NFL Divisional Round Takeaways: Saints Knock out Champs, Patriots Look Dominant, Chiefs Exorcise Demons
Reacting and overreacting to everything that happened during the NFL divisional-round playoff games.
I’m sorry to report that I’ll be dutifully filling in for Chief Freak-Outer Gary Gramling during the divisional games of the NFL playoffs on Saturday and Sunday, though admittedly without the trademark Gramling Zest™. For inspiration, I asked my eight-month-old daughter for her thoughts on Kansas City’s long history of playoff woes and Dallas’ suddenly fearsome defense ahead of Saturday night’s game agaist the Rams. She typed:
1 21maAG N`QQ6 FGFGaAz VZZVFCX4BUB
Sounds like someone isn’t totally sold on Leighton Vander Esch in coverage. Anyway, let’s get to it:
Things that made me giddy
• The NFC title game will run through one of America’s great cities: With the Saints hosting the Rams, we’ve got two high-octane offenses, two prolific schemes and two quarterbacks capable of racking up points. After a long season that, in a lot of ways, changed the NFL as we know it, we’re left with two phenomenal matchups to determine the Super Bowl. The Saints edged the Eagles in what felt like amends for the rest of playoff weekend. Nick Foles was close to recapturing past magic, but the most well-rounded team in football overcame myriad penalties and setbacks to get the job done.
• After spending the entire season trying to cautiously describe how New England doesn’t look nearly as dominant as they usually do, we watched the Patriots come out and vaporize the Chargers at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, 41–28: New England hadn’t had that big of a halftime lead since they drubbed the Tim Tebow-led Broncos years ago. Their running game, as Tony Romo pointed out on the CBS broadcast, is utilizing base I-formation plays from decades past. Brady is knifing defenses with the same kind of moderate-length passes he has been mastering since 2000. All of a sudden, it doesn’t seem that hard to imagine them back in the Super Bowl. At the least, we get a rematch of one of the best regular-season games of the year.
• We joke a lot about Philip Rivers’s ever-expanding family, but I enjoy that he gets dad-level frustrated during games and embodies the caricature we all believe must be true: Like, lawn-mower-won’t-start angry, or why-does-this-thing-need-
• Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs will play in the first-ever AFC Championship Game at Arrowhead Stadium: The 31–13 win against the Colts ended all kinds of negative postseason streaks for Kansas City, including an 0–4 playoff record against Indianapolis and a six-game home playoff losing streak. The last time the Chiefs won a playoff game at home was Jan. 8, 1994. It’s been a while.
• The NFL will not shut down Los Angeles traffic forever: After the Rams took care of business against the Cowboys on Saturday night with an efficient 30–22 win, the potential of an all-L.A. Super Bowl still loomed. It was surprising to see the Rams attack the heart of Dallas’s defense early, but then again, no team in the NFL has had the stability L.A. has enjoyed with their offensive line in 2018. But on Sunday the Patriots soundly defeated the Chargers, effectively stamping out this potential scenario.
• While circumstantial pre-game narratives like performance in a certain temperature or location are ultimately useless, this has been a good week for them: CBS kicked off the broadcast with the FROZEN RIVERS graphic, noting that the Chargers’ QB has only won one game in his career below freezing. Here’s another good one: New England’s performance in road AFC title games in the Brady-Belichick era since 2007:
Jan. 24, 2016: Broncos 20, Patriots 18 (L)
Jan. 19, 2014: Broncos 26, Patriots 16 (L)
Jan. 21, 2007: Colts 38, Patriots 34 (L)
• The C.J. Anderson bowling ball reference counter: The 27-year-old was a critical change-of-pace back on Saturday night and helped gash a Cowboys defense that bent a little bit when attacked. True to form, broadcasters latched on to his height-weight ratio, and began describing him as some cross between Mike Alstott and David Wells. The broadcast team referred to him as a bowling ball about a half dozen times in the first half, then Tony Gonzalez upped the ante during the halftime show, when he called Anderson a bowling ball made of knives (?).
• Speaking of the running game, Andrew Whitworth gets his first career playoff win: The 37-year-old is still a monster, and controlled that game from the left tackle position. It’s stunning to look back at his 2017 free agency and think that he was available for three years and $33.75 million ($15 million in guarantees). He is one of the best free agent signings of the last decade, and in a playoff scenario that could come down to ball control, he remains an essential piece of the puzzle.
• Throwing snowballs: I remember being at a college football game in South Bend, Indiana about eight years ago watching the student section hurl snowballs onto the field during a meaningless late-season game. It happened enough that an older voice on the emerged over the PA system and scolded the student section like, well, the kind of old person who gets angry about kids throwing snowballs. I remember him saying something like “Knock it off!” which elicited even more cheers and more snowballs. Because throwing snowballs is fun, and as long as you’re not chucking ice-ball heaters, you should be able to toss snowballs in a fun and friendly manner at football games. Case in point:
Majestic fun in the winter!
UPDATE: Snowballs have become a major storyline in this otherwise ho-hum contest
• Andy Reid intent on destroying the narrative surrounding his previous playoff performances like the copier in Office Space: The Chiefs went for it on fourth down twice in the first quarter and were up 17–0 early in the second. Anything to avoid HORSE(BLEEP) II.
• Beef watch: It took about a nanosecond for the simmering beef between Marcus Peters and every-now-and-then sideline provocateur Sean Payton to be re-upped on Twitter after the Saints won. It will be interesting to see if Sean McVay goes with the lockdown approach, or the “let them say whatever the heck they want!” approach.
• When the Colts finally got their first first down: 1:34 left in the second quarter.
• Should we run out of fossil fuels, perhaps we can safely power cars from the heat created by those outraged by analytically minded decisions not made by Jason Garrett: Dallas never had a chance to tie the game, but there was a great deal of steam created by those who thought he should have gone for two after the first touchdown.
• Moving on: I think we’ll move on from this Eagles season given the circumstances by which they lost, but Doug Pederson and his staff did some fairly incredible things with a rash of injuries on both sides of the ball this year. Expect the sting of this to dissipate quickly, followed by an aggressive free agency binge.
• I'm thirsty: A pronounced lack of playoff juice for the Saturday slate. I’ve heard many refer to the divisional round as the best weekend on the NFL calendar, but the wild card round got off to a slow start in 2018.
• An ending that potentially dings Frank Reich’s coach-of-the-year candidacy: However, their end-of-season run shouldn’t be forgotten amid playoff fever. Given what we saw out of the coaching hiring cycle this time around, we should root for more teams to make their hires post Super Bowl (realize the Colts were forced to do this, but Reich’s availability speaks to the quality of candidate who is still around at that time). Patience and pragmatism should be rewarded, and could maybe, hopefully, finally lead to a smarter array of diverse candidates.
• An equally significant bummer: The silver fox, Adam Vinatieri, ends his season on a bit of a low mark. He missed his first-ever postseason extra point, and missed a 23-yard field goal, which is the shortest miss of his career. A bad day all around for men of the Colts over 40, who wave their salt-and-pepper facial hair like a symbol of unbreakable strength.
• Tons of Nantz-Romo downtime in the early game, which, not by any fault of their own, resulted in endless drivel about *takes a deep whiff of oaky red wine* execution, preparedness and the Patriot Way: The advantage of having Romo in the booth is that you have an excited, wind-up telestrator who can spit out interesting facts about on-field play deep into the fourth quarter. Once the game is out of reach, just start at the beginning and tell us how they did it. I think even the most Patriot-drunk fans are tiring of the nebulous romanticizing of their success, and are interested in the mechanics.
• OK, we get it: Others have mentioned it as well, but a good joke died on Saturday night. It wasn’t necessarily Joe Buck’s and Troy Aikmans’s fault, but the I heard Sean McVay’s barista at Starbucks got four head coaching interviews! line felt like completion of a funeral march. Kudos to those on the first wave of the McVay coaching tree jokes. It got us through a week. Searching for new material? The MMQB has a list of great head coaching puns for the 2019 season.
• I can’t decide how I feel about this:
Moments we’ll tell our grandkids about
• Stand up guys: This might seem a little self-righteous, or inside-media, but over the last two weeks, we’ve seen examples of players standing at their locker and taking questions after serious playoff flubs. First, it was Cody Parkey, and then we saw Alshon Jeffery after the dropped pass on Sunday night. I think there’s a lot we could do to repair the traditional post-game media setup, but I’m always amazed by the players who are willing and candid during moments where I don’t think many of us would be.
• They grow up so fast: Sean McVay is now the youngest head coach to win a playoff game. There are a lot of things we can see coming from a mile away in the NFL, but his rise has been meteoric. The Rams are a win away from playing in the Super Bowl, where McVay could win his first Lombardi a full four years before Mike Tomlin, currently the youngest Super Bowl champion (36).
• The Colts quickly realizing this isn’t a turf field: I’ve never seen such obvious discomfort early in a playoff game like this.
• Poor Denico Autry: With 8:32 to go in the third, after sacking Patrick Mahomes on third down, Autry got hit with the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for the McCringleberry. Honestly, if there’s any game of the season to pull this out on, it’s a playoff game. If your team wins, you’re going to be hyper-focused on the upcoming opponent. If your team loses by more than two touchdowns to the No. 1 seed, you’re probably not going to watch film of it anyway.
• The longest yard: The Ezekiel Elliott up-the-gut try on fourth-and-one at the beginning of the fourth quarter, which the referees allowed to continue only slightly longer than the Eli Manning-David Tyree helmet catch.
• Sweeps season: It’s strange how commonplace the jet sweep action has become this year, and how in two years it will be so engrained in every offense that it’ll seem weird if a coach doesn’t utilize the window dressing maneuver. But the Rams are on another level. Our Andy Benoit pointed this out a long time ago, and it still rings true: Sean McVay’s game plans unfold like a story. On nearly every play Saturday, the Rams teased the sweep before utilizing it to rip Dallas’ heart out down the stretch.
• Hopefully when we relay this to our grandkids, it will be part of a story about how commonplace it is now: Either way, good for Sarah Thomas.
What we’ll be talking about this week
• Brady-Mahomes is finally a quarterback matchup in the playoffs that will live up to the delirious billing: While the league has seen an infusion of talent (and more importantly, scheme) at the position of late, they were lacking that transcendent anchor-type player for the next generation.
• The Saints’ defense: This has been their story all season. Nevermind the complementary pieces their personnel department has found for Drew Brees; the fact that they’ve built a shut-down, Super Bowl-caliber defense largely through the draft and with a few responsible free agency or trade deadline moves is impressive.
• Sony Michel would terrify me if I were the Chiefs: He and the Patriots offensive line have been the unsung heroes of the 2018 season and could do some serious damage against a Chiefs defense that allowed an average of five yards per carry – second only to the Rams in 2018.
• That contract extension for Jason Garrett: The Cowboys will reportedly prolong the Garrett tenure. A win against the Rams was apparently not a prerequisite. Garrett is 77–59 since 2010, and is now 2–3 in the playoffs. Dallas has had just one losing season since he arrived in 2010, and perhaps this is an example of a team not seeing anything they liked better out there. Though, one could argue that with the weapons at his disposal and the relative stability of their offensive line, that they should have performed better. Jerry Jones’s thirst for another Super Bowl trophy will only grow in the coming years, and he’ll search high and low for someone who can get him back to the big game if Garrett doesn’t.
• Strength of schedule is an odd statistic in the NFL: It can be dependent on so many things, like unforeseen injuries or the mid-season pivot toward tanking. I wonder, though, how much it was ignored during the Colts’ delirious end-of-season run that bumped them into the playoffs and earned defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus a handful of head coaching looks. This, from Sharp Football Stats is kind of damning.
• Is the Rams’ offense better off with a secondary rushing threat?: This team is not humming along seamlessly like the Rams of mid-season, but Anderson provides a different dynamic to prepare for. If nothing else, he’ll sit on the opponents’ bench. Fearlessness! Intimidation!
• How the narrative on the Chiefs changes with the very capable play of their defense and the efficiency of running back Damien Williams: In that environment, with an ability to gobble up time, they become every bit the formidable No. 1 seed we gushed over at the mid-season mark.
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