NFL Wildcard Weekend Recap: The Polar Opposite of Last Year’s Opening Round

andy dalton

The headline from my 2012 Wildcard Weekend recap said, “About as much fun as week 4 of the preseason.”

I resigned myself to seeing more of the same this year because this first weekend of the playoffs includes all the mediocre teams that only got into the postseason because they out-mediocred the other mediocre teams.

But by some incredible sports miracle, we nearly got the perfect weekend: Three of four games were won on a team’s final drive, including two walk-off field goals; we saw what will easily go down as one of the five most entertaining playoff games of the last 10 years; and we all got to let off our pent up critical energy on a favorite punching bag, Andy Dalton.

The reason it was nearly perfect and not perfect is because perfection would have included logical non-curious officiating assignments by the NFL. Instead we got the increasingly infamous Jeff Triplette handling the reffing duties for San Diego-Cincinnati, in the building where he most recently changed the game with a bad call.

While we got no underdog covers and only one road winner in the 2012 first round, we were treated to two underdogs covering this past weekend, both of whom were road underdogs! Hurray to exciting unpredictability!

Let’s begin with the game that had the seemingly most surprising result, but in reality, maybe we should have seen it coming all along.

San Diego 27, Cincinnati 10

Of course in the current NFL where 99% of the league is below average the team that struggled at home against an opponent full of backups in a week 17 must-win game would go on the road and handle a seemingly unbeatable-at-home Cincinnati team relatively easily.

Gambling 101 teaches us that there will always be one matchup where one of the teams gets picked by 100% of football fans and 100% of gamblers and will promptly crap the bed (think 2010 Patriots at home vs Jets). And if you’re a true veteran, you’ll pay attention in the days leading up to the games and figure out which team qualifies for this  public overconfidence vote and then bet against them hard. That’s your free tip for the day.

If you picked the Bengals to cover, some people are going to laugh at you and be all smug about how they knew all along that Cincy would choke. But I don’t think we should feel bad about picking a Cincy team that had averaged 34 points per game at home during the regular season and would be facing the worst statistical defense in the NFL. I doubt anybody really expected a 10-point turnover fest from Cincinnati.

A few Andy Dalton defenders will probably chalk this up to “one bad game,” and you can call it that if you want, but in the biggest game of his career with the pressure on, he shat himself. Two interceptions, two fumbles (one lost), missed a wide receiver by six yards on the game-losing 4th down 40 yard pass attempt, 67 passer rating, and he might have literally shit himself at some point.

And none of that mentions how 11 of his first 12 completions required the receiver to jump as high as they ever have and lay out for the ball. He was terrible.

Scary thing is I think the Bengals have to roll with Dalton next year. I understand the “this is his ceiling” comments, but it’s not like guys who can immediately get Cincy farther are growing on trees. It’s desperate times for the quality of NFL quarterbacks. Mark Sanchez was going to be the Jets’ starting QB until he had back-to-back playoff-less years. Then they could justify replacing him. Until the Bengals miss the playoffs, Dalton’s gotta stick around.

Maybe it would be possible for management to move away from Dalton if he was solely responsible for Sunday’s embarrassment, but the offensive line was pathetic. Most of the quarterback’s incompletions happened while he was scrambling away from a handful of angry defenders and throwing off his back foot. Awful job.

Pretty coincidental that two constant punching bags this year, Dalton and Trent Richardson, each lost a fumble without being touched by a defender, but Richardson will avoid criticism for the most part because his team ended up winning. As you can see from two paragraphs ago, Dalton is officially “new Sanchez.”

Let’s transition to what was almost dubbed “Trent Richardson’s final game as a Colt.”

Indianapolis 45, Kansas City 44

The final score tells you a lot of what you need to know about this game…it was a barnburner that came down to the very end. But it doesn’t tell you that the Colts dug themselves a 28-point hole at the beginning of the second half.

Other than the “all offense, no defense” aspect, it was good to see the NFL’s other primary calling cards on display in the first game of the playoffs: incompetent refs doing head-scratching things and an aggressive number of players leaving the game with injuries.

I’ve had a hard-on for T.Y. Hilton all season and it paid off in a big way this weekend. The best prop bet I hit was Hilton at 9/1 odds to have the most receiving yards this weekend…224 is more than I could have ever asked.

Weird game from a betting standpoint for me because of how much the line moved throughout the week. In my Pick ‘Em leagues where the lines are set on Tuesday, I had Colts -2.5 and lost. In my picks column that was based on Thursday’s lines, I had Colts -1 and pushed. And when I finally bet the game on Saturday morning, it was a PICK and  I won. Not sure that’s ever happened to me before.

My girlfriend may have outpicked me for round 1 (she went 2-0-2 against the spread, I went 1-1-2), but she also suggested at halftime that the Colts pull Andrew Luck. And yes, I’m so threatened by her dominating me every week that I’ll be throwing her under the bus every time she says something in accurate or makes a bad suggestion.

Regardless of who won and who lost, a standing ovation goes out to both teams for knocking our socks off in the opening game. Couldn’t have asked for a better game to get this madness started.

New Orleans 26, Philadelphia 24

When I traveled around Europe in 2009, I wrote on my blog at one point that “I feel bad for Madrid because it’s probably a great city with a ton of fun stuff to do, but it just so happens to come directly after I spent eight days in Barcelona…so no matter what it’s gonna seem boring.”

That’s what Saturday night’s game was facing. How could it possibly escape the Colts-Chiefs shadow?  It couldn’t. Maybe it was the fatigue from the first game’s excitement, maybe it was the magnum bottle of Sauvignon Blanc I crushed around 5pm, but there wasn’t a ton of note taking going on during this one.

Here’s what’s really bizarre about this round. Three of the four losing teams actually won the turnover battle in their games. That goes against everything we hear about the recipe for winning in the playoffs.

But the part that made sense is that in three of the four games, the team with the better quarterback won (Luck over Smith, Brees over Foles, Rivers over Dalton).

And three head coaches who have been criticized for years for making shaky decisions at the most important moments lost in the opening round (Andy Reid, Marvin Lewis, Mike McCarthy).

File that away…among all the craziness and unpredictability of this season, we might be able to fall back on the trusted QB/Coach competency to make our final seven picks of the season.

San Francisco 23, Green Bay 20

I admit betting on Kaepernick to rush for under 40.5 yards might have been the dumbest bet I’ve ever made. The guy does whatever he wants against Green Bay and I should probably just accept that.

More than anything, I’m glad this was a good game and that the Packers had a chance to win it because it would be terrible if those freezing fans had to endure a 24-point blowout by San Francisco.

And better than just showing up, that crowd was LOUD at all the right times. Good work, Green Bay fans.

I’d like to revisit something I wrote when Aaron Rodgers suffered his collarbone injury in October. I basically said Green Bay fans wouldn’t be in the wrong if they start worrying about Aaron Rodgers’ career and how they’ve only made the conference championship once so far. Rodgers’ career hasn’t produced the perennial playoff run like we all thought. Mark Sanchez has been to more conference title games than Rodgers.

The early lines for next week are out:

  • New Orleans @ Seattle (-8)
  • Indianapolis @ New England (-7.5)
  • San Francisco @ Carolina (PICK)
  • San Diego at Denver (-10)

My initial thought is to bet huge against New England. If you’ve paid attention to the Patriots this year, you know their games almost always come down to the final play. That’s not a recipe for a two score cover. And let’s not forget how scary that Indy offense looked when they finally decided to show up on Saturday.

But maybe like Peyton Manning, Luck is going to struggle against Bill Belichick and the Patriots over his first few years. Last season he threw three interceptions and lost a fumble while completing barely more than 50% of his passes against New England. The Patriots won 59-24.

And maybe outdoors in New England on a January night will have a drastically different effect on the Colts than being at home in the climate-controlled dome. And the early forecast for Saturday is 30-35 degrees and possibly rain/snow.

If you buy into this being another Patriots season of destiny, a throwback to the Championship years, you might be able to justify counting on the Pats to cover with a defensive or special teams play swinging the game.

A final gambling mini-story before I say goodbye: I’ve mentioned in my columns before that during the regular season I let my girlfriend make one ridiculous parlay per week just for fun. Usually I make her bet on at least 10 lines/moneylines/point totals and the $1 wager pays off at roughly $1,500. Except that it never pays off because she’s never won. Well in the playoffs, there are less games to bet on, obviously, so on Saturday morning I made her bet on each line and each point total. So she had eight components to the bet. A $1 wager would only get us $200 in profit. And the poor girl hit seven of the eight picks. Only Cincinnati-San Diego not hitting the over screwed her out of a huge win. And just like I’ve been planning for years, she’s now a bitter gambler just like me.

Round 2 picks coming up later in the week.

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