Something very odd happened in the first round of the NFL Playoffs, often called the “Wild Card” round with the four teams who had the best records but did not win divisional titles in play. The road teams won all four games.
One of the ugliest playoff games in terms of temperament was Pittsburgh‘s 18-16 win over Cincinnati played this past Saturday night. There was bad blood stemming from a pre-game fracas when the two teams on December 13th, with Bengal players alleging death threats were made against them by Steeler players. As much as the officiating crew tried to keep order with some tight officiating (which baffled me, because no one goes to these games to watch the officials officiate), their grasp of the game was tenuous at best with a lot of pushing and shoving after plays and some dirty hits that were called, and some that were not.
The big moment came in the last half minute of play when Bengal linebacker Vontaze Burfict went out his way to hit Steeler wideout Antonio Brown on a play that produced an incomplete pass. A few years ago, the play would be totally legal (though a bit questionable) but the yellow flags went flying, indicating a foul had been committed. In the ensuing mess, Cincinnati was flagged a second time for unsportsmanlike conduct when the Bengals continued to protest.
Somehow, the officials missed an important point: a coach for Pittsburgh, Joey Porter, was on the field arguing with several Bengals which seemed to spark a series of expletive-filled exchanges. Porter’s presence on the field was also illegal, but no foul on him was called, and that would have at least cancelled out Cincinnati’s second 15 yard penalty. The Bengals lost the game with a field goal by Pittsburgh on the next play, not having enough time to get downfield for a score that would give them the lead back. As for Mr. Burfict, he is looking at a three-game suspension for the hit on Brown that left him with a concussion once the 2016 regular season gets started in September. Porter was also fined, but considering the officials royally goofed in their jurisprudence, I’m sure the former Steeler will gladly pay up.
The gutter war in Cincinnati was replaced two nights later by the pure art of the second College Football National Championship game outside of Phoenix. Alabama outlasted Clemson 45-40 in a game with a lot of big plays and momentum swings. The star of the game was the unheralded O.J. Howard for the Crimson Tide, making two long touchdown catches for some quick scores. I thought going into the game that Alabama would win decisively, but the Tigers showed a lot of heart and proved they deserved to be exactly where they were.
The college season is now done, and the last eight teams left standing in the NFL do battle this weekend ahead.