Each year, it's the best weekend of football. The four best teams during the regular season against the four teams that proved they belong by winning their first playoff game. And with one expected exception, it didn't disappoint. Not much to complain about after four games like those.
New England 35, Tennessee 14. I know this game was played second. But let's get it out of the way early. Call me a Patriots hater if you will, but it's hard to deny that there has been some good fortune along the way of their annual success. Like the continued inability of their division foes to put together any kind of competitive team. Year after year you can pencil in New England for the AFC East title, and year after year they do well enough in the division (and yes, all other games) to earn one of the AFC's first-round byes. And this year, as in many other years, they open against the playoff field's worst team, a Titans group that stumbled into the playoffs thanks to an easy schedule itself, got some good fortune and officiating help to knock off Kansas City, and then showed up to get punched in the mouth by a New England team much better in every way.
Do we need to talk about the actual game? Nice performance by Corey Davis, I think that covers it. Hope you started Tom Brady, who yeah is great and yeah had far and away the best matchup of the quarterbacks playing this weekend.
Philadelphia 15, Atlanta 10. So I was right to pick the under in this one, that worked out. The Eagles lost Carson Wentz, of course, but there is nothing wrong with their defense, and Atlanta's offense has misfired in key situations all year long. Just not creative enough around the end zone. But if the Eagles could avoid beating themselves on offense (and early on in this game it looked like they couldn't), they could at least keep things close. And so they did.
Low-scoring though it was, it was a pretty thrilling game. Because Atlanta had a couple of near-miss opportunities, a couple of throws off Julio Jones' hands that could have been completed and got Atlanta the win. But they were well-defended, they couldn't bring them in, and Atlanta really needs another reliable weapon in the passing game, and a little more ingenuity I think. To score only 10 points, and nothing at all after halftime -- not going to get it done no matter how well your defense plays. Not an impressive game by the Eagles offense, but good enough.
Jacksonville 45, Pittsburgh 42. So congratulations if you bet the over in this one. I did not. On reflection, I drastically underestimated the loss of Ryan Shazier to Pittsburgh's defense. I saw Jacksonville manage only 10 points at home against Buffalo last week, with Leonard Fournette getting stuffed, and just didn't really conceive of things going better at Pittsburgh against a rested team. If you're keeping track at home, that's now three teams -- Rams, Kansas City, Steelers -- who rested starters in Week 17 and came out and lost home playoff openers. Coincidence? I don't think so. Jacksonville and New England played their starters (New England had to, to guarantee the No. 1 seed) and they're playing next week. Minnesota (to guarantee a bye) and even Philly, for a little bit, did too. They're still playing.
Credit must be given to Blake Bortles. He played a mistake-free game after looking like a wreck in win over Buffalo; fortunate to avoid multiple turnovers in that one. And Fournette and the Jacksonville offense. Pittsburgh's offense was also great after a slow start -- I mean, 42 points. You'd think that would be enough to win a home playoff game over Bortles. I'm feeling great regret that I made a last-minute decision to switch off Antonio Brown in a "start each player only once" playoff league. He had a big game, as he does, and now I can't start him at all. A lesson, I guess, that if you save big names for the future, that future might not come. Smoke 'em if you got 'em.
Minnesota 29, New Orleans 24. It takes a lot for me to get up off the couch while watching an NFL game saying oh my God. It takes a lot for the NFL to show you something it hasn't shown you before. What was especially shocking was if you see a last play touchdown like that, it's usually on a Hail Mary; a play where the hope and prayer is to heave up an end-zone throw and maybe get a touchdown. The lone thought here was "they need to complete a sideline pass for 20 yards to get a shot at a field goal." And when the pass was completed, I was yelling, "Get out of bounds you idiot!" But that gradually changed to, Wait a minute, there's nobody there. I don't believe it. One of the most incredible plays in playoff history. (Closest comparison I think was the Tebow pass to beat the Steelers in overtime a couple of years ago, but even that wasn't so shocking. This game was OVER.)
It was over a few times. At 17-0 Minnesota (wow that defense is really good). At 21-20 New Orleans (what a Brees-Kamara touchdown). At 23-21 Minnesota (finally the Vikings made a clutch field goal). At 24-23 New Orleans (what an incredible Brees t0 Snead completion on fourth and 10...did the Saints mismanage things to leave the Vikings half a minute?).
I had mixed feelings. I still resent the Saints for their numerous cheap shots on Favre during the Saints-Vikings NFC Championship in 2009 (the Bounty game). But I had several Saints, including Brees, Kamara and Thomas, on playoff league fantasy rosters -- thought they had a great chance to play four games, which might have won me some money. But also felt bad for the Vikings, who really deserved to finally win a tight playoff game. And so they did.
Now we've got two championship games featuring Tom Brady, Blake Bortles, Nick Foles and Case Keenum. I know, right. Whatever term you might want to use for "prohibitive favorites," that applies to the Patriots. But as yesterday proved, NFL miracles sometimes happen. Maybe next weekend we'll get another one.