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|As reward for a terrific rookie season, Ravens QB Joe Flacco gets to face Pittsburgh's defense for the third time.|
Football is said to be a game of momentum, and it's usually a good sign of things to come when a team scores first. But in a weekend full of surprises, this should come as no surprise: All four teams that scored first this weekend lost. Of course, three of those teams were home teams in the divisional playoffs. From 1990-2007, home teams in divisional playoff games were 55-17, a .760 winning percentage. This past weekend, home teams were 1-3.
This year will also mark the first time since the present seeding format began in 1990 that we'll have two No. 6 seeds in the conference championship games. And it is the first time in that stretch that neither No. 1 seed will appear in the conference championship games.
One surprise that is not all that new: With the Giants' loss to Philadelphia, this is the third time in the last four years in which the previous year's Super Bowl champ has lost in the divisional round.
This was the second time since the merger that three road teams won in the divisional round (Baltimore, Dallas and Miami did it in 1971). Baltimore's Joe Flacco became the first rookie quarterback ever to win two playoff games.
Of all the milestones and unexpected accomplishments, here is perhaps the most amazing: The four teams that will be playing in the conference championship games for the right to advance to Super Bowl XLIII had a combined record of 31-33 in 2007. This may be the best indicator of the competitive balance in the NFL.
Baltimore 13, Tennessee 10
Between the strong wind, two excellent defenses and the fact that these teams don't like each other, it was no surprise to see such a tough, low-scoring game. Tennessee missed out on at least six scoring chances because of mistakes and forced turnovers. The Titans had the ball for 34:07, recording 21 first downs to the Ravens' 9, and outgained Baltimore by 180 yards. But they lost two fumbles inside the 20, and Kerry Collins overthrew a wide open receiver while trying to avoid a sack. The Ravens, meanwhile, did not turn the ball over.
The call of the game occurred with 10:09 left in third quarter. Baltimore challenged a catch by Tennessee tight end Bo Scaife. The reception was overtuned and Rob Bironas missed the ensuing field goal attempt. The loss of rookie running back Chris Johnson to a foot injury in the second half also was crucial -- Johnson rushed for 72 yards on 11 carries and had a 28-yard catch.
Flacco was outstanding -- making plays when he had to and not turning over the ball. Aside from having a rookie quarterback at the helm, Baltimore's run this postseason is similar to their Super Bowl run after the 2000 season -- when they defeated No. 1 seed Tennessee in the divisional round.
Arizona 33, Carolina 13
Several weeks ago, the popular opinion was that Arizona didn't belong in the playoffs. The Cardinals couldn't run the ball and they were a middle-of-the-road team when it came to stopping the run. They ranked 16th overall against the run -- yet in the past two weeks they have stopped the No. 2 rushing offense (Atlanta) and the No. 3 rushing offense (Carolina) in the league. And after many had questioned their own running ability, they ran for 145 yards against a good Panthers defense.
The Panthers went up 7-0 just three minutes into the game. Many times, there is a tendency for a team to let down after scoring so quickly into the game. I don't know if they thought it was going to be smooth sailing after that. Obviously, it wasn't.
The Cardinals pressured Jake Delhomme into six turnovers -- five interceptions and a forced fumble. The Arizona offensive line kept pressure off Kurt Warner, who had a big first half throwing to Larry Fitzgerald. Arizona led 27-7 at halftime.
Thanks to rising rookie cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Arizona held Carolia receiver Steve Smith without a catch for the first 44:08 of the game. Rodgers-Cromartie had an interception, a tipped pass that caused an interception, and four pass breakups against Smith.
One year ago, the road to Super Bowl XLII ended in Arizona. This year, the road to the Super Bowl goes through Arizona. Football fever is off the charts -- once it was determined that the Cardinals were hosting the NFC title game, the game sold out in six minutes. Arizona is now the last NFC team to reach a conference title game since the merger.
Philadelphia 23, N.Y. Giants 11
The Giants won the coin flip to start the game and elected to receive -- meaning their offense would be going into the strong wind in the first and fourth quarters. When they got a long kickoff return from Ahmad Bradshaw and then ran five minutes off the clock before kicking a field goal, it seemed like a good decision. Any time you can hold the ball for an extended period of time and score while going into the wind, it's a good sign.
In fact, the Eagles had only 10 yards of offense in the first quarter. But Eli Manning was intercepted by Asante Samuel on the first play of the Giants' second drive, and he returned it to the Giants' 2-yard line. The Eagles offense took it in from there -- so even with just 10 yards of offense, Philadelphia led 7-3 after that first quarter.
Manning was inconsistent, completing 15 of 29 passes -- and only six to the outside receivers. The Giants had the ball five times inside the Eagles' 20, and came away with just three field goals to show for it. The Eagles were outgained by 31 yards, but they kept the Giants out of the end zone. David Akers kicked three field goals -- extending his NFL record of successful postseason field goals to 18.
Going into the final week of the regular season, the Eagles needed to beat Dallas and also have Tampa Bay lose at home to the Raiders and Chicago lose at Houston, just to make the playoffs. It all happened, and now the Eagles are one game away from the Super Bowl.
Pittsburgh 35, San Diego 24
The biggest play in this game came with 7:41 left in the first quarter, when Santonio Holmes set a Steelers playoff record with a 67-yard punt return for a touchdown. Trailing 7-0 at the time, the play seemed to ignite what had been a somewhat quiet crowd. Right before the punt return, Charlie Batch of Steelers grabbed Holmes by the hand and said, "You have to be our spark." And he was.
To start the second half, the Steelers ran 13 plays and took 7:56 off the clock before going up 21-10 on a Ben Roethlisberger TD pass to Heath Miller. In the third quarter, Pittsburgh ran 25 plays, scoring seven points. The Chargers had the ball for just one play -- good for 17 seconds.
Overall, Pittsburgh held the ball for 36:30, but it surprised everyone with a fake punt, which failed, and it was stopped on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line. In the first three quarters, the Steelers held San Diego to six first downs, and 143 yards -- 41 of which came on one play.
With one more win, the Steelers can be playing for a record sixth Super Bowl title. But first they must play a game that is becoming one of the most intense rivalries in football. Hatfields and McCoys? Montagues and Capulets? They've got nothing on the Steelers and Ravens, a battle of defensive giants -- and two teams that dislike each other immensely.