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NFL Wild-Card Takeaways: Overwhelming Rams, Cardinals Collapse Now Complete

Plus, unprepared Cowboys, Chiefs-Steelers is utterly predictable, Bucs D ready to run it back, Josh Allen steals the Patriots’ souls (again), and more!

Welcome to the Wild-Card Weekend edition of the Sunday FreakOut, where we react and overreact to everything that is happening in this weekend’s games, with live updates after each game. For the full roundup podcast-style, be sure to subscribe to The MMQB Podcast, in your feed every Monday morning...

Things That Made Me Giddy

Matthew Stafford Is on the Postseason Board!: They didn’t need him to do a ton of heavy lifting, but Stafford was near-perfect anyway. He finished 13-for-17 for 202 yards (11.9 per attempt) and two touchdowns—of his four incompletions, three were wide-open drops.

So Is Odell Beckham Jr.!: Chemistry or not, this is what can happen if you devote a double to Cooper Kupp. Beckham had the game’s opening touchdown on a goal-line fade and added a 31-yard catch and run. And completed a 40-yard pass, because why not?

Aaron Donald: And Von Miller. And Leonard Floyd. And Greg Gaines. The Rams went out of their way to assemble the NFL's best front four, and this is what they can do in a postseason game.

DeMeco Ryans’s 0-Blitz: On fourth-and-11 at midfield. Yup, they almost got burned, but it took a superhuman play by Dak Prescott to even give the Cowboys a chance. Ryans dominated the Cowboys’ offensive coaches in this one. Early on, it was the front four taking over for the Niners, but after the Nick Bosa injury, with the pass rush drying up, Dak Prescott consistently had to work late into the down, completely uncomfortable with the looks he was getting in the secondary.

The 49ers’ Front Four: They wrecked the first half, and they might have wrecked the second half too had Nick Bosa not gone out with a concussion.

Todd Bowles Has What He Needs: The return of Lavonte David, particularly, on Sunday was just in time for the Eagles’ multi-faceted run game, and the Bucs defense is now as healthy as it’s been since the season opener. It was the defense that keyed Tampa’s Super Bowl run a year ago, and now they’re poised to do it again. Even with the injuries on offense, Tom Brady just needs to keep that side of the ball operating at a B-plus level for this team to make another run.

Josh Allen Devoured Bill Belichick’s Soul: We don’t need to rehash it (at least not this weekend), but the Patriots’ wind-swept win in Orchard Park last December birthed tens of thousands of terrible takes. The worst of them was along the lines of: Actually, the Patriots only threw three times because they don’t think much of Josh Allen and the Bills’ offensive coaches. In three of their past four matchups, Bill Belichick and the Patriots have had zero answers for Josh Allen. That isn’t hyperbole; they have not come up with any kind of strategy—micro or macro—to stop this offense. Throw out the gale force game, and Allen has averaged 39.3 points in his last three against New England. The Bills didn’t punt in the past two. Belichick has never been beaten this thoroughly, and repeatedly, by one player and one team at any point in his career.

Josh Allen Out of Structure: He made the opening touchdown drive happen, with a long scramble and then a looked-much-easier-than-it-was flip to Dawson Knox in the back corner of the end zone. (I was going to write that it’s the kind of thing you don’t get from Mac Jones, but Jones delivered two of those plays on the subsequent drive!)

Kyle Shanahan’s Opening Drive: If you win the toss against the 49ers, take the ball.

Joe Burrow Is Going to Win MVPs: He’s operating the kind of offense that would normally be run by a 10-year veteran, and he’s doing it with two street-free-agent types holding down the right side of the line.

At Least Bryan Anger Showed Up!: Not just the fake-punt completion that kept the Cowboys alive, but Anger was bombing punts in this one, a 53.6 average not including the one he banked off Jerry Vision.

Cam Akers and J.J. Watt on the Field Monday night: That is science fiction.

Derek Carr Is, Actually, Underrated: The NFL is full of quarterbacks who twist into knots trying to brand themselves as disrespected or underestimated in some way. For three seasons Carr watched as his coach subtly and not-so-subtly flirted with other quarterbacks, only to outlast that coach and drag the Raiders to an incredibly unlikely playoff appearance, and within one throw of pushing that playoff appearance to overtime. Whatever the length of Jon Gruden’s contract was, Mark Davis should give Carr the same.

That Bills Offensive Line: They were pretty good in 2020. They were not very good in 2021. On Saturday night, they mauled a Patriots front that doesn’t often get mauled.

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Regrets

The Last Shot That Never Was: The QB draw with 14 seconds left and no timeouts was an obscenely risky call. (Would you rather have two shots at the end zone from 40 yards or one shot from the 25? Only Mike McCarthy’s calculator knows.) Other than that, either your quarterback or your center (preferably both) have to realize that the ball has to go to an official. That one isn't on the officials—if you need an umpire to run a 4.4 to get the next play off, you're doing it wrong. In a way, it was a fitting end for a team that just didn’t show up prepared for a playoff game.

The Delay of Game Was Also on the Cowboys: Dallas tried to get cute with a late, 11-man substitution after their fake-punt first down, leaving their punt team on the field until the last minute. Ultimately, they timed it incorrectly, and the officials correctly held up the play until the 49ers to substitute. (And the 49ers were smart enough to take their sweet time.) 

Mike McCarthy Will Have a Tough Time Living This One Down: It’s a young team that doesn’t have a lot of playoff experience, but the Cowboys looks especially overwhelmed on Sunday. The offensive line was atrocious. Dak Prescott was spraying throws all over—even when he had protection he consistently looked uncomfortable with what he was seeing. Trevon Diggs got cooked by Brandon Aiyuk. But what really stood out was the number of pre-snap mistakes, whether it was mind-numbing penalties (watch the ball, Randy Gregory), or run-fit issues at all the wrong times. This was a team that did not come prepared for an NFL playoff game.

The Whistle: As Joe Burrow neared the sideline on what became a second-quarter touchdown throw. Of course, these things happen—how they keep happening with incredible frequency to the people tasked with officiating the highest level of professional football is baffling, but for now let’s just say, pobody’s nerfect, that’s why pencils have erasers, etc. What’s truly stunning is that none of the seven members of a postseason officiating crew, nor the folks helping them from New York, did what is the correct thing according to both the rule book and common sense, which is consider the play blown dead and replay the down.

Chiefs vs. Steelers:

arrested-development

Will the Bucs’ Young Guys Click With Brady?: Aside from the Tristan Wirfs injury, the only red flag for the Bucs’ was the sight of Brady screaming “RUN!” repeatedly at Tyler Johnson, who twice throttled down on routes when he shouldn’t have. They’ll face stiffer tests than what they got on Sunday, and those details have the potential to break them.

Eagles Coaching Staff Wasn’t Up to It on Sunday: There’s no shame in that for Nick Sirianni, Shane Steichen, Jonathan Gannon and Co. Todd Bowles is one of the best coordinators on either side of the ball in football and had, essentially, his full complement of players back, and player/coach Tom Brady obviously remains an elite offensive mind. Had it not been for a couple of miscommunications with receivers and the Tristan Wirfs injury, I’m not sure this Eagles defense would have gotten off the field. Offensively, the Bucs were not going to let the Eagles’ ground game get going, and Philly just didn’t seem prepared with a counter.

Man, Eagles Folks Really Don’t Like Jonathan Gannon, Eh?: It was a unit that was supposed to be built around the veteran front four, and then the veteran front four had a rash of injuries. There were a lot of trying moments for this defense in 2021, and their playoff exit was another one. But, I dunno, I’d be curious to see what he does with a full complement of players.

Jimmy Garoppolo: Oh boy. He lives on, but just barely. His fourth-quarter interception, just a flat-out miss at the worst possible time, would have lived in infamy.

Mac Jones and the Saddest Fake Spike: Which I think we can all agree is among the worst of the Harry Potter knockoffs. Aside from that: The Patriots had two timeouts at this point. In what world is any defense going to be fooled by a fake spike? (Not Earth.)

Zach Ertz Lost 11 Games This Season: It doesn’t mean anything—he’s a once-very-good player who’s still serviceable. But it is rather incredible that he played for two different playoff teams and managed to go 7–11 on the year.

A Very Long Day for Randy Gregory: He jumped offsides twice early. And it looked like he thought guard Dan Brunskill was the ball carrier on what was essentially a game-ending defensive holding penalty on second-and-long.

Usage of the Word “Slime” on the Nickelodeon Broadcast: Basically this, just replace “gummy” with “slime.”


Moments We’ll Tell Our Grandkids About

Micah Hyde’s Pick: Incredible range, though also an assist to Mac Jones for moving him in that direction with the poorly-thought-out pump fake (yes, he's trying to draw him up to the tight end, but still...). Anyway, if you’re a believer in the Butterfly Effect…

If Christian Hackenberg Started a Postseason Game:

Dawson Knox Congratulates Adrian Phillips on His Recent Contract Extension:


What We’ll Be Talking About This Week (and This Offseason)

Call the “Divisional Round” Playoffs the “Conference Semifinals”: If you have any self respect.

Was This Season Progress in Arizona?: It was a 7–0 start fueled by almost literally every bounce going their way—historic efficiency in the red zone, on fumble-recovery rate and on fourth-down offense and defense. Kyler Murray, a subpar passer at the deep-intermediate level his first two seasons, was on pace to shatter the single-season record for completion percentage on throws of 15-plus air yards. It was, in short, completely unsustainable. At no point was this one of football’s 10 best teams—no matter how many times team brass claimed they were all in—let alone a Super Bowl contender. Eventually, the win-loss record started to reflect that. So after watching Murray regress down the stretch, and the half-decade-behind-the-times offensive scheme completely cease to function after the loss of a single wide receiver, is there really something to build on here? Kliff Kingsbury is entering the last year of his contract; I’m not sure there’s any way to justify an additional commitment to him.

Watch NFL games online all season long with fuboTV: Start with a 7-day free trial!

Tom Brady’s Fate Intertwined With Tristan Wirfs’s Ankle: Lord only knows how this coaching and training staff allowed Wirfs back on the field when he was essentially immobile, and based on his post-injury performance you’d think this is a multi-week injury. Tom Brady has made a lot of offensive linemen look very good over the years, but plugging a banged-up Josh Wells in at right tackle for a postseason game is a pretty decent premise for a short story in the horror genre.

Aaron Donald and Co. Get Tom Brady Next: With both Wirfs and center Ryan Jensen question marks for the game.

Allen vs. Mahomes IV: The Bills went into Kansas City on a Sunday night and won by 18, seemingly exorcising a demon. Right now, these are two quarterbacks operating at the peak of their respective powers. You want my advice? I think you should watch that game.

A Good Day for the Packers: The 49ers are a formidable opponent—no one on that Packers defense needs a reminder of their NFC title game visit to Santa Clara two seasons ago. But the Niners will limp into Lambeau, with Fred Warner finishing on a bum ankle on Sunday and Nick Bosa having to get through concussion protocol this week.

Steve Levy’s Pronunciation of “Marvel”: Mar-VEHL. He did it twice. So… am I pronouncing it wrong? I wish I had friends who could tell me.

The Mac Jones Patriots: On one hand, being selected by the greatest coach in football history gives Jones a kind of benefit of the doubt that other young quarterbacks will never get. On the other hand, he’s going to play John Allen twice a year from now until the end of time, and more often than not it’s not going to go well. Jones is a quality starter and obviously the answer in New England for at least the next four seasons. But the Patriots will have to come up with a formula to catch Buffalo, just like the rest of the AFC East was trying to do to them for the past two decades. Jones can be a part of that formula, but will he ever be the reason they catch the Bills?

Just Keep Rich Bisaccia: Mark Davis has to let this group run it back one more time.

Eagles Still Have Many Draft Picks: And if there’s one city in this great nation that loves their professional sports teams accruing draft picks, it’s Philadelphia. Right now, the Eagles are scheduled to pick three times between Nos. 15 and 19 in April. Perhaps Jalen Reagor provided some unfortunate reminders on Sunday regarding what this front office has done with first-round picks in the recent past, but nonetheless! Philly has a chance to replenish an aging defense as they spend another year building around Jalen Hurts offensively, and that’s an exciting spot to be in.

J.C. Jackson’s Free Agency: He’s a fine player, but he has to get as far away from Buffalo as possible. Every time he goes against this Bills team he morphs into the guy on the Washington Generals who gets his shorts pulled down every game.

What Poor Soul Will Take the Dolphins’ Job?: And have to deal with Josh Allen twice a season for the next decade? (And also the remainder of Bill Belichick’s tenure.)

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