January 17, 2011
The unpredictability of football is what makes the sport so exciting to watch and the NFL Divisional Playoffs this past weekend were no exceptions. While some teams entered the games heavily favored, once on the field, nothing they did to reach that point mattered anymore. It was all about how the teams performed in the next four quarters. And this week, the underdogs came up big. Both the No. 1 seeds in the NFC and AFC lost to sixth seeded teams, proving to sports gamblers and bandwagon fans alike that they might want to reconsider their allegiances.
The first game of the weekend pitted the No. 5 seed Baltimore Ravens (13-4) on the road against two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the No. 2 seed and AFC North division champion Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4). The much anticipated game marked the second time in the past three seasons that both division rivals faced each other three times in the same season with the media and players alike dubbing the matchup “World War III.”
The Ravens scored early and often and entered halftime with a 21-7 lead and the confidence that they would emerge victorious. However, the Ravens collapsed in the second half with the Baltimore defense not only allowing 17 points, but Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco and the offense were unable to deliver a response. When the Ravens did score again, their late game field goal was answered with a two-yard touchdown run from Steelers running-back Rashard Mendenhall to lift Pittsburgh to a 31-24 victory. Despite the best efforts of the Ravens, the Steelers kept their immaculate playoff record alive, as they moved to 9-0 against division teams in the playoffs. The win advanced the Steelers to their fifth AFC Championship game in the past ten seasons. Next weekend, the black and gold play host to the No. 6 seed New York Jets, hoping to finally shut down the AFC underdogs.
The No. 6 seed Green Bay Packers (11-6) pulled a major upset this weekend, when they beat the NFC No. 1 seed Atlanta Falcons (13-3) on their own turf in the Georgia Dome. While the Falcons secured an early 14-7 lead, the Packers dominated the rest of the game, looking more like a first seed than a sixth seed and exposing what quickly seemed to be an overrated Falcons offense. The final score was an embarrassing 48-21 blowout in favor of Green Bay. With such a convincing win under their belt, the Packers advance to play the No. 2 seeded Chicago Bears (13-4) next week at Soldier Field where they will fight until the end for a coveted spot in Super Bowl XLV. Both division rivals last met in the final game of the regular season with the Packers earning a playoff berth following a strong defensive game in which the Packers ended up on top 10-3. Will it be a repeat win for the Packers this time around or will the Bears be able to win at home and return to the Super Bowl for the first time since 2006? In 2006, they lost to the Indianapolis Colts 29-17. The Packers will enter the game on fire, led by quarterback Aaron Rodgers and a powerful offensive line. While the Bears had a strong outing against the Seahawks this weekend, winning 35-24, the upstart 8-9 Seahawks team posed far less of a threat than Rodgers and “the Pack” will. It is obvious Green Bay Packers have their hearts and eyes set on the Super Bowl. Packers’ running-back Ryan Grant even Tweeted, “Pack Fans might want 2 start booking flights 4 feb. Not looking ahead but u c we just have better players than other teams.” Pride goeth before a fall?
The biggest upset of the weekend came in Foxborough, MA, Sunday afternoon. That’s when the No. 1 seed New England Patriots (14-2) — a team heavily favored to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl — and their star quarterback Tom Brady hosted the Jets (11-5). It was the first time the two division rivals met since Brady demolished the Jets 45-3 on the same field Dec 6. After that embarrassing loss, Jets’ quarterback Mark Sanchez was quoted as saying, “I just want one more chance [against the Patriots].” That chance came Sunday and Sanchez did not disappoint, completing 16 of 25 passes for 197 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. At halftime, the Jets led 14-3, a lead that would eventually be threatened by a revitalized Pats team that scored a touchdown in the second half and converted a 2-point conversion to slim the deficit to only a field goal. With time running out, the Patriots attempted an onside kick despite the fact that New England punter Zoltan Mesko had only successfully converted one onside kick in four career tries. Statistics prevailed and the Jets recovered the football, running it back for a touchdown. While Brady was able to score another touchdown before the end of the game, a second unsuccessful onside kick by Mesko sealed the deal. The Jets were in; the Pats out. The Patriots’ loss is their third straight post-season defeat since 2007.
While the Jets have now beaten two of the best quarterbacks in consecutive weeks (Peyton Manning and Tom Brady respectively), their biggest test will come next week at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh when they face not only the Steelers offense, but also the No. 1 defense in the NFL featuring an extremely talented defensive line. In my opinion, the luck for Sanchez and the Jets is about to run out. If New York can pull it off I might become a believer otherwise, I’ll be the first to say I told you so.
The Capitals pulled out a much needed 3-1 victory over the Ottawa Senators Sunday after losing three in a row, including a 4-2 home defeat to the Vancouver Canucks at the Verizon Center. The Caps beat Ottawa by scoring three third period goals in come-from-behind fashion to snap the three-game skid. The victory marked the second time in the past month that the Capitals have beat the Senators to end a losing streak with a 3-2 victory over Ottawa on Dec. 19. They snapped a then eight game losing streak. Currently, the Capitals are 25-14-7, No. 2 in the Southeast Division and trailing the Tampa Bay Lightnings who have a record of 26-15-5.
Alex Ovechkin and Mike Green will be joining 40 other NHL players for the NHL’s All-Star Weekend taking place January 28-30 in North Carolina. While it will be Green’s first All-Star appearance, the event marks Ovechkin’s fourth appearance. Caps fans can also celebrate the fact that this is the first time Washington has sent two players to the All-Star game since Jarmoir Jagr and Sergei Gonchar were selected to the game during the 2002-03 season.
The Wizards topped the Utah Jazz Monday to claim their fourth straight home victory. Washington has now won two in a row (barely beating the Toronto Raptors 98-95 on Saturday) for their first two-game winning streak of the season. While it’s an improvement, it’s not enough to budge the team from last place in the Southeast division. While the team’s 12-27 records is in sharp contrast to the league leading San Antonio Spurs’ 35-6 record, the Wizards do not have the worst record in the league. That honor goes to LeBron James’ ex-team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, who are 8-32 and struggling without their old star.
Though the Wizards are improving, forward John Wall is still plagued by injuries, despite averaging 15.3 points and 8.9 assists per game and not living up to the hype of being the NBA’s next great point guard. Wall is the first to say his injuries have played a role in his performance, telling Bullets Forever writer Mike Prada, “It’s just kind of tough for me because of the injuries. That’s the only thing really I think that’s stopped me from being who I want to be and controlling myself.” If that’s the case, perhaps the rookie (because after all, that’s what he is) will become more adjusted and less injury prone in the off-season. Until then, I’ll take two wins in a row.
(You can read Mike Prada’s full post-game interview with Wall here: http://www.bulletsforever.com/2011/1/17/1937870/john-wall-is-more-injured-than-hes-letting-on)