. You see, I chose the Chiefs, for a variety of reasons. They had come back from being down in the AFC West literally almost the entire season to win it right at the end, and earn a playoff bye in the process. They sported an impressive 12-4 mark, and had been one of the most impressive teams in the last two combined seasons. The Chiefs also had that extra week to rest, and they looked more serious than in seasons past.

All of that went out the window in last night's game. Why? Because the Kansas City Chiefs are like the New York Jets, except even more.

Yes, you heard that right. If there are cursed franchises, and I am almost starting to believe there well might be, then the Chiefs are perhaps even more cursed than the Jets. Neither has been to the Super Bowl since I started following the NFL in 1981, but the Chiefs have probably been to fewer playoffs than Gang Green and, hard as it is to believe, have probably won fewer playoff games. They have definitely qualified for fewer AFC Championship Games, as the Jets have made it four times since that 1981 season (in the 1982, 1998, 2009, and 2010 seasons), while the Chiefs made it only once, way back in 1993, when they had Joe Montana at the helm.

Much like the Jets, KC seems to have some serious talent at times (like when they had Montana, during which time they also had one of the best defenses in the league), but they always, always wind up falling short in the end. That was the case in 1993, when they lost to the Buffalo Bills. That was the case in 1995, when they went 13-3, only to go out in their first playoff game against the Colts. That was also the case in 1997, when they again finished 13-3, but were one and done after their first, and only, playoff game against the eventual Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos. That was the case yet again in 2003, when they finished with a 13-3 record for a third time, but lost immediately in the playoffs to the Colts (again - are you sensing a pattern yet?).

Now, these 2016-17 Kansas City Chiefs have done that again. they followed up last season's impressive story (they started off 1-5, then ran the table to qualify for the postseason and shut out the Texans in Houston, 30-0, before barely losing to New England) by going 12-4, and winning the AFC West title and earning the second seed, and the playoff bye that comes with it.

But in the end, they fell short, and could not avoid being one and done. How often have we seen the Chiefs qualify for the playoffs, only to exit after one game?

What made matters worse yesterday was that the Chiefs actually should have had a serious chance to beat Pittsburgh. The KC defense bent, and several times at that, but did not break. Indeed, the Steelers did not score a touchdown the entire game.

Yet, the Chiefs lost, because their offense laid an egg. Again.

Tight end Travis Kelce, who usually is an explosive asset for KC, got a total of 34 yards receiving for most of the game, before getting an additional 43 yards in the final ten minutes of play. Yet, even that late production was negated by his actions at a critical point, when he was faulted for an unnecessary roughness call against Steelers cornerback Ross Cockrell on a play when Alex Smith, KC's quarterback, had scrambled.

And despite Kelce not stepping up in a big way for the Chiefs, he still was the biggest producer on offense that Kansas City had!

Kelce was KC's biggest producer on offense, but the biggest impact he had on the game came during a really silly and unnecessary penalty. Yet, he was not the only Chief who cost his team big by drawing bad penalties. When the Chiefs had actually scored a touchdown, and then appeared to tie the game at 18-18 with the ensuing two-point conversion, a penalty against Eric Fisher negated the two-point conversion, bringing the score to 18-16.

Which just happened to be the final score. KC was not able to stop the Steelers offense on the next drive, and so they never did get the ball back.

Ball game.

Yes, KC's playoff appearance will be limited to one game that will be defined by mistakes. Those two penalties were big ones, as was wide receiver Dexter McCluster's dropped pass in the first half, which could have put the Chiefs in scoring position. It was one of several dropped passes by Chiefs receivers.

Watching it last night, it all felt incredibly predictable, and I regretted the pick that I had made all the more. Frankly, I should have seen this coming.

The Chiefs are...well, the Chiefs. And making costly mistakes at the most inopportune times in big games is what they do. It has been since at least the 1980's, when the few games where KC was relevant tended to be filled with their costly mistakes. That was even more glaringly obvious in the 1990's and into the 2000's. Now, these Chiefs are carrying on this sorry tradition.

Alex Smith certainly had an off night as well. Like with the team that he led, Smith had an impressive season, as he had ranked fourth overall among active quarterbacks in overall quarterback rating. Yet, when it counted most, he was essentially ineffective.

What makes it all the more frustrating was that Kansas City's first drive looked so good! It reminded me a bit of how the Packers first drive in Super Bowl XXXII looked too easy, and made it appear that they were capable of blowing out the Broncos, although they eventually lost. KC looked capable at that point of defeating Pittsburgh, and earning their first home playoff win in nearly a quarter of a century. Frankly, the Chiefs not only could have won this game, but should have won this game! After all, they managed to score two touchdowns, while preventing the Steelers from scoring a single touchdown, yet they still lost the game! Honestly, when was the last time that you saw that, let alone in the playoffs?

Even just a little more offensive production might have decided this game in favor of the Chiefs, because the Steelers were not exactly red hot last night, either. In fact, this was one of the games where they actually looked vulnerable, yet Kansas City failed to capitalize. Indeed, if the Chiefs were anywhere near as good as they appeared to be at points in the last two seasons, they would have found a way to win this one.

Instead, we had to endure all too familiar soundbites of them explaining what went wrong...again. Some protested, like Travis Kelce. Some just looked morose, and responded with voices that betrayed their disappointment...again.

And in the end, yet another road team came into hostile Arrowhead Stadium, which allegedly is a tough place for a road team to play, and they stole the hearts and hopes of disappointed KC fans...again. The Chiefs lost at home in the playoffs after the 1995, 1997, 2003, and 2010 seasons. Now, we can add the 2016 season to that list. Yes, the Chiefs won one playoff game last year, but that was on the road, against a very weak team, as far as the playoffs go. And that was their one and only postseason win in well over twenty years now!

This team has a lot of work to do to improve and become relevant at these most critical times, when they need to step up. Frankly, I am not holding my breath that they will be able to do it, either.

In fact, I am starting to lean on not taking them seriously anymore at all, at least for the short term future. Because history seems to repeat too often for them, and history has not been kind. And if you needed any reminders of that, just look at what happened to them in their one and only home playoff game for this season last night...again.

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