And then there were 8. This weekend's wildcard games went pretty much according to the form book, so Saturday will find the Seahawks in Green Bay and the Jaguars in New England, whilst Sunday sees the Giants go to Dallas and the Chargers to Indianapolis. All of which will feel pretty much like a trip to the headmaster's study, with sound thrashings all around being predicted.
The Seahawks ended the Redskins' fairytale ride into the playoffs without really breaking sweat. Washington didn't even get onto the scoreboard until the fourth quarter, when touchdowns from Antwan Randle El and Santana Moss took them briefly into the lead. Unfortunately, Todd Collins then spoilt an otherwise brilliant performance behind a badly beaten line by throwing two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns. A 35-14 defeat showed that there is only so far you can ride on team spirit alone. At the start of this week, veteran coach Joe Gibbs resigned.
Over in Pittsburgh, the Steelers and Jaguars played out a classic. The home side, badly weakened by injuries even though star safety Troy Polamalu was fit again, trailed 28-10 going into the final quarter. Three touchdowns should have brought them at least parity, but twice they blew attempts at a two point conversion (where, instead of kicking the ball through the posts, a team tries to play the ball into the end zone again). Had they kicked the points, the game would've been in overtime. As it was, QB Ben Roethlisberger was left to attempt to make over 70 yards with 45 seconds on the clock. Jacksonville exploited the inexperienced Pittsburgh offensive line to force a fumble and kill the game stone dead.
Surprise result of the weekend, such as it was, was probably the Giants' win in Tampa. I say this not because I wanted to introduce some serial Eli-bashing into this piece - which wouldn't be hard to do - but because of the absence of center Sean O'Hara. It is hard to think of a relationship anywhere in professional sport that is as that between a center and a quarterback. The closest is probably in ice dance. Imagine one of a pair being injured a week before a competition and a replacement having to be brought in. They might know all of the moves, but they also would need to know how their partner is going to perform, what their little quirks are and so on. Going into a game that makes or breaks not only your season, but possibly your shaky reputation, with an entirely new center is something which we are all fortunately going to avoid.
From being 7-0 down at the end of the first quarter, the Giants were never headed as their defense took command. Michael Strahan finished with nine tackles and one sack as Jeff Garcia was given a miserable time even though he, David Diehl and Jay Alford all had to spend time on the sidelines recovering from knocks. Garcia's afternoon was completed when Giants cornerback RW McQuarters pulled off a stunning interception catch late in the final quarter. A 24-14 win sets up possibly the juciest tie of the next round.
Finally, the Chargers and the Titans produced a 17-6 borefest. The Titans came out looking as if they were going to make a spectacle of it. On the first play they shifted the offensive line 20 yards across the pitch, only for center Kevin Mawae to make a complete mess of the snap and Justin Gage to drop the final pass anyway. They strolled into a 6-0 lead as Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Van Den Bosch blew holes in the Chargers offensive line, whilst the defense had LJ Tomlinson in their pocket and the Steelers' other star offensive player, Antonio Gates, went off injured. Quite where it all went wrong is anyone's guess, but suddenly the Chargers were on top, Tomlinson and Vince Jackson had touchdowns and the Chargers were dead and gone. One thing is for sure, though - the Chargers will be outgunned by the Colts if they play like that again.
In other news:
- No sooner had I filed last week's piece than the Dolphins fired coach Cam Cameron. After a 1-15 season and the recruitment of Bill Parcells no-one was surprised at all. Word is that Cowboys assistant coach Tony Soprano - sorry, Sparano, is their favoured candidate for the role;
- The Cowboys' Roy Williams will take the place of the late Sean Taylor in the Pro Bowl;
- His almost-namesake, Roydell Williams of the Titans, is out for the rest of the season after breaking an ankle in a training accident;
- This season saw record attendances in the NFL, with the average crowd being 67,738. Eat that, Premiership football clubs;
- Warren Sapp of the Raiders, a legendary defensive player even during his own career, has announced his retirement. Expect him to be elected to the Hall of Fame in five years time, when he first becomes eligible;
- I made a slight mistake last week when I said that Adrian Peterson have been named as the top rookie. In fact, he was top OFFENSIVE rookie. The defensive award when to Patrick Willis of the 49ers. No-one in the league made more tackles this season, although you would argue that no-one but the 49ers defense was so rubbish that they had to;
- Bills QB JP Losman wants away, after losing his starting berth. Chicago may be interested, having announced this week that they were in the market for a new quarterback and running back. Which must make Rex Grossman, Brian Griese, Kyle Orton and Cedric Benson feel really good;
- Saints tackle Jamaal Brown copped a $2,5000 fine for deliberately bumping into the referee in their last game of the season. Would that work on John Terry, I wonder? Vince Wilfork of the Patriots ended up $15,000 lighter after being caught poking a finger through the facemask of the Giants Brandon Jacobs;
- The Titans are seeking to have the claim brought against them by the victim of the Pacman Jones incident thrown out;
- Tom Brady was the almost unanimous choice for player of the year. Defensive player of the year was Bob Sanders of the Colts. Bill Belichick won coach of the year, despite his dodgy videos;
- A big hurrah for the Jags Fred Taylor, who has finally made it to the Pro Bowl after 11 years, replacing Willie Parker of the Steelers, who broke his leg in Week 16.
That's all for this week. Back next week, by which time we'll be down to four contenders for the Superbowl.