There is something compelling about losing franchises in sports, where fans always wait for the team to slip on a banana peel no matter how big a lead they have. "Same old [fill in the blank]." This was on vivid display during the NFL wild card games, where the Cincinnati Bengals and Minnesota Vikings again found excruciating and improbable ways to blow playoff games.
I have a great friend in New Orleans who is a huge Vikings fan, and I still haven't had the heart to contact him about the game. I would rather my team lose by double digits to a clearly superior team than the way the Bengals and Vikings did. You at least realize your team was in over it heads. Not so this weekend. Both the Bengals and Vikings should have won. Cincinnati self-destructed, while Minnesota kicker Blair Walsh missed the shortest field goal in NFL history that would have won or tied a playoff game (27 yards).
The Bengals lost to the Steelers, 18-16, on a last-second field goal set up by a gift 30 yards in personal foul penalties by Bengals' Vontaze Burfict and Adam Jones. This followed a fumble by Jeremy Hill as the Bengals were trying to run down the clock. It likely took all three gaffes to happen for the Bengals to lose. It didn't help that the Steelers might have gotten away with assistant coach Joey Porter being on the field and not being penalized. All in all, it was a very Bengalesque ending. You know their fans were dreading something like this.
The same can be said of the Vikings, whose fans had a bad flashback after Walsh's missed field goal against the Sehawks. The 1998 Vikings were less than three minutes away from a Super Bowl trip when Gary Anderson missed a 38-yard field goal that would have iced the NFC title game. Anderson had not missed a kick all season, so of course he missed this one, and the Falcons won the game in overtime.
Walsh's miss was worse, though, because it was 11 yards shorter and the Vikings were behind. The kick sailed wide left and never had a chance. Holder Jeff Locke took the blame since he did not spin the ball so the laces were away from Walsh. To his credit, Walsh said it was all his fault. Coach Mike Zimmer was blunt, saying, "It's a chip shot. He's got to make it." I doubt Walsh will be a Viking next season since his coach can never trust him. This usually happens to kickers who gag in the playoffs (see Mike Vanderjagt and Billy Cundiff).
Neither the Bengals nor the Vikings have won a Super Bowl. Cincinnati has not even won a playoff game since 1990. On the plus side, both teams are young and skilled enough to be playoff teams next year. On the negative side, there are monkeys on the backs of each franchise and they get bigger with each passing season. This weekend showed the pain of being a fan of a star-crossed franchise.
—The Seahawks remain the luckiest team in the league. Last year, the Packers self-destructed in the NFL title game. The year before, the 49ers blew a chance late in the title game and this year they have a kicker miss a gimme field goal. Russell Wilson is insufferable with all his God talk, but somebody Up There is helping that team.
—For the first time, all four road teams won in the wild card round: Steelers, Chiefs, Seahawks and Packers. All four losing teams (Bengals, Vikings, Washington, Texans) had quarterbacks making their first playoff start. The four winning QBs have four Super Bowl titles and eight conference championship appearances between them. Experience won out this weekend.
—The final four matchups are very compelling. The Chiefs at Patriots pits a Kansas City team that has won 11 games in a row against the defending champions who have lost four of six. The Packers at Cardinals sees Aaron Rodgers going against Carson Palmer, making his first playoff appearance in 10 years. The Seahawks at Panthers has two teams that always play tight, close games and a chance for Carolina to show that its 15-1 record was no fluke. The Steelers at Broncos has two banged-up QBs in Ben Roethlisberger and Peyton Manning. Roethlisbeger has an injured throwing shoulder, so it's not clear how he will play. Manning, meanwhile, will be making his first start in nine weeks, meaning he will be very fresh or very rusty.
—Looking ahead, here are my divisional round picks:
Patriots over Chiefs. The Patriots are 10-2 in their first playoff game under Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, losing only in 2009 and 2010. I don't see KC able to muster enough offense, especially with wideout Jeremy Maclin unlikely to play. The Chiefs defense will be able to harass Brady but the Pats will find some way to win.
Broncos over Steelers. Roethlisberger's health is the big wild card. Denver's top ranked defense has been excellent at home and is as healthy as its been in weeks, in contrast to the first time these teams played. Manning will have to be the ultimate game manager and if he does not turn the ball over, the Bronocs will be the better team.
Cardinals over Packers. This game will be closer than the 38-8 rout by Arizona a few weeks ago. The Cardinals, though, have better talent and Carson Palmer will get his first playoff win.
Seahawks over Panthers. Here is the margin of victory in the last five meetings between these teams: 4, 4, 5, 14, 4. Expect another close game, with both teams struggling to move the ball. In the end, experience wins out and the Panthers' dream season comes to an abrupt end.
—Hot player of the week. It was 6-below in Minnesota so all the players were bundled up, but Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph is a hottie, as you can see from a game in balmier temps: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports