Biggest winners and losers from Wild Card Weekend

Four playoff games got the NFL’s postseason kicked off on Wild Card Weekend following the 2017 campaign.

On Saturday, the first game featured an epic collapse, while another saw an NFC powerhouse downed at home. Sunday’s first game featured a defensive struggle that yielded just 13 total points, while the second was a bit more exciting, thanks to Drew Brees turning back the clock.

These are the biggest winners and losers from the four games contested during Wild Card Weekend.

Winner: Marcus Mariota engineers incredible comeback

Marcus Mariota has been shaky all season long, and he was for much of the game against the Kansas City Chiefs. Heck, he was shaky on the play that ended up as the first touchdown of the game for the Tennessee Titans, but a twist of fate turned a potential pick-six into a rare opportunity for the quarterback to throw a touchdown to himself (watch here).

But sometimes being lucky is better than being good. That lucky play ended up being the spark the Titans needed to make an epic comeback. Down 21-3 at the half, they scored 19 unanswered points in the second half to win the game. Mariota led three straight touchdown-scoring drives before the Titans ran the clock out on the final drive of the contest. He missed some open throws but maintained his cool under pressure, even helping Eric Decker vindicate himself for an atrocious drop in the first half.

Mariota would complete 19-of-31 passes for 201 yards, and had two touchdowns in the second half after a very rough first half that included a bad interception. He also threw the game-winning block on the Derrick Henry run late in the fourth quarter. It was a clutch performance at the most opportune time possible for a team that appeared to be getting run out of the building at Arrowhead.

Loser: Rams with two awful special-teams mistakes 

Pharoh Cooper got a Pro Bowl nod for his exceptional work as a special teams player during the regular season. He’s been nothing more than a role player on offense but has been a difference maker for the Los Angeles Rams all year returning kickoffs and punts.

Once again, Cooper made a difference Saturday night in Los Angeles. Only, the difference he made did not benefit his own team. First, he failed to secure a ball that bounced off the foot of Blake Countess. It wasn’t a good punt, and Countess should have gotten out of the way. Still, Cooper had a chance to secure the ball on the bounce but was unable to. Instead, the Atlanta Falcons were able to pounce on the loose ball, setting up a field goal by Matt Bryant to put them on the board first.

Then Cooper fumbled on the kickoff return after Atlanta’s second field goal at the end of the first half, setting up the Falcons well in Rams territory once again. The Falcons ended up scoring a touchdown on this second turnover.

In both cases, Atlanta’s offense was in scoring range immediately, and they took advantage of these mistakes to go up 13-0 early in the second quarter.

Winner: Jags’ pass defense was red hot fire

As they have done all year long, the Jacksonville Jaguars were dominant against the pass on Sunday against the Buffalo Bills. The incredible Sacksonville defensive front only had two sacks, which is low for this team, but it hit Tyrod Taylor early and often.

Calais Campbell had four quarterback hits. Myles Jack was tremendous, as was Malik Jackson and Marcell Dareus. All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey and his counterpart A.J. Bouye were, per usual, absolute studs. Ramsey ended up coming down with the game-sealing interception.

In the end, Buffalo managed just 133 net yards through the air on 40 attempts, averaging 3.7 yards per attempt while throwing no touchdowns and two interceptions.

Ben Roethlisberger knows all about this unit. He threw five interceptions against it earlier in the season. He and Pittsburgh Steelers will be itching to get some revenge next weekend in what should be an exciting divisional game in Pittsburgh.

Loser: Panthers utterly disregard the NFL’s updated concussion protocol

Cam Newton was hit in the head midway through the fourth quarter. He was hit hard. After the hit, he got up and started to walk off the field but crumpled to the ground before reaching the sideline.

By definition, this should have prompted an immediate trip to the locker room under the NFL’s updated concussion protocol (more on that here). Instead, the Panthers gave Newton a cursory, 90-second evaluation in the medical tent. Instead of getting a proper examination, he came back into the game on Carolina’s next offensive possession.

This casual disregard not only for the rules, but also for the long-term health of Newton (or any other player, for that matter) is downright disgusting.

Winner: Steve Sarkisian called a very good game

Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian

Let’s give a little credit to Dan Quinn first. Taking a lesson from last year’s Super Bowl disaster, Atlanta’s offense relied on a ball-control, time-consuming approach to keep the Rams’ offense on the sideline for nearly two-thirds of the game. No doubt, the edict came down from on high as Quinn’s bitter experience against the New England Patriots a year ago played a role.

Now to Sarkisian, who has been widely, and we must say rightly criticized for his failures as the Falcons offensive coordinator. Atlanta did have a couple of red zone visits that ended in thuds, but did convert twice for touchdowns. And for the most part the offense was very efficient. Relying on Telvin Coleman and Devonta Freeman, who combined for 32 carries, 106 yards and a touchdown on the ground, Atlanta’s offense was under control all game long.

Matt Ryan didn’t take many shots deep, but he didn’t have to. He ended up completing 21-of-30 passes for 218 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions, completing at least one pass to six different receivers. It was a very balanced approach in which the Falcons finished the game without turning the ball over once. And for that, Sarkisian deserves plenty of credit.

Loser: Bills’ playcalling at end of first half was atrocious

Buffalo’s offense was getting smothered by Jacksonville’s defense early in the game. The Bills managed just 80 yards on their first 22 plays and had drives that ended in punt, punt, punt, interception. Still, at this point in the game, the Jaguars were actually worse off offensively as Blake Bortles stunk up the joint.

With the game all tied up at 0-0, Tyrod Taylor, LeSean McCoy and Co. finally got something going following a Jaguars three-and-out with just under 10 minutes left in the first half. They worked their way all the way down to the Jaguars’ three-yard line and had fourth-and-1 to go. Following a timeout, incredibly the Jaguars gifted them a first down with a neutral zone infraction (inexcusable after a timeout), giving the Bills a first-and-goal from the two-yard line.

Now, the drive had been made possible by the most part because Taylor and McCoy were getting things going on the ground. Yet on that first-down play, rather than trying to punch the ball in they attempted a pass to Kelvin Benjamin (a non-factor in this game) with Ramsey covering him. Not only did it fail, but Benjamin was hit with a 10-yard pass interference penalty. Two incomplete passes and a failed run later, Buffalo was forced to kick a field goal.

Then after forcing a quick punt on defense, the special teams committed a dumb penalty to push the offense way back. The offense failed to do anything in three plays, was forced to punt and the Jaguars tied the game up right before the half.

The Bills had some serious momentum going, and then they lost all of it. The final minutes of that first half were likely the difference between winning a brutal game on the road and losing in embarrassing fashion.

Winner: Vintage Drew Brees 

In a game that saw Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara do significantly less than they usually do on the ground (45 yards on 19 carries), Brees was magnificent.

He had 230 yards and two touchdowns by halftime, helping the Saints go up 21-9. His passer rating at that point was 151.4, which is the highest any player has had in a playoff game since Kurt Warner back in the 2008 NFC Championship Game, per NFL Research.

Brees would finish with 376 yards on 23-of-33 passing. He did throw a late interception, but he should have never been put in the position to throw that pass to begin with, near midfield on fourth-and-2. Just an awful decision by Sean Payton, who’s lucky it didn’t come back to bite him.

The savvy veteran was the biggest reason the Saints are moving on. New Orleans’ defense struggled to handle the Panthers, but the wizardry and artistry of this (still) magnificent quarterback saved the day.

Loser: Andy Reid gonna Andy Reid

The Kansas City Chiefs had their Wild Card matchup against the Tennessee Titans in the bag after one half. They were up 21-3 and had all the momentum in the world after Alex Smith led a successful (gasp!) two-minute drill to close out the first half with a touchdown.

As we all know, the Chiefs ended up losing, 22-21, thanks to an epic collapse in the second half.

Without Travis Kelce, who left late in the first half with a concussion, the Chiefs were atrocious offensively. And it wasn’t all on Alex Smith, though his decision to take a shot deep on fourth-and-9 with the game on the line was ill-advised. Receivers dropped passes, and most notably, the NFL’s leading rusher, Kareem Hunt, only carried the ball five times in the final three quarters.

Because there was no attempt to run the ball, and because Kansas City ran just 21 plays in the second half, the team’s defense ended up getting gassed. The Titans would score touchdowns on all three drives they engineered in the second half before running out the clock at the end.

This kind of coaching ineptitude is simply inexcusable. But it’s all too common when talking about Andy Reid, who now has an 11-13 record in the postseason, including five one-and-dones in his last six appearances. He’s also the only coach in NFL history to blow two playoff games in which he had an 18-point (or more) lead.

Winner: Panthers’ power trio was outstanding in defeat

The Panthers don’t feature many really dangerous weapons on offense. Cam Newton is one. Greg Olsen (the ageless one) is another, and so is rookie running back Christian McCaffrey. All three had huge games for Carolina in defeat Sunday.

Newton (who should have been removed from the game) finished with 386 total yards and two touchdowns. He was under pressure for much of the game — sacked four times and hit six times — but still continued to take shots downfield and had one of his best passing games all year.

Olsen caught eight passes for 107 yards and a touchdown and was Newton’s go-to guy on big third downs, per usual. McCaffrey totaled 117 yards and a touchdown on a tremendous run after the catch for 56 yards late in the fourth quarter to pull the Panthers to within five points.

Unfortunately, due to a couple of key mistakes early (more on that soon) the Panthers fell just short.

Loser: Bills defenders dropped two huge would-be interceptions

Blake Bortles was awful throwing the ball Sunday. He missed badly on some extremely basic throws and got roasted on Twitter for his efforts. Two throws, in particular, are going to haunt Tre’Davious White and Colt Anderson, who both had choice opportunities to create turnovers for their team.

White’s was the more egregious mistake. He literally was in front of Jaguars receiver Dede Westbrook when Bortles threw the ball right into his hands. Westbrook made a heady play to break the pass up, but White should have had that, regardless.

Anderson, who was in for the injured Micah Hyde, had a tougher play on his missed interception. He had to make a dive to come up with it but had the ball go through his hands. It would have been a brilliant pick if he had pulled it off. Unfortunately it was a brutal missed opportunity for the Bills, who actually had a tremendous game defensively aside from these plays.

Winner: Falcons defense was unbelievable

The Rams brought the highest-scoring offense in the NFL into the playoffs and were held to just 13 points.

Deion Jones and Keanu Neal were both magnificent, using their speed to devastating effect. Whenever the Rams threw short in the middle or into the flats there was a defender closing on the ball immediately. Los Angeles finished with 361 total yards but only managed three points in the second half. The Falcons stopped them twice on fourth down and generally owned the line of scrimmage throughout the contest.

Dan Quinn’s defense was swarming. It was stifling. It was unyielding and it was scary for the rest of the NFC. We don’t want to read too much into one game, but this was one impressive performance.

Loser: Kaelin Clay dropped TD haunts the Panthers

Carolina’s offense got into an early groove. Newton and Co. marched down the field on their second possession of the game, going 63 yards on 15 plays, and should have scored the game’s first points.

Unfortunately, Clay dropped a touchdown pass that was right in his hands. It was just an awful mistake that was then compounded by a missed field goal by Graham Gano from chip-in distance. Two plays later, Ted Ginn took a deep pass from Brees 80 yards to the house, giving the Saints an early 7-0 lead (watch here).

That’s a 14-point or at least 10-point swing we’re talking about. In a game that was decided by just five points, it proved to be the difference. As well as the Panthers played offensively, they just didn’t have quite enough juice to complete the comeback.

Winner: Derrick Henry proves he’s the future for Tennessee

Going back to the 2016 season, Derrick Henry has been No. 2 in Tennessee’s 1-2 punch, with DeMarco Murray being the starter. Well, Murray couldn’t play Saturday as he recovers from a knee injury, meaning it was Henry’s chance to shine against the Chiefs.

The second-year man out of Alabama didn’t waste his opportunity. Rushing for 156 yards and a gorgeous 35-yard touchdown on 23 carries, he was the only person besides Marcus Mariota to run the ball for the Titans in this game. He also added 35 yards on two catches, totaling 191 yards on the game.

Early Saturday, a report emerged that Murray could be cut after the season due to Tennessee’s belief that Henry is ready to be the bell cow. It sure looks like he is, and based on the way he ran Saturday the Titans would be foolish not to ride him as far as he’ll take them this postseason.

Loser: Sean McVay’s first playoff game was rough

Former Rams head coach Mike Martz is not inspired by Sean McVay's hire.

In hindsight, it seems like McVay made a mistake by resting his offensive starters in Week 17. The Rams were totally out of sync offensively until late in the game, minus a couple of decent drives. Jared Goff had no real chemistry with anyone on his receiving corps except for Robert Woods, who was magnificent. Todd Gurley was uncharacteristically error prone in the passing game.

It was an ugly performance that had at least something to do with a week off. No way to sugarcoat it.

Then, on top of that, McVay didn’t call a great game, a few beautifully drawn-up plays notwithstanding. Too many dump-offs to the flats, too little Todd Gurley on the ground (just 14 total carries) and an utter failure to attack the Falcons where they are vulnerable. It’s something the rookie head coach will undoubtedly learn from. But McVay’s first postseason experience was nothing if not rough.

Winner: Blake Bortles finds a way 

Blake Bortles, as we’ve detailed, was nauseatingly bad as a passer. He finished the game with just 75 net passing yards completing 12-of-23 attempts, though we do have to give him credit for threading the needle on his lone touchdown pass.

But the biggest difference was that Bortles found a way to move the ball offensively — even when Leonard Fournette was getting bottled up and even when he couldn’t hit the broad side of the barn with a handful of rice.

He did it with his legs. Rushing for more yards than he had passing, Bortles got the Jaguars on the board before halftime with some savvy scrambles. He helped keep drives alive in the second half by doing the same thing. In the end, the much-maligned (for good reason) passer had 88 yards on 10 carries.

The Jags won’t get another win if Bortles has another atrocious game against Pittsburgh. But for at least one week, their fans can rejoice in an extended playoff run.

Loser: The NFL seriously gave Jeff Triplette a playoff game?

Jeff Triplette. He’s the NFL ref you hope you don’t see when your favorite team has a big game to play. He’s truly awful. So when people realized it was Triplette on the mic early in the game making all the calls from the field, a collective groan emerged from fans and those who cover these games for a living.

Incredibly (and we say that in the most sarcastic tone possible), Triplette botched a huge call late in the first half. Derrick Johnson sacked Marcus Mariota, hitting him hard enough that the ball popped out before Mariota hit the ground. But, in a stunning display of ineptitude, Triplette (who was standing 10 yards behind the play) ruled Mariota’s forward progress had been stopped before the ball popped out. Only, Mariota never went forward to begin with — just backward once Johnson decleated him (watch here).

As such, the play was not reviewable, and the Titans got a field goal out of the aftermath, rather than Kansas City getting the ball back.

This wasn’t the only thing Triplette and his crew messed up, either. Bill Barnwell of ESPN chronicled the many mishaps the refs made, and it’s hardly surprising he promptly retired on Sunday morning in the wake of intense criticism.

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