Wild card weekend was.. decent, I guess? The games were entertaining, but the quality of play (and officiating) left something to be desired.
It began with a Saturday evening comeback that could instead be viewed as a horrendously blown lead. Atlanta got the road upset, the Saints hung on, and the Jags and Bills played one of the worst playoff games in recent memory, unless you really, really appreciate defense.
The Eagles get the Falcons this weekend, which I think most people agreed was the best possible matchup for Nick Foles and company. We’ll break that down in a separate post.
But if we’re looking for one overarching theme, I’d say that the Birds should feel good about their playoff chances, since I wasn’t overly impressed by what either NFC winner did this week.
1) Situational football
The difference in the Atlanta/LA matchup was the Falcons’ smart game management and mix of plays. They controlled the ball for 37:35 while the NFL’s best offense only had it for 22:25.
The Falcons used 33 called running plays and 36 passing plays, three of which became sacks and three that turned into scrambles. When they did toss it, they kept it short, throwing for about four air yards per pass. It was a balanced output that took advantage of two Los Angeles special teams turnovers, allowing the Falcons to jump out to a 13-0 lead.
That was experience on display, with a #6 seed going on the road but showing the same smarts and savvy that took them to last year’s Super Bowl.
2) Dirty bird defense
Todd Gurley finished with 14 carries for 101 yards. Robert Woods had 9 receptions for 142 yards. Cooper Kupp grabbed 8 for 69 and a score. LA finished with 40 more yards than Atlanta.
But the Falcons won in other areas, limiting Gurley to four catches for just 10 yards, which was his third-lowest total on the season. Sammy Watkins had one snag for 28 yards. Combined, the pair mustered only 38 receiving yards on 14 total targets. That’s inefficiency right there, with just 14.6% Jared Goff’s yardage coming on 31% of his attempts.
The Rams went 5-14 on third down for a 35.7% success rate, well below the 41.1 number that placed them top-10 in the regular season. And they were just 1-3 on 4th down.
The Falcons have a smaller and faster defense that moves well in space and makes big plays. Defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel was a journeyman safety who played eight NFL seasons and worked as a Seattle assistant during the Legion of Boom era. He should start getting some national recognition for the job he’s doing in Atlanta.
3) Jared Goff
He’s a player. He’ll be around for a long time, leading a young team with a young coach that has talent on both sides of the ball. I think the turnovers put the Rams behind the eight ball, a squad with zero playoff experience, let alone playing from behind.
But even during the comeback attempt, he was throwing into some tight areas that would make Hall of Famers blush.
This was one of the best passes of the entire NFL weekend, with Goff stepping through the pocket on a third and 10 in his own territory:
— NFL (@NFL) January 7, 2018
And a freeze frame, just for good measure:
Jared Goff fit this into the smallest possible window pic.twitter.com/wOz7xI9BC5
— SB Nation NFL (@SBNationNFL) January 7, 2018
Nick Foles would run backwards and sideways there and probably take a sack or throw it out of bounds.
4) Who dat?
Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram contributed 68 scrimmage yards and the Saints still won.
There was a first half surge where I thought New Orleans might blow Carolina out of the water, but that wasn’t the case at all. This game was closer than predicted.
Drew Brees picked up the slack through the air, going for 376 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception on a highly questionable 4th and 2 call at the end of the game. That was Sean Payton trying to ice it with about two minutes left, which almost backfired badly.
But the Saints’ defense forced an intentional grounding and finished with a sack on the Panthers’ final drive, doing enough to get the job done against a Carolina team that came in with a good game plan.
More than anything, I wasn’t floored by the New Orleans performance. I still think they’re a difficult matchup for the Eagles, but here’s a team that lost five games in 2017 and didn’t appear to be the well-oiled machine we’re used to seeing out there. Their trip to Minnesota is probably the best matchup of the divisional round.
5) Panthers and protocol
They started strong, then dropped a touchdown, missed a field goal, and quickly found themselves down 14-3.
Credit to Carolina though, I thought they might get clobbered, but they fought back to within a score and had a chance to win it at the end.
I think the division rival narrative was a little underplayed here. Sure, the Saints beat the Panthers twice in the regular season, but three wins against a team you see more frequently than others is somewhat difficult to pull off.
Cam Newton finished 24-40 for 349 yards and two touchdowns. There was an outcry from Twitter doctors after he appeared to play through a fourth-quarter concussion, but Newton said that wasn’t the case after this play:
Cam Newton just hit a brick wall. pic.twitter.com/wHc3VicfhF
— 360°FantasyFootball (@360FFB) January 8, 2018
Newton explained that he was poked in the eye, as the contact made his helmet come down over his forehead, and disputed the idea that he was concussed.
That seems to be contradicted by this video:
This "Cam Newton's visor poked him in the eye" is the greatest storyline in the history of sports. And I'm saying that as a former WWE wrestler. Watch the video, you don't collapse after that him because you need ice on your face. It's a #concussion. pic.twitter.com/fgsMiai3et
— Chris Nowinski, Ph.D. (@ChrisNowinski1) January 8, 2018
But that could also be embellishment to buy time for the backup quarterback to warm up on the sidelines, right?
I don’t know. I really don’t know. Newton looked pretty good on the field after that, and I’m just a guy sitting at home, watching on TV, so that’s how qualified I am to pass judgment here.
6) Terrible quarterback play
Buffalo vs. Jacksonville had the feeling of a 1 p.m. Week 3 game, with two of the NFL’s worst signal callers squaring off.
Tyrod Taylor finished 17-37 for 134 yards and an interception.
Blake Bortles was 12-23 for 87 yards and a touchdown.
Both were starting their first playoff game and both were pretty pitiful, but Bortles did some improvisational damage with 88 rushing yards on 10 attempts. That was probably the difference, as Jacksonville eventually found the red zone and scored on a one-yard, play action pass.
You could hear Tony Romo going through various stages of anguish having to call this game. Romo, who played in just six playoff games during his career, was assigned a Taylor/Bortles game in his first color commentary postseason gig.
Talk about rough:
7) Jacksonville Jag-wires
Of the remaining teams, they most resemble the Eagles, a squad with an excellent defense and suspect QB play.
They beat the Steelers 30-9 back in Week 5 on the strength of five interceptions. Jacksonville’s defense has held opponents to 10 or fewer points nine times this season. They are legit in every way.
Here’s a stat worth mentioning, courtesy of ESPN:
“Since drafting Ben Roethlisberger in 2004, the Steelers have a losing home record against two teams (including playoffs). Those teams are the Patriots (2-5)…..and the Jaguars (1-4).”
And those are the two squads the Steelers have to go through to get to the Super Bowl. Both won at Heinz Field this season.
I’d be stunned if Jacksonville does it again this weekend, but the box score and theme from that game wasn’t entirely dissimilar from what happened yesterday. Bortles was 8-14 for 95 yards and an interception. But the Jags’ ground game was working, and Leonard Fournette ripped off 181 yards and 2 touchdowns on 28 carries back in Week 5, while Pittsburgh did this:
Jax has proven they can win while Bortles plays like shit, so we’ll see if their defense can get it done for a second time this season in Pittsburgh.
8) The Bills Mafia
I respect the enthusiasm of a fan base that hadn’t been to the playoffs in forever.
And when you jump through flaming tables in the parking lot, that’s wild, too.
But when Bill Cowher does it during the pregame show, it’s probably dead:
— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) January 7, 2018
Buffalo needs a franchise quarterback. I’m not sure who it is.
9) Marcus Mariota
Speaking of franchise quarterbacks, does that label apply to Marcus Mariota? He went 7-7 on third down in the second half against Kansas City, shaking off a poor first half and completing a 19-0 run to steal a win on the road.
Mariota’s first career playoff touchdown pass was thrown to himself:
Marcus Mariota just caught his own pass for a @Titans TD!!
— NFL (@NFL) January 6, 2018
Gisele Bundchen once said, “My husband cannot fucking throw the ball and catch the ball at the same time,” which no longer holds true, apparently.
But in all seriousness, Mariota was impressive in the second half. He made some plays, Derrick Henry ran the ball like a beast, and the QB actually threw a great block on the clock-killing final drive:
10) Gotta do a better job
Andy Reid has now lost 13 playoff games.
He’s 1-7 in his last eight postseason games.
Saturday, his team blew an 18-point first half lead.
I’m not a guy who cheers against Andy. I appreciate what he did in Philadelphia, even if he never won the Super Bowl.
Yeah, Alex Smith could have made a few second half plays. Yeah, the drops hurt the offense. Yeah, Travis Kelce was sorely missed. And the defense was not the same in the 3rd and 4th quarters.
But when you’re winning by multiple scores and Kareem Hunt finishes with 11 carries, it’s indefensible.
Feel bad for Andy Reid. I mean, it's hard to get the ball to your running back when you're only leading by two scores for most of the game pic.twitter.com/QLnByqiydS
— Ryan McCrystal (@Ryan_McCrystal) January 7, 2018
Also, the worst call of the weekend (and there were many) took place during this game, when a Mariota fumble was somehow overturned because his “forward progress” was stopped during a sack.
If this isn’t a fumble, then 50% of NFL turnovers have been incorrectly ruled over the past 35 years:
Derrick Johnson crunches Mariota. Drive ends in a Tennessee field goal after a shoulda been fumble recovery by KC. pic.twitter.com/IRVAXar7sW
— Chiefs Kingdom (@ChiefsKingdomCP) January 6, 2018
I don’t know how NFL officiating becomes progressively worse, year after year.