NFL Wild Card Weekend: Five things we learnt

A look back at what happened in the first round of the play-offs

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It’s play-off time. Even though the regular season’s over, this is the time of year that matters most in the NFL. Zander Swinburne evaluates the talking points of wild card weekend, where the number of prospective Super Bowl champions was cut from twelve to eight.

1) Panthers prove regular season record is irrelevant in the play-offs

Every year in the NFL there emerges at least one play-off underdog, a team who many expect to be booted from the competition as soon as it starts. This year’s team was undoubtedly the Carolina Panthers who seemed happy just to be playing in January having won their division with an unlikely 7-8-1 record. Nevertheless, upon realising the Panthers were headed to the play-offs, the teams Twitter account correctly Tweeted: “Everyone's record is 0-0 when the play-offs start”.

Despite an abysmal regular season, the Panthers were able to shock the NFL world by demolishing the Arizona Cardinals 27-16 and set up a divisional round game with Seattle. By beating the Cardinals, they proved the theory that the play-offs represent almost a completely new season, with every team starting on the same level.

Without getting too carried away, Carolina are still a long shot to make the Super Bowl as the road to the big game will pass through Seattle and then either Dallas or Green Bay. They were also fortunate to face an Arizona side that limped into the play-offs without a real option at quarterback. Nevertheless, the Panthers have nothing to lose and everything to gain, so a few more surprises may yet be in store for this team.

2) Determination is Dallas’ greatest strength

Once the final play-off seeds were established, the Detroit Lions' match-up with the Dallas Cowboys was, by far, the headline act. In terms of excitement, there was plenty in Arlington as the Cowboys survived to beat the Lions 24-20 and set up a divisional round game with the Green Bay Packers.

Dallas’ performances at home have been mixed all season and from the opening kick-off it appeared they were heading down a familiar road, after they gave up two quick touchdowns. Despite a poor first-half, Dallas showed resolve in their comeback, a trait essential to any play-off team that wishes to claim a Super Bowl title.

Despite an incredibly shaky offensive line, quarterback Tony Romo was calm and collected right to the finish, delivering an eight yard touchdown pass to take the lead with less than three minutes left in the game. Too many penalties were ultimately what left Detroit with an early off-season, including one pass interference call that will no doubt be argued over for years to come in Michigan.

For Dallas however, Lambeau Field will be the next big challenge and if this team is to truly be considered a legitimate Super Bowl contender, they will need to keep that determination when they take on the Packers.

3) Flacco emerging as a top play-off player

The Steelers-Ravens rivalry is one of the NFL’s most historic and exciting. Since 1996, when football returned to Baltimore, these two teams have supplied hard hitting football at least twice a year and for the first time since 2010, NFL fans were granted a third contest of the season.

The Pittsburgh Steelers, widely seen as the favourites coming into the game, finished second best to the Ravens, losing 17-30. It was the first time Baltimore had beaten Pittsburgh in the play-offs, and they achieved this feat in emphatic style. The star of the show was Joe Flacco, who was once again highly efficient in what was his 14th play-off match; so much so that head coach John Harbaugh felt the need to declare Flacco the “best quarterback in football”.

Although the franchise QB has often experienced mixed regular seasons, he is establishing himself as a top post-season player. With 22 touchdowns in 14 games and only two interceptions in his last nine post-season appearances, statistically Flacco really is one of the best when it matters.

Next week however, Flacco will have to compete with arguably the best to ever play the game when his Ravens take on Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. The two teams will meet each other for the third time in the last four years and Flacco will need to beat the best if he is to be considered the best.

4) Cincinnati’s play-off losing streak continues

The Cincinnati Bengals appear to have one feat they seem incapable of achieving. All season long, the Bengals looked play-off bound, finishing the year with a 10-5-1 record and wins over the likes of the Denver Broncos and twice over the Ravens. Yet for the fourth straight season, the Bengals were unable to make it past the first round.

Cincinnati have now lost their fourth wild card game in five seasons, a statistic almost unheard of. It appears that no matter how well the Bengals perform in the regular season, they are destined for post-season gloom. Quarterback Andy Dalton wasn’t the main factor in Cincinnati’s loss but he certainly didn’t show anything to help silence his critics. Although no interceptions, a completion rate of just over 50 per cent gave little for his team to work with.

Both him and head coach Marvin Lewis will once again face a barrage of criticism for failing to advance. Although both their jobs are likely safe, questions will no doubt emerge as to whether it is acceptable for a team to lose the games that matter most. Having got so close once again, Cincinnati will have to start the long road back to the play-offs for a fifth time.

5) The head coach carousel is moving

As all eyes tend to be focused on the play-offs at this time of year, it seems appropriate to spare a moment for those teams no longer competing, and in particular the coaches who have been unceremoniously fired from their franchises.

As predicted last week, most of the coaches who were expected to get the boot have indeed been shipped off, but there were a few surprises. The most significant coaching move was that of Doug Marrone for the Buffalo Bills.

Despite having led the Bills to their first winning season since 2004, Marrone chose to jump ship and opt out of his contract with Buffalo after just one season. He is now the favourite to win the head coaching job for the New York Jets, who recently fired Rex Ryan after a 4-12 season. Along with GM John Idzik, Ryan was expected to be let go having missed the play-offs for a fourth year in a row. Mike Smith of the Atlanta Falcons was immediately fired following his teams disastrous loss to the Carolina Panthers and Chicago Bears head coach Marc Trestman was unable to save his job.

The least surprising move of the week came when San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh was shown the door. Harbaugh had reportedly been at odds with much of the organisation for some time so his departure was widely expected. With all the firings now out of the way, fans will be eagerly awaiting who will be next to lead their teams.



Carolina Panthers 27 Arizona Cardinals16

Baltimore Ravens 30 Pittsburgh Steelers 17

Indianapolis Colts 26 Cincinnati Bengals 10

Dallas Cowboys 24 Detroit Lions 20


Saturday, 10 January

Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots

Carolina Panthers at Seattle Seahawks

Sunday, 11 January

Dallas Cowboys at Green Bay Packers

Indianapolis Colts at Denver Broncos