The 2017 NFL Season Wild Card Round is now complete and it was an interesting weekend of football. There was a historic collapse by a team that is all too familiar with that heartbreak, a defending NFC Champion that looks primed to make a deep run, the most boring game in the history of the NFL and a heavyweight fight in New Orleans. Here are my thoughts on all four games, recapping what I think went right for the winning team and where the losing team goes from here.
1) Tennessee Titans 22 at Kansas City Chiefs 21 – The Tennessee Titans did not look like a playoff team most of the regular season and they definitely did not look like one in the first half of the Wild Card Round. The Titans trailed the Chiefs 21-3 at the half and their first half drives resulted in a punt, punt, punt, interception and a field goal. They gained 119 yards of offense in the first half and it looked like they were going to be answering questions about how an offense that looked so promising in the preseason could be this terrible against a Chiefs D that was 15th in points allowed and 28th in yards allowed.
However, the Titans did something very improbable in the second half. Teams have comeback from 18 points in the playoffs before this game. The New England Patriots overcame a 25-point deficit in the Super Bowl last year. It seems like we see teams overcome big deficits every postseason. What was shocking is that the Titans were able to comeback from an 18 point half time deficit on the road. The last NFL team to overcome that big of a deficit on the road was the 1957 Detroit Lions. They trailed the San Francisco 49ers 27-7 in the second half before coming back and winning the game 31-27.
Think about the epic comebacks that have occurred in the playoffs. The Buffalo Bills overcoming 35-3 to beat the Houston Oilers 41-38 in 1993. The Indianapolis Colts overcoming 38-10 against the Kansas City Chiefs to win 45-44 in 2013. The San Francisco 49ers overcoming 38-14 against the New York Giants to win 39-38 in 2002. All of those teams made those epic comebacks at home. This 18-point comeback was historic, because it was the road team that made the daunting comeback.
The Titans started the comeback by starting the second half with a 15-play drive that covered 91 yards and ate up 8:29 seconds on the clock. The Chiefs responded with a three and out and the Titans fumbled the punt return. The Chiefs ran four more plays for negative two yards and missed a field goal. That was the turning point in the game, as the Titans scored a touchdown, forced a punt and scored a touchdown after that missed field goal. Had the Chiefs converted the field goal, it probably is a different game.
The Titans were fortunate. A quarterback’s first touchdown pass in the playoffs is not normally to himself, but that is what Titans QB Marcus Mariota did in the third quarter. They fumbled a punt, but recovered with a quick stop and a missed field goal. They finally were able to establish the run in the second half and RB Derrick Henry finished the game with 23 carries for 156 yards and a touchdown. He almost fumbled the ball trying to run out the clock and it was returned for a touchdown. It was overturned, as he was down by contact and a couple plays later he ran out the clock and the game was over. A lot of things went right for the Titans to complete the epic comeback.
They are going to have a tough time winning in New England. They are not going to be able to trail 21-3 at the half there and expect to win. QB Marcus Mariota is going to have to do better than 205 yards passing, 6.6 yards per pass attempt, two touchdowns and one pick. Their defense is going to have come up big against a rested and experienced Tom Brady. However, for a half they played some of their best football in an important spot and they won their first playoff game since they beat the Baltimore Ravens 20-17 in Baltimore back in 2003. They are a young team that is improving and it was a big step for them to earn this playoff victory. Even if they lose in New England next week, this win gives them something to build on for 2018.
As for the Chiefs, I am not sure where they go from here. The easy thing to do is blame QB Alex Smith, but the stats would say he was by far the least of their worries. He was 24 for 33 with 264 yards, 8.0 YPA, two touchdowns, no picks and a QB rating of 116.2. It is very similar to what happened to him in the Wild Card Round back in 2013. In that loss to Indianapolis, he was 30 for 46 with 378 yards passing, four touchdowns, no picks and a QB rating of 119.7.
The problem in this game is that almost all of his production came in the first half. He had only 33 yards passing in the second half, which was a big reason the Chiefs surrendered that big lead. It was not the only reason though. Smith had not begun to decline to open the second half, because the Titans received the kickoff. Smith did not give up the 91-yard drive to open the second half nor did he miss the field goal after the fumble recovery. A great recipe for destroying a quarterbacks rhythm is have him sit on the sideline for over eight minutes after having already sitting for halftime. That was a disastrous drive surrendered by the Chiefs D and helped change the tide in that game.
Smith also was not the running back that finished the game with 11 carries for 42 yards and one touchdown. RB Kareem Hunt did not have a very good day and that is surprising seeing this team was up 21-3 in the second half. How this team ran the ball only 16 times for 69 yards with that type of lead is mind-boggling and while Alex Smith plays quarterback, he does not call his own plays.
Alex Smith is a good quarterback. He is good enough to be a starter in the league; he just led the NFL in QB rating this year with a rating of 104.7. He did that averaging a league high 8.6 adjusted yards per attempt, a league low 1.0 interception percentage and a completion percentage of 67.5. There are about 15 teams that would be ecstatic to upgrade their team substantially with Smith behind center. If Kansas City decides to move on from him, he will find work immediately.
The question is can you win a Super Bowl with him. It does not appear the Chiefs can, because they are (1-4) in the playoffs since he joined the team in 2013 and they have the second biggest blown lead in playoff history and the largest blown playoff lead at home since 1957. Their playoff losses have been by one point, two points, seven points and one point. Their last two-playoff losses have been at home, which extends their NFL record of six consecutive playoff losses at home.
As easy as it is to blame Smith, I think the person that deserves more blame is head coach Andy Reid. Here is the simple fact; Reid’s inability to manage the clock comes back to kill this team in playoff games season after season. It was bad enough blowing the second largest lead in postseason history in 2013. That should have been a learning experience for him. Instead, he mismanaged the clock in their 2015 road Divisional Round Loss to New England and their 2016 home Divisional loss to Pittsburgh. This latest mismanagement puts him in unique company. Per Adam Teicher of ESPN.com, Reid’s two blown leads of 18 points or more in the playoffs are as many as every other coach in the NFL since 1933.
Think about all the bad head coaches that have experienced repeated failure in the playoffs. Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis is (0-7) in the playoffs. Former Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints head coach Jim Mora was (0-6). Kansas City Chiefs head coach Marty Schottenheimer was (5-13) in the playoffs and his teams became know for playing Marty Ball, a style of ball that resulted in heartbreaking playoff defeats. None of them have done what Reid has managed to accomplish by blowing an 18-point and 28-point playoff lead in his coaching career.
Let’s look at the play calling in the second half. After they gave up a touchdown to still lead 21-10, they ran a pass play on first down (incomplete), a running play to Hunt for nine yards and a running play to Smith for -1 yard. They punted and recovered the fumble and ran the ball for -1 yard, threw a short pass for -2 yards and a run for one yard. After they missed the field goal and gave up a touchdown, they ran three pass plays and two running plays for 21 yards and punted again. That would be the last time they led in the game.
Andy Reid is supposed to be an offensive guru, but in the big moments in the second half, his team could not move the ball. TE Travis Kelce leaving late in the second quarter with a concussion definitely altered the game. The offense was not the same after he left. He just cannot lose that game, even with the Kelce concussion. With Kelce gone, they should have been able to focus more on the running game and yet Hunt saw five carries in the second half of a game they led 21-3. That is unacceptable play calling and execution by the Chiefs.
Since the Eagles lost in the NFC Championship Game in 2008, Andy Reid is (1-5) in the playoffs. Just because he had a lot of success in Philadelphia early in his career does not mean he is above blame for what has happened to his teams from 2009 to present. He manages the clock terribly, his offense dies for long stretches of games and he has presided over two epic choke jobs in the second half where his team surrendered the second largest lead in playoff history and blew the biggest home lead in the playoffs since 1957.
The Chiefs are probably not going to bail on Reid. They just signed him to a contract extension this off-season and they are probably going to trade Alex Smith this off-season and move on to Patrick Mahomes. I do not think the Chiefs are going to want to go with a new head coach coaching a quarterback he did not draft. They are not going to want that situation for a quarterback starting for the first time in his second season. Reid should have another chance to comeback and choke in the playoffs again.
Smith may not have been as much to blame for this loss as Reid, but they did not trade two first round picks to move up in the draft last year to draft Mahomes so that he could sit on the bench for a quarterback that is (1-4) in the playoffs. However, Reid had better make the playoffs and win next year, because the GM has been fired, the quarterback is likely gone and if things don’t change with Mahomes; the only thing left to change is the head coach. Andy Reid has won 11 playoff games in his career, but he has lost 13 playoff games and only one win has come since 2009. He cannot keep losing big leads in epic fashion in the playoffs and expect to keep his job.
2) Atlanta Falcons 26 at Los Angeles Rams 13 – I do not think people realize how good this Atlanta defense has been this year. The Falcons are eighth in points allowed, ninth in yards allowed, 12th in passing yards allowed, ninth in rushing yards allowed and 13th in sacks. They held the New Orleans Saints to 17 and 23 points, the Carolina Panthers to 20 and 10 points, the Green Bay Packers with QB Aaron Rodgers to 23 points and the New England Patriots to 23 points.
This defense really only had only one bad game this year, when they allowed their only 30-point game in a 34-31 win at Seattle. They only gave up more than 400 yards three times. This defense was consistently good from Week 1 to Week 17 and in games where the Falcons scored 20 points, they were (10-0). It probably was not good analysis to assume that the Los Angeles Rams, with no playoff experience would just fleece the Falcons D in the Wild Card Round, even if the game was in Los Angeles.
The Falcons did not do anything flashy on defense. LA Rams RB Todd Gurley had his 100-yard game, but he had only 14 carries for 101 yards and was never able to leave his mark on the game. They made the Rams a pass first team and QB Jared Goff was held to 24 completions in 45 attempts for 259 yards, one touchdown, no picks and a QB rating of 77.9. The Rams were just five for 14 on third down; one for three on fourth down and the Falcons controlled the clock 37:35 to 22:25.
That was in large part to the Falcons having 39 rushing attempts and winning the turnover battle 2-0. RB Devonta Freeman was nothing spectacular with 18 carries for 66 yards and one touchdown nor was RB Tevin Coleman with 14 carries for 40 yards and no touchdowns. QB Matt Ryan did not put up video game numbers, he was just 21 of 30 for 218 yards, one touchdown and no picks and a QB rating of 101.8. They made the plays when they needed to and dominated the time of possession. They survived and advanced on the road against one of the best offenses in the NFL.
They have to play the Philadelphia Eagles next week and if QB Carson Wentz were healthy, I would be picking the Falcons. He is not healthy, QB Nick Foles will be under center and he is going to have his hands full against this defense. If the Falcons defense shows up again next week and the Falcons play efficient football, it is very likely they will be in the NFC Championship Game for the second straight year.
That is a vast improvement from where they were five weeks ago. After Week 13, they were (7-5) and faced a brutal schedule playing New Orleans twice and Carolina once. There were concerns they might not even make the postseason. Now they are an early three-point favorite to defeat Philadelphia and play in the NFC Championship Game.
As for the Rams, I do not think the Rams necessarily did anything wrong in this game. Gurley was able to gain 100 yards rushing and Goff did not throw a pick. I would say the only player that looked overwhelmed by the moment was Pro Bowl returner Pharoh Cooper, who looked like he was returning punts for the first time all year and his fumble early in the second quarter, led to the Falcons taking a 13-0 lead that they would never relinquish.
The Falcons looked like a team that played in the Super Bowl last year, had been playing must-win football for the better part of a month against tough competition and were ready to seize the moment and win Ryan’s first road playoff game. The Rams looked like they were playing an October primetime game coming off their bye week. Winning playoff games in the NFL is hard. There are 20 teams that do not make the playoffs and four teams did not win this weekend. Assuming that all four home teams win next weekend, the most teams that can win one playoff game in a postseason are eight or 25 percent of the league.
The Rams have a nice window opening up for them. Goff is entering his third year and is going to turn 24-years old in October. RB Todd Gurley is turning 24-years old in August. They did not have a skill position player on offense that was over 30-years old this year. The oldest player that they rely on at the skill positions is WR Tavon Austin and he turns 26-years old. I would not even say they rely on Austin that much anymore, he did not have the impact on the offense that he had back in 2015. They have a lot of flexibility to improve the offensive line and the defense, because the core of their skill position players is so young.
They have to do better next time around and they should do better the next time around. Nothing is guaranteed for next year and young teams do not always improve, just look at the Oakland Raiders this year. I do not see that happening to the Rams, because I think rookie head coach Sean McVay is one of the more innovative head coaches in the NFL. He kind of reminds me of Sean Payton taking the league by storm in 2006 and advancing to the NFC Championship Game.
Keep in mind Payton would miss the playoffs in 2007 and 2008 before winning the Super Bowl in 2009. I do not think the Rams are a lock to make it back to the playoffs next year, because things might not bounce their way like they seemed to consistently this year. However, this franchise seems to be turning a corner and I would not be surprised if this team is playing in a Super Bowl in the next five seasons.
3) Buffalo Bills 3 at Jacksonville Jaguars 10 – There really is not much to write about this game. We figured that it would be defensive oriented, but that may be the worst playoff game I didn’t watch. The halftime score was 3-3 and I was at the point where I had better things to do with my time that watch a game where the winning quarterback finished with more rushing yards (88) than passing yards (87).
Per ESPN Stats & Information, this game was the sixth-lowest-scoring playoff game in NFL history. The fewest points scored were five points in a 5-0 win by the Dallas Cowboys over the Detroit Lions back in 1970. I would rather have watched that game; it was at least played in the Dead Ball Era when scoring was not plentiful. How two teams in today’s NFL could combine for 13 points is beyond ridiculous.
I am not dissing good defensive football. This was not a good defensive game; this was garbage offense. The teams combined to go 9 for 30 on third down. They combined for 493 yards of total offense. They averaged 3.6 and 3.8 yards per pass attempt. The worst quarterbacks in the league average at least 5.0 yards per pass attempt. They both had five penalties and they each reached the red zone one time.
There were two things that saved the Jaguars. First, the Bills just did not have the offense to challenge them into playing from behind. Second, both teams have good defenses, but the Jaguars have the best defense in the NFL and they were able to force two turnovers while the Bills forced none. CB Jalen Ramsey is probably the best cornerback in the NFL and he was a difference maker in this game with a key interception and holding the Bills to a QB rating of 36.7 when they threw his way.
Up next is Pittsburgh and it will be interesting to see how the rematch in Pittsburgh goes. The last time these teams played, the Jaguars won 30-9 in Pittsburgh and they held the Steelers to 70 yards rushing and picked off QB Ben Roethlisberger five times. They only threw the ball 14 times in that game and punished the Steelers D by gaining 231 yards on 37 carries. Pittsburgh‘s only loss since that game was a home loss to New England in Week 15. I think their offense will play much better this time around, but Jacksonville is going to be a tough out in the playoffs with a defense that could embarrass the Steelers.
As for the Bills, this was a successful year. The Bills are trying to change the culture and they were able to do that in Sean McDermott’s first season as head coach. He led the team to a (9-7) season and their first playoff berth since 1999. They had a favorable schedule, but also managed to win games at Atlanta and at Kansas City. They still have a ways to go to catch New England, who beat them 23-3 and 37-16. It is hard to change the culture in one year and they had a successful season in that regard.
They now need to fine a real NFL quarterback, because the Tyrod Taylor experiment has run its course. There is a lot to like about Taylor, as a backup or a bridge starter while a team is developing a rookie. He is not the starter for a Super Bowl contending team. The Bills were 31st in pass attempts (476), 31st in passing yards (2,825), 27th in passing touchdowns (16) and 25th in passing yards per attempt (6.5).
He just really is not improving as a passer. He turns 29-years old in August and he has been excellent at avoiding interceptions and running the ball. He has only 16 interceptions in 1,236 pass attempts and he has 1,575 yards rushing and 14 rushing touchdowns in three years. He is far from being the worst quarterback in the NFL and teams can win games with him, evidenced by the Bills making the playoffs this year.
What he cannot do is effectively pass the football, especially down the field. The Bills had only four pass plays of 40 yards this year, which was tied for the second fewest in the NFL. The only teams that were that bad were the Chicago Bears (four) and the Denver Broncos (three). They were 24th in pass plays of 20 yards (40) and their most productive receiver was arguably WR Zay Jones, who had just 27 receptions for 316 yards and two touchdowns. The only other one that was arguably more productive was WR Deonte Thompson with 27 receptions for 430 yards and one touchdown.
No team can win a Super Bowl with a wide receiver leading the way at 27 receptions and 430 yards. The last team to win a Super Bowl without a 1,000-yard wide receiver or tight end was the 2013 Seattle Seahawks and WR Golden Tate had 898 yards receiving for five touchdowns and WR Doug Baldwin had 50 receptions for 778 yards and five touchdowns.
They have a very nice running game and a good defense and it allowed them to hang around in this playoff game and they only lost 10-3. I give RB LeSean McCoy a ton of credit for playing well despite an ankle injury that had him questionable the entire week. Had they just made a few more plays in the passing game, they could have walked away with a win.
This is a team that may have to take a step back to take a step forward. While they will probably have more turnovers and more mistakes with a rookie next year; they need to hit the rest button and develop a franchise quarterback if they are ever going to be a team that competes for Super Bowls. Taylor is not that guy, so they need to find someone this off-season in the NFL Draft, rather than kick the can down the road and waste time with someone that can win games, but never enough games to take the team past the Wild Card Round.
4) Carolina Panthers 26 at New Orleans Saints 31 – This was the best game of the weekend, a heavyweight showdown between two teams that were good enough to compete for a Super Bowl. Both teams were (5-4) against teams with winning records this year and both of them have quarterbacks that have appeared in a Super Bowl. Saints QB Drew Brees improved to (7-5) in the postseason by winning this game and he looks to advance his team to their first Super Bowl since the one they won in 2009. Panthers QB Cam Newton is now (3-4) in the postseason and still looking to return to the Super Bowl and win his first ring. They lost to the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50 to conclude the 2015 season.
Let’s start out with this tidbit. I keep hearing that the hardest thing to do is beat the same team three times in a season. Heading into this game, since the 1970 merger, there had been 20 instances where teams met for the third time. The team that won the two regular season games was (13-7) in the playoff game. The team with two wins is now (14-7). It is not the hardest thing to do if it is done two out of every three times it is attempted. The next time someone tells you that, you know they are uninformed about NFL Football and math. Being bad at math is acceptable, being wrong about NFL Football is embarrassing. Spewing that lie about beating a team three times in a season as being a difficult task is something that needs to go away.
The last team to lose in that situation was the 2007 Dallas Cowboys, who beat the New York Giants twice in the regular season only to lose to them at home in the Divisional Round. The last team before that was the 2004 Green Bay Packers, who beat the Minnesota Vikings twice in the regular season and lost to them in the Wild Card Round at home. Those are the only two times it has happened since the 2000 season.
The one thing that Carolina did better in this game was stopping the running game. The Saints had two running backs that had totaled more than 1,500 yards from scrimmage this year. In the two previous matchups, the Saints had 149 and 148 yards rushing. This time they held them to 22 rushing attempts for 41 yards and two rushing touchdowns. That is normally a good omen, because the Saints were (2-4) in games where they failed to reach 100 yards rushing this year. Had you told me the Panthers stopped the run that well before the game, I would have guessed they did the near impossible and beat a team they had lost to twice in the regular season.
The problem is that they sold out so much to beat the run that they could not stop the pass. Saints QB Drew Brees was incredible for most of the game; he went 22 for 33 with 376 yards passing, two touchdowns, one pick and a QB rating of 115.2. His only pick came late in the fourth quarter, when the Saints were trying to run out the clock, opted to go for it and he had to throw it up for grabs or risk giving the ball up at midfield. I thought that was a reckless call by head coach Sean Payton, but the interception actually helped them with 16 yards of field position and their defense came through on the final drive; forcing an intentional grounding and a sack to win the game.
This is why I thought the Saints could compete for a Super Bowl. Many teams that rely on running backs as much as they do are forced to, because they lack a quality quarterback. The Saints are not that team, Brees could have thrown for 5,000 yards this year, but they would have been a (7-9) team again. They ran the ball more that previous seasons, but still knew that if the running game was taken away from them that Brees could deliver a win for them. That is what he did, the future first ballot Hall of Famer rose to the occasion and dominated the Saints D. He is the best quarterback going in the NFC Playoffs and he gives them a chance to win their second ring.
The Saints draw a tough matchup in Minnesota this week, a team they lost to 29-19 in the opener. They had only 60 yards rushing in that game and they gave up 470 yards to the Minnesota Vikings. They are running the ball much better now and their defense is greatly improved. They will be much tougher to beat than they were in Week 1. It will be a tough game for them, because the Vikings are the best defense in the NFC. The Saints have all the pieces they need to win up there and they will give the Vikings a run for their money.
As for the Panthers, one team has to win a game like this and one has to lose it. Panthers QB Cam Newton played like a warrior in this game. He took a vicious clean hit in the fourth quarter that could have knocked him out of the game. He returned, led a touchdown drive and was within 21 yards of pulling of the victory.
He finished the game 24 of 40 for 349 yards, two touchdowns, no picks and a QB rating of 105.1. He also ran the ball eight times for 37 yards. He was a star in this game and had they not bogged down so many times in the red zone and had their kicker go 4 for 5 on field goals for the day, we may be talking about them going to Minnesota to take on a Vikings team they beat in Week 14.
I thought his failure was last week; it put them in a position they never should have been in this week. Had they won in Atlanta, they would have won the NFC South and they would have hosted the Atlanta Falcons this week, a team that would have swept in that scenario. Instead, Newton laid an egg, completing 14 passes in 34 attempts for 180 yards, one touchdown, three picks and a QB rating of 31.5. He is too good to play that bad in the biggest game of the year and not give his team a chance to compete and the penalty for losing that game was having to travel to New Orleans, a team they had lost to twice in the regular season.
Newton may have had a good final game, but he did not have a good year. He did throw for 3,302 yards and 22 touchdowns and he did rush for 754 yards and six more touchdowns, but he also had 16 interceptions and 35 sacks. His interception percentage was 3.3 percent and his sack percentage was 6.6 percent. His QB rating was a pedestrian 80.7, his yards per attempt were a dreadful 6.7 and his completion percentage was 59.1 percent.
It was the same old story, Newton the playmaker could help them win a lot of games, but he just was not consistent enough nor did he play well enough when it mattered. His QBR tallied by ESPN.com was 48.0, which was just 19th among quarterbacks.
They tried to add RB Christian McCaffrey and WR Curtis Samuel in an attempt to reduce the sacks and increase the completion percentage and minimize the toll running the ball took on him. McCaffrey ended up being a big part of their passing offense with 80 receptions for 651 yards and five receiving touchdowns. Yet none of those selections really helped Newton become a better passer this year and he still eclipsed 700 yards rushing. They relied on his legs this year as much as they normally have in past seasons.
His interception percentage was higher, his sack percentage remained the same, his yards per attempt dropped and the only improvement was in completion percentage, which went from a horrific 52.9 percent to a below average 59.1. That helped improve his QB rating by 4.9 points, but he still was nowhere near the same player he was in 2015, when he finished the year with 3,837 yards passing, 35 passing touchdowns, 10 picks and a QB rating of 99.4 and a QBR of 65.1. That was a career year and would be difficult for any quarterback to duplicate, but he has not even been close to performing like he did that year.
One thing that hurt them on offense was trading WR Kelvin Benjamin to Buffalo and leaving him with WR Devin Funchess as their top wide receiver. TE Greg Olsen battled injuries this year and is nearing the end of his career. This team needs to find a featured wide receiver that can stretch the field and help this team be better on offense. They also need to improve a secondary that was 18th against the pass and allowed 25 touchdowns and 10 picks. They just did not have the defense to slow down New Orleans this year and while Newton almost dug them out of a 21-6 deficit, he just was not able to make enough plays to pull of an epic comeback on the road.
Seeing Newton is approaching 30-years old and is probably never going to be the most accurate passer in the league, they would be best off to add some deep threats to give the offense a more vertical element, build on the short passing game they added in the 2017 NFL Draft and make sure they have a defense that can stop other teams, because they are (1-8) over the last 3 years when they give up more than 28 points. That became (1-9) when they could not stop the Saints on Sunday.
Fixing the defense this off-season is probably going to be easier than turning Newton into an efficient pocket passer and they have won a lot of games with him playing as a freakish runner that does not have the highest QB rating. While it is important to make sure that Newton keeps improving as a passer, at a certain point he just is what he is and they need to embrace it, because for as many shortcoming as he has in the passing game, he is also (62-45-1) as a starting quarterback, won a league MVP and appeared in a Super Bowl. The big reason they lost this game is their defense could not stop the Saints, not Newton failing to show up for a big playoff game.