Banish the narratives, burn the game film.
All four home teams fell on Saturday and Sunday. For the first time since the NFL expanded to eight divisions in 2002, half of the division winners have been eliminated on Wild Card Weekend.
January is survival season in the NFL.
Once a winning team has advanced, the slate is wiped clean for the next opponent.
"This was really a survival game for both teams," Pete Carroll said after the game. "I don't think it's a measure of anything as far as your football. It was guts and stick-to-it and grit and the whole thing for both sides and somebody had to win."
There are no style points in the postseason. It's as simple as surviving and advancing.
- This game between two bitter AFC North rivals had more plot twists than a 19th century Russian novel, with Vontaze Burfict playing the anti-hero role to perfection. The Bengals' firebrand linebacker was in the middle of the action all night. He changed the complexion of the game, sending Roethlisberger to the locker room with a 12-yard sack on the last play of the third quarter. The Steelers had been in total command to that point, leading 15-0 and utterly stifling AJ McCarron's offense. A deep pass interference penalty and Pittsburgh's switch to a prevent defense stoked Cincinnati's comeback with 16 fourth-quarter points.
Just when it appeared that Burfict had sealed the unlikely victory with a spectacular interception to shut down any prayers of a successful two-minute drill for backup quarterback Landry Jones, Jeremy Hill fumbled the ball back to Pittsburgh. After leaving a helmeted Roethlisberger on the sidelines in favor of Jones the previous two series, the Steelers turned back to their starter for a desperation spark with just 1:23 remaining. Minus his fastball, Roethlisberger led the offense into Cincinnati territory when Burfict struck again, drawing a penalty for a brutal cheap shot to the head of a defenseless Antonio Brown. Adam Jones lost his cool in the aftermath, sticking the Bengals with a combined 30 yards in penalties in a complete breakdown of discipline with the game on the line. Chris Boswell connected on a chip-shot field goal the very next play, propelling Pittsburgh to victory and closing out one of the most bizarre fourth quarters in postseason history.
- Beyond Roethlisberger's Willis Reed-like heroics and Burfict's internecine antics, this game featured scuffles, drive-killing personal fouls and several big hits. Bengals fans booed an injured Roethlisberger and threw a beer can into the cart that was hauling him to the locker room. Steelers assistant coach Mike Munchak was penalized for grabbing Pro Bowl safety Reggie Nelson's dreadlocks on the sideline. Joey Porter, another Pittsburgh assistant, was in the middle of the field during Jones' critical post-play penalty. Giovani Bernard was concussed on a vicious Ryan Shazier hit. Brown was concussed on the Burfict blow. Nelson and cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick also left with injuries.
- Much like the Texans earlier in the day, the Bengals couldn't overcome their disadvantage at quarterback for three quarters. McCarron struggled mightily with ball security in a steady rain, fumbling three times and losing his grip on a rainbow interception. One game after McCarron failed to convert a single third-down in the regular-season finale, his offense entered halftime with just two first downs. He was far from the only problem on offense, however. The Steelers dominated the line of scrimmage and shut down the Bengals' ground attack. It took an A.J. Green 42-yard pass interference to set up a short Jeremy Hill touchdown and end Cincinnati's streak of 75 consecutive postseason minutes without a score. The Bengals certainly missed Andy Dalton under center. They were the better all-around team for three months prior to Dalton's fractured thumb.
- Credit the Steelers' defense for late-season improvement, led by rangy inside linebackers Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons. Shazier was the defensive star of the game, blowing up several plays near the line of scrimmage, notching two passes defensed and recording 13 tackles. More impressively, he saved the Steelers' season by forcing Hill's game-turning fumble one quarter after forcing Bernard's fumble. The run defense, especially, is hitting its stride in January.
- For all of the concern over DeAngelo Williams' ankle injury, Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman combined for 183 yards from scrimmage against a Cincinnati defense playing off the line of scrimmage to stop Pittsburgh's deep aerial attack. Toussaint impressed as a receiver and Todman broke off several big plays as a runner. If Williams is unavailable next week, the Steelers have reason to believe their backfield is in good hands. That could change if Landry Jones starts at quarterback, enticing Denver's linebackers and safeties into the box.
*-- Chris Wesseling *
- The NFL keeps lining up opponents and the Chiefs keep knocking them down. Kansas City won their 11th straight game after starting the season 1-5. Defense dominated the day for K.C. until the offense opened up late against a wilting Texans D. The Chiefs forced five turnovers, with four picks and a forced fumble. The defensive line dominated a Duane Brown-less Houston offensive line. With the Texans offense threatening early, defensive end Allen Bailey bull rushed left tackle Chris Clark back into quarterback Brian Hoyer forcing a fumble, which the Chiefs recovered. The play was emblematic of the day for both squads.
- Brian Hoyer's first career playoff start was disastrous from the jump. The Houston quarterback looked jittery, had zero confidence in his reads and rushed throws. Hoyer threw three interceptions and fumbled in the first half. He became just the second QB since 1991 to have four-plus giveaways in the first half of a playoff game. The last man? Dan Marino in the 1999 Divisional Round at Jacksonville: Two INTs, two lost fumbles in first half. It was Marino's final NFL game.
It didn't get much better in the second half for Hoyer. He threw another pick, continued to make mental errors and should have thrown several more interceptions. Houston fans were left pining for Brandon Weeden. Sad. Clearly, quarterback will be Bill O'Brien's No. 1 priority this offseason.
- Knile Davis began the postseason with a bang, taking the opening kickoff 106 yards for a touchdown. It marked the second-longest TD return in NFL playoff history and just the fifth in the postseason. It's nothing new for the Texans' special teams to get burned. Houston ranked last in special teams metrics by Football Outsiders. The Chiefs got the early lead thanks to the big return and sat on it.
- The Chiefs were content to let Hoyer implode early. Kansas City earned just six points off four first-half Houston turnovers. Andy Reid made several conservative calls on third downs, which wasted great field position early on. If not for K.C. playing on eggshells in the first half, this game should have been a blowout much earlier. That won't work moving forward against playoff-caliber quarterbacks.
- Kansas City suffered a huge blow in the second half when Jeremy Maclinwas ruled out with a knee injury. The wideout exited the game with three catches for 29 yards on four targets. Maclin led the Chiefs' pass attack all season, compiling 1,088 yards on 87 receptions and eight touchdown catches. The Chiefs announced after the game that Maclin has a knee strain and will have an MRI on Sunday. Last season, sans Maclin, Alex Smith threw zero touchdowns to receivers. Moving forward the Chiefs' pass attack will be handicapped without its best pass catcher. Albert Wilson will be relied on heavily. Travis Kelce exploded with Maclin out, feasting on eight receptions for 128 yards on Saturday.
-- Kevin Patra
- Walsh has been one of the NFL's best kickers since he entered the league. When the score was 9-0, with Walsh having hit three field goals, he looked like one of the game's MVPs. After hooking the potential winner, he will go down in Vikings history with kicker Gary Anderson for coming up short in a big spot. (Anderson missed a potential game-winner in the '98 NFC Championship.) It appeared that the ball's laces were facing Walsh, although that didn't bother him on an earlier kick.
"I didn't come through for us, and that hurts," Walsh told NFL Network's Stacey Dales after the game.
- The kick shouldn't distract us from the Seahawks' excellent comeback. They are getting to be old hands at fourth quarter comebacks in the NFC playoffs, scoring 10 unanswered points in the fourth quarter. Russell Wilson's performance was very reminiscent of last season's NFC Championship Game. He struggled early and saved his best for last. His best play was an improvised 35-yard toss to Tyler Lockett on a play that should have been a 20-yard loss. He also escaped a few sacks and connected on key third downs after the Seahawks fell behind 9-0.
Wilson was late and short on a few vertical throws throughout the game. It was not his best performance. But the Seahawks have a knack for finding a way to win these games, anyway.
- Vikings coach Mike Zimmer's defense showed up in a big way. They held the league's highest scoring offense down the stretch to 10 points and 226 yards. The weather was a factor, but so was Minnesota's sure tackling and pressure from Everson Griffen and Sharrif Floyd. Linebacker Eric Kendricks was sensational and a revelation late in the year. Xavier Rhodes made big plays at cornerback and first-round pick Trae Waynes even stepped up.
- Minnesota was the same team week after week. You knew what you were going to get: Suffocating defense and a mostly mistake-free offense. There is something to be said for consistency and a missed field goal should not detract from everything Zimmer built this season.
- Adrian Peterson has another huge playoff letdown to live down. He put the ball on the ground three times in the 2009 NFC Championship game and his fourth-quarter fumble Sunday set up Seattle's go-ahead field goal. The Seahawks loaded up to stop Peterson and they were successful, holding him to 45 yards on 23 carries. Peterson led all rushers with six fumbles in the regular season; it's a legitimate problem. With the game in doubt, Jerick McKinnon was on the field because he is the better choice for passing downs.
-- Gregg Rosenthal
- When the Packers' offense is working, Aaron Rodgers is in command figuratively and literally. He seemed eager to jump into the no-huddle multiple times against the Redskins on Sunday night, perhaps because he felt it was the best way to keep Washington's bigger defensive lineman from resetting or substituting -- the Packers nailed Washington on two 12-man on the field penalties in one drive, including a touchdown pass to Randall Cobb -- but it also seemed to give Rodgers a little bit more freedom. The Packers have been mired in a play-calling haze all season long, and this is probably the best way for Rodgers to call his own numbers.
- Washington players called Jordan Reed their Rob Gronkowski, and from a matchup standpoint, they were not far off early on Sunday. Reed punished Green Bay while in single coverage with defensive back Micah Hyde, forcing the Packers into a scenario where they might have needed to leave either DeSean Jackson or Pierre Garcon alone in single coverage. Reed was double teamed out of the box when Kirk Cousins walked into the end zone for a go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter. If DeSean Jackson was the initial lynchpin for Cousins' success this year, the way Jay Gruden and offensive coordinator Sean McVay toy with Reed is unfair at times and helped Cousins keep the hot streak alive.
- Outside of an early safety, Packers head coach Mike McCarthy was not punished as badly as we thought for leaving his tackles alone on an island -- and he didn't do it for long. Green Bay was immensely conservative early, especially on the opening drives, favoring an under center two-back look. Perhaps they had good reason -- the game flipped on its side after Preston Smith bull rushed Green Bay's tackle right into the end zone. Kudos for McCarthy though for insisting on some balance. Eddie Lacy's long fourth-and-1 ramble was a beautiful designed cutback and featured Lacy and fullback John Kuhn by design. Operating out of those bigger sets kept Rodgers upright all evening.
- Washington will inevitably be kicked around again come Monday, but did anyone think FedEx Field would be hosting a raucous playoff game in January? If nothing else, the organization has neatly tucked most of their glaring dysfunction under the rug. They may or may not have a franchise quarterback, but at least know that Kirk Cousins will be the guy in 2016. If nothing else, it's a testament to new general manager Scot McCloughan, who nailed his first four draft picks -- Brandon Scherff, Preston Smith, Matt Jones and Jamison Crowder -- and provided this team with enough juice to win a bad division. It's not perfection, but it's not the scorched-earth team we've come to know that spends December and January lining up head coaching interviews.
- With Green Bay struggling early on, there was a sense that they would never be completely out of the game because of Clay Matthews. Dom Capers was trying to set him free all night and he managed to hit on a few stunts. Matthews might have moved inside begrudgingly, but it has taken his game to a new level in terms of what Capers can do in blitz packages. He came off the edge in the fourth quarter to stop one of Washington's comeback drives dead in its tracks.
*-- Conor Orr *