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NFL Playoffs: Wildcard Weekend observations

Derrick Henry helped the Titans spring an upset. Tennessee Titans web site

Wildcard Weekend has wrapped up. It delivered some excitement, as well as some nap time material. Overall, it was another great weekend of football. Why? Well, because it’s football dammit and we only have a month left before games go away! Let’s take a look back at this weekend’s games…

Tennessee Titans vs Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs came back from the dead to win the AFC West this year and were rounding back into early season form. Meanwhile, the Titans scratched out a 9-7 record and won the fifth seed. Playing at home, the Chiefs were favored. Not only because they were at home, but they were playing better and weren’t dealing with losing their starting running back like the Titans. The teams exchanged punts, then the Chiefs put together touchdown drives on their next two possessions, sandwiched by another Titans punt. Less than two minutes before halftime, Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce caught a pass over the middle and took a mean shot to the head and left the game with a concussion. Although the Chiefs went on to score a touchdown on the drive to go up 21-3 before the half, their offense would never be the same. On the opening possession of the second half, Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota ended a 15 play, 91 yard drive with the rare touchdown pass to himself (first time that happened since 1997). That was the turning point. The Chiefs, at that point, were up 21-10 at home and proceeded to meltdown. League leading rusher Kareem Hunt only got five carries for 17 yards in the second half. The Titans went on to stop the Chiefs from scoring again and added two touchdowns of their own. The game ended when the Chiefs failed to convert on 4th and 9. The star of the game was Titans running back Derrick Henry who didn’t have to share carries with Demarco Murray and ran for 156 yards and a touchdown. He appears to have taken over the lead back role. Now the Titans get the unenviable task of facing the New England Patriots in Foxboro.

Atlanta Falcons vs. LA Rams

This game was a matchup of what seemed to be two ships passing in the night. The upstart Rams have made a huge turnaround this year and looks like one of the new hot teams atop the NFC. The Falcons were the NFC representative last year in the Super Bowl, but seemed to have taken a step back this year and only got the final playoff spot with a week 17 win over division rival Carolina Panthers. After trading punts on the first four possessions of the game, the Falcons got on the board first with a field goal. Following another Rams punt, they added a second field goal. It seemed as if this would be a test of wills. Then the Rams kick returner Pharoh Cooper fumbled, Falcons recovered, then they scored a touchdown to go up 13-0. The Rams followed that up with a touchdown, forcing a punt, then a field goal to cut the score to 13-10 by halftime. In the second half, the Falcons’ experience, and defense, took over. Comparing the two teams’ second halves, the Rams’ four possessions gained 172 yards, but yielded only three points, a punt, and two turnovers on downs. On the other hand, the Falcons’ five possessions netted them 208 yards, 13 points, a punt and a kneel down to end the game. Credit the Falcons secondary for tackling well as members of their defensive backfield were the second through fifth leading tacklers. Because they were the No. 6 seed and won, they get to go to Philadelphia to face the Carson Wentz-less Eagles next,

Buffalo Bills vs Jacksonville Jaguars

This was by far the worst game of the weekend. It always had the makings of being a bad game. When you have the league’s best sack total team in the Jags going against the team that surrendered the most sacks, it spells trouble. Add to that the fact that Bills star running back, and guy responsible for a third of the team’s offense, LeSean McCoy was hobbled by an ankle injury. In the first half alone, there were nine punts, a turnover, two field goals, and a total of 244 yards of offense. The second half started with the teams trading punts. The Jags scored the game’s lone touchdown on a 15 play, 86 yard drive that took up 8:52 of the 3rd quarter when Blake Bortles found tight end Ben Koyack on a 4th and Goal from the one yard line. From there, we were privileged to see another six punts (bringing the game total to 17). On their last stand, Bills’ quarterback Tyrod Taylor was knocked out of the game. Backup Nathan Peterman came into the game and threw an interception on his third pass attempt to seal their fate. I imagine the infamous Bills Mafia (their fanbase) put up a better fight against Jags fans than either team did during the game. The most telling stat of this game was that Bortles, who’ll never be mistaken for Michael Vick, totaled more rushing yards (88) than passing yards (87). Last time that happened: the Tennessee Titans and Steve McNair beat the Buffalo Bills in the 1999 “Music City Miracle” game. The Jags get the Pittsburgh Steelers up next which could prove a favorable matchup if Antonio Brown isn’t healthy.

Carolina Panthers vs New Orleans Saints

In the second best game of the weekend, these division rivals put on a fireworks display. Being their third meeting of the season, it was expected to hold up to expectations, and it did. All season long, the Saints have relied on running backs Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara. They were the first backfield duo to be selected to the Pro Bowl in over 40 years and first duo ever to both total over 1,500 scrimmage yards each. However, the Panthers were having none of it. The Saints’ impactful tandem was held in check with a whopping combined total of only 68 yards, and no touchdowns. It was a complete turnaround for the Panthers defense from the previous two games. Both quarterbacks threw for over 300 yards each (Panthers’ Newton threw for 349 and Saints’ Brees threw for 376). One of the best matchups was seeing Brees and Panthers All-Pro middle linebacker Luke Kuechly trade adjustment calls. As Brees would make an adjustment, Kuechly would do the same. It was like watching a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu submission specialist go against a stand-up striker in an MMA fight. The game came down to the Saints 4th & 2 play while up 31-26. They tried to draw the Panthers offsides, but called a timeout. Instead of punting, they tried a play action pass which was intercepted. The Panthers had a chance to score a game winning touchdown, but turned the ball over on downs following a blitz and sack of Cam Newton on 4th & 23. In the process, the Saints lost another player to injury as offensive lineman Andrus Peat was carted off the field in the first half. They get to go to Minnesota and play the Vikings next week in what will be a matchup of a high-powered offense for the Saints and a hard-nosed defense for the Vikings.

Outside of the Bills/Jags snooze-fest, each game had its own flare for the dramatic. No outcome was a surprise. Except the fact that the Chiefs choked away an 18-point lead over the second half at home. That was just terrible, but entertaining nonetheless. Even though the Falcons beat the Rams by 13, the game seemed to be closer. The Saints/Panthers game was bound to be exciting because it was a matchup of division rivals.

Next week’s games should give us better games and matchups. Next Saturday, the Falcons/Eagles should provide some entertainment, provided Eagles quarterback Nick Foles can be 2013 Nick Foles and Matt Ryan, along with his band of merry men, can perform as wellas they did last year in their Super Bowl run. When the Titans/Patriots hook up, I fully expect the Patriots to win. However, if the Titans can manage to rough up Tom Brady and keep the game close, they should have a shot in similar fashion as the Dolphins did when they beat the Patriots in week 14. The Jags/Steelers game will be a matchup of contrasting styles. The Steelers feature a high octane offense, and the Jags of “Sacksonville” bring the league’s 2nd ranked total defense (1st in passing yards allowed per game). When the Saints and Vikings faceoff, it’ll be a regular season rematch in which the Vikings came out victorious. Both teams are different from that week one matchup. The Vikings are now quarterbacked by Case Keenum and still have a stellar defense. The Saints have jettisoned Adrian Peterson, allowing Ingram and Kamara to flourish. This has the makings of a classic, or a blowout, depending on which defense can dictate to the other’s offense. Regardless of what happens, next weekend will be another great weekend of football, because football dammit!

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Houston goes up 1-0 in the series

Altuve, Correa help lift Astros to ALCS Game 1 win over Red Sox

Carlos Correa's go-ahead homer in the seventh inning of ALCS Game 1 helped lift the Astros to a 1-0 series lead. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Despite one rough loss to the White Sox in the ALDS, the Astros looked like the dominant team they are capable of being, taking that series 3-1 to advance and taking ownership of home-field advantage in the ALCS against the Red Sox, who upset the Rays. In Game 1, despite trailing for the middle portions of the game, Houston would get more highlight moments from the faces of the franchise to start the series with a win.

Final Score: Astros 5, Red Sox 4

ALCS Series (Best of Seven): Houston leads 1-0

Winning Pitcher: Ryne Stanek

Losing Pitcher: Hansel Robles

Houston strikes first, but Boston sends Valdez to an early exit

Both starting pitchers worked in and out of trouble in the early goings of ALCS Game 1, starting with Framber Valdez in the top of the first. After erasing a leadoff single by inducing a double play, he went on to load the bases on a single and two walks but would strand all three runners to keep Boston off the board. The Astros jumped in front in the bottom half, with Jose Altuve working a leadoff walk, moving to second on a one-out single by Alex Bregman, advancing to third on a wild pitch, then ultimately scoring on a sac fly by Yordan Alvarez to put Houston ahead 1-0 after one frame.

They had a chance to extend their lead in the bottom of the second, taking advantage of a shaky inning by Chris Sale, who loaded the bases with one out as Houston would get two singles and a hit-by-pitch. That flipped the order over to the top, but a great diving catch by former Astro Kiké Hernández would end the inning. Hernández led off the top of the third against Valdez, and he would tie things up with a solo homer.

Things went downhill from there for Valdez and the Astros, as a one-out walk followed by a single gave the Red Sox the go-ahead run in scoring position. On a groundball that likely should have been a double play to end the inning, it would get through Altuve's legs, scoring a run and keeping the inning alive for Boston. They took advantage, getting an RBI double to extend their new lead to 3-1. Valdez would get one more out before Dusty Baker would give him the early hook, bringing in Yimi Garcia, who finished the frame.

A battle of the bullpens, Altuve ties it up

Like Valdez, Sale would also not make it through three innings, getting two outs while putting two on base before Boston would start their bullpen's night as well. Both sets of relievers settled the game down, with the Red Sox stranding two of Houston's runners in the third as well as the fifth, maintaining their two-run lead. After Garcia finished the third, Cristian Javier entered to eat up a couple of innings, and he would do just that by getting through two frames with just one hit, four strikeouts, and no runs.

Next, Phil Maton took over in the top of the sixth and erased a leadoff walk to keep things in striking distance for the home team. In the bottom of the sixth, Houston put another runner on base, getting a one-out single by Chas McCormick. Two batters later, with two outs, Jose Altuve provided yet another career postseason highlight, tying the game 3-3 with a two-run home to re-energize the Minute Maid Park crowd.

Astros take ALCS Game 1

Now a brand new ballgame in the top of the seventh, Brooks Raley came in to face three batters, getting two strikeouts while allowing a single before Dusty Baker would move on to Ryne Stanek, who would get the third out. With two outs in the bottom of the seventh, Carlos Correa continued his march to a monster off-season contract, putting Houston back on top with a solo homer, making it 4-3.

Houston kept the script after Stanek with the new lead in hand, going to Kendall Graveman as the setup man in the top of the eighth. Despite a two-out single, he would get out of the inning with the lead intact, putting Houston three outs away from the victory. After a walk, single, and hit by pitch to start the bottom of the eighth with the bases loaded, Altuve would drive in his third run of the game, getting a sac fly to extend the lead to two runs at 5-3.

That insurance run proved pivotal, as closer Ryan Pressly was met with a leadoff solo home run by Hernandez, his second of the night for Boston, to make it 5-4. Pressly refocused and was able to get the next three batters in order, though, wrapping up the win to start Houston off with a 1-0 series lead and putting them three wins away from advancing to the World Series.

Up Next: The two teams will have a moderately quick turnaround, with ALCS Game 2 scheduled to start at 3:20 PM Central on Saturday ahead of NLCS Game 1 between the Dodgers and Braves getting the night slot. The pitching matchup is expected to be Nathan Eovaldi for Boston, who is 1-0 with a 2.61 ERA in his two starts this postseason, going opposite Luis Garcia, who had a rough outing in the ALDS for Houston, giving up five runs without completing three innings in Chicago.

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