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Wildcard Weekend Wrap-up

   by Larry Ness - 01/11/2010

The NFL's wildcard weekend opened with Mark Sanchez becoming just the fourth rookie QB in NFL history to win his postseason debut, as the Jets beat the Bengals in Cincinnati 24-14. It ended with Arizona beating Green Bay 51-45 (OT), a game which ranks as the highest-scoring playoff game in NFL history. In between, the Cowboys made it a 3-0 sweep of the Eagles this year with a 34-14 win Saturday night at Dallas and the Ravens routed the Patriots 33-14 Sunday afternoon in Foxboro. Home teams went 2-2 SU and ATS with underdogs going 3-1 ATS (huge move on the GB/Ari game saw the Cards go from 2 1/2-point favorites to 2 1/2-point underdogs by game time.

All four games went over the total and the average score of the four games was 35.5-21.8 for an average margin of victory of 13.7 PPG. That's nothing new (pointed out in last week's article), as the average margin of victory in the previous 75 wildcard games since 1990 (when NFL expanded the playoff field to 12 teams) had been 12.4 PPG (27.7-15.3). Scoring was up this year but it's amazing how similar the margins of victory have been through the years and in the individual rounds as well (more info on the divisional round will be provided in my Friday preview). As reported last week, 40 of the previous 76 wildcard games (52.6 percent) had been decided by 11 points or more and 29 (38.2 percent) by 14 points or more.

This weekend's schedule is set with the Cards visiting New Orleans to play the top-seeded Saints at 4:30 ET on Saturday. The Saints opened as 6 1/2 point favorites with a total of 56 (as of 12 noon ET on Monday it was New Orleans minus-7 and 57). The Colts are the AFC's No. 1 seed and will host the Ravens at 8:15 ET Saturday night. Indy opened as a 6 1/2-point choice with a total of 46 1/2 (it's now Indy minus-6 1/2 and 44 1/2). The first of two Sunday games sees the Cowboys at the Vikings at 1:00 ET. Minnesota opened as a three-point choice with a total of 48 (it's now Minny minus-2 1/2 and 46). The Jets will be in San Diego at 4:40 ET on Sunday in the second game. The Chargers opened as nine-point favorites with a total of 42 1/2. (it's now SD minus-7 1/2 and 42 1/2). Unlike last week when all four games involved teams which had met during the regular season (three meetings in Week 17), only the Ravens and Colts met during the 2009 regular season with Indy winning 17-15 at Baltimore in Week 11. My divisional round preview will be posted on Friday.

Saturday recap:

The Bengals scored first on Saturday but the Jets took a 14-7 lead at half and were never headed. Mark Sanchez became just the fourth rookie QB in NFL history to win his postseason debut, joining Shaun King ('99 Bucs), Ben Roethlisberger ('04 Steelers) and Joe Flacco ('08 Ravens). Sanchez, unlike the other three rookie QBs who won their debuts, played well despite tough conditions. The Cincy defense tried its best to put the game in the hands of New York's rookie QB but playing in single-digit wind chill conditions Sanchez went 12 of 15 for 182 yards and a passer rating of 139.4. ESPN threw up a graphic of the combined numbers of King, Big Ben and Flacco but while I wrote them down, I can't find them now (it's old age). Anyway, I do remember that the trio completed less than 50 percent of their passes and had an abysmally low QB rating.

The Jets ran for 171 yards, led by rookie Shonn Greene who had 135 yards, including a 39-yard TD. Greene is the third rookie since 2000 to rush for 100 yards in a playoff game and while the Bengals also ran for 171 yards (Cedric Benson ran for a Bengals-record 169 yards in a playoff game), Cincy managed little else. Palmer was awful (18-of-36 for 146 yards with one TD, one INT and a passer rating of 58.3) while Ochocinco had two catches for 28 yards. The Bengals have not won a playoff game since 1990 (0-3) and their 19-year drought is the longest active streak in the NFL.

The Eagles and Cowboys played a scoreless first quarter on Saturday night but Romo and the Cowboys broke the game open with five straight scoring drives in the second quarter to take a 27-7 halftime lead. Felix Jones added a 73 yard TD in the third quarter and the Cowboys made it a 3-0 sweep of the Eagles in 2009. Jones rushed 16 times for 148 yards (3rd-highest rushing total in Cowboys playoff history behind Tony Dorsett and Emmitt Smith) while Tony Romo got his first playoff win after losing his first two appearances. He finished 23-of-35 for 244 yards with two TDs and no INTs.

It was the Cowboys first playoff win since 1996, when they beat the Vikings in the wild card round, only to go on to lose to the Panthers in the divisional round. That loss to Carolina began a five-game playoff losing skid (1-4 ATS) that's now over, ending a 4,760-day drought. It also marked head coach Wade Phillips' first career postseason win in his fifth try. He had lost as Denver's head coach in 1993, twice with Buffalo ('98 and '99) and with the Cowboys in 2007. The Eagles are "one-and-done" in the postseason for the first time under head coach Andy Reid, who took over the Eagles back in 1999. QB Donovan McNabb had started six of those seven games and took his first loss in a playoff opener, as well.

Sunday recap:

Bill Belichick, like Andy Reid, had been perfect in his playoff openers since taking over in New England (6-0 SU and 3-2-1 ATS). The Pats went 8-0 at home during the 2009 regular season and entered Sunday's game with 11 straight home playoff wins since a 31-14 loss to the Houston Oilers in 1978. Baltimore's 33-14 win marks the first home playoff loss for both Belichick and QB Tom Brady (now 8-1). Ray Rice scored on an 83-yard rushing TD on the first play from scrimmage (the second-longest rushing TD in postseason history) and it was all Baltimore the rest of the way.

Tom Brady lost a fumble and was picked off three times for the game, with three of his turnovers coming in the first quarter when Baltimore took a 24-0 lead, tying for the second-most first-quarter points in postseason history. Rice finished with a team playoff record 159 yards rushing (had two TDs), as the Ravens ran for a franchise playoff-game record 234 yards. Baltimore QB Joe Flacco was a pathetic 4-of-10 for 34 yards without a TD and with one INT (QB rating of 10.0!). However, he improved to 3-1 as a starting QB in the playoffs with all three wins coming on the road. His road three wins are tied for the most among active QBs, something I will elaborate on this coming Friday.

It would be hard to find a more entertaining game than Sunday's Packers/Cardinals contest. Nothing went right for Green Bay in the first quarter and the Cards jumped out to a 17-0 lead. It was 24-10 at the half and when Arizona took a 31-10 lead early in the third quarter, the Packers looked 'dead.' I'm sure most if not all of you saw it, so I'll just conclude that after the teams combined for 1,024 yards, the game was decided by Karlos Dansby's 17-yard fumble return on the first possession of the overtime. The winning score came just 1:18 into the extra period, making it the second-quickest finish to an OT playoff game in NFL history.

It also marked just the second time (out of 26 previous postseason OT games) in which a defensive TD won the game. Green Bay was also involved in the other one, which occurred in a 2003 NFC wildcard game in which the Packers beat the Seahawks 33-27 when Al Harris ended the contest with a 52-yard interception return for the winning score. Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers completed 28-of-42 passes for 422 yards with four TDs and one INT, while Arizona's Kurt Warner completed 29-of-33 for 379 yards with five TDs and zero INTs.

This was just the second time in the Super Bowl era in which both QBs threw for at least 300 yards and four passing TDs in the same game. Ironically, Kurt Warner has been involved in both. The other was the 1999 Divisional playoff game against Jeff George and the Vikings. It was Warner's second career five-TD postseason game, joining Daryle "the Mad Bomber" Lamonica as the only players with a pair of games with at least five passing TDs. WR Larry Fitzgerald had two TD catches, giving him nine in his postseason career. That's the highest total in NFL history through any player's first five playoff games.

I'll be back on Wednesday with a quick look back at the 2009 CFB season.

Good luck, Larry

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