Top takeaways from NFL Wildcard Weekend

NFL Wildcard Weekend took quite a few unexpected turns. It started Saturday afternoon with the Kansas City Chiefs opening up a 21-3 halftime lead over Tennessee, only to blow the game in epic fashion, losing by the score of 22-21. And so ends an era in Kansas City.

Then, later on Saturday, the Los Angeles Rams proved they were not yet ready for the big lights of playoff football at home against a much more seasoned Falcons team.

Once Sunday afternoon hit in Jacksonville, it was readily apparent that Bills and Jaguars fans were ready for a rare playoff game for each team. And in a game that was just hard to watch, Jacksonville relied on Blake Bortles’ legs for a 10-3 win.

Billed as potentially the best game of the weekend, the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints did battle for the final spot in the NFL’s version of the elite eight. Drew Brees turned back the clock big time, leading the Saints to a 31-26 win over their division rivals.

These are among the top takeaways from NFL Wildcard weekend.

End of an era in Kansas City 

With Saturday night’s disastrous loss to the Tennessee Titans, Alex Smith’s career with the Chiefs has likely come to an end. It’s a bittersweet conclusion for one of the most underrated players in the game.

Smith completed 19-of-23 passes for 231 yards with two touchdowns in the first half. He proceeded to complete just 5-of-10 passes for 33 yards after halftime. That’s most definitely not the way Smith wanted to end a Chiefs career that saw him post a 50-26 record in five seasons.

For the Chiefs, it’s now going to be all about 2017 first-round pick Patrick Mahomes, who will more than likely take over the starting role next season. In turn, Smith will be a coveted option on the trade block after putting up the best season of his career. Among other teams, the Cleveland Browns and Arizona Cardinals are potential destinations.

Drew Brees comes through big time 

What Brees did to the Panthers’ defense on Sunday evening should be illegal in all 50 states plus Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. He absolutely picked apart what had been a good pass defense to the tune of 376 yards on 23-of-33 passing with two touchdowns and one late interception.

It was an absolutely brilliant display from a quarterback that seemingly doesn’t age. And it has the Saints prepared to take on the Minnesota Vikings for an opportunity to play in the NFC Championship Game.

Brees himself had taken a back seat to the running back tandem of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara during the regular season. With the Panthers dead set on stopping that dynamic duo, Brees found passing lanes all throughout the Superdome. It’s a difficult proposition for opposing defense. You’re darned if you do, you’re darned if you don’t. That was pretty apparent Sunday evening in the Bayou.

Rams just not ready for prime time 

One of the biggest stories heading into Wildcard Weekend was the Rams’ lack of playoff experience. It was a major question heading into a game against a seasoned Atlanta Falcons squad. And it came out in droves early Saturday night.

Young punt returner Pharoh Cooper had a horrible first half turnover on a fumbled kickoff, second-year quarterback Jared Goff threw for less than 10 yards in the first quarter and MVP candidate Todd Gurley dropped more passes (three) than he did in the regular season (one). This was all a case of nerves getting to the young Rams early.

While Los Angeles did make a game of it in the second half, these early mistakes cost the team big time. When all was said and done, Atlanta came out on top by the score of 26-13. Los Angeles turned the ball over two times, committed a couple brutal penalties late in the game, and Gurley himself gained a grand total of 10 receiving yards on 10 targets.

Head coach Sean McVay is upbeat about the trajectory of his team. And for good reason. The Rams surprised everyone by winning the NFC West this season. They are an extremely talented young team. They just weren’t quite yet ready for prime time.

Bills’ patchwork offense proves to be their fatal flaw 

Tyrod Taylor was downright terrible Sunday against the league’s best defense. Prior to leaving the game in the final seconds with a concussion, the much-maligned quarterback completed 17-of-37 passes for 134 yards with an interception in a 10-3 Bills loss.

We know Taylor is limited when it comes to passing the ball. That’s not much of a question. Instead, the focus here should be on just poorly Buffalo’s pass catchers played in this one. Kelvin Benjamin couldn’t create any separation against the best secondary in the game, catching one pass for nine yards on two targets. All said, Bills wide receivers caught 5-of-12 passes for 52 yards in the loss. That’s not all on Taylor, ladies and gents.

The issue in Buffalo is a patchwork offense created by general manager Brandon Beane. Adding Jordan Matthews and Kelvin Benjamin in trades proved to be fruitless. Taylor isn’t equipped to make his receivers better. And the receivers do very little to make him better. It’s that simple. And it cost Buffalo big time in the team’s first playoff game since 1999.

Panthers missing that key weapon 

Kelvin Benjamin might not have had much of an impact in Buffalo after an in-season trade from Carolina, but Cam Newton obviously missed the big-bodied receiver in Sunday’s NFC Wildcard game loss to the Saints. Relying on Devin Funchess and a bunch of second-rate pass catchers, Newton completed just 9-of-16 passes for 138 yards to wide receivers in the 31-26 loss.

The idea of relying on a catch-first running back in Christian McCaffrey and an aging tight end in Greg Olsen simply isn’t going to get the Panthers to where they need to be moving forward. Sure the two combined for 14 receptions and 208 yards. That’s not the point. Without any real boundary threat, the Panthers’ offense was doomed to fail against New Orleans.

Super Mario, indeed 

The hostile crowd at Arrowhead didn’t faze Marcus Mariota. The cool January temperatures of Kansas City had no real impact here. And after a sluggish start to the game, the former Heisman winner showed up big time.

Mariota led the Titans on three touchdown-scoring drives in the second half, including two of 80-plus yards and one brilliant score. He compiled over 200 passing yards with two touchdowns during that span, helping Tennessee come back from a 21-3 halftime deficit to win 22-21.

But it was Mariota’s block on Chiefs linebacker Frank Zombo to free Derrick Henry for a game-clinching first down late in the game that showed us everything we need to know about Mariota. Sure the third-year signal caller struggled to the tune of 13 touchdowns and 15 interceptions during the regular year. That means very little right now. He helped pull off one of the most shocking comebacks in recent playoff memory, etching his name in the history books in the process. On to New England.

Chiefs fail again on game’s grandest stage 

At some point it’s going to become apparent that Andy Reid isn’t the man to lead the Chiefs to relevance in the playoffs. It’s not necessarily on the level of Marvin Lewis in Cincinnati, but it’s getting there.

Reid’s in-game coaching was nothing less than a detriment to the Chiefs in Saturday’s AFC Wildcard Playoff loss to Tennessee. Heading into the half up 21-3, NFL’s regular season rushing champ Kareem Hunt saw four second half rush attempts when the Chiefs were ahead. All said, the rookie ran the ball 11 times with Alex Smith dropping back to pass 37 times. That’s just not acceptable.

It won’t be this offseason, but the Chiefs’ brass will soon come to the conclusion that its marriage with Reid must come to an end. Saturday’s humiliating second half performance could very well lead them in that direction.

Falcons could be very dangerous 

Going into Los Angeles and defeating the Rams in their first home playoff game in Southern California since the 1980s is a pretty solid accomplishment for the defending NFC champs. But it’s how the Falcons came out on top that could tell us the story of this team moving forward.

Matt Ryan was not spectacular by any stretch of the imagination, putting up just 218 passing yards and one score. The combo if Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined for only 106 yards on 32 attempts. This isn’t the same offense that ran roughshod through the NFL last season.

Instead, it was the performance of the team’s defense that should be noted. A solid pass rush got to Jared Goff for three sacks and six hits. After missing last year’s playoff run, cornerback Desmond Trufant dominated the likes of Cooper Kupp and Sammy Watkins, holding the latter to just one coach on four targets.

It’s this type of stingy defense that should play well against Nick Foles and the Philadelphia Eagles next week in the divisional round. And even with the Falcons’ offense having regressed from a season ago, that should be enough for a second consecutive trip to the NFC Championship game.

Panthers secondary gets whooped 

Remember when the Panthers’ young secondary was downright horrible last season? Well, the likes of James Bradberry and Daryl Worley came through big time en route to leading a defense that improved 12 spots from a season ago.

Sunday’s version of this unit looked more like what we saw in 2016. Michael Thomas used and abused the Panthers’ secondary to the tune of eight receptions for 131 yards on nine targets. Meanwhile, Ted Ginn burnt Carolina for a game-changing 80-yard touchdown early on.

We focused on the fast track inside the Superdome as potentially being a difference-maker here. And that really did come back to haunt a young Panthers secondary in Sunday’s five-point loss to New Orleans.

Blake Bortles’ legs save Jags from his arm 

It really is that simple. Blake Bortles couldn’t even complete the easiest of passes Sunday against the Bills. He was downright atrocious tossing the ball, having completed 12-of-23 passes for 87 yards. That’s an average of 3.8 yards per pass attempt.

Despite this, Jacksonville came out on top at home by the score of 10-3. Sure its defense was in complete domination mode against an overmatched Tyrod Taylor, but Bortles’ excellence on the ground played a major role.

With Leonard Fournette struggling to do anything (57 yards on 21 attempts), Bortles picked up the slack big time. Faced with pressure throughout the afternoon, he scrambled to the tune of a career-high 88 yards on 10 attempts, picking up a half dozen first downs in the process.

We’re not going to sit back and say Bortles has much of a chance to go into Pittsburgh and lead his Jaguars to a divisional round win over the Steelers. But he showed grit here. That’s a net positive for a Jags team that won its first playoff game in a decade.