CRUNCH TIME

NFL Playoffs: Wildcard Weekend observations

Derrick Henry helped the Titans spring an upset. Tennessee Titans web site

Wildcard Weekend has wrapped up. It delivered some excitement, as well as some nap time material. Overall, it was another great weekend of football. Why? Well, because it’s football dammit and we only have a month left before games go away! Let’s take a look back at this weekend’s games…

Tennessee Titans vs Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs came back from the dead to win the AFC West this year and were rounding back into early season form. Meanwhile, the Titans scratched out a 9-7 record and won the fifth seed. Playing at home, the Chiefs were favored. Not only because they were at home, but they were playing better and weren’t dealing with losing their starting running back like the Titans. The teams exchanged punts, then the Chiefs put together touchdown drives on their next two possessions, sandwiched by another Titans punt. Less than two minutes before halftime, Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce caught a pass over the middle and took a mean shot to the head and left the game with a concussion. Although the Chiefs went on to score a touchdown on the drive to go up 21-3 before the half, their offense would never be the same. On the opening possession of the second half, Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota ended a 15 play, 91 yard drive with the rare touchdown pass to himself (first time that happened since 1997). That was the turning point. The Chiefs, at that point, were up 21-10 at home and proceeded to meltdown. League leading rusher Kareem Hunt only got five carries for 17 yards in the second half. The Titans went on to stop the Chiefs from scoring again and added two touchdowns of their own. The game ended when the Chiefs failed to convert on 4th and 9. The star of the game was Titans running back Derrick Henry who didn’t have to share carries with Demarco Murray and ran for 156 yards and a touchdown. He appears to have taken over the lead back role. Now the Titans get the unenviable task of facing the New England Patriots in Foxboro.

Atlanta Falcons vs. LA Rams

This game was a matchup of what seemed to be two ships passing in the night. The upstart Rams have made a huge turnaround this year and looks like one of the new hot teams atop the NFC. The Falcons were the NFC representative last year in the Super Bowl, but seemed to have taken a step back this year and only got the final playoff spot with a week 17 win over division rival Carolina Panthers. After trading punts on the first four possessions of the game, the Falcons got on the board first with a field goal. Following another Rams punt, they added a second field goal. It seemed as if this would be a test of wills. Then the Rams kick returner Pharoh Cooper fumbled, Falcons recovered, then they scored a touchdown to go up 13-0. The Rams followed that up with a touchdown, forcing a punt, then a field goal to cut the score to 13-10 by halftime. In the second half, the Falcons’ experience, and defense, took over. Comparing the two teams’ second halves, the Rams’ four possessions gained 172 yards, but yielded only three points, a punt, and two turnovers on downs. On the other hand, the Falcons’ five possessions netted them 208 yards, 13 points, a punt and a kneel down to end the game. Credit the Falcons secondary for tackling well as members of their defensive backfield were the second through fifth leading tacklers. Because they were the No. 6 seed and won, they get to go to Philadelphia to face the Carson Wentz-less Eagles next,

Buffalo Bills vs Jacksonville Jaguars

This was by far the worst game of the weekend. It always had the makings of being a bad game. When you have the league’s best sack total team in the Jags going against the team that surrendered the most sacks, it spells trouble. Add to that the fact that Bills star running back, and guy responsible for a third of the team’s offense, LeSean McCoy was hobbled by an ankle injury. In the first half alone, there were nine punts, a turnover, two field goals, and a total of 244 yards of offense. The second half started with the teams trading punts. The Jags scored the game’s lone touchdown on a 15 play, 86 yard drive that took up 8:52 of the 3rd quarter when Blake Bortles found tight end Ben Koyack on a 4th and Goal from the one yard line. From there, we were privileged to see another six punts (bringing the game total to 17). On their last stand, Bills’ quarterback Tyrod Taylor was knocked out of the game. Backup Nathan Peterman came into the game and threw an interception on his third pass attempt to seal their fate. I imagine the infamous Bills Mafia (their fanbase) put up a better fight against Jags fans than either team did during the game. The most telling stat of this game was that Bortles, who’ll never be mistaken for Michael Vick, totaled more rushing yards (88) than passing yards (87). Last time that happened: the Tennessee Titans and Steve McNair beat the Buffalo Bills in the 1999 “Music City Miracle” game. The Jags get the Pittsburgh Steelers up next which could prove a favorable matchup if Antonio Brown isn’t healthy.

Carolina Panthers vs New Orleans Saints

In the second best game of the weekend, these division rivals put on a fireworks display. Being their third meeting of the season, it was expected to hold up to expectations, and it did. All season long, the Saints have relied on running backs Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara. They were the first backfield duo to be selected to the Pro Bowl in over 40 years and first duo ever to both total over 1,500 scrimmage yards each. However, the Panthers were having none of it. The Saints’ impactful tandem was held in check with a whopping combined total of only 68 yards, and no touchdowns. It was a complete turnaround for the Panthers defense from the previous two games. Both quarterbacks threw for over 300 yards each (Panthers’ Newton threw for 349 and Saints’ Brees threw for 376). One of the best matchups was seeing Brees and Panthers All-Pro middle linebacker Luke Kuechly trade adjustment calls. As Brees would make an adjustment, Kuechly would do the same. It was like watching a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu submission specialist go against a stand-up striker in an MMA fight. The game came down to the Saints 4th & 2 play while up 31-26. They tried to draw the Panthers offsides, but called a timeout. Instead of punting, they tried a play action pass which was intercepted. The Panthers had a chance to score a game winning touchdown, but turned the ball over on downs following a blitz and sack of Cam Newton on 4th & 23. In the process, the Saints lost another player to injury as offensive lineman Andrus Peat was carted off the field in the first half. They get to go to Minnesota and play the Vikings next week in what will be a matchup of a high-powered offense for the Saints and a hard-nosed defense for the Vikings.

Outside of the Bills/Jags snooze-fest, each game had its own flare for the dramatic. No outcome was a surprise. Except the fact that the Chiefs choked away an 18-point lead over the second half at home. That was just terrible, but entertaining nonetheless. Even though the Falcons beat the Rams by 13, the game seemed to be closer. The Saints/Panthers game was bound to be exciting because it was a matchup of division rivals.

Next week’s games should give us better games and matchups. Next Saturday, the Falcons/Eagles should provide some entertainment, provided Eagles quarterback Nick Foles can be 2013 Nick Foles and Matt Ryan, along with his band of merry men, can perform as wellas they did last year in their Super Bowl run. When the Titans/Patriots hook up, I fully expect the Patriots to win. However, if the Titans can manage to rough up Tom Brady and keep the game close, they should have a shot in similar fashion as the Dolphins did when they beat the Patriots in week 14. The Jags/Steelers game will be a matchup of contrasting styles. The Steelers feature a high octane offense, and the Jags of “Sacksonville” bring the league’s 2nd ranked total defense (1st in passing yards allowed per game). When the Saints and Vikings faceoff, it’ll be a regular season rematch in which the Vikings came out victorious. Both teams are different from that week one matchup. The Vikings are now quarterbacked by Case Keenum and still have a stellar defense. The Saints have jettisoned Adrian Peterson, allowing Ingram and Kamara to flourish. This has the makings of a classic, or a blowout, depending on which defense can dictate to the other’s offense. Regardless of what happens, next weekend will be another great weekend of football, because football dammit!

Kevin C Cox/Getty Images

We all love football, especially the NFL. There is a reason it is the most popular sport in the country.

The other sports leagues need gimmicks. Baseball is weighing a really dumb playoff plan. The NBA looked at a possible tournament. Anything to try to be more relevant, to try to close the gap on the NFL.

So why is the one sport with the best postseason thinking about messing it up?

Last week, a report came out that the NFL was looking to add two more playoff teams for the 2021 season. Essentially, each league would have seven playoff teams. There would be byes for the top team in each conference. The second-best team would no longer get a bye. Last season, in the AFC, the Ravens would have had a bye. The Texans would have still faced the Bills, and the Patriots would have also faced the Titans. The Chiefs would have hosted the 8-8 Steelers.

In the NFC, San Francisco would have had the bye. The Saints would have played the Vikings, the Eagles would have faced the Seahawks and the Packers would have hosted the Rams. The results likely would have played out the same.

But did we really need to see a Steelers team with no quarterback? Are the extra games worth it?

On the surface, yes. more meaningful games. More to bet on. Could that really be a bad thing?

Yes. One of the things that makes the NFL unique is that it is not easy to make the playoffs. Basketball and hockey let in half the league or more. Letting in more than 12 out of 32 waters things down. Can the playoffs really improve by adding less quality?

The NFL already has it right. Why change it? More money? More teams staying in the race later in the season?

The NFL barely had enough quality teams last season. The playoffs featured upsets, including the Titans knocking off New England and Baltimore. In the end, we got two quality teams in the Super Bowl. Why mess with it?

Greed. Better TV deals. It is just two games, but that's two more high-profile TV games to sell.

Sometimes, sports leagues can outthink themselves. In this case, the NFL does not need to change. Why mess with something that is working? The NFL playoffs don't need improving. Is that Chiefs-Steelers matchup really worth it? Teams like the Colts, Jets, Broncos and Raiders would have been in the playoff mix until near the end of the season. On the surface, this all sounds great.

But at the risk of sounding like "get off my lawn" guy, sometimes the old ways are the best. The NFL has not changed its playoff format in 30 years. During that time, the sport has seen unprecedented growth and become the dominant sports league in America.

Why change what works just to add more money to a multi-billion dollar industry? Why reward more mediocrity in a league that welcomes too much of it as it is?

The playoff expansion appears inevitable, so complaining will do little good. Still, it is a bad idea. Messing with a playoff format that works can go two ways; it could improve the product, but the more likely result is more bad teams, and more mismatches.

At least it guarantees Bill O'Brien stays employed forever, as the 9-7 train will likely get you to the playoffs from here on out.

That is not a good thing, and this is a change that will not be for the better.

Messing with something that has worked for 30 years is a bad decision. But the NFL will make more money, and two average teams will get a chance to get rolled in the first round.

What could possibly go wrong?


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