Or the Super Wild Card Round, as the NFL likes to call it. The playoffs opened up with six intriguing games – two each on Saturday, Sunday and Monday – so our resident scribes, Shaun Blundell and Sean Tyler, have picked three each to dive into. For tales of Arctic weather, young QBs putting older ones in their place and a couple of surprisingly high scores, read on…
Chiefs D in their element
According to legendary Alabama coach Bear Bryant, “offense sells tickets but defense wins championships”. And sure enough, when the Chiefs beat the Dolphins 26-7 on Saturday night to reach the AFC Divisional Round for a sixth straight season, it was Steve Spagnuolo’s defensive unit that dominated proceedings.
With the temperature at Arrowhead plummeting to -32°C with wind chill, making it the fourth-coldest NFL game ever, icicles were seen dangling off Andy Reid’s moustache, fans were decked out in ski wear and Mahomes’ helmet shattered like plastic after a hit from safety DeShon Elliott. But despite the inhospitably cold conditions, the Chiefs D were on fire. Through the first three quarters, the league’s second-ranked defense froze Miami out, limiting them to 151 total yards and one big play, a 53-yard TD pass to Tyreek Hill. They pressured Tua Tagovailoa 16 times, sacked him twice (George Karlaftis getting 1.5 of those) and forced him to delay passes or make errant ones by keeping Hill (on his much-touted return to Kansas City) and Jaylen Waddle under wraps. Even the run game got iced, with neither Raheem Mostert nor De’Von Achane able to bust out anything longer than 8 yards.
On the other side of the ball, Miami’s depleted defense (no Chubb, Phillips, Van Ginkel or Holland) tried to blitz Patrick Mahomes but he seemed chill all game, even on the rare occasions he has a defender up in his grille. After a lukewarm season, the Chiefs offense finally turned up the heat with 409 yards and 25 first downs. Second-year RB Isiah Pacheco rumbled for 89 yards and a TD, aided by a further 41 rushing yards by Mahomes himself, while another young buck, rookie Rashee Rice, had eight catches for 130 yards and a TD. Travis Kelce (seven for 71 yards) and kicker Harrison Butker (four field goals) were the other standouts.
Injuries and the weather were clearly factors in Miami hitting their lowest points tally of the season but the narratives about the one-and-done Dolphins still hold water: they can’t beat teams with a winning record and their Hawaiian QB can’t win in cold-weather games. Having been the NFL’s hottest team for a while, they definitely cooled off down the home straight, slipping from favourites to frauds as their once-promising campaign ended with consecutive losses to the Ravens, Bills and Chiefs. In turn, those defeats ended up costing them the top seed in the AFC (and subsequent home ties played in 80 degrees), the AFC East title and then what would have been only their second playoff win this century.
As for KC, they not only coped with the Arctic conditions, they thrived in them. Coach Reid notched his 23rd playoff victory, the defense was dominant, Mahomes was unflustered, Pacheco and Kelce were solid, and Rice posted the most receiving yards by a rookie receiver in a home game in NFL playoff history. Like cybermen from Doctor Who, the Chiefs march on through the postseason with an ominous inevitability, seemingly untroubled by ice and wind, aquatic mammals or anything else. [ST]
When defense doesn’t win championships
“We picked a bad day to have a bad day,” said Cleveland Browns coach Kevin Stefanski. “Just disappointing.” Did they ever? And was it ever.
The Houston Texans crushed the Browns 45-14 on Saturday to advance past the Wild Card Round in a humbling rout that could’ve been worse. Cleveland’s vaunted pass rush, headlined by Myles Garrett, produced one quarterback hurry and zero sacks against the Texans rookie passer, CJ Stroud. There were big plays and missed tackles a plenty and the Texans could’ve put up a 60-burger.
The Browns entered the playoffs looking like they had the goods to make a deep run. Their defense had been the most dominant unit of any to make the postseason, and shut down the San Francisco 49ers’ top-ranked offense in October. They rattled Lamar Jackson in November. And they surged into the playoffs with a string of stifling performances in December. But in January, when it really counted, Cleveland’s defense was absent. Stroud completed 16 of 21 passes for 274 yards and three touchdowns before exiting early in the fourth quarter with the game well in hand.
Joe Flacco’s back-to-back pick-sixes eliminated any hope of another Cleveland comeback. But Stroud was cooking the Browns defense long before that. The Texans’ 24 first-half points were the most Cleveland had surrendered this year, and Houston’s 286 yards were the most the Browns had allowed in any half all season.
Houston located their opponents’ vulnerabilities early and often. They even capitalised on the aggressiveness of linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, who was the lone Browns player on either side of the ball to bring his best, highlighted by his four tackles for loss. After the Browns had taken a 14-10 lead on the opening play of Houston’s next possession, Stroud rolled right off play-action. Instead of sticking with tight end Brevin Jordan, who looked like he would stay in and block on the play, Owusu-Koramoah went after Stroud along with defensive end Ogbo Okoronkwo. Stroud tossed the ball to the uncovered Jordan, who dashed through cornerback Martin Emerson Jr.’s arm tackle on the way to a 76-yard touchdown. The Texans regained the lead, 17-14, and never relinquished it.
The Browns kept on making mistakes. And when it became evident that Cleveland wouldn’t be able to slow down Stroud or the Texans, DC Jim Schwartz opted against making any major adjustments, especially in coverage. They couldn’t get going or do much of anything against the youngest quarterback to ever win a playoff game in the Super Bowl era. The Browns didn’t bring their best to the postseason – and no-showed when it mattered most. [SB]
Love will tear us apart
In a Super Wild Card matchup that brought the home side very little joy, division winners Dallas succumbed to an early onslaught when hosting the No.7 seed Green Bay Packers. The Cowboys trailed 27-0 shortly before half-time and while they eventually lost by a more flattering scoreline of 48-32, the damage had already been done.
As the NFC’s second seed, Dallas were riding a 16-game home winning streak, having won all eight this year with a +172 point differential. The odds may have been stacked against Matt LeFleur’s Packers but QB Jordan Love – who sat behind Aaron Rodgers for three years to earn his shot – has been electric of late. Since Week 11, he’s gone 7-2 with 21 TDs and just one interception, and there was a whole lotta Love on show again on Sunday night. His passer rating of 157.2 (interestingly, the same as CJ Stroud’s) is the highest in a road playoff game in the Super Bowl era and it would’ve been perfect if not for a garbage-time drop by Tucker Kraft. Even though he completed just 16 passes, the largely unpressured QB had plenty of time to shred the Dallas defense, amassing 272 yards, three TDs and 0 INTs as the Pack stunned AT&T Stadum into silence.
The main beneficiary of the Love bombs was Romeo Doubs (151 receiving yards and a TD from just six receptions), while Luke Musgrave and Dontayvion Wicks also caught touchdown passes. With a healthy dose of Aaron Jones (21 carries for 118 rushing yards and 3 TDs) added to the mix, it was soon clear that Dan Quinn’s defence – ranked fifth over the regular season – couldn’t stop a dripping tap, let alone this increasingly impressive Green Bay attack. The 48 points Dallas shipped set an unwanted postseason record for the franchise and must cast serious doubts in the minds of those currently considering Quinn as a potential HC hire.
After a sticky patch, the Packers defense also chose a good time to come out and play. They forced Dak Prescott into two first-half turnovers – a Jaire Alexander INT and a Darnell Savage pick-six – and were seconds away from shutting the Cowboys out in the first half. Prescott, the one-time MVP favourite, just couldn’t get on the same page as his targets, and failed to record any passing yards in the first quarter. By the end, Cee Dee Lamb (110 yards), Michael Gallup (103 yards) and Jake Ferguson (93 yards and 3 TDs) had made their mark on the box score, but the Packers were already 32 points to the good and resting key defensive players by the time the league’s highest-scoring team finally started to click.
Just like they have over the last quarter of a century or so, the Dallas players will now watch the latter stages of the postseason from the comfort of their couches, while Mike McCarthy – despite becoming the first Dallas coach with three consecutive 12-win seasons – will have an uncomfortable time waiting for Jerry Jones to call after losing to the franchise he once led to Super Bowl glory.
In contrast, Green Bay (who, don’t forget, were 3-6 midway through the season) become the first 7th seed to win a playoff game since the expanded 14-team format was introduced in 2020. The youngest team in the league progresses to the Divisional Round for the fourth time in five years only this time, it’s with a new QB, a promising cast of offensive playmakers and a very bright future. The betting for Saturday’s game against top seeds San Francisco may have opened with them as 9.5-point underdogs but as Mark Twain once wrote, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.” And if Sunday’s win is anything to go by, there’s a lot of fight in this dog. [ST]
Goff wins the big one at last
Has a kneel-down ever generated such a noise? As Jared Goff directed the Ford Field fans to get even louder, he took the final snap and ended his long-suffering franchise’s playoff drought after 32 years.
It was billed as Goff vs Stafford, the past against the present, and Goff came through in a big way. Against the franchise he once led to the Super Bowl, Goff was 22 of 27 for 277 yards and a touchdown. He also threw the crucial completed pass for a victory-sealing first down against the team that cast him away, beating Matthew Stafford and the Los Angeles Rams 24-23 on Sunday night.
The Lions ended a nine-game postseason losing streak – the longest in NFL history – that dated back to a victory over Dallas on 5 January 1992. They lost a home playoff game two years later and hadn’t hosted one since. But now Detroit, the NFC’s No.3 seed, will have two home playoff games for the first time in their 90-year franchise history, hosting Tampa Bay in the Divisional Round next Sunday. The Lions started strong and looked as fired up as their long-suffering fans, with rapper and Motor City native Eminem in the house along with Hall of Famers Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson.
With that said, LA was always in this contest. Stafford, who played most of the game with a bandaged and bloody hand after he slammed it into a defender’s helmet, finished 25 of 36 for 367 yards with two touchdowns. The Rams moved the ball at will for much of the game, but had to settle for short field goals by Brett Maher to get to 24-23 with 8:10 remaining. Stafford has made a career of fourth-quarter comebacks, a fact that the fans at Ford Field were well aware of. With a chance to put the Rams ahead for the first time, he led a drive to the Detroit 34, but the Lions’ defense forced him backwards from there. Detroit took over with 4:07 to go, and Los Angeles had only one timeout left after calling two earlier in the half to cope with the crowd noise. That allowed Goff to take a knee after his throw to Amon-Ra St. Brown.
Detroit drafted Stafford No.1 overall in 2009 and while he put up great statistics, he didn’t win a playoff game in his 12 seasons in Michigan. Stafford hugged dozens of Detroit’s players and staff members after the game and, in a classy act, he signed off with “I’m happy for the players, I’m happy for those guys.” It’s a trade where both sides can claim to be very happy with the results. [SB]
Philly’s season scuttled by the Buccaneers
Well, shiver me timbers, the Philadelphia Eagles’ implosion is complete. After completing five straight wins to go 10-1, they stumbled to 11-6 and now they’re one-and-done in the playoffs, losing 32-9 to the swashbuckling Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium.
The defending NFC champions played like they were walking the plank from the off, looking disinterested on offense and scared on defense. Other than DeVonta Smith, the lone bright spark with eight catches for 148 yards, their passing game was clearly missing the injured AJ Brown. They failed to convert a single third down and went scoreless in three quarters, Dallas Goedert’s TD and their single field goal both coming in Q2. Summing up their day, their ground game delivered just 42 yards and the Bucs even managed to repel their notorious ‘Brotherly Shove’ on a two-point conversion attempt.
To be fair, Tampa Bay had looked like scurvy dogs coming into the game too and only locked up the NFC South last week with an ugly 9-0 win over the lowly Panthers. But their performance on Monday night was a vast improvement. They mustered 426 total yards, with five players exceeding 45 receiving yards and Rachaad White (72 rushing yards) running well. Todd Bowles’ blitz-heavy defense also gave Jalen Hurts, playing with an injured finger, no time and no place to run.
While Tampa Bay were aggressive on both sides of the ball, Philly tackled like it was a flag football game. The Bucs finished with 219 yards after catch, with Trey Palmer’s 56-yard touchdown reception a classic case in point: he should have been stopped by corner James Bradberry (and others) after snagging a six-yard pass, not left unchecked to run half the length of the field. As well as some offseason tackling practice, some new playing personnel wouldn’t go amiss, with center Jason Kelce announcing his retirement on Tuesday, and Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham possibly playing their last game in green too. And after dropping six of the last seven, I’m sure Head Coach Nick Sirianni will also be ‘having a chat’ with GM Howie Roseman.
Like Green Bay, Tampa fought back from a midseason hole (4-7) and having won six of seven, seem to be revelling in their role as the dark horse slipping in under the radar. Had they faced a stronger opponent, their early drops (half a dozen in the first half alone) might have cost them. But Baker Mayfield, playing through a rib issue, did enough to compensate from his clumsy teammates, racking up 337 yards and three touchdowns. After bouncing around four teams in three years, he seems to have silenced his critics with his best season to date and helped the Buccaneers pillage their third straight NFC South title. But this weekend, he and his butter-fingered receivers will need to be shipshape for a much sterner challenge: a Divisional Round clash with the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. [ST]
Snow plough Josh
After seeing some of the images of Highmark Stadium on Sunday, it is quite remarkable that we got a game on Monday. The Buffalo faithful came out in force to get the game against Pittsburgh on, albeit a day later than originally scheduled, and as a reward for all their snow-shovelling, quarterback Josh Allen gave them one of the most memorable plays in postseason history.
Faced with 3rd-and-7 from the Bills 48-yard line, Allen began to scramble. His rookie season was filled with highlight rushes but it has been a part of his game that has been restricted in more recent times. This scramble, however, had picked up enough for first-down yardage and, because he was close to the sideline, you could see plenty of encouragement from his teammates and coaches for him to slide. He didn’t.
A full 52 yards later, he was in the end zone. He was seemingly aboard a snow plough all of his own after the initial part of his run when it became apparent that the opportunity of getting to the end zone was opening up for him. He turned on the engine boosters as a bunch of Steelers were left floundering and wondering what had just happened.
Allen’s play powered Buffalo to a 31-17 victory over the Steelers. Cue the snow being thrown in the air around Highmark Stadium. Allen finished the rescheduled game by completing 21 of 30 passes for 203 yards and three passing touchdowns. He also ran for 74 yards on eight carries and the score. The touchdown run was the longest rushing score in Bills postseason history and the second-longest by a quarterback ever, behind only Colin Kaepernick (56 yards, 2012 Divisional Round).
Allen’s third career playoff game was marked with four combined passing and rushing touchdowns, tying Joe Montana and Patrick Mahomes for the most in NFL history, and zero turnovers. It was just the second time since Week 4 that Allen did not turn the ball over. A reduction in turnovers by the Bills offense has been tied to Joe Brady taking over play calling in Week 11 and his increase in running the football. From Weeks 1 through 10, Buffalo had a designed rush percentage of 36% and a drive turnover of 17%. Since then, the rushing play percentage has increased to 47 and the drives that end in turnovers has dropped to 10%.
Despite the freezing cold temperatures, it is safe to say the Bills are getting hot at just the right moment. Next up, their kryptonite: the Kansas City Chiefs. Maybe this time, they can get over the hump.