What an unbelievable weekend of games. As a casual, neutral observer; these games could be seen as some really exciting contests.
As an analyst, these were nothing short of a nightmare. Every analyst around the world called these games for the home teams. They had built up 16 games of important statistics all pointing to one sided contests. The Titans floundered in the bottom third of the league in stats with their only saving grace being their stout run defence. The Falcons were a flawed team who were coming up against the No.1 scoring offense in the league. What happened this weekend shows just how volatile the game is and that the phrase “any given Sunday” isn’t just a snappy movie title.
Saturday was ‘Opposites Day’ in the NFL with both teams favoured to storm to a convincing win falling at the hands of the underdogs.
The late Saturday game saw a flawed Atlanta Falcon’s team cut the young LA Rams team’s season short. The Jared Goff led offense was the NFL’s top scoring offense this year, helped on the ground all year by MVP candidate RB Todd Gurley.
On the night, the Falcons limited Gurley on the ground apart from some savvy long breakout runs. Goff was also contained and frustrated whilst the Falcon’s were conservative but consistent with a short passing game complimented by run plays to keep the Rams defense honest. As highlighted in my BetBright preview, this game was a battle of the offenses but more a battle of the young versus the experienced.
It seems the Falcon’s seasoned players and coaching staff outplayed a dynamic young HC in McVeigh, helped in part by some gaffes on the Ram’s special teams. The game was an exciting contest with the Falcons always in the lead. The contest was still close until a fantastic Sanu play followed by a floated Jones TD catch sealed the game with around 5 minutess to play. A Rams TD was ruled incomplete in the closing stages when the replay showed the ball hit the ground and the game was all but over thereafter.
Unlike previous seasons, the Rams’ outlook looks a good one to end the season whilst the Falcons march on to face the Carson Wentz-less Eagles with a real chance of reaching the NFC Championship game again for a second consecutive year.
The New Orleans Saints look to be one of the most dangerous teams in the Playoffs. Midway through their defeat of the Carolina Panthers, QB Drew Brees had a perfect passer rating after targeting 6 different receivers for 2 TDs. The Saints’ defense also looked hungry in the first half, shutting down Cam Newton’s pass attack to a large extent and managing to contain Carolina’s running threats. Carolina had to settle for points from the boot of FG kicker Graham Gano to try remain competitive until their first TD came in the 4th quarter. Gano drilled a 58 yarder as time expired in the half after missing a 25 yard attempt earlier in the game. From 3 redzone trips, the Panthers came away with only 6 points. The Saints pulled off a FG of over 55+ yards later in the game making this the only game in the Super Bowl era where kickers from both teams made FGs of over 55+ yards.
Carolina just couldn’t compete with Brees’ accuracy who set the highest single season record for completion % with 72% this season. In fact, Brees accounts for 4 of the top 10 most accurate seasons on record. What is more astounding is that Brees hasn’t gained these stats with short and safe throws. He takes chances and throws his receivers open and we saw that in full swing in this game. He wasn’t scared to throw into tight coverage, double coverage and take a deep shot.
Carolina made a valiant comeback attempt in the 4th quarter with a passing TD to TE Greg Olson to bring the contest to less than a score. Not long after, Cam was rocked on a big hit and entered concussion protocol, sending their backup in as replacement. Saints RB Kamara ran in a TD soon after effectively ending the game with 4 minutes to go despite Cam’s re-entrance and nail-biting march down the field to win the game. The Saints became the first team to beat an opponent 3 times in a season for almost a decade and the first team in NFL history to hang 30+ points on an opponent 3 times in a season. They now face the Vikings in the Divisional round.
The Jacksonville Jaguars’ first Playoff game in decades was a rough one against the Buffalo Bills.
Just as predicted in the video preview, Blake Bortles handcuffed his team with poor play at the start. It seemed like every throw was either too high, too low or just downright flighty. Bortles first half mirrored Alex Smith’s second and he only passed for 33 yards before he got the offense into rhythm in the second half on an impressive monster 80+ yard drive that was capped with a ballsy 4th down passing TD.
The Bills struggled in the game despite taking the lead late in the 2nd quarter with a FG. They should have secured a bigger score after drawing the Jags offside on the FG attempt prior but the Jags defense were fierce in the stop, a trend they continued all day. The game was won on the ground for the Jags and what Bortles lacked in accuracy, he more than made up for with his legs. He intelligently scrambled all night for first downs and even when he dropped the ball on a planned screen pass, he managed to scoop it up and scramble to the sideline for another 1st down to extend the drive and eat up the clock.
Bortles’ counterpart on the Bills, Tyrod Taylor, may have played his last game in Buffalo. He had a difficult night against this young Jacksonville defense, nicknamed Sacksonville, who are the best defensive unit against the pass this season. When the game was on the line with less than 2 minutes to go, Taylor’s night took a sinister turn when he was sacked hard with his head smashed off the turf.
On replay, he looked out cold. This left the game in the hands of backup QB Nate Peterman. The Peterman famously came on in place of Taylor earlier in the season and threw a whopping 5 INTs against the Chargers. Entering the game, Peterman scrambled for the 1st down and kept the drive alive but in fitting fashion, he was penalised for intentional grounding before throwing an INT on the very next play. This low scoring contest was hard to watch, particularly Jacksonville. The Jags have only scored 10 points once in the regular season. In fact, they only scored below 20 points 3 times the entire year.
Everything about the Titans win at Kansas was ugly.
For Titans fans, it was an unbelievable underdog victory. For the neutrals and analysts alike, it was tragic viewing. Alex Smith came out hot, like he has for most of the season. He notched up career numbers in the first half and played the best half of football in Playoff history according to Niners legend Steve Young. The Chiefs led by 21 – 3 at the half and looked unstoppable.
Apart from the grizzly concussion sustained by uncoverable Chiefs TE Travis Kelce, the game looked on track for Kansas. The Titans looked miserable; Mariota looked like he couldn’t find an accurate pass and when he did, it was inexplicably dropped by his target. Extrapolating the full time score at the half, the Chiefs should have marched off the field at Arrowhead 42 – 6 victors, covering the BetBright spread of 8.5 with nearly 4 TDs to spare.
At the half, the Chiefs had a 93% chance of winning. Alex Smith looked like he was the QB for the foreseeable future and Titans HC Mike Mularkey looked all but fired post game.
What happened next was the second biggest road comeback by a team in Playoff history. The biggest road comeback was 60 years ago in San Francisco by the Lions in Dec 1957!
The Chiefs seemed scuppered by their triple threat being reduced to a dual threat with their TE position considerably downgraded without Kelce. The Titans kept up their impressive run defence and smothered WR dynamo Tyreek Hill out of the game. The Chiefs offense simply couldn’t stay on the field, ending the second half with an unbelievable 33 yards on 5 pass completions.
Meanwhile, the Titans gained momentum and scored on three consecutive drives with one score even coming off a batted pass which was caught by Mariota, effectively throwing himself a TD pass. The Chiefs jaded defense weren’t helped by seriously questionable refereeing decisions on the night. The decisions were so bad that former head of officiating Mike Pereira called it “horrible” and “teams and fans deserve better”.
The main decision maker in the second half was the devastation Titan’s RB Henry had on the Chiefs defense. A 100 yard game is the marker of a good outing for an NFL RB and Henry notched up 150+ in the second half alone.
The outcome? The Titans defeated the Chiefs in their own stadium after looking dead and buried. Alex Smith looks to have played his last game for the Chiefs, Titan’s coach Mike Mularkey has been extended into 2018 and referee Jeff Triplette has announced his retirement. The loss as incredible as it is, is actually the 11th loss out of 12 playoff appearances for the Chiefs. Andy Reid’s job is now unsafe.
On to the Divisional Round…
This is Playoff football. We get shock upsets, players performing out of their skin for the first time all season and big physical defense with the season and Super Bowl hopes on the line.
Check in again on Thursday to catch the video preview of the next round of games in our series Road to the Super Bowl.