Dallas Cowboys 24, Detroit Lions 20Playoff games should be fun – After an uninspiring Saturday game in the NFC, the Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions put on a competitive, entertaining show to close out the four-game opening weekend of the playoffs. The Lions played inspired defense early on their way to a 14-0 lead, then slowly let it slip away until the Cowboys took their first lead of the game with two minutes, 32 seconds left. After that, it was the Cowboys defense that harassed Detroit QB Matthew Stafford en route to the win, forcing two Stafford fumbles in the final three minutes.
The phantom flag – With a little more than eight minutes to play and Detroit still clinging to the lead, the Lions had third-and-1 from the Cowboys 46. Stafford targeted tight end Brandon Pettigrew, but when the pass fell incomplete, a flag for pass interference was also thrown. Referee Pete Morelli announced the penalty, then conferred with officials before announcing, without further explanation to the audience, that there was no pass interference. The Lions punted, and punted poorly, a 10-yarder. Dallas countered with an 11-play, 59-yard touchdown drive that was aided by two defensive holding calls on Detroit.
Momentum matters – The Lions scored two touchdowns and a field goal in their five first-half possessions, including two touchdowns on their first two drives. After that, however, three of their six second-half drives ended in turnovers, an interception to start the second half and two fumbles to end it. The Cowboys also won the battle of field position – Detroit’s average starting spot was the 18; Dallas’ was the 33. The Cowboys didn’t return one of Sam Martin’s punts, but the Detroit punter still only averaged a net 35.5 yards per punt on his four attempts, including a 10-yard shank after the controversial phantom flag. Dallas punter Chris Jones, meanwhile, had a net average of 47.5 yards on four punts. In a close game, those things matter.
Cam Newton’s yardage – he rushed seven times for 35 yards – but it was his decision-making in an offense that went a bit college-like running the option. Jonathan Stewart was the star, rushing 24 times for 123 yards and a touchdown, and he and Newton averaged 5 yards a carry. Meanwhile, the Arizona Cardinals had no counterpunch. With Andre Ellington on injured reserve, Kerwynn Williams managed a paltry 23 yards on 10 carries.
Checkdowns lead to checking out – Newton wasn’t exactly dominant in the passing game, but he was far better than third-stringer Ryan Lindley, who was forced into action with Carson Palmer on injured reserve and Drew Stanton still not able to play. The attempts and completions between Lindley and Newton were similar – Lindley was 16-for-28 and Newton 18-for-32 – but Newton’s receivers averaged 11 yards per catch while Lindley’s short-pass efforts yielded only a 5.1-yard average per catch. Lindley had a paltry passer rating of 44.3 while Newton was a serviceable 82.6.
Defense only goes so far – The Cardinals were built on defense, but when that failed against an athletic quarterback like Newton, they had to rely on their offense to keep up and they just didn’t have the horses. The offensive stats were staggeringly bad: eight first downs, 3-for-12 on third-down attempt, 78 total net yards, and a 1.7-yard average per play.
AFCPittsburgh Steelers were only slightly better at 3.6. But Joe Flacco’s efficiency was better than Ben Roethlisberger’s explosiveness. Flacco threw for 259 yards and two touchdowns, but he avoided the dreaded interceptions, leading to a 114.0 passer rating. Roethlisberger had 334 yards, but he had only one touchdown and two interceptions for a 79.3 rating.
Building trenches – The Ravens consistently harassed Roethlisberger and overpowered the Steelers’ offensive line. Big Ben was bent over several times and sacked five times. Flacco, meanwhile, took only one sack to help keep the Ravens in manageable situations.
Steve Smith still a star – Don’t count the old receiver out just yet. The former Carolina Panther showed that old guys with intense desire can still ball. He caught five passes for 101 yards and proved that a physical receiver can be a great tonic against a physical defense.
Indianapolis Colts 26, Cincinnati Bengals 10Halftime adjustments helped – The Bengals went the entire third quarter without picking up a single first down. They gained only 19 yards on their three third-quarter possessions and got into the red zone only once all game. Neither team stuck with the run much, despite both averaging over 4.5 yards per carry, but Andrew Luck was clearly above Andy Dalton’s level – Dalton had 155 yards passing and a 63.4 rating; Luck had 376 yards and a 104.0 rating.
Luck’s leg’s – The Bengals tried to bring a zero blitz several times, but either the Colts offensive line or Luck’s elusiveness were too much. He was sacked only once and, while he rushed only twice for 18 yards, his second touchdown pass was symbolic of just how strong he is. With a Bengals defender draped around his lower legs, he launched a perfect 36-yard touchdown strike to Donte Moncrief to give the Colts a 20-10 lead in the third quarter.
The trend continues: Andy Dalton has gotten the Bengals to the playoffs in four straight seasons but still doesn’t have a playoff win. In fact, it’s been 24 straight seasons for the Bengals without a postseason victory. Marvin Lewis and Dalton will both be feeling the heat if that happens again next season. In his four playoff games, all losses, Dalton has thrown for 873 yards for one touchdown, six interceptions, two fumbles, has taken 12 sacks, and has a putrid passer rating of 57.8.