So I need to catch up with the teams who have departed the playoffs so having started this post last week, here’s my now finished run through the playoff fallen starting with the losing wild card teams.
The first team to fall were the Kansas City Chiefs who managed to lose a game to the Tennessee Titans that they were leading 21-3 at half time. The Chiefs have been up and down this season with a significant mid-season lull that gave way to a four game win streak coming into their playoff game against the Titans. However, a number of factors combined for the Chiefs to lose this Wildcard game and demonstrated one of the warts that has affected them all year. The defence of the Chiefs has had problems ever since safety Eric Berry ruptured his Achilies, but their overall ranking of thirtieth by DVOA and dead last against the run showed up in this game when the Chiefs failed to stop the Titans’ second half come back and Derrick Henry finishing the game with one hundred and fifty-six rushing yards. The Chief offence also came to a sputtering stop once Travis Kelce left the game with a concussion meaning the Titans could focus on stopping the speedy Chiefs receivers with two deep safeties. The Chiefs further played into this by only giving Kareem Hunt elven carries in the entire game and running Alex Smith at inopportune moments. The Cheifs’ recent playoff record is also clearly on their usually very loud crowd’s mind as it got quieter the better the Titans did, although I defy any fan to be confident when the opposing quarterback throws a touchdown pass to himself.
This could well be Alex Smith’s final game for the Chiefs given his 1-4 playoff record in the five season that he and head coach Andy Reid have been with the franchise and with Patrick Mahomes waiting in the wings. I don’t believe this loss can really be blamed on Smith and they could stick with him as they develop a still raw Mahomes but patience does seem to be wearing thin for a section of their fans and the narrative seems to be that Smith will leave in the offseason. Their current offensive co-ordinator Matt Nagy has already left to be the new head coach of the Chicago Bears and with Smith’s current playoff record perhaps it is time to change with a new coordinator coming in. The defence will also need an overhaul given the age of a number of players and their reliance on a twenty-nine year old safety who will be recovering from an Achilles injury next season. In recent years the Chiefs have been competitive but their approach last offseason seemed to be split between short term and long term agendas and I am curious to see how they approach this one.
The second team to lose on wild car weekend were the LA Rams whose remarkable turnaround season couldn’t overcome the playoff experience of the Atlanta Falcons whose defence was able to stifle the Rams offence. This was mainly due to excellent tackling against the short routes so although Todd Gurley did get over one hundred yards on the ground, he was not able to dominated in the way he has for much of the season. As frustrating as this loss was, part of the problem were repeated special teams miscues by Pharoh Cooper early in the game, which was not a reflection of his Pro Bowl special teams play through the year. Still, this was a season of marked improvement for the Rams with plenty of young players to grow with their coach and you would expect them to be competitive next season but it has to be hard for Andrew Whitworth to lose another wild card playoff game.
The Buffalo Bills scraped into the playoffs on the back of a final drive fourth down touchdown pass from the Bengals’ Andy Dalton but they couldn’t overcome the Jaguars in their first playoff game in eighteen years. The Bills defence managed to contain the Jaguars offence by committing to stopping the run and daring Blake Bortles to beat them in his first playoff game. This plan could have worked if Tyrod Taylor didn’t have nearly as bad a game as Bortles and LeSean McCoy was fully healthy, but the offence couldn’t do enough and the game was lost 10-3. This was still a turnaround for the Bills and first year head coach Sean McDermott has things to work on but offensive co-ordinator Rick Dennison paid the price and the Bills will be one of several teams looking for a quarterback this offseason. The Bills could continue their improvement, but they will be limited until they get a quarterback and offence in place that everyone in the franchise believes in.
The final wild card game saw the Carolina Panthers lose to the New Orleans Saints for the third time this year. The Panthers have been very solid on defence all year, but their offence has been very up and down. A slow start was not that surprising given that Cam Newton was coming off shoulder surgery in the offseason and the Panthers were trying a new approach, but this never really took and the offence didn’t really start to work until Newton began to run more. This made the play of Newton very important for how the offence went, which is not that unusual for a quarterback but Newton’s size ability to run, whilst being a dangerous weapon, has to make up for his volatility in the passing game. When Newton is on he is as dangerous a quarterback as there is in the league, but with injuries at receiver (the Panthers also traded away Kelvin Benjamin during the season) and Newton’s favourite target tight end Greg Olsen battling with a foot injury that was clearly still affecting him, he was not able to beat the Saints despite playing well. Going into the offseason the Panthers have replaced offensive co-ordinator Mike Shula with Norv Turner so a new offence will be installed in the summer and it will be fascinating to see how these changes work and how Newton takes to although at least he will be able to practise this offseason.
Moving on to last week’s games and the first team to fall were the Atlanta Falcons who couldn’t match their performance against the Rams when they lost to the Philadelphia Eagles in a tight competitive game. The Falcons were only able to score ten points on the league’s fifth ranked defence by DVOA but whilst the offensive rankings of the Falcons don’t look bad (tenth in passing and sixteenth rushing by DVOA) it does feel like this unit underachieved given the calibre of players available. Yes some regression from last year’s stellar performance was to be expected but it has been a difficult year for Steve Sarkisian in taking over from Kyle Shanahan and whilst he is coming back next season, there will be pressure to improve or the discontent could cause real problems. This could be true for the whole staff given the painful playoff exit and the Super Bowl last year given that both games were winnable. Still, if the offence can be brought round and the defence continues its rise the Falcons could be very formidable next season.
The Tennessee Titans had done well to win their first game against the Chiefs, but there are limits and it was always going to be a tough job to go into Gillette stadium and beat the New England Patriots. To their credit, the Titans kept it competitive for a quarter and took a 7-0 lead before the Patriots shook off the rust from their bye week and ran out easy 35-14 winners. The Titans were pretty average in all three phases of the game this season and actually ranked three places lower by overall DVOA at eighteenth compared to last season. Despite getting a playoff win head coach Mike Mularkey was unable to come to an agreement with the Titans’ front office and so they will be looking for someone new to develop Marcus Mariota. The team definitely improved under Mularkey with a pair of winning seasons but the play of their young quarterback does not look to have progressed as you would hope and I have to think they are looking for a new offensive philosophy and someone who can make one of the most dynamic quarterback in recent college history look like that in the pro game. Given the success that the Chiefs and others have had in incorporating elements from the college game into their offence this does seem achievable, but it all depends on who takes over. Still, at least the Titans have progressed and they are no longer a team devoid of talent and identity, but there are some very big decisions to be made this offseason.
The NFL had great pair of games on Sunday and the opener saw the Pittsburgh Steelers lose to the Jacksonville Jaguars 45-42 and crash out the playoffs at home. The Steelers had got a first round bye with a 13-3 record and finished the regular season ranked inside the top ten in all three phases of the game by DVOA. However, there were two problems that sank them in this game. I am reluctant to talk about motivation and whether the players were looking past the Jaguars to a conference championship game at the Patriots, a matchup that many had expected for a lot of the season, but what I can say is that the Steelers started slow. The Jaguars got out to a 21-0 lead early in the second quarter, and whilst the Steelers were able to get back into the game, they were never able to get closer than seven points until the very last second of the game with a meaningless touchdown that came too late. The Steelers offence did manage to put up forty-two points against one of the best defences in the league but it was not easy and there had to be a lot of impressive catches and fourth down conversions to get them. On the other side of the ball, the Steelers’ defence never looked the same one Ryan Shazier was lost to the spinal contusion he picked up in the Steelers’ brutal game against the Bengals in week thirteen. The talk has mostly been about fourth down conversions and the slow start, but the Steelers defence let a league average offence with Blake Bortles as their quarterback put up forty-five points on them and that has to hurt.
Some changes are already taking place. There appears to have been discord between offensive co-ordinator Todd Haley and Ben Roethlisberger but Haley’s contract has expired and he is not being renewed. It looks like quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner will replace him and Roethlisberger looks to be a lot more committed to coming back next season than he was last offseason with all his talk of retirement. Still, given that Shazier had to have spine stabilisation surgery and as far as we know hasn’t walked yet, let alone be anywhere near playing football again (if that is even a possibility), the Steelers will need to address the defence again this offseason but it feels like they should be able to take another deep run next season.
If the first game on Sunday saw an upset against a veteran quarterback, the second saw a miraculous play knock out the New Orleans Saints and their future hall of fame quarterback. The Saints finally managed to assemble a defence that could do enough to get Drew Brees into the playoffs again, ably helped by the league’s best rushing attack by DVOA. Two all NFL rookies helped with this turn around and having seen off the Panthers last week, it looked like the Saints were going to beat the second seeded Minnesota Vikings when they found themselves on fourth down with seconds to go, no timeouts, and were one point behind the Saints. However, another one of the Saints’ rookies, safety Marcus Williams who already had an interception in this game made a horrible play as Stefon Diggs caught a ball in front of him. All Williams had to do was stop Diggs from getting out of bounds and hold him up so Diggs could be tackled in bounds, but he came flying past Diggs without touching him allowing Diggs to turn and suddenly there was no one between him and the end zone. The Vikings fans fortunes finally changed as the miraculous play went their way and the Saints promising season came to a shuddering halt.
That play will haunt Williams all offseason, whilst the franchise will be worrying about re-signing Drew Brees who is an unrestricted free agent. However, given the way this year’s team played, and the potential for their rookie players to develop further next year then it is hard not to see Brees back playing for the Saints and them being very competitive next season. After a number of years where they were asking Brees to do too much, they now look setup to compete as long as Brees is willing and able to play like he did this year. We should make the most of being able to watch him whilst we still can.