For the first time ever, we got to watch six games on Wild Card Weekend, and it delivered some thrilling games. Let’s take a look back at the action, and preview the upcoming divisional matchups.
(7) Indianapolis Colts – 24 vs (2) Buffalo Bills – 27
The Colts just snuck into the playoffs, and ran into a tough matchup with the Buffalo Bills. While many may not have given them much of a chance, the Colts held their own, and were very close to pushing this game into overtime. After converting a 4th & 10 situation with under a minute to go in the fourth quarter, the Colts final drive stalled, and the Bills hung on for the win.
The Colts, however, came into the game with a solid gameplan, and executed it quite well. The Colts wanted to take up time with long drives, and keep the ball out of Josh Allen’s hands. They had success executing this, as they held the ball for 34:17, while Buffalo only had the ball for 25:43. However, they still found themselves down by two scores just a minute into the fourth quarter. Philip Rivers led the offense to two quick touchdowns, but the defense couldn’t contain Buffalo enough, giving up the deciding field goal in between.
The Bills had a continuation of the end of their season, as Josh Allen got pretty much whatever he wanted, accruing over 375 total yards and 3 touchdowns by the days end. Along with being their best passer, he was also the Bills best runner on the day, as the Bills lost one of their running back tandem in Zack Moss for the rest of the playoffs. Allen’s connection with Stefon Diggs, (6 REC, 128 YDS, 1 TD), is one of the most dangerous in the league, and the Bills will go as far as that duo can take them.
While the Colts may not have won, they did expose some flaws the Bills possess, particularly on the defensive end. Once the Colts fell behind and started throwing the ball, they coasted down the field. Rivers finished the day with 306 yards and two scores, but he did most of his damage in the fourth quarter. The Bills struggled covering the Colts creative route concepts, especially when it came to tight ends. The Colts tight ends combined for 14 catches, 136 yards, and one touchdown. The Bills will need to patch some of those holes, as they face the red hot Ravens in next week’s Divisional Round.
(6) Los Angeles Rams – 30 vs (2) Seattle Seahawks – 20
The Rams entered the game with an interesting QB situation, as Jared Goff was active, but backing up John Wolford. That plan went haywire quickly, as Wolford got suffered a blow to his head less than 10 minutes into the game, forcing Goff into action. Goff is only a couple weeks removed from having surgery to fix a thumb injury, and he clearly wasn’t 100% in this one. But Goff was able to get the job done, along with some help from the defense and run game, and sent the Seahawks packing.
Despite having quarterback issues, the Rams led for pretty much the entire game. They got a huge pick six from Darious Williams, as he easily snuffed out a screen, which gave the Rams a nice 10 point cushion for Goff to operate with early on. The Seahawks got a touchdown off an unbeliavable throw from Russell Wilson to DK Metcalf, but weren’t able to do much damage the rest of the game, aside from another garbage time score for Metcalf.
The reason the Seahawks couldn’t accomplish anything was because of the superb play of the Rams defense. The Seahawks had some success on the ground, but were forced to air it out for most of the game. When Wilson wasn’t running for his life from the vicious Rams front seven, his receivers weren’t able to get any separation. The Rams secondary, led by Jalen Ramsey, didn’t make anything easy for Wilson and co., and they stifled the offense for the entire game. The Rams defense has developed into a monster over the backend of the season, and they will need to keep it up next week against the Green Bay Packers.
The Rams injuries are starting to pile up though. Goff still isn’t truly healthy, but he will most likely have to play, with Wolford’s status still up in the air after leaving this contest. Aaron Donald got injured in the third quarter with an apparent chest injury, and did not return. The Rams D-line performed admirably in Donald’s absence, but they will need Donald healthy if they want to keep moving forward in the playoffs. Cooper Kupp also got injured late in this one, and hobbled to the locker room before the game was over. If Goff isn’t fully healthy, he will need his full arsenal of weapons ready to go. Regardless of who’s healthy, the Rams are going to have to rely on their revamped defense to lead them past a tough challenge against the Packers next week in the Divisional round.
(5) Tampa Bay Buccaneers – 31 vs (4) Washington Football Team – 23
The Football Team, similar to the Rams, faced a quarterback conundrum heading into this one. Alex Smith was presumably going to be the starter, but was ruled out before the contest, forcing Taylor Heinicke into action for a huge playoff start. Despite the sudden decision, Heinicke performed admirably, but was unable to over Tom Brady and the vaunted Bucs offense. Brady carved up the Football Team for 381 yards and a pair of touchdowns as the Bucs cruised into the Divisional Round.
The Football Team knew they needed to get pressure on Brady in order to slow down their offense, and give their own offense a chance to get points on the board. The D-line didn’t get to Brady much, as they forced three sacks, but were able to slow down the Bucs enough for the offense to keep it a game. The Football Team was a two-point conversion away from tying it up late in the third quarter, but were unable to convert. From there on out, Brady and the Bucs kicked it into second gear, and were able to keep the Football Team at bay for the rest of the game.
Despite the Bucs win, much of the attention on the night went towards Heinicke’s performance. Heinicke doesn’t have an extensive history in the NFL, but came into a spot start and threw for 306 yards and a score, while also picking up 46 more yards and another score on the ground. Many fans figured once Smith was ruled out the Football Team was hopeless, but they fared quite well, maybe even better than they would have with Smith under center. Regardless, Heinicke balled out, and may have earned himself a quarterback job come next season.
With the Bucs successfully overcoming their Wild Card opponent, they head onto their third matchup of the season against the New Orleans Saints. The Bucs have lost both matchups against the Saints, including getting blown out in embarrassing fashion in the second meeting. The Saints have finally returned to full health, so it won’t get any easier for the Bucs. It may turn into an offensive shootout, but the Bucs are well equipped to battle a team in that manner. They will need the offense to stay red hot if they don’t want to fall to the Saints for the third time.
(5) Baltimore Ravens – 20 vs (4) Tennessee Titans – 13
The Ravens-Titans matchup was widely expected to be one of the closer matchups in the initial round of playoffs, and it lived up to it’s billing. This was another game that came down to the wire, and ended with Marcus Peters intercepting Ryan Tannehill to end the game. The Titans bounced the Ravens last year, so it was the Ravens who earned the sweet taste of revenge in this one.
The grass didn’t always seem so green for Ravens fans in this one, as they initially fell behind by 10 points early in the first quarter. The Titans veered away from their run heavy approach early, as they targeted A.J. Brown heavily on their second drive, which ended with him grabbing their only touchdown of the game. From there on out, the Titans struggled mightily on offense the rest of the game. The Ravens devoted all their resources to making sure they were not beat by Derrick Henry (18 CAR, 40 YDS), as they constantly loaded the box, while usually doubling A.J. Brown on the outside. Once Corey Davis was forced out due to injury, the Titans offense struggled to keep their momentum going, as they just simply didn’t have enough to weapons to beat the Ravens.
This allowed the Ravens offense to find their footing in the contest, and eventually take control of the game. Lamar Jackson didn’t have a fantastic day passing the ball (179 YDS, 1 INT), but he torched the Titans on the ground (136 YDS, 1 TD). The Ravens overall finished with 236 total yards on the ground, and it was enough to lead them to victory. In the battle of the two best rushing attacks in the league this season, the Ravens boasted their superior rushing attack in this one.
The Ravens will now head into a Divisional round bout with the Buffalo Bills. Both squads seem to be hitting peak form at just the right time, and it should be a fun game to watch. Allen and the Bills passing attack may be able to expose some of the Ravens weaker areas of the secondary, but the Ravens should be able to get their offense going against the Bills as well. If Jackson and the ground game can start finding some holes, they will be tough to beat, but they will need to fine tune the other areas of their game if they want to take down the Bills.
(7) Chicago Bears – 9 vs (2) New Orleans Saints – 21
In one of the more uneven matchups this weekend, the Saints easily dispatched the Bears in a game that wasn’t as close as the scoreline suggests. The Bears scored a garbage time touchdown on the last play of the game, off an incredible grab from Jimmy Graham, but it ultimately makes this game look closer than it was. The Bears, after sticking with the Saints for most of the first half, got thoroughly outplayed in the second half, and were rightly sent packing from the playoffs.
Despite this, it wasn’t to say the Bears didn’t have their chances. A trick play run on the second drive of the game ended up with Javon Wims wide open in the end zone, and a perfect pass from Mitch Trubisky, only for Wims to inexplicably drop the ball. The Bears would eventually turn the ball over on downs, and that pretty much foreshadowed the rest of their afternoon. The Bears capitalized off of good field position due to a fumble from Taysom Hill to get a field goal midway through the second quarter, but then proceeded to punt on every possession until their garbage time score to end the game.
As for the Saints, they finally returned to full health. Michael Thomas is back after being plagued with an ankle injury for most of the regular season, and had a nice return to action (5 REC, 73 YDS, 1 TD). Alvin Kamara also returned just in the nick of time for this one due to his bout with COVID, and put up another big day on the ground (23 CAR, 99 YDS, 1 TD), while adding 17 yards receiving to eclipse 100+ total yards on the ground. In all fairness, they probably didn’t need all their weapons for this one, but they will for next weekend’s Divisional matchup with the Buccaneers.
The Saints have already beaten the Bucs twice this season, but that does not guarantee them a win. In fact, no team has beaten the same team three times in one season in over ten years, with Cowboys most recently pulling off that feat against the Eagles in 2009. While the Saints appear to be hitting their stride at just the right time, so do the Bucs. They will need to be at their best in order to beat the Bucs for the third time this season, but the Saints should continue to be optimistic about their chances to advance further in the playoffs.
(6) Cleveland Browns – 48 vs (3) Pittsburgh Steelers – 37
The Super Wild Card Weekend certainly ended in quite wild fashion with this one. The Browns raced out a mammoth 28-0 lead by the end of the first quarter, and if you blinked you might have missed it. The Steelers snapped the ball into their own end zone on their play from scrimmage, and the Browns recovered it for a touchdown. Ben Roethlisberger threw a pick on the next drive, and the Browns went down the field and scored again. After punting on their next drive, the Browns scored again, and then they scored their final touchdown of the quarter after yet another Roethlisberger interception.
Despite that massive deficit, the Steelers did all they could to turn this into a competitive game. They went into the half trailing 35-10, but won the third quarter 13-0, giving them some semblance of hope that a comeback could be pulled off. They appeared to have the Browns on the ropes, as they had the ball close to midfield facing a 12 point deficit, but faced a 4th and 1. Coach Mike Tomlin curiously made a decision to punt the ball, rather than try to convert. The Browns promptly drove the ball down the field and scored their sixth touchdown of the night. Hindsight is 20/20, but it felt like a bad move in the moment for the Steelers, and may have cost them their shot at a comeback.
Roethlisberger ended this one with quite an interesting statline, throwing for 501 yards and four touchdowns, but also tossed four interceptions. The Browns scored 17 points off of those interceptions (24 if you include the fumble), and ultimately didn’t have to do a ton to win this one. They capitalized off of their short fields, and made the Steelers pay for their plentiful mistakes. Baker Mayfield threw for 263 yards and three scores, while Kareem Hunt picked up the two other offensive scores on the ground. The two headed running back grouping of Hunt and Nick Chubb (145 total yards, 1 TD) will destroy you if you give them the chance to, and the Steelers certainly presented them that chance.
The Browns now move onto face the Kansas City Chiefs in the Divisional round. If they weren’t underdogs against the Steelers, they will be against the Chiefs. The Browns secondary did allow the Steelers to crawl back into the game, and that’s very concerning heading into a matchup with the most dangerous passing attack in the game. The Browns will be hoping to get their top cornerback Denzel Ward back in time for the matchup, but even that may not be enough to stop them. The Browns will have to use their duo of Chubb and Hunt to keep Patrick Mahomes off the field for as long as possible, and hope that their defense can do enough to slow them down.