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NFL Wildcard: Weekend review

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The NFL post-season got underway last weekend, with four intriguing games making up Wildcard weekend. The Indianapolis Colts, New Orleans Saints, San Diego Chargers and San Francisco 49ers progressed, meaning that three division winners lost out at the first playoff hurdle.

Those that have moved on will join the New England Patriots, Seattle Seahawks, Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers in this season’s final eight. But before the divisional playoff round gets underway, here’s a brief recap of last weekend’s action:

Wildcard Match One: Indianapolis Colts (AFC South winners) def. Kansas City Chiefs (AFC wildcard)

Andrew Luck inspired the Indianapolis Colts to an astonishing 28-point turnaround against the Kansas City Chiefs, throwing for four touchdowns and 443 yards in his team’s 45-44 victory.
Trailing 31-10 at half-time, and 38-10 mere moments into the second half, the Colts looked set for a second successive wildcard match loss, but five second-half touchdowns turned the game on its head and led the home side to a historic success. 

Luck’s first career playoff victory marks only the second time in post-season history that a team has rallied from a deficit of 28 points or more to win. The Buffalo Bills hold the record, coming from 32 points down to beat the Houston Oilers 41-39 in overtime in January 1993.
The Colts will face AFC East winners, the New England Patriots, in the divisional playoff round, after recording their twelfth win of the season.

Meanwhile, it’s now been more than 20 years since a Chiefs’ playoff win. The Kansas team have suffered eight successive post-season losses, with none more demoralising than last Saturday’s failure in Indianapolis. After starting the year 9:0, Andy Reid’s side lost six of their final eight games in the 2013/14 season, including two reverses against the Colts.

The Chiefs were in near untouchable form before the half-time interval, scoring four touchdowns through Dwayne Bowe, Donnie Avery, Anthony Sherman and Knile Davis, but a succession of injuries to key players, including star running-back Jamaal Charles, left the visitors desperately understrength in the closing stages.

Donald Brown scored twice and Coby Fleener once in the third quarter, as the Colts belatedly added to T.Y. Hilton’s early touchdown, and Adam Vinatieri’s first-half field goal. This more than cancelled out Davis’ second touchdown of the day, and Ryan Succop’s kick, as the home side moved to within ten points.

Luck lived up to his name at the start of the fourth quarter, as Brown fumbled inches from the goal-line and the ball cannoned back into the arms of the quarterback, who was able to dive into the end zone for the score.

Succop moved the Chiefs six points clear with a 43-yard effort, but the Colts were suddenly cutting through the Kansas defence with ease, and within four minutes Hilton was in for his second score of the day. Despite trailing massively at the start of the second-half, with a quarterback who had thrown three interceptions before his own personal revival, the Colts were in the lead.

Alex Smith, who threw for 378 yards and four touchdowns on the day, tried in vain to lead a Chiefs recovery, but with all three timeouts gone and only a minute on the clock, it never looked likely – the Colts instead holding on for a famous victory.

Wildcard Match Two: New Orleans Saints (NFC wildcard) def. Philadelphia Eagles (NFC East winners)

Shayne Graham proved the Saints match winner, as the New Orleans side won their first ever post-season road fixture by a score of 26-24 over the Philadelphia Eagles.
Graham, who joined the Saints as a free agent only two week previous, scored three field goals, including the match-winning effort from 32-yards with just three seconds remaining.
The 36-year old, who made his name kicking for the Cincinnati Bengals between 2003 and 2009, also struck from 36 and 46-yards as the Saints progressed to face the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional playoff round.

New Orleans had been 0:5 in postseason games outside of the Big Easy, in a run stretching back to 1967. And they’ll face a challenge to improve that score to 2:5, with Seattle having routed the Saints 34-7 during the regular season.

Philadelphia meanwhile ended up 10:7 in Chip Kelly’s first year in charge. The Eagles coach guided them from worst to first in the NFC East, despite going only 4:5 at home.
It was the Eagles who edged a tight first-half, setting the tone for a close game. After a scoreless first quarter, Riley Cooper’s ten yard reception from quarterback Nick Foles cancelled out Graham’s pair of field goals, leaving the hosts 7-6 to the good at the break.

The visitors responded with a pair of quick-fire touchdowns from Lance Moore and Mark Ingram at the start of the third quarter, but LeSean McCoy’s tenth rushing touchdown of the year meant it was still a one score game heading into the final 15 minutes.

A trade in field goals left the score at 23-17 in the Saints advantage, before rookie tight end Zach Ertz gave the Eagles back their lead.

This looked like it might be enough for the home side, until Drew Brees lead his team back down the field and set up Graham’s last gasp field goal. Brees, who threw two interceptions on the day, will need to be closer to his best however, if the Saints are to get anything from their match in Seattle.

Wildcard Match Three: San Diego Chargers (AFC wildcard) def. Cincinnati Bengals (AFC North winners)

The San Diego Chargers provided the biggest upset of the weekend as they defeated the Cincinnati Bengals by a score of 27-10 to set up a re-match with AFC West rivals, the Denver Broncos.

Visiting San Diego benefited hugely from Andy Dalton’s three second-half turnovers as the Bengals lost at home for the first time this season. The result marks a fifth straight victory for Phillip Rivers and co, who gained adequate revenge against the last team to taste success against them. 

It was a shocking finish for the Bengals who, despite winning the AFC North and boasting the playoffs top-ranked defence, were outscored 20-0 by the Chargers in the second-half.
Defeat extends the Bengals winless playoff streak to 23 years and counting. Meanwhile Dalton suffered post-season misery for a third successive season, having also led his team to defeats in 2012 against the Houston Texans (19-13) and in 2011 against the same opponents (31-10).

Danny Woodhead’s touchdown run for the visitors proved the sole score of the first quarter, but it was the Bengals who led at half-time thanks to Jermaine Gresham’s touchdown and Mike Nugent’s field goal.

But that was as good as it got for Cincinnati, as the Chargers first retook the lead and then steadily pulled clear to claim the clearest victory of any of the wildcard game winners.
Ladarius Green and Vincent Brown both scored touchdowns for San Diego, while Nick Novak added two further field goals. Dalton threw two interceptions and fumbled twice, albeit with one of those fumbles recovered by a Bengal. Rookie running back Giovanni Bernard, who has had an otherwise excellent debut year, also gave up possession as Cincinnati struggled throughout.

The in-form Chargers may well fancy their chances of toppling the Broncos for a second time, having already claimed a surprise victory at Mile High Stadium last month.

Wildcard Match Four: San Francisco 49ers (NFC wildcard) def. Green Bay Packers (NFC North winners)

An all-action display from San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick helped the defending NFC Champions overcome the Green Bay Packers 23-20.

Kaepernick threw for 227 yards and ran for another 98 as the visitors edged a close-fought encounter at Lambeau Field, with the 49ers needed a 33-yard field goal from Phil Dawson to clinch victory as time expired.

In a back-and-forth fourth quarter, the 49ers threw the final punch in difficult conditions, with high winds making the temperature of four degrees feel like -14, the seventh coldest game in NFL history.

Escaping a blitz on third-and-8, Kaepernick scrambled for an 11-yard gain to the 27 with 1:13 left. Dawson nailed the winning kick five plays later, setting up a trip to Carolina to face the Panthers next weekend.

Dawson also struck twice early on for the 49ers, giving them a 6-0 first quarter advantage. Jordy Nelson caught Aaron Rodger’s touchdown pass mid-way through the second quarter, but the visitors quickly responded, with Frank Gore bursting into the end zone for the score. However, Matt Crosby’s field goal ensured the home side only trailed by three points at the break.

After a scoreless third quarter, fullback John Kuhn re-established the Packers advantage, proceeding to spectacularly botch his “Lambeau Leap” celebration attempt – where the scoring player jumps into the crowd.

But once again, the host’s lead did not last long: Vernon Davis catching Kaepernick’s pass for the 28-yard score. Matt Crosby levelled things with five minutes remaining, before the 49ers marched back up the field to prevent overtime and claim victory.

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