Last weekend's wild-card round of the 2005 NFL Playoffs was probably either a dream come true or a complete nightmare for gamblers. With three teams winning on the road and an improbable upset win by the New York Jets over the heavily favored San Diego Chargers, the NFL's Wild Card Weekend proved to be just that: wild. Of course, anyone who might have used our predictions for last week's games would probably have fared pretty well in Vegas, as our wild-card-round prediction feature went four for four, even picking the Chargers' loss at Qualcomm Stadium.
This weekend, the true heavy hitters return after well-earned bye weeks. Some view the Colts-Patriots matchup as the "real" Super Bowl, reliving the week-one matchup that saw New England barely edge out Indianapolis. Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who astounded Steelers fans in the regular season, leads his team into the playoffs against a scrappy Jets team that refuses to quit. In the NFC, all eyes are on the Philadelphia Eagles as they try to cope with the loss of star receiver Terrell Owens in their matchup against the Minnesota Vikings, while the Atlanta Falcons look to make short work of the St. Louis Rams.
Last week, we used Madden NFL 2005 to pick the wild-card games. In the interest of fairness, we simulated this weekend's divisional round of the playoffs using ESPN NFL 2K5. Just like last week, we set the game on 10-minute quarters on all-pro difficulty. Will ESPN's NFL swan song rise to the challenge set by Madden's predictions during the wild-card round? We'll find out this weekend. Until then, enjoy the feature, and if you're planning on betting on the games, remember: This story is just for fun.
St. Louis Rams at Atlanta Falcons
The St. Louis Rams' Super Bowl hopes came down to one play. After leading for nearly the entire game on the strength of two Jeff Wilkins field goals, the Rams fell behind 10-6 late in the game after Falcons quarterback Michael Vick found his star receiver Peerless Price for a 50-yard touchdown strike. A solid drive into Falcons territory by Rams quarterback Marc Bulger ended when, on fourth and eight in the Falcons' red zone, Rams coach Mike Martz called an ill-advised swing pass to running back Steven Jackson that was quickly stuffed by the alert Atlanta D.
The Falcons' running game fared better than that of the Rams, with Warrick Dunn rushing for 89 yards on 21 attempts. Rams halfback Steven Jackson, starting in place of future Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk, was held to only 35 yards on the ground, despite carrying the ball 17 times. Martz's insistence on using the rookie from Oregon State frustrated Rams fans, especially considering that Jackson ran for only one first down the entire game.
The Rams' dynamic receiving duo of Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce once again turned in strong performances, despite the losing effort. Holt caught 11 balls for 122 yards, while Bruce nabbed six receptions for 81 yards. Still, it was Peerless Price--himself no slouch, with seven receptions for 117 yards--who was the star of the game with his decisive touchdown reception in the fourth quarter.
Final Score: Falcons 10, Rams 6
Player of the Game: Peerless Price - 7 receptions, 117 yards, 1 TD
Minnesota Vikings at Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles spent two quarters looking for ways to throw away their victory in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs, but in the end came up with just enough to take out the Minnesota Vikings in overtime. Despite not having Terrell Owens in the lineup, the Eagles prevailed mainly because their WR corps turned in a strong performance. Despite tossing four interceptions, Philly quarterback Donovan McNabb was still the catalyst, going 25 of 44 for 406 yards and three touchdowns. He found targets all over the field, including the oft-invisible Freddie Mitchell (seven receptions for 118 yards) and Chad Lewis, who ended the day with five grabs for 83 yards and the touchdown that gave Philly their first lead late in the game. It was Todd Pinkston's day, however, as the lanky receiver--no longer playing second fiddle to T.O.--found himself miraculously cured of the dropsies that have plagued his earlier career. The Eagle wideout ended the day with eight catches for 187 yards and two touchdowns.
On the other side of the ball, Minnesota was plagued by an up-and-down defensive effort that finally could not find an answer for McNabb and company. Early in the game, when McNabb tossed a bad lateral pass to running back Michael Westbrook deep in Eagles territory, the Vikings D took advantage of the miscue, falling on the ball in the end zone and scoring an easy touchdown. But the Eagles were able to move the ball with ease throughout the game, and while Minnesota led Philly 17-7 at one point, the Eagles eventually tied the game, 27-27, and took a clear advantage in momentum into overtime. David Akers' game-winning field goal in extra time was set up by a clutch 30-yard catch and run by Pinkston.
Final Score: Eagles 30, Vikings 27 (OT)
Player of the Game: Todd Pinkston - 8 receptions, 187 yards, 2 TD
New York Jets at Pittsburgh Steelers
The New York Jets kept the magic going in their unlikely trip through the playoffs, winning a defensive struggle against the top-seeded Pittsburgh Steelers, 14-6. The Steelers never held the lead in the game, as Jets quarterback Chad Pennington put his team up early with a TD pass to Wayne Chrebet in the first quarter. The Jets receiver turned in a solid performance on the day, grabbing four balls for 42 yards and the score.
Kicker Jeff Reed scored the Steelers' only points, nailing two short field goals to keep the game within reach. After Pittsburgh's second field goal in the fourth quarter, they were within one point of the Jets. Ben Roethlisberger, a revelation during the Steelers' regular season, fizzled in the fourth quarter, however, hitting only a few of his passes and tossing an interception to Jets linebacker Victor Hobson.
Both teams' running games suffered on the field. The Jets' Curtis Martin was a more effective receiver than rusher, and Pittsburgh's Duce Staley went out of the game in the third quarter with an arm injury. After Staley went down, the Jets increased their lead with a touchdown toss to tight end Anthony Becht to take the lead for good at 14-6.
Final Score: Jets 14, Steelers 6
Player of the Game: Chad Pennington - 19-31, 211 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT
Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots
In one of the most incredible comeback efforts of the year, the New England Patriots rallied from being down 31-7 to take the Indianapolis Colts into overtime, only to lose the game when Peyton Manning found Marvin Harrison for a 58-yard TD strike two minutes into extra time. The Patriots' valiant effort was led by running back Corey Dillon, who turned in a four-touchdown performance. The eight-year player didn't have a ton of yards on the ground, but he single-handedly kept New England in the game with his strong running and timely scores.
Early on, it looked like the Colts would run away with the game, much like they did against the Broncos last week. Peyton Manning found the Colts receivers early and often, running a no-huddle offense for the first 10 plays of the game and quickly tossing a touchdown pass to Reggie Wayne (one of two on the day for Wayne). The Colts then stacked the deck in their favor with two more touchdown passes, one to Wayne and one to Brandon Stokley. After Dillon's first touchdown finally put New England on the board, the Pats' momentum was immediately destroyed when the Colts struck again, this time on a Von Hutchins interception of Tom Brady that the cornerback ran back for a touchdown.
The Patriots' comeback began after soon after, with Cory Dillon scoring two more touchdowns and Adam Vinatieri nailing a field goal to bring the Pats within a touchdown. After the Colts went three and out, the Pats evened the score with a last-minute drive to send the game to overtime.
But the Colts offense, invisible for more than two quarters, came to life after they won the toss to begin extra time. After a few failed run attempts with Edgerrin James, Peyton Manning found Marvin Harrison for the game-winning touchdown. Harrison would end the day with 17 receptions for 288 yards and the aforementioned touchdown.
Final Score: Colts 37, Patriots 31 (OT)
Player of the Game: Corey Dillon - 90 yards rushing, 3 rushing TD, 1 receiving TD
Come back next Friday, when we'll be simulating the AFC and NFC conference championships!