PACKERS 20 - OT
In what will easily go down as an instant classic and one of the most incredible playoff games in NFL history, the Arizona Cardinals outlasted the Green Bay Packers 26-20 in overtime, after two future Hall of Famers flexed their muscles in the final minutes of this slugfest.
Where to begin? I have no idea. How about this, the Packers blew a 13-10 third quarter lead, while the Cardinals perpetually tired their best not to take to full control of this one. With the fourth quarter just getting underway quarterback Carson Palmer was picked-off by Damarious Randall on a first and goal at the Packers 10 with 14:18 to go in regulation.
It looked like Green Bay would take control after the turnover, but they never did. Palmer and the Cardinals were given another chance, and yes, they almost blew that too. With 4:40 to go in the game, and the Cardinals again driving deep into Packers territory, Palmer almost had another pass intercepted, but it was dropped at the last second.
As it would turn out, the third opportunity was the charm for Palmer, who finally connected with Michael Floyd on a nine-yard touchdown, that was only helped by the fact that the ball bounced off the arm of a Packers defender, popped up into the air and into the waiting hands of Floyd for the score.
Fast forward to the final two minutes of the game, and it did not look for Green Bay. They were down 20-13, and had the football in the shadow of their own goal-line. On fourth and 20, Rodgers heaved up a miracle pass down the sideline only to have it caught by Jeff Janis for a 60-yard gain to the Arizona 41 yard line. There was no way this could happen right?
Remember when Green Bay pulled out a miracle finish in Detroit seven weeks ago? No way that happens again? Well.... Rodgers did it again! With the clock ticking own to triple zeros, Rodger heaved a pass down the middle of the ballpark only to have Janis once again come down with it for the tying score.
The score sent us into overtime tied at 20, and the fun was not over yet. First we had a mishap with the coin toss, as the coin never flipped in the air, forcing the refs to re-do the toss (shades of Belichick vs. the Jets in week 16, I guess). Then Larry Fitzgerald went off on Green Bay. On a broken play, Palmer found Fitzgerald wide open at the Arizona 35 yard line, and the future Hall of Famer did the rest, dashing 75-yards down field for a first and goal at the Green Bay five. Fitzgerald then iced it with a five yard touchdown catch on a flip play to win it for the Cardinals.
No game came close to topping this one on the weekend. The win by Arizona has now set up a date with the Carolina Panthers in the NFC Championship game. Both teams are vying for their second ever Super Bowl appearance.
Speaking of Carolina, they dismantled the Seahawks 31-24, in a game that more about pure vengeance for the Panthers than anything else. Carolina jumped out to a 31-0 lead in the first half thanks to a power running game led by Jonathan Stewart, and a suffocating defense that allowed only 117 yards of total offense before halftime.
Carolina opened hot right out of the gate when Stewart gashed the Sehawks with a 59-yard run that set up the first score of the day just two and a half minutes into the game. On Seattle's ensuing possession, Russell Wilson threw an interception right into the hands of Luke Kuechly, who waltzed into the end zone for the score to push the Panthers ahead 14-0.
Before the Seahawks could even get settled the Panthers were up 24-0 with 12:37 to go in the second quarter. As for Cam Newton, he did his part in guiding the Panthers attack by throwing two touchdowns, including a 19-yard bomb to the back of the end zone that tight end Greg Olsen snared.
However, the win for the Panthers didn't come without some concerns. The Seahawks caught fire in the second half, scoring on four of their final five possessions to pull within 31-24. The Panthers had no answer for Russell Wilson, who tore the Panthers questionable secondary apart. Wilson finished with 31 completions, 366 yards passing and three scores. Receivers Tyler Lockett, Jermaine Kearse and Doug Baldwin all had big days for the Hawks.
Blowing a large lead is nothing new for Carolina. They have blown a number of halftime leads this year, including in victories over the Saints and Giants down the stretch. This will be something to watch.
This game was not as close as the final score indicated. The Patriots dominated the Chiefs on Saturday afternoon, jumping out to leads of 14-3 and 21-6 midway through the third quarter. The only reason this game was even remotely close had to do with the Chiefs final score of the day in garbage time.
And speaking of garbage time, what was Andy Reid thinking allowing the Chiefs to not run a two-minute offense when they were down 27-13 with a little over six minutes to go? The Chiefs ran off 16 plays and five minutes off the clock before they scored. It was reminiscent of another Reid clock management flub against the Patriots, way back in Super Bowl XXXIX.
Tom Brady and crew now return to the AFC title game for the 10th time in the Brady/Belichick era, and their sixth since 2003.
Meanwhile, the Broncos held off the Steelers 23-16 thanks to a fumble by Steelers running back Fitzgerald Toussaint. With Pittsburgh leading 13-12 with a little over nine minutes to go in regulation, Toussaint took a helmet off his forearm and fumbled the football into the hands of Broncos' defensive end DeMarcus Ware.
Peyton Manning, in his first start since early November, engineered a 13-play 65-yard scoring drive focused heavily on the run. The Broncos ran the football ten times on the drive with Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson combining to power the Bronco attack. Denver finally scored when Anderson plunged in from one yard out to make it 18-13. Manning then connected with Demarious Thomas for the two-point conversion to make it 20-13. Manning did have a 31-yard completion to Bennie Fowler on the drive.
Overall it was a mediocre day for Manning and the Broncos. Manning showed some obvious rust, and lacked a rhythm with his receivers. The Broncos receivers hurt themselves with seven dropped passes on the day, including five of them in the first half.
Defensively the Broncos did the best they could against the Steelers who were clearly hamstrung by the absence of Antonio Brown and DeAngelo Williams. Ben Roethlisburger still threw for 339 yards, with Martavis Bryant hauling in nine passes for 154 yards, but without Brown there to give Pittsburgh a legit deep threat, the Steelers offense slowed down progressively as the game wore on.
The Broncos, who return to the AFC title game for the second time in three years can ill afford to settle for five field goals if they expect to beat the Patriots next week. Regardless now the lead-up for the next six days will be about the 17th, and maybe final, match-up between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.