What a difference, goes the saying, a day makes. Everything went the way it was supposed to in the NFL playoffs Saturday. On Sunday, almost nothing did.
The Green Bay Packers routed the Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots stayed undefeated by slugging out a win over the tough Jacksonville Jaguars Saturday. Natch. A day later, the San Diego Chargers and New York Giants reached the conference championship games with upset wins.
The Chargers, their quarterback, star running back and best receiving threat injured, stunned the defending champion Indianapolis Colts on the road, 28-24. The highlight of the eight-play, 78-yard fourth-quarter touchdown drive that won the game for the Bolts was a 27-yard screen pass and run from Billy Volek to Legedu Naanee. Volek to Naanee! You saw that coming, right?
In the nightcap, the New York Giants, also on the road, capitalized on about a season's worth of mistakes by the Dallas Cowboys and bounced them 21-17. The Cowboys established themselves as the top team in the NFC with a 37-27 win over the Packers in Week 13, then never played another good game.
Sunday's festival of dropped passes, boneheaded penalties, missed tackles and wasted timeouts rendered Dallas the first NFC top seed to fail to reach the conference championship game since the current playoff format was introduced in 1990.
The Cowboys dominated the first half, quarterback Tony Romo leading marathon touchdown drives of 96 and 90 yards, the latter a ridiculous collection of short gains or incompletes on first and second down, then a third-down conversion, a pattern that repeated five straight times at one point on the 20-play march. Marion Barber piled up over 100 yards in the half.
But the score at the break was 14-14. Amani Toomer had scored on New York's first possession, collecting a pass from Eli Manning in the left flat, exchanging pleasantries with the four Cowboys who could have tackled him, then heading for the end zone and a 52-yard touchdown. The Giants also scored late, following the Cowboys' 10-minute, 90-yard drive with a 71-yard trek that took 40 seconds. Fifteen of those yards came courtesy of a face-mask penalty, a sign of things to come.
In the second half, the Cowboys fell apart. They lost the ability to run and Romo became jittery in the face of a fierce pass rush, flinging wobbly passes off his back foot. But for all that he deserved better. Patrick Crayton dropped two passes that would have resulted in first downs and stopped running hard on a pass pattern that, had he stayed with it, likely would have resulted in a touchdown.
Two first-down passes to Jason Witten were called back because of dumb penalties, an illegal formation and a late hit -- by an offensive lineman. Romo held the ball too long and took a bad sack. He threw it away in the pocket and took a grounding call.
Meanwhile Manning played a solid game, if not a great one. The winning drive was a 37-yarder, three completed passes and then two runs. Nothing spectacular there. He threw only 18 times, hitting 12 for 163 yards, and the Giants didn't run much either. But they never turned the ball over and took only three penalties. They did enough to win if the more talented Cowboys obliged by beating themselves, which they did.
Eli's big brother Peyton was supposed to be the one playing next week, but a series of mishaps deep in Chargers territory and the dazzling play by San Diego's backups scotched another Colts-Patriots showdown.
On consecutive possessions straddling halftime, Manning drove the Colts deep, then had passes intercepted after they bounced off his receivers' hands. Antonio Cromartie picked one at the 11, Eric Weddle the other at the 2.
Manning had started the game by leading a masterful 76-yard touchdown drive, then was matriculating the ball down the field again when Marvin Harrison fumbled it away on the San Diego 22 following his first catch since Oct. 22.
The Chargers lost star running back LaDainian Tomlinson to a bruised knee late in their first scoring drive, in the second quarter. He fumbled after being gang tackled at the Colts 9, and while the Chargers kept the ball, they lost L.T. Quarterback Philip Rivers went out on the last play of the third quarter, a 56-yard touchdown on a screen pass to one of Tomlinson's replacements, Darren Sproles. Rivers jumped to make the pass, then landed funny, tweaking his knee.
Tight end Antonio Gates, who dislocated a toe last week, caught only two passes and wasn't a factor.
Which left it to Volek, the heir apparent Steve McNair for a while before things went mid-South for him in Tennessee. The Colts had gone ahead 24-21 early in the fourth quarter when Anthony Gonzalez got loose down the left sideline and went 55 yards with a pass from Manning.
Volek hit his first two passes, but threw an incomplete on third-and-4 from the San Diego 43. But a face-mask penalty against cornerback Marlin Jackson gave the Chargers a first down. That's when Volek dumped it to Naanee on that screen pass, and the rookie went 27 yards to the Colts 15.
Four plays later Volek scored on a quarterback sneak with 4:50 to go. The Colts had two more possessions, but couldn't score. The Chargers will go to Foxboro next week a banged up bunch of underdogs against the Patriots, who won their 17th straight.
Tom Brady completed his first 16 passes -- the 17th hit the hands of tight end Ben Watson -- and ended up 26-for-28 for 262 yards and three touchdowns, one of them on a picturesque fake direct snap. That is, Brady jumped into the air as though he were faking that the snap had gone over his head, the way he would on a direct snap to the running back. But Brady had taken the snap. The Jags all tackled running back Kevin Faulk and Brady tossed the ball to Wes Welker for the score.
The Jaguars threw their defense at Randy Moss, limiting him to one catch, and dared Brady to beat them dumping it underneath to his other receivers. He did, 31-20. He also handed off to Laurence Maroney for 122 yards. Jaguars quarterback David Garrard was able to move the ball at times through the air, but the twin running attack of Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew never got going. The Patriots, as usual, were just too much, though the Jaguars hung around admirably to the end.
The Seahawks looked for a few minutes like they might start the weekend off with an upset in Green Bay. With snow falling, Packers running back Ryan Grant fumbled the ball away on the Packers' first and third plays from scrimmage, giving Seattle the ball at the Green Bay 1 and 43. The Seahawks converted both opportunities for a 14-0 lead with the game barely four minutes old.
Then they got outscored 42-6, a thorough beatdown. Grant ended up running for 201 yards on 27 carries and scoring three touchdowns. Brett Favre made another of his signature plays, a stumbling, underhanded toss to Donald Lee for a first down.
The Seahawks were beaten every which way you can be beaten. Only those two flukey touchdowns at the start made the score seem respectable for most of the game. By halftime, though the score was only 28-17, the Packers were in complete control.
They'll be the surprise host of the NFC Championship Game next Sunday against the Giants. The Chargers will try to outdo their upset of the Colts by knocking off unbeaten Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. Green Bay and New England will be heavy favorites.
That's a nice thing to be in the NFL. Some days.
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