Monday, January 11, 2010; D01
No way a defensive play should end the greatest passing duel the NFL playoffs have ever seen. No way Aaron Rodgers, on the verge of making Cheeseheads forget the name Brett Favre, should have the ball knocked from his right hand and taken into the end zone in such a dramatic, dizzying manner. No way an overtime can end like this, 51-45, in favor of the Arizona Cardinals.
"I've played in a lot of football games, I've watched a lot of football, and I've never been involved in anything like this, don't remember seeing anything like this," Cardinals defensive end Bertrand Berry said.
After watching the teams score on nine of their final 11 possessions in the game to take a 45-45 tie into overtime, Cardinals Coach Ken Whisenhunt sank when his team lost the coin toss to decide possession in the extra session, and thought: "You flip the coin, whoever wins the toss wins the game. We don't have to play it."
The Packers were thrilled at having possession to start OT.
Wide receiver Donald Driver recalled: "We ran to the sideline saying, 'It's over. We're going to win this game. We've got the ball. We're going to win.' "
Once resigned to the fact that his defense had to take the field, Whisenhunt said: "I thought, 'Our defense is going to make a play to win the game.' I don't know why."
But Whisenhunt's faith was justified when Michael Adams popped the ball loose from Rodgers and Karlos Dansby took it 17 yards to end the highest scoring NFL playoff game ever, a game decided by a defensive play but defined for all time by offense, more specifically passing. Arizona's Kurt Warner pitched a perfect game: 29 for 33 for 379 yards, 5 touchdowns and 0 interceptions. Try and find the last time a quarterback threw more touchdowns than incompletions. Rodgers completed 28 of 42 for 422 yards, 4 touchdowns and 1 interception. The bomb he launched on the first play of overtime was just out of Greg Jennings's reach and would have sent the Cardinals to their second consecutive crushing playoff defeat.
Either way, as Warner said afterward, "It doesn't remind me of too much I've ever been a part of."
The Cardinals and Packers saved the first weekend of the postseason because the NFL playoffs had produced mostly junk through the first three games.
There were blowouts, lame performances and massive disappointments from New England to North Texas on Saturday and early Sunday. But luckily for people who love authentic drama, there was a treat waiting in the desert Sunday afternoon, a shootout between Yoda and a Jedi, Warner and Rodgers, a back-and-forth, touchdown-or-die classic that might have been offensive football at its playoff best.
And while nobody will confuse the defenses involved here with the '85 Bears, Doomsday or the Steel Curtain, the number of precise downfield passes and acrobatic catches was astounding, given what was at stake. Warner was every bit as spectacular as he was in his MVP days back in St. Louis, statistically tying or surpassing the likes of Joe Montana and Peyton Manning through the course of the afternoon. The Cardinals averaged 6.8 yards per rush. Anquan Boldin's replacement, Early Doucet, caught two touchdown passes. Warner, who some expected to retire after the game if Arizona lost, said, "It felt great, I loved our plan, it felt like I was seeing everything well."
And Rodgers, his Packers down 17-0 early and 31-10 late, threw it more productively than Brett Favre ever did for Green Bay in a playoff game. The Packers had six offensive series in the second half and scored touchdowns on five. Only the sixth series, with 14 seconds remaining in regulation after Arizona's Neil Rackers blew an easy field goal attempt to win the game, didn't produce a score, and that's because Rodgers was told by his coaches to take a knee and go to OT. Packers cornerback Charles Woodson said of Rodgers: "He's a monster. With what he had to deal with all season. All the sacks and he continued to get up time after time. He's a joy to watch."
Fortunately, Cardinals-Packers and the story lines from the other games were good enough to carry the weekend, because the quality of the action elsewhere was a letdown. Jets-Bengals? No contest. The J-E-T-S, the biggest underdog in the postseason field according to the Vegas oddsmakers, built a 14-point lead on the Bengals and coasted. Cowboys-Eagles? Again, no contest. The Eagles simply aren't big and strong enough on defense to stop Dallas without blitzing, which eventually makes Philly vulnerable. And Tony Romo suddenly looks like Roger Staubach. Ravens-Patriots? Shockingly, no contest, and who knew the Patriots, who hadn't lost a home game of any kind with Tom Brady since 2006, would be on the short end, down 24-0 in the first quarter?
Yes, there were great performances by players who weren't Cardinals or Packers. In defeat, Cincinnati's Cedric Benson ran for 169 yards and almost by himself kept the Bengals competitive. Sadly, Benson didn't get the support some of us expected from Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco. The Jets' Darrelle Revis, probably the best shutdown cornerback in the game today, stopped Ochocinco completely, holding him without a catch through three quarters. And Mark Sanchez got back to playing the way he did the first three weeks of the season, when zealots in New York started using his name in the same paragraph with Joe Namath.
The two men who stood up to the pressure better than anybody over the weekend had to be Romo, who was 0-2 in the playoffs with no playoff appearance a year ago, and his coach, Wade Phillips. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones did say in the euphoria afterward: "Things have changed for Wade. He doesn't have the same set of circumstances regarding his résumé or his career that he had five weeks ago. It's a different place for Wade now." Excuse me for playing the cynic, but does "now" extend to next Sunday in Minneapolis if the Cowboys get rolled by the Vikings?
You wonder what courtesies are going to extend to Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb in Philly after back-to-back flat-line performances down in Dallas. Maybe McNabb would be better off coming to Arizona, where he now lives, to finish his career if Warner retires. It's fair to question whether McNabb feels particularly comfortable with new jacks like LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson, who looks so silly for tweeting during the week that the Eagles would come back and throttle the Cowboys. McNabb, at this point of his life and career, can't possibly want to finish his playing days with these young knuckleheads when Larry Fitzgerald, Steve Breaston, Doucet, etc. might be in need of a veteran quarterback.
Anyway, while the Cardinals-Packers game had that Oh-My-God quality to it, the only result you could legitimately call a shocker was the Ravens' dismantling of the Patriots in Foxborough.
It's a little difficult to understand how Bill Belichick could be roasted (by John Harbaugh) and Brady could be toasted (by the Ravens defense) in a game at home. And why couldn't they figure out a way to get the ball to Randy Moss at least a couple of times early? So, it's fair to wonder whether the Patriots as we've known them expired yesterday in New England.
But the next set of games -- Cardinals at Saints and Cowboys at Vikings in the NFC, Ravens at Colts and Jets at Chargers in the AFC -- has to produce more compelling action, more championship-caliber play than we saw this weekend. Because after three flat games out of four, there's no place to go but up.