Why did the four games in the NFL Divisional Round finish the way they did?
Certainly, the play of the Atlanta Falcons, New England Patriots, Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers had a lot to do with the weekend’s results. But unfortunately, the play of the Seattle Seahawks, Houston Texans, Dallas Cowboys and Kansas City Chiefs did as well.
That’s our focus.
Who were the goats? Who really dropped the ball in the Packers’ classic win over the Cowboys? Why couldn’t the Seahawks make it back to the Super Bowl? Which Houston players and coaches helped the New England blow the Texans out? Where was the ball dropped in the Steelers win over the Chiefs?
Who were the biggest goats of the NFL Divisional Round?
1. Green Bay vs. Dallas officiating crew
The Cowboys and Packers gave us the game of the playoffs. Unfortunately, it was marred by terrible officiating.
Early in the game, a Dallas drive was stalled by an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Brice Butler. The officials determined that Butler entered the game, joined the Cowboys huddle, and left. Was that accurate?
Keep an eye on No. 19 in white and determine for yourself how involved in the huddle he was.
— SB Nation (@SBNation) January 15, 2017
Unfortunately, the questionable calls didn’t stop there. The Packers benefited from a lengthy pass interference yardage when holding or illegal contact was the more appropriate call. At the end of the first half, a fairly obvious holding penalty on Jason Witten was missed in the end zone.
Mind you, those are only some of the bad calls that benefited Green Bay. Dallas benefited from bad calls in this one, as well.
It’s just a pathetic display on the part of the NFL. Seemingly every year, the NFL playoffs produce a similar debate. Should crews be kept together, or is the NFL right in using the “All-Star” crews?
That’s an interesting debate, but it partially misses the mark. If these are the best officials the NFL has to offer, it’s a league with a serious officiating problem that must be fixed.
This is a common talking point at the end of too many big games. Officials are humans. Humans are going to make mistakes. But the NFL needs to do more to ensure that those mistakes are minimized, especially in the biggest games.
2. Seattle’s special teams
Devin Hester turned back the clock 10 years. He looked like the greatest return man the NFL has ever seen and could have been a real game changer for the Seahawks.
His teammates just didn’t let it happen.
Hester had three big returns negated by penalty. One was a kickoff on the game’s opening possession, which ended in a touchdown anyway. Another came later in the game, but largely after the competitive portion of it.
But another came on arguably the game’s biggest play. Leading 10-7, Seattle got a huge punt return from Hester, setting the Seahawks up inside of the Atlanta 10. Unfortunately, a Kevin Pierre-Louis hold (that had nothing to do with the play) not only negated the return, but set Seattle up inside of its own 10 — creating a field position difference of more than 80 yards.
Two plays later, Russell Wilson stumbled taking a snap and fell into his own end zone for a safety. You can see the whole sequence here.
On the ensuing possession, the Falcons took advantage of the short field to kick the go-ahead field goal, taking a lead that they would not surrender.
That sequence gives this game another imponderable. Without the penalty, Seattle probably scores to go up 17-7. We may be talking about something entirely different.
3. Bill O’Brien
Let’s go back in time to January 8, 1988. The San Francisco 49ers were heavily favored over the Minnesota Vikings in the Divisional Round. But when the game started, nothing went San Francisco’s way.
Joe Montana was 12-for-26 for 109 yards with no touchdowns, a pick, and was sacked four times. Late in the loss, Bill Walsh pulled Montana, the quarterback who to that point had won him two Super Bowls.
So, in 1988, it was okay for Walsh to pull a legendary quarterback from a bad game. Remembering that, why couldn’t O’Brien pull Osweiler?
Osweiler was 23-for-40 for 189 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions. He was decent in the first half (more on that later), but was horrendous in the second. O’Brien would have been easily justified going to Tom Savage at any point in the fourth quarter.
But Osweiler played every snap.
Having Osweiler as your quarterback is never ideal, especially in an elimination game. But Osweiler was off of his game, even for his own standards. O’Brien had to recognize that and get his quarterback out.
In all likelihood, it wouldn’t have made a difference. New England found some rhythm in the second half and was probably going to defeat Houston, anyway.
But by leaving Osweiler in the game for all four quarters, O’Brien did not put his team in the best chance to win.
4. Seattle’s vaunted defense
The Seahawks have logged five straight playoff appearances. In that run, they’ve won two NFC Championships and a Super Bowl. With all due respect to the likes of Russell Wilson, Marshawn Lynch, Doug Baldwin and company, the backbone of the team has been its defense.
That very defense let the team down in a big way on Saturday.
Matt Ryan: 330 yards, 3 TD, 0 INT today
Would be only QB with 300+ pass yds, 3+ pass TD, and 0 INT vs the Seahawks in the Pete Carroll era
— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) January 15, 2017
This wasn’t as simple as Matt Ryan exploiting a single weak link, either. He threw touchdowns to three different receivers (Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, and Tevin Coleman). Three different Falcons (Devonta Freeman, Taylor Gabriel, and Jones) had 67 or more receiving yards.
Nobody really expected an offense like Atlanta’s to be shut down. But Seattle’s offense managed to put up 20 points. Maybe that was never going to be enough to win, but it should have been enough to keep them in the game.
Seattle’s defense allowed 34 points (plus two on a Russell Wilson safety), but the points allowed only tells the beginning of the story. The Falcons gained 422 yards and picked up 28 first downs. We also have to remember that the Seahawks scored a touchdown on the first possession of the game, only to have Atlanta find the end zone on its first drive. Who knows how different this game would have gone if the Seattle defense had held strong there?
We can only speculate. One thing we can’t speculate on, though. The Legion of Boom isn’t the same unit without Earl Thomas.
5. Andy Reid
The Chiefs can look back on this game with a handful of “what-ifs.” What if Eric Fisher didn’t hold to negate a game tying two-point conversion? What if Travis Kelce didn’t act like such an idiot?
But by and large, those guys messed up on one play. Reid was a goat all game long.
The weather in Kansas City wasn’t as bad as originally feared, but the conditions were far from ideal. Still, he had Alex Smith chuck the ball 34 times. The Chiefs weren’t great when they decided to run the ball, but they were competent, averaging 4.4 yards per carry. Yet, Reid only dialed up 14 runs.
That’s a terrible game plan if Aaron Rodgers is the quarterback. With someone like Smith, it’s inexcusable. The running game needs to set up the passing game there, not the other way around.
Unfortunately for Kansas City, it didn’t stop there. The Chiefs were trailing throughout the second half. Yet Reid decided to burn two time outs early. So, when the Steelers got the ball back in the game’s final minutes, they only needed one first down to put the game on ice.
It was an appalling game plan from a veteran coach.
6. Brock Osweiler
To be completely fair to Osweiler, he was not bad in the first half. Houston’s $72 million man was 13-for-20 before halftime, passing for 83 yards, a touchdown, no interceptions and a 90.2 passer rating. Those stats aren’t putting Osweiler in the Hall of Fame, but they kept the Texans in the game.
The problem is that all they did was keep Houston in the game. The Patriots played a terrible first half. But despite that Osweiler’s relatively competent play was only good enough to get the Texans a 17-13 halftime deficit. New England’s offense started to click in the second half. At that point, Osweiler was hopefully overmatched.
In the second half, the Houston quarterback completed only 50 percent of his passes for 115 yards yards with zero touchdowns, three interceptions and a 21.5 passer rating. Numbers like that definitely show that the Denver Broncos were right to rely on an about to retire Peyton Manning instead of Osweiler on their road to Super Bowl 50.
But in reality, to compare Osweiler to Manning is completely unfair, even if we’re talking about a completely washed up version of The Sheriff. Instead, let’s compare him to Colin Kaepernick, who’s been mediocre or just downright bad over the last three seasons.
Like Kaepernick, accuracy is not Osweiler’s strength. Like Kaepernick, Osweiler takes far too long to get rid of the ball. He often resembles a pitcher in a wind-up more than a quarterback. But generally speaking, Kaepernick puts zip on his passes. Sure, those passes may not end up anywhere near a receiver. But they generally don’t end up by a defender, either.
We can’t say that about Osweiler’s passes. Adding up his playoff and regular season stats, Osweiler threw 19 picks against only 17 touchdowns.
While they eventually put up 34 points and even covered a historically large point spread, the Patriots were beatable on Saturday night. New England turned the ball over three times (including two Brady picks), Dion Lewis led the team with only 41 yards rushing, and Brady completed less than half of his passes with a 68.6 passer rating.
Let’s put it another way. The Patriots have dominated the NFL landscape for the better part of two decades. But despite a C effort from New England (and that’s being generous), Osweiler was only good enough to finish 18 points behind the Patriots.
He’s just not anything close to a championship tier quarterback. That should have been abundantly clear before Saturday. But in case anyone was still wondering, his performance in Foxborough left no doubt.
7. Will Fuller
Trailing 24-13 and facing a third-and-eight on the New England 45 late in the fourth quarter, the Texans decided to get aggressive. Targeting Fuller, Osweiler did the rarest of all things. He threw a perfect pass.
Fuller dropped the ball, something that was all too common for the rookie during his rookie season.
Will Fuller with an 11.32 drop rate this regular season; 6th worst for WRs out of 51 qualifying.
— Nathan Jahnke (@PFF_NateJahnke) January 15, 2017
Had Fuller held onto the ball and Nick Novak made the ensuing PAT, it would have been a 24-20 game with a little more than a quarter to play.
That is anyone’s game.
The Texans were the trailing team, facing a third-and-long, outside of field goal range. The ball was perfectly thrown, and it was perfectly thrown into the end zone. If a pass can check any of those boxes, an NFL receiver has to make it. This particular pass checked all five.
Sure, the game turned into a blowout, but it wasn’t at the time of the drop. We don’t know what would have happened if the play was made. Maybe New England would have pulled away in the fourth quarter anyway. But we can assume that O’Brien those on the Houston sideline would have liked to have found out.
8. NFL’s concussion protocol
For the second week in a row, the NFL’s concussion protocol failed miserably.
During Wild Card weekend, Miami Dolphins quarterback Matt Moore was blown up but sidelined for only one play. The NFL decided to investigate the application of the protocol.
But nothing in that investigation yielded anything different in the Divisional Round. Sean Davis was penalized after a head shot to Chiefs’ receiver Chris Conley. But after sitting out for one play, Conley was back in action.
Maybe Conley had a concussion, maybe he didn’t. But it could not have been determined in such a short time.
This is not something that the NFL can be blasé about. In playoff games, when the world is watching, the league has to be more strict, not less.
Blows to the head are a part of the NFL. When the Steelers are playing, they’re even more common. But for two weeks in a row, a Pittsburgh opponent pretty obviously rubber stamped back in the game.
Fortunately, nothing disastrous happened with Moore or Conley. But if the NFL and its people on the sideline don’t start to consistently take the concussion protocol seriously, it’s only a matter of time until something awful does happen.