By: Chris Dagonas
The second round of the NFL playoffs is over, and to perfectly balance a wild-card weekend that saw all four road teams advance, the teams that made it through the divisional round were all the home favourites.
None of the victories were really shocking, and though I picked the Chiefs to upset the Patriots in last week’s column, I was not surprised to see Tom Brady outplay Alex Smith, or Bill Belichick out-coach Andy Reid. I wanted to avoid picking four home favourites, and the Chiefs seemed like the team most likely to win on the road.
Though the victors may not have been shocking, as it turned out, all of our road teams put in valiant efforts. Some were bold enough to take early leads before being toppled by the eventual winner. Some stormed back in a massive second-half performance to almost win. On Saturday night, the Packers even sent the game to overtime, after connecting on their second last-gasp Hail Mary touchdown of the season, before losing out to two incredible Carson Palmer-to-Larry Fitzgerald plays.
But I’m not here to talk about the touchdowns that were. I’m here to talk about the touchdowns that weren’t. All four games were won by exactly one touchdown, and for the losers, there were opportunities for taking that one-touchdown margin and swinging it in their favour. But in all four games, those opportunities were not taken.
So let’s take a look at some touchdowns that got away.
Chiefs vs. Patriots
The Chiefs had a few missed touchdown opportunities in this game, and coach Andy Reid failed to manage the clock correctly, which did not help their cause. Quarterback Alex Smith missed on a red zone pass to Travis Kelce in the first half, one that could have easily gone for a touchdown. At the end of the first half, the Chiefs settled for a field goal after running out of time to try another touchdown pass, having wasted two timeouts on their opening drive.
Defensively, too, the Chiefs had chances to put points on the board, a rare and crucial element to beating the Patriots. Cornerback Sean Smith dropped what many critics believe would have been an easy pick-six, and later in the game, Marcus Peters dropped a potential interception on a drive that ended in a touchdown for the Patriots.
Of course, missing wide receiver threat Jeremy Maclin and defensive end Justin Houston clearly hurt the Chiefs’ chances in a game that was always going to be an uphill battle. But they kept it close, and will have to look long and hard at clock management. And, as always, making precise plays and capitalizing on scoring opportunities was the difference between the team advancing and the team going home.
Packers vs. Cardinals
Saturday night’s thriller ended with Larry Fitzgerald turning back the clock and making some huge moves. But the game might never have gotten to that point at all, if Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense was able to convert from the Cardinals’ red zone two times in the first half. On long, sustained drives, the Packers were stuffed by the Cardinals’ defense twice from inside the 20, and on both drives, were forced to settle for field goals as they were unable to find the end zone.
Assuming the Packers convert those and go for the extra point, that’s 14 points instead of 6, and the Packers don’t even need the ridiculous hail mary touchdown to Jeff Janis that sent the game to overtime in the first place.
The Cards’ defense seemed to have a solid handle on everything the Packers offense was calling inside the red zone, and without Randall Cobb, who left the game early on with an upper body injury, the Packers lacked a legitimate target receiver, although Jeff Janis did a solid job in filling the gap. While the Packers have long been a top-1o offense, they seemed to need more offensive creativity, especially with a short field in front of them, to slide by the Cardinals.
Seahawks vs. Panthers
If I told you that Team A scored zero points in the second half, and Team B scored 24 points in the second half, which team would you guess won the game? If you guessed Team B, you’d be wrong. Because Team A was the Carolina Panthers, and by scoring 31 points in the first half, as well as shutting out Team B, the Seahawks, the Panthers had padded a lead just big enough to defeat the Seahawks and advance to the Conference championship round.
Obviously, the entire first half was one big missed opportunity for the Seahawks. In particular, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson was facing a ton of pressure and threw two early interceptions, one which Panthers’ linebacker Luke Kuechly returned for a touchdown. Being completely unable to establish or sustain any offensive momentum early on, while the Panthers’ offense piled on the points, killed the Seahawks in the first half. They needed a natural halftime break, and a completely revamped strategy, to wake up and start playing their best football. If only one drive, just one, had resulted in a touchdown, or two field goals, we might be talking about the underdog Seahawks squeaking past the powerhouse Panthers. Instead, the league’s winningest team advances to meet the league’s second-winningest team, the Cardinals, next Sunday.
Steelers vs. Broncos
With only one touchdown to speak of, and that one scored in the first quarter, the Pittsburgh Steelers had plenty of chances to extend their early lead over the Broncos. Nevertheless, even with three field goals and nothing more from the second quarter through the fourth, the Steelers were in strong position to steal a victory away from the home favourite Broncos.
But a late Fitzgerald Toussaint fumble, on a possession where the Steelers were trying to run down as much clock as possible, gave Peyton Manning and the Broncos a window of opportunity. Unlike the Steelers, who were missing superstar wide receiver Antonio Brown, superstar running back Le’Veon Bell, and veteran backup running back D’Angelo Williams, the Broncos capitalized. Manning drove his offense down the field, and the Broncos scored their only touchdown in the game, this one with much better timing, and converted a two-point attempt.
Granted, missing their best offensive weapons hurt, but the Steelers should and will look back at this game as a huge letdown, considering the numerous touchdown chances that they wasted.
With the stage now set for the conference championships, I’ll take a quick look ahead to Sunday’s matchups.
New England Patriots at Denver Broncos (3:05 PM ET)
The Patriots are the favourites here, despite being on the road in a tough and chilly environment. It seems clear to anyone who watched the Steelers-Broncos game that Peyton Manning is limited to 10-yard-throws, while Tom Brady and the Patriots have all their receivers and linemen back healthy. Brady still looks as steady and accurate as ten years ago, and Denver’s difficulty at home last weekend does not bode well against a stronger opponent.
On the other hand, Denver’s strength this season has been its defense, and that unit is fully healthy and capable of disrupting anybody’s plans. DeMarcus Ware has been a terror lately, and the Broncos secondary is good enough to cover anyone on the Patriots (except Gronk, but who can really cover Gronk?)
This may be the last Brady-Manning matchup we ever see, and though it would be sad to see Manning ride off into the sunset losing to his longtime rivals, that is a distinct possibility. I see the Patriots doing enough on offense and thoroughly dismantling Manning’s attack, and advancing to Super Bowl 50.
Arizona Cardinals at Carolina Panthers (6:40 PM ET)
Don’t call me, text me, e-mail me, or even think about me while this game is on. It’s almost a shame that these two teams have to meet this early, but this game is going to be a riot.
The Cardinals feature a high-speed offense capable of putting up points quick. Rookie running back David Johnson had a fantastic end to the regular season, despite a quiet game last week. Carson Palmer to Larry Fitzgerald is quietly one of the best quarterback-wide receiver combos in recent memory, and the quality and depth at receiver means that Carolina will have to do more in the secondary than just deploy Josh Norman.
On the other hand, the Panthers feature the regular season MVP in Cam Newton, a solid running attack with Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert, the best tight end not named Gronkowski in Greg Olsen, and the reborn Ted Ginn, Jr. They scored the most points in the regular season, and also feature a quietly excellent defense, with defensive player of the year candidate Luke Kuechly.
I expect this one to go to the wire, and be high-scoring, but the Panthers should prevail to meet the Patriots in the Super Bowl on Sunday, February 7th.