What Have We Learned From Wildcard Weekend of the 2018 NFL Playoffs

Demarus Dye| BKD TV Insiders

Kevin Byard, Johnathan Cyprien

Tennessee Titans safety Kevin Byard (31) and safety Johnathan Cyprien (37) celebrate after Cyprien broke up a pass to Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Albert Wilson during the second half of an NFL wild-card playoff football game, in Kansas City, Mo., Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Here is What Have We Learned from Wildcard Weekend of the 2018 NFL Playoffs, thanks to the AP Pro 32 for photos & help in this article.

Ups

  • Call Titans ugly or gritty, they keep finding ways to win-Go ahead and pick against the Tennessee Titans. Count them out against the New England Patriots or call them the ugliest team left in the NFL playoffs.

    A franchise only two years removed from the NFL’s worst record over a two-season stretch cares only about winning.

    “Our guys kind of like that role,” Titans coach Mike Mularkey said of being underdogs. “Again, this is not a flashy team. It’s not sexy. It’s just a blue collar, come to work, see what happens when you do and see … everybody compete for 60 minutes, see what the outcome is going to come. … Don’t worry about predictors. That’s their job. We have a job to do.”

    The Titans (10-7) went 5-27 between 2014 and 2015, costing Ken Whisenhunt his job after 23 games. Mularkey took over, and he’s now 21-21 after a stunning comeback for a 22-21 win at Kansas City in the wild-card round.

    Now they will visit New England (13-3) on Saturday night for Tennessee’s first divisional playoff game since January 2009 and their first divisional road game since losing to the Patriots 17-14 in January 2004. They’ve already been installed as 13-point underdogs, though being at least an 8-point underdog at Kansas City and trailing 21-3 at halftime didn’t stop the Titans.

    Pro Bowl defensive lineman Jurrell Casey said the Titans’ confidence never wavered as they tied for the second-largest comeback by a road team in the playoffs.

    “Everybody was hungry and had the want to,” Casey said. “When you have that, and look around the sideline and see it in their eyes, there’s no reason to panic. That’s what we’ve been doing all year long, and we’ll continue to do that.”

    Actually, the Titans have been doing that for the past couple seasons under Mularkey. The Titans now are 7-1 since the start of the 2016 season in games decided by three or fewer points — best in the NFL.

    Tight end Delanie Walker said they are comfortable when trailing, confident in their ability to rally.

    “We fight to the end,” Walker said. “We weren’t worried about it. We came in (at halftime) and we were like, ‘They haven’t done anything to stop us.’ We made some adjustments. We went back out there, moved the ball, scored some points and there you have it.”

    Mularkey said being in close games is expected with how Tennessee attacks on offense with its run scheme. That’s what makes coordinator Dick LeBeau’s defense so crucial.

    The Titans rallied against Kansas City with the defense holding the Chiefs to just 61 yards total offense and no points in the second half. On the other side, the offense held the ball for more than 19 minutes, scored on four straight possessions and Derrick Henry had 85 of his career-high 156 yards rushing in the fourth quarter.

    Marcus Mariota also notched the ninth game-winning drive of his career and fifth since the start of the 2017 season in beating Kansas City.

    Mularkey said the mental toughness required to pull out so many close games is critical, especially on the road.

    “We did a lot of good things in that game to give us a chance to win,” Mularkey said. “Unfortunately, we had to do it late, but we did a lot of good things as a team I think will carry over as we go forward.”

    General manager Jon Robinson, who got his start in the NFL with 12 seasons in New England starting as a scout, has been busy rebuilding this roster over the past two years. Cornerback Logan Ryan, who signed as a free agent last offseason after four seasons and two Super Bowl rings with the Patriots, said the Titans feature a bunch of players with nothing to lose.

    “A bunch of guys who are underrated, undervalued, who came from different places, and who were trying to do something special. We believe that,” Ryan said.

    Now the longshot Titans face their biggest test yet Saturday night in New England.

    “We want more,” Walker said.

 

  • Saints beat Panthers, confident about rematch with Vikings– Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints face the prospect of seeing their season end where it began.That is, unless they’ve improved enough to turn the tables on the Minnesota Vikings, who beat New Orleans convincingly in Week 1.

    “That feels like ages and ages ago,” Brees said of the 29-19 loss in Minnesota, describing the difference between the Saints then and now as “night and day.”

    The Saints (12-5) rebounded from double-digit losses to the Vikings and New England Patriots in their first two games to win the NFC South. Now they’re on to the divisional round of the NFC playoffs after holding off Carolina (11-6), 31-26 on Sunday.

    New Orleans’ next game comes one day before Brees turns 39 years old, and will come one week after the veteran quarterback reminded everyone he’s still capable of big passing days if opposing defenses sell out to stop the Pro Bowl running back tandem of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara.

    Brees completed 23 passes to eight different receivers for 375 yards and two touchdowns. Only two of his completions went to Ingram or Kamara, who accounted for only 68 yards from scrimmage combined.

    “We trust our system. We trust each other and what we proved is we can beat you in a lot of different ways,” Brees said. “There’s no better feeling than knowing you just won, not only won but won a playoff game as a team and now you’re on to the next one.”

    His touchdown passes of 80 yards to Ted Ginn and 9-yards to tight end Josh Hill helped New Orleans open up a 21-6 lead late in the first half. Michael Thomas caught eight passes for 131 yards, including a 46-yarder that set up Kamara’s short TD run in the fourth quarter.

    For the Panthers, it was an excruciating end to the season. Beaten soundly by the Saints twice before this season, they pushed New Orleans to the brink in the third matchup.

    Aided by the return of star tight end Greg Olsen, the Panthers drove inside the Saints 22-yard line five times, only to come away with nothing twice and field goals three other times.

    “That was the difference in the game,” said Olsen, who had eight catches for 107 yards and a touchdown. “We moved the ball pretty much at will the whole game. We just struggled in the first half in the red zone and it turned out to be points that we kept chasing.”

    Still, the Panthers had a first down on the Saints 21 with 41 seconds left. It wasn’t until Newton’s intentional grounding in the face of end Cameron Jordan’s pass rush, followed by Vonn Bell’s sack on a safety blitz on fourth down, that the Saints sealed the victory.

    Some other things to know from the Saints’ win:

    GETTING PRESSURE: The Saints sacked Newton four times. Jordan, Bell, linebacker Jonathan Freeny and defensive tackle Tyeler Davison each had one. Jordan, a newly named All-Pro, also tipped two passes and might have made his biggest play when he ran through two blockers to force Newton’s intentional grounding. Their pass rush could be a factor against Minnesota QB Case Keenum, who’s been sacked 17 times in Minnesota’s last six games.

    Certainly, Jordan expects a different game that Week 1, when the Saints had one sack — by Jordan — against then-starter Sam Bradford.

    “We had a young defense that was still learning,” Jordan said. “We’ve clearly turned the corner. We’ve clearly turned to the next chapter. Now we’re into the playoffs and we’ve got bigger and better goals.”

    SECONDARY CONCERNS: While the Saints’ defense has been far better this season than last, the secondary has looked more vulnerable lately. Against Carolina, they allowed Newton to pass for 349 yards, his second most all season. New Orleans struggled to cover Olsen and versatile running back Christian McCaffrey, who six catches for 101 yards, including a 56-yard score.

    END ZONE PROTECTION: While the Saints defense gave up 413 net yards, their ability to keep Carolina out of the end zone was crucial.

    “It’s better to hold them to three than six,” Bell said. “We held them in the red zone and we won the game.”

    ROAD WOES: While the Saints won their sixth straight home playoff game and improved to 5-0 in the Superdome in postseason games under coach Sean Payton, they’ve won only one road playoff game in their history. That was during the 2013 season, when they won a wild-card round game at Philadelphia before losing the next week at Seattle.

    The Saints’ all time road playoff record is 1-6.

 

  • Playoff experience gives ‘battle-tested’ Falcons edge– Experience could be the Atlanta Falcons’ big edge as the only team in the NFC playoffs for the second straight year.

    Coach Dan Quinn says that advantage was a factor in Saturday night’s 26-13 wild-card win over the Los Angeles Rams.

    One year after advancing to the Super Bowl, the Falcons are “a battle-tested brotherhood,” according to Quinn, who added Sunday “That kind of experience I thought certainly showed up last night.”

    After showing impressive poise against the Rams, Atlanta will play next Saturday’s divisional round game at Philadelphia.

    “We’re not here just to get here,” quarterback Matt Ryan said after the game. “We want to make noise while we’re here, so this is what it’s all about. It’s about giving yourself the opportunity this time of the year to compete and play in games like this and win games like this.”

    The Falcons are only the No. 6 seed, making the playoffs on the final weekend of the regular season with a home win over Carolina. Even so, Quinn senses his team, boosted by last year’s long postseason run, is peaking at the right time.

    “It helps because the guys who were in (last year’s playoffs) have this experience and know how to separate your preparation and make sure the only battle you’re in is this one,” he said, adding that one-game focus “doesn’t allow you to look too far back … and we’re certainly not thinking about anything past this week.”

    Quinn said the win over the Rams, who lacked the Falcons’ playoff experience , may have been Atlanta’s most complete game of the season.

    Atlanta’s improved defense held the NFL’s highest-scoring offense to one touchdown. Matt Bryant kicked four field goals — giving him nine without a miss in his last two weeks.

    The Falcons’ only touchdowns came on a 4-yard run by Devonta Freeman and a late 8-yard pass from Ryan to Julio Jones. But holding the ball for more than 37 minutes kept the Rams’ offense off the field, and that dominance made up for a lack of big plays.

    “We’re equipped to play however we need to win that game and I do love that about this group,” Quinn said. “For this game, what was required was to have more run attempts. I thought it would be a difference in the second half and certainly it was.”

    Quinn compared his current “battle tested” team to a time early in last year’s playoffs when he stopped practice because he thought “the guys were tight.”

    “We kind of loosened up after that,” he said, adding he believes this year’s team “started our push” following a loss to New Orleans on Dec. 7.

    “There’s been a shift that’s taken place with our team, their readiness, their mindset, their belief, their support of one another is really at a strong point for this 2017 team and we’ll need that kind of mindset again this week.”

 

Middle

  • Jaguars sputter as NFL’s top rushing attack slows to crawl– The Jacksonville Jaguars will go down in history as the NFL’s top rushing team in 2017.

    They haven’t looked like it lately.

    The Jaguars failed run the ball with much consistency during the second half of the season, including a wild-card victory against Buffalo. Jacksonville found few holes against the Bills until quarterback Blake Bortles started scrambling in the second half. Still, the lack of a reliable ground attack is a major concern for the third-seeded Jaguars (11-6) heading into Sunday’s playoff game at No. 2 seed Pittsburgh (13-3).

    “It starts with us up front,” rookie left tackle Cam Robinson said.

    Coach Doug Marrone agreed, saying “if they’re not doing their job up front, it’s going to be very difficult.”

    “We have to figure it out and get it done in a quick fashion,” Marrone added.

    Little, if anything, changed down the stretch while Jacksonville continued to struggle.

    The Jaguars averaged 3.58 yards a carry over the final seven weeks of the regular season, ranking 30th in the NFL. They ran for 155 yards in a 10-3 victory against the Bills, but more than half of those came from Bortles. His 88 yards rushing were the most by a Jaguars player in nearly a month.

    Rookie Leonard Fournette hasn’t looked the same since spraining his right ankle against the Los Angeles Rams in mid-October. He ran for 181 and 130 yards in consecutive weeks against the Steelers and the Rams, respectively, and broke off long touchdown runs in both games.

    He’s topped the century mark twice — both barely — since.

    Bortles has picked up the slack at times, but he’s not a guy the Jaguars rely on week in and week out to carry the offense.

    They are built to run the ball and play stout defense.

    “It’s who we are,” Bortles said. “We want to be able to run the football and do it different ways, so we have to figure it out, whether it’s a during-the-week practice thing or execution thing on Sundays. … It’s a big part of our offense and who we are and who we want to be, so it’s important that we figure it out.”

    There doesn’t seem to be an easy fix since the problem appears to stem from several factors:

    —Fournette is facing more stacked lines of scrimmage than any running back in the league. Of his 268 carries in 2017, 31 percent of them (82) came against eight- and nine-man boxes, according to ESPN Stats & Info. That’s nine more than second-place

    —Fournette is missing holes and assignments. He’s running with authority, but not waiting for holes or looking for cutback lanes.

    —Opponents are loading up against the run because they have little respect for Bortles and a banged-up receiving corps that features two rookies. Allen Robinson (knee) was lost for the season on Jacksonville’s third offensive play, and Allen Hurns (ankle) and Marqise Lee (ankle) have been slowed lately. Although newcomers Keelan Cole and Dede Westbrook have been better than expected, they looked like rookies in recent weeks.

    —Jacksonville’s offensive line has been average at best, and every starter has missed games with injuries. Brandon Linder, one of the league’s highest-paid centers, has been solid. But guards A.J. Cann and Patrick Omameh have struggled at times in a rushing attack that averaged 1.9 yards before contract (also 30th in the league) over the final seven weeks of the regular season.

    “Right now, we have to do a better job,” Marrone said. “Your performance on Sunday, that’s going to be who you are for that week until you change it or you sustain what you’re doing well.”

 

Downs

  • Chiefs, Smith head into offseason with even more questions-The final pass Alex Smith threw this season was an incompletion over the middle on fourth down, one that would have given the Kansas City Chiefs a chance to kick a winning field goal had he completed it.

    It may ultimately be his final pass with the Chiefs, too.

    Smith is under contract next season, but the cash-strapped Chiefs are expected to trade or release the veteran quarterback and turn the franchise over to first-round pick Patrick Mahomes II. And if that is the case, Smith’s career in Kansas City will be summed up by that errant throw over the middle.

    He was good enough to lead the Chiefs to the playoffs.

    He wasn’t good enough to lead them much farther.

    “I’ll get into all that in the next couple of weeks,” said Smith, who did say that he wants to remain with Kansas City, but ultimately knows the decision is out of his hands.

    “I’m under contract for another year,” he said. “Like I said, I’m not thinking about anything else. Right now, I’m obviously disappointed. Like I said, I felt like we had a good chance. It’s gone. It’s over.”

    As the Chiefs head into the offseason after a 22-21 loss to the Tennessee Titans on Saturday, a game in which they blew a 21-3 halftime lead, the biggest question mark becomes their quarterback situation.

    Smith certainly made it a tougher decision than most had expected.

    He threw for more than 4,000 yards for the first time, and he had 26 touchdown passes with just five interceptions during the regular season. He led the Chiefs to back-to-back AFC West titles for the first time in franchise history, made the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons and set all kinds of club records along the way, including pass attempts and postseason touchdown passes.

    Reid has professed his admiration for Smith countless times over the years, and he was in favor of the trade that brought him to Kansas City from San Francisco. But the coach is also aware that the NFL is a business, and sometimes finances dictate difficult decisions.

    “I can’t get into all that right now,” Reid said. “I don’t know. We’ve got to go back and go through all of that. It’s a long process and surely after that game isn’t where you go with that.”

    As the Chiefs head into the offseason, Smith isn’t the only topic of conversation:

    RETIREMENT QUESTIONS: Chiefs linebackers Derrick Johnson and Tamba Hali could consider hanging it up after another letdown. Johnson still played at a reasonably high level, and said he’ll head home to Texas and ponder his future, while Hali was reduced to a part-time role because of his ailing knees. If he does not retire, the Chiefs will almost certainly release him.

    PROMISING YOUNGSTERS: The Chiefs have reason for optimism in that most of their biggest stars are young. Tyreek Hill had a breakout second season as a wide receiver, Kareem Hunt led the league in rushing as a rookie and defensive tackle Chris Jones is an emerging star on the other side of the ball.

    COACHING CHANGES: Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy and special teams coach Dave Toub are expected to interview for head coaching vacancies in Indianapolis and possibly Chicago. Nagy has become a hot target after taking over play-calling with great success midway through the season, while Toub had interviews last season for head coaching vacancies.

    DRAFT DEARTH: The Chiefs have traded away many of their future picks to acquire talent, including their first-round selection this year as part of the deal that landed Mahomes last year. So, they have only a second, third, fourth and sixth in the upcoming draft, putting new general manager Brett Veach in quite a predicament as he tries to bolster a roster that was not quite good enough.

    SNAKE-BIT FRANCHISE: Despite all the good that came of this season, the Chiefs still must feel like they’re a bit cursed. What would have happened had star safety Eric Berry not been lost for the season in their opener? Or if star tight end Travis Kelce didn’t go down in the first half against Tennessee with a concussion? “The tendency is to look back and say, “What happened?’ I don’t think that’s the way to go about it,” offensive lineman Mitchell Schwartz said. “We just have to figure out how to play better.”

 

  • Bills lament missed opportunities in AFC wild-card loss-Despite exceeding expectations by making the playoffs for the first time in 18 years, the Buffalo Bills lamented missed opportunities in their 10-3 loss to the Jaguars in an AFC wild-card game on Sunday.

    “I wanted to win this game and get it rolling. I don’t care about the building blocks,” running back LeSean McCoy said. “I live now in the moment. We had this thing.”

    Despite it being a road game, the Bills and their raucous fans were in full force inside EverBank Field and outside of the tailgate lots. There was even a picture of OJ Simpson wearing a McCoy jersey as he watched the game at a Las Vegas bar.

    What they saw were problems that had plagued the Bills late in the season. They didn’t score a touchdown for the second time in six games and squandered a key red zone opportunity late in the second quarter.

    Buffalo had first-and-goal at the Jaguars 1 with 2:53 remaining. Coach Sean McDermott and offensive coordinator Rick Dennison elected to call a run-pass option instead of giving it to McCoy, who had eight touchdowns on the season.

    Tyrod Taylor’s pass to Kelvin Benjamin on a fade route was incomplete in the end zone, but Benjamin was called for offensive pass interference, moving the ball back to the Jaguars 11.

    The drive stalled from there and they had to settle for a Stephen Hauschka 31-yard field goal at the end of an 18-play, 71-yard drive that took 8:06.

    “I came off the ball. All I did was try to come around and catch the ball and they called pushing,” Benjamin said. “You try to move on from it.”

    McDermott said that they made the call because of the situation and that was one of a couple of plays they would like to have back. The field goal gave the Bills a 3-0 lead but the Jaguars tied it with 4 seconds remaining in the first half.

    McCoy appeared to second-guess the call a little bit after the game.

    “I want a running play. It was a play I was lobbying for the whole time and it didn’t work out so I understand,” he said.

    The closest the Bills got in the second half was the Jaguars 38 late in the fourth quarter. That came when Nathan Peterman came in after Taylor was injured with 1:27 remaining when his head hit the turf after being tackled by Dante Fowler. The drive ended when Peterman was intercepted by Jalen Ramsey with 32 seconds left.

    McDermott said after the game that Taylor, who was 17 of 37 for 134 yards with an interception, was in the concussion protocol.

    “We had a long field on most of our drives. We got some chunk plays at times, but we couldn’t convert on third down,” center Eric Wood said.

    The Bills converted three of six third downs in the first quarter, but were 4 of 12 the rest of the game.

    McCoy, who was listed as questionable after spraining his ankle in last week’s victory at Miami, ended up having 75 yards on 19 carries in what he said was a solid game.

    “I wasn’t 100 percent. I think the cuts and runs I did were probably made,” he said. “It’s not the reason we lost. We just didn’t play well.”

    One thing that did surprise McCoy was how many fans came down for the game despite having less than a week to make travel plans.

    “I was surprised. Coming from Philadelphia the fans travel everywhere,” he said. “I think Buffalo fans have them beat. I’m extremely disappointed to let them down. They travel so far and rally behind us. Sorry we couldn’t get the win for them.”

  • Panthers enter uncertain offseason, beginning with ownership– The Carolina Panthers enter an offseason of uncertainty unlike any other in the 23-year history of the franchise following their 31-26 wild-card loss to the New Orleans Saints on Sunday.

    First and foremost, the team is officially for sale.

    The end of the season means Panthers owner Jerry Richardson will begin actively accepting offers to purchase the franchise he brought to the Carolinas as an expansion team in 1993. The Panthers began play in 1995 but never won a Super Bowl under Richardson, despite his promise in 1993 to win a championship “within 10 years.”

    The 81-year-old Richardson announced last month he was selling the team after reports of alleged sexual and racial misconduct in the workplace led to an NFL investigation. That investigation is ongoing.

    “It will be an interesting offseason to see how things work out,” Panthers tight end Greg Olsen said as he cleaned out his locker on Monday.

    “None of us have been through something like this, of course. It doesn’t happen often in the NFL.”

    Panthers coach Ron Rivera at his final news conference of the season that “it’s going to be different; it’s going to be weird” not having Richardson around.

    While the league will surely push to keep a franchise in Charlotte, where it has successfully sold out all but two games during its history, there is no telling if the new owners would consider moving the team. Rivera hopes the Panthers stay in Charlotte.

    “I think this is a great area and I think we have shown that we (are) supported by the community,” Rivera said.

    Panthers interim general manager Marty Hurney got emotional Monday as he shook hands with players as they left the locker room.

    He tried to hold back tears when asked about the end of the Richardson era.

    “Sure, it’s more emotional,” said Hurney, who previously worked for the Panthers from 1998-2012. “Anytime the finality of losing a playoff game is hard to take. And then when you have these other things it’s hard.”

    The impending sale of the team is just one of many uncertainties surrounding the Panthers this offseason. Here are some others:

    FRONT OFFICE QUESTIONS: While Rivera received a two-year contract extension through 2020 last week, the Panthers front office remains up in the air. Hurney was re-hired by Richardson to serve on an interim basis last summer but his contract expires June 30.

    Hurney said Monday he would like to stay on, saying “I love what I’m doing right now.” Rivera and several players also threw their support behind Hurney coming on in a full-time role again.

    REPLACING ANOTHER COORDINATOR: Rivera seems pretty certain he will lose a defensive coordinator for the second straight offseason with Steve Wilks scheduled to meet with the Giants, Lions and Colts for vacant head coaching positions.

    Wilks is viewed as a favorite in New York, where former Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman is now calling the shots. Rivera said if Wilks leaves he’s leaning toward promoting an assistant from inside the organization.

    “I feel really good about the guys that we have in place and being able to replace Steve,” Rivera said. That means linebackers coach Al Holcomb, defensive line coach Eric Washington and defensive backs coach Curtis Fuller would be the top candidates.

    PEPPERS UNDECIDED ON FUTURE: The future of defensive end Julius Peppers remains uncertain, too. Peppers, who turns 38 this month, said he will take some time before making a decision whether to return for a 17th season.

    Peppers had a successful season with 11 sacks and two forced fumbles in a situational role and served as a valuable mentor in the locker room to players such as Mario Addison. “He can play as long as he wants, clearly,” said defensive end Charles Johnson.

    ROSTER CHANGING: While linebacker Thomas Davis said “the window is still open” for the Panthers to win a Super Bowl, the reality is this is getting to be an old football team. Peppers is not alone in the long-in-the-tooth category.

    Safety Mike Adams will be 37 next season, Davis 35, Olsen and center Ryan Kalil 33, Johnson 32, running back Jonathan Stewart 31, and safety Kurt Coleman and nickel cornerback Captain Munnerlyn will have turned 30. All but Munnerlyn are starters. Olsen thinks the core of the team will remain.

    “This is a team that has been very competitive and I don’t see why anyone would come in and mess with that,” Olsen said.

    DEEP THREAT NEEDED: Clearly one of the biggest needs for the Panthers this offseason will be finding some help for Cam Newton, particular a deep threat at wide receiver.

    While last year’s second-round pick Curtis Samuel and Damiere Byrd helped fill that role at times this season, neither could stay healthy leaving the Panthers without a player who could stretch the defense.

    The Panthers let wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. walk last offseason in free agency and it bit them again Sunday as Ginn caught an 80-yard touchdown pass in the Saints’ wild-card win.

 

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