Wild-Card Takeaways: Browns Get Breaks Then Stay Aggressive, Lamar Beats Playoff Narrative, Goff, Bills, Heinicke

Plus, Ravens D owns the line of scrimmage, Tomlin and Vrabel play it safe and get burned, Derrick Henry shutdown, Bears politely bow out, Saints-Bucs III is set, Frank Reich can’t catch a break, Seattle can’t find an offensive identity, the season’s most bone-headed penalty, banged-up Rams, futures of Big Ben, Rivers and Trubisky, Brandon Staley’s job prospects, stomping on painted grass, and much more.
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Reacting and overreacting to everything that happened during Wild-Card Weekend in the NFL...

Things That Made Me Giddy

Put the Lamar Jackson Playoff Narrative to Bed: It was the opposite of fun while it lasted, building a hot-take narrative off a two-game sample size. But now that Lamar Jackson has a playoff win—a come-from-behind playoff win, at that—we can get back to conversing like adults. Even though it took him until age 24 to get it.

Cleveland’s First Quarter: The Browns haven’t caught a single break over the last month, so if there was ever a team that was owed a few favors by the football gods, this is the one.

NFL Playoff Games Are for the Aggressors: And on Sunday night, that was the Browns. Mike Tomlin suddenly started playing for field position despite a 12-point fourth-quarter deficit, punting on fourth-and-1 from midfield. The Browns took that gift and, in response, went for the jugular, going 80 yards in 140 seconds to put the game away. After ramming the run game into a wall the previous few possessions, substitute play-caller Pills Van Pelt dialed up five passes and only one run on that drive. Van Pelt and Baker Mayfield played for the win when the Steelers started playing to hang around, and that’s why they’ll be in Kansas City next week.

Mike Priefer: The interim coach and childhood Browns fan gets the win in the franchise's first postseason victory since the Belichick era. And he evens his career NFL head-coaching record to 1-1.

The Line of Scrimmage Belonged to the Ravens: With their defensive line back at full strength—unlike in the first Titans-Ravens game this year—Baltimore had little trouble doing what you have to do against Derrick Henry: Get to him early and don’t let him build up a head of steam. It was Brandon Williams, Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe, but also Matt Judon and Pernell McPhee controlling the edges. Henry finished with 40 yards on 18 carries, his lowest rushing output since a Week 6 loss in Denver last season (when Marcus Mariota was still the Titans’ quarterback(.

Buffalo Is on the Board!: With a playoff win for the first time in 25 years; to put that in perspective, the last time the Bills won a playoff game Josh Allen was 25 years younger than he is today. Now, this one came with as much a sense of relief as it did celebration, due to the quality of this Bills team and dicey nature of the victory. But they get one under their belt, they move on, and they’ve still played as well as any team in football over the past two months.

Daryl Williams Saves Dyngus Day: With his recovery of an unacceptably sloppy Josh Allen fumble as Buffalo clung to a three-point lead late. If Williams doesn’t come up with it, there’s quite a pall over Western New York right now. He ended up being one of the best signings of the 2020 offseason and will be rewarded in free agency this offseason, but this moment was one more reason the Bills are fortunate to have their 28-year-old right tackle.

A Gutsy Jared Goff: Sometimes, when you try to throw a football 12 days after you’ve had a bunch of pins inserted into your shattered thumb, things don’t go perfectly. Goff didn’t look very sure of himself, but he hung in and absorbed hits, and he delivered the two or three throws they needed to have in order to complement a dominant defensive performance in Seattle.

Brandon Staley’s Job Prospects: The Rams’ 38-year-old, first-time defensive coordinator should take his VHS tapes of Herman’s Head, tape over them with the All-22 of his defense’s three games against Seattle, mail them to the six teams that have head-coaching vacancies, and specify how large a dump truck they’ll have to fill with cash in order to hire him. To do what he’s done all season with a group that has two superstars but not a whole lot of talent otherwise, and to do what he did on Saturday with and later without Aaron Donald, is exceptional.

Darious Williams’s Study Habits: When you do your homework, you know the atomic weight of Wolfram, how to plot a sine wave, and can make breath-taking pick-sixes like this. You can’t pin this on Russell Wilson for the throw, DK Metcalf for not making a play on the ball or Freddie Swain for not making the block—this is just a phenomenal defensive play by a guy who was prepared for what was coming…

Rams Defense Without Aaron Donald: I mean, do they even want him back? Considering they came into the year looking like they lacked depth, this was an exceptional job by the players and the coaching staff to continue to dominate in the fourth quarter after losing the best non-quarterback in football.

Taylor Heinicke Fever: Was the NBC crew’s praise a little over the top? Sure. But if you’ve been subjected to Football Team quarterback play in 2020, Heinicke looked like Patrick Mahomes wearing cleats coated in flubber. (Fun fact: If someone refers to the film Flubber, they are only referring to the off-brand '90s remake starring the late Robin Williams. Correct them and tell them that The Absent-Minded Professor is the name of the original film to which they are referring, and be sure you have ice on hand for when they rightfully punch you in the face.)

Gabriel Davis’s Sideline Wizardry: I don’t know if the rookie got his feet down on either play on the Bills’ two-minute drive to end the first half (my guess is no on the first, yes on the second, but there’s no way either could have been overturned on replay). Davis’s nifty footwork put them in position for points at the end of the first half, and eventually they got seven.

Bucs O-Line Won That Battle: Football Team’s pass rush started to heat up Brady in the fourth quarter (Ted Larsen filling in for an injured Alex Cappa at right guard didn’t help), but this was a decisive win for a front five that has been generally solid, but had some long days against top-flight pass rushes this season.

Indy’s Over Routes: Frank Reich and his staff seemed to have found a way to obliterate the Bills’ zone rules.

Michael Thomas Getting Back in the Swing of Things: He looked pretty healthy on the touchdown that opened the scoring against the Bears. It was his first score since Week 16 of the 2019 season, in Tennessee.

You Can’t Ignore Patrick Ricard: The fullback, filling the Nick Boyle role in Baltimore’s offense, was left open in the flat three times on the Ravens’ third-quarter touchdown drive, catching all three for 26 yards including a nifty snatch on a high throw to convert a third-and-2.

Mario Addison’s Goal Line Save: He’s been another nice veteran addition from the Panthers-to-Buffalo pipeline. On a third-and-goal from the 1 near the end of the first half, he didn’t get sucked inside by the misdirection and forced Jonathan Taylor to bounce a pitch even further to the perimeter, where Tre’Davious White cleaned Taylor up for a three-yard loss. Indy went for it on fourth-and-goal from the 4 and didn’t get it. That’s a seven-point play for the vet.

Tom Brady Post-Bye Week: No world-beaters on this schedule (Minnesota, Atlanta, Detroit, Atlanta, Washington), but the numbers are absurd regardless: 5 games, 5 wins, 1,714 yards, 9.74 YPA, 14 TD, 1 INT, 0 fumbles, 35.8 points per game.

A.J. Brown Has His Way: The Ravens could not guard him even when they guarded him.

Tyler Bass Dominates the Rookie Kicker Battle: Bass nailed a 54-yarder, while Rodrigo Blankenship doinked the upright on a 33-yarder. That seems significant in a game that was decided by three points.

Jason Myers in the League of Legs: Including playoffs, he finished 26-for-26 on field goals for Seattle, including 4-for-4 from 50-plus.

Jack Doyle: For eight

Bills Break Up This Hail Mary: I genuinely worried for Pinto Ron’s heart after Philip Rivers launched it (though surely the sigh of relief was audible from Lockport to West Seneca and in every Tonawanda in between as soon as everyone realized the ball was coming down at the 5). Micah Hyde gave it the emphatic, Bam Adebayo-two-handed block to clinch the victory.

* * *

Regrets

Mike Tomlin Punts the Comeback Away: With a fourth-and-1, down 12, from their own 46 to start the fourth quarter, Tomlin waved the white flag and punted it away. The Browns did the right thing by responding with a six-play, 80-yard touchdown drive that included only one rushing attempt. Tomlin has won a lot of football games and has a ring, but that was head-scratchingly meek football and the Steelers got exactly what they deserved.

Vrabel Punts It Away Too: His was on a fourth-quarter fourth-and-2 at the Ravens’ 40, trailing by four. Mike Vrabel knows his team better than I do, but I find it unfathomable that he’d ask his leaky defense to get the ball back, rather than lean on some combination of his All-Pro running back, mobile franchise quarterback, stud receiver and quality offensive line to get it done. The Ravens proceeded to take 6:41 off the clock and kick a field goal to go up seven.

A.J. Brown Can Only Wave as the Season Slips Away: Ryan Tannehill has been solid the last two seasons, but things too often get dicey when the run game is no longer available and he needs to get chunks of yards quickly (he had five fourth-quarter comebacks this season… but, now, five games in which he didn’t come back). With Brown a step past his man and calling for the ball to come his way up the left sideline, Tannehill instead rushed to stick a throw up the right seam to fill-in receiver Kalif Raymond. It was not going to be completed, and ended in disaster when Raymond fell and the throw embedded in Marcus Peters’s chest.

Vrabel Complaining About the Officiating: He singled out the correct decision not to throw a flag on the late Marcus Peters interception. But to complain about the officiating in a game in which the Titans surely should have been flagged for offensive pass interference on their only touchdown and also benefitted from a ticky-tack offensive pass interference flag on a Ravens fourth-down conversion is, shall we say, rich. Trailing by four in the fourth quarter, Vrabel punted on a fourth-and-2 from the Ravens’ 40. His quarterback failed to spot their superstar receiver running wide open behind the defense and instead threw a game-ending interception. Officiating is one of the few things that went right for Vrabel’s team on Sunday.

Pouncey and Roethlisberger Salute Super Bowl XLVIII:

Frank Reich Will Lose Sleep: He shouldn’t, but he will. His aggressive approach was exactly what the Colts should have done. There was no issue going for it on fourth-and-goal from the 4 with 1:53 left (remember, if they kick the field goal they’re getting three points, but they’re also giving the Bills 20 yards of field position for their two-minute offense—the chance for the touchdown was worth it). But every break went the other way in Buffalo. Gabriel Davis’s two late-first-half sideline catches could have been called either way—if either was ruled incomplete they wouldn’t have been overturned. A young lineman commits the dumbest pre-snap penalty we’ve seen in recent memory to give the Bills an extra four points before halftime. Indy’s rookie kicker doinks a 33-yarder, while Buffalo’s nails a 54-yarder. Reich’s only game management error was a massive one: challenging a very clearly correctly ruled non-fumble in the fourth quarter that was simply throwing away a timeout they’d desperately need in the end. But his gameplan was excellent, the Colts outgained the Bills by 75 yards, won the field position battle, controlled the clock, made five red-zone trips to Buffalo’s two, didn’t turn the ball over and committed only two penalties. That’s a win 95% of the time, even in the playoffs.

Kemoko Turay Jumps: There’s nothing you can say about this other than it’s the most bone-headed and costly pre-snap penalty in recent memory. The Bills had already tipped their hand that they were trying to draw the Colts offsides on this fourth-and-3 late in the first half. Turay has been limited by injury issues through three NFL seasons, and as a Rutgers alum didn’t play in many competitive big-game situations at the college level, but it’s tough to come up with an excuse. It’s just unfathomable that he’d jump here, and the reaction of the Colts’ sideline is exactly what it should be for what became a four-point penalty (Buffalo was in the end zone three plays later)…

Eddie Jackson Didn’t Watch Bills-Colts, Apparently: His instance of jumping offsides on fourth-and-3 wasn’t as bad as Turay’s, but you have to be on alert on fourth-and-less-than-5. Taysom Hill lined up in shotgun, the Bears safety was coming on a blitz, and he jumped and gave the Saints the free five yards. New Orleans was in the end zone two plays later.

Colts Just Throw Away a Timeout in the Fourth Quarter: I’m not sure who advised Frank Reich to throw the red flag when multiple replays had already showed Zack Moss’s knee was already down, which was the call on the field. It had a 0% chance of being overturned and cost them a timeout they very much needed down the stretch. Someone owes Reich an explanation.

One Drop, and Bears Offense Clams Up: You may have heard the fable about the frog in the pot of water, that if the water temperature rises steadily, the frog won’t realize it’s being boiled until it’s too late? Well, on Sunday in New Orleans, the water was heating up, the Bears’ season was winding down, and they just sat there and let it happen. They took one trick-play shot to Javon Wims—which worked though he dropped it—and that was it. So for anyone arguing they should go back to Mitchell Trubisky: If you trust your quarterback so little you scale the offense back to this extent when trailing in a playoff game, what’s the point?

This Lamar Jackson Comeback Stuff: Steve Levy mentioned during the broadcast that the Ravens hadn’t won a game that they trailed by 10 or more points in the last four seasons. What he didn’t mention is that, over the last two seasons, they’d only had six opportunities to do so before Sunday. The previous two times were a loss to Pittsburgh in which Jackson took the lead in the fourth quarter only to have the Steelers take it back, and in a Sunday night monsoon in Foxboro. Jackson might not be the first quarterback you’d pick if you needed to come back from a big deficit quickly, but let’s flush that “can’t play from behind” narrative along with the "can't win a playoff game" one.

15-Yard Penalty for Giving the Ball to an Official: I’m sure there’s something to be written about the irony of airing this game on Nickelodeon in order to brand the NFL as “fun,” then having the member of an all-star officiating crew throw a game-altering personal foul penalty here to turn a red-zone third-and-5 into a third-and-20. But I’m just not interested in examining it.

Bears Defense Can’t Get Off the Field: Granted, it’s a week when you’re facing a great defense on the road and so besieged by injuries that Manti Te’o is suiting up. This was a mismatch, but not an 11-for-17-allowed-on-third-down mismatch.

John Hussey’s Game Administration in Seattle: It was disastrous a couple times, including when he was clearly trying to reset the play clock before a Seahawks fourth-and-1 when (a) it shouldn’t have been reset, and (b) it was too late for Russell Wilson to know it was being reset. As a result, the Seahawks rushed on a key play and half the team jumped for a false start penalty.

How In the World Does This Flag Get Picked Up?: This is, quite obviously, a penalty, whether it’s a quarterback or a runner. There’s nothing dirty about it, but you can’t drive your shoulder into the head of a player on the ground…

Indy’s Red Zone Inefficiency: Five red-zone trips but only 16 points out of them. Meanwhile, the Bills scored 14 points on two red-zone trips. That’s a bitter pill for Indy to swallow in a three-point playoff loss.

NFL Replay Central Takes a Mid-Afternoon Nap: A very close play on the Zach Pascal near-fumble in the final minute at Buffalo—one that would have clinched the game for the Bills. The fact that the replay folks just forgot a game was going on and neglected to call for a review it until Sean McDermott burned a timeout is an alarming failure of game administration. I clocked it as 31.3 seconds—and two replays shown by CBS—elapsing between the end of the previous play and the McDermott timeout (which was restored) blowing the next play dead.

DK Metcalf Losing It on the Sideline: It’s fine, in the larger scheme of things. People get heated during a game and sometimes you need to blow off steam, but not in the first quarter of a playoff game. As Joe Buck pointed out, in an empty stadium everyone on the sideline can hear your tantrum. The other thing is, when you’re the biggest, easiest guy to spot on the sideline the TV cameras will have no trouble finding you. And if the game goes sideways you and your team have to endure a bunch of questions about why you weren’t getting along with your star veteran quarterback.

Patrick Queen, Picked On: It doesn’t matter if you’re the fastest linebacker in the league if you’re a deer in the headlights on every drop back. It was a long, long year for the rookie, who has the tools to be a good one, but the Titans went after him and Queen’s indecisiveness in coverage made Anthony Firkser look like Anthony Firkser if no one covered him.

C.J. Gardner-Johnson Gets Another Bear Ejected: A couple of months after he got under Javon Wims’s skin and drew an ejection, he gets Anthony Miller tossed from a playoff game. Miller responded to a taunt by, of course, punching Gardner-Johnson in the helmet.

Roethlisberger’s Tebow-ish First Half: He can’t move anymore, though the last time we saw him—in the comeback win over the Colts—he showed he could still sling it. On Sunday night, he spent the first 30 minutes dispensing ducks like … he worked at a restaurant that only serves duck. (You know, Emmett O’Duckington’s.) Ben got it going in the second half, but unless you're Frank Reich you can't spot an opponent a 25-point halftime lead in a playoff game and win.

Corey Davis Sidelined: An unfortunate end to a long-awaited breakout season from the former fifth-overall pick, and it sets up for a fascinating free-agency case for a talented but not-quite-No.-1 receiver who turns 26 on Monday. In a flooded free-agency market for wideouts, with another obscenely good and deep draft class coming in at the position, what will be out there for him?

Jonathan Taylor’s Hands: He’s a wonderfully talented young back; the conventional thinking thrown around is that he can catch the ball out of the backfield, they just didn’t give him a chance to do it much at Wisconsin. But he had a lot of drops in college on those limited chances, and on Saturday, the rookie had two killer drops on second-and-medium that were immediately followed by failed third-down conversions (which were followed by a punt on the edge of scoring range, and a missed field goal). This isn’t Leonard Fournette fighting it every time it gets near his hands, but Taylor has a problem with panicking and looking to go before the ball is secured.

Dez Bryant’s Return to the Playoffs: He lost his feet on a quick out to start Baltimore’s two-minute drill at the end of the first half, then got baited into a personal foul penalty a couple plays later.

Probably Should Have Brought Jacoby Brissett Out of the Bullpen: For that final Hail Mary in Buffalo. Rivers’s throw was a good five yards short of the end zone.

People Stomping on Painted Grass: The Ravens were already mad at the Titans for stomping on their painted grass before the November matchup. So the Ravens got back at them by stomping on the painted grass in Tennessee after an almost-game-sealing interception (they got a 15-yard penalty in the process). I’m not sure why anyone, aside from maybe the Wizard of Sod, would get fired up about any of this.

* * *

Moments We’ll Tell Our Grandkids About

The Wonderful Resourcefulness of Josh Allen:

Heinicke to the Pylon: This was more exciting than every other 2020 Football Team offensive play combined.

Sweet Revenge Slips Through Javon Wims’s Hands: You might remember Wims as the guy who landed multiple haymakers on a disinterested C.J. Gardner-Johnson’s helmet between plays during the previous Bears-Saints meeting. He made a tremendous grab on the sideline to set up a chance to catch a long touchdown on a first-quarter trick play, but alas…

Josh Allen Looking Off the Safety: The Colts gave him a lot to think about with some of their disguised coverages, but this is confident, high-end quarterbacking…

Russ, Moving Left, Downfield Touch: The one play the Seahawks offense delivered this postseason came on a classic Russell Wilson out-of-structure play…

Goff Owes Cooper Kupp a Coke: The ball is underthrown, which is understandable considering the pins in Goff’s thumb, but this ball is also excruciatingly late and should have been a touchdown. Instead, it’s very much in danger until Kupp bails him out…

Nickelodeon Debases the 1st & Ten Line: Heart-breaking to see what they did to the greatest achievement of the 20th century. But seriously, according to the focus group in my living room—ages six months to 10 years—the slime cannon, the slime-covered 1st & 10 Line and the advertisements were the highlights of the Nick broadcast. (I, for one, will take my first-down line yellow and my ads about shows featuring “masked” C-list celebrities in singing and/or dancing competitions, as God intended.)

* * *

What We’ll Be Talking About This Week

Bills Were Lucky to Get Out of There: Which is fine—style points don’t count and they get to play again next week! But it was a reminder that the Tua Tagovailoa’s and Patriots defenses of the world don’t play in the postseason (well, at least not on the AFC side of the bracket). Josh Allen looked a little jittery at times, at least relative to his recent run of games, and Frank Reich had a bead on Sean McDermott’s defense. But Buffalo got one under their belt, and that can make a world of difference from a comfort and confidence standpoint.

Goff’s Thumb, Wolford’s Neck, Donald’s Ribs, Kupp’s Knee: Sean McVay finds solutions as well as any coach in football, but this injury list is getting to be a bit much.

Saints-Bucs, Round 3: More specifically, Saints pass rush vs. Bucs O-line, Round 3, after the New Orleans front utterly dominated the first two meetings this year (Trey Hendrickson surely can’t wait to put more Bucs tape on his resumé as he prepares for free agency). Tampa’s offensive line has been solid in just about every other game this year, including Saturday night in Washington. Next weekend will also be Tampa's first game against an opponent who finished with a winning record since they lost to Kansas City the Sunday after Thanksgiving (they were 1-4 against such opponents this year).

Where Does the Steelers Offense Go From Here?: Unless it’s revealed Ben Roethlisberger was playing through a much more severe knee injury than they let on, he’s at best a bridge guy going into 2021. This offense was far too limited as they tried to keep him from taking hits. However, they have playmakers (even if they let JuJu Smith-Schuster, whose free-agent market is TBD considering the robust wideout market and his consecutive underwhelming years, walk) and the offensive line, while aging and declining, certainly falls under the category of “good enough.” The answers are there, but Roethlisberger, at the end of a historically great career, isn’t the quarterback to provide them.

What’s Next for Mitchell Trubisky?: For his sake, and for the Bears’, let’s hope it’s not a return to Chicago. He flashed what he’s capable of becoming during this late-season run, and maybe there’s a future as a starter in a highly-schemed offense, but it will probably take a stint as a backup first. He’s clearly not seeing the field as well as he has to, and the coaching staff doesn’t trust him enough to open up the offense. Keeping him around with the training wheels on is detrimental to him and the organization.

Who Are the Seahawks Offensively?: They came into the year letting Russ cook and it started fast, resulted in a midseason meltdown, and then they backed off. But the old-school run-and-play-action offense ran out of steam for what seems like the 53rd straight year. You try not to overreact considering the tough late-season set of defenses, but it feels like a back-to-the-drawing-board offseason in Seattle, or at least a discussion of whether they can live with the turnovers if it might avoid another postseason performance like this. They have one playoff win over the past four seasons, and it was over the Josh McCown-led Eagles.

The Seahawks Need a New Plan for Jamal Adams: He can’t be left singled up with any receivers—let alone very good receivers—as often as he was during his first season in Seattle; opposing quarterbacks see a bright neon arrow over his head every time it happens. He is a dynamic blitzer and run defender, and he offers plenty to a defensive coordinator, but this staff is going to continue to have buyer’s remorse if they think this is how they can use him.

Is This the Last of Philip Rivers?: The Colts would probably not mind bringing him back—they’ll be out of range to draft a QB, Carson Wentz makes sense but is not guaranteed to be available (though, for the record, I’d vote for Jacoby Brissett). This season showed that Rivers can still effectively game-manage an offense as long as he has a good offensive line in front of him. His market outside of Indy might be limited and the quarterback market is relatively flooded, but he’s a capable bridge QB for someone (New England?).

And How About T.Y. Hilton?: It’s going to stun people how soft the wide receiver market is in free agency—lots of good guys will be available, and the incoming draft class might be better and deeper than last year’s phenomenal group. The market is absolutely flooded. Hilton made about $14 million this year, but I’m not sure he’ll draw more than half that on the open market. And after a season in which he was more of a role player, how interested are the Colts?

Kevin Stefanski Was Clearly Holding This Browns Team Back: Why did he not have the idea of the opposing center snapping the ball into the end zone on the first play from scrimmage, and the opposing quarterback spraying three deflected interceptions over the remainder of the first quarter?

Holy Cow, Josh Allen vs. Lamar Jackson Is Coming Up: If you want my advice, I think you should watch that game.

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