The NFL postseason started with a bang last weekend as two days of triple-header action unfolded across the league. There were nail-biters, blowouts, upsets, and one particularly bizarre broadcast in what was the first 12-team Wild Card round in history. Looking back at the best and the worst of it all, here are the Wild Card weekend superlatives from last weekend’s full slate of postseason football.
Biggest Surprise: Browns Win Big
It wasn’t the best, but the most surprising matchup came at the end of Wild Card weekend.
Despite beating the Steelers in Week 17, the Browns entered their Sunday night rematch as 5-point underdogs. Ben Roethlisberger’s return and the game being played in Pittsburgh were big drivers of these odds, and Cleveland being without head coach Kevin Stefanski due to COVID-19 protocols seemed to stifle any potential of an upset. All of this without even mentioning Cleveland’s (lack of) recent playoff history.
This is why it was so surprising to see Cleveland not just beat the Steelers, but for a majority of the game, completely dominate them on both sides of the ball. Pittsburgh fans who follow the NFL surely had visions of Peyton Manning and the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII when the first snap of the game sailed over Roethlisberger’s head into the end zone, and from there, things only got worse.
Cleveland’s offense dominated Pittsburgh’s defense, with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt combining for 206 total yards and 3 touchdowns. Baker Mayfield completed 21 of 34 passing attempts for 263 yards and 3 touchdowns. The Browns offense didn’t turn the ball over once. Cleveland’s defense managed to force five total Pittsburgh turnovers on the game, and while Roethlisberger completed an NFL record 47 passes as part of his 501-yard passing day, he also threw 4 interceptions. A majority of his gaudy numbers came by virtue of Pittsburgh’s desperation for points and Cleveland’s willingness to concede everything but big plays.
Despite what JuJu Smith-Schuster might have you believe, this wasn’t the same Browns team as usual. To come into Pittsburgh and dominate the Steelers in what could be Ben Roethlisberger’s final postseason game?
No one was more surprised than Pittsburgh.
Ugliest Performance: Derrick Henry Disappoints
As much as any two players in the league, despite playing different positions, their performances often dictate whether their teams win or lose. During the first matchup between Tennessee and Baltimore in Week 11, it was Henry who had the edge. He rushed for 133 yards, including his game-winning 29-yard touchdown in overtime. Jackson, conversely, could not capitalize with a chance to win the game at the end of regulation, instead being forced to settle for a field goal.
Henry led the NFL in touches, rushing yards, all-purpose yards, and rushing touchdowns this year. He averaged 126.7 rushing yards per game and has been in the conversation to be the first running back to win MVP since LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006.
Against Baltimore last weekend, though, Henry rushed for just 40 yards on 18 attempts.
The Titans’ offense was held to 209 total yards. You kept waiting for Henry to click into gear and break a big run as the game went on, but it was the unfortunate case of the star back’s worst game coming at the worst possible time. Would the Titans have beaten the Bills next week had they taken care of the Ravens? We’ll never know. For Derrick Henry and the Titans, these are the questions that will haunt them following Henry’s lackluster performance.
In what has become one of the most bitter rivalries in the NFL, Baltimore won this battle. Call it payback for being eliminated by the Titans in last year’s playoffs. The Ravens’ defense was phenomenal and the Titans’ had questionable coaching decisions, but it came down to which star player could carry their unit throughout the game.
Ironically, it wasn’t the MVP caliber running back.
Most Enjoyable Game: Bills Stave Off Colts
Looking back at the matchup between Indianapolis and Buffalo on Saturday afternoon, it was the best game of the weekend.
It had the stakes. Entering the playoffs, the matchup everyone was looking forward to was the Bills versus the Chiefs. To get to dessert you have to finish your dinner, though, and so a misstep against the Colts was a potential stumbling block for this anticipated matchup.
It had the action. The formula to success for Indianapolis was always to extend their offensive possessions with the run. At halftime, Indianapolis had controlled the ball almost twice as long as Buffalo and trailed by just four points. The second half followed a similar script, with Indianapolis sustaining long drives but not finishing them with points. Despite their mistakes, the Colts narrowed the score to 27-24 with just over 6 minutes to play.
Finally, it had the referees. As the Colts drove down the field with less than a minute to play in the game, needing only a field goal to tie, Philip Rivers connected with Zach Pascal on 4th down and extended their drive.
Or did he?
The refs ruled this no fumble, did they get it right?— PFF (@PFF) January 9, 2021
The referees called the receiver down by contact. That’s fine. It happened quickly and was very close. The problem is that the officials didn’t stop to take a closer look, and if it wasn’t for Buffalo taking a timeout to give the booth a few extra seconds, the play wouldn’t have been reviewed. As you can see, Pascal was clearly off the ground when he lost control of the ball. Easy call. Turnover. Game over, right? Somehow the referees saw it differently. The play was upheld.
Thankfully for the referees, they got to avoid witness protection, as just four plays later, a last-second Philip Rivers heave to the end zone fell incomplete. The Bills won, the Colts were eliminated.
The 4th quarter in Buffalo was the best, most exciting period of football all weekend. The game was filled with edge of your seat excitement. Let’s hope next weekend gives us more games like this.
Worst Meltdown: Seahawks Crash
Let’s take a look at a scenario, shall we?
Let’s say you’re a team who made the playoffs. Your first matchup is a home game against a team you beat handily two weeks prior. On top of that, the opposing team’s starting quarterback is sidelined because of a broken thumb, so you’re going against their backup. One step further? In the 1st quarter, their backup gets tackled awkwardly and is knocked out of the game. Their regular starter, just 12 days removed from surgery and still with pins in his thumb, is forced to come in.
This is how last weekend’s matchup versus the Rams began for the Seahawks, yet somehow Los Angeles pulled off a 30-20 victory over Seattle.
Russell Wilson was 11-27 for 174 yards, throwing 3 touchdowns; 2 to D.K. Metcalf and 1 to the Rams for a pick-6. Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey, and the Rams defense are a force, but between one of the best quarterbacks in the league and what is widely considered to be a Hall of Fame coach in Pete Carroll, how do you rationalize completing just 11 passes against a team you’ve already faced twice this season? Digging a bit deeper on the coaching, how do you allow a team whose quarterback can hardly throw the ball downfield to rush over 40 times for 164 yards?
Despite an MVP caliber quarterback, one of the best young receivers in the league, and all the question marks surrounding Los Angeles entering the game, this still wasn’t a huge upset. Many around the league saw either a backup John Wolford or an injured Jared Goff as perfectly capable of coming into Seattle and eliminating the Seahawks.
Least Entertaining Matchup: Saints Handle Bears
That seemed about right.
Entering Sunday’s matchup between Chicago and New Orleans, there wasn’t much reason to expect a very competitive game. The Saints, despite a serious injury to Drew Brees, had remained in contention for the conference’s top seed for almost the entire season. The Bears, on the other hand, snuck into the postseason with the second-worst record of any playoff team. Surprisingly, New Orleans didn’t jump out to a big lead or rack up points in bunches, at halftime leading just 7-3. Anyone watching, though, knew this game was over late in the 1st quarter when Bears’ receiver Javon Wims dropped an easy Chicago touchdown in the end zone. That was their best opportunity all day until they finally scored their first touchdown on a meaningless score as the 4th quarter expired.
There weren’t any big, game-breaking plays or momentum shifting turnovers. Alvin Kamara was the only skill player to break 100 yards. As far as points are concerned, no quarter saw more than one total score besides the 4th. Again, that was due to a garbage time touchdown pass to Jimmy Graham as time expired.
The only saving grace for this game was its broadcast on Nickelodeon. Whether it was the wild graphics, ridiculous references, or the postgame sliming, this was the drunk uncle at your dull family holiday; a welcomed distraction.
New Orleans’ inability to pull away from Chicago until late in the game conjures doubt. It’s unavoidable. Entering next week’s divisional matchup with Tampa Bay, they’ll need to look back and analyze what did and didn’t work.
Please, just don’t make any of us do the same.
Happiest Storyline: Heroics from Heinicke
This wasn’t supposed to be close.
Washington was the 7-9 representative from the much maligned NFC East, facing the greatest quarterback of all time. Their own starting quarterback, Alex Smith, was unable to play in this first round matchup due to a leg injury. That paved the way for just the second career start for 27-year-old Taylor… Heineken? Hankie? I’m sorry, Heinicke. Taylor Heinicke.
The young Washington quarterback threw for over 300 yards and a touchdown and added 46 yards and a score on the ground. This against a Tampa Bay defense that, in the regular season, was top-10 in both points and yards allowed. More importantly, Heinicke kept them in the game. Down 9-0 at the start of the 2nd quarter, he drove Washington down the field for a touchdown. Down 28-16 late in the 4th quarter, Heinicke led the Football Team’s offense into position for an eventual touchdown pass to Steven Sims. Even Tampa Bay extending their lead to 8 points in the final minutes of the game wouldn’t stop the little engine that could from engineering a drive that, if not for a very questionable call, could have put them in position to steal the win.
Washington ultimately fell just short of upsetting Tom Brady and the Buccaneers. The storybook ending degenerate gamblers and those outside of Tampa Bay hoped for wasn’t meant to be. For a few short hours, though, we all got to watch a real-life version of Shane Falco in The Replacements. It might have been the highlight of the entire weekend.
Cheers to you, Heinicke. I can’t wait to see how many millions of dollars the Jets offer you this offseason.