There really wasn’t a lot of good football on display during NFL Wild Card weekend, but we saw some pretty amazing things along the way.
Starting with a stinker of a game between the Oakland Raiders and Houston Texans and finishing with the best game of the weekend when the New York Giants went to Wisconsin to take on the Green Bay Packers, there was a little of everything.
These were the biggest winners and losers from the four games played this weekend.
Winner: Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus went on feeding frenzy
With J.J. Watt watching from the sideline (and ABC’s cameras religiously showing his face), Houston’s defense feasted on a depleted Oakland Raiders offensive line and rookie quarterback Connor Cook.
Holding Oakland to just 203 total yards, 16 first downs and an astonishingly bad 2-of-16 on third downs, the Texans were dominant on the defensive side of the ball. This was made possible in large part because Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney owned the line of scrimmage.
The two edge defenders mercilessly harassed Oakland’s offensive tackles, beating them off the snap on a regular basis, going around, over and oftentimes through them to get to the ball.
Clowney finished with just one tackle but defended two balls and got the game started with a bang for the Texans with a brilliant tipped interception on a screen pass. He sniffed out the ill-timed play beautifully and came down with the ball inside the red zone (watch here). He also showed off his ridiculous athleticism on an end-around, actually beating speedy receiver Amari Cooper to the sideline and hit running back Latavius Murray so hard he went backwards at one point.
Not to be outdone by his playing partner, the aptly named Mercilus put on a pass-rushing clinic, sacking Cook twice, coming up with 3.5 tackles for a loss and logging five quarterback pressures.
Next weekend will offer a must more difficult test for these two dynamos. Tom Brady and his get-rid-of-it quick passing attack, not to mention LeGarrette Blount pounding the rock in the middle, will be much more difficult to stop.
But for at least one day, Houston’s defense reigned supreme.
Loser: Connor Cook set up to fail
The Raiders were in bad shape to begin with before the game ever started. Coming in with a rookie quarterback who’d never before started a single game, missing their best offensive lineman to boot, they had to execute a perfect game plan with everyone else stepping up to help the young passer in his debut.
Clearly, that did not happen, as Oakland fell on its face in a 27-14 loss to Houston.
We can point to many things as key reasons the Raiders were brought low.
First off, the offensive philosophy that saw the rook throw the ball 45 times while top running back Latavius Murray toted the ball just 12 times was just terrible.
Secondly, Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper did Cook no favors, dropping passes at an excessive rate.
For every 3 catches the Raiders receivers had, they had 1 drop. That is not a strong catch:drop ratio.
— Nathan Jahnke (@PFF_NateJahnke) January 8, 2017
The eight penalties didn’t help, especially an offensive pass interference on Michael Crabtree on a big play that was called back before he exited with a concussion.
On top of all that, Oakland’s defense didn’t do nearly enough to derail Brock Osweiler and Houston’s offense. The Texans controlled the clock, pounding the rock to the tune of 123 yards on 44 carries. Though the average per rush wasn’t tremendous, they kept at it to protect Osweiler from making a key mistake in the second half, which is a strategy the Raiders should have employed to protect Cook.
You have to feel bad for the Raiders, who went from being a potential Super Bowl squad to the first team out of the playoffs this year. At the same time, they didn’t do much to help their cause on Saturday.
Winner: Brock Osweiler didn’t shoot the Texans in the foot
The 2016 season didn’t turn into a storybook beginning for Osweiler in Houston. He proved to be quite a mediocre starter who is prone to turnovers (15 touchdowns and 16 interceptions this year), and more often than not the Texans ended up winning their nine games in spite of him, not because of him.
So going into the game against the Raiders, the biggest question facing the Texans was how well Osweiler would handle the playoff spotlight. The answer to that question is that he did just enough in a game Houston’s defense dominated, as we detailed before.
Finishing with 168 yards on 14-of-25 passing, he didn’t turn the ball over and didn’t hurt his team. Osweiler threw touchdown pass — a strike to DeAndre Hopkins that followed one of the best throws he made all year to Hopkins down the right sideline (watch here) — and ran one in to finish with two scores.
It’s not likely that we’re going to see Osweiler become a top-tier passer in the playoffs this year. He’s just not that good. But he’s a winner at least for one week because he didn’t shoot the Texans in the foot.
And now Houston will move on to face the indomitable New England Patriots — a team that waxed them to the tune of 27-0 back in September.
Loser: Brad Allen’s group of refs bombed in Seattle
As if it weren’t hard enough to beat the Seattle Seahawks and their faithful 12s, Brad Allen and his officiating crew were the unofficial 13th man Saturday night against the Detroit Lions.
Literally, on the game’s opening play from scrimmage, Allen’s revamped super-special-all-star-playoff crew was off its game.
Miscommunication for the officials on the first call of the night. NFL should keep officiating crews together for the playoffs.
— Michael David Smith (@MichaelDavSmith) January 8, 2017
More than a few times, Allen’s crew absolutely jobbed the visiting Lions, including a complete whiff on one of the biggest plays of the game. In the second quarter, on 4th-and-goal at the two-yard line, Paul Richardson hauled in one of the best catches we’ve seen all year long to give the Seahawks an early 6-0 lead before the extra point (watch here).
The only problem? Richardson should have been flagged for ripping the facemask of his defender, turning his head and keeping him from making a play on the ball. Lions head coach Jim Caldwell even told Michelle Tafoya at halftime that officials admitted they blew the call.
Oops. Sorry about that. Nothing to do but move on, we suppose.
Then later in the game in the second half as Detroit scrambled to come back, down a touchdown, Stafford lobbed a catchable pass to T.J. Jones down the left sideline. Jones was clearly being interfered with, or at the least he was being held as the ball approached its landing point, yet no flag was thrown.
If this isn't interference or at least defensive holding, let's stop playing football pic.twitter.com/VExfR5132A
— Isaac (@WorldofIsaac) January 8, 2017
It’s impossible to know what even these two major blown calls might have done to perhaps change the outcome in what was a pretty close game until the end. But they sure hurt the Lions, a team that hasn’t won a playoff game since the 1991 season.
At this point, should we even remotely be surprised? Heck, it’s a big game and the Seahawks are involved. We should expect them to get all the key calls. Just like they have done in pretty much every big game for the past few years.
But we’re not into settling around here. In truth, the officiating throughout the weekend was pretty horrid. What we saw in Seattle, however, was downright embarrassing.
Winner: Thomas Rawls was magnificent in record-setting performance
In a game that saw Russell Wilson struggle to make plays downfield until late, it was the team’s much-maligned rushing attack that led the way in the Seattle Seahawks’ 26-6 victory over the Detroit Lions.
Leading the charge was Thomas Rawls, who rushed for more yards in a playoff game than any Seahawks player in history. Yes. Even more than legendary running back Marshawn Lynch.
Thomas Rawls has set the Seahawks record for most rushing yards in a playoff game (161 with 2 minutes remaining) pic.twitter.com/PGJNikZqgE
— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) January 8, 2017
Toting the rock 27 times, Rawls finished with 161 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries. He even had to leave the game at one point after getting hit hard in the head (he legitimately might have been concussed, but that’s none of my business).
Without Rawls digging tunnels through Detroit’s defensive front, it’s not hard to imagine the Lions hanging much closer to the Seahawks than they did. He was undeniably the MVP of the game for Seattle, which now has the task of taking on the Atlanta Falcons on the road next weekend.
Loser: Dolphins lose the battle of the trenches
The Miami Dolphins were blown out on a cold day in Pittsburgh, losing to the Steelers, 30-12. And as we’ve seen since the origins of this game called football, the game was won and lost in the trenches.
Miami was a loser on this count, showing up small on both the offensive and defensive ends of the ball.
Offensively, the Dolphins couldn’t protect backup quarterback Matt Moore, who was brutalized in this game (watch here). Miami’s offensive line gave up five sacks for minus-36 yards and allowed Moore to be hit nine times. Additionally, running back Jay Ajayi ran into a brick wall all game, finishing with just 33 yards on 16 carries. This is the same guy who racked up 204 yards earlier this season against the Steelers, who must have heard him touting the virtues of Miami’s offensive stars before this game.
Defensively, Miami was about as impressive as a paper mache umbrella in torrential rain. While we can’t blame the front seven for Antonio Brown’s two huge touchdown catches in the first quarter, what the guys up front did the rest of the way lands them in our dog house.
Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell (who we’ll highlight in a minute) ran over, around and through Miami’s defense. The same defense that features the likes of Cameron Wake, Ndamukong Suh and Mario Williams, who all struggled to disrupt Pittsburgh’s offensive flow. Huge holes were opened up by the Steelers in the running game, and Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t under fire very often.
We knew it would be tough for the Dolphins to win in Pittsburgh with Moore behind center. The way Miami’s big guys up front played, winning was out of the question.
Winner: Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown put on brilliant show
You’d be hard pressed to come up with a better running back/receiver combination in the NFL than Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, who are both arguably the best at their position.
Brown blew the game wide open early with two touchdowns of 50 and then 62 yards. In the process, he became just the fourth player in NFL history to score two touchdowns of 50 yards or longer in a playoff game. The last person to accomplish the feat was Randy Moss back in 2001.
At the end of the game, Brown tallied just five catches but went for 124 yards and the two touchdowns.
After the early-game exploits of Brown, Bell took the baton and ran wild over Miami’s defense. Finishing with 167 yards and two touchdowns on 29 carries, he owned the rest of the game. And like Rawls did for Seattle, Bell’s performance made Steelers history.
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) January 8, 2017
Going forward, as Pittsburgh prepares to take on the Kansas City Chiefs next weekend, it’s likely Bell will need to continue his hot play for the Steelers to advance. The reason for this is that (shocker!) Roethlisberger was banged up in Sunday’s game and was seen in a walking boot after the game because of an ankle injury.
Loser: Odell Beckham Jr. should have stayed in Miami
Maybe next time don’t go down to Miami to party it up with the Biebs, OBJ.
Following New York’s win over the Washington Redskins last weekend, Odell Beckham Jr. and Victor Cruz hopped on a plane. They hopped on a plane and went down to Miami, where they stayed up all night partying with Justin Bieber, among others. Then the next day they were spotted on a yacht, soaking up the rays near South Beach (more on that here).
The Giants publicly defended Beckham and Co. for taking the trip, yet one has to believe they would have preferred their star receiver would have remained up north to prepare for the Green Bay Packers. After all, this was a playoff week we’re talking about here.
Not surprisingly, Beckham Jr. was less than stellar on Sunday against Green Bay. He was held to just four catches for 28 yards, despite being targeted by Eli Manning 11 times. He also failed to get anything going in the return game and was pretty much a non-factor all game long.
What’s even more remarkable about OBJ’s no-show Sunday is that the Packers featured the NFL’s second-worst pass defense in the league in 2016. Let that sink in for a minute.
Most good teams are good in the playoffs because they prepare and execute better than their opponent. Talent has a lot to do with it, but you’d be hard pressed to find a more talented individual at any position than Beckham Jr., who for good or for bad is one of the leaders on New York’s roster.
Winner: Aaron Rodgers continues to amaze
Every time you think you’ve seen the best Aaron Rodgers has to offer, he does something else that makes your jaw hit the floor.
That happened more than once during Sunday’s finale in Green Bay, as Rodgers continually performed feats of strength, skill and pure greatness that would make Frank Costanza proud.
Whether it was his tango with New York’s defensive line on his first touchdown pass to Davante Adams (watch here), his second touchdown pass of the game shortly after (his Hail Mary to Randall Cobb at the end of the first half) or other two touchdown passes (both to Cobb, Rodgers was red hot in the frigid conditions at Lambeau Field.
Finishing with 362 yards on 25-of-40 passing with four touchdowns and no interceptions, Rodgers was magnificent. His amazing play, combined with Green Bay’s outstanding defensive effort, led to a seventh straight win.
Now the Packers are headed towards a clash with the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium next weekend, and we can’t wait to see what Rodgers does for an encore.
Loser: Bobby Rainey’s decision to field that kickoff
There was a crucial point in the game that ended up as a key turning point for the Packers. Down by eight points after Aaron Rodgers threw his third touchdown of the game, late in the third quarter, an error was made that kept the Giants from responding with anything other than a whimper.
On the kickoff following Rodgers’ touchdown pass to Randall Cobb, Giants running back Bobby Rainey made a terrible decision.
Bobby Rainey: "That kick off is going out of bounds, I'll leave it alone"
Rainey to Rainey: "Nah bruh this is your moment" pic.twitter.com/PVMdIotqVA
— 3-1 homie (@3testes) January 9, 2017
The ball was angling toward the right sideline. It might have gone out of bounds for a penalty that would have given the Giants valuable field position. Or it might have gone into the end zone for a touchback.
Either option was better than what happened next.
Bobby Rainey: professional football player. pic.twitter.com/OjKXndAcRr
— SaquonSZN Ethan (@EthanGSN) January 9, 2017
This horrible decision backed New York’s offense up in its own end zone. Three plays later, the Giants punted the ball away. Five plays later, the Packers kicked a field goal to take an 11-point lead in the fourth quarter, and from there they just poured it on.