Now that Super Bowl LII between the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots is set, it’s time to take a look back at what we’ve learned thus far in the NFL Playoffs.
It seems like months ago that the Los Angeles Rams hosted the Atlanta Falcons in one of the NFC Wildcard games. What did we learn from Atlanta’s victory over the upstart Rams? Then, the following week, these very same Falcons fell flat on their face against Nick Foles and the surprising Eagles. Did this give us some sort of understanding about Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian and Foles’ own future as a stater in the NFL?
The backdrop of the AFC Playoffs included a reported rift between three major power players in New England. Despite this, Tom Brady found a way to lead his Patriots to an eighth Super Bowl on his watch. Did the Pats once again prove themselves to be right in the face of ridiculous media coverage?
These are among the 10 most resounding lessons we learned from the NFL Playoff thus far.
Steve Sarkisian was the Falcons’ downfall
The Falcons may have announced that they’re retaining Sarkisian for the 2018 season. But that can’t sit well with fans in Georgia. To say he was a major downgrade from former Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan would be a dramatic understatement.
Sark oversaw an offense that finished in the middle of the pack in points scored during the regular season. And after a decent showing in the wildcard round, his offense fell flat on its face against Philadelphia in the NFC Divisional Playoffs. Atlanta scored a total of 10 points, which represented just the third-fewest points it scored in a game this past season.
Whether it was lining a fullback out wide on an important goal-to-go situation against Philadelphia or forgetting about Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, Sark’s performance in that loss was a downright travesty. And it cost Atlanta an opportunity to repeat as NFC champs.
Tyrod Taylor is not the answer
We gave Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott a lot of grief for benching Taylor in favor of rookie Nathan Peterman back in Week 11. And for good reason. Peterman went on to throw five interceptions in the lopsided defeat before being replaced under center by Taylor after halftime.
Simply because he was the best option this season, that doesn’t mean Taylor is the Bills’ best option moving forward. This came out in droves in the AFC Wildcard Playoffs against Jacksonville. Taylor completed 17-of-37 passes for 134 yards in a 10-3 loss. It was just a continuation of a regular season that saw Taylor throw for less than 200 yards in seven starts.
Flush with two first-round picks in April’s draft, the Bills have to think long and hard about trading up for a replacement. Taylor might be a good placeholder quarterback, but he’s not going to be the guy to lead this team to the next level.
Nick Foles is a starter in today’s NFL
It’s hard to put too much stock in one game. We know this. We also know that Foles’ performance in the NFC Championship Game wasn’t ordinary. It wasn’t your regular game. And what he did against a league-best Vikings defense was nothing short of legendary.
Replacing MVP candidate Carson Wentz under center, he completed 26-of-33 passes for 352 yards with three touchdowns and zero picks. Statistically speaking, it was one of the better quarterback performances in championship game history.
With all the issues we saw at quarterback this past regular season, its now hard to imagine Foles not finding a starting job once the offseason comes calling. It’s something the Eagles would have to support via a trade, as Foles has one year remaining on his contract. Regardless of what happens in Super Bowl LII, Foles should be given that opportunity. Period.
Keith Butler in over his head with the Steelers
We saw how good of a game Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone can call. It happened in the first half of the AFC Championship Game against New England. Once the second half came calling, he was completely outclassed by Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia.
A week prior, Marrone and his Jaguars pulled out all the stops against these Pittsburgh Steelers. They dropped 45 points and nearly 400 yards of offense one game after putting up a grand total of 10 points against the Bills.
For Pittsburgh, the issue here was scheme. When Butler dialed up pressure, the Jaguars ran right into it with success. When the team played the run, Blake Bortles beat this unit through the air. Butler was playing a guessing game. He was in over his head. And while Pittsburgh’s offense was out there dropping 42 points against the AFC’s best defense, it was Butler’s defense that led the team to an early playoff exit.
So while some focus on Mike Tomlin at head coach, maybe it’s time for this team to move on from Butler as defensive coordinator. If nothing else, this unit’s performance in the divisional round has to put this idea in the mind of Tomlin himself.
These Saints are going to be a force
Minnesota’s late-game dramatics aside, it’s pretty darn clear these New Orleans Saints are going to be a force in the NFC for years to come. Even at 38, Drew Brees showed very few signs of slowing down. That was apparent in the team’s wildcard round victory over Carolina — a game that saw Brees throw for 376 yards and two scores.
More than Brees himself, the 2017 version of these Saints proved to be as well-rounded of a group that we saw in the NFC. Second-year receiver Michael Thomas continued his domination into the playoffs. Likely Defensive Rookie of the Year Marshon Lattimore teamed up with everyone’s pick for Offensive Rookie of the Year, Alvin Kamara, to form a tremendous rookie class.
Sure losing to the Vikings in the manner they did hurts. But these Saints are for real. And in reality, they will head into the 2018 season as one of the favorites to represent the NFC in Super Bowl LIII.
So are the Rams
It was readily apparent in the wildcard round against Atlanta that these Rams still have a way to go. It’s not about the talent. After all, second-year quarterback Jared Goff turned in a Pro Bowl season. Fellow youngster, running back Todd Gurley, will also likely finish in the top three in MVP voting. And on defense, coordinator Wade Phillips’ scheme aided a young unit that finished in the top 12 in points allowed.
The issue here more than anything in the playoffs was a lack of experience. Los Angeles lost the turnover battle by two. A couple dumb penalties on defense continued Falcons drives. And the end result was a disheartening 26-13 loss in front of their home crowd.
Los Angeles has decisions to make on both sides of the ball. Will the team really place the franchise tag on under-performing wide receiver Sammy Watkins? Will it be able to re-sign top cornerback Trumaine Johnson in free agency? General manager Les Snead and Co. will have to do a lot of work to improve the talent level here. But that doesn’t mean the Rams are going away any time soon. A first-round loss in a season that started without any postseason expectations magnifies that to a T.
Andy Reid isn’t the answer in Kansas City
There’s absolutely no reason the Chiefs should have lost at home against an average Titans team in the wildcard round — the very same Titans squad that fired its head coach mere days after the win.
We can blame a defense that gave up 19 second half points to Marcus Mariota and Co. Alex Smith’s second half struggles also played a role in Kansas City giving away a game that it led 21-3 at the half. But this is primarily on Reid as an in-game head coach.
He completely forgot about Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate Kareem Hunt in the second half, giving the ball to the young running back less than a half of dozen times after intermission. He struggled calling a game against a defensive coordinator in Dick LeBeau who is no longer even on the Titans.
And now, heading into the 2018 offseason, the Chiefs find themselves with a 1-4 record in the playoffs under Reid. Swapping out Smith for youngster Patrick Mahomes could very well change that. But it’s readily apparent that Reid is nothing less than a detriment to the Chiefs’ Super Bowl aspirations. That came out in droves during this year’s playoffs.
Patriots were right all along
We can focus on Tom Brady’s utter brilliance in the fourth quarter of the AFC Championship Game against Jacksonville. We can focus on how coordinator Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia absolutely dominated their counterparts in the same game. Heck, we can’t overlook the fact that New England will now be making its eighth Super Bowl appearance of the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era. That’s already been covered. And it will be talked about more than this one scribe is comfortable with over the next two weeks.
Instead, let’s just talk about the Patriots as an organization and how much they have been proven themselves right over the years — a fact that has come to light even more during this year’s playoffs.
There’s a reported rift within the front office. Maybe, that has to do with the team trading Jimmy Garoppolo to the San Francisco 49ers. Maybe it has to do with Brady himself not being secure in his job. Whatever the reason, ESPN ran with a story that paints discord within the Pats’ organization with the broadest of strokes.
This is what we do know. Based on who we saw play quarterback in the AFC Playoffs, the Patriots were brilliant to move Garoppolo out of the conference. Surely, he’s more of a threat to do damage in January football than the likes of Marcus Mariota, Tyrod Taylor, Blake Bortles and even Alex Smith.
We also know that Brady himself is nowhere near done here. Talk about his demise was greatly exaggerated, leading us to question whether Brady even thought about Garoppolo as a threat to his job. Now, set to take part in his eighth Super Bowl, the greatest of all-time continues to throw narratives out the window faster than game-winning touchdown passes in the playoffs. He, and by association, the Patriots, proved themselves to be right all along. And somehow, we’re surprised?
Maybe, the Vikings need a change at quarterback
If we’re going to sit back here and throw Case Keenum under the bus after one bad playoff performance, we also have to give the career backup credit for what he did in leading Minnesota to the NFC Championship Game. He was nothing short of extraordinary in replacing the injured Sam Bradford under center.
Now, reeling from their disastrous performance this past weekend, there’s very little settled at quarterback in Minnesota. Keenum and Bradford will join Teddy Bridgewater as free agents in March. And short of the Vikings guaranteeing Keenum $24-plus million under the franchise tag next season, questions will continue to arise at quarterback in Minnesota.
Let’s assume for a second the Vikings can’t rely on Bridgewater to be their starting quarterback after he’s thrown a total of two regular season passes since January of 2016. Can the team then rely on an injury-plagued Bradford to remain healthy? If not, is Minnesota forced to go with Keenum at a pretty expensive rate for a signal caller that did nothing prior to this season?
Other options include bringing in Alex Smith in a trade with the Kansas City Chiefs or doling out buckets of cash to find an upgrade in the form of Kirk Cousins. The questions are widespread in nature here. But to assume the Vikings won’t make a change at quarterback seems pretty foolhardy.
Despite heartbreaking loss, the Jags time is now
The Jaguars were not having any of that moral victory talk following Sunday’s narrow loss to New England in the AFC title bout. There’s one reason for this. And one reason only. This confident young team felt it was the better squad and should have come out on top. This most definitely isn’t a negative, simply because Jacksonville had backed up this confidence at nearly every turn prior to that fateful fourth quarter against the Pats.
As maligned as any quarterback in conference championship game history, Blake Bortles came through big time against the Patriots. Rookie running back Leonard Fournette broke tackles on a consistent basis. Meanwhile, Jacksonville’s offensive line dominated for the most part in the narrow loss.
On defense, a few dumb penalties from a young unit might have very well cost the Jaguars this game. But this is the very same unit that absolutely dominated opposing offenses throughout the season.
Sure the Jaguars aren’t feeling any good on the heels of this loss, but Doug Marrone’s squad will be consistent championship contenders for the foreseeable future. Sunday’s game against New England and the team’s brilliant win over Pittsburgh the previous week proves this to a T.