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Saturday, January 11, 2014

Ghosts of Playoffs Past - 2013 Edition

Every year, the Hat Trick talks about the great moments of past playoffs lore for the NFL's final eight surviving teams. This year is no different. Enjoy the 2013 NFL Playoffs edition of "Ghosts of Playoffs Past".

8) A Long Time Coming - January 22, 2006 - 2005 NFC Championship Game, Carolina Panthers at Seattle Seahawks

Seahawks 34 Panthers 14

The Seattle Seahawks came into the NFL in 1976 in the AFC. In spite of reaching the 1983 AFC Championship Game in their 8th year of existence, the Seahawks were a franchise whose ceiling had been "above average" and were typically mediocre. That changed when former Green Bay Packers Head coach and Super Bowl XXXI champion Mike Holmgren took the helm in Seattle in 1999.

The Seahawks had everything come together for them in 2005, securing the #1 seed in the NFC (the Seahawks changed conferences in the 2002 realignment). The Panthers, NFC Champions from two years prior, were flying high, playing great football with an eye on finishing what they started after being nipped, 32-29, in Super Bowl XXXVIII. The Seahawks chewed the Panthers up and spit them out behind a pulverizing 132 yard, two touchdown performance from league MVP Shaun Alexander.

Alexander was an unstoppable force in the 2000s. 1
7) Tebow Time's Swan Song - January 8, 2012 - 2011 AFC Wild Card Game, Pittsburgh Steelers at Denver Broncos

Broncos 29 Steelers 23 (OT)

Second year quarterback Tim Tebow was the lowest rated starting quarterback in the NFL in 2011. He was the least accurate QB in the league in 2001. He led the seemingly hapless Broncos from an abysmal 2-5 start to a six game winning streak and an AFC West Division championship. Their prize? A visit from the defending AFC Champion Pittsburgh Steelers, who finish the regular season with four more wins than the Broncos in the regular season, but were a Wild Card team because they lost the AFC North Division to the Baltimore Ravens on the tiebreaker.

Tim Tebow couldn't throw an NFL quality pass to save his life and couldn't read defenses any more than most of us can read Chinese. But he was big. He was tough to tackle. And he was not stupid.

The Steelers, without Pro Bowl safety Ryan Clark who could not play in Denver's thin air due to a medical condition, insisted on blitzing Tebow, blitzing Tebow, and, when in doubt, they blitzed Tebow. As brilliant a defensive mind as legendary Steelers Defensive Coordinator Dick LeBeau is, he badly underestimated his opponent.

Most football enthusiasts who have never played a down have a good feeling for when a blitz is likely. Apparently LeBeau thought Tebow couldn't figure it out. Tebow dinked and dunked the Steelers to a death by 1,000 small cuts. When a man wasn't left open or in single coverage due to the blitzing, Tebow took off and ran with the ball, something he was good at.

The heavily favored Steelers went into overtime with the Broncos. Then Tebow dealt the Steelers the "suddenest" of sudden deaths in overtime.

  Tebow's 80 yard pass to DeMaryius Thomas on the first play of overtime had the appearance of a fairy tale like beginning of a career. Instead, it was a memorable footnote in Broncos history.

6) Super Bowl Bound at Last! - January 15, 1995 - 1994 AFC Championship Game, San Diego Charges at Pittsburgh Steelers

Chargers 17 Steelers 13

The Chargers franchise is no stranger to being "good". They have had an aversion to deep playoff runs. Their only run past a league semifinal round at any level was their 1963 AFL Championship, before the first Super Bowl. In this franchises history, including the AFL, the Chargers had been to seven conference championship games. They lost every one except for during the aforementioned 1963 season, when no NFL team was involved in the competition.

The Steelers under Head Coach Bill Cowher, were inching closer to returning to the Super Bowl for the first time since the seasons of the 1970s, when they won four Super Bowls. Both teams had iron clad defenses. On Pittsburgh's final possession with time running out, when they needed a touchdown but had marched down to the San Diego nine yard line on seven consecutive completions by Steelers quarterback Neil O'Donnell.

The Chargers held the Steelers and forced a 4th and goal from the Chargers' three yard line. O'Donnell flipped a short pass to running back Barry Foster, but Chargers middle linebacker Dennis Gibson reached in and swatted the pass away, sealing the Chargers' first, ever, trip to the Super Bowl.

Dennis Gibson (#57) raises his hands in triumph after sealing the Chargers trip to Super Bowl XXIX. The playoffs have a way of granting a nugget of immortality to otherwise anonymous players in NFL history. 2

5) The Death of The Greatest Show on Turf - January 10, 2004 - 2003 NFC Divisional Round, Carolina Panthers at St. Louis Rams

Panthers 29 Rams 23 (2 OT) 

The Rams were the most fear-imposing offense of the past five years, winning two NFC championships and Super Bowl XXXIV. Future Hall of Famer Kurt Warner was injured earlier in the year, but replaced by Marc Bulger. Head Coach's Mike Martz's Greatest Show on Turf continued to roll on.

The Panthers enjoyed a resurgence from the doldrums, two years removed from an abysmal 1-15 record, with free agent quarterback Jake Delhomme in his first year with the team and second year Head Coach John Fox. The Panthers' strength, however, was its defense. The Rams couldn't have its way with Carolina as it had with so many others.

The fourth quarter ended with the score tied at 23. Fifteen minutes of extra football couldn't settle it. Deep in their own territory, on 3rd and 14, the Rams had a chance to get the ball back in manageable field position. But on the first play of double overtime, Delhomme heaved a 69 yard bomb to Pro Bowl wide receiver Steve Smith to advance the Panthers en route to their only Super Bowl appearance.

The Rams, as we knew them, were at the beginning of the end. Warner was traded to the New York Giants in the offseason.The Rams would make one more playoff run in 2004 and never reach the postseason again to this date. The Greatest Show on Turf was over.

Steve Smith has been doing the damn thing for a long time. Game breaker in the 2003 playoffs...2013? 3
4) Vinatieri, The Legend Continues - February 1, 2004 - Super Bowl XXXVIII, New England Patriots vs Carolina Panthers

Patriots 32 Panthers 29

The Panthers appeared to be set to force overtime for the first time in Super Bowl history. With time running out, the Patriots faced 1st and 20 following a Troy Brown offensive pass interference penalty pushed them back into their own territory. On 3rd down, Patriots QB Tom Brady found Deion Branch for 17 yards to get the ball down to the Panthers' 23 yard line to set up Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri for a second career Super Bowl winning 41 yard field goal.

Scroll to 6:10. This man belongs in the Hall of Fame when his career is over.

3) Peyton Manning's Greatest Comeback - January 21, 2007 - 2006 AFC Championship Game, New England Patriots at Indianapolis Colts

Colts 38 Patriots 24

Peyton Manning's Colts had been eliminated, rather unceremoniously, by the Patriots in the 2003 and 2004 Playoffs. Those games were played at Foxboro, where the Patriots had been close to bulletproof in January during the past three decades. The tables shifted, playing at the RCA Dome in Indy.

Or did anything change? The Patriots jumped on the Colts early, going up 21-3 in the second quarter. Manning and company did not panic. They kicked a field goal before the half. They scored on their opening possession of the second half. Folks, we had a ballgame.

After tying the score at 21-21, Manning and the Colts engaged in a duel with Brady for the ages. After taking the lead, 38-34, with a minute to go Brady would get the ball back one last time. Adam Vinatieri couldn't bail the Pats out this time' they needed a touchdown.

Manning had to think, "Oh no! Not again!" as Brady drove into Colts territory. Then the skies parted for Indy. Marlin Jackson intercepted Brady to seal the deal and send Manning to his first Super Bowl en route to a Super Bowl XLI championship.

Brady stifled in the playoffs: it was new to him back then. Get used to it! 4
2) The Catch III - January 14, 2012 - 2011 NFC Divisional Round, New Orleans Saints at San Francisco 49ers

49ers 36 Saints 32

The Hat Trick discussed this game in detail earlier this week. After the lead changed hands for the third time in two and a half minutes, the Saints led by three points with about 90 seconds left on the clock. Vernon Davis torched the Saints to help the 49ers get into the red zone. Then...why tell you? When I can show you...!

One of the greatest games ever played, unless you're a Saints fan.

1) Hallelujah! - February 7, 2010 - Super Bowl XLIV, New Orleans Saints vs Indianapolis Colts

Saints 31 Colts 17

The Saints completed the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history (tied with Washington Redskins vs Denver, Super Bowl XXII) with one of the most dramatic plays in the history of the NFL's signature game.

Trailing the Saints by seven points in the final minutes of the game, Petyon Manning marched the Colts inside Saints territory. Facing a third down and five, the Colts needed to get a first down. Manning tried to thread the needle to a tightly covered Reggie Wayne. ten seconds later, Tracy Porter held the ball forward, crossed the goal line following a 74 yard pick six, and the Who Dat Nation smelled its first Super Bowl championship in team history.

No explanation needed....   
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