Now that we’ve said goodbye to more than half of the league’s teams, it’s time for the remaining 14 to prove that they should advance in the playoffs. This week, 12 are competing. Baltimore and San Francisco earned the byes in their respective conferences, getting the week off. Mistakes are amplified in the postseason because there are no do-overs. One loss, and your season ends. With that in mind, let’s take a look at how each (2) through (7) seed did in my wild card takeaways. The games are sorted based on when they occurred (earliest first), separated by conference.
(4) Houston Texans 45, (5) Cleveland Browns 14
Arizona’s second pick keeps getting worse! I’ll admit it: I really whiffed on this one. Not because I underestimated Houston; in fact, I’ve sung their praises. My error seems to have been overestimating the Browns, especially their defense. I know they’re worse on the road than at home, but they’ve never been THIS awful. CB Greg Newsome deserves the “least valuable player” award. He was burned repeatedly, letting receivers and tight ends alike catch him flat-footed for big gains. Newsome had one good PBU in the end zone, but the majority of his day made Browns fans cry.
A supposedly fearsome pass rush, led by DE Myles Garrett, couldn’t earn one sack. LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (9 tackles, 4 TFLs) was the only standout. The two teams traded scores in the first half, with neither having much interest in stopping anyone. QB Joe Flacco looked really sharp, guiding the team to a 14-10 lead early in the second quarter. As they did against the Colts last week, the Texans responded at warp speed, with QB CJ Stroud hitting TE Brevin Jordan on a 76-yard catch-and-run TD. That represented the longest play of Houston’s season. It was a backbreaker, and the Browns’ offense soon crumbled.
Houston’s defense catching fire didn’t help Cleveland. They forced two punts to end the half, as the Browns’ line was overmatched after an injury limited G Joel Bitonio. The wheels REALLY came off in the 3rd quarter, with Flacco throwing 2 pick sixes on consecutive drives. The first could be explained by a miscommunication between he and WR Elijah Moore, but it wasn’t a great decision. The second was simply a telegraphed throw and a painful mistake. Suddenly, the Browns were down 38-14, and hope was lost. Flacco (34/46, 307 yards, TD) was really good outside of those 2 poor plays, but the running game (56 yards) was absent.
The Texans had the game of their dreams. OC Bobby Slowik clowned Browns DC Jim Schwartz, scheming up open receivers all game. In a coach of the year battle between Kevin Stefanski and DeMeco Ryans, the latter won with ease. He should be the prohibitive favorite for the award now. A defense that got DESTROYED by Cleveland a few weeks ago did a much better job against WR Amari Cooper (4/59) and earned 4 sacks. Only TE David Njoku (7/93) had a notable day as a Cleveland pass catcher. The affair was such a rout that Stroud and most of the other starters were benched during the 4th quarter, given the rest of the game off.
Despite the flashy numbers (16/21, 274 yards, 3 TDs), Stroud didn’t need to do a whole lot. To his credit though, he made the plays that needed to be made and was mature beyond his years with his pocket movement and accuracy. His only mistake was an overthrow on a deep shot to WR Nico Collins (6/96/1), who had another stellar outing. RB Devin Singletary (13/66/1) provided some balance on the ground. This was a bitter end to Cleveland’s season, and they’ll likely turn back to Deshaun Watson at QB. Houston has arrived far earlier than anyone could’ve imaged, but they’ll have a tough test in Baltimore next week.
(3) Kansas City Chiefs 26, (6) Miami Dolphins 7
If you didn’t have Peacock and couldn’t watch this game, I’m sorry. This was a blunder by the NFL. Somehow, it wasn’t even their worst move. Playing this game at all was the crazy decision! At kickoff, the temperature was -4 with an even lower wind chill. Local authorities suggested that fans shouldn’t attend the game, and the Pittsburgh-Buffalo game was postponed due to weather, so why not the 4th-coldest playoff game in NFL history? Anyway, I’m not sure if it was the cold or their late-season swoon, but the Dolphins certainly looked frozen. Nobody at NBC picked them to win, and those choices were certainly validated.
We’ve talked at length about how Miami’s injuries have decimated their chances, particularly on defense. In actuality, the defense put forth a pretty solid effort. The first drive was terrible, with the Chiefs marching right down the field. ANOTHER Dolphin, LB Duke Riley, appeared injured on one red zone play but remained in the game. Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes, as great as he is, noticed and immediately threw a TD to the man he was covering, WR Rashee Rice. Rice (8/130/1), who set a Chiefs rookie playoff receiving record, has become the team’s most reliable pass catcher. TE Travis Kelce (7/71) did fine but had 3 more peculiar drops.
The weather was definitely a factor. Drops weren’t uncommon, and each team’s first-half kickoffs were squibs that dribbled along the ground; by the second half, the kickers were more daring. In the most hilarious sign of the temperature, Chiefs coach Andy Reid trended on social media…because his mustache spawned icicles. Regardless, after the KC touchdown, Miami reached a 3rd and 1 at their 44. They converted, but it was called back for an illegal shift. On the next play, QB Tua Tagovailoa threw an INT. He never got comfortable in this game; he was forced to hold the ball longer than normal or fire passes under pressure.
KC scored a field goal off the turnover, and Miami needed a spark. That came quickly in the form of a 53-yard, ankle-breaking deep ball catch and run by WR Tyreek Hill. The TD was excellent, but it turned out to be Miami’s only score of the night. Hill’s other 4 catches totaled 9 yards. The running game produced a 4.2 YPC average, but it didn’t activate early enough to be a factor. Tagovailoa (20/39, 199 yards, TD, INT) couldn’t get anything going. The 3rd-down struggles that plagued Miami last week returned; the Dolphins converted just 1 of 12 on the night. The defense played surprisingly well, forcing 4 FGs before tiring out.
From Kansas City’s perspective, this was a quality team win. We expected a lot of RB Isiah Pacheco (24/88/1) due to the weather, and we got it, but the Chiefs weren’t afraid to throw. Mahomes finished 23/41 for 262 yards and a TD, with a few misfires and a few throwaways. He also scrambled twice for 41 yards, and both were back-breaking plays. The lack of red zone efficiency is troublesome, but this defense is on fire. I think the biggest issue continues to be RT Jawaan Taylor. His 17th accepted penalty of the year cost the team 4 points, and he would later be called for his 18th flag. A team with healthy edge rushers might exploit him.
Similar to last season’s collapse, Miami really flamed out this year. Once again, injuries were the major culprit, but some disturbing offensive trends have emerged. This team cannot score in the second half, and the Dolphins still struggle to beat quality opponents. I personally believe Tagovailoa and HC Mike McDaniel are the right guys, but something needs to improve. One more downside: Hard Knocks: In Season ends on Tuesday now. The Chiefs are back where we usually find them: the divisional round. For the first time though, Mahomes will play a road playoff game (not at a neutral site), and he’ll be doing so in Buffalo.
(2) Buffalo Bills 31, (7) Pittsburgh Steelers 17
I think we need a new rule: require northern teams to enclose their stadiums or forfeit the right to host playoff games. Kansas City shouldn’t have had their game played, and Buffalo’s got postponed. I digress. The Steelers were undermanned to start out, missing OLB TJ Watt due to an injury suffered during week 18. When Pittsburgh punted on their first drive, I knew they were in trouble. Buffalo quickly went 80 yards down the field for a TD, and they made it look easy. The two teams traded punts, but then the Steelers fumbled. It wasn’t called on the field, but HC Sean McDermott challenged it, and WR George Pickens did indeed lose the ball.
The Bills scored their second TD just 1 play later, with QB Josh Allen hitting rookie TE Dalton Kincaid for a 29-yard TD. Kincaid’s 59 receiving yards led the team, and after Dawson Knox scored on the first drive, both Bills TEs had touchdowns. A few drives later, Pittsburgh FINALLY had a nice 88-yard possession. TE Pat Freiermuth (5/76) nearly lost a fumble, but the Bills’ challenge this time was unsuccessful. That meant the team was out of challenges for the game. I’m adding another new rule: if you win a challenge, you should keep that challenge no matter what. This didn’t affect Buffalo this time, but it could have.
Unfortunately for the Steelers, QB Mason Rudolph threw an INT into the end zone. CB Kaiir Elam, who had been torched on the drive, got some nice redemption. On a real back-breaking play, Allen weaved through the Pittsburgh defense for a 52-yard TD run, the longest run in Bills postseason history. Down 21-0, it seemed over since Pittsburgh is offensively challenged. To their credit though, they fought back. In the swirling wind, the Steelers were able to block a 49-yard Tyler Bass FG, and it bounced all the way to the Buffalo 34. Rudolph hit WR Diontae Johnson (4/48) for a TD, finally getting on the board before the half.
Pittsburgh managed to cut the deficit to 24-17 in the second half, playing much better on offense. Rudolph (22/39, 229 yards, 2 TDs, INT) found some rhythm, and the team turned to Jaylen Warren (8/38) at RB, providing a spark. The game became a war of attrition though. For the Steelers, top CB Joey Porter Jr and WR Allen Robinson both left with concussions. On the Buffalo side, LB Terrel Bernard was carted off with a likely broken ankle. The damaged Steelers couldn’t stop Buffalo after they finally made it a one-score game, with WR Khalil Shakir shaking S Minkah Fitzpatrick for a 17-yard TD. Pittsburgh couldn’t recover from that.
This was a pretty encouraging performance for Buffalo. They got tested but never trailed, and they didn’t make critical mistakes (an oddly shanked 27-yard FG miss by Bass was meaningless). Allen (21/30, 203, 3 TDs, 74 rushing yards, rushing TD) played a clean game for once, committing 0 turnovers and not taking risks. RB James Cook (18/79) balanced things nicely, but WR Stefon Diggs (7/52) should still be more involved. Buffalo hosts KC next week, and they might be the favorites. In all their postseason battles, Patrick Mahomes has never been the visitor at Josh Allen’s house.
The aftermath of this game was ugly for Pittsburgh, with HC Mike Tomlin storming out of his press conference. A reporter had asked him about his contract status (he has 1 year remaining), and though it’s a fair question, I’d be SHOCKED if Tomlin goes anywhere. Pittsburgh hasn’t fired a coach in decades, and the man just dragged a terrible offense starting QB to the playoffs. The bigger question is what happens under center. Is Kenny Pickett already done? The 2022 first-rounder is healthy, yet Rudolph continued to start. I expect an interesting training camp battle, but their QB of the future might not currently be on the roster.
(7) Green Bay Packers 48, (2) Dallas Cowboys 32
Don’t let the final score trick you into thinking that this game was a shootout. Only one team participated for 3 quarters. In the latest Cowboys playoff no-show, the team basically did what Cleveland did: forget how to play defense. Except they did it at home. Green Bay won the coin toss and curiously chose to receive, but we’d learn it just minutes that HC Matt LaFleur made the correct decision. In a tone-setting drive, the Packers went 75 yards in 12 plays and 7:52, punishing the typically dominant Cowboys in their own stadium. GB attacked Dallas’ weakness, run defense, with 7 Aaron Jones runs, including the drive-ending 3-yard TD.
Dallas did not have nearly as good of an offensive start. WR CeeDee Lamb dropped a 3rd and 8 pass to kill a drive, and on the next possession, QB Dak Prescott threw an INT to CB Jaire Alexander. I told you that week 17 suspension of Alexander was stupid. The Packers scored quickly off the turnover (they got the ball at the DAL 19), with Jones running in for his second score. Following another Dallas punt, the Packers drove 93 yards for another TD, though K Anders Carlson missed the PAT. Prescott then had another meltdown, tossing a pick six to S Darnell Savage. Just like that, Green Bay led 27-0 in front of a shell-shocked crowd.
The Cowboys FINALLY got on the board as the clock hit 0:00 in the second quarter. They only got that chance because GB committed holding to stop the clock. Dallas scored a field goal to open the 3rd quarter, but that didn’t matter, as Jones (21/118/3) countered with his 3rd rushing TD. Even Dallas’ follow-up TD wasn’t threatening. Their 2-point attempt was called back by penalties, and K Brandon Aubrey missed the subsequent 43-yard PAT. Green Bay responded to that TD as well, with TE Luke Musgrave finding himself with 20 yards of separation on a 38-yard TD. With that dagger, the game was effectively over.
Prescott (41/60, 403 yards, 3 TDs, 2 INTs) did a LOT of garbage-time passing, cutting the deficit in half (from 32 to 16). Lamb (9/110), WR Michael Gallup (6/103), and TE Jake Ferguson (10/93/3) put up gaudy numbers during that period, but those stats are meaningless. Green Bay didn’t really care, as they pulled QB Jordan Love out of the game for rookie Sean Clifford. I give Love a ton of credit for making the right reads and executing the throws, but this was more about the Dallas defense. Still, he earned a 157.2 passer rating on 16/21 passing for 272 yards and 3 TDs. WR Romeo Doubs (6/151/1) was the primary beneficiary.
This team should take at least some of the heat off embattled Packers DC Joe Barry. His defense’s first half was a masterful performance; Dallas only succeeded when the Packers went into a prevent defense (which I still hate). Offensively, when Love throws less and the attack goes through Jones, Green Bay is at its best. They have their work cut out for them next week against SF, who they often struggle against. Someone with more incoming pressure is Cowboys HC Mike McCarthy. This kind of loss makes the season a failure, and I’m not sure he can survive this. Owner Jerry Jones was noncommittal.
(6) Los Angeles Rams 24, (3) Detroit Lions 23
Welcome to the Stafford-Goff Bowl! As you’re probably well aware, these two QBs were traded for each other back in 2021. Matthew Stafford and the Rams earned a Super Bowl, while the Lions received Jared Goff and two first-round picks that helped jump-start their rebuild. Their reunion just happened to take place during the first playoff game Detroit has hosted in 30 years. TE Sam LaPorta played for the Lions, which was a bit surprising given his knee injury. He had just 3 catches for 14 yards, but he did score a TD. WR/PR Kalif Raymond, injured in the same game last week, was not active.
Detroit got the ball first and immediately went down the field for a TD. Interestingly, RB David Montgomery (14/57/1, 11 rec. yards) played the entire drive (and scored the TD), while rookie Jahymr Gibbs (8/25/1, 43 rec. yards) sat on the bench. Gibbs would get more involved as the game went on, but coach Dan Campbell clearly trusted the veteran Montgomery more in key situations. LA responded with a FG drive, but the kick came after 3 incomplete passes from 1st and goal. Red zone struggles would be a theme in this game for the Rams. They couldn’t afford to stall very much because Detroit’s offense was on fire.
The main issue was that the Lions’ league-best offensive line could afford to double- and triple-team DT Aaron Donald because the rest of the players are good enough to win 1 on 1. Aside from LB Ernest Jones, who led the Rams with 9 tackles and 2 sacks, nobody was able to pressure QB Jared Goff. Though he struggles under duress and when on the move, Goff is surgical from a clean pocket. Perhaps feeling he had something to prove to Rams coach Sean McVay, Goff led 3 consecutive 75-yard TD drives on Detroit’s first 3 possessions, and he was fantastic the entire game. That didn’t mean he dominated Stafford, however.
After the disappointing FG on their first drive, the Rams reached the end zone on their next two possessions. Both scores came on big passes from Stafford. First, Stafford made a great throw from an odd platform to convert 3rd and 16, but his hand hit the helmet of DT Alim McNeill. Already nursing a bad thumb, that contact was worrisome, but Stafford allayed those concerns quickly, hitting star rookie WR Puka Nacua for a 50-yard TD bomb. On the second scoring drive, he threw a pinpoint pass to Tutu Atwell for a 38-yard TD. That cut LA’s deficit to 21-17, but that didn’t matter if the defense couldn’t get a single stop.
They did just that on Detroit’s final drive of the half, albeit with some controversy. On 4th and 5 at the Rams’ 41, the Lions ran a hard count. It appeared that a Ram jumped, but the officials called a false start. These poor Lions can’t receive fair treatment from the officials. I don’t think the zebras hate Detroit, but this was the second time in 3 weeks that a blatantly wrong call harmed them in a big spot. This punt led to an extended defensive battle, as LA punted for the first time themselves to start the 3rd quarter. Each team added a mere FG in the 3rd quarter, and Stafford survived an injury scare following a huge hit.
The Rams made a couple critical mistakes that doomed them. For starters, they burned 2 timeouts early to avoid delays of game. Second, each team had 3 red zone opportunities. Detroit scored 3 TDs; LA kicked 3 FGs. The Lions never trailed. Eventually, down 1, the Rams needed a defensive stop to have a chance. Campbell trusted Goff to throw, and he hit WR Amon-Ra St. Brown (7/110) for a game-sealing conversion. Goff (22/27, 277 yards, TD) was nearly flawless, hitting each of his first 10 passes, and another former Ram, WR Josh Reynolds (5/80) showed out in his revenge game, too. Reynolds has been better for Detroit than for LA.
To be clear, the Rams offense was still really good. Stafford (25/36, 367 yards, 2 TDs) didn’t make mistakes and proved his worth. RB Kyren Williams (13/61) continued his strong play. Nacua (9/181/1) shattered rookie playoff records. He’s my pick for OROY, but Houston’s CJ Stroud is likely to win it as a QB (and is also very deserving). But tonight belonged to the Lions, who last won a playoff game in 1991 (they had lost 9 straight). Who got screwed after all? The week 17 officiating blunder made Dallas the 2 seed, and Green Bay torched them. Detroit now hosts Tampa Bay, and they’re in great shape to advance to the NFC Championship game.
(4) Tampa Bay Buccaneers 32, (5) Philadelphia Eagles 9
I thought the Eagles were the worst 10-1 team in NFL history. After their subsequent 1-6 stretch, including this ugly playoff loss, I am certain of that fact. The Buccaneers cut through their defense like butter, starting with the first drive. Of course, Tampa stalled in the red zone for an FG; the Bucs have 0 opening-drive TDs this season. After an Eagles punt, Tampa moved with ease again, and QB Baker Mayfield found WR David Moore (2/66/1) for a 44-yard TD, with Moore breaking several tackles on the way to the end zone. Two more stalled drive led to FGs, sandwiched around one for Philly, and the game was only 16-3 despite how one-sided it felt.
The Eagles finally woke up on the next drive, buoyed by a 55-yard bomb from QB Jalen Hurts to WR Devonta Smith (8/148). Smith was the only receiver who did anything with AJ Brown out injured. Philly scored a TD and made their PAT, but an offside penalty on TB tempted them into taking the point off the board and going for 2 from the one yard line. For the first time in what feels like forever, the Brotherly Shove was stopped! I imagine having big DT Vita Vea helped, but it’s still a rare feat. Both offenses shut down from there, with 4 consecutive punts to start the 3rd quarter.
Starting a drive at their own 10, the Eagles made a mess. RB Kenneth Gainwell ran for -6 yards, and then Hurts committed intentional grounding in his own end zone for a safety. At 18-9, that stretched TB’s lead to 2 scores. Following the free kick, Tampa basically ended things with a 56-yard TD for WR Trey Palmer. CB James Bradberry whiffed on a tackle, enabling the score. TB’s offense hasn’t looked this good in weeks. Mayfield (22/36, 337 yards, 3 TDs) was stellar and spread the ball around. TE Cade Otton (8/89) was actually the leading receiver; Mike Evans had just 45 yards. RB Rachaad White (18/72) continued his year 2 surge.
The defense impressed me even more. For a team that lost players due to cap constraints, you wouldn’t know it. Hurts (25/35, 250 yards, TD) had garbage-time production but wasn’t effective. The team ran for 41 total yards. HC Todd Bowles clearly wanted to force Philadelphia to try to win with Hurts’ arm, something he (and I) knew they couldn’t do. No team scored less in the wild card round except for a Florida team with a Hawaiian QB playing in subzero temperatures. The Bucs corners handled everyone but Smith, and Hurts was contained in the pocket, rarely able to scramble and break the second level.
The Buccaneers are going to be underdogs at Detroit, but I have a feeling they don’t care. This is nothing if not a scrappy team, and Mayfield is playing with house money at this point. The pressure is going to be on the Lions. The Eagles find themselves in an interesting scenario. Some are speculating that HC Nick Sirianni could lose his job. That seems ridiculous to me; in his 3 years, he has 3 playoff appearances and reached the Super Bowl just last year. Defensively, this roster shockingly needs an overhaul. But the biggest question may be whether Hurts should’ve been paid $50M per season. I said no then, but what does Philly say now?