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NFL wildcard weekend: Neil Reynolds on the thrilling and freezing playoff fixtures

Neil Reynolds Posted 6th January 2014 view comments

Stop me if you have heard this tune before, but I am proud and pleased to say that - in my opinion - no other sports league in the world offers up the same mix of athleticism, drama and excitement as the NFL.

We headed into the four playoff games aired exclusively live on Sky Sports this weekend warning viewers to expect the unexpected. And we were not wrong. The opening round of the post-season served up the perfect antidote to the New Year blues. It was filled with big plays, frantic comebacks, close finishes and surprises.

Luck: has the 'it' factor that teams look for in a quarter-back

Luck: has the 'it' factor that teams look for in a quarter-back

As I mainlined coffee into my body during the 15 hours of live coverage we provided on Saturday and Sunday, let me just say I was as happy as the proverbial pig in a pile of you know what!

Let's take a look at six things that caught my eye over wildcard weekend...

The Legend of Luck

Ahead of him being taken with the first overall pick of the 2012 NFL Draft, it seems like the entire American football world had been waiting for Andrew Luck to turn professional for years. The feeling was that a 'once in a generation' quarterback was about to enter the NFL.

Luck - who grew up in London while his father, Oliver, worked in NFL Europe - has certainly lived up to the hype in his first two seasons in the top flight. He has led the Indianapolis Colts to the playoffs on each occasion and was outstanding in leading them to a dramatic comeback win for the ages on Saturday night.

Luck had some shaky moments in the showdown with Kansas City, throwing three interceptions that left the Colts trailing 38-10 in the second half and staring firmly down the barrel of an embarrassing home defeat.

But Luck has the 'it' factor that teams look for in a quarterback. I was fortunate enough to spend some time with Andrew last spring as we worked together at an NFL Fan Forum in London. He told me that night that the best quarterbacks in the NFL never play scared. If they throw three interceptions, they don't go into a shell and worry about throwing a fourth.

That was Andrew Luck to a tee on Saturday night. He never even blinked when struggling and was simply brilliant in leading the Colts to a thrilling, pulsating 45-44 win. He threw for 443 yards and four touchdowns but perhaps his best play came in scoring on a five-yard fumble recovery.

Showing some people are just born to be adaptable and playmaking football players, Luck failed to panic when Donald Brown lost a key fumble down near the Kansas City goal-line. Instead, he scooped up the loose ball and dived over defenders and into the end zone to pull the Colts to within three points.

Twitter exploded with puns about Luck. It was not Luck - it was pure brilliance from a young man playing like he has already been in the NFL for 10 years.

Smith plays his part

Saturday's high-scoring thriller in Indianapolis - which saw the Colts become only the second team in league history to overcome a 28-point post-season deficit and win - needed two quarterbacks to tango and Alex Smith certainly played his part for the Chiefs.

While some label Alex as a game manager, I think he is an intelligent and capable quarterback who can be trusted enough to open up your attack. The Chiefs did just that on Saturday and Smith held up his end of the bargain with 378 passing yards and four touchdowns.

He did miss on a key pass down the sideline to Cyrus Gray late in the game but, for the most part, Smith looked the part of a playoff quarterback. The Chiefs should remember that when they begin their challenge in 2014 and make sure they run a more expansive attack that proves they have total belief in Smith as an attacking and aggressive passer, not just a limited quarterback who is asked not to lose the game.

Saints help Brees

The New Orleans Saints found themselves in an unusual situation on Saturday night as they recorded a 26-24 win over the Philadelphia Eagles - the Saints felt the need to help out Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Brees.

That may sound a bit strange and unnecessary given that Brees has thrown for over 5,000 yards in a season for three straight years, but the Saints have struggled to protect their passer on the road this term and they needed a strong ground attack to relieve some of the pressure.

With Mark Ingram leading the way, the Saints were able to rush for 185 yards, which was the second-best output in the team's playoff history. And when the game was on the line in the fourth quarter, they salted away the clock with their ground attack.

Given that the Saints are the lowest-ranked team in the NFC tournament, it will be nothing but road games for them the rest of the way, continuing on Saturday night with a visit to Seattle. If the Saints are to advance any further on the road to the Super Bowl, their running game will be the key, even though they have a future Hall of Fame quarterback on their roster.

Chargers also keep it on the ground

San Diego were another team willing to commit to the ground attack over the weekend, proving that the NFL is not quite an all-passing league. The Chargers rushed 40 times for 196 yards and two touchdowns during their 27-10 dismantling of the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday.

San Diego have now won five games in a row and are getting hot at just the right time of the year. And their improvement in form has coincided with a renewed commitment to running the football.

In the first 12 weeks of the year, the Chargers were running the ball an average of 27 times per game. That number has risen to 39 rushes per game in the contests since and Ryan Mathews has become almost as important to this team as quarterback Philip Rivers.

The Chargers seem to have the perfect recipe for playing keep-away against Peyton Manning and it has already worked once this season with San Diego winning in Denver in mid-December. It is going to be tough for the Chargers to repeat that feat on Sunday night but they do have that look of the in-form team ready to spring another surprise or two.

Dalton flops

Andy Dalton is not a quarterback who will wow you with his physical traits. He only stands 6-foot-2 in his boots and he does not have the cannon for an arm that will make you sit up and take notice.

And that means that Dalton must make up for any physical deficiencies by being accurate with the football and playing smart. It means he must take care of the football and use accurate throws to put his talented team in a position to win.

That is clearly easier to write than to do after Dalton had a total meltdown against the Chargers. He was beyond disappointing in throwing two interceptions and losing a fumble on a careless dive at the end of a second half run.

The Bengals are talented but their quarterback has looked like a rabbit in the headlights for three straight years in the playoffs. If Dalton cannot be trusted in the biggest games of the year - he now has one touchdown pass and seven turnovers in three consecutive first round exits - you have to wonder if Cincinnati will continue to persist with him.

Crabtree beginning to shine

Many of the headlines following the San Francisco 49ers' 23-20 win over the Green Bay Packers on Sunday night will rightly focus on young quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

The third-year passer continued his late-season form in Green Bay, hurting the Packers with his arm and also proving himself to be a devastating running option with 98 yards on the ground on just seven scrambles. Kaepernick delivered some big-time throws to tight end Vernon Davis and wide receiver Michael Crabtree.

And it is the timely return from an Achilles injury by Crabtree that has Niners fans dreaming of a second straight Super Bowl appearance. The wide receiver was too big, strong and talented for the Packers in the end on Sunday, catching eight passes for 125 yards. He boasts outstanding hands and appears fully recovered from the serious injury he suffered in May, which is pretty incredible.

Adding him to the passing mix that features an in-form Kaepernick and trusted targets in Davis and receiver Anquan Boldin, gives the 49ers a real shot at going all the way.

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