By Nick Shook | NFL.com
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NFL teams spend all season battling for the right to go to the postseason. Once a berth is locked up, the prime objective through Week 17 is to secure the best possible seed. Why?
Because the highest seed gets home-field advantage in the playoffs, and there’s no better place to play postseason football than at home. Crowds are raucous, stakes are high and historical records are in the favor of those wearing the home uniforms.
Postseason football on the road is often the most difficult, a fact proven by Wild Card weekend. Visiting teams went 1-3, and only one game was a one-possession contest inside two minutes.
That matchup — Cowboys vs. Lions — and its controversial end will likely be debated for days, before the collective attention of fans and media alike turns to Packers/Cowboys. The clock is ticking on that one.
But despite the loss, Detroit still featured at least a couple commendable performances. We’ll get to those later.
In the meantime, since we’ve reached the postseason and Baltimore is in said postseason, that one E word is going creep into consciousness.
But I have one pressing question: Is this column elite?
Here are Wild Card weekend’s greatest on the road:
Greatest on the Road …
Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens
There is a subsection of the population that absolutely adores Joe Flacco.
There is also a subsection that believes Flacco can do no right.
Flacco has had his ups and downs throughout his career, but he’s shown his mettle in the past when it comes to postseason football. Be it the long pass to Jacoby Jones to take down Denver two seasons ago on Baltimore’s way to a Super Bowl victory, or Baltimore’s pristine mark of making the playoffs in six of seven seasons with Flacco and coach John Harbaugh, Baltimore has been a formidable foe come January.
But where the Ravens have long run into a hurdle, if not a roadblock, is meetings with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The 2014 AFC North champions hosted the Wild Card game on Saturday and history was on their side: In their three previous postseason meetings, Pittsburgh was 3-0 against Baltimore. Simply put, the Steelers owned the Ravens in the playoffs.
|Ravens in first playoff game|
Score one for the first subsection, because Flacco and Co. changed that narrative on Saturday night.
Leading 13-9 late in the third, Flacco and the Ravens‘ offense faced third-and-7 from Pittsburgh’s 11. The quarterback took the shotgun snap, sidestepped to avoid ageless wonder James Harrison — who was bearing down on Flacco’s blindside — reversed direction to his left to escape a collapsing pocket and spinned a pass to Torrey Smith in the back corner of the end zone for a touchdown. Steelers safety Mike Mitchell threw up his arms in exasperation, because when a quarterback buys that much time with his feet and laces a ball into a tough area of the field, there isn’t much a defensive back can do.
The score put Baltimore ahead 20-9, but it was far from over.
Pittsburgh stormed back to make it 20-15, and appeared primed to take the lead in classic Steelers fashion. Baltimore’s defense came through, with Terrell Suggs intercepting Ben Roethlisberger, but the onus still fell on Flacco to finish off the victory.
With 8:02 left in the fourth, Flacco rolled out right on a play action fake. The quarterback again made throwing on the run — albeit by design — look easy, finding Crockett Gilmore in the flats. The tight end motored down the sideline and into the end zone, giving Baltimore a double-digit lead and exercising the demons of the Steelers, notching Baltimore’s first-ever postseason win over Pittsburgh.
Flacco’s final line? Elite: 18-29, 259 yards, 2 touchdowns — and one more playoff victory.
Also considered …
Steve Smith, Baltimore Ravens
No one plays football angrier than Steve Smith.
We heard the scorned girlfriend attitude toward Carolina all season, and if that motivates Smith, go right ahead, not-so-young fella. But whether those in Carolina actually mowed his lawn while he was away, it hasn’t made a difference for the veteran wide receiver who clearly still has plenty left in the tank.
As he has for a good amount of the season, Smith was a vital component of Baltimore’s offense on Saturday night. The wily veteran caught five passes for 101 yards (that’s 20.2 yards per catch for those of you sitting at home with your TI-84 calculators in hand) and more than a few angry ball spins after the play.
Facing third-and-20 from the Pittsburgh 41-yard line, Flacco found Smith across the middle at the 35. Smith gained another eight yards with his shifty feet, putting the Ravens in ample field goal range for boomstick kicker Justin Tucker, who converted from 45 yards to extend Baltimore’s lead to 13-9.
Later in the quarter, Flacco lobbed up a ball to Smith, who launched his 5-foot-9 frame into the Pittsburgh night to bring down the pass between two defenders for a 40-yard gain. It was the opening play on a drive that culminated in Flacco’s 11-yard touchdown pass to Torrey Smith and gave Baltimore a 20-9 advantage.
All in all, the elder statesman played well enough to again tell his opponents to ice up, son — and the Patriots better prepare for more Flacco-to-Smith come Saturday.
Golden Tate‘s 2014 season at times has been a stunning work of art. The former Notre Dame wideout surprised the league and solidified himself as the best free-agent acquisition of the 2014 offseason, serving as the complementary wideout Calvin Johnson has always desired and Matthew Stafford has always needed. Tate is a big reason why Detroit finished 11-5.
Tate was also a huge reason why the Lions were in the game until the bitter end on Sunday in Arlington, Texas. His impact was noticeable from early on.
On second-and-10 from the Lions‘ 49, Stafford dropped back in play action. The quarterback faked the handoff, turned, stepped up to avoid a rusher and fired a rocket to Tate, who caught the pass at the 25 as Cowboys defensive back Barry Church crashed face-first into the AT&T Stadium turf. Tate then ran laterally down the 20-yard line before turning upfield, splitting defenders in pursuit while dashing diagonally for the end zone.
Unfortunately for Detroit, the Lions didn’t win the third or fourth quarters, getting outscored 17-3 in the final half as Dallas stormed back — amid controversy — to secure a win in its first playoff appearance in five years.
No downer for Tate, though, who finished with six receptions for 89 yards and one touchdown. Detroit might feel robbed of what could have been, but there’s plenty to look forward to on the offensive side of the ball in 2015.