Takeaways from the NFL Wild-Card Weekend:
All in all, a disappointing opening weekend. There were some terrific individual performances, and each of the winning teams looked strong in beating up on feeble competition. But with a four-game menu, you’d think we could have enjoyed one taught, thrilling game with drama carrying down to the final two minutes.
Instead we saw (or slept through) four non-contests that represented the largest combined margin of victory since 1990.
Houston brushed off Oakland by 13 points, Seattle smash-mouthed Detroit by 20, Pittsburgh battered Miami by 18, and Green Bay rolled over the New York Giants by 25. Four playoff games, average winning margin of victory 19.75 points. I flipped to the “Air Disasters” marathon on the Smithsonian channel a few times. (What the hell was that pilot thinking about, putting his 15-year-old son in the cockpit? I mean, this is a little more serious than Jack Buck walking out of the radio booth to give his teenage son, Joe, an unexpected chance to do live play-by-play of a Cardinals game.)
Next up: In a largely irrelevant story line that will be beaten down more than Dolphins quarterback Matt Moore at Heinz Field, the divisional round features four rematches of regular-season games. In the NFC it’s Seattle at Atlanta and Green Bay at Dallas. In the AFC Houston will go to New England for a ritual sacrifice, and Pittsburgh at Kansas City could be the best game of the weekend. The winners of the reg-season games were Seattle, Dallas, New England and Pittsburgh.
— Conventional wisdom: the Dallas Cowboys caught a break. With wide Odell Beckham Jr. — Captain of the Love Boat — and his teammates making fools of themselves, the ‘Boys won’t have to worry about dealing with the Giants again after losing to NYG twice during the reg season. The Packers will be coming to Arlington, and they won’t have injured ace wide receiver Jordy Nelson. But I’m not sure I’m signing off on the idea of Green Bay being a more preferable opponent than New York. The Packers have won eight in a row and currently have the most dangerous QB in the league in Aaron Rodgers; he’s thrown 21 touchdown passes without an interception (and a 121.7 passer rating) during this seven-game run. And with the roof likely to be closed on game day Jerry World, keep this in mind: Rodgers is 8-1 in his last nine indoor starts, with 29 TDs and one pick.
— Rodgers almost always finds a way to adapt, adjust and thrive when unexpected negativity (or a pass rush) hits him. We watched that play out again in the win over the Giants. After a slow start, and needing time to dissect the Giants’ defensive surprises, Rodgers completed 19 of 29 for 308-yard and four touchdowns over the final two-plus quarters. And that happening even though Nelson — his favorite receiver — out of commission after an early injury.
–By the way former St. Louis Rams tight end Jared Cook has been a valuable presence in the Green Bay offense; in third-down situations this season Cook has been targeted 19 times, catching 13, averaging 15.8 yards per reception. Rodgers clearly trusts Cook.
— I think Mike Tomlin is a helluva coach; his record shows that. But the blustery weather Sunday in Pittsburgh must have given the coach brain freeze. How do we explain Tomlin’s inexplicable neglect in leaving injury-prone quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to stand as a target in the final meaningless minutes of a blowout to suffer a lower right-leg injury that put him in a walking boot? Roethlisberger couldn’t even walk to his car after the game; he was given a lift in a golf cart. Roethlisberger is a tough dude and he naturally insisted he’ll be ready to go at Kansas City on Sunday. But there’s a big difference between playing and playing to the high level that’s usually required of a quarterback for their team to win a difficult postseason road game. And if you’re going to keep the big man in the game, have him hand off every damn time. Do not have him set up to throw. Better yet, put backup Landry Jones in the game and remove Roethlisberger from danger. Put it this way: it’s better to voluntarily play Jones in the final minutes of a safe 18-point win at home than be forced to play Jones instead of an injured Roethlisberger with the Steelers needing a win at KC to advance.
— After Seattle thumped the overmatched Lions, there was considerable hyperventilating over the Seahawks’ forceful rushing attack which produced 177 yards — topped by Thomas Rawls rumbling for 161 in an outstanding Marshawn Lynch impersonation. Beware! The Seahawks are back to Beast Mode! There’s a bad moon rising for opponents! Yeah, well, maybe in Seattle that’s the case. After all, the Seahawks are 39-6 at home (including postseason) over the last five seasons. And they’ve averaged 145.5 yards rushing in those 45 home games.
— And staying with Seattle, let’s not forget a few things: (1) the Seahawks were 3-4-1 on the road this season and struggled offensively, scoring 10 points or less in four of the eight games, and averaging only 16 points; (2) the Seahawks were ranked 25th in the NFL in rushing this season; (3) they averaged only 88 yards rushing per road game, with only two 100+ yard performances; (4) QB Russell Wilson had eight TDs, eight INTs and an 82.1 passer rating on the road in 2016; (5) Seattle used its rather vicious home field edge to maul a Detroit team that went 0-6 this season against teams that made the playoffs; the Lions were also 0-4 in outdoor road games this season, getting outscored 94-53.
— Seattle will have to score more than 16 points to win at Atlanta against a Falcons offense that led the NFL in points. But ATL quarterback Matt Ryan is 1-4 in the playoffs, and still hasn’t proven a thing in the NFL’s mean season (the postseason) … so there’s that.
— Speaking of Roethlisberger: Sunday’s triumph marked the first time that the QB, wide receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell had started (as a trio) in a postseason game… and man, they were wonderful. Is this the best set of “triplets” in the NFL these days? I sure think so. If it isn’t, please identify a superior threesome.
— As you ponder investment strategies for Sunday’s Steelers-Chiefs game, consider that sneaky KC coach Andy Reid — he is the Walrus — and his record in games that follow a week off in the regular season or postseason: 22-2, which includes a 3-0 mark in the playoffs. Some investors will be more swayed by the Steelers’ 34-13 regular-season win over the Chiefs; for whatever it’s worth it improved Roethlisberger’s career record against Kansas City to 5-1. But to my knowledge, the QB wasn’t in a walking boot for those six games. Then again, the Chiefs defense has gotten pounded for an average of 4.7 yards per rushing attempt. In his last seven games (including the playoff win against Miami) Bell has rushed for 1,002 yards and eight touchdowns, averaging 5.3 yards per carry and breaking off 30 runs for 10+ yards. He’s also caught 32 passes for 263 yards over the last seven.
— New England is 4-0 against Houston at Gillette Stadium, outscoring the Texans 150-49 in those routs; unless Connor Cook starts at quarterback for the Patriots on Saturday I’m thinking the Texans are in trouble; this Tom Brady fellow is pretty good. Besides, Houston lost 27-0 in Foxborough early this season with third-stringer Jacoby Brissett playing QB for the Patriots in place of the suspended Brady.
— More on the Giants and Beckham and other Giants’ receivers partying on a boat with in South Florida during Monday’s off day — six days before a playoff game at Green Bay. First of all, it was indeed an off day and that free time belongs to the players, and they can do what they want. But that really misses the point. It was just a bad look. Troy Aikman nailed it on the game broadcast Sunday; you never want to give teammates a reason to suspect or believe that you’re less than completely focused and locked in on the playoff quest. This was Beckham’s first NFL playoff game, and dropped at least three passes including an early throw for a touchdown. He was a veritable no-show in this one, making four harmless catches for 28 yards — and took out his frustration on a wall outside the Giants’ locker room at Lambeau Field (leaving a hole.) Beckham’s yachting trip may have had NOTHING to do with his horrible game. But again, that’s irrelevant. It was a bad look. It raised questions. And Beckham and the others had to know that, after partying on Monday, they’d receive intense scrutiny for their performance at Green Bay … and if they failed, they’d be blamed (fairly or otherwise) for not being fully committed or prepared. Dumb, dumb, dumb.
— The window is closing on Eli Manning. Unrelated stat: when Manning targeted the Party Boat receivers in Sunday’s loss at Lambeau, he had a passer rating of 43.9. When he targeted receivers who weren’t on the Party Boat, the passer rating was 105.8.
— It stinks that injuries prevented the Lions and Raiders from taking their best shot in the postseason. Obviously quarterback Derek Carr was a VIP and an MVP for Oakland this season; the Raiders went 12-3 with him and 0-2 without him. The Raiders averaged 27 points per game with Carr, who completed 68 percent with 28 TDs and six picks and a 96.7 passer rating. With Carr sidelined with a broken leg, replacements Matt McGoin and Connor Cook managed to complete only 49 percent of their passes, had two touchdowns and four picks, and combined for a passer rating of 48.2. Result: two games, 20 total points, two defeats, end of season. The Raiders were an outstanding, fearless, entertaining team this season … but when Carr went down, the lights went out. It’s a shame.
–– And then there was Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford. Before suffering a torn ligament in his right (throwing hand) in Week 14, Stafford was having a superb season: 67.6 percent completions, 24 TDs, five INTS, and a passer rating of 102.0. Stafford tried his best to play on through the injury but he wasn’t the same quarterback; in his five games with the damaged finger he completed 59.6 percent with three TDs and five picks and a passer rating of 74.4. Stafford’s accuracy was a huge issue; throwing with the protective casing on his finger he completed only 40 percent of his throws (with one touchdown and four INTs) on passing attempts that traveled 11+ yards in the air. Not that the Lions would have gone to Seattle and won with a fully functional Stafford. But with Stafford compromised, the Lions had no chance.
Thanks for reading …