It was a glorious weekend of football, one that will be capped off tonight with the College Football Playoff National Championship game. The six NFL playoff games played across Saturday and Sunday made me wish every weekend was Wild Card Weekend. However, only six of the twelve teams could advance into the next round where the conference leaders will join in. There were some intriguing storylines in each matchup, and I'll be discussing each of those matchups here.
First, I want to pay my respects and give my condolences to Pittsburgh Steelers fans. Your team's soul was snatched from its proverbial body last night to a team that hadn't won in Pittsburgh for 17 years. RIP.
Indianapolis Colts 24, Buffalo Bills 27
The Colts and Bills kicked off the weekend in what was pitched as likely the best matchup of the Wild Card round. The red hot Bills were playing a home playoff game for the first time in decades, but were going to be tested by a Colts team with a stingy defense and an impressive rush attack. It was the young gun versus the old-timer as the quarterbacks were aged 15 years apart. Many people didn't think Buffalo could lose to a team not named the Chiefs, but if there was another team built to defeat them, it was Indianapolis.
The Colts scored first and seemingly dominated most of the first half, but the momentum flipped completely when the Bills stuffed the Colts, who were up 10-7, on 4th and goal and went down to score a touchdown of their own to take a 14-10 lead into halftime. It was a 14-point swing, and Indy couldn't quite catch up. After storming back in the fourth quarter to pull within three points, the Colts turned it over on downs on their last drive of the game in Buffalo territory to end it. The difference ended up being a missed field goal by Rodrigo Blankenship, though some of Frank Reich's ultra-aggressive decision making, which I liked, came under intense scrutiny.
Bills Mafia, who are maybe the most loyal fans in all of sports, will get to cheer on their team again next week against the Ravens. The Colts, meanwhile, will have questions to answer at quarterback, but should be able to rebound nicely with a healthy squad next season.
Los Angeles Rams 30, Seattle Seahawks 20
The first upset of the weekend came at the hands of Jared Goff and the Rams, who won the rubber match between the two division rivals. Los Angeles entered the game with John Wolford under center and the hopes that their defense can hold up just enough for them to squeak one out. However, on their second drive, Wolford went down, forcing Goff to come in and lead his team to victory. Fortunately for the Rams, he wasn't needed to do all that much, as his defense scored a touchdown themselves on a pick six and held Seattle to just 13 points for the first 56 minutes of the game. The Rams ran all over the Seahawks, and not even Russell Wilson could make anything happen against them. Both quarterbacks threw for less 175 yards, and LA pretty much dominated throughout.
The Rams will travel to Lambeau next to take on the Packers, and they'll need another exquisite performance from their defense to have a chance to make another conference championship appearance. Interestingly, the Seahawks transitioned to a much more conservative play style in the second half of the season, and you have to wonder what Pete Carroll will try to do next year. With a solid corps of young offensive talent and a few keystone pieces on the defense, you would think they'll be back next season with vengeance on their minds.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31, Washington Football Team 23
There was a lot of build up for this game after Washington's rookie defensive end Chase Young was recorded shouting that he wanted Tom Brady after their win over the Eagles in week 17. When asked about it, Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians simply said, "be careful what you wish for." And he was right. Tampa Bay had almost no problem moving the ball all game and Brady threw for 381 yards and two touchdowns. Their offensive line allowed only three sacks, and Young was not responsible for any of them.
While Brady put on a great performance, the narrative switched to the gutsy play of Washington's backup quarterback, Taylor Heinicke, who was told he was starting just before the game started after Alex Smith was unable to go. He made some very impressive plays and kept his team in the game, accounting for 352 total yards two total touchdowns while leading the team in both passing and rushing. The Football Team came up short, but Ron Rivera's first season in Washington has to be considered a success.
Tampa Bay will head to New Orleans next week for their third matchup of the season with the Saints. If you'll remember, the Saints drubbed the Bucs 38-3 in primetime the last time they met. The Bucs are playing much better now on both sides of the ball than they were then. Washington has a really good defense and several young playmakers on offense to build around in the offseason.
Baltimore Ravens 20, Tennessee Titans 13
Outside of the Colts-Bills game, this was the matchup I was most excited to watch, although the game didn't go how I was expecting. I did think the Ravens would win, but I thought it would be a relatively high scoring affair with Derrick Henry and Lamar Jackson running all over the place. That was true only for the latter. Jackson rushed for 136 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries, including an electric 48-yard TD run late in the first half to tie the game after the Titans went up 10-0 early. Henry was bottled up entirely by the Ravens defense, carrying 18 times for only 40(!) yards. 40 yards for a guy who rushed for over 2,000 yards in the regular season. It was an exceptional defensive effort by Baltimore and their offense made plays when it mattered most.
With the win, Jackson erases the narrative that he can't perform in the postseason and relieves a ton of pressure that must have been weighing on him going in to the game. His team certainly enjoyed the victory, as several Ravens danced and stomped on Tennessee's midfield logo after Marcus Peters' game clinching interception. It was payback for what the Titans started in the two teams' first meeting in Baltimore. In my opinion, the Titans lost the game when Mike Vrabel decided to punt the ball on 4th and 2 from the Baltimore 40 with 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter.
The Ravens get to play Buffalo instead of Kansas City, though that isn't too much easier of an opponent. I'm really excited for that game, which could be the best one of the divisional weekend. The Titans will head into the offseason with a superstar cast on offense, but an almost nonexistent defense. They could take the next step next year if they address issues in pass rushing and the secondary.
Chicago Bears 9, New Orleans Saints 21
This was the most boring game of the weekend, as it felt like both offenses were trying their best not to score for most of the game. It appeared like the Bears were going to tie the game up and take momentum in the opening quarter after a trick play led to a wide open receiver in the end zone. However, the precise bomb delivered by Mitchell Trubisky went right through that receiver's hands and fell incomplete. Chicago could never recover from that mistake, and while their defense held up well against a fully loaded Saints offense, they really never had much of a chance of winning this game.
I don't have much more to say about this one. The most exciting moment was when Bears receiver/returned Cordarrelle Patterson dropped an uncensored F-bomb on the Nickelodeon broadcast. Congrats to Trubisky on winning the coveted NVP (Nickelodeon Valuable Player), though. The Saints take on the Bucs at home in a matchup in which they're looking to go 3-0 this season, and the Bears will surely be shopping around for a new quarterback and/or head coach so they can try to manage to not waste an elite defense for a third straight season.
Cleveland Browns 48, Pittsburgh Steelers 37
I was about to check out at the grocery store when this game started, and when I got out to my car and checked the score, it was already 14-0 Cleveland. After I got home, put the groceries up, and turned the game on, it was 28-0. The Browns completely dominated from start to finish, putting up what I think is inarguably the most impressive performance of any team this weekend. The Browns controlled the game on offense on the ground and through the air, and forced five turnovers throughout the course of the game. Pittsburgh made a slight comeback push late in the third quarter, but they never really came close to making it a game. Ben Roethlisberger tossed for over 500 yards and four touchdowns in what could be his last game in Pittsburgh, but that will get overlooked by his four interceptions and loss to a team that he had previously never lost at home to.
Cleveland's reward for their unbelievable performance? A trip to Kansas City to take on Patrick Mahomes and the top seeded Chiefs. Baker Mayfield will be the oldest starting quarterback remaining in the AFC playoffs at only 25 years of age, which is an unbelievable stat, especially considering three of the QBs remaining in the NFC are 43, 41, and 37 years old. The Steelers will likely be looking for Big Ben's replacement in the offseason, along with prohibiting all the social media hijinks like they were involved in this year.
Written by Nick Swatson