NFL Playoffs: Divisional Round Reactions

Packers 32, Rams 18

Anytime the Rams would get close, the Packers would pull away. The first quarter ended with a 3-3 tie, but then the Packers went up 10-3. Then 16-3 (missed extra point). The Rams added a TD toward the end of the first half to cut the deficit to 16-10, but the Packers still had 29 second on the clock, and Rodgers took advantage of it. He led his team down the field and added a field goal to make it 19-10 at halftime.

The Packers got the ball to open the second half and scored a TD, making the score 25-10. After trading punts, the Rams showed some resilience and got a TD, plus a 2-point conversion on a really clever and perfectly executed hook and ladder play. At 25-18 going into the 4th quarter, the Rams were alive. That score held up for a while, too. The Packers didn’t score their final TD until the 6:52 mark in the 4th. The Rams had some opportunities to tie the game up, but the Packers’ defense really stepped up in the 4th quarter.

Given the lopsided stat totals in the game, you really have to give the Rams some credit for hanging around as long as they did. The Packers outgained the Rams 484-244 and won time of possession 36-24. They ran 72 offensive plays to the Rams’ 50. The Rams only had 8 offensive drives in the game. Normally teams run 11-12 total offensive drives per game. There really was no reason the Rams should’ve been in that game for as long as they were. I give McVay a lot of credit for how well he coached his team.

The one thing that stood out to me in this game, though, was how easy it was for the Packers to move the ball. The Packers did not punt until the 3rd quarter, scoring on their first five offensive drives. Green Bay averaged 6.7 yards per play against what was by pretty much all measures the #1 defense in the NFL this year.

It was a very balanced offensive approach from the Packers, too. 36 pass attempts, 36 rushing attempts. Green Bay ran for 188 yards, or 5.2 yards per carry. The Packers used all three of their running backs–Aaron Jones, Jamaal Williams and AJ Dillion–and they all looked great. I was really surprised at how easy it was for the Packers to move the ball, especially on the ground. They were just gashing the Rams’ defense all game.

I think a lot of it had to do with Aaron Donald’s injury, the torn rib cartilage. He clearly was not himself in that game. He only played 39 of 72 snaps and had zero QB pressures. There’s just no way he would’ve been this ineffective if he was fully healthy. I think if it was the regular season he would’ve missed the game, but he gritted it out because it’s the playoffs. Hats off to him for trying to play through the pain, that’s a very nasty injury.

With Aaron Donald largely sidelined and diminished, the Rams only recorded one QB hit in the game. Without Aaron Donald at his best, that defense really suffered. It looked like a completely different defense. It really showed the world the value of Aaron Donald. I saw this chart after the game, and it puts into numbers just how great Aaron Donald is. He was double-teamed more than any defensive tackle in the league, but he also beat his man way more than any other defensive tackle:

No one is even close to him.

At the end of the day, the Rams were just too beat up to win that game. In addition to Aaron Donald, Cooper Kupp was scratched shortly before the game due to a knee injury. He was a big loss for the offense. And Jared Goff was still recovering from his thumb surgery, although he made some nice throws in the game. I was impressed by Goff, to be honest. He’s historically not done well in the cold, but he definitely surpassed expectations.

The Packers are going to be really tough to beat. Even without All Pro LT David Bakhtiari, the Packers surrendered zero sacks and only allowed Rodgers to get hit once all game. If opposing teams can’t put the pressure on Rodgers, Green Bay is going to be basically unstoppable on offense.

Bills 17, Ravens 3

What a brutal loss for the Baltimore Ravens. Justin Tucker, normally the league’s best kicker, doinked two field goals in what was a very low-scoring game where points were at a premium. When Lamar Jackson threw the 101-yard pick-six at the end of the third quarter, the score was 10-3 Buffalo, but should’ve been 10-9 Buffalo had Tucker hit all of his kicks. Maybe Baltimore’s play-calling is less aggressive and Lamar wouldn’t have tried to force the ball if the score was 10-9 instead of 10-3. I don’t know. But Baltimore definitely beat themselves in that game if you ask me.

The Ravens outgained Buffalo 340-220 in terms of total yards and won time of possession 35-25. They held Buffalo to just 4.0 yards per play, held Josh Allen to 206 passing yards and a 51.0 QBR, and allowed only 32 rushing yards on 16 attempts, or 2.0 YPC.

Baltimore’s defense really played well in the game. Buffalo was lucky to even get a field goal in the first half; the only reason they got it was because Ravens’ punter Sam Koch shanked a 23 yard punt from the Baltimore 15, which gave Buffalo the ball at the Ravens’ 38. And honestly even with that great starting field position, Buffalo got bailed out by a Baltimore roughing the passer penalty.

But I still have to give the Bills’ defense credit. They are playing much better in the playoffs than they were in the regular season. We know they have talent on defense, but for whatever reason they just weren’t getting it done in the regular season. This was the first year of the Sean McDermott era in Buffalo that he didn’t have a good defense, and it just felt strange. He’s a defensive-oriented coach and his defense was underperforming all year, until the Baltimore game.

Still, though; I can’t help but feel like the Bills have been getting lucky in the playoffs. They benefitted from Hot Rod missing a 33-yard field goal in the Wild Card game against the Colts, plus the Colts failing on a 4th and goal instead of kicking a field goal. They benefitted from Justin Tucker missing two field goals. Buffalo could’ve easily lost both games. Can their luck continue against the Chiefs?

Chiefs 22, Browns 17

What a heartbreaker for the Browns. They had an absolutely golden opportunity in that game when Mahomes got knocked out with a concussion and simply failed to capitalize. The Browns’ defense just couldn’t get the job done when it mattered most, and the Chiefs’ defense really stepped up. Chad Henne filled in remarkably well for Mahomes, especially that 13.5 yard run at the end to get close to the first down that ultimately sealed the game.

This was the Golden Opportunity for the Browns. With Mahomes out, the AFC was suddenly up for grabs. The Chiefs are probably going to dominate the AFC for the next 5-10 years, and this was the one time they were vulnerable. It was like a free pass for Cleveland, but they couldn’t take advantage.

Probably the most devastating play of the game was the touchback. The Browns came within about a foot of scoring a TD at the end of the first half that would’ve made the score 16-10 Chiefs, but instead Rashard Higgins fumbled the ball while diving for the pylon, and the ball went out of bounds in the endzone for a touchback. Kansas City got the ball back, went down and kicked a field goal to go into halftime up 19-3.

When Mahomes went down, Kansas City was leading 19-10, but even after he went down, Kansas City was still able to get a field goal on the drive to push their lead up to 22-10. The Browns answered with a TD to cut it to 22-17, but they were unable to get another one and pull ahead.

The loss really hurts for Cleveland, but the future is very bright. If you have the coach and the QB figured out, you are primed for success in the NFL. You’re in better shape than basically 75% of the league. The Browns have a great coach and Baker looks like he’s living up to the hype–and it probably has a lot to do with Stefanski.

But that touchback, man. It might go down in history alongside other notorious Browns’ playoff heartbreaks like The Fumble and The Drive. Absolutely soul-crushing.

There are some conversations today in the sports media about whether the NFL should change the touchback rule, and I’ve actually become pretty convinced that the rule should be changed. At first I thought it was kind of stupid to want to change the rule, because why should we bail out guys who fumble the ball? But if we’re talking about consistency, if you fumble the ball out of bounds anywhere other than the endzone, you retain possession of the ball. But if you fumble it out of the endzone, the other team gets possession of the ball on their own 20 yard line, even though they didn’t even recover the fumble? Just seems a little unfair to me. As Pat McAfee just put it, “You’re taught in football to strain and fight for every yard, but when it comes to that final yard before the endzone, you’re not supposed to?” Guys shouldn’t be punished for reaching and fighting for the endzone. Yes, they shouldn’t be rewarded for fumbling, but it seems overly harsh to count a play like we just saw as a turnover.

As for Kansas City, I can’t even talk about the AFC Championship game until we know if Mahomes is going to play. I have to assume he’ll find a way to get right for the game, but with concussions, you never know. He looked pretty wobbly after he got up. There’s a whole concussion protocol to go through, and the rules are the rules. If Mahomes cannot pass concussion protocol, he will not play. It’s as simple as that. So we can’t just assume he’s going to find a way to play. It’s not like he can just “play hurt” or grit it out with a concussion. If he doesn’t pass the protocol, he won’t be allowed to play, period. Concussion protocol is handled by third-party doctors and neurologists, not team doctors. There’s no cutting corners or cooking the books. So I’ll talk more about this game when we get more clarity on Mahomes.

The Chiefs have opened as -3 favorites over Buffalo in the AFC Championship, and I think this line is baking in some cautious optimism that Mahomes plays. Because I don’t think they’d be favored if Vegas knew Chad Henne was starting the game. Yes, Henne looked pretty good, but it’s completely different when the other team gets an entire week to prepare for him.

Bucs 30, Saints 20

The way Drew Brees left the field, it looks like that was his final game in the NFL. He looked like he was saying goodbye. It’s a shame they weren’t allowed to pack the Superdome with fans, and if Brees does in fact surprise us and come back, I think it’ll be because he didn’t get to play in front of the home crowd this season.

But that shot I used as the header photo for this article, of him going into the tunnel but then turning around and taking one last look back at the stadium to soak it all in; I think that said it all. I got chills watching that moment on TV. It was a really candid moment that the cameras were able to catch. You knew exactly what he was doing, and you could just tell that he knew it was the last time he was leaving the field as the starting QB for the New Orleans Saints.

So now it’s the end of an era, at least that’s the way it appears. We’ll have plenty of time to talk about where the Saints go from here in the offseason, so I don’t want to spend too much time on it now. But I’m sure the “DeShaun Watson to the Saints??” rumors will start heating up this week.

I have been a Bucs defender all season even when people were selling stock on them in the midst of their mid-season slump, however I did pick them to lose to the Saints on Sunday. I just thought that, even though I believed in the Bucs, the Saints had the Bucs’ number and were the nightmare/kryptonite matchup for Tampa this year.

Honestly, the Bucs were really fortunate to win this game. Because the two teams were about dead-even for the whole game in terms of stats: total yards were 316-294 Bucs, both teams had 20 first downs, Saints were 4.9 yards per play and Tampa was 4.6. Going into the 4th quarter, the game was tied 20-20. The main difference in the end was that the Saints had 4 turnovers and the Bucs had zero. That margin tilted the game.

Brady threw what probably should have been a pick at the 6:40 mark of the second quarter. It was originally called a pick on the field, but upon further review they overturned it after seeing the defender didn’t get two feet down in bounds. But it should’ve been a pick and Brady got let off the hook by the defender not being conscious of where his feet were. Brady also came really close to throwing a pick in the middle of the third quarter, but it hit the ground before the defender caught it. In fact, now that I’m going over the game highlights, Brady should’ve been picked a third time around the 9:57 mark in the 4th quarter. So Tampa was really fortunate that the Saints weren’t able to take advantage of these three interceptable passes.

Brees, on the other hand, wasn’t so lucky. His first INT gave Tampa the ball on the New Orleans 3 yard line. Tampa got a TD. The Jared Cook fumble gave the Bucs the ball at the New Orleans 40, and the Bucs were able to get a TD from there. Brees’ second INT gave Tampa the ball on the New Orleans 20, and the Bucs got a TD off of that. So that’s 3 Tampa touchdown drives that came out to 63 yards combined. You are not going to win in the playoffs giving the other team 21 easy points.

Now, New Orleans did catch some breaks in this game. Tampa gave them 5 first downs by penalty, while the Bucs had none. But as nice as it is to get first downs via penalty, getting turnovers is much better. And early in the game, a long punt return by Deonte Harris gave New Orleans the ball at the Tampa 20, but the Saints were only able to get a field goal out of the possession even though they got down to the Tampa 5.

Even though both Brees and Brady were pretty well protected in this game (each were only hit 3 times), Tampa was able to get more bang for their buck on QB pressure. The first Brees’ pick came after he was forced to evacuate the pocket and throw on the run. On Brees’ second INT, I have no idea what he was trying to do. It was a pretty clean pocket and he tried to hit Kamara on the seam route, but Devin White just stepped in front of the ball and picked it off. I think Drew just didn’t see him. But Kamara also wasn’t really looking for the ball until it was in White’s hands. Mis-communication was a factor as well, probably.

An interesting stat line from this game: Michael Thomas, 0 receptions on 4 targets. Yikes. He was a complete non-factor. It was the first game of his career in which he was held without a catch. Nice timing. Maybe it was the injuries that had been hampering him all season, I don’t know. But that’s just bad. It’s a good sign for Tampa’s much-maligned secondary (which looked pretty bad against Washington last week) that they were able to hold Thomas without a catch.

Really, the Tampa secondary only had one bad moment, and it was the Jameis Winston touchdown pass. It was a trick play where the Saints had Alvin Kamara take the snap in the shotgun, then hand it off to Emmanuel Sanders, who then flipped it to Jameis Winston. Winston found a wide open Tre’Quan Smith for the 56-yard TD. Other than that one trick play, Tampa’s pass defense held up very well. The Saints only scored one other touchdown in the game outside of that. Give Bucs’ defensive coordinator Todd Bowles a ton of credit for making some major adjustments in that game, especially after the way they got absolutely shredded by the Saints’ offense in week 9. Tampa had the same players on defense yesterday as they had in week 9, yet the result was drastically different. So in my opinion, you have to give a lot of the credit to the coordinator.

As for the Tampa offense, the one thing that really stood out to me in that game was that they were committed to running the ball. They had 35 rushing attempts for 127 yards. Remember, Tampa only had 8 yards on 5 rushing attempts in the week 9 matchup with New Orleans where they got blown out 38-3. I’m glad Tampa is putting greater emphasis on the run now in the playoffs. They have two good backs in Ronald Jones (13 carries, 62 yards) and Leonard Fournette (17 carries, 63 yards), and I don’t know why they didn’t use them more in the regular season. They are going to need to lean on those guys to win in Green Bay. Tampa actually had more rushing attempts than passing attempts in this game, 35 to 33. I like to see balanced attacks because it keeps defenses honest and guessing. If you run well, it makes passing easier.

I’ll talk more about the NFC Championship matchup with Green Bay later in the week, but my initial thought here is that you can’t really take much stock from the first matchup between those two teams where Tampa blew the doors off the Packers 38-10. Tampa got a pick six and had another INT go all the way to the Green Bay 3, which is basically another pick six. Those picks completely changed the game, as Green Bay was up 10-0 before the first one. It was kind of a fluky game, and I don’t know how much we can take from it in terms of predicting how this game is going to go. Plus, that game was played in Tampa in October, while this game will be played in Green Bay in late January. The weather forecast right now calls for 29 degrees and possible snow. Completely different environment.

Now, Brady is used to the cold. He played in Boston for 20 years. He’s played many a football game in cold, crappy weather conditions. There’s one game from 2010 that I still remember vividly today; it was in December and the Patriots were visiting the Bears, and it was a full-blown blizzard. Brady played like he didn’t even notice the weather at all. He was 27/40 for 369 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs for a 91.0 QBR and a 113.4 passer rating. The Patriots won 36-7. It was, in my opinion, the best QB performance in the snow I’ve ever seen. It was one of those moments where you just think, “Okay, this guy isn’t even a human being.”

So I’m really not that worried about Brady in the cold. But that was 10 years ago, and it was with the Patriots. I don’t know how his Tampa teammates will fare in the cold weather. Gronk should be fine, too. I’m not worried about Brady and Gronk, I’m worried about the rest of the team. I think Tampa’s offense will be OK in the game, it’s their defense I’m not sure about. Will they be able to play well in the cold?

Austin Frank

Sports blogger

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