Wild card weekend featured four games that were competitive throughout and yet somehow all had problems.
The Titans' win over the Chiefs was marred by controversial officiating that could have made the difference between winning and losing. The Falcons' win at the Rams had a slick field in clear, near-perfect Southern California conditions. The Jaguars' 10-3 win over Buffalo was a cavalcade of punts.
In terms of game quality, Panthers-Saints was the best of the bunch, to set up a mostly compelling divisional round.
The Saints' 31-26 win over Carolina shows the NFC has one team that can win in a variety of ways and has championship experience at its core. Their running game was contained, and yet Drew Brees threw for 376 yards and the defense came up with a stop to win to send them to Minnesota next week. Sure, the Falcons were in the Super Bowl last year, but the Saints would also be better able to survive a game where their quarterback isn't on than Atlanta is.
Although it was a compelling game, Falcons-Panthers did have the questionable handling of Cam Newton after he took a possibly concussive hit late in the game. NFL officials have already reportedly been in touch with the Panthers' medical staff regarding the decision not to take Newton back into the locker room for evaluation, which would be in keeping with the recent changes to the league's concussion protocol. The Panthers contend that Newton going to the ground as he walked off the field following the hit was instructed to him by coaches, and not an obvious symptom of a concussion. Given what little punishment was handed down so far this season to the Seahawks and Texans for their respective handling of Russell Wilson and Tom Savage, there's little reason to expect harsh measures taken against the Panthers, even if the NFL finds the team noncompliant with the protocol.
So, the highlight of wild card weekend may actually have been the indefatigable spirit of woebegone franchises, whether it was Bills Mafia descending in hordes on Jacksonville to destroy tables en masse, or thousands of fed-up Clevelanders taking to the streets on Saturday to throw a parade for the 0-16 Browns.
These are people who have received little return on their emotional or monetary investment in their favorite teams over the years. And yet they're the most passionate about showing up for those teams, even in the face of overwhelming odds and ridicule.
Chiefs face tough questions
Kansas City might as well embrace a similar detached masochism now that Andy Reid has as many blown 18-point postseason leads as every other coach in NFL history combined with two, after the Chiefs turned a 21-3 lead into a 22-21 loss to the Titans. Given that, unlike last year, the Chiefs were entering the postseason through the wild card round, the expectations of Chiefs fans might not have been as pitched. Still, it's unlikely most of them would have figured the team would have exited without a win over the middling Titans at home. That's now six straight home playoff losses for Kansas City. To be sure, there were Bills fans devastated to have gotten to the playoffs only to lose in the first game to Blake Bortles, who somehow ran for more yards than he passed. By and large, however, theirs was a joyous occasion, whereas Chiefs backers are sourly looking at their assembled team and wondering when and if they'll ever be able to take the next step, and how soon they can attempt it with Patrick Mahomes.
... so do Chiefs-Titans officials
The lead official of the game in Kansas City, Jeff Triplette, has reportedly told people close to him that he plans to retire from officiating. There are a number of errors in Saturday's game, the most glaring of which was Triplette's decision to blow a play dead when Derrick Johnson sacked Marcus Mariota, even though it was clear that the Titans quarterback had fumbled. Triplette concluded that Mariota's forward progress had been halted, which if extrapolated means that any quarterback being sacked is unable to fumble ever. That's probably not a workable standard.
If only we had listened to that pop songstress
Few saw that Titans upset win coming, Chiefs historical playoff futility notwithstanding. The exception? Paramore singer Hayley Williams, by virtue of finding a Tennessee shirt at an Urban Outfitters in Spain. To be honest, that's as scientific a system of picking games as most other outlets.
found this shirt at urban outfitters in barcelona and thats how i knew they'd prolly win yesterday. pic.twitter.com/F3Z2XVHYvx- hayley from Paramore (@yelyahwilliams) January 7, 2018
Fan of the Week
The Bills' appearance in a postseason game delivered on all the chaos anyone could have possibly hoped for, and then some. Naturally, there's plenty of footage of tables being laid to waste in the parking lot. Those are all well and good, provided no one gets hurt.
Even among all this lunacy, you have to hand it to the Bills fan who got a tattoo of Andy Dalton just because the Bengals quarterback played an inadvertent part in guiding the Bills to the postseason.
This Bills fan promised to get an Andy Dalton tattoo if the Bengals helped send Buffalo to the playoffs.- ESPN (@espn) January 7, 2018
He fundraised for the ink, then donated all the remaining funds to Dalton's charitable foundation. pic.twitter.com/GIWVBDlnaS
There were a few customized Andy Dalton Bills jerseys spotted in Jacksonville. Hey, maybe all this adoration for Dalton will become a long-term thing. After all, it wouldn't be the worst idea for both teams to deal Tyrod Taylor to the Bengals for Dalton. Both quarterbacks could use a fresh start. Just sayin'.
It wasn't entirely a standout performance by Mariota. It's hard to deny that he had the play of the weekend with the touchdown catch of one of his deflected passes in the red zone to cut Kansas City's lead to 21-10 in the third quarter.
oh my golly golly gosh pic.twitter.com/ADPvuZgTt1- Mike Tunison (@xmasape) January 6, 2018
The Titans quarterback left something to be desired in his throws outside the numbers against the Chiefs. His comeback easily becomes the defining moment of his career to date. There's little expectation that Tennessee will knock out New England on the road, so even a competitive game should cement this being a successful season for the Titans.
With the Falcons struggling to find the end zone and letting a flat Rams team hang around until the midpoint of the fourth quarter, a big gain by Mohamed Sanu set up Atlanta in the red zone again. This time, Jones took it in for the clinching score. On the day, Jones did everything asked of him, hauling in all nine passes thrown his way for 94 yards.
Viewers seemed to think Sean Payton had no faith in his defense because he called on the Saints offense to try to convert a fourth-and-two from midfield with two minutes left. The smarter thinking notes that the Saints had a good chance to put the opposition away because their own offense was rolling. That fourth-down play didn't work out, but New Orleans still held on to win. Jordan was the biggest difference-maker in the New Orleans front seven, posting two sacks and getting a hit and a hurry. For what it's worth, he had some trash talk for Panthers tackle Matt Kalil to take with him on the way home.
Cam Jordan isn't shy about what he thinks of Panthers LT Matt Kalil: "Let's call him Speedbump -- Speedbump McGee."- Josh Katzenstein (@jkatzenstein) January 8, 2018
He exemplified a workhorse back on Saturday. Not only did he play 68 of the Titans' 70 offensive snaps in the game, he gained 156 yards on 23 carries to go with two catches for another 35 yards. He wasn't easy treading, either. More than half his rushing yards came after contact, and he broke five tackles.
Ramsey was there to grab the game-sealing interception after Nate Peterman made an emergency appearance for the Bills. Ramsey, unsurprisingly, was a big reason why Tyrod Taylor struggled as much as he did throughout the game. The emerging star corner gave up only 29 yards. Jacksonville, er, Sacksonville next week has a chance to repeat its most impressive regular season outing, a five-interception ransacking of the Steelers in Pittsburgh. Ramsey is likely to draw a rested-up Antonio Brown, and if the receiver is back to 100 percent, it should be quite the contest.
Going against the Jaguars' defense in Jacksonville is no enviable task, and Taylor was frequently let down by Kelvin Benjamin. Still, it was a sense of disappointment in what almost certainly was his sendoff as a member of the Bills. It would have been nice if he could have capped off an improbable playoff visit with a win, but Taylor couldn't make the play to break through and get just one score in a game where they were at a premium.
He has the dubious distinction of becoming the first player in NFL history to be 0-7 in the playoffs. If QB wins is a foolish stat, left tackle wins and losses don't stand a chance of credibility. Nevertheless, Whitworth played a prominent role in the Rams' swift undoing in the postseason. The tackle gave up his highest total of pressures on the season, as the Falcons defense showed the kind of speed they had in the final half of last year's Super Bowl. What had been smooth going for the Rams offense was quickly ground to a halt.
There wasn't a whole lot expected of Revis when the Chiefs picked him up midseason. While Revis has never been shy about his desire for a payday, nor should he, it's still a little sad that the coda of a possible Hall of Fame career could be him giving up on a game-clinching run by Derrick Henry.
It's abundantly clear that the Panthers need to make finding Cam Newton some help in the receiving corps a priority. Newton was dropping dimes all game, but he couldn't quite keep pace with Drew Brees, in part because he wasn't getting help from his receivers. Newton had Funchess in the end zone on the final drive, and Funchess ducked underneath the coverage to get a shot at a game-winning play. Instead, he barely flailed at the ball and Carolina never got close again.
With five drops on Saturday afternoon, Kansas City's receiving corps was as bad as any over the weekend. Alex Smith has been predictably blamed for the upset loss and is probably done with the Chiefs, yet he played well against Tennessee. That won't be enough when his big-play threats aren't coming through, and Hill's three drops were among the many squandered opportunities in another huge blown postseason lead by a Reid team.
The week in celebrations
After a regular season in which group celebrations were among the highlights, they were conspicuously absent from the first weekend of the playoffs. It could be because this is win-or-go-home and such considerations are deemed too frivolous by coaches who know the season is on the line. It could just be with fewer games and fewer teams, there are fewer chances for standout celebrations.
Or it could be because the teams involved weren't the most exuberant. Some of those that played wild card weekend had a few notable celebrations during the regular season. They weren't quite the Steelers or the Eagles, the two clubhouse leaders in innovative NFL celebrations, both of which will be hosting games divisional weekend. Until then, we'll have to make due with some impressive camera mugging by the Saints.
In fact, arguably the best celebration of the weekend wasn't by a player at all. Rather, it was by Tony Khan, the son of Jaguars owner Shad Khan.
when trusting Blake Bortles to throw on 4th down actually works pic.twitter.com/8TfbfFiFzW- Mike Tunison (@xmasape) January 7, 2018