Wild Card Weekend provided us with one pretty good game and three pretty bad ones, but that doesn't mean that the weekend was a total loss. There were still plenty of strong performances, and some poor ones that are worth noting too.
Who helped their team advance, and who ended up costing their team?
Pivotal Match-ups from Wild Card Weekend
Cincinnati LB Rey Maualuga vs. Houston's Passing Game
Like many players on the Bengals' defense, Rey Maualuga has made some big strides since he began to play for defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. He's matured into a team captain and has developed into a good player against the run. He has yet to show that he can be for Cincinnati's defense in this match-up.
From nearly the opening drive of the game, the Texans exploited Maualuga with Owen Daniels, and in most every case where Houston got him matched up on the middle linebacker it was a success. He gave up multiple first downs through the passing game, often getting caught flat-footed and off guard.
Unfortunately for Cincinnati Maualuga’s struggles weren’t limited to the passing game. He was frequently over powered in the running game and took poor angles in the second level. Those problems were a big reason Arian Foster was able to have yet another dominating performance against the Bengals. His performance was greatly held their defense back, and it will give Cincinnati plenty of reasons to avoid re-signing him for 2013 and beyond.
Baltimore LB Paul Kruger vs Indianapolis' Offensive Tackles
Although most of the hype and coverage before, during, and after the game was dedicated to Ray Lewis, the all-time great linebacker didn’t actually have a strong showing for the Ravens. Fortunately, there was another linebacker in Baltimore that made enough big time plays that Lewis’ shortcomings weren’t too noticeable.
Paul Kruger hasn’t played consistently this season, but he put on a show against Indianapolis’ sub-par offensive tackles. Kruger had the opportunity to rush the passer from the left and right sides of the line, and neither Anthony Castanzo nor Winston Justice stood a chance against Kruger. By the time the game was over Kruger had recorded three sacks, three hits, and five hurries on Andrew Luck, making the rookie look uncomfortable for most of the game.
Sunday’s game highlights a big issue on the Colts’ offense. The play of the offensive line has been poor all season long, and while much of their draft plans will be devoted to adding youth to their defense, the offensive line must be a priority for Indianapolis as well.
Green Bay DT BJ Raji vs. Minnesota’s OG Charlie Johnson
Adrian Peterson may have come up just short of setting the all-time rushing record this season, but he is human, and when his offensive line plays as poorly as it did on Saturday, it’d be nearly impossible for AD to carry the Vikings to an upset playoff win. And while he played well and took the yards that he could, he simply wasn’t given any room to operate with this time in Green Bay.
A major factor for the Packers was the play of B.J. Raji. For yet another week he put together a strong performance in the inside, manhandling the Viking in front of him, be it Charlie Johnson or Brandon Fusco. Raji was rarely pushed backwards all game long, and kept Minnesota from getting any sort of momentum moving forward.
Raji is one of the more under-appreciated players in the league because he doesn’t put up great numbers, but he’s the key to Green Bay’s defense. When he plays well, the defense is infinitely better. Can he keep up these types of performances for the rest of the playoffs?
Seattle RB Marshawn Lynch vs. Washington's Front Seven
When Marshawn Lynch fumbled at the goal line in the third quarter, it looked like he’d end up being the goat in a disappointing playoff loss. Instead, Lynch will return to Seattle yet again as a hero. It was clear that Lynch was the best player on the field Sunday, and was the key to the Seahawks’ victory.
Perhaps one of the biggest plays of the game for Lynch came in the first half, when Russell Wilson mishandled a read option handoff and ended up fumbling the ball. Lynch was able to scoop up the fumble and eventually turned it into a 20 yard gain. Seattle turned the drive into 7 points, and was a key turning point in the game.
Lynch has a unique combination of speed and power make him one of the most violent running backs in the league. That was clearly on display Sunday evening as he averaged nearly seven yards per carry, leaving Redskins defenders grasping for air more often than not. As the Seahawks travel to Atlanta this weekend, look for the Falcons to get a very large dose of Lynch as Seattle looks to steal another win on the road.
Scouting Notes from Wild Card Weekend
After watching Jeff Saturday struggle at center for most of the season, it seemed as though sitting him down in favor of Evan Dietrich-Smith, but now I’m not so sure. The young center struggled more than Saturday did, and now the Packers probably should be considering re-inserting Saturday into the lineup.
There were more difficult plays made during wild card weekend, but there were none more enjoyable than watching Russell Wilson escort Marshawn Lynch to the end zone. It’s yet another example of Wilson’s winning attitude that won over Seattle’s locker room during OTAs.
The Texans are going to need some big games out of Arian Foster and their defense if they plan on advancing any further in the playoffs. Matt Schaub just isn’t a quarterback that can take a playoff game over, and in a quarterback driven league, that’s bad news.
Seattle’s rookie linebacker Bobby Wagner should be getting more positive press than he is. He had another solid game Sunday, and has yet to hit the feared “rookie wall”.