The NFL Divisional Playoffs provided us with a little bit of everything. Blowout wins by the Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots on Saturday gave way to one of the better playoff games in recent history in Dallas on Sunday. Then on Sunday night, the Kansas City Chiefs and Pittsburgh Steelers did battle in the freezing conditions of Arrowhead Stadium.
Stars were born for the Falcons, who absolutely laid it to Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks. Matt Ryan once again proved his worth as a legitimate MVP candidate while Julio Jones and Co. made the likes of Richard Sherman look silly.
In the AFC battle Saturday night, Houston Texans quarterback Brock Osweiler almost literally threw away a possible historic upset with three second-half interceptions against New England.
When the clock hit Sunday, the Dallas Cowboys attempted to overcome a Packers onslaught and pulled the game even before Aaron Rodgers showed that he is indeed Harry Potter in real life form — a wizard.
And in the second of two hotly-contested Sunday games, the Pittsburgh Steelers found a way to take out the Kansas City Chiefs without scoring a single touchdown in the game. That’s great, but will it work against New England next week?
These are among the top-10 takeaways from the NFL Divisional Playoffs.
1. Seahawks’ lack of investment on offensive line is team’s downfall
The Seattle Seahawks were absolutely embarrassed by the Atlanta Falcons on Saturday afternoon. The 36-20 final score really doesn’t tell the entire story. In reality, it was the most in-depth blowout loss of the Pete Carroll era.
More so than Atlanta’s offense dominating a previously elite Seattle defense, it was the Seahawks’ offensive line that failed to do anything of substance here. With rookie first-round pick Germain Ifedi banged up, Seattle’s pass protection broke down on a consistent basis, allowing Russell Wilson to be hurried 20 times throughout the game. In fact, Wilson faced pressure on 20 of his 39 drop backs.
That was the issue for Seattle all season long. George Fant had never played left tackle in his football career before being moved to that spot earlier in the season. He was legitimately overmatched throughout the day.
And when Wilson actually broke from the pocket, the Falcons made sure he paid dearly (watch here). That’s what we’d call a team absolutely failing to put its franchise quarterback in the best position to succeed. It cost the Seahawks on Saturday and led to their ultimate downfall.
More than anything, this speaks volumes regarding the inability or unwillingness of Seattle’s front office to exhaust capital on the offensive line. It’s now going to be interesting to see whether that’s the primary focus of general manager John Schneider and Co. during the offseason. If not, Wilson’s prime years will be spent with the Seahawks as a second-rate contender in the NFC.
2. Cowboys and Packers save the playoffs
When the Green Bay Packers went up 21-3 in their NFC Divisional matchup against the Dallas Cowboys, it had the look of yet another blowout. This, after the first six games of the postseason were all decided by double-digit points. And as Tony Romo warmed up in the sideline, it looked like Dallas was dead in the water.
But as we’ve done throughout the entire season, we underestimated this version of the Cowboys. We underestimated just how good their young players were. Like a script out of a Hollywood movie, Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott and the Cowboys responded. The young squad tied the game up at 28 after a touchdown pass from Prescott to Bryant. Then, when Green Bay took a 31-28 lead with 1:30 remaining in regulation, Dallas drove down the field to tie the game up again.
That’s when Aaron Rodgers went GOAT. On third-and-20 with just over 10 seconds left in the game, Rodgers hit Jared Cook on this 36-yard pass to put the Packers in field goal range.
FACT: It doesn't get any better than this Jared Cook sideline grab.
— NFL (@NFL) January 16, 2017
Second later, Mason Crosby sent the Packers to the NFC Championship game with a 51-yard field goal as time expired.
It’s a shame that either team had to lose this game. We’re not into giving out participation medals in the professional sports world, but the Cowboys should be proud.
Facing adversity throughout the game, this young squad played the Packers as close as possible. It did so against a quarterback in Aaron Rodgers that’s performing at the highest level we have seen from a player at his position in the history of the NFL.
Meanwhile, Elliott added 125 yards on 22 attempts.
For the Packers, it was all bout Rodgers and the downright domination he displayed throughout the game.
Despite being picked off for the first time in eight weeks, Rodgers finished the afternoon with 356 passing yards and two scores to will the Packers to victory.
Now winners of eight consecutive, Green Bay heads to Atlanta to take on the Falcons in the NFC Championship game next Sunday.
It’s a matchup between two MVP candidates and two of the best offenses in the NFL.
3. Turnover-prone Patriots unimpressive in victory
Tom Brady has had better days. The New England Patriots themselves have had better days. And despite an 18-point win over the Houston Texans on Saturday night, New England simply didn’t put up its best performance.
Brady completed just 18-of-38 passes and threw two interceptions, matching his total from the entire regular season. He was under constant assault by Jadeveon Clowney and an impressive Texans pass rush throughout the night. It even got to the point where Brady’s complaining about the physicality on the field led to criticism of Brady from others around the NFL.
It's Called Football Brady
— Ray Lewis (@raylewis) January 15, 2017
When all was said and done, Brady saw himself sacked twice and hit a total of eight times in a lackluster all-around performance from the Patriots’ offense.
Defensively, the Pats did pick off mistake-prone quarterback Brock Osweiler three times. However, that was more about the quarterback’s ineptitude than anything else.
Winning in January is no easy feat. But the Patriots were expected to cakewalk over a Texans team that most figured didn’t belong on the postseason. Instead, they saw Houston make a game of it until the fourth quarter.
A similar performance next week against the Pittsburgh Steelers likely won’t lead to a Patriots win. It’s now all bout them fine-tuning what they do on the football field. The expectation is Super Bowl or bust. And the performance we saw from New England Saturday night was anything but Super Bowl caliber.
4. Falcons prove regular season success wasn’t a fluke
To some, the Atlanta Falcons were the perfect regular season team. The league’s No. 1 scoring offense helping offset an inexperienced defense that saw eight of its 11 starters eventually be first or second-year players. But this success obviously wouldn’t translate to the postseason, right?
We got the answer and then some Saturday afternoon at the Georgia Dome against the Seattle Seahawks. Currently campaigning for the San Francisco 49ers’ job, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan drew up a game plan that made Seattle’s defense look similar to what we saw from the 49ers themselves during the regular season.
When all was said and done, MVP candidate Matt Ryan completed 26-of-37 passes for 338 yards with three touchdowns and zero interceptions. It’s the first time in the Pete Carroll era that Seattle has yielded a 300-plus yard passer with three touchdowns and zero interceptions. That’s how dominant Ryan was throughout the game.
As we saw all regular season long, it was the dynamic playmakers on Atlanta’s offense that stepped up big time. Running backs Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman combined for over 200 total yards and two touchdowns. Julio Jones caught 6-of-8 targets and this touchdown before leaving the game with a toe injury.
And defensively, the Falcons absolutely obliterated a weak Seahawks offensive line. They put pressure on Russell Wilson more than half the time he dropped back to pass. Their secondary played with a ball-hawking mentality that surely made head coach and former Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn proud.
It was a statement game for Atlanta. Not only did they prove their worth as a playoff team, they proved their worth as a Super Bowl contender. That’s what happens when you blow out the previous class of the NFC in the manner we saw on Saturday afternoon in the Georgia Dome.
5. Aaron Rodgers proves he’s the game’s best
Sorry, Tom Brady. Our apologies, Matt Ryan. Russell Wilson doesn’t compare to this. What Rodgers has done for his Packers over the past two months is absolutely insane. That was magnified and then some Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys.
Green Bay ended up scoring touchdowns on its first three possessions, tallying a combined 245 yards before it was forced to punt for the first time. In the process, Rodgers completed 15-of-20 passes for 200 yards with two touchdowns.
And while the Cowboys would end up making a game of this, Rodgers himself showed why he has Michael Jordan-like blood running through his veins. The aforementioned pass to Jared Cook to set up the game-winning field goal is a prime example of this.
It’s the small things Rodgers does. Those things that don’t necessarily show up on tape. His pre-snap motions. His audibles. His ability to put receives in space to make plays. All this came out in droves against the top-seed Cowboys on Sunday afternoon.
And at the end of the day, Rodgers willed his Packers to victory with both Jordy Nelson and Davante Adams sidelined. He did so with a wide receiver turned running back toting the ball and a former St. Louis Rams castoff at tight end.
For Rodgers, this was that one true defining moment. Whether it was the last-second loss to the San Francisco 49ers four years ago or what we saw in Seattle two years ago, questions started to come up about Rodgers’ ability to succeed in the playoffs. He put that to rest Sunday against the favored Cowboys. In a big way.
6. Six field goals won’t cut it for Pittsburgh moving forward
Let’s cut to the chase here. Yes, the Pittsburgh Steelers came out on top in a tightly-contested affair against the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead on Sunday night. Le’Veon Bell put up 174 total yards, Antonio Brown continued to dominate and the Steelers’ defense stood up big time. It all contributed to an 18-16 win over Kansas City.
That’s all fine and dandy. Pittsburgh will head to Gillette Stadium to take on the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game next weekend. It’s their first appearance in the conference title game since 2010. It also won’t end Pittsburgh’s way unless they figure out how to score touchdowns.
All 18 of the Steelers’ points Sunday night came via Chris Boswell field goals. It’s an NFL record, one that teams likely would prefer not to own. All of Pittsburgh’s scoring drives stalled inside the Chiefs’ 30 yard line. This might work against a limited Chiefs offense but it most definitely isn’t a recipe for success against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.
With the firepower Pittsburgh possesses on the offensive side of the ball, this is simply not acceptable. It’s now up to Mike Tomlin and Co. to spend the next week figuring out how to close drives.
7. Experience does indeed matter
Aaron Rodgers had some sound advice for the Dallas Cowboys prior to his team’s game against the squad on Sunday. It was all about experience and how it matters in the NFL Playoffs.
“There’s a lot to be said about momentum and about playoff experience I think,” the Packers’ quarterback said during the week.
Rodgers could not have more spot on here. While Dak Prescott played himself a heck of a game, it was the Cowboys’ inexperience that caught up with them in the end. Whether it was this interception on a telegraphed screen pass (watch here) or the multitude of dumb penalties Dallas committed, it just didn’t have the margin of error we saw during the regular season.
That’s playoff football. Every play. Every mistake. It’s all magnified even further. And when all was said and done in Dallas Sunday evening, it was the Cowboys’ mistakes that really did the team in here.
The same can be said for the Houston Texans against the New England Patriots. In a game that will eventually lead to his 11th AFC Championship game appearance, Tom Brady made the plays he needed to when it mattered the most. On the other hand, making just his second career postseason start, Brock Osweiler struggled as the game progressed.
This isn’t to say that somehow we expected Osweiler to suddenly morph into someone capable of taking on Brady with a spot in the conference title game on the line. Instead, Saturday night’s game proved once again that Brady’s experience — no matter who he is going up against — will more often than not win the day.
Sunday’s loss to the Packers might have been part of the maturation process for Dallas. It now has a playoff game under its belt. Don’t expect the same mistakes moving forward with this team. As it relates to the Texans, their loss to the Patriots was a learning experience. They learned first-hand that going to battle with Osweiler under center likely isn’t a winning strategy.
8. Seahawks corners struggle without Earl Thomas
If there was ever evidence that the Seattle Seahawks missed their All Pro safety, it surely was Saturday against the Atlanta Falcons. Though, this has been a continual theme for the Legion of Boom since Thomas suffered a broken tibia back in Week 13.
Seattle was yielding a 78.1 opposing quarterback rating with Thomas in the mix over the first 12 games. With him out of action, the Seahawks gave up a near triple-digit quarterback rating in the quarter of the season. All this was magnified against Matt Ryan and Co. in the NFC Divisional Playoffs.
Ryan threw for 330-plus yards with three touchdowns and zero interceptions. That’s fine and dandy. That’s also box-score scouting. But what we saw on tape was a clear sign that Seattle’s corners rely a great deal on Thomas to cover a good portion of the field.
For whatever reason, Richard Sherman played like nothing more than a pedestrian cover guy in the 36-20 Seahawks loss. This touchdown pass from Matt Ryan to Julio Jones was a prime example of that.
Sherman gotta react, doe. pic.twitter.com/dLnFTyPshm
— Vincent Frank (@VincentFrankNFL) January 14, 2017
Sherman continued to struggle with reaction time, failed to get over to cover space on a consistent basis and was taken advantage of without his fellow All Pro defensive back on the field.
And with DeShawn Shead exiting the game due to a knee injury in the first half, Atlanta continued to attack what has suddenly become a weakness for Seattle’s defense … talent and depth.
The good news here for Seattle is that Thomas is expected to return to the team next season. That’s the positive. Though, the Seahawks would be smart to spend a couple draft picks on cornerbacks so they’re not relying on the likes of Neiko Thorpe and DeAndre Elliott to play big roles.
9. Texans remain a quarterback away from contention
The Houston Texans had made a game of it. They were down just eight points against the mighty New England Patriots in the fourth quarter of Saturday night’s playoff game at Gillette Stadium. No one had given the Texans a chance heading in. They were one of the biggest underdogs in NFL postseason history.
Would the Texans somehow find a way to pull off one of the greatest upsets ever? That question was answered with a loud thud when Brock Osweiler, masquerading as a NFL quarterback, threw this stinker of a pass into the hands of Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan.
— FanSportsClips (@FanSportsClips) January 15, 2017
How do you miss that poorly on a simple intermediate pass in between the hashes? Unfortunately, this was a continuing theme for Osweiler in his first season with the Texans. In the end, it led to a Dion Lewis touchdown to put the Patriots back up by two scores.
Osweiler is bad. Really bad. He’s not a starting-caliber quarterback in the NFL. And in reality, he cost the Texans a real opportunity to unseat the Patriots on Saturday night.
The long-term issue here for Houston is that it still owes the struggling quarterback $60 million with $25 million guaranteed over the next three seasons. Simply put, there’s no way out of dodge here. It’s an unfortunate situation, especially considering the rest of the Texans’ roster seems primed to compete for a Super Bowl title.
Houston could decide that Osweiler and his vast fortune is best off sitting on the sideline collecting dust. In turn, the team could make a play for a veteran starter like Colin Kaepernick or Jay Cutler. Though, that would equate to general manager Rick Smith admitting one of the most ridiculous mistakes in recent free-agent history.
As it stands, the Texans are clearly a quarterback away from contention in the NFC. Sunday’s 34-16 loss to Tom Brady and the Patriots proved this to a T.
10. Chiefs’ limited offense proves to be their downfall
How do you lose a football game when you score the only two touchdowns of the game itself? Your defense stands on its head when the opposing offense is in scoring position. On the other hand, your offense fails to do anything of substance outside of those two touchdown-scoring drives.
It’s been a theme of Alex Smith’s career dating back to his days with the San Francisco 49ers. He struggles pushing the ball down the field, which has a direct impact on his team’s ability to succeed.
This couldn’t have been more evident Sunday night against the Steelers. Smith completed 6-of-16 passes that traveled more than 10 yards down the field. He consistently missed open receivers on what would have been long pass plays. And when Smith didn’t miss these pass catchers, he simply didn’t see them.
Smith has proven himself to be a winner. That we already know. Unfortunately, he proved once again that he cannot be the reason why a team wins in January.
Though, all the blame should not be placed simply on Smith’s shoulders. Travis Kelce struggled to do anything of substance when Kansas City’s offense became non-existent in the middle of the game. He also committed an absolutely horrible 15-yard personal foul penalty in the fourth quarter, a penalty that saw the Chiefs have to settle for a field goal instead of a potential touchdown.
As we mentioned above, the margin for error during postseason football simply isn’t there. When you combine a limited passing game with dumb penalties, it will come back to haunt you. That happened to the Chiefs in their 18-16 loss to Pittsburgh Sunday evening.