Now, can the Packers, Seahawks, Steelers and Chiefs carry it further?
All four took to the road and won, the first time that’s happened since the current playoff format was adopted in 1990. It was anything but easy for Seattle and Pittsburgh, slightly less challenging for Green Bay, and a romp for Kansas City.
“We came together (Sunday). We played for each other. There was a time there, down 11-0, where people could have started to have that doubt creep in. But it didn’t happen today.”
The doubt could have crept in even more so for the Steelers, who needed some bone headedness by the Bengals — did someone say Bungles? — to advance. And for the Seahawks, who stood frozen on the sideline and watched Minnesota’s Blair Walsh miss a chip-shot field goal at game’s end.
“I think we were fortunate that we got the win,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said after the third-coldest NFL game on record. “A lot of those times, guys make those kicks. There’s a high percentage that they make them, but you’ve still got to do it.”
What the Seahawks (11-6) now have to do is win at Carolina (15-1), which had the NFL’s best record, including a win at Seattle. The Packers (11-6) also have an unenviable task, heading to Arizona (13-3), which routed them 38-8 in Week 16.
The Chiefs (12-5), winners of 11 in a row, earned a trip to New England (12-4), and might head there without star receiver Jeremy Maclin. A battered Pittsburgh (11-6) goes to Denver (12-4), which it beat 34-27 in Week 15 at Heinz Field.
Formidable challenges, for sure — particularly for the Steelers if three key offensive players are sidelined. All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown suffered a concussion at Cincinnati, QB Ben Roethlisberger hurt his right shoulder, and running back DeAngelo Williams (foot) didn’t even suit up on the weekend.
But all four wild cards should be brimming with confidence, even if unlike in the opening round, they aren’t favored by the oddsmakers.
“They didn’t really care where we play, they wanted to know who we were going to play, and let’s go,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said.
“They put everything in it. That’s how playoff games are, you just exhaust yourself and get ready for the next one, and exhaust yourself for that one, and that’s kind of how that thing rolls. I didn’t sense anything different from them. That’s just kind of how they’ve been. We’ll do our thing, and do it again.”
All four wild-card winners have done relatively well away from home. Kansas City, Seattle and Green Bay were 5-3, Pittsburgh was 4-4 during the regular season. The upcoming hosts were 7-1 (New England, Carolina and Arizona) or 6-2 (Denver).
The Chiefs can’t rely on Tom Brady and the Patriots to turn over the ball the way Brian Hoyer and the Texans did. Pittsburgh knows the Broncos won’t beat themselves as the Bengals did.
Green Bay fully understands the defense it will face in Arizona is far superior to Washington’s. Seattle, probably still giving thanks for Walsh’s wayward kick, knows that scoring in only one quarter — and only 10 points — won’t be enough against Carolina.
But to dismiss any of them in this unusual NFL season would be folly.
Rodgers has shown time and again his propensity for producing in the spotlight, and the Packers already own a Super Bowl ring as a wild card. So do the Steelers, whose resolve can never be questioned.
Kansas City simply is the hottest team in pro football. And the Seahawks didn’t make the Super Bowl the past two years, winning once and barely failing the second time, by chance.
“I said this week that it just takes one,” Rodgers said. “It just takes one performance to get us going back in the right direction and believing that we can make a run.”