National Football League

8 observations from a wild, wildcard weekend

AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

Four wild and crazy wildcard games, lots of excitement, some bad officiating, eight teams, four winners, and eight observations from a weekend of NFL playoff football…

1) The Tennessee Titans deserve more credit.  I want to lead this piece with the Titans because everyone is talking about Tom Brady and the Patriots.  The Titans won the same way they did during the regular season, with Derrick Henry taking over the game and their defense stifling the opposition.  QB Ryan Tannehill is solid; he led the NFL in passer rating this season.  But in a game where physical dominance was going to rule the day, the Titans offensive line opened holes that allowed Henry to rush for 182 yards.  Tannehill only threw fifteen passes, completing eight for 72 yards.  Tennessee was great in all three phases to win AT New England.  Because of their ability to shorten the game with Henry, the Titans pose a threat to Baltimore and anyone else in the AFC.  I didn’t think they’d win at New England.  What they did was quite impressive.  And are you as surprised as me that Bill Belichick is just 14-14 against his former assistants and players that have coached against him?  He’s 273-127 with the Patriots, a .683 winning percentage.  I’m shocked he’s only .500 against his coaching tree.  By the way, how about Belichick’s former player, Mike Vrabel, pulling a Belichick on the man himself with multiple delay of game penalties that ran nearly two minutes off the clock in the fourth quarter?  Impressive.

2) Kirk Cousins quieted the critics-for a week.  There was so much talk about the Vikings quarterback being 0-10 with the Vikes against 10-plus win teams, and 3-26 against them overall.  His record in prime-time games is abysmal too.  I’m one of those guys that buys into the won-loss stat for quarterbacks, but we ARE talking about a guy who spent the first five years of his career in Washington.  With Dan Snyder as owner, NOBODY wins, especially against good teams.  And in Minnesota, his good play has gone overlooked.  In those ten losses to teams with ten or more wins, he: put 31 points up against the Rams in L.A., lost at New Orleans, New England, Seattle and twice to Chicago in 2018.  Plus, he beat 9-7 Philadelphia on the road.  They would have been a ten-win team if not for Cousins.  This season, lost at Green Bay 21-16, at Kansas City 26-23, at Seattle 37-30, vs. Green Bay 23-10.  Again, his club prevented Philadelphia from winning ten by beating the Eagles.  Half the ten losses, including 3-of-4 this year, were one score games.  The point is, there’s more to it than just the quarterback.  In 2018, Cousins was pressured a league high 217 times in sixteen games and lost his top running back, Dalvin Cook, at mid-season.  Despite that, he threw for more than 4,200 yards, thirty touchdowns and ten interceptions.  But because the team went 8-7-1, it all fell on him.  This year the Vikes had Cook back, their offensive line was better, and Cousins was just as good, and they went 10-6.  If this were tennis or boxing, an individual sport, it’d be easier for me to pin all of this on Cousins.  For this week, at least, the critics can be quiet.

3) In the last five seasons, the home team on wildcard weekend has gone 8-12.  In the last three seasons, the home team in the first weekend of the playoffs is 4-8, including 1-3 last year and this year.  The only home team to win this season was Houston with their overtime win over Buffalo.  Moral of the story for NFL teams; just make the tournament.  There’s been so much talk about the NFL’s approach to the playoffs, suggesting that the team with the best record always be home or even that divisions should be eliminated.  Reality tells us that it generally doesn’t matter where the game is played, the best team is going to win.

4) The window for 42-year-old Tom Brady and 40-year-old Drew Brees to win Super Bowls has been slammed shut.  Yes, I know Brady won the Super Bowl last year, but his regression this year was startling.  The analysis shows say he’ll be fine if he gets a great group of receivers.  Where are the Patriots going to get a great group of receivers?  And Brady simply doesn’t elevate those around him like he did in his prime.  Brady took the 2006 Patriots to the AFC Championship game and put up 34 points in a loss to the Colts in that game with a receiving corps led by Reche Caldwell, Ben Watson (who played 13 years later in Saturday night’s Patriot loss), Troy Brown and Doug Gabriel.  Brady was able to make that group effective.  He doesn’t do that anymore.  And Brady is NOT following Josh McDaniels anywhere.  If McDaniels gets hired, it’s to nurture Baker Mayfield in Cleveland or Daniel Jones with the Giants, or to get the most out of Dak Prescott in Dallas or Cam Newton in Carolina.  No team McDaniels is going to coach is going to sign a 43 year old Brady to be their starting QB. The last time Brees was truly great in a playoff game was two years ago against Carolina.  The last time he had three touchdown passes in a playoff win was after the 2012 season, when he threw for 466 yards against Detroit (yes, the last time Brees threw three touchdowns in a post-season win, DETROIT was playing in it).  His fumble against the Vikings was a cruncher, and looked like a play from an old quarterback.  Not to say he still won’t play well…he’s just not going to win, or probably get to, any more Super Bowls.

5) DeShaun Watson is in the NFL what he was in college-a difference maker.  I said on Friday’s Fast Lane show that I was picking Houston to beat Buffalo because I thought the big difference in the game was Watson.  He rallied the Texans back from a 16-0 deficit, then made an incredible, instinctive, athletic play to avoid a sack and throw a pass to set up the winning field goal.  Lamar Jackson, rightfully, gets all the hype for being an amazing dual threat quarterback.  Watson isn’t far behind.

6) One of the most underrated people in the NFL is Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. In taking the Seahawks to back-to-back Super Bowls in 2013 and 2014, he had a talented defense keyed by the “Legion of Boom” secondary.  The secondary has been completely overhauled, and the only Seahawks defenders that started against Philadelphia that did so in 2014 were linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright.  Despite the turnover in personnel and coaches (Seattle is on it’s 3rd defensive coordinator since the Super Bowls), the Seahawks find a way to defend.  They allowed 282 yards and no touchdowns against an admittedly compromised Eagles offense, and allowed Russell Wilson and company to win the game with seventeen points.

7) Speaking of the Eagles, will Carson Wentz ever be healthy for a playoff run?  Philadelphia’s $128 million man couldn’t make it out of the first quarter of his first ever playoff game.  No, it’s not his fault that Jadaveon Clowney made helmet to helmet contact and drove his head into the turf.  But some QB’s just can’t stay healthy.  Wentz did for the regular season and was magnificent in playing with a bunch of no-name skill position guys.  He has yet to be there in the post-season during four seasons and three playoff years for Philly.  It’s fair to wonder if he’s just snakebitten.  And the Eagles would be well served to get themselves a legitimate backup that can win games.

8) There are always going to be controversial plays in playoff games, but the NFL sure has taken a bad hit because of questionable officiating during the last two post-seasons.  Buffalo had a touchdown taken away when a Houston punt returner didn’t take a knee after catching a punt in the end zone, and tossed the ball to the official.  That’s a fumble.  Buffalo picked it up for an apparent touchdown, but officials ruled, apparently incorrectly, that the runner gave himself up and took a TD away from the Bills.  Buffalo was also called for a bad blindside block in overtime.  In New Orleans, it sure looked like Kyle Rudolph pushed off for an offensive pass interference on the game winning touchdown.  The NFL said the contact didn’t rise to the level of OPI.  Clowney’s helmet to helmet hit on Wentz seems to be why those rules were instituted.  No penalty was called, and the officials said afterward that it was “incidental helmet to helmet contact.”  I didn’t know there was such a thing anymore.  Two games were decided in overtime and the other two were one-score games.  NFL officiating must improve, because now it’s affecting who goes to the Super Bowl.  It did last year, and might again this year, too.