Woo boy was Wild Card Weekend fun. Not every game was epic, but we knew that would be the case before the weekend started. There were too many bad teams involved to see four high-level games. But each one was a special little snowflake, providing enjoyment of a different kind.
Titans-Chiefs gave us a stunning comeback/gag, depending on how you look at it. Falcons-Rams was a reminder that experience matters, with a side of late-game drama. Bills-Jaguars was two homeless toddlers fighting with rocks; some people probably found it enjoyable and they are probably sick puppies. Panthers-Saints was an epic shootout with a dramatic finish.
Underdogs went 4-0 against the spread, with two of them winning outright and the other two keeping it close. It was so fun it inspired me to hand out some awards. Let's get to them.
Most Entertaining Game of the Week Award
This was Falcons-Rams ... until Panthers-Saints swooped in and stole it away late Sunday. The game easily eclipsed the total of 47.5 and was highlighted by Drew Brees and Cam Newton winging the ball around in exactly the way we want them to. Carolina defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, maybe soon to be a head coach, brought an outstanding game plan against the Saints' two-headed monster at running back, helping to lock down Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram. The duo combined for more than 3,000 scrimmage yards in 2017 but had just 68 yards combined Sunday.
This is where the Saints are different: Stop their top option on offense and they'll put the ball in the hands of a Hall of Fame quarterback in Brees. He added to his eye-popping home playoff stats with the Saints, and he has never lost a home game in the postseason while with New Orleans.
Brees' lone interception of his home postseason career came on a highly controversial play in which Sean Payton decided to go for the jugular. With two minutes left and the Saints leading by five, Payton had the offense line up on fourth-and-2. Brees tried to hard count the Panthers offsides, but Carolina held steady. He called a timeout and it was assumed Payton would punt, but he sent the offense back out and put the ball in Brees' hands again. The result was actually not that bad -- Brees threw a pick, but it was a quick kick basically because of the distance here.
Quick NFL officiating aside (and, spoiler, this won't be the last complaint): This is a turnover, so it should be automatically reviewed. And yet, the NFL didn't pause the game to take a long look at the situation. That's absurd: Mike Adams clearly dropped the ball without completing the process of the catch, and it should have been an incompletion. The league has spent the better part of five months now going into excruciating detail with these reviews; it chose two minutes left in a playoff game between divisional rivals to kick it under the rug?
Serious question: Was it even reviewed? Because Fox only had time for a single replay on the live telecast before Carolina's offense was on the field running a play. It was worth 25 yards or so of field position. It has nothing to do with it being the Panthers or the Saints, it has to do with the total inconsistency that we see from game to game and week to week. It's maddening.
A very low percentage of coaches have the huevos to go for that fourth down, and good luck finding a consensus on the move. Pete Prisco and I debated it on the Pick Six Podcast Sunday night (subscribe on iTunes here for the latest episode) and he hated it. The analytics agreed with Pete, so be careful if you're venturing into Hell anytime soon. Wear a coat.
WP model actually favored the punt for the Saints on that 4th and 2 at 2:00 to play.— Brian Burke (@bburkeESPN) January 8, 2018
I personally liked it, for two reasons. One, you're putting the ball in Brees' hands to win the game when your defense hasn't slowed Newton down. And two, if you polled 10 Panthers fans in the moment, at least nine of them would have preferred the Saints punt. That's my litmus test. Whatever the case, it backfired for Payton, because the Panthers got the ball and pushed it up the field quickly, getting near the red zone on this filthy pass from Newton to Kaelin Clay:
This is where you lose me with the narrative about Newton not being an elite player or Newton not being able to carry his team. There are maybe five quarterbacks who can make that throw. Newton has to walk a tightrope to keep the Panthers in games. Heck of a catch by Clay with the toe drag too.
Carolina had some shots to get into the end zone but at the end of the day, it was a different Cam who took the game over late -- Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan, recently named to the All-Pro team, was absolutely dominant in the trenches for the Saints. So much so he gave Panthers offensive lineman Matt Kalil a pretty brutal nickname.
Cam Jordan isn't shy about what he thinks of Panthers LT Matt Kalil: "Let's call him Speedbump -- Speedbump McGee."— Josh Katzenstein (@jkatzenstein) January 8, 2018
There was some controversy with Newton on a play where the officials called intentional grounding against the Panthers quarterback. Ron Rivera got miffed, saying he got no explanation. That's a fair complaint: At least tell the coach what happened and why the flag was thrown. But if you watch the play, it's hard to argue Newton was out of the pocket and it's hard to find a receiver in the vicinity of where Newton threw, even if he got it past the line of scrimmage.
New Orleans' defense stepped up in a big way at the biggest moment, and the Saints move on to Minnesota, where they'll play a very dangerous Vikings team who beat them in Week 1. The Saints swept the Panthers, the first three-game sweep of a division opponent in franchise history, and could still potentially host the NFC Championship Game, if they can beat Minnesota and the Falcons topple the Eagles. Look at all the teams in the playoffs and find a more complete squad than the Saints. Carolina gave them everything Sunday, but they have so many ways to beat you.
Jeff Triplette's Gold Watch Award
Ithat plagued the Titans-Chiefs game. But we really need some answers about Jeff Triplette being allowed to referee a playoff game. Was he one of the highest-graded officials this season? Or did he get thrown a bone by the league because he is apparently retiring? If it's the latter, that's a disgrace, just like a lot of the calls from the Titans-Chiefs game.
Like, what? His forward progress? He was sacked. You can't just magically stop a guy before he goes to the ground. He got smoked by a freight train, sure, but in no world does that make sense. The play is over when Mariota goes to the ground. And the ball was clearly out before he got there.
After the game, Triplette doubled down on his decision, saying that "the defender hit him and he was driving him back." Yes, that's a sack. He also pointed out that forward progress is "not reviewable in that situation," which is fine, except any referee worth his salt wouldn't whistle Mariota down there.
There were multiple other issues: a similar thing on a two-point conversion play where the Chiefs recovered another Mariota fumble but Mariota was, you guessed it, ruled down by forward progress; and a Travis Kelce fumble-that-wasn't when the Chiefs tight end suffered a concussion that would knock him out of the game.
Unfortunately the officiating took some of the blame away from Andy Reid, who managed to hand back another Chiefs playoff game in horrific, train-crash fashion. My son was born the day before the Chiefs gave up a 38-10 lead to the Colts in the wild-card round back in January 2014. I remember sitting in a quiet hospital room, stunned, watching the comeback happen, trying not to shriek and wake him up. And this loss was more unfathomable, because the Titans don't have the firepower to come back.
Mike Mularkey was on his way out the door, probably fired when the Titans were down 21-3 at halftime. Kareem Hunt finished the day with 11 carries despite the Chiefs were leading by 18 points at halftime. It's inexplicable. Alex Smith, who is likely going to get deposed as Chiefs quarterback for Patrick Mahomes next year (draft slot and potential almost always win out in these situations), deserved better for the way he played in 2017 and the way he played in the first half of this playoff game.
Reid is a great coach, a guy who has launched dozens of careers. But boy does he have some bad playoff losses on his résumé. This might be the worst one.
Credit Mularkey, who was officially given the nod for 2018, for lashing out at the rumors leading up to the game. The guy is trying to prepare his team for a playoff game and he's having to explain to his wife why people are talking about him getting fired despite making the playoffs and winning nine games.
But if we're being honest ... the Titans should really move on. Josh McDaniels and Mariota would be a perfect combo, and the Exotic Smashmouth looks like a figment of our collective imagination, a fever dream from a time before things were they way they are. I'll keep overdrafting Derrick Henry because it's what I do, but if the Titans (+13) stroll into New England and get a 50-burger dropped on them, there should at least still be some questions asked.
As Jason La Canfora pointed out on the podcast Sunday night, if you're thinking about firing your coach, it probably means you should fire your coach. Still, Mularkey is just one all-time stunner of an upset from the AFC Championship Game. No doubt my CBS bosses would prefer a Titans-Jags battle to Steelers-Pats Part Deux.
Experience Matters Award
It feels like Sean McVay and the Rams are getting a free pass for resting their starters in Week 17, which appeared to be kind of a thing during the first half, when Los Angeles failed to find a rhythm on offense. Maybe it's because the NFL has a short shelf life, and because there is an Alabama-Georgia game to scream about for a few days, we might not see a lot of reflection from every single one of these games. Or maybe it's because the Rams overachieved in such grand fashion -- winning 11 games, capturing the NFC West and hosting a playoff game -- that we're not eager to attack them in typical vulture-y media fashion after a rough playoff loss.
The Rams should have a lot of hope, anyway. The playoff loss hurt, but Jared Goff continued to flash against Atlanta, making some big throws under duress. Two such examples:
Todd Gurley likely won't win MVP, but he better win Offensive Player of the Year. I would, however, like an explanation why he only got 14 carries when he averaged over 7.2 yards per. Aaron Donald is not human; he is a Defensive Destroyer of Worlds (and better capture DPOY). McVay is an easy pick for Coach of the Year and has a very bright future in Los Angeles. There are defensive issues to sort out and Wade Phillips can't coach there forever, but the future is bright.
Plus, the Falcons were just better. You could tell from the get go they had been there before and weren't intimidated by the playoff stage in the slightest. They might be on the Saints' level in terms of upside for the remainder of the postseason, because of how fast their defense is and because of what they get from Matt Ryan throwing to Julio Jones.
The connection between the reigning MVP and the most gifted receiver in the game hasn't been there all season; Ryan and Jones still had nice seasons but missed on some pretty big throws. They didn't miss on this Rainbow Brite special to seal the game against Los Angeles.
Another complaint-filled aside: How is the field at the L.A. Coliseum this terrible when it is consistently 72 degrees and sunny? Ryan nearly blew out his knee throwing that pass, and he's lucky he didn't split his pants or shatter his groin.
Jones caught nine of his 10 targets for 94 yards and that touchdown while also picking up a first down on a rushing attempt. He looks like he might be able to take over some games moving forward -- he'll draw the Eagles' vulnerable secondary this week before, if the Falcons win, getting either Xavier Rhodes (revenge game!) or Marshon Lattimore (rivalry hate!). Jones can take over any game and he's a beast in the playoffs, having caught 80 percent of his career postseason targets with six touchdowns in seven career games.
Devonta Freeman didn't run exceptionally well against the Rams, but he did enough. The Falcons' offense has balance.
And they have a defense that is coming together quickly. Takkarist McKinley picked up a sack against the Rams and is starting to contribute down the stretch. Deion Jones is a daggum freak and looks like he's shot out of a rocket launcher when he gets downhill trying to make tackle.
There are players at every level here. Grady Jarrett is a tiny little monster in the middle and Desmond Trufant can lock down receivers. Remember when Atlanta lit up the Patriots for the first half of Super Bowl LI? That defense is starting to pop up again, except it's a year older with more talent. Watch out for these Falcons.
Take the Under Award
My in-laws popped by for the Bills-Jaguars game and, well, thank goodness because they might have stayed for the entire Panthers-Saints game. They got those taillights cooking around halftime of this scorcher, a 3-3 shootout between Blake Bortles and Tyrod Taylor after 30 minutes. The second half over-under was 18.5 and it didn't come close to getting touched. The two teams didn't even combine to reach 8.5, with the only points coming on a fourth-and-goal Bortles touchdown pass that required some major intestinal fortitude from Doug Marrone.
This throw is a perfect microcosm for Bortles over the past few weeks and a good example of what you can expect to see against the Steelers in the divisional round. The Jaguars are simply too scared to let Bortles throw anywhere but a clearly defined read. They'll give him a play-action play where there's a running back shooting out to the flat or they'll let him throw a slant, but there is clear fear in the play-calling.
How's that going to work for them when they roll into Pittsburgh as a seven-point underdog against a dangerous Steelers offense with revenge on its mind? NFL devotees will recall Ben Roethlisberger's five-interception game earlier this season, which caused Ben to question how many rodeos he had left, which caused people to question if he would keep playing, which caused him to question people for questioning if he would keep playing. It was a whole thing.
Antonio Brown will reportedly be 100 percent, but don't be surprised to see the Steelers lean heavily on Le'Veon Bell. The biggest takeaway from the Bills' offensive approach was teams can beat the Jaguars by running the ball effectively. McCoy ran for 75 yards on 19 carries; it could have been more but for a questionable holding call that brought back a big run and the fact that McCoy was roughly 75 percent during the game. Bell should be completely healthy and he's a similar running back -- a little less shifty, but certainly just as explosive and even more patient.
Bortles ran for more yards (!) than he passed for against the Bills. He ran for more yards than Leonard Fournette. And he was proud of it after the game.
"When we got beat last week at Tennessee I didn't run at all, so it kind of felt like we got beat without shooting all our shots," Bortles told CBS Sports' Tracy Wolfson.
It helped them win, no doubt, because the Jaguars weren't passing the ball against the Bills in any form or fashion. If Bortles outrushes Fournette again and has more rushing yards than passing yards against the Steelers, you better be holding a Steelers -7 ticket, because it will be a blowout of gigantic proportions.