At this point in the yearly NFL grind, there are no easy matchups. The weak have been weeded out. Every team that remains is capable of playing sound, disciplined football, which means that there's not a lot separating those that remain.
So these games come down to the extraordinary plays; the ones that exist outside the norm either because they include an uncharacteristic catastrophe or because someone's otherworldly ability beat someone else's exceptional ability.
Today, both games turned primarily on the catastrophes.
Starting with Ravens/Steelers, the Ravens were able to take control early thanks to this little foray into absurdity. In the second half, though, the Ravens took control of the catastrophe battle. The following five things happened, and the Ravens couldn't afford any of them:
• Ray Rice(notes) fumbled in his own territory after catching a short pass from Joe Flacco(notes). The Steelers cashed it in for seven.
• Joe Flacco was intercepted, again in his own territory, on a deep ball attempt to Todd Heap(notes). The Steelers cashed that in for seven, too.
• The Ravens mangled the center/quarterback exchange, and the Steelers pounced on the ball. They got three on that one.
• Anquan Boldin(notes) drops a ball that any NFL receiver should catch, costing the Ravens a touchdown.
• T.J. Houshmandzadeh(notes) contributes an inexcusable drop of his own, on a 4th and 18 that could have kept the Ravens hopes alive.
I don't know if there's a team if NFL history that could survive those five mistakes, all in the second half, and still win a playoff game. You just can't afford to make the big mistakes, especially in that volume, in a game where there's so little separation between the teams.
As far as the second game goes, the Packers likely would have won with or without the extraordinary plays, but two Falcons catastrophes at the end of the first half started the downward spiral.
Tramon Williams(notes) intercepted Matt Ryan(notes) once in the endzone when the score was 14-14, and the Packers turned that into a touchdown. With :10 to play in the half, Williams mugged Matt Ryan again and took it directly to the paint. That made it 28-14 going into halftime, and the Falcons spirit (and defense) had been crushed before the second half started.
Again, raw ability was a big factor in that Packers/Falcons game, too. Aaron Rodgers(notes) played on a level different from any other quarterback who took snaps yesterday, and Tramon Williams has been a revelation. In the end, the Packers won because they were better, but if the Falcons go into the half at 14-14, who knows how their confidence and gameplan may have been different in the final 30 minutes?
The Steelers were able to survive their own catastrophes only because the Ravens had more. The Falcons' early catastrophes essentially buried them. Sometimes, it's not about a hero saving the day. Sometimes, it's just about not stepping on your own toes.