Tom Brady is trying to do something he hasn’t in his NFL career: Win four playoff games in one year. And so far, so good.
But the hard part is just ahead, and, yes, I’m talking about the New Orleans Saints. Brady sees them for the third time this season in next weekend’s NFC divisional round of the playoffs, and I’ll be honest: I don’t see how he or the Bucs win. Not because of anything Brady can do. But because of what his defense can’t.
Namely: Tackle, pressure the pocket and cover receivers.
That’s a bad combination when you’re playing Drew Brees, and the record proves it. In two games this season vs. the Bucs, Brees has six touchdown passes, no interceptions and two wins. Better yet, he won by a combined score of 72-26 and is 5-2 in his career mano-a-mano vs. Brady.
OK, so one of those games was the season opener, and that was four months ago. I understand. But that was the only one that was contested, with the Saints winning 34-23. Two months later, Brees and the Saints torched Tampa, 38-3, scoring all 38 before the Bucs avoided the shutout.
But that was two months ago, you say. Correct again. But Taylor Heinicke was not. He was Saturday night, and the former XFL backup, playing in place of the injured Alex Smith, befuddled the Bucs with 306 yards passing, 46 yards rushing and one memorable dive to the end zone.
Now the question: If Heinicke can shred the Bucs’ secondary, what happens when Brees gets to it? We already know … and it was brutal. If and when the Bucs exit the playoffs, it won’t be because of Tom Brady. He demonstrated that – again – this weekend. It will be because of a defense he’s been forced to outscore.
And that’s his own.
SUNDAY SCHOOL: FIVE THINGS WE LEARNED THS WEEKEND
1. There is no home-field advantage. Especially in the wild-card round, where over the last three years road teams are 10-4, including 4-2 this weekend. Over the past four seasons, visiting teams are 12-6 in the wildcard round, and while those results are surprising … this season’s figure is not. Reason: There was no home-field advantage, and you can look it up. Home teams were 127-128-1 this season. Compare that to a home record of 132-124 in 2019, and you know why it’s OK to hit the road.
2. Buffalo will need more than Josh Allen to move forward. The Bills can’t run. They can’t stop the run. They don’t pressure the pocket. And they were lucky to survive Indianapolis, which chewed up 472 yards and deserved better. The Bills have Allen, an MVP candidate who does just about everything for them, but he can’t carry them through the playoffs. Not with the defensive holes that Indianapolis exposed.
3. The Rams may have lost more than they gained in Seattle. Shutting down the Seahawks and Russell Wilson is impressive, and the Rams have the best defense out there. That makes the Rams a legit threat to Green Bay next weekend. But the possible loss of Aaron Donald might not. His chest injury Saturday was significant enough to sideline him and cause FOX analyst Troy Aikman to wonder if he might have broken ribs. He does not. X-rays were negative. But no one knows the severity of the injury, and his status is critical to the Rams’ chances. Donald is the best defensive player in the game and invaluable to a Rams' unit that sacked Wilson five times, pressured him on a season-high 50 percent of dropbacks, held him to his lowest completion rate (44.4) since 2017 (ironically, vs. the Rams) and returned an interception for touchdown. Couple his possible absence with Jared Goff's fractured thumb, and the odds just got steeper for the Rams.
4. The 2K Curse Lives. Teams with running backs that gain 2,000 yards in a single season continue to be jinxed in the playoffs. There have been eight 2,000-yard backs in the NFL, including Tennessee’s Derrick Henry this season, and only one (Terrell Davis, 1998) won a playoff game the year he hit 2K. Two (O.J. Simpson 1973 and Chris Johnson in 2009) failed to reach the playoffs, while five others (Eric Dickerson 1984, Barry Sanders 1994, Jamal Lewis 2003, Adrian Peterson 2012 and, now Henry) failed to advance beyond the wild-card round.
5. The Mitch Trubisky era is over in Chicago. I know, the Bears were 6-3 with him during the regular season and 2-5 with Nick Foles. But in the last two games, Trubisky demonstrated why the Bears didn’t exercise his fifth-year option: He can’t take them where they want to go. He lost to Green Bay a week ago, and he lost to New Orleans in the playoffs Sunday. The Bears need to upgrade the position, and don’t ask me who’s next. All I know is the first move is getting beyond Trubisky.
HOT IN CLEVELAND
It's hard not to root for the Cleveland Browns, not just because of what they achieved this season; but what they achieved the past three games. Playing two opponents at once -- the team on their schedule and the COVID pandemic -- they somehow persevered, reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2002 and winning their first postseason game since 1994. Yet look how they got there. One week, they were forced to play without their top four receivers. The next without key assistants. Then they go to Pittsburgh, where they'd lost their last 17 starts, and push on without their head coach, four assistants, assorted players and a week of practice. Result: They're still alive in the playoffs. Now it's on to Kansas City, where the defending Super Bowl champs should shred a secondary that Roethlisberger punctured for 47 completions and 501 yards. Except nothing this season is as it seems with these Browns. Now, more than ever, Cleveland rocks.
FOURTH AND LONG
1. Entering Sunday’s wildcard game with Tennessee, Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson said he had “to change the narrative”… and he did. He not only gained the first playoff victory of his career; he also produced his first NFL victory … ever … after trailing by 10 points. He’d been 0-6.
2. So now it’s Jackson vs. Buffalo’s Josh Allen, and heaven help the Bills and their run defense. Kansas City gashed them for 245 yards earlier this season, and Indianapolis dropped 163 on them Saturday. I can’t imagine what the league’s No. 1-ranked run offense and Usain Bolt … I mean, Lamar Jackson … go for.
3. Jackson said he didn’t shake hands with the Titans afterward, choosing instead to run off the field, because Tennessee players huddled on the Ravens’ logo in November OK, fine. It’s a free country. One question: Then what does he say to teammates who danced on the Titans’ logo following Marcus Peters’ fourth-quarter interception, drawing a penalty for taunting? “It wasn’t about disrespect,” Ravens’ defensive tackle Derek Wolfe said. “It was more about team unity.” Yeah, sure. What’s good for the goose … aw, never mind.
4. If Cleveland's Kevin Stefanski wins Coach of the Year ... and he should ... then Mike Priefer is the runner-up. As Stefanski's sub Sunday night, he ended a 17-game Browns' losing streak in Pittsburgh.
5. Guess we know who presents Hall-of-Fame finalist Tom Flores to its board of 48 selectors this month: Coors Light.
6. Outside of the final score, the biggest upset in Sunday's Cleveland-Pittsburgh game was sacks. The Steelers didn't have any, breaking a streak of 73 consecutive games with at least one. That wasn't supposed to happen, not vs. a makeshift Cleveland line that changed as the game progressed. Of course, the Browns weren't supposed to win, either..
7. I watch the Rams frazzle Russell Wilson and wonder: How in the world did they lose to the Jets?
8. Ravens’ coach John Harbaugh called Lamar Jackson’s 48-yard TD sprint “the best run I’ve ever seen by a quarterback.” Wait. What? Someone tell Harbaugh to rewind videotape of Steve Young’s 49-yard game-winning TD run vs. Minnesota in October, 1988. Young miraculously escaped a sack, flushed left and ran through the entire Vikings’ defense – with six would-be tacklers having their hands on him --- before stumbling, exhausted, into the end zone. Memo to John Harbaugh: The latest is not always the greatest.
9. Sorry, but I don’t get the Titans’ thinking on a critical drive early in the fourth quarter. Down 17-13, they were sitting second-and-2 at the Baltimore 40. Common sense says to feed Derrick Henry. Except he wasn’t in the game. So they took a shot down the sidelines. Incomplete. Now, it’s third-and-2, and common sense says feed King Henry again. Nope. A pass to tight end Jonnu Smith instead … and it’s broken up. Now it’s fourth-and-2, and where’s Derrick Henry? On the bench. The Titans punt. Yeeesh. Coaches.
10. Reports have Drew Brees retiring after this season, and no surprise there. He missed nine starts the past two seasons with serious injuries, and he turns 42 on Friday. So here’s my wish: He follows the Manning script to Peytonville and wins a Lombardi Trophy as his parting gift.
11. Listening to an emotional Philip Rivers after Saturday’s loss I couldn’t help but think that was his last game … ever. Hope I’m wrong.
12. I may be a party of one, but I LOVED the graphics from Nickelodeon on the Bears-Saints telecast (especially the Slime Zone). Brought levity to a game that sorely needs it.
13. Trubisky won the game’s NVP (Nickelodeon Valuable Player), which is puzzling, but viewers must have loved something about the guy. Me? I was waiting for him to be slimed, with teammate Cordarrelle Patterson a close second for the F-bomb he dropped near Nick mikes.
14. I have no idea what's next for Ben Roethlisberger, but I know what should be next for the Steelers: Finding his successor in the draft.
15. The focus with New Orleans is on Drew Brees, Alvin Kamara, Michael Thomas and the Saints’ offense, and that figures. What I can’t fathom is why nobody talks more about the New Orleans’ defense. The nine points and 239 yards it allowed Sunday were the fewest in franchise playoff history. What's more, the last time it faced Brady and the Bucs? Three points. Period.
16. Tough weekend for officials, with the botched call on Zach Pascal’s in the Colts/Bills game the most egregious. It could’ve cost the Bills their first playoff win in 9,142 days … or since 1995. Viewers deserved a better explanation than we got from the NFL, aka its senior VP of officiating, Al Riveron. So does Roger Goodell.
17. The over/under for next weekend's Browns-Chiefs game opened at 54. Give me the over. The Chiefs may score that many in one half. .
18. Brady is the all-time leader in TD passes with 581 (including the playoffs), and Brees is second with 571. According to Elias Sports Bureau, when they play next weekend it’ll be the first time the top two career leaders in touchdown passes meet in the playoffs. No wonder that’s Sunday’s featured game.
19. Bigger collapse: The 1964 Phillies or the 2020 Steelers?
20. FOX’s Troy Aikman says Aaron Donald “is the best defensive player I’ve ever seen.” Question: Did he see Lawrence Taylor? How about Joe Greene?
21. Baker Mayfield beat more than the Steelers. He beat history. Mayfield was the first pick of the 2018 draft, and prior to Sunday only two quarterbacks chosen No. 1 overall won their first playoff games. Mayfield changed the record to 3-10.
22. Hard to believe but ... the two teams the Jets beat this season? Yep, they're still alive in the playoffs (the Rams and Browns).
23. Reminder to Green Bay fans who think they caught a break with the Rams: The NFC West has five of the past eight teams to represent the conference in the Super Bowl.
24. Taylor Heinicke is right. He proved he belongs in the NFL.
25. Critics will blame Roethlisberger and his four interceptions for Pittsburgh's defeat, but they better spare some venom for his head coach. At least Big Ben gave the Steelers a chance with heroic second-half play. But coach Mike Tomlin, normally a risk taker, short-circuited any chance of a comeback, by failing to go for a fourth-and-1 when he should have. That happened early in the fourth quarter after the Steelers had closed to 12 and were set up at their own 46. Roethlisberger was hot, the Browns were not and momentum was all Pittsburgh's. Until, that is, Tomlin decided to punt. If there's something that should haunt him this offseason it's that decision.
STAT THAT MAY ONLY INTEREST ME
Cleveland's 28 first-quarter points are the most in a first quarter of any playoff game since the 1970 league merger. The Browns scored as many first-period points Sunday as they did in the first quarters of their previous 13 games combined in Pittsburgh.
ONE THAT MIGHT INTEREST YOU
The Baltimore Ravens are 11-6 on the road in the playoffs, including 6-0 in the wildcard round. With eight career playoff wins on the road, the Ravens’ John Harbaugh surpasses Hall-of-Famer Tom Landry and Tom Coughlin (7 each) for the most in league history.
AND ONE FOR BOTH OF US
The Bears were the ninth team to finish .500 or below and reach the playoffs. Those teams are 2-7.
SUNDAY’S GOLD JACKET QUOTES
Our defense … they were tired of hearing the noise. They did what they were supposed to do.” – Baltimore QB Lamar Jackson on stopping Derrick Henry.
"We were a group that died on the vine." -- Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin.
“It may be the best win I’ve ever been associated with.” – Ravens’ coach John Harbaugh on Sunday’s victory.
"We're the Cleveland Browns. The same old Cleveland Browns." -- Cleveland DE Myles Garrett.
“This is definitely going to sting. Will be on my mind until I come back and suit up next year.” – Tennessee RB Derrick Henry on losing to Baltimore.
“I coach the Titans, not the Ravens.” – Tennessee coach Mike Vrabel, when asked about Baltimore players celebrating on the Titans’ logo at midfield and running off the field afterward.
"We blew it. I'm not going to sugar-coat it. As a defense, we gave up too many points. As a leader of the defense, I failed. Miserably." -- Pittsburgh DL Cam Heyward.
SUNDAY’S GOLD JACKET RECIPIENT
Baltimore defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale. He did what nobody else this season could: Bottle up Derrick Henry. A year ago, King Henry shredded the Ravens in the playoffs for 193 yards rushing. Earlier this season he dropped another 133 on them, including the game-winning TD in overtime. But he didn’t score Sunday, and he didn’t run for 100 yards. He didn’t run for 50, either. Final totals: 18 carries for 40 yards and no TDs, with an 8-yard rush his longest carry. Henry was also hit behind the line of scrimmage on 11 of 18 attempts, producing his lowest output since a 28-yard effort last season in Denver. “Physical, physical, physical,” said Ravens’ defensive tackle Derek Wolfe. What’s more, Martindale’s defense held Tennessee to three points the final three quarters and thwarted Titans’ quarterback Ryan Tannehill. The Titans entered the game scoring 30 or more points in six of their last seven games. They were held to a season-low 13.