The NFL playoff picture was whittled down to eight teams with four games over wildcard weekend. The Titans, Falcons, Jaguars and Saints all advanced to join the Patriots, Eagles, Steelers and Vikings in the Divisional Round this weekend.
The new NFL playoffs picked up right where last year’s left off: with an epic comeback. The Titans trailed 21-3 at the half in Kansas City and were thrashed by the stout Chiefs offense in the first 30 minutes.
However, things began to turn quickly in the third quarter after star KC tight end Travis Kelce left with an injury. It was time for Tennessee’s offense to show why they belonged. Despite a roller coaster season, Marcus Mariota did just that with the help of running back Derrick Henry.
The Titans found the end zone three times in the second half and posted 19 unanswered points on the bewildered Chiefs. Henry, as he has done all year, hit his stride in the final quarter and totaled 156 yards on the day. He also broke the key third-and-long run near the end of the game that allowed Tennessee to kneel out the final couple of minutes.
This was the first playoff win for the Titans in 2003 and Saturday evening will mark their first appearance in the Divisional Round since 2008. The bad news is that they will travel to Foxboro, Mass. to meet Tom Brady and the top-seeded New England Patriots. The Titans are still a young team with a lot to learn, but a win in the postseason is a great place to start. I would be utterly shocked if they found a way to take down New England.
As for the Chiefs, their lone playoff performance was symbolic of their entire season. KC started the year a perfect 5-0 and were everybody’s early Super Bowl favorite once they saw what their offense was capable of. The team with a weak and banged up defense finally hit a wall and lost 6 out of 7 games to come crashing back to mediocrity. The Chiefs would win 4 straight to conclude another division championship, but 2017 was the same old Chiefs. 2018 could see quarterback Alex Smith, who just posted his best career season, shipped off elsewhere to make room for Texas Tech graduate Patrick Mahomes.
After posting some of the best offensive numbers in the NFL all year, the Los Angeles Rams came out flat in the wildcard round against the defending NFC Champion Atlanta Falcons. The Rams had their chances, but managed just 13 points in the loss, one of their lowest totals of the season.
Atlanta converted the plays they needed to and took one step closer to redemption after last year’s embarrassing Super Bowl loss. They will advance to Philadelphia to take on the top-seeded Eagles this weekend. Despite the difference in seed, the Falcons will be favored by most to take down the Eagles, who are without their starting quarterback and MVP-candidate Carson Wentz for the remainder of the season.
Atlanta has the experience, and could certainly beat Philly, but this is a much different team than most people remember from last year. Matt Ryan has been less effective coming off his MVP season, and the team has been much more balanced with a defense that is seemingly improved from a year ago.
The least enticing game of the weekend came in Jacksonville. The three-seeded Jaguars hosted the Buffalo Bills, who were competing in their first playoff game in nearly 18 years. They will have to wait even longer for a playoff touchdown.
Jacksonville’s defense made opposing quarterback Tyrod Taylor look foolish all day long in the 10-3 victory. A banged up LeSean McCoy was just not enough for Buffalo to generate any sort of sustainable offensive attack.
Blake Bortles and the Jaguars had their own trouble moving the ball. Jacksonville couldn’t seem to find a rhythm with rookie running back Leonard Fournette, who picked up just 57 rushing yards on 21 carries. The biggest plays came from the legs of Bortles. In his first playoff game, the quarterback ran for more yards (88) than he threw for (87). He was able to record his only touchdown pass at the end of the third to seal the deal.
Jacksonville will now travel to Pittsburgh for the second time this season. Jacksonville stunned the Steeler faithful on Oct. 8 by intercepting Ben Roethlisberger a whopping 5 times in a 30-9 shellacking. This was far and away the worst performance of Roethlisberger’s career.
While the Steelers know how hard it is to throw on the Jacksonville defense, they still have one of the best running backs in the business. Le’Veon Bell will play a critical role for Pittsburgh as they try and navigate the best defense in the NFL. The Jaguars are first against the pass but 21st against the run. With the availability of star wide receiver Antonio Brown still in question, Bell needs to be the guy if Pittsburgh expects their rematch with New England.
The third time was not quite the charm for Cam Newton and the Panthers. Carolina was eliminated with a 31-26 loss to the New Orleans Saints, the third time the division rival has prevailed over them this season.
This was an NFC Championship-caliber matchup in the wildcard round. The Saints, who have been one of the most complete teams all season, won this game thanks to the arm of Drew Brees. The duo threat of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara at running back was not as big of a threat in this one, but the offense saw now decline.
Newton flirted with an impressive comeback thanks to two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, but an intentional grounding call with less than a minute to go at the New Orleans 21-yard line sealed Carolina’s destiny for 2017. Overall, the Panthers were a good team with an even better defense that just couldn’t beat the Saints.
The Saints will march on to a very intriguing matchup with the two-seeded Minnesota Vikings. The Vikings are anything but flashy, but they sim ply find ways to win football games. Quarterback Case Keenum has had a career revival this year and hopes to keep it going against New Orleans.
While it wouldn’t be wise to overlook Atlanta and Philadelphia, I see the winner of this game ultimately advancing to Super Bowl 52.