We’re dividing up the $.10 this week. The first five, which you are about to read, reflect the actual football games going on over the Wild Card weekend. The next installment will be more focused on the coaching carousel and college/draft developments. Look for that on Tuesday.
$.01--Most of America tuned into the Saturday night special expecting to see Tom Brady and the Buccaneers stroll past the 7-9 Football Team. And while “Tompa” Bay did indeed prevail, it was a much closer and more interesting game than a lot expected it to be.
Credit Taylor Heinicke for that. The plucky Football Team emergency quarterback led Washington on a spirited effort that nearly matched the high-powered Buccaneers. Heinicke, the WFT fourth-string QB after Dwayne Haskins was dumped, Alex Smith was hurt and Kyle Allen was uh, Kyle Allen, proved capable of leading the offense with his arm and his legs. His mobility and fearless nature gave an undermanned Football Team a fighting chance.
Tampa Bay just had too much to handle. On a night where not every Bucs player (looking at you, Chris Godwin and your four dropped passes) had his “A” game, Brady, Mike Evans and Leonard Fournette consistently made enough plays to stay in control of the game. It was one of those matchups where the score was always close but it never really felt like the Buccaneers were in real peril of losing. That’s not meant as disrespect to Washington but more of an acknowledgment that the Buccaneers had superior talent at every position group except the offensive and defensive lines.
Washington and Heinicke acquitted themselves nicely. After all the ribbing about winning a truly terrible NFC East with a losing record, they looked like a team that belonged in the postseason. Based on how they finished the season and with how dominant Chase Young is already, they’ll be back again, probably often. At worst, they found something worth keeping in Heinicke as a potential long-term backup. Taylor Swift Heineken (how my phone autocorrected his name at the 2015 Shrine game, which Heinicke himself approved after showing it to him) earned that chance.
For Tampa Bay, it’s a bit of a postseason wake-up call. Yes, Washington was game, but the Bucs will need to play better and can’t afford the missed opportunities against anyone else they’ll face. But it’s all about surviving and advancing and Brady does that better than anyone in postseason history. He did it again in his first postseason game in Tampa.
$.02--The weekend kicked off with a doozy of a game in Buffalo between the Bills and the Colts. It was a thrilling game that unfortunately gets tainted by a complete loss of control of the game by an overwhelmed officiating crew that was not up to the standards of the players with whom they shared the field.
The Bills won, and rightly so, when time ran out on the Colts and Philip Rivers in a last-ditch gasp. A furious comeback behind Rivers fell incomplete. The final throw came after the Bills had already recorded the final stop needed on a fumble and recovery, but the officials overruled indisputable visual evidence from multiple camera angles that it was in fact a fumble. Perhaps aware of the egregious ruling, the officiating then proceeded to screw the Colts--there’s no other way to say it--with some incompetent time-keeping and adjudication of the rules. The clock ran for five seconds off a timeout on one instance. On another situation that either needed to be a dead clock or an official review (there may or may not have been a sideline fumble), the umpire didn’t get out of the way of the snap with the clock still running. The Colts lost between 8 and 12 seconds in the final minute simply because the officials didn’t know what they were doing.
As Rasheed Wallace would rightly say, “Ball don’t lie”. The Bills deserved to win behind a mistake-free performance from supernova QB Josh Allen, who the Colts could not stop. Colts coach Frank Reich didn’t help his own team with a bizarre decision to eschew a short field goal just before the half to go up 17-7. Instead, they disastrously went for the 4th-and-goal and came up empty. Allen methodically sliced and diced Reich’s defense in a gorgeous 2-minute drill to seize a lead they would not give back.
Colts fans can kvetch about the clock endgame gaffes. But they also need to wonder why Rivers and Reich didn’t show the frantic urgency necessary to that point. Some ponderous decisions leading up to that from Reich’s offensive play calls didn’t help either.
It’s perhaps fitting that it could be the last time we see Rivers play, another so-close-but-yet-so-far critical game for one of the NFL’s most prolific passers of all-time but someone who will be far more renowned historically for coming up short. After the game, Rivers effectively stated he will either be back as the Colts QB or coaching somewhere. The Colts need to make that decision for him and aggressively pursue a long-term replacement.
$.03--The Colts weren’t the only AFC team where the head coach inhibited the players’ ability to win the game. Tennessee coach Mike Vrabel decided to take the ball out of his own players’ control and consciously chose to lose the Sunday afternoon game against the Ravens on his own.
Vrabel elected to punt on 4th-and-2 from the Ravens 40-yard line while down by four points with under 10 minutes on the clock. Vrabel might be the head coach I would like to face the least in a dark alley, but in this instance, he went full pussycat instead of roaring. A 25-yard punt did nothing to deter the Ravens offense; they gained that back in 2 plays and bled precious clock while doing so. With Derrick Henry--a 2,000-yard rusher and an incredible power runner--at his disposal, Vrabel instead ran scared.
There is something called the “Surrender Index”, which judges the cowardliness and negative ramifications of punting instead of going for it. And they’ve never seen a more chicken-bleep act of cowardice all year, if not ever, than Vrabel’s decision…
TEN decided to punt to BAL from the BAL 40 on 4th & 2 with 10:06 remaining in the 4th while losing 13 to 17.— Surrender Index (@surrender_index) January 10, 2021
With a Surrender Index of 138.87, this punt ranks at the 100th percentile of cowardly punts of the 2020 season, and the 99.92nd percentile of all punts since 2009.
The Ravens promptly chewed six minutes off the clock and cashed in with a long Justin Tucker field goal. Vrabel, not content with his historically awful decision on the prior drive, then drew up a very effective “drain the clock” drill, now down seven and with barely four minutes to play. Inside runs, full huddles, designed short passes over the middle. It ended when Ryan Tannehill got picked off by Marcus Peters on the first play inside the 2-minute warning.
I don’t mean to detract from Lamar Jackson and the Ravens winning. Ending the ridiculous noise that Jackson hasn’t yet won a playoff game--in his third season--is a welcome development. Jackson made plays when his team needed more than the Titans could. So did the Ravens defense, bottling up Henry for just 40 yards on 18 carries. It was a great performance by a Baltimore team that is playing very good football lately. But the way in which Vrabel refused to let his top-5 offense try to win and instead trusting his bottom-5 defense to make plays. Against Jackson? That’s coaching malpractice and Titans fans should be sick about it.
$.04--The NFL offered the Saints-Bears matchup on Sunday with an alternate broadcast on the Nickelodeon network. Aimed at younger fans and offering some whimsy and fun special effects into the game, it was a successful experiment if for nothing else than to breathe some life into a game that was the football equivalent of watching paint dry.
I’ll say it straight away: I’m not a Nickelodeon guy. I’m too old to have grown up with it, and my kids never had much interest beyond Nick Jr. shows. I’ve never seen an episode of Spongebob and the concept of slime cannons makes me wince. But it was the perfect game to dress up with the patented Nickelodeon effects. And it was nice to hear fresh voices like Nate Burleson broadcast a game with a more unbuttoned attitude. There were testimonials all over social media of younger viewers legitimately watching football with their dads for the first time, instead of just humoring the old man. This Twitter thread from Dov Kleiman does a good job of demonstrating the Nick-ing of the game.
That’s the kind of fresh energy and divergent perspective the NFL needs. Those who watched the Saints beat the Bears on the CBS broadcast would never voluntarily subject their children to the drudgery of one of the most uninteresting and pulseless offensive displays of football in recent memory. Other than a perfect Mitchell Trubisky throw to Javon Wims off a gadget play--which Wims promptly dropped in the end zone--the Bears had nothing working. New Orleans wasn’t much better with Drew Brees alarming lack of arm strength and Sean Payton’s weird fetish of trying to make Taysom Hill a thing.
About the only real spice to the game came from dumb penalties. Bears WR Anthony Miller got ejected for being goaded into a minor push of Saints provocateur extraordinaire Chauncey Gardner-Johnson. Earlier, Bears TE Cole Kmet was flagged for flipping the ball to the official after a play while engaged in some mutual yapping with a Saints defender, a remarkable moment of snowflake officiating. In the grand scheme, it didn’t really matter that much; with five minutes to play, the Bears had mustered just 6 first downs and failed to convert a single third down. A garbage-time drive spared Matt Nagy’s predictable, limited offense the ignominy of being the first playoff team to fail to convert a single third down. The Saints offense woke up somewhat in the second half, forcing the slime cannons to erupt and give the viewers a thrill. They earned it.
$.05--I cover the Cleveland Browns professionally as the managing editor of USA TODAY’s Browns Wire, but beyond that I’m a 48-year-old Cleveland native who roots for the Detroit Lions by choice. You might say I’ve seen some terrible football without much hope in my years, and you would be right. While I do live in a Texans-fan household from spending my kids’ formative years living in Houston with the rise of the J.J. Watt Texans, I’ve never really had much NFL joy in the last 30 or so years.
The Browns changed that on Sunday night. My hometown Browns pulled off one of the most improbable postseason wins in NFL history. Cleveland went into Pittsburgh without head coach Kevin Stefanski, without its best offensive lineman (Joel Bitonio), best defensive back (Denzel Ward) and with just one practice in the last two weeks thanks to a COVID-19 outbreak that has ravaged the roster. And they won, 49-38.
It was 28-0 Browns at the end of the first quarter. Hell, it was 7-0 Browns after the first offensive snap, a Maurkice Pouncey snap that flew over Ben Roethlisberger’s head and into the end zone for a Browns recovery. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, as the resident 48-year-old Lions fan from Cleveland, let me tell you…
The Drive. The Shot. The Fumble. Jose Mesa. Red Right 88. They’ve made interventional documentaries about this special kind of sporting fandom hell. I was wondering what this one would be known by in the sports lore terror. And the Steelers made it more than a little scary with a fantastic third quarter that rallied them within 11.
The Browns persevered, amazingly enough. And when Sione Takitaki picked off Big Ben for the Browns’ fifth takeaway of the game, I let out a little yelp. The playoff drought was over a few minutes later, with the Browns tasting postseason victory for the first time since the 1994 season.
My Cleveland-centric Facebook feed was nuts. My phone wouldn’t let up from the notifications of texts and messages well after midnight. Honestly, I don’t know how to react. Other than LeBron and Kyrie in 2016, the teams I root for have literally never won a damn thing. I suspect a lot of Cleveland fans are feeling the same way. It’s a good feeling, one that won’t go away anytime soon.