We have had a weekend full of competitive games that yielded upsets and storylines that will rumble on into the offseason, plus there has been a run of new head coach hires so there is plenty to dig into this week.
What I Saw
The first game of weekend saw the Buffalo Bills lose in overtime to the Houston Texans, but whilst the outcome was very similar to what I was predicting before the game – it took a slight detour to get there. For the first forty minutes or so of the game, the Bills had the upper hand, steadily building to a 16-0 lead having scored a touchdown on their opening drive. However, the Bills were unable to make the most of their early offensive success, kicking three field-goals as their defence held the opposition scoreless. The problem was that in the second half, despite being without with receiver Will Fuller through injury, Deshaun Watson was able to lead the comeback as he started connecting to DeAndrew Hopkins, and the highlight of the game was Watson bouncing off two Bills defenders trying to sack him and completing the pass. It was also pretty impressive to watch JJ Watt get a sack with limited use of his arms as he’s not fully recovered from his pec injury. It has to be said there was some questionable game management on both sidelines and fourth down attempts, but the Texans live to fight again whilst the Bills have cause for optimism that I’ll talk about later.
The second game on Saturday is the one that generated all the headlines, even if it was the upset that was being predicted beforehand, but it was still odd to see the New England Patriots have the ball twice in the last five minutes down one point and not be able to get the win. The Tennessee Titans under Patriots alumni Mike Vrabel sealed the win with a last minute pick-six interception of Tom Brady, but the moment everyone is talking about is the Belichick style move Vrabel pulled as he ran out the clock with multiple delay of game and false start penalties before the Titans finally punted the ball having ticked off another minute and a half of clock. What was distinctly un-Belichickian was the two hundred yards of rushing the Patriots gave up to Derrick Henry, although to be fair they did move to the Super Bowl defence of six defensive lineman in the second half and that slowed down Henry some and did disrupt the play-action passing of Ryan Tannehill but not enough to secure the win. This was because once again the Patriots offence couldn’t move the ball consistently enough and of all people, it was Julian Edleman who dropped a crucial fourth down pass when the Patriots really needed it. Take nothing away from the Titans, but their next game could well prove a tougher test.
The first game on Sunday was perhaps the biggest upset of the weekend as the sixth seed Minnesota Vikings travelled to New Orleans and beat the Saints in overtime. This was a slightly curious game as the Saints struggled to get anything going on offence, which is largely down to Mike Zimmer’s defence, but Drew Brees was quiet and suffered his first fumble of the season, whilst the Saints seemed to forget they had one of the better pairs of running backs in the league. There was no bad winner for me in this game as I would love to see Drew Brees get a second ring, but this win at least goes someway to counter all those who say that Kirk Cousins can’t win a big game, particularly as it was his throw to Kyle Rudolph that sealed the game in overtime and he outgained Brees, even if the yardage for both quarterbacks was modest. The Saints didn’t look right for large stretches for the game, but the Vikings are no slouches on defence and got healthy at the right time. I understand why people think the last play should have been reviewed, and you can see Rudolph straightening his arm, but given the standard of evidence they have required to overturn calls this season I am not surprised that the play wasn’t reviewed.
The final game of the weekend was the injury bowl between the Philadelphia Eagles and the visiting Seattle Seahawks. Technically this was the third upset of the weekend, but whilst this game saw the third road winner of the weekend, the Seahawks did have two more wins than the Eagles and didn’t lose their starting quarterback early in the game. The play where Wentz picked up a concussion didn’t look bad, but whilst he was diving forward on a scramble Seahawks’ defensive end Jadeveon Clowney landed on top of him and the contact to the back of Wentz’s head was enough for him to have to leave the game at the end of the drive. I’m not sure it was exactly a dirty play, although it should have been called a penalty, and Clowney was taking the opportunity to let Werntz know that if he ran there would be a prices to pay. The sad thing is that Wentz really did nothing wrong, got through the whole season uninjured and still was missing in the playoffs due to injury. The Eagles had dragged Josh McCown out of retirement to be their backup, and he kept the game competitive, in part because the Seahawks can’t play a normal game but in the end he couldn’t do enough. The standout player of this game statistically was rookie receiver DK Metcalf who had one hundred and sixty passing yards on seven catches, emphasising that he really should not have been the ninth receiver taken in the draft, but once again it was Russell Wilson to the rescue and you feel like as long as the Seahawks have him they have a chance.
What I Heard
There’s quite a lot of new, but before I get to that I want to pick up on something that was discussed on The Ringer NFL Show, namely that in the NFL playoff success is reliant on individual matchups and moments rather than how well a team has implemented current trends in the league. We had evidence of that this weekend with the Eagles struggling through a list of injuries that would have felled most teams only for their quarterback to get injured in the first quarter of their playoff game. The Patriots may well have got a win against another team, but having already lost the to the Dolphins the Titans were well constructed to beat the Patriots, much like the Vikings were a good match for the Saints due to their quality on defence and having beaten them in the playoffs two years before. I dislike the whole judging quarterbacks by how many rings they won as well as some of the wider commentary on the league as the NFL does not play a long season, it is a small sample size mini-league followed by a single elimination cup competition. By record the Ravens were the best team in the NFL this season, and they very well could win it all but whilst it might shock, it would not exactly be that crazy for them to be beaten, just like it was not that surprising that the Titans beat a team who won three more games this season. The margins in the NFL are very small, and there is not even that much difference between the roster talent of the best of the best, and that of an average team.
With that said, let’s take a look at where some of the crucial differences between franchises can be found.
Washington were early enough out the blocks with their hire of Ron Rivera that it got included in last week’s post, but the next team to hire were also one of the latest to let go of their 2019 head coach. Apparently, Jerry Jones wanted to give Jason Garrett a soft landing after nearly three decades round the team and after multiple internal meetings it was finally revealed that Garrett was being let go Sunday evening, The Cowboys wasted no time in announcing they had agreed terms with former Packers coach Mike McCarthy the following day. This is not the college coach hire many had predicted, and a lot depends on how fully McCarthy is committed to the analytics and revamped playbook he was talking about in the press in recent weeks, but they are hoping to keep current offensive coordinator Kellen Moore and are slated to hire LA Rams’ special teams coordinator John Fassel, which are both moves I like. You can’t tell anything at this time of year, but the Cowboys produced well statistically this season an it does feel that if you can manage your owner then this job has the most upside for a quick turnaround. McCarthy seems like a coach who will be happy for Jones to take the limelight so I can definitely see this working out if everything comes together.
It gets harder for me to pass comment on the next hires as I don’t know as much about them, but following on from the Cowboys hiring, the Carolina Panthers announced their signing of college coach Matt Rhule on a seven year $60 million contract and the New York Giants then promptly hired Patriots receivers coach and special teams coordinator Joe Judge.
The Matt Rhule contract is both long and rich, whilst Joe Judge is not a name that has been widely discussed, although the recent improved performance by members of Belichick’s coaching tree might have helped his chances.
The final interesting point is that this just leaves us with the Cleveland Browns searching for a new coach, which I mention only because apart from their long and tortured history, there was a lot of talk about Josh McDaniels leaving the Patriots but given the way Jimmy Haslam has burned through coachers and GMs I wonder if McDaniels will take what would likely last chance at a head coach position with the Browns or wait another year for a better situation.
Fell at the First Hurdle
Time to say fond farewell to those teams who were unlucky enough to fall at the first hurdle inn the playoffs.
The Buffalo Bills have a lot to build upon from this season, they may still have to go back to 1995 for their last playoff win, but they have now been there in two out of the last three years. They appear to have their front office and head coach working in unison so if they continue to find players and develop it is not hard to see them back in contention next year. I know from personal fandom how hard it can be to jump from a team that can make it to the playoffs to one that gets the win and so Bills fans will hope Josh Allen makes that leap at quarterback soon, but the arrow still seems to be pointing up for this franchise.
I’m sure rumours of the demise of the New England Patriots are slightly overblown, but looking at Tom Brady’s quote, and the age of both him and the roster and it does feel like it could be the end of an era. However, you would trust in the infrastructure to effectively rebuild, but it does seem odd to think that we might be about to see a new quarterback take over the franchise. The Bills are already challenging, and the Dolphins look set to improve, but this off-season more than most will set the expectations for the Patriots’ next season. All things must end, even the most stable period of a success that the league has possibly seen. I’m sure Dan is thrilled about it.
The New Orleans Saints there third straight last play elimination from the playoffs, and if there was a theme from last weekend it was the fall of the last generation of quarterbacks. The Saints look like they can compete for another year, but it is rare for quarterbacks to age gracefully, and it can’t be long before Father Time comes for Brees. In this age of counting rings, it’s worth taking into account the whole of Brees’s career and what he has done for both the Saints franchise and the city of New Orleans. As ever, we should enjoy these players whilst we have them because it may not be for long.
The Philadelphia Eagles didn’t really have any right to make the playoffs given the injuries they suffered. I went into season thinking they had one of the deepest rosters in the league, and that was sorely tested and there were definitely problems at both receiver and corner back. I have faith that the front office will address this in the offseason, but the Eagles have already moved on from their offensive coordinator and receivers coach, which is worth noting as head coach Doug Pederson had voiced his confidence in them only twenty-four hours before. It doesn’t feel like this team has ever recovered from the post Super Bowl brain drain, and they must start again on offence, and hope to get Carson Wentz in position to succeed in the playoffs. They will also likely need to address the backup quarterback position given how often they have had to play through Wentz’s young career and with Josh McCown being forty they cannot expect him to repeat the trick. I’m not totally sure what to expect next season, but Pederson has got this team to the playoffs three years in a row and won a Super Bowl in his second season so he has earned time to get it right again.
What We’ve Been Asked
‘OK just 4 rounds to go and I should start this week’s post with an apology to the Chiefs. Last week, you will recall, I predicted that the Super Bowl would see a narrow win for the Chiefs over the Saints. Well half of that has already gone the way of all flesh when the Vikings triumphed in Sunday’s overtime win.
I recall last year where some discussion was had over the number of road winners in Wildcard games. In truth there shouldn’t be a surprise as the seedings are such that teams will inevitably close. It’s when the top seeds enter the fray that form, and a bye week, can have an effect. This year, for the record, only the Texans scored a home win but there are 3 other sets of fans with that satisfied smile ahead of Divisional week.
Now for the Trivia and Dan started the week with a 3-point advantage, but has he maintained it?
Q1 – After the Dolphins made it to Super Bowl VIII after the 1973 season, what was the next season they saw Super Bowl action?
There was some thought checking here but both Gee and Dan went for 1982 which is, of course, correct. 2 points each
Q2 – Who did the Vikings play in their first Super Bowl, which was Super Bowl IV, played on January 11, 1970?
Well Gee went for Kansas while Dan picked the 49’ers. The Vikings lost to the Chiefs 23-7. So 2 points to Gee
Q3 – The Patriots moved and changed their name in 1971. What was the home city and their name prior to that?
This caused Gee some head scratching but while the City was Boston they weren’t the Whalers, which could have been either a hockey team or a type of boat. Dan however, nailed it .
The Boston Patriots were an original member of the American Football League in 1960. They took part in the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. They moved to Foxborough in 1971 and because of the move, they wanted a name change. They originally wanted the name, Bay State Patriots, but the NFL rejected that one. The New England name was accepted in March 1971.
Gee scores 1 and Dan 2 to bring the current totals to Gee 24 and Dan 26 = but what is coming next?
Well, for Divisional Week I’ve landed in New Orleans before moving up to New York and I promise there are no Joe Namath questions.
For New Orleans I want to know this: In a game against the Washington Redskins on October 13, 2000, Michael Lewis became only the 7th player in NFL history and the first Saint to do what?
Now it’s the New York Giants so tell me In a game against the Washington Redskins on October 30, 1955, Jim Patton was the first player to achieve what?
Finally for the NY Jets – From 1960 – 62 the NY Jets were known as what?
2 points per question. Pick the bones out of those.’