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Ten Things I Liked About The Wildcard Round


Wild Card Round - Tennessee Titans v Kansas City Chiefs
Photo by Jason Hanna/Getty Images

I was smattering my brains around recollecting last year’s Wildcard Round while steaming beets and boiling eggs. I stammered around up there. It was all low-light film photography hazy. I started with the Divisional Round then worked my way backwards to figure out what in the world happened back in 2016.

The Steelers beat the Chiefs in Kansas City, so they had to have played in round one, and they played...That’s right. Miami. What an awful game. It was cold and Matt Moore almost died. Antonio Brown ran around a lot. I know Houston beat Oakland and that quarterback, something Cook. [name redacted] joined a prestigious group of having won a NFL playoff game, and Jadeveon Clowney was spectacular. The Packers beat the Cowboys, and it was a night game. That team they played didn’t make the playoffs. Who was a disappointment? Yes. The boat photo. The New York Giants. Strangely, one of the Rodgers-Cromarties getting injured screwed New York, and I think Aaron Rodgers threw a end of half buzzer beater. And there was that Lions-Seahawks game where absolutely nothing happened. woo! Fun times.

This past weekend, however, was wild and raucous and spectacular. It was exactly why I love the NFL, and why this sport is actually very good. I won’t have to work backwards next year when I probably end up doing the same thing. These games took my heart like a shower scene. I’ll remember it all.

Here’s what I liked from this WILD weekend:

1.) Speed Kills Speed

On Battle Red Radio last week I mentioned the idea of Adoree’ Jackson covering Tyreek Hill one v one. It sounded like a good idea. Speed v. speed. This wasn’t a good idea. Hill spent the first half shoving Jackson into lockers and tying his underwear to the flag pole.

Hill had two bad drops to start this game. The first was especially painful. He’s lined up in the slot against Jackson. There is one deep safety. Hill is running a fade to the sideline and has Jackson all to himself. Jackson tries to jam him at the line, and by jam, I mean laying a hand on someone’s shoulder when they are having a wet sock day. Hill just runs outside of this attempt and breaks free. If you are going to press Hill you have to be more than an inconvenience, you have to throw him out of a moving car. If not, he’s going to run right past you and then run forever. The ball hits Hill right in the hands. It falls out. Incompletion.

Jackson is lined up on the line of scrimmage. Again he tries to press Hill. He limply lays his arm on him. Hill cuts inside. Jackson’s hips are open and he gives Hill a free run. The jam has zero effect. It’s another press from someone who doesn’t know how to press. Even though the Titans are in man coverage, Jackson then assumes he’s passing Hill onto someone else. He’s wrong. Hill catches the pass in stride, laughs at a Johnathan Cyprien dive, and runs alongside Jackson until he slips out of bounds after a gain of 45 yards.

Jackson gives up on trying to press Hill now. Hill chops his feet up and to the left. Jackson over compensates in fear and wildly swivels his hips around. Immediately, Hill cuts inside on the slant and is wide open. This could be a touchdown. There isn’t a safety deep. The read-pass option sends Cyprien hellraising into the box, but then, Jackson finally puts his speed to use and chases down Hill from behind to save six.

After this play the Titans had enough. The Chiefs ran three different plays Hill either could have scored on, or at a minimum, gained 40 yards on. Jackson was no longer tasked with following Hill around. Instead they played more zone coverage, and kept their defenders in their segments of the field. They played off Hill, made sure to not get beat deep, and came down quickly to make tackles. This worked. The Titans were lucky to escape this game without giving up the big one.

2.) Marcus Mariota Self Suck

Jon Gruden has seen Brad Johnson throw a pass, have it deflected, catch it, and run it for a touchdown. I had not. The Mariota self suck was something I’ve never seen before.

Mariota has no one open. He makes a right. Then skeeerts to the left and leaves the pocket. Unlike most quarterbacks, Mariota has the legs to make a play even after everyone is covered. Mariota does more than make a play. He turns a heave into a resurrection.

The best part is that Daniel Sorensen shoves Mariota to the football after Darrelle Revis flicks it up into the air.

The Chiefs are never making it past the divisional round.

3.) Left Edging Derrick Henry

This season Henry had the following yards per carry distribution: left edge 10.82, left tackle 2.96, middle 2.69, right tackle 3.42, and right edge 4.0. Against the worst run defense in football, Henry ran the ball four times on the left edge. He picked up 38 yards. 9.5 yards a carry.

The two big runs came on the final drive to keep Alex Smith’s greasy cheesy fingers off the football. The first was on 1st and 10 and went for 12 yards. The Titans are running inside zone with eight blockers.

The tight end and fullback head to the second level to pick up what the strong double teams can’t. Taylor Lewan drives out Frank Zombo. Sorensen is picked up by the fullback. Derrick Johnson is the unblocked defender. He goes to fill the hole. Henry does what he has been doing all year, cut, run laterally behind the line of scrimmage, and break the run to the outside. Multiple leg surgeries and a decade ago, Johnson could maybe catch back up to make this tackle. At this point he can’t. He gets tossed off. Zombo tackles Henry from behind.

The game clinching run was a zone read play. Mariota incorrectly hands the ball off. Zombo is the read man and he climbs down the line of scrimmage. Henry looks right and sees Reggie Ragland unblocked, and doesn’t have the patience to wait for Quinton Spain to block down on him. So he plants, and bounces the run to the left.

Rather than run downhill, stick to his guns, and attack Henry behind the line of scrimmage, Zombo panics and waits. Henry cuts behind Mariota, who tosses a block on Zombo. The sad! outside linebacker chases back with tears streaming down his rosy cheeks and slides down Henry. Game over.

This one didn’t count as a left edge run. But you know Henry cut to the left on his touchdown run that gave Tennessee the lead.

4.) It’s My House My Rules My Heated Swimming Poole

There were no questions regarding the speed the Falcons had on defense. The problem was all that speed didn’t produce this year. The Falcons defense was malleable and survived because they didn’t allow touchdowns in the redzone. It was expected in this game for Todd Gurley to run throughout Atlanta’s defense, and YAC, YAC, YAC through it after Sean McVay crafted easy completions for him.

This didn’t happen. Gurley had 4 catches on 10 targets for 10 yards. His longest reception was a miraculous 4 yards. The M.V.P., and best running back on the ground and through the air this season was ejected in the pass game.

The Falcons play a lot of zone defense, specifically cover three. On just about every Gurley reception they flew down hill and tackled him before he could even turn. They didn’t allow him to make a cut. He made the catch. Then was splattered.

Atlanta’s entire defense was impressive. It held the Rams to 16 less points than their season average. Cornerback Brian Poole’s tackles were the most impressive individual collection of plays from this rapid defensive performance.

Play action. Look deep. Get the defenders’ backs turned and get them running up field. Dump off to Gurley. The back slips across the floor in his socks right into Poole’s arms.

This is a similar play. Gurley is frazzled. He catches the pass and doesn’t even squeal. He turns and accepts his fate, getting legs lopped off from below the knees.

It wasn’t just Gurley either. The Falcons limited the entire Rams’ offense from doing what they do best, pick up yards after the catch. This is a roll out right. Robert Woods pivots back to the outside. Poole again removes the receiver’s legs.

5.) The Future So Bright I Gotta Wear My Shades

I wasn’t all that impressed by Jared Goff this season. Sean McVay was a property brother rebuilding this offense, and Goff’s ability to play football. He created plenty of easy short throws that opened up the deep stuff he was able to hit on. Todd Gurley was the MVP of this season. And most of Goff’s yards came after the catch.

This past weekend my eyes shimmered in the sublime. Do you have something to say? It’s, it’s’s all just so beautiful.

The first pass that caught my attention was the touchdown to Cooper Kupp. It’s also a perfect example of what McVay does to create open throws. The Rams are in 1x0x4 personnel and have trips left. There are two safeties deep in the center of the field. Goff has whatever he wants to the sideline. The outside receiver runs a slant, the inside receiver runs a comeback that pirouettes off the slot defender, and Kupp wheels around all of this to the corner of the endzone. It’s the perfect foil against man coverage. Goff puts the ball in the perfect spot. All of the sudden I’m on the South Kaibab Trail and I’m looking down.

This throw is plucked right out of the Carolina-New Orleans game. This is an ELITE throw of the football. He steps up past one rusher. Stands strong in the pocket. Puts the ball into a skee-ball pocket right over the trailing defender.

The last one would have changed the entire dimension of the game. Goff took a deep shot to Sammy Watkins. The throw was perfect. It just went through Watkins’s hands. [whispers] Sammy Watkins isn’t good, and the narrative that he’s good is one that only exists to cover for those who said he was good, when it turned out that he wasn’t good.

As my friend Taylor said watching this game, and what others said leading up to it, the Rams are young and inexperienced. They are right, I guess. I wish we could play this game over again without the special teams turnovers. Entering this one I was feeling like L.A. would be one of those teams that wouldn’t be back next year. But after seeing what Goff did in this one, and after another year in this offense, I’m here for the 2018 Rams.

6.) Plastic Bag Boy

Ryan didn’t win this game, the defense, and the ability to control the clock with outside zone left and outside zone right runs did. A Wade Phillips’s defense getting chewed up on the ground, SHOCKING. What Ryan did was make a perfect cat hole covering throw, and more importantly, what Ryan didn’t do was turn the ball over. I’m still waiting for Ryan to throw a throat slitting interception in this game.

The Falcons fake the outside zone left. Devonta Freeman fakes the hand off and runs laterally in that direction. Julio Jones is lined up wide to the other side of the formation. He sprints to the other pylon. After Ryan carries out his fake. Connor Barwin is unblocked, in his face, and daring for Ryan to punch him first. Ryan stops, throws off his back foot, and let’s go of a balloon. The play fake carries John Johnson that way, and he’s unable to catch back up with Jones.

These high lofting, free floating, forever lasting, sky grazing magnetized touch passes that magically stick in the receiver’s hands will now forever be known as plastic bag throws. Matt Ryan threw a perfect one to seal Atlanta’s trip to Philadelphia.

And damn did Ryan need this throw. This season Ryan threw 20 touchdowns to 12 interceptions. Last year he threw 38. Regardless, I still think this Atlanta team is sick. Things just broke perfectly for them. After knocking out the Rams in a start to finish win that was pushed along by two turnovers, they are the favorites next week against Nick Foles, and should be playing in either New Orleans or Minnesota for the NFC Title. Sometimes you work and work and work and things just fall into place.

7.) Stuff The Box

The Jaguars are advancing because of a 10-3 win over the Buffalo Bills. Both offenses were failures. They kept slapping the ball into the line of scrimmage over and over again. The Jaguars tried to hide Blake Bortles from breaking the one rule of his quarterback camp “Don’t throw the ball to the team wearing the different color”. The Bills tried to protect Tygod from throwing passes to underwhelming receivers against the best pass defense in football that employs the best secondary in football. So back and forth they went. Punting and punting and punting. All because neither team could throw the other out of one safety looks and eight man boxes.

I mean look at this. This isn’t football. This is a mass exodus. These aren’t people. These are bumper cars.

And you know what? I loved all of it. I love how the game slows down in the playoffs. I love the long drives with the windows down. I love how each play feels like eternity. I loved this game.

8.) Redzone Defense

Nothing beats a spectacular defensive redzone play. In an effort to keep the Bills-Jaguars game as low scoring as possible, each team made some jaw-dropping ones.

The first came on the Bills surprising trip into the redzone. Calais Campbell is a mountain. He isn’t human. He used a finger to tackle Tyrod Taylor, which forced the Bills to kick a field goal.

Of course it wasn’t over. Telvin Smith jumped offsides, and the Bills were given three shots from the one yard line. They put on their fake eyelashes, the really long ones with the magnets, and put Kelvin Benjamin in motion out wide left. Matched up one v. one against Jalen Ramsey, Taylor threw a fade to him. He shoved Ramsey, and despite getting popped in the chest, Ramsey still defended the pass. The Bills were forced back ten yards. They never got close again.

Rather than draft Deshaun Watson, Patrick Mahomes, or Deshone Kizer, the Jaguars decided to stick with their boy Blake. He rewarded them with a playoff win where he ran for more yards than he threw. That 5 mph wind is some real brutal stuff. I bet Bortles is probably left handed and just hasn’t realized it yet. And rather than draft a quarterback, they took Leonard Fournette for games like this one. He ran head first 21 times for 57 yards.

They needed him to punch the ball in and score an insurmountable touchdown. He drank a Red Bull, took the hand off, and lea over the pile. Lorenzo Alexander grabbed him by legs and yanked him down like a Money In The Bank Match.

The Jaguars would go on and spit in fate’s face and score with some sly play action on the following fourth down. That broke my heart. This game should have been 6-3. No touchdowns were allowed in this one.

9.) Defensive Backs Just Love To Pick Off Passes

I don’t know what it is about being a defensive back. They always have to intercept the pass. If they get a chance they are going to take it. Nothing can stop them from their own vices.

The Panthers had zero time outs. The Saints went for it on fourth down to splay the jungle cat open. Carolina blitzed to generate pressure like they were able to do on second half third downs. Brees heaved one down field. And rather than punch that stupid ball out of bounds, safety Mike Adams “caught” it. The Panthers started their game winning possession attempt at the 31 instead of the 47.

The even bigger question mark glowing over my head is pondering why this play wasn’t reviewed? All year long there was this constant nit-picking over what is and isn’t a catch. These plays were then looked at frame by frame in super-super slow motion to see whether or not a hand was under the ball and if the ball moved a smidgen. This play was no different than all the others. Since it was under two minutes Ron Rivera couldn’t challenge. But you would think with some bloody murder hollering he could have got it looked at. 53 yards is a hell of a lot different than 69 when you are trying to score a touchdown with zero time outs left. Sometimes I wonder why they even have replay at all.

10.) GTFO

Next year when I’m thinking of dead time and what happened this weekend, the quarterback dual in New Orleans is going to rise above the rest. Drew Brees was perfect against the Panthers for the majority of the game. Carolina couldn’t get a rush with their front four and he picked and pulled at their zone defense. It took some crafty third down blitzes to finally turn him away from the endzone and force some punts. Cam incessantly led the Panthers into the New Orleans’ redzone. They had five trips but came away with only 12 points to start the game. And both made some unbelievable throws.

Both play the game entirely differently as well. Brees cranes his neck over a barbed wire crested fence to look downfield for open receivers. Whether they are covered or not, he puts the ball in the perfect spot, where only his receiver can get it, and leaves the defender flabbergasted and calling his mother from his dorm room complaining about why life isn’t fair.

I don’t have any analysis for these highlights. Screw the subtext. This isn’t Animal Farm. If it was it this would only be 150 words long. Just take in the beauty of it all. The what is better than the why and the how.

Newton isn’t a sniper the way Brees is. He winds all the way back on his planted foot like an arrow yanked back, and rips Randy Johnson bird killing fast balls. His spectacular throws are all about being big and strong and putting the ball past defenders. I would hate to play wide receiver for him and be forced to catch laser beams with oven mitts.

Like the Brees plays, just sit back and let it wash over you.