Following wild card weekend, Eric Weddle and the San Diego Chargers have to like where they are headed next, while the heartache cut to a new level of depth for Alex Smith and the Kansas City Chiefs.
It's been quite the season for the pair of former University of Utah stars.
The free safety Weddle was voted to attend the Pro Bowl for the second time in his career, after tallying 115 tackles, two interceptions, one sack and a forced fumble during the regular season. The quarterback Smith took the starting job at Kansas City after being traded from San Francisco and led his Chiefs to a 9-0 start in 2013 while throwing for 3,313 yards, 23 touchdowns and seven interceptions this season.
Now, Weddle and the Chargers set to face fellow NFC West for Denver on Sunday in the divisional playoffs after beating Cincinnati 27-10 in wild card action. Yet while Smith had a career game against Indianapolis in their wild-card matchup, it all became bittersweet when the Colts completed the second-largest rally in NFL playoff history in a 45-44 thriller.
By his own standards, Weddle had a quiet but solid game against the Bengals, recording five tackles and a pass deflection to give another former Ute, Mike McCoy, his first career playoff victory as a head coach. The Chargers' defense forced Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton into three turnovers, a catalyst in San Diego's ability to outscore Cincinnati 20-0 in the second half.
"Shoot man, what a win — team win. Words can't really explain," Weddle told reporters after the game that ended the Chargers' three-year postseason drought. "It's been so long that I'm kind of just enjoying it, trying to embrace everything after this — the emotions, the energy — but also looking forward to Denver."
This came one week after the Chargers needed a victory — and some help — just to make the playoffs. During a 27-24 overtime victory over the Chiefs in Week 17, Weddle successfully converted a fake punt in overtime to keep San Diego's hopes alive.
Now, with a wild card victory over the Bengals under their belt, the Chargers are preparing for the Broncos, the top playoff seed in the AFC.
"We're not satisfied with this, we're ready to move on and get on to Denver," Weddle said.
For Smith and Kansas City, though, the questions and what-if scenarios are just beginning, after the team fought through several injuries against Indianapolis only to fall a point short of advancing.
Even in defeat, however, Smith played a stellar game, completing 30-of-46 passes for 378 yards and four touchdowns while leading Kansas City to a 38-10 just over a minute into the third quarter. He also finished with 57 rushing yards and a 119.7 QB rating.
Unfortunately, Colts quarterback Andrew Luck made the final statement, shaking off three interceptions to throw four touchdown passes, including the game-winning 64-yarder to T.Y. Hilton with 4:21 to play.
"Any time you're leading like that and have them battle back and take it, losing by a point, it's tough, a tough pill to swallow," Smith said in the postgame press conference.
After a strong start, the Chiefs' offense sputtered in the latter part of the game. Kansas City scored on six of its first seven possessions, including five touchdowns. In its final six possessions, however, the team scored just twice on field goals.
According to Fox Sports, Smith is the first quarterback to throw four touchdowns with no interceptions in a playoff game and come up on the losing end.
"You know, I certainly think you use this as drive," Smith said in an end-of-season press conference one day after the game. "I think it’s good to be playing in these types of games. I think these types of games are contagious.
"You go back to playing in just regular season games, you want that itch, you have that urge to try to get to these types of games, these playoff games — the stage, the feeling is just so much different. With that, I think you use it."
Other locals in the NFL playoffs
Several other players with local ties were on teams playing in wild card weekend:
Sean Smith (Utah), Kansas City cornerback: Had four tackles and a pass deflection in the Chiefs' loss.
Stanley Havili (Cottonwood High), Indianapolis fullback: Had a special teams assisted tackle in the Colts' win.
Brad Sorensen (Southern Utah), San Diego quarterback: Was not active in the Chargers' win.
Jarrett Bush (Utah State), Green Bay defensive back: Had one tackle in the Packers' 23-20 loss to the 49ers.
Curtis Marsh (Utah State), Philadelphia cornerback: Was not active for the Eagles' 26-24 loss to the Saints.
Joe Kruger (Utah, Pleasant Grove High), Philadelphia defensive lineman: Did not play/on injured reserve.
Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @brandonljudd
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company