Wildcard weekend – winners and woes

The first weekend of the 2020 NFL Playoffs delivered big on drama – 2 games went into overtime and all were decided by one score. Quarterback play was at the forefront of the deciding moments – for some it was their first playoff appearance or win, and for others it was, perhaps, their last moments in the spotlight.

End of an era (or two)….?

Two of the defeats may prove to be of great significance to the losing teams; the New England Patriots and the New Orleans Saints. In the other matchups there is hope in defeat for the Philadelphia Eagles and the Buffalo Bills.

The Bills, led by Josh Allen, will come again. For 3 and a 1/2 quarters they dominated their game against the Houston Texans. Then the wheels fell off. Allen showed his limitations and inexperience, and Sean McDermott would probably like some late coaching calls back too. Taking that into account it is still a successful season for the Bills and they are well setup to come again in 2020. The Eagles were potentially the most ‘beat-up’ team in playoff history. Their lineup looked more like a preseason game than a must win one-off. Without Wentz, after he had put the team on his back for the last month to make the playoffs, the Eagles were doomed to lost to a Seahawks team which did just enough. As with the Bills, the Eagles will remain strong in 2020.

The losses which have the potential to impact future success more centre on their respective QBs, Tom Brady and Drew Brees.

The Patriots reached the playoffs in-spite of their offense. A soft schedule and the performance of their defense guided them to 12-4 (4-4 over the last 8 weeks). And yet, they could have beaten the Titans, and had numerous situations to help them do so. Up 10-7 in the second half they had a 1st down at the Tennessee 1-yard line – and came away with 3 points. They punted on a 4th and 3 on the Tennessee 47, and then on 4th and 4 at their own 37 late in the 4th quarter. Compare that with the aggressive way in which many teams now approach 4th and short. Also, this is Tom Brady in a playoff game – and Belichick did not trust that TB12 and Josh McDaniels could engineer the 1st down. In the end it was as though the Patriots new the jig was up, and they submitted.

Some of the wash-up around the reasons for this happening has to fall at the player recruitment on offense, the weapons that Brady simply did not have. The Patriots missed on Adam Humphries in FA and then drafted N’Keal Harry in the first round – compare his rookie year to AJ Brown (2nd round to Titans), DK Metcalff (2nd round to Seahawks) or Terry McLaurin (3rd round to Redskins). Could Brady have made more with any of these alternatives? The loss of Gronk to retirement added to the problems in Brady having targets to choose from. The question of whether Brady wants to return to the Patriots in 2020 probably starts with him asking, “so, who are you going to go out and get for me to throw to?”.

The New Orleans Saints suffered playoff heartbreak again, making it twice in three years to walk-off TDs by the Minnesota Vikings. The result was justified, if not the decision on the final play (we’ll leave that for now). The Vikings were simply the better team. The defence, using similar tactics to the Atlanta Falcons from their week 10 victory of New Orleans, rushed the interior to great effect. On offense, the Vikings were fluid, running off tackle well and Kirk Cousins had a very effective game. Minnesota could be one of the most complete ‘teams’ in the playoffs, which makes them dangerous to all opponents. The problem for the Saints was this game highlighted a decline in Drew Brees’ ability. If it wasn’t for the astonishing ‘make things happen’ effort of Taysom Hill, the Saints very-own swiss army knife, this game would have been lost well before OT. Brees could not drive the offense forward consistently and he made 2 game-killing turnovers. Before half-time he rushed a play off rather than wait for the 2-minute warning and threw an INT into double-coverage. Minnesota replied with a TD and the Saints then missed a FG. The half time score was MIN 13-10 NO, it could have been MIN 6-17 NO. His fumble, down by 3 in the 4th quarter could have ended the Saints hopes altogether. Again, it came at a point where the Saints could have gone 24-20 ahead but instead they had to scramble at the death for a game tying FG to go to overtime. The scrambling also came as a result of some very suspect time management at the end of the 4th quarter from the Saints sideline.

This performance now puts Brees’ future firmly in focus. Both he and Teddy Bridgewater are unrestricted free agents and Taysom Hill is a restricted free agent. Tough decisions ahead for the Saints to ensure that in week 1 of the 2020 season they have the right guy under center, as the rest of the team should remain strong. One to watch with interest between now and March.

Divisional Round

In both the AFC and NFC we have the #6 seeds visiting the #1 seeds. This year the #6 seeds are as dangerous a proposition as I can remember. The Tennessee Titans can run over teams all day long with Derrick Henry, and as mentioned above, the Minnesota Vikings are a complete team who are on a roll after executing a near flawless game plan at the Saints.

It will be interesting to see whether the teams which had the luxury of the bye week will be up-to-speed or off the pace against the teams which had no rest. In the last 5 years only 4 out of 20 teams winning in wildcard weekend have gone on to win in the divisional round. The rest seems to give an advantage. However, I would see these 4 teams as perhaps the strongest quartet advancing to the divisional round against the previous 5 years. And of course, in the AFC you always had the Patriots lying in wait.

So predictions……considering i was 1 out of 4 in wildcard round…….

Minnesota Vikings @ San Francisco 49ers – the Vikings were so good last weekend, excellent game plan and execution. They will put up a good show against the 49ers but ultimately I think San Francisco will prove to be too good. 49ers by 7

Tennessee Titans @ Baltimore Ravens – one surefire stat for this weekend is that this game will have more yards rushing than passing. Derrick Henry vs Lamar Jackson and Mark Ingram. Heavyweight clash for sure. The Ravens wish it was anyone but the Titans. But I’ve got to think Baltimore has too much going for them, Ravens by 4

Houston Texans @ Kansas City Chiefs – the Texans won through from nowhere and if they can get Will Fuller back, and JJ Watt is one week ‘fitter’ then they will cause the Chiefs issues. But this is Pat Mahomes, he has as many tricks as Deshaun Watson, and he has Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman. Chiefs by 6

Seattle Seahawks @ Green Bay Packers – the opportunity for the Packers to show they deserve to be #2 seed. Seattle are like the ‘undead’ it is almost impossible to shake them off. But they are still banged up and despite Russell Wilson’s one-man show I think Rodgers will guide Green Bay to the W, Packers by 3

Same time next week for the Championship round!

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