The sunken, battle-weary eyes of Indianapolis Colts Head Coach Chuck Pagano said it all Sunday as the Baltimore Ravens cruised to a 24-9 victory over the Colts in the last home game ever for Ravens' Linebacker Ray Lewis.
Pagano missed 12 games this season due to a bout with Leukemia, and he came into this game without the benefit of the coach who took the reins in his absence. Offensive Coordinator Bruce Arians (who was hospitalized this morning due to an unknown illness) posted a 9-3 record in relief of the cancer-stricken head coach. Pagano inspired a huge outpouring of support and encouragement from NFL fans across the country as he fought to get back to the sidelines again. Though there wasn't the kind of storybook ending to the Colts season that Pagano was hoping for, their impressive turnaround from a 2-14 season last year to making the playoffs this year is extremely encouraging. This team should be a formidable threat in the 2013-2014 season.
Baltimore relied on a well-balanced attack on defense and a hometown crowd heartily cheering on the retiring 17-year-veteran Lewis, who amassed 13 tackles in his final game at home. The offense also shined thanks to the efforts of Veteran Receiver Anquan Boldin, who chalked up 145 yards and a touchdown on just 5 total catches in the game. Quarterback Joe Flacco was also at his best, completing another touchdown pass to Dennis Pitta on the way to putting up 282 yards through the air on just 12 completions.
The Colts had few bright spots in the game as Rookie Quarterback Andrew Luck (28-54, 288 yards, INT) couldn't seem to maintain any positive rhythm in the game despite connecting with Reggie Wayne for 114 total yards on nine catches. Adam Vinatieri kicked field goals of 47, 52 and 26 yards, but it was all too little and too late for the Colts.
Baltimore will now travel to Denver to face a well-rested Broncos squad led by Legendary Quarterback Peyton Manning. Three weeks ago the Broncos beat the Ravens 34-17, so the Baltimore defense will have to perform much better in this rematch to come out with the win and live to see another week of football.
The difference in Saturday's AFC playoff game between the Houston Texans and Cincinatti Bengals came down to a pair of field goals as both teams only managed one touchdown each. Running back Arian Foster earned the designation of being the only NFL player to ever put up at least 100 yards on the ground in his first three playoff appearances as he accumulated 140 rushing yards Saturday. Foster also scored his team's only touchdown in a contest decided by the Texans' defense in the final minutes. The Bengals put up their only touchdown when Cornerback Leon Hall intercepted a pass thrown by Texans' QB Matt Schaub and returned it 21 yards for the score.
The Texans scored three field goals in the first half while the Bengals failed to score a single offensive point until their first field goal in the third quarter. Houston QB Matt Schaub (29-38, 262 yards) more than doubled the total passing yardage of Bengals QB Andy Dalton (14-30, 127 yards), though both men threw an interception in the game.
The team that went 5-0 to start the season ended the year with two straight losses before getting back on the winning track Saturday. This win doesn't come against a top contender and was not very impressive. The Texans will have to absolutely re-invent themselves to emerge from next week's game at the New England Patriots with a victory. The Patriots stomped the Texans 42-14 in a week 14 Monday Night Football battle, and New England is coming off an extra week of rest and playing at home. The Pats will also have Tight End Rob Gronkowski back on offense, one of QB Tom Brady's favorite touchdown targets.
This year's wild card round produced some interesting games to watch, but it's highly unlikely these first-round winners will be able to have the same success in the next round against the top seeds in the conference.