Aaron Rodgers, Antonio Brown, Bud Dupree, Derek Carr, Detroit Lions, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Donald Penn, Earl Thomas, Eli Manning, Houston Texans, Jay Ajayi, Jim Bob Cooter, JJ Watt, Matt Moore, Matthew Stafford, Miami Dolphins, Ndamukong Suh, New York Giants, Oakland Raiders, Odell Beckham, Rodney Hudson, Seattle Seahawks, Sterling Shepard, Victor Cruz
Last weekend saw us wave goodbye to the four wildcard teams as each suffered double digit losses on the road with the closest margin of victory being thirteen.
The first to go out was the Oakland Raiders, whose strong season started to fall apart when they lost Derek Carr to a broken leg in week sixteen and actually went into their wildcard game with rookie quarterback Conor Cook as their starting QB. You could see his potential, but Cook is not ready to start yet and it showed in this game. He wasn’t helped by the turmoil on the Raiders’ offensive line as Pro Bowl tackle Donald Penn was already out of the game with a fracture in his knee, and Pro Bowl centre Rodney Hudson had to come out for a period as well. The Raiders’ defence has been troublesome all year, ranked in the twenties by DVOA despite some good looking free agent pickups and it was quickly apparent how reliant as a team the Raiders were on their breakout quarterback.
This only goes to highlight that there is a reason that quarterbacks are valuable to their team as the Raiders with their 12-4 record go home with Derek Carr injured, whilst the Houston Texans have soldiered on with JJ Watt for most of the season and travel to face the Patriots in this week’s divisional games. The Raiders should be ready for next season with Carr back from injury as long as the front office can improve the defence and keep the offence competitive.
The next team to be knocked out were there Detroit Lions who spent a large chunk of this season as fourth quarter comeback specialists, which was already something that is hard to rely on even before the quarterback who led all those scoring drives injured his hand. The Lions came into their game against the Seattle Seahawks on a three game losing streak since Matthew Stafford’s injury, and were unable to do much of anything in this game. Their defence was unable to stop a Seahawk’s team that recommitted to the run and found a winning formula on offence, and the offence didn’t have the long strike plays to challenge the Seahawks secondary that was missing Earl Thomas at safety. Even if the Lions’ offence hadn’t been largely predicated on shorter throws, Stafford just hasn’t been the same quarterback since his injury, but the turnaround under offensive coordinator Job Bob Cooter does look to be a consistent upgrade, and so if the Lions can sort their defence that finished the year thirty-second by DVOA then they should be competitive again.
Moving to Sunday and the Miami Dolphins were basically out of this game in the first quarter when Antonio Brown scored two touchdowns and racked up over a hundred yards on two plays. Much has been made of the decision of the Dolphins to train in Miami leading up to a cold weather game in Pittsburgh, but it is hard not to conclude that they missed a trick there. Unfortunately, the secondary was too injured and not good enough to contain Brown and once they had the lead the Steelers were able to run the ball effectively. You would want to see more out of Ndamukong Suh given the contract the Dolphins gave him, but this was no one’s best day. The Steelers defence held the Dolphins in check, particularly Jay Ajayi in the run game and had some big hits on Matt Moore including a huge hit by Bud Dupree that was rightly flagged although I didn’t think it was a dirty play so much as highlights the problems that defensive players can face when make tackles at game speed. However, how they were able to get Moore through a concussion test and back out into the game and only missing one play I have no idea. It is hardly surprising that the NFL will be looking into this and re-evaluating the concussion protocol in the offseason.
Overall, whilst this game will be a big disappointment to both fans and the franchise itself, this is still the first time the Dolphins have made the playoffs since 2008 and so should be seen as definite progress. The front office does not inspire confidence in me, but Adam Gase’s first year in charge did see him bind the team into a functional unit that fought their way into the playoffs, and gives him credibility to push forward into next season.
The final game of wildcard weekend had the nearest to a competitive game with the first half remaining tight until the Green Bay Packers scored with a Hail Mary pass at the end of the first half to take a 14-6 lead having been trailing 6-0 for most of the first half. During the first half the New York Giants were playing much as they have all season, with very good defence and a grinding misfiring offence. This has not been a great year for Eli Manning, and the Giants have been particularly reliant on big plays by Odell Beckham and so the offensive struggles might not be that surprising except whilst the run game has struggled all year, a receiving group base around Beckham, Victor Cruz, and Sterling Shepard should have been strong enough against a depleted Packers secondary to produce more. Sadly they were not, and worse still was between corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie going down injured, and Aaron Rodgers figuring out the weaknesses in the Giaints’ re-arranged secondary the Packers were able to turn things round and pulled away in the second half to win easily.
The Giants turn around on defence was impressive as it was a rare case of a free agent splurge working, and they still have the foundation to push on next year, but they need to get the offence sorted. Strengthening the offensive line might help add a run game to the Giants’ offence, and they will want to find a way to get more efficient production from Eli Manning and Odell Beckham, who makes spectacular plays but who could help his team more if he was more consistent.