NFL Season 101: Playoffs

Image courtesy The San Diego Tribune 

By Jack Cherico

The NFL super wildcard weekend was one of the most exciting weeks of the season, with numerous surprises and all games worthy of watching.

Colts-Bills: 

The game between the Colts and Bills was the earliest game of super wildcard weekend, and although it got hairy at times, it was a pretty convincing win for Buffalo. QB Josh Allen threw for 324 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for another score to give Buffalo the 27-24 win. For Indianapolis, the game was characterized by odd situational play-calling and missed opportunities. Wide receiver Michael Pittman dropped a would-be touchdown in the red zone on 4th down, and the Colts couldn’t capitalize on multiple aggressive play calls, such as a 2 point conversion attempt on the 1-yard line. Indianapolis was almost bailed out by the referees on the last drive when wide receiver Zach Paschall fumbled – after catching a pass and getting up to run with it. The referees ruled the fumble as down by contact, although Bills safety Jordan Poyer wasn’t shown to touch Paschall when he was on the ground. Nevertheless, the Colts couldn’t put something together on the final drive, and Buffalo moved onto the divisional round.

Rams-Seahawks:

The 2nd game of the Saturday window trifecta was an NFC west matchup between the Seahawks and Rams. Despite Seattle being favored, the Rams’ defense shut them down, even with the loss of  Aaron Donaldin in the 3rd quarter to a rib problem. Los Angeles even lost their current starter, John Wolford, who was hit in the head and neck area by Jamal “blitz boy” Adams. Quarterback Jared Goff, also injured with a broken thumb, had to play emergency QB and got the job done, although he had unimpressive stats (155 yards and a touchdown). Russell Wilson, who has struggled after a hot start to the season, was overwhelmed by the Rams defense, who had a pick-six on Wilson after a jumped flat route. Cornerback Jalen Ramsey also showed how he is the best corner in the league after shutting down receiver DK Metcalf for the third time this season. LA will face the Packers next week.

Washington Football Team-Tampa Bay:

The last Saturday game was a matchup between the NFC East winners, the Washington Football Team, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who have looked unstoppable in recent weeks. Washington’s greatest asset was their defensive line, led by rookie captain Chase Young, yet Tampa silenced him in the matchup. Tampa Bay even put tight end Rob Gronkowski against Young for a few plays, and Young couldn’t get to Tom Brady. Young said before the matchup that “he wants Tom,” but he couldn’t get any sacks on the day and was a non-factor. However, Washington showed some resilience, and although Brady threw for 381 yards and two touchdowns, Washington didn’t back down. The football team had to start the former quarterback of the XFL’s St Louis Battlehawks, Taylor Heinicke. Heinicke, who has bounced around practice squads across the league, namely the New England Patriots, Houston Texans, and Carolina Panthers, played well in relief of Alex Smith, who was out with a calf injury. Heinicke threw for 306 yards and had two touchdowns on the day, but it wasn’t enough to stifle the fifth seed in the NFC.

Sunday 

Ravens-Titans:

The Baltimore Ravens and the Tennessee Titans are one of the more interesting rivalries in the league today. The rivalry isn’t based on location or history; it’s just two teams that don’t like each other. Last season, when everyone thought it was a foregone conclusion that Baltimore would go to the AFC championship, Tennessee stunned Baltimore in the wild card. This season, the Ravens and Titans met again, with some more controversy. The Titans danced on the Baltimore logo at midfield, and head coach John Harbaugh took exception to the disrespect shown to his team. He and Titans coach Mike Vrabel got into a verbal argument after that, and Tennessee went on to win the game. Looking forward to this game, backup quarterback Robert Griffin III tweeted podcast host and former player Pat McAffee saying the Ravens were “looking to get their bike back.” Griffin is referring to a bully beating someone up and getting revenge on them. Baltimore did just that in the playoff game, holding 2,000-yard rusher Derrick Henry to only 40 rushing yards, while Lamar Jackson tore up the Titans on the ground for 136 yards and a touchdown. While the Titans were trying to mount a comeback, quarterback Ryan Tannehill threw a game-sealing interception to cornerback Marcus Peters. The latter promptly ran to the Titan’s logo and started dancing along with the rest of the team. Baltimore couldn’t have enjoyed the 20-13 victory any more, and they will face Buffalo next week.

Chicago-New Orleans:

The second Sunday game was the most boring out of the whole weekend, with the Chicago Bears taking on the New Orleans Saints. Chicago couldn’t get anything going, and New Orleans dominated the entire time. Although New Orleans only won 21-9, they dominated possession time and all offensive stats. The only exciting part of the game was that it was being broadcasted on Nickelodeon and CBS to promote the game to a younger audience. Putting the game on a children’s network appeared to be a good idea. I hope that the younger generation learns to love football as other kids my age have. New Orleans will take on Tampa bay next week.

Browns-Steelers:

The last game of super wildcard weekend was the AFC matchup between the Steelers and the Browns. Going into this game, the Steelers were expected to win, with Cleveland losing their head coach, Kevin Stefanski, and their best offensive lineman Joel Bitonio due to Covid restrictions. The Browns also barely beat the Steelers to sneak into the playoffs in Week 17, when the Steelers were resting their players in preparation for the game. However, the Browns had more passion and rallied behind a city accustomed to heartbreak and lack of playoff success. Steelers wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster, who has caused trouble all year for dancing on logos, said before the game, “they’re the same old Browns.” Cleveland showed they were not the same old Browns, as they forced four Ben Roethlisberger turnovers, scored 28 points in the first quarter, and won the Game 48-37. The Steelers were stunned, and the game would’ve been more of a blowout if Cleveland were less conservative in their play-calling after going up four touchdowns. Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt led the rushing attack for Cleveland, who is going into the next game against the Chiefs.

Divisional Round

The divisional round of the NFL season wasn’t filled with many surprises, but the games were very entertaining and set the stage for an amazing conference championship weekend.

Ravens-Bills: In the first game of the weekend the Baltimore Ravens took on the Buffalo Bills, who had their fans, Bills Mafia, in attendance and providing the noise and support that NFL teams have been missing all year. The game got off to a slow start, and although many thought It would be a high scoring offensive showstopper, both team’s defensive efforts were the real MVP. QB’s Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen were both held to under 210 total yards, and Allen only threw one touchdown to receiver Stefon Diggs. The momentum of the game was switching back and forth when Jackson threw a costly red-zone interception to Bills corner Taron Johnson, who took it to the house and gave the Bills a 17-3 lead. Jackson exited the game in the 4th quarter after a nasty hit with a concussion, and due to the Ravens’ other backups being on IR, undrafted rookie quarterback Tyler Huntley had to come in in relief of Lamar. He couldn’t rally the team, however, and Baltimore squeaked out of the playoffs. 

Chiefs-Browns; The Cleveland Browns, coming off of their first playoff win in 20 years, took on AFC front runner, the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs’ game plan, as usual, was characterized by gutsy play-calling from head coach Andy Reid. On multiple occasions, Reid would call a play that no one else in the stadium would’ve ever thought of. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes started off strong, and although I thought he would start off a little slow, as he hasn’t played in 21 days, he proved me wrong with 255 passing yards, with two total touchdowns. The Chiefs’ greatest asset is their way of keeping momentum, and they wouldn’t let Cleveland gain any ground in that department until much later in the game. Before halftime, Cleveland was trying to mount a solid drive, when safety Daniel Sorensen knocked the ball out from Cleveland receiver Rashard Higgins, who was trying to stretch the ball out to the goal line. Then, in the third quarter, Chiefs fans had to hold their breath, as the golden boy, Mahomes, went down with what seemed to be a concussion after a hit from linebacker Mack Wilson. Mahomes stumbled around after getting up, and was placed in concussion protocol. Backup QB Chad Henne, in his first playoff action, had to step in, and although his stats were subpar, with 6/8 completions for 66 yards and one interception in the end zone, he made the play of the night for KC. On third and 14 with 1;51 left in the 4th quarter, Henne rushed for a 13-yard gain, and put the Chiefs in position to seal the game with a 4th and 1 conversion, while the score was 22-17. Then, Reid drew up his most gutsy play of the night, with an out route on 4th and 1 to speedster Tyreek Hill, sealing the game, and punching the Chiefs’ ticket to their 3rd AFC championship game in as many years. 

Buccaneers-Saints:

This was a matchup I highlighted at the beginning of the year in my predictions article, and I thought these two teams would see each other in the playoffs after hard-fought seasons. For Saints fans, however, the pain is immense, as it was rumored that this would be quarterback Drew Brees’s last game at the New Orleans Superdome, due to his impending retirement. New Orleans, who are 99 million dollars over the cap, will have to gut their entire team, and either restructure contracts or cut players that take up too much money. In short, this game was a must-win for the Saints, who have very little chance of making another playoff run next year. On the opposing side, you have the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who are led by the greatest to ever play quarterback, Tom Brady. The Buccaneers have had a great regular season, but Brady isn’t focusing on that, and is looking for his 7th career Super Bowl championship. Brees did not have a stellar performance and ended with 134 yards, one touchdown, and three interceptions. Brady on the other hand threw for 199 yards and had three total touchdowns on the day, to sink the Saints 30-20. The Saints played a good game, but because of the turnovers by Brees, they couldn’t perform their usual gameplan of marching the ball down the field in 13 play drives. Alvin Kamara was stifled by the Buccaneers’ run defense and only had 85 rushing yards. 

Rams-Packers:

Going into this game, everyone around the league was excited for the matchup between Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey and Packers receiver Davante Adams. Both players are seen as the best in their position by most, and it was great to watch two titans duke it out. Adams had 24 yards and four receptions when up against Ramsey, as well as a touchdown, but Adams was in motion across the field on the 3-yard line, and there wasn’t much Ramsey could’ve done to stop the reception. Although the Rams had heart, Aaron Rodgers has come into the season with a chip on his shoulder and does not appear to be backing down any time soon. The projected MVP threw for 296 yards and had three total touchdowns in a 32-18 win. As for the Rams, they were missing defensive lineman Aaron Donald throughout the game, who was playing through a rib injury, which hobbled their front seven. QB Jared Goff, still nursing a thumb injury, had a decent day going  21/27 with 174 passing yards, but couldn’t inspire LA to beat the Pack. 

Conference Championships:

NFC: 

The NFC conference championship was a matchup between some of the greatest quarterbacks ever to do it, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. The 13-5 Buccaneers went into Green Bay and its 25-degree-Fahrenheit weather and gave the Packers their first loss in seven games and Rodger’s 4th loss in conference championships. The first half was all Buccaneers, with Tampa Bay jumping out to a 7-0 lead in the first quarter, and then the theatrics started. Buccaneers corner Sean Murphy-Bunting picked off Rodgers, and with a 4th down conversion by Tampa earlier in the drive, the Buccaneers stood at the Green Bay 39-yard line with eight seconds left. Brady did what he does best and found his target with a 40-yard touchdown lob to receiver Scotty Miller, with only one second left on the clock. To start the 3rd quarter, the momentum would stay with Tampa, as a forced fumble of running back Aaron Jones set up a Brady touchdown pass to tight end Cameron Brate and a 28-10 scoreline. Green Bay answered with two Rodgers touchdown passes off three Brady interceptions, two of which by shutdown corner Jaire Alexander. There were two controversies to end the game, one of which was a questionable play call by head coach Matt LaFleur. The Packers needed a touchdown and a field goal, but instead of going for it on fourth down to try for the TD, Lefleur kicked the field goal, and the Packers couldn’t get the ball back to try and score the go-ahead TD. I didn’t see a problem with this, as the touchdown conversion attempt had only a 33% success rate and a 10% expected win percentage, as opposed to a 98% success rate kicking the ball and a 9% expected win percentage. However, the argument is that you should put the ball in the hands of a top-five QB all time. The second controversy was a pass interference call on Green Bay corner Kevin King, a pull of the jersey that impeded the receiver’s path to the ball. The Buccaneers needed a first down to seal the game, and the penalty advanced the chains, but people were angry because the referees called a lenient match to this point. The other times pass interference wasn’t called, there was no one side getting an advantage over the hand to hand contact while going up for the ball, which led to no called PI’s. Tampa Bay heads to the super bowl at their home stadium of Raymond James after their 31-26 win, something that never has been done before. 

AFC: 

The AFC conference championship was meeting the two current best QB’s in the conference, Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen. Both of these field generals have put up MVP caliber numbers this year and are 2nd and 3rd in most voters’ eyes for the coveted MVP award, behind Rodgers. Mahomes, coming out of the concussion protocol, has shown that no injury will stop the Texas Tech Product, who led his team to their third AFC championship in the three years he’s been the starter. However, Allen and the Bills have also earned their spot in the chip, with the chemistry between him and his new receiver, Stefon Diggs, being a significant reason for Buffalo’s whole city and the country rallying behind them. The game started with a 9-0 scoreline to the Bills, but Mahomes rallied to 21 unanswered points in the second quarter as he usually does. The Bills just weren’t themselves this game, and although Allen finished with 287 yards and two touchdowns, the Bills defense couldn’t contain tight end Travis Kelce, who had 13 receptions, 118 yards, and two touchdowns. Towards the end of the game, penalty flags were thrown after two Bills linemen got in a shoving match with a Chiefs linebacker, who took exception to Allen tossing a ball at him on the ground. It took five minutes for the referees to determine all penalties offset and to replay the down. The game finished at a 38-24 scoreline, and It was a sad end for a Buffalo team that hasn’t had any playoff success in recent years. Although Allen couldn’t lead the Bills to another win, I have a feeling Orchard Park will see a lot more playoff appearances shortly.

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