Whether the sport was baseball or football, 2003 was the year for the divisional round–the round of eight–to produce some big-time drama. We chronicled the doings of the 2003 MLB playoffs. Now let’s move to the 2003 NFL playoffs.
The four games of the second round, played over the second weekend in January, produced two overtime games, another that came down to the last possession and even the “worst” of the four games produced the most points and a game competitive in the fourth quarter.
We’ll go over the teams involved, and then look at how the games broke down…
Philadelphia (12-4): After losing the NFC Championship Game the previous two years, the Eagles were back for more behind the seventh-ranked defense in the league.
Defensive coordinator Jim Johnson had only one Pro Bowler–tackle Corey Simon–but was able to get consistent pressure from any angle. Donovan McNabb led an offense good enough to win.
St. Louis (12-4): Mike Martz’s Greatest Show On Turf was back, but Kurt Warner was gone, now replaced by Marc Bulger. Even though Bulger threw 22 interceptions and Marshall Faulk was showing wear and tear, the Rams got big years from Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt. They also had Pro Bowlers in both trenches with offensive tackle Orlando Pace and defensive end Leonard Little, who had 12.5 sacks.
Carolina (11-5): Nothing about the Panthers overwhelmed you, but they played pretty good defense and got a 1,400-yard season from Stephen Davis running the ball.
Green Bay (10-6): Brett Favre threw for 32 touchdowns against 21 interceptions, while Ahman Green ran for over 1,800 yards, and the Packers had the fourth-best offense in the NFL. The defense was led by lineman Kabeer-Gbaja Biamla, known as simply “KGB” to Packer fans. KGB finished the year with ten sacks.
New England (14-2): This was a still a defense-first operation, as a unit with Richard Seymour, Willie McGinest, Ty Law and Rodney Harrison was the best in the league. Tom Brady was on the rise to superstar status, but he still functioned in subordination to the D.
Kansas City (13-3): Dick Vermeil took over the Chiefs and promptly turned them into a winner, but Trent Green into a machine at quarterback. Green threw for over 4,000 yards, Tony Gonzalez was becoming a big-time tight end and Priest Holmes ran for over 1,400 yards. Kansas City had the top offense in the NFL, but the 19th-ranked defense held them back.
Indianapolis (12-4): Peyton Manning won a share of first MVP award, throwing for over 4,200 yards, producing 29 touchdowns having just ten interceptions. Peyton was part of a Big Three in Indy that included running back Edgerrin James and wide receiver Marvin Harrison, who each exceeded 1,200 yards. The defense was a problem, ranking 20th, but Dwight Freeney was a playmaker who recorded 11 sacks.
Tennessee (12-4): Steve McNair had his best season as a pro, winning the other half of the 2003 NFL MVP award .McNair was efficient, with a 24-7 TD/INT ratio, over 3,200 yards in passing and leading the #5 offense in the NFL. His favorite target was Derrick Mason and Eddie George was a 1,000-yard rusher. A balanced defense had a tough front four that included Kevin Carter, Albert Haynesworth and Jevon Kearse.
This are shown in the order the games were played, starting late Saturday afternoon…
Carolina 29 St. Louis 23 (2 OT): The Panthers led 10-9 at the half and each team swapped field goals over 50 yards in the third quarter. Carolina seemed to have control at 23-13, but St. Louis first closed it to 23-20 and then drove to the Panther 25-yard line with 1:24 left. It was there for the Rams to win it, but they settled for a field goal and we went to overtime.
Each team had a chance at a field goal, with Carolina missing from 45 and St. Louis from 53. The first overtime ended with the game still tied. Panther quarterback Jake Delhomme had the ball on his own 31-yard line to start the second OT. On the first play from scrimmage, he threw a slant to Steve Smith over the middle and Smith broke it for a touchdown that gave Carolina the upset.
New England 17 Tennessee 14: Prime-time from Foxboro was frigid, and the Titans’ defense forced Brady into a 21/41 showing that netted just 201 pass yards. The game was tied 4-14 after three quarters.
Patriot kicker Adam Vinateri hit a 46-yard field goal with 4:11 to play. While this wasn’t as impressive as his 45-yarder in a blizzard to beat the Oakland Raiders in this same round two years earlier, the task of kicking a ball in 4-degree weather had to be miserable.
Tennessee wasn’t done and they drove to the New England 33-yard line with a chance to tie. But on 2nd-and-3, McNair was whistled for intentional grounding. Out of field goal range, the Titans were stopped.
Indianapolis 38 Kansas City 31: Manning got the Colts out to a 21-10 lead at halftime, but a short run by Holmes cut the lead to 24-17. Even when Indy responded with another touchdown, Kansas City got a 92-yard kickoff return to bring it back to 31-24. A Colts’ touchdown early in the fourth again threatened to ice it, but the Chiefs’ scored with 4:25 left. Their defense continued to catch up to them though, as Peyton’s offense was able to kill the rest of the clock.
Philadelphia 20 Green Bay 17 (OT): This is a game that will live in infamy for Packer fans. Favre hit Robert Ferguson for two early touchdowns and with a 14-zip lead, Green Bay was poised to topple the #1 seed. Philadelphia chipped back and tied it up though as the game went to the fourth quarter.
Green Bay drove to the Philly 7-yard line and had 1st-and-goal. They couldn’t cash it in and had to settle for a field goal. It still looked like it might stand up. The Packers had a 4th-and-1 on the Eagles 41-yard line with 2:30 left and were in position to clinch the game if they risked going for it. Head coach Mike Sherman opted to punt.
The decision couldn’t have gone worse. It ended up a touchback and then Eagle running back Duce Staley gained 22 yards on the first play, putting Philadelphia right where they would have been had Green Bay gone for it and failed. Even so, the Packers still got themselves in position when they forced Philly into a 4th-and-26.
What happened next is inexplicable. McNabb dropped back and receiver Freddie Mitchell floated over the middle, virtually uncontested and making a catch for a 28-yard gain that kept the game alive. Not until nine years later, when Baltimore Ravens receiver Jacoby Jones got behind the Denver Broncos secondary in the final minute of a game Denver led 35-28, have we seen a receiver get open this easily on a play where the defense could give away everything underneath.
The Eagles tied the game, but to start overtime the Green Bay defense held and gave the ball to Favre. The quarterback promptly made the worst pass of his career–and for all his achievements that covers some broad ground. Under pressure, Favre hurled a no-look pass high in the air all the way across the field. There aren’t too many good endings coming out of that decision and this one ended up an interception, and ultimately a game-winning field goal for Philadelphia.
Philadelphia’s magic ride didn’t materialize and they lost at home to Carolina in the NFC Championship Game. New England outmuscled Indianapolis in a snowy day in the AFC title game, before the Patriots won their second Super Bowl in three years. Just as they had in 2001, New England got a last-play field goal from Vinateri to break a tie game, winning this one 33-30.