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2021 NFL Playoffs: Ten Things I Liked About The Divisional Round

A legendary duel, Jeffrey Simmons becoming a household name, Matthew Stafford breaking through, Fred Warner anchoring San Francisco’s cover seven defense, and six other things Matt Weston liked about the Divisional Round of the 2021 NFL Playoffs.

NFL: OCT 10 Bills at Chiefs Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

1. LEGENDARY

We are a species of story tellers. The individual act itself is only the start. Immediately it becomes the knob on the tree, the stone in the creek, the switchback on the path, a landmark until the next one. One football game becomes another, and then another, and all these are bound together to build out a career. Throughout this collection of moments the narrative weaves and turns to produce an entire body of work.

The quarterback position is the author of these books. Despite there being 53 players on a football team, each one with a different role, and position, to win football games, the quarterback is the one who controls the ball, who holds the pen, and mashes the keys, to orchestrate the work.

The previous generation of AFC quarterbacks are now tomes. Their books are on our shelves. We know what happened to Philip, Peyton, Ben, and Tom, who maybe writing his final paragraph, or will stick around for another season to produce another chapter, unsatisfied with his current brutal ending. It’s time for the new guard to carry on the torch of those that came before. Patrick, Justin, Joe, Lamar, Josh, and maybe Deshaun.

Josh and Patrick’s narrative is the most compelling at the moment. Allen was drafted in 2018 and Mahomes in 2017. Allen went from incredible athlete, to game manager, to MVP caliber quarterback in the span of three seasons. Mahomes sat out in 2017 to learn from Alex Smith, and was incredible from the get go. From his week 17 start in a meaningless game in 2017, to today, Mahomes has been the best quarterback in the league. Four straight AFC Championships, Two Super Bowls, one Super Bowl win, there isn’t a passing offense with two Hall of Fame Receivers, and a Hall of Fame quarterback out there.

These two have clashed together in back to back postseasons. They have evolved from quarterbacks to duelists. Mahomes knocked out Allen in the AFC Championship Game last year, after Sean McDermott let his team down with cowardly field goals, and Allen being the entirety of a Bills team whose overall performance was mediocre last season.

This season ended in the same result, at a different passage of time. The Chiefs beat the Bills in the Divisional Round. The moments that built up to the finality were entirely different this time around.

Before this game, the current narrative was Allen was little brother to Mahomes. He’s incredible in his own right, but he can’t slay the fire breathing dragon who lives in a fetid Kansas City cave. A regular season win delayed by lightning wasn’t enough. It had to be in the postseason.

Buffalo, and Allen, brought everything they had to Kansas City. McDermott managed his first downs correctly, the Bills offense grinded through scoring drives with a quarterback sweep and pin-pull quarterback run game paired with a flat heavy passing offense, but their defense couldn’t hold up. The front pressure was there, but because of offensive linemen latched on, and their own limitations, they couldn’t bring down the balance beam gold medal winning quarterback, who consistently turned what should have been sacks into positive completions. The Bills played two high, rushed four, and Mahomes pricked and poked them until they were dry.

A missed field goal at the half, a field goal to start the half, and a Mecole Hardman 25 yard touchdown run from Kansas City, was paired with the Bills three and out. Down 23-14, their head was in the guillotine, their paw in the bear trap, their dream coming to an end.

It took one play for that all to change. After playing single high, with a spy for the majority of the first half, the Chiefs changed things up and opted for a safer two high quarters defense. Off play action, Allen had Dawson Knox running the dig, and Gabriel Davis running the skinny post. Juan Thornhill (#22) had his eyes on the dig, and opened his hips to turn and run with it. Davis found the seam between the corner and the safety. As soon as Thornhill turned the ball wound up. 75 yards of decimation.

This is what imminent death looks like.

Up to this point, the game had little pouts of bubble. It didn’t quite turn to a boil. This throw was atomic, changing the entire landscape, forcing Kansas City and Buffalo, to scrounge for their lives in a gray and deadened wasteland.

Later, in the third quarter, the Chiefs would have to settle for three, after motioning Travis Kelce to quarterback, and their speed option failing. Down 26-21, with 8:58 left, the Bills had to comeback.

It wasn’t a drive, as much as it was a death march from Allen. Devin Singletary had three carries for ten yards, aside from that, Allen accounted for the rest. Quick passes, death defying scrambles, runs off the edge, two fourth down conversions, the Bills went 17 plays for 75 yards and chewed 7:01 off the clock to take the lead back.

It culminated with shattered ankles. The Chiefs played cover three, to ensure Allen couldn’t scramble past them, making man coverage difficult to swallow, and focused on the intermediate throws past the sticks. Brian Daboll dialed up the kill shot. Twin wide receivers left. A seam that occupies the safety. Mike Hughes on Davis. The dino post was a meteor that busted Hughes’s ankles, like something seen on ESPN2 on 2 a.m. in 2006, not on a professional football field, on a stage, in a moment like this.

Tyreek Hill isn’t flesh and bone and guts. He’s matter. He’s a red burst, and a red blur of pure energy. Something escaped from a power plant, a mad scientist who was finally able to escape the chains of his physical body, a red laser pointer flashing across the field to confuse and produce anxiety in dogs and cats, calling him a wide receiver, is like stating 299,792,458 meters per second is merely the speed of light. A post was broken through the open field. The Chiefs took the lead back.

1:02 left. The Bills gave Mahomes too much time, the Chiefs gave Allen too much time. Somehow the second game winning drive, was more impressive than the first. Two chunk gains to Davis, a deep curl down the sideline to Emmanuel Sanders through a defensive pass interference that also stopped the clock. The question wasn’t if the Bills would score, but when, and how much time would be left after they did so.

After getting beat with one safety deep in this situation earlier by Davis, they Chiefs had two safeties deep, with man coverage underneath. The middle of the field open. This time Davis was up against L’Jarius Snead, an actual cornerback, instead of roster flotsam. Snead wasn’t set before the snap, with safety help, he had outside leverage. Running with a bent arm ensured separation throughout the route, and Davis cut inside to vivisect the safeties, winning the game twice in two minutes.

Two strikes away. 28-3. The Warriors blew a three game lead. We all know it isn’t over until it’s over. 13 seconds, ball at the 25, the Chiefs went 34 yards in 10 seconds to tie the game, and send it into overtime. Gassed defense. The Chiefs were the one to provide finality in overtime.

The story has completely changed. Allen isn’t little brother. He entered Kansas City, and played identically to Mahomes, on the road, in the postseason. He couldn’t control Buffalo’s pass rush, or McDermott not squibbing it, or Leslie Frazier’s end game defense. He did everything he could. This wasn’t being massacred by the final boss. This was like vanquishing the Balrog, only for a rope to catch his foot, and pull him back down into the underworld with him. A twist of fate that changed everything.

Now the story is, Allen is just as good as Mahomes, he just has to get past him. It will be a long summer of tape watching, and monomaniacal focus, to pull Buffalo back together until next year, when they face their white whale again. And with it comes the NFL’s next great quarterback rivalry, Mahomes v. Allen, with some Herbert, Burrow, and Jackson sprinkled in. Unlike last decade, which was relatively same as the one before, this decade is set to become something new, and even more incredible, with this batch of athletes no one has ever seen before at this position.

Not too bad, for someone who should have played tight end.

2. RAMPAGE WORLD TOUR

I don’t know what the common NFL fan knows. Not that, I, am some sort of expert, I am merely someone who watches a lot of football, played football once upon a time, writes about football, and has a blunt understanding of the game. The going up and catching it, quarterback wins, the winning and losing, fantasy lineups, eating chicken wings, the foundations of postmodern NFL fandom, only interest me sometimes. I don’t know which players people know or don’t know. I consume it in my own very specific way. There’s only so much time and effort anyone can devote to anything. I know they know Aaron Donald, and J.J. Watt, and now, maybe Chris Jones. There’s only so much space available in our brains, and we would all be better off not knowing that Damion Square had a great game in the Wildcard Round against the Cincinatti Bengals, well, at least I know I do.

I don’t know, and my hunch is, that aside from the ones who watch every weekend all the time, and the ones who reside in Nashville, most don’t know who Jeffrey Simmons is. That has to change. He’s a premier interior run defender, and pass rusher, and is the sun the Tennessee Titans defensive front revolves around.

8 tackles, 3 tackles for a loss, 3 sacks, 3 quarterback hits. It was an all-time playoff performance from Jeffrey Simmons. Don’t let the loss wash over this. Don’t let Quinton Spain see this. Here are the highlights.

3. NO FEAR (MIKE HILTON)

Todd Downing should be in jail. This year everything broke perfectly for the Titans. They captured the one-seed, Derrick Henry received another week of rest, their entire team was healthy at the same time, and they had the defensive and pass catching talent they were missing in previous years. Their one Achilles heel, wasn’t Ryan Tannehill, who is the game’s best complimentary passer, but their offensive coordinator.

Downing refused to run play action earlier in the season to take advantage of the playbook Arthur Smith left on his desk. The outside zone variations and reads were missing from their offense. Somehow David Quessenberry started the entire season at right tackle, instead of the more talented rookie tackle Dillon Radunz, who they selected in the second round. He ran the same plays from the same formations throughout the year. The offense was stale and banal. If it wasn’t for Mike Vrable, leading his men, to wins in strange and bizarre ways, ways only the Titans could win games, with the injuries they had, this season would have gone entirely differently.

Despite everything coming together at the perfect time, three interceptions is what did them in. The first and third were nearly identical. Cover three with a variation of who the flat defender is. A deep curl that gets plucked. The first Jesse Bates read and broke on it, the second, the corner sat specifically on this route, without any fear of a vertical on 3rd and 5, and popped it up in the air, which set up the game winning Evan McPherson field goal.

Somehow, this isn’t the most egregious of the bunch. The second one is the one that is insane from a NFL team. The Titans have been running a bubble screen RPO all season. Same play, nearly identical formation, over and over again.

Lou Anarumo is one of the best defensive coordinators in the NFL. Even before he had talent on his defense, he was doing things like limit Baltimore’s gap scheme read option game without a passable linebacker on the field. He knows, and is aware of Downing’s tendencies. The Titans went to this same bubble screen RPO earlier in the game and picked up three yards throwing it to Chester Rogers. Logan Wilson runs from the football to the sideline to stop this play.

After a 45 yard miraculous D’Onta Foreman gain that put the Titans in the redzone, Downing went back to this same play. Mike Hilton is a menace. The former Pittsburgh Steelers slot cornerback is a hellion off the edge. He’s a NO-FEAR t-shirt brought to life, who made his living blitzing from the slot corner position. Hilton recognizes the tight end motion to flank the edge, the slot wide receiver right set, and peels to the edge. Tannehill has his mind made up presnap. He throws the bubble. Hilton blitzes, stops, tips it in the air, and picks it off, like a defensive end, to steal points from the board.

The Bengals did a great job going all in to build around Joe Burrow’s rookie contract. They added Chidobe Awuzie, Hilton, Trey Hendrickson, and D.J. Reader, the last two seasons to rebuild their defense. This collection limited the Titans zone run game, and created enough turnovers, to allow Joe Burrow to pull it out again, even after being sacked nine times, and fighting through struggles of his own.

4. TITANS SACK

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, all 9 of the Titans sacks against the Cincinatti Bengals.

5. WHO NEEDS TOUCHDOWNS?

We tend to forget the kicking game. I know I do. It’s the step child of football. We don’t think about it until it breaks open and changes an entire game. We ignore it until the things we had forgotten come into focus. The kickers last weekend made their legs heard. Matt Gay nailed a 30 yard game winning field, McPherson rocked a 52 yard one himself, and Robbie Gould continued his postseason perfect streak, crushing one through a blizzard from 45 yards to upset the Green Bay Packers. Harrison Butker kicked a game tying field goal, but a Travis Kelce wheel route prevented him from his own game winning attempt.

This past weekend kickers went 15/19, and the teams who lost, weren’t left heartbroken by the strange thing out of place on their roster screwing up. Kickers provided jubilation. They were the ones who broke open the pinata, and ensured their team would be the one moving on.

6. BREAK THROUGH

Matthew Stafford had never won a playoff game until this postseason. In Detroit he was 0-3, with a point differential of -41. Twelve years spent toiling in Detroit, going through coaching changes, abrupt retirements, offensive coordinators who could never fully unleash him. Sean McVay needed him, and he needed McVay, and together, they are in the NFC Championship Game after only one season under the same roof.

McVay needed a quarterback who could make plays through a muddy pocket, operate from a spread, and consistently hit deep passes. They were hamstrung by Jared Goff. Throws had to be schemed open by the run game. Against bear fronts, like the one New England deployed in the Super Bowl, and against top run defenses in general, the Rams were never able to throw teams out of heavy boxes. They were stuck running wide zone and play action crossing routes even after they were figured out.

Enter Stafford. With Stafford, the Rams could run their zone run-play action game, and they could run an entirely different offense, a spread downfield passing attack. They are now more than a singular scheme. They are dichotomous. A vicious beast who can take down defenses in multiple ways.

Against the Arizona Cardinals, the Rams played a conservative offensive game. They limited Stafford’s passing attempts, and sat back while their defense devoured Kyler Murray—yum, yum, yum. They let him get the first one out of the way, the monkey was lopped off his back and turned into bushmeat.

In the Divisional Round, he made a downfield throw that changed the complexity of the game, and a downfield throw that won the game.

Facing 3rd and 20, McVay called a play, and Stafford made a throw, that was never a possibility with Goff at quarterback. Rather than run for it to win the field position game, the Rams came out in 01 personnel, and an empty backfield. Trips right with a tight end, and twin wide receivers with a tight alignment to the left. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, play Tampa 2 with Devin White (#45) running the deep middle, to limit the intermediate throws. Hypothetically, the cornerback should be able to peel and squeeze a corner throw to make it nearly impossible, with the ability to still come down and make a tackle in a flat to prevent a 20 yard gain.

Los Angeles’s deep threat Van Jefferson (#12) runs a skinny post. This pulls White, and also draws the attention of each safety. The landmark for the two deep safeties are 22 yards downfield, 2 yards outside the numbers. Safety Mike Edwards (#32) is supposed to play two at once. By being between each route, he should be able to defend both.

Edwards allows Stafford’s eyes, like some gorgonic howling beast, to pull him to the post. Stafford steps up into Vita Vea (#50), and flashes his head to the wide open Cooper Kupp go route at the last tenth of a second. 70 yards, makes it 17-3, and the route was on, until, 27-3, and the comeback was on.

Todd Bowels is an aggressive defensive coordinator. He doesn’t react to the offense, and wants to dictate what the offense does. It’s a high blitz defense that stacks the box in order to stack bodies like a Mongolian celebration. If you’re going to lose, you want to lose playing the game that got you to this point to begin with.

On 1st and 10 with :27 seconds left, the Buccaneers just got beat playing man coverage, with Kupp losing the corner on an out route, and Bowles’s four man pass rush failing to get there. The Bucs blitz six, with four deep in coverage. This leaves safety Antoine Winfield (#31) one v. one against Cooper Kupp, who has a running start. Kupp burns him up the seam. Stafford drops it perfectly to him, with former teammate Ndamukong Suh (#93) cannon balling towards him. Stafford releases, gives a fearful spin, and completes a beautiful and historic pass. The Rams clock it. Gay hits the field goal. The Rams win.

Who says Stafford can’t win big games now?

7. THE WEAK LINK

The San Francisco 49ers pulled out a win in the blizzard, thanks to their pass rush, quick passes to the short middle of the field, toss plays, the Packers receivers being unable to run their routes on a slick field, and, of course, blocking kicks.

At the end of the half, against cover seven, nothing is open. Nick Bosa beats Dennis Kelly with a clean chop rip. The ball is on the ground. The Packers recover. It’s field goal time. Against this defense, in this weather, that is about to get worse, every point is precious.

The 49ers overload the line to the left. They have six defenders against four blockers. Depth pass rusher, and desert condor, Jordan Willis (#94) is the battering ram that opens the door. He chops the wing’s outside arm like a turnstile. This gives Jimmie Ward (#1) a free rush to run into the ball, and raise his arms to knock down the kick. The game is stuck at 7-0 entering the half.

Willis also won the game for the 49ers as well on the punt block unit. Willis is 6’4” 270 pounds, the long snapper Steven Wirtel is 6’4” 228 pounds. Choose your fighter.

Willis stunts from the ‘B’ gap to head up with Wirtel (#46). Wirtel, goes from snapping, to a looking up at a berserk barbarian, blood crazed, and slobbering. Willis drives Wirtel into the punter. A long out stretched arm knocks the punt down. The 49ers recover. The world ends.

Football is more complicated than one quarterback being pitted against the other. I know it feels like that at times, especially after games like the one Buffalo and Kansas City played, but it’s a shortcut to simplify a complex game, that is more complicated then most can comprehend. Green Bay v. San Francisco wasn’t about Aaron Rodgers choking, or Jimmy Garoppolo pulling out another gutsy win. Is about the weather, the pass rush, the run game, and that often forgotten thing, special teams.

8. COVER SEVEN CONTROLLING

Look at the chart.

What do you see? I see everything short and to the flat. The San Francisco 49ers play a cover seven defense. This weakness is to the flat. They forced Rodgers to throw here over and over again, and consistently came up and made their tackles.

DeMeco Ryans took the same defensive blueprint that Robert Saleh had, and expanded upon it, by blitzing more often to create additional pressure. It’s still cover seven, he’s just known to get wild at times and bring it, like he did against Dallas, and like he did against Green Bay, that caught Rodgers off guard and forced him to miss the dig.

This defense works not because of the secondary, but the pass rush, that is overwhelming and composed of early first round draft picks and others, scratched off from lesser known sources, and, most importantly, Fred Warner. His ability to play the hook, carry the seam, and defend the entire middle of the field, is why the 49ers can play cover seven year and year out with the success they have.

He’s a monster defending the run too. In the run game last week, the 49ers had their defensive tackles play as a ‘2i’ and a ‘3’ technique, to stretch the Packers’ double teams horizontally, and make it difficult to move the first, and climb to the second. Warner controlled the inside zone runs the Packers love to run.

Ryans is a hot head coach candidate name, just as he should be. If someone hires him this year, they better make sure they have a ranging linebacker, or plan to draft one early in the upcoming draft. The 49ers defense works because of Warner, who pulsates at the heart of it.

9. SICKO MODE

Sometimes talent beats scheme. The Titans had the perfect coverage call to defend Ja’Marr Chase on 1st and 10 with 20 seconds left, following Tannehill’s third interception. Chase is the ‘X’ receiver on an island with Jackrabbit Jenkins (#20) pressing him at the line of scrimmage. Jenkins has inside leverage, because he has the sideline to help him. If Chase breaks inwards, he can drag across his help, with the safety helping him inside. It’s a perfect example of divider leverage. It’s Jenkins and Kevin Byard (#31) against Chase.

Chase takes a one hop stutter off the line. Jenkins misses his jam, and Chase gets a free release outside. Jenkins is already chasing, and now the sideline isn’t as helpful as he thought it would be. Chase breaks past him, gives Byard a slight juke to fake inside the field, before breaking to the sideline on the corner route. Burrow is all over it. The ball is out before Chase breaks to the sideline. The Bengals get 19 yards. The game winning field goal is alive.

Earlier in the game he also created three more, by nearly taking a quick smoke throw to the flat to the endzone. Against a cover zero blitz, he made Kristian Fulton miss, and then picked up 52 yards after the catch.

Chase proved this season, in the Wildcard Round, and last week, that taking left tackle Penei Sewell would have been the disastrous choice. He’s a transcendent wide receiver who can carry an entire offense, and turn a puddle into an ocean. If the Bengals have a chance against the Chiefs, it’s because Chase has 250 receiving yards and 3 touchdowns, and the best part is, it’s not outside the bounds of reality.

10. HATRED

Sitting here, I am still perplexed. I have watched the play over and over again. I watched the NFL Films Mic’d up, I listened to the press conference, where Mahomes and Kelce converse about taking it up the seam if they play it like that. And, still, to this exact second, I can’t believe they gave Kelce a free release. 25 yards in 8 seconds. They gave Kelce a free release. 25 yards in 8 seconds. The gave Kelce a free release.