The dash for cash and glory started this past weekend with four very good and entertaining games. Last year's wild-card games produced a combined margin of victory of 44 points. This year, the combined margin of victory was 42 points. Last year's No. 6 seeds, Washington and Tennessee, both lost. This year's No. 6 seeds, Baltimore and Philadelphia, both advanced.
There were several noteworthy achievements coming out of the weekend:
» This marked the first time two rookie quarterbacks started playoff games in the same season. Baltimore's Joe Flacco advanced; Atlanta's Matt Ryan did not.
» Until yesterday, Eagles cornerback Asante Samuel and Pro Football Hall of Famer Willie Brown shared the NFL postseason record with three career interceptions returns for touchdowns. Samuel scored his fourth on Sunday to break the tie.
» The Indianapolis-San Diego game Saturday night had the highest TV rating for a wild-card game since 1999.
The elite eight begin play on Saturday, and all four divisional-round games should be outstanding. Before we get into the key matchups later in the week, here's a quick look back at the wild-card games:
Arizona 30, Atlanta 24
Give a lot of credit to Arizona defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, who did some new things on defense. Rookie cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie played Pro Bowl receiver Roddy White head up all over the field. The Cardinals mixed things up with three-, four-, and five-man line schemes to confuse the Falcons' blockers. A disciplined run defense held Atlanta running back Michael Turner to a season-low 42 rushing yards on 18 carries. This was not one of Rookie of the Year Matt Ryan's best games. He was intercepted twice, sacked three times, and held to less than 200 yards passing.
On the other side of the ball, Arizona shut out John Abraham, who had 16.5 sacks in the regular season. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley called a great game.
One of the two big plays for Arizona in this game obviously was Darnell Dockett's forced fumble that was recovered by Antrel Rolle and retuned 27 yards for the go-ahead score on Atlanta's first possession of the second half. The other key play occurred with 2:17 to play and Arizona faced with a third-and-16 from Atlanta's 46. Kurt Warner completed a pass to Stephen Spach for 23 yards, giving the Cards a first down and allowing them to run out the clock. Credit Jason Licht, Arizona's director of pro personnel, for finding Spach -- he signed him off the street in late October. Spach, who was an undrafted rookie with the Eagles when Licht worked for Philadelphia, caught two passes for 15 yards in nine regular-season games for the Cardinals. He had three receptions for 34 yards in the playoff win.
San Diego 23, Indianapolis 17 (OT)
There were three lead changes in this game before San Diego tied it in the final minute of regulation to force overtime.
San Diego running back/returner Darren Sproles, playing in place of the injured LaDainian Tomlinson, produced 328 all-purpose yards -- the third-best output in playoff history. Ed Podolak of the Chiefs holds the record with 351 yards in the memorable 1971 Miami-Kansas City game that went into double overtime. Sproles touched the ball 35 times. At the 2005 combine, Sproles measured 5-foot-6 and 187 pounds -- and he lifted the 225-pound bench press 23 times, which is phenomenal. There are linemen that don't do that!
Aside from Sproles' effort and some costly penalties in overtime, three other keys to this game were:
1) Chargers punter Mike Scifres averaged an NFL playoff-record 51.7 yards on six punts -- all of which forced the Colts to begin drives inside the 20.
2) Indianapolis, starting its first possession of the fourth quarter on its own 21, got a 25-yard completion from Peyton Manning to Dallas Clark. But the play was called back due to a tripping penalty on Jeff Saturday, the Colts' outstanding center. It looked as if Saturday slipped while trying to execute a block. Nevertheless, the penalty negated the play and sent the Colts back to their own 11-yard line.
3) The Colts' inability to run the ball -- they totaled just 64 yards, averaging less than three yards per carry.
Baltimore 27, Miami 9
Joe Flacco completed just 9 of 23 passes for 135 yards, but he scored the Ravens' final touchdown on a 5-yard run. Overall, he looked much better than his numbers indicate. Rookie coach John Harbaugh does a great job of letting his coordinators, Cam Cameron and Rex Ryan, run the offense and defense, respectively.
Chad Pennington, who threw seven interceptions in the regular season, threw four yesterday, and the Miami offense also lost a fumble. Down by 11 with 8:44 to play, the Dolphins had a second-and-7 from the Baltimore 25. They ran a wide receiver reverse -- a play they had run with a lot of success during the season and one that is designed to slow down the Ravens' pass rush. This time, however, the result was a fumbled handoff that produced a 19-yard loss. With the failure of that play, Miami's hopes faded. Credit Ryan for a very good defensive plan. And credit Harbaugh for putting an end to the bickering between the offense and defense that had been a problem in recent seasons.
While all the talk about small players having big games this weekend centered on Sproles, we also need to mention Ravens strong safety Jim Leonhard. The 5-foot-8, 186-pound Leonhard was a walk-on at the University of Wisconsin who went undrafted when he came out of college in 2005. Against Miami, he had six tackles, half a sack, one interception, and he returned two punts for 21 yards.
Philadelphia 26, Minnesota 14
Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb kept his record intact -- he has never been "one-and-done" in the playoffs. In six postseasons, he is 6-0 in the Eagles first playoff game. In this game, McNabb did a good job of getting out of bad field position with key third-down conversions, one to tight end Brent Celek and another to receiver Jason Avant. The Eagles only ran the ball 23 times for 67 yards, but the big play came on the 73-yard screen pass to running back Brian Westbrook. It looked like a Minnesota defender fell down on the play, and that's what gave McNabb a clear passing lane to hit Westbrook.
A couple of questions linger for Minnesota. For starters, running back Adrian Peterson -- the NFL's leading rusher -- did not touch the ball in the last three possessions. Also, in the first quarter, the Eagles were called for offensive holding after an incomplete pass on third-and-9 from the Vikings' 26. Rather than accept the penalty and push the Eagles back, they declined the penalty and let David Akers attempt a reasonable 43-yard field goal (which he did). That one is hard for me to understand.
The Eagles didn't blitz much early, but they turned the heat on Tarvaris Jackson in the fourth quarter. Philadelphia's unsung hero is defensive end Trent Cole, who had 14 tackles. Akers also kicked a 51-yard field goal, which is the longest in team playoff history.