Division winners take 3 of 4 Wild Card matchups

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo (9) celebrates a touchdown against the Detroit Lions as tackle Tyron Smith (77) helps him up during the second half of an NFL wildcard playoff football game, Sunday, Jan. 4, 2015, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Romo, Cowboys rally to beat Lions

ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) — Face-down on the turf, Tony Romo pounded his hands into the ground like a petulant child.

Frustrated by yet another season-ending failure? Far from it. The Dallas quarterback was celebrating after giving the Cowboys the lead in a stirring playoff comeback.

Romo threw two touchdown passes to Terrance Williams, the second for the lead late in the fourth quarter, and the Cowboys rallied for a 24-20 wild-card win over Detroit on Sunday in their first playoff game in five years.

Dallas (13-4) wiped out an early two-touchdown deficit to advance to a divisional game in Green Bay, their first postseason visit there since a heartbreaking loss to the Packers in the Ice Bowl in 1967.

“You just have to stay in the moment and understand the game,” Romo said. “It doesn’t end after the first quarter, second quarter. You just have to keep calm. I’ve played enough games to understand that. Maybe I didn’t do that as well when I was younger.”

The Lions (11-6) went 99 yards for one of two first-quarter touchdowns, but Matthew Stafford couldn’t get them in the end zone again.

Detroit was driving with a 20-17 lead midway through the fourth quarter when referee Pete Morelli announced a pass interference penalty against Anthony Hitchens on a third-down pass to Brandon Pettigrew. But officials reversed the call without explanation, and Sam Martin had a 10-yard punt after the Lions tried to draw Dallas offside on fourth-and-1.

Pettigrew said he didn’t get an explanation, while Lions coach Jim Caldwell said he did — but didn’t like it.

“Not a good enough one. I’m going to leave it at that,” Caldwell said. “I’m not going to sit up here and act like that was the play that made a difference in the game. We still had our chances.”

Romo took the Cowboys 59 yards in 11 plays, including a 21-yard pass to Jason Witten on fourth-and-6. The winner to Williams was an 8-yarder after Romo had several seconds to throw behind an offensive line among the league’s best because Dallas has drafted linemen in the first round three of the past four years.

The Cowboys had to wait a little longer to celebrate. Rookie DeMarcus Lawrence gave the Lions the ball back with a fumble following Anthony Spencer’s sack that knocked the ball loose from Stafford, who was 28 of 42 for 323 yards playing against his hometown team.

Lawrence redeemed himself on the clincher, sacking Stafford on fourth down near midfield in the final minute.

The Lions have not won a playoff game since the 1991 season, when they beat Dallas.

Dallas rode quick starts to a 4-0 December that carried it to the NFC East title, but a sluggish first quarter put the Cowboys in a hole.

Golden Tate bounced up from a flattening hit by C.J. Spillman on a punt return and beat Barry Church on a 51-yard pass to open the scoring. Church called out Tate on his radio show earlier in the week, saying the Cowboys were going to pay him back for a blindside block on linebacker Sean Lee that got Tate fined three years ago when he was with Seattle.

The Lions went up 14-0 on a drive that amounted to 99 3/4 yards. After Dekoda Watson ran into Martin to keep the drive alive, the 14-play drive ended with Reggie Bush badly faking Orlando Scandrick on an 18-yard scoring run.

Williams (three catches for 92 yards) pulled the Cowboys within seven when he took a short pass from Romo 76 yards to the end zone.

NFL rushing leader DeMarco Murray slogged his way to 75 yards on 19 carries against the NFL’s best run defense, including a 1-yard plunge on fourth down that pulled Dallas to 20-14 late in the third quarter.

The Cowboys were coming off three straight 8-8 seasons that ended with losses that kept them out of the playoffs, with Romo on the field for two of them.

“I’m thrilled for him,” said owner Jerry Jones, who gave Romo the first $100 million contract in franchise history almost two years ago. “He whispered in my ear that he’ll call me tonight, so I want to share how happy I am.”

The 34-year-old who had back surgery in December 2013 and missed one game with another back injury this season, endured a season-high six sacks. Two were on consecutive plays in the fourth quarter by Ndamukong Suh, who was suspended Monday for stepping on Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, but reinstated a day later.

“I’m speechless,” a tearful Suh said after walking away from the podium and then returning. “Defense put it all out there. This team put it all out there. … I didn’t expect this outcome.”

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

 

Newton, defense lead Panthers to win over Cardinals

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Luke Kuechly knows Carolina’s defense didn’t have much bite earlier in the season.

He said that made Saturday all the more special.

The Panthers held Arizona to 78 yards and forced three turnovers in a 27-16 win, the franchise’s first postseason victory in nine years. It’s the fewest yards ever allowed in an NFL postseason game.

“We know who we are — menacing, stifling and we are going to get after you,” cornerback Josh Norman said. “We know when there is blood in the water and when there is, our sharks are going to eat.”

The Panthers (8-8-1) held Arizona to 12 yards in the second half, intercepted Ryan Lindley twice and sacked him four times in a dominating performance.

Carolina’s defense has undergone a remarkable turnaround this season, going from 27th in the league in Week 7 to 10th entering the playoffs.

And the Panthers only seem to be getting better by the week.

“We had a lot of new guys early on who had to get accustomed to each other,” said Kuechly, the All-Pro middle linebacker who had a game-high 10 tackles and a key interception. “Now we’re all together and communicating — and that’s huge.”

The New York Giants held the previous NFL record for fewest yards in a postseason game, limiting Cleveland to 86 yards on Dec. 21, 1958.

Cam Newton overcame two turnovers and threw for 198 yards and two touchdowns and Jonathan Stewart ran for 123 yards and a score on a rain-soaked afternoon.

The Panthers had 386 yards.

Newton was quick to deflect attention to his defensive teammates after his first career playoff win, calling their performance “lights out.”

“When those guys play like that, it makes it easier on us on our part,” Newton said. “Those guys did everything, turnovers, they stopped them. That is championship football right there and we’ve got to do our part offensively to put points up on the board.”

The Panthers will play at top-seeded Seattle next weekend if Dallas beats Detroit on Sunday. If the Lions win, the Panthers play at Green Bay.

It appeared the Panthers wouldn’t get the yardage record, but Arizona began lateraling the ball around the field on the final play and lost 19 yards.

It was a fitting end to the Cardinals’ offensive ineptitude.

Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis, the only player remaining from the last Carolina team that won a playoff game, called it the most dominating defensive performance he’s ever been around.

“Our coaches did a great job and when they lined up in their formations we knew exactly what to expect,” Davis said. “We just ran to the ball and made plays.”

After a 9-1 start, Arizona’s once promising season was undone by a rash of injuries, including to quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton.

Lindley simply wasn’t up to the task of leading a playoff team.

Trailing 27-14, Arizona recovered a Newton fumble and returned to the Carolina 8. But with a chance to get his team back on the game, Lindley fired over the middle but was intercepted by Kuechly, essentially sealing the Carolina win with 11:48 left in the game.

Arizona coach Bruce Arians refused to pin the blame on his young quarterback.

“I thought he did great up until the first interception,” Arians said. “He managed the game as well as he could. We didn’t do a good job of putting ourselves in manageable third downs. But we got the big break and he tried to force one in that should have never been thrown.”

The Cardinals finished the season 11-6, but lost five of their final seven games.

“As a team, we always fought,” defensive tackle Frostee Rucker said. “It was always the next man up. At some point, we just didn’t have anything left. Everyone should hold their heads high. Every person gave it their all, this whole season, win or loss.”

Trailing by one at halftime the Panthers scored two touchdowns in a span of 1 minute, 32 seconds late in the third quarter to take control.

Rookie running back Fozzy Whittaker caught a pass in the flat from Newton, reversed fields and got a key block from Kelvin Benjamin to spring him for a 39-yard touchdown.

On the ensuing kickoff, Melvin White stripped returner Ted Ginn Jr., a former Panther, at the Arizona 3 and Kevin Reddick recovered for Carolina. A pass interference penalty on Tony Jefferson on third down gave Carolina a new set of downs, and Newton took advantage. He found wide-open fullback Mike Tolbert in the left flat for a 1-yard touchdown and a 27-14 lead.

Carolina outgained Arizona 208-65 in the first half, but entered the locker room trailing 14-13 after two costly turnovers led to two Cardinals touchdowns.

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

 

Colts pull away from Bengals to advance in AFC playoffs

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — When Andrew Luck was under pressure Sunday, he stood tall and maintained his poise.

Andy Dalton and the Bengals simply collapsed. Again.

Luck delivered a game-changing touchdown pass as he was headed to the turf, and Indianapolis’ defense dominated the rest of the game as the Colts roared past Cincinnati 26-10 and into the divisional playoff round.

“The one magical play was when Andrew was at his finest,” said coach Chuck Pagano, whose team heads to Denver next Sunday. “He’s a maestro. He’s unbelievable back there.”

For Cincinnati, a bedeviling postseason curse continued.

The Bengals (10-6-1) became the first team in NFL history to lose four consecutive opening-round games. Dalton tied Warren Moon for the most consecutive opening-round playoff losses by a quarterback, dropping to 0-4 all-time.

Coach Marvin Lewis tied Marty Schottenheimer, Jim Mora and Steven Owen for most consecutive playoff losses (six) by a coach. Lewis also tied Mora, the former Colts coach, for most consecutive playoff losses to start a career, and tied Owen for most consecutive playoff losses with one team.

They haven’t won a playoff game since January 1991.

“It’s kind of like missing a field goal that you should have hit,” Cincinnati kicker Mike Nugent said after setting a franchise record late in the first half with a 57-yard field goal that got the Bengals within 13-10.

But the glaring difference between the postseason success for Luck and the Colts (12-5), and the postseason failures for Dalton and the Bengals was never more apparent than on two big plays in the third quarter.

On second-and-10 from the Bengals 36, Luck floated a perfect pass to the corner of the end zone as Carlos Dunlap started to take him to the turf. Rookie receiver Donte Moncrief sprinted across the field and cradled the ball for the score that gave Indy a 20-10 lead.

“I sort of stepped up in a crease there, saw Donte running his butt off and tried to put it in a spot where only he could get it,” Luck said. “He does such a great job of running underneath those balls and we had the touch.”

On the next Bengals plays, Dalton had Brandon Tate open deep down the middle on a flea-flicker. But instead of scoring, Colts cornerback Greg Toler raced over and broke up the underthrown pass. Three plays later, the Bengals punted. They never seriously challenged again.

“I thought he (Dalton) hung in there,” Lewis said. “I thought he made plays with his feet. I thought he made plays throwing the football, and I thought he played a good football game.”

Dalton, whose two top receivers were inactive, finished 18 of 35 with 155 yards and lost a fumble on a day the Bengals managed only 98 total yards and five first downs in the second half.

The Colts were much more proficient.

Luck went 31 of 44 for 376 yards, and he couldn’t be going into the next game under better circumstances. For the first time in four tries, Luck finished a playoff game without a turnover. He also joined Dan Fouts, Jim Kelly, Warren Moon and Drew Brees as the only NFL players with three straight 300-yard games in the postseason.

Luck managed to keep his feet and his poise on the biggest play of the game, and finished without an interception for the first time in a playoff match.

T.Y. Hilton caught six passes for 103 yards, Daniel “Boom” Herron had 10 catches for 85 yards — he also rushed for 56 and a touchdown— and Adam Vinatieri made four field goals.

No, it wasn’t the clean game Pagano wanted — Hilton dropped a couple of potentially game-changing passes; Herron lost a fumble; and the Colts were called for nine penalties. But they still led 13-10 at the half, and Pagano liked the way Luck took a page out of Aaron Rodgers’ playbook in the second half.

“We were a little unsettled, a little anxious, in the first half,” Pagano said. “We just said, ‘Hey! Just calm down, relax.”

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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