What Have We Learned From Wildcard Weekend of the 2019 NFL Playoffs

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Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles (9) talks to head coach Doug Pederson during the second half of an NFL wild-card playoff football game against the Chicago Bears Sunday, Jan. 6, 2019, in Chicago. (AP Photo/David Banks)

Here is What Have We Learned from Wildcard Weekend of the 2019 NFL Playoffs, thanks to the AP Pro 32 for photos & help in this article.

Ups

  • Reigning Super Bowl champion Eagles aren’t done yet-PHILADELPHIA (AP) — When the Philadelphia Eagles gather around their coach in the locker room after each win, Doug Pederson yells: “We’re not done yet.”

    The defending Super Bowl champions were written off after a 48-7 loss to the New Orleans Saints dropped their record to 4-6 in November.

    They responded with two wins before an overtime loss to Dallas knocked them out of contention for a division title. But backup quarterback Nick Foles has led the Eagles to four straight wins, including a 16-15 comeback victory over Chicago in an NFC wild-card game.

    Now, the Eagles (10-7) are heading back to New Orleans to face the Saints (13-3) in a divisional playoff game on Sunday.

    “We hear disrespect. We listen. It’s hard not to hear. A bunch of talking heads said we were done,” defensive end Chris Long said after Philadelphia upset the Bears.

    “I heard somebody say we needed to start worrying about losing games so we can get a higher draft pick, somebody that gets paid a lot of money. And that’s fine. People are wrong sometimes. Not everybody knows what is going on. We’re a tough team and the chips have been down for us before.”

    The Eagles are in a familiar role as playoff underdogs, but they have a much tougher road this time around as they try to become the third No. 6 seed to win the Super Bowl.

    Last season, the Eagles entered as the No. 1 seed. They were underdogs in every game because they were missing starting quarterback Carson Wentz.

    They’ve been in playoff mode for a month now after Wentz went down with a back injury. They had to win three straight games, including consecutive wins over the playoff-bound Rams and Texans, and get help — the Bears defeating the Vikings in Week 17 — to reach the playoffs.

    Then they had to rally against the stingiest defense in the NFL, taking a one-point lead over the Bears when Foles tossed a 2-yard touchdown pass to Golden Tate on fourth down with 56 seconds remaining. The victory was secured when Treyvon Hester tipped Cody Parkey’s 43-yard field-goal attempt and the ball hit the left upright and then the crossbar.

    “We keep winning. We keep putting ourselves in a position to be successful,” Pederson said Monday.

    A rematch against the Saints was difficult to imagine when the Eagles left New Orleans on Nov. 18. Wentz had the worst game of his career and Drew Brees dominated an injury-depleted secondary. But the team never quit.

    “Immediately after the game, you flush it and you’re moving on to the next week’s opponent,” Pederson said. “I think you just have to look at where we’ve come and what we’ve done,” Pederson said.

    “Just the way this team has come together at the end of the season, to be counted out with even about three games to go. … This team believes in everything that we’re doing, and you saw it yesterday and we’re different. It’s a different mind-set. It’s a different football team. And we’re a different group than when we played New Orleans the first time, and we’re learning from it and obviously have been better since.”

 

  • Beating Ravens gets Chargers a date with Brady and Patriots-BALTIMORE (AP) — The Los Angeles Chargers’ prize for dismantling the toughest defense in the NFL is a road game against a team that has long been a nemesis for Philip Rivers.

    Los Angeles advanced to the divisional round of the postseason by beating the Baltimore Ravens 23-17 on Sunday. Next up, a matchup against the New England Patriots (11-5) this Sunday.

    Since Rivers became a starter, the Chargers are 0-7 against Tom Brady and the Patriots, including 0-2 in playoff games. The last time they met, New England rolled to a 21-12 win in the AFC Championship game in January 2008.

    Fortunately for Rivers, past performances don’t necessarily mean that much. Just two weeks after being dominated by Baltimore in a loss that knocked them out of first place in the AFC West, the Chargers (13-4) bounced back with a resounding win to advance to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2014.

    Rivers went 22 of 32 for 160 yards, his longest completion a 28-yarder to Mike Williams.

    Going up against longtime Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and standout coach Bill Belichick is no easy task, but Rivers is up for the challenge.

    “I’m not playing Tom by any means. But is it special to go to New England against a Hall of Fame coach and arguably the best quarterback ever to play and get another shot at ’em? Heck, yeah,” Rivers said. “To get an opportunity again to go against them, 11 years after we had the opportunity in the 2007 season, yeah, it’s awesome. Looking forward to it.”

    The Chargers face a veteran quarterback after putting the clamps on a rookie, Lamar Jackson of the Ravens, who fumbled three times, threw an interception and was sacked seven times in his playoff debut.

    STICK TO THE PLAN

    It would be easy for Chargers defensive end Melvin Ingram to hog the spotlight after recording a team-leading seven tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery on Sunday.

    But Ingram said his success was simply a byproduct of playing in a system that emphasizes staying in position and not over-pursuing a mobile quarterback and his hard-running backfield.

    Two weeks ago, the Ravens’ complicated offensive strategy wore down and puzzled the Chargers. Not this time.

    “We played assignment football,” Ingram said. “We were told to see what we were supposed to see. They do a lot to confuse us, but we stayed with it and it was a much better result for us.”

 

  • Colts off, running through playoffs with strong ground game-INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Frank Reich stuck with his old-school philosophy even when the Indianapolis Colts were losing games in September and early October.

    The Indianapolis Colts’ first-year coach insisted that even in an increasingly pass-happy league a balanced offense would turn them into real AFC contenders.

    Over the past 11 weeks, the perfect one-two combination has landed plenty of scoring punches, propelling the Colts into an improbable divisional-round matchup at AFC West champion Kansas City.

    “To me, it’s imposing your will on the defense and what that is, is running when you want to run and throwing when you want to throw and being effective at it,” Reich said on a conference call Sunday. “Always use the boxer analogy, it’s not just throwing punches wildly, it’s landing punches.”

    Few teams have delivered more big blows since Indy’s 1-5 start.

    On Saturday, second-year running back Marlon Mack carried 24 times for a career-high 148 yards and one touchdown, leading the Colts (11-6) to a 21-7 victory at Houston. They hurt the league’s No. 3 run defense for a playoff franchise-record 200 yards, breaking the previous mark of 191 from their Super Bowl win over Chicago in February 2007.

    Mack also broke Zack Crockett’s single-game franchise playoff rushing record (147), set in 1995.

    And this week, Mack could again become the feature attraction against a defense that finished No. 27 against the run this season.

    If all this sounds eerily familiar to longtime Chiefs fans, it’s understandable given the previous results.

    Edgerrin James ran for 125 yards, the third-highest postseason total in franchise history, in a 38-31 victory at Kansas City in January 2004. Joseph Addai rushed for 122 of the Colts’ 188 yards, now the third-highest total in franchise history, in a 23-8 wild-card round victory over Kansas City. That win jump-started Indy’s title run following the 2006 season.

    “It’s December football into January,” tight end Eric Ebron said Saturday. “That’s what we’ve got to try to do. We pass it when we have to, but we’re going to try and dominate the run game and try to dominate the line of scrimmage. That’s the kind of football you have to play now.”

    Even if it deviates from Indy’s longtime image. With Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck behind center for most of the past two decades, the league-wide perception has largely been the Colts are a pass-first team.

    But Reich has spent this season trying to find balance, and after a rugged start the Colts have seen the benefits.

    With All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson, a rookie, solidifying the left side of the offensive line and the emergence of right tackle Braden Smith, another rookie, Indy has been able to run effectively across the field.

    And when Mack returned after missing four of the first five games because of a hamstring injury, the Colts hit their groove.

    Mack has run for 1,022 yards and 10 touchdowns in the past 11 games, topping the 100-yard mark five times and establishing career highs in four of those games including Saturday’s. He ran for 119 yards and a score in the Colts’ Week 17 playoff-clinching victory at Tennessee and is now the first Indy player since James in 2005, to run for a TD in five consecutive games.

    Not surprisingly, the Colts have gone 10-1 during that stretch, becoming the third team in league history to make the postseason after starting 1-5 and just the second to win a playoff game. The Chiefs also won a wild-card game in the 2015 season before losing at New England in the divisional round.

    If the Colts can follow the script once more this weekend, they would become the first 1-5 team to play for a conference championship — and there’s no doubt inside this locker room they can.

    “We know, and Frank has preached this, in any football game whether it’s playoff or not, you need to control the line of scrimmage,” Luck said.

    “By no means was it perfect (Saturday), but man the positive run yards we got were great and we know that as an offense when we can do that, we can have a great balance. We can throw it a bunch. We can huddle up. We can go up tempo. We can slow down the tempo. We can run it.”

Middle

  • Offenses took a holiday on wild-card weekend-CHICAGO (AP) — Maybe it was the absence of all those high-powered offenses on byes.

    Perhaps it was the jitters for some younger teams, particularly their quarterbacks: Deshaun Watson, Mitchell Trubisky and Lamar Jackson.

    Or maybe defense actually still has a place in the NFL, especially in the playoffs.

    The most points anyone scored during wild-card weekend, when only Dallas won at home, was 24 by the Cowboys. In total, 145 points were scored, an average of 36.2 per game. The Chiefs averaged 35.3 all by themselves this season.

    As Nick Foles — St. Nick in Philly for his clutch work as a relief pitcher and, oh yes, as a Super Bowl champion — observed following the Eagles’ 16-15 comeback escape in Chicago : “Our defense really kept us in this game. It was a hard-fought defensive battle tonight and we were able to come up big in the end.”

    Or as coach Anthony Lynn noted following the Chargers’ 23-17 win at Baltimore in which Los Angeles forced three turnovers and held the Ravens to 229 total yards, 90 on the ground: “Our defense was outstanding. We held that team down to 100 yards rushing. No one has played that team the way our defense played today. I was really impressed with the way our defense stepped up.”

    All the winning defenses will need to step up a few more rungs next weekend. Consider that aside from the Chiefs scoring 565 points this season, the Rams got 527, the Saints 504 and the Patriots 436. All of them will be at home.

    The Colts (11-6) head to Kansas City (12-4) on Saturday, followed by the Cowboys (11-6) at the Rams (13-3). On Sunday, the Chargers (13-4) are at the Patriots (11-5), while the Eagles, who lost 48-7 at the Saints during the season, finish off the divisional round at New Orleans (13-3).

    While the NFL loves to tout all the scoring records set during the 2018 season, all of the yards gained and general wide-openness of weekly contests, when it comes down to deciding who winds up in the conference title games, maybe the guys trying to stop those video-game offenses will have a say.

    It’s unlikely that any of the wild-card victors can win a Super Bowl without being balanced. The Eagles will need to play far better defense in the Big Easy or Drew Brees will have, well, an easy time picking apart a secondary playing mostly backups. The Chargers likely will require more than 24 points to succeed in Foxborough, where the Patriots had the NFL’s only unbeaten home record this season.

    Dallas needs more offensive imagination and another huge performance against the run to win at L.A. Only Indianapolis, which was superb on both sides of the ball at Houston, displayed enough of the formula needed to get the conference championship game.

    Then again, the Colts must slow down All-Pro quarterback Patrick Mahomes and crew at Arrowhead Stadium.

    “We’re not worried about who’s on the other side,” said Colts rookie linebacker Darius Leonard, himself an All-Pro. “We always talk about whoever’s playing on the opposite side is gray matter. So we’re always talking about doing what we can do and controlling what we can control, and that is going out, playing each play, play by play and going from there.”

    What about the four teams coming off byes? Which ones are best suited to come up with a solid defensive showing?

    The two most suspect are the Chiefs and Rams. Sure, KC averaged all those points weekly. It also yielded 26.3, including 43, 54, 29 and 38 in its losses, and the 421 points opponents scored by far were the most any playoff team surrendered. The Rams allowed 384, easily the most of any NFC postseason qualifier; L.A. had seven games in which it allowed at least 30 points.

    New England also can be vulnerable on defense even though it’s been stingy at times when it comes to giving up touchdowns. The Patriots aren’t a force in the pass rush and against quality quarterbacks the linebackers and secondary have had trouble in coverage.

    New Orleans probably has the most well-rounded roster, with some standouts on defense to accompany Brees and All-Pro receiver Michael Thomas and the terrific running back duo of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram.

    And don’t think defense won’t be needed through the rest of January and into February.

 

  • NFL wild-card round ratings up 12 percent over last year-The NFL’s strong regular season of TV ratings continued into its opening weekend of the postseason.

    The league said on Monday that there was an average of 28.4 million viewers for the four wild-card round games, which is a 12 percent increase over last year.

    The Philadelphia Eagles game against the Chicago Bears on NBC averaged 35.89 million, making it the network’s most-watched wild-card game on record. NBC’s previous best was the Jan. 3, 1988, game between Seattle and Houston at 35.86 million. The audience for Sunday’s game peaked at 45.1 million viewers during the final nine minutes.

    Sunday’s first game between the Los Angeles Chargers and Baltimore Ravens on CBS averaged 25.4 million.

    Fox’s telecast of Saturday night’s Seattle Seahawks-Dallas Cowboys game averaged 29.5 million while the weekend’s first game between the Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans averaged 22.8 million on ESPN and ABC.

    Digital streaming also increased 139 percent with an average minute audience of 496,000.

 

Downs

  • Lament, regret after Seahawks ousted early from playoffs-RENTON, Wash. (AP) — Now that it’s over, Russell Wilson’s belief in the comparison of where the Seattle Seahawks were during his rookie season in 2012 and this season has only grown stronger.

    Seattle fans can only hope Wilson is correct in his vision because, if so, 2019 could end up being a special year for the Seahawks.

    “It makes you a little sick to wake up this morning and know you don’t get to compete with your guys today,” Wilson said Sunday, a day after a 24-22 wild-card round loss at Dallas. “It’s part of the journey. I look at this season very similar, as I’ve said 100 times over to you guys, like 2012 a lot. We weren’t able to beat Atlanta at Atlanta, but coming off the field, we felt like great things were in store.

    “We feel like with this team great things are in store.”

    While there was a healthy dose of optimism as the Seahawks packed up their lockers Sunday, there also was a level of regret after Seattle lost its opening game of the playoffs for the first time since January 2005. The loss to the Cowboys on Saturday was littered with missed chances and what-ifs all around.

    Whether it was an offensive game plan that was seemingly too stubborn to make adjustments away from the run, a defense that gave up a handful of big plays in the fourth quarter, or the special teams issues, the Seahawks were left with plenty to lament about the loss.

    “It’s still frustrating, especially watching football and knowing you still could be competing,” Seattle linebacker Bobby Wagner said. “We had to do a little bit more to win the game and we didn’t do enough.”

    Seattle’s loss was the first time it dropped its opening playoff game since losing to St. Louis in the NFC wild-card game after the 2004 season. Whether it was the wild-card or divisional round, Seattle had won at least one game in nine straight postseasons until losing to the Cowboys.

    A major issue was the struggles on offense as the best running team in the NFL couldn’t get going against a stingy Cowboys front. Seattle had just 73 yards rushing against Dallas and seemed almost determined to run no matter the success rate. Wilson compared it to Seattle’s win at Carolina in late November when the Seahawks were held to 75 yards rushing and Wilson threw for 339 yards.

    This time, though, the switch to being more pass heavy didn’t happen in time for Seattle to have enough offensive success.

    “We were throwing it pretty well in the game and I think we could have kept doing that some more, but you also want to stay true to running the ball, too,” Wilson said. “So I think that, like I said, this game was kind of similar to the Carolina game, I felt like, a little bit. They did a pretty good job stopping us on the run and in that game we had to throw the ball and make some plays, and I think this game was kind of similar in a sense.”

    While there was anger among fans about the lack of adjustments on offense, the Seahawks also had defensive breakdowns in the fourth quarter that played just as large a role. Dallas had 234 total yards through the first three quarters, then had 148 in the fourth quarter with a pair of long scoring drives. Dallas had touchdown drives of 67 and 54 yards in the final quarter, the last one capped by Dak Prescott’s scramble to convert third-and-14 and led to the deciding touchdown.

    “To let him have a third-and-14 and allow him to get that close to scoring again is bad,” Wagner said. “But you know, I’ll see him again.”

    Seattle doesn’t have many major contract issues going into the offseason with K.J. Wright, Frank Clark, D.J. Fluker and J.R. Sweezy the most notable unrestricted free agents among starters. Carroll has made clear they want Clark back coming off a career-high 14 sacks, which could mean using the franchise tag for the first time since 2010.

    While they are both under contract through the 2019 season, the contract situations with Wagner and Wilson will be two of the more interesting stories of the offseason for Seattle. Both said Sunday they would like to have contract certainty with the Seahawks beyond 2019, but both indicated they would be willing to play out the 2019 season without a new deal if necessary.

    “I know essentially after (the 2019) season I can be a free agent,” Wilson said. “I don’t think that way. I see myself being in Seattle. I love Seattle. It’s a special place for me. I also understand it’s a business world and everything else.”

 

  • Bears come to grips with cruel end to breakthrough season

    LAKE FOREST, Ill. (AP) — Chicago Bears receiver Allen Robinson had a tough time coming to grips with the fact that there was no game to prepare for this week when he woke up Monday morning.

    “Pretty crazy,” he said.

    Safety Adrian Amos figured the Bears would be planning for their next opponent, not cleaning out their lockers.

    “Things happen, you know, time to take it in, put it behind you and start working for next year,” he said.

    Chicago’s season ended in the cruelest possible way, with embattled kicker Cody Parkey’s potential winning field goal hitting the left upright and crossbar in the closing seconds of a 16-15 wild-card loss to the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday.

    Instead of preparing for a trip to Los Angeles to face the Rams, the Bears turned their attention toward building on what they accomplished this season. And they accomplished quite a bit.

    The Monsters of the Midway went 12-4 to win the NFC North in their first season under coach Matt Nagy after four straight last-place finishes and made the playoffs for the first time in eight years. They finished with their best record since the 2006 team went 13-3 and reached the Super Bowl.

    They saw progress from quarterback Mitchell Trubisky in his second NFL season. They dominated on defense, with Khalil Mack leading the way after a blockbuster trade from Oakland just before the season.

    They also made Sundays fun again in Chicago, with their coach setting the tone, and re-energized a franchise frustrated by years of losing.

    “I think having such great chemistry makes today easier,” guard Kyle Long said. “Today is tough regardless, but having guys you can lean on — I’ll be going to dinner with some of these guys this week. We have real friends in this locker room, it’s not just teammates. That’s important.”

    The Bears have some issues to address, starting with Parkey’s future.

    Parkey made the Pro Bowl as a rookie with Philadelphia in 2014. He was solid for Miami in 2017. But after signing a four-year contract last March, his first season in Chicago didn’t go the way he envisioned.

    Parkey was 23 of 30 on field goals in the regular season and 3 of 4 in the wild-card game. He made 42 of 45 extra points. But he hit uprights on six of his misses.

    Parkey nailed them four times while missing two field goals and two extra points in a victory over Detroit at Soldier Field. He also hit one while missing a PAT in the regular-season finale at Minnesota.

    On Sunday, Parkey’s 43-yard attempt in the closing seconds hit halfway up the upright and ricocheted off the crossbar before harmlessly falling to the ground. The NFL changed the miss Monday to a block for Philadelphia’s Treyvon Hester, who touched the ball. That’s little consolation for the Bears.

    “To make a joke of it, hitting the upright, it takes some accuracy,” cornerback Prince Amukamara said. “He’s been hitting the upright. We know he wants to make it.”

    Amukamara insisted there was plenty of blame to go around for the loss, such as having 10 players on the field when Dallas Goedert caught a 10-yard touchdown in the third quarter.

    All-Pro safety Eddie Jackson (right ankle) was active but did not play. Tight end Trey Burton was inactive against his former team after being added late to the team’s injury report because of a groin problem.

    He said he felt some tightness Friday. He didn’t think much of it until Saturday, when his groin was “completely locked.”

    “I let my team down. I hate it,” he said.

    Burton has acknowledged his battles with anxiety. But he insisted he was in a “really good spot mentally going into this game.”

    The Bears could also be in the market for a defensive coordinator if Vic Fangio gets a head coaching job.

    In four seasons, he has helped transform a defense that ranked among the worst in franchise history. Chicago led the NFL in rushing defense, takeaways (36) and interceptions (27) while tying for third in sacks (50). And the 60-year-old Fangio is in the running for the opening in Denver.

    Amos could also be on the move, with an expiring contract. So does cornerback Bryce Callahan, who broke his left foot against the Rams on Dec. 9 and missed the rest of the season.

    Long was looking forward to an offseason with “no knives.” The three-time Pro Bowl lineman missed eight games this season because of a foot injury before returning at Minnesota. He has also had shoulder, elbow, neck and ankle surgeries in recent years.

    “I get to maybe take a vacation, which would be sweet,” Long said. “That would be really cool.”

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