Sorting the Playoff Pile: Patriots dynasty not dead, Saints survive and more from the divisional round
Takeaways from the divisional round and the upcoming conference championship matchups
The over-arching lesson from this weekend's action? Coaching matters. All over the place, all weekend long, we were reminded of the importance of coaching as various teams dominated due to putting themselves in better position throughout the regular season and because of better game planning.
We also saw the coaching help to bust plenty of narratives throughout the divisional round. Let's look at the some of the biggest coaching moves of the weekend and then take a peak at the championship game matchups.
Supergenius Sean McVay
The Sean McVay jokes on Twitter are getting old -- not that it's stopping me from making them. When Joe Buck is cracking wise about McVay's barista getting a look from NFL teams in the middle of a divisional-round matchup, you know it's gone too far. (Buck's joke was pretty solid though, credit where credit's due.) Here's the reality: McVay isn't just some offensive savant, he's also a brilliant leader, master motivator and aggressive in-game strategist who isn't intimidated by the big moment. He can also coach offense: the Rams have been great at home all year, but this may have been their most impressive performance.
Los Angeles took the Cowboys' two biggest strengths and negated them. It started on offense, as the Rams obliterated the stout Cowboys front seven. McVay designed a ton of eye candy to keep the Cowboys' young linebackers moving in the wrong direction, and the Rams' offensive line opened up gaping holes everywhere for the rushing attack.
Dallas allowed three 100-yard rushers during the entire regular season. The Rams had two of them -- both Todd Gurley and C.J Anderson cracked the century mark -- on Saturday night. Don't sleep on motivation here. The Rams heard what people said all week about the Cowboys winning this game. The offensive line, in particular, had reason to be miffed. People wrote them off for some bizarre reason.
Those are fairly preposterous takes: the Rams OL was the top-ranked unit by adjusted line yards this season. Andrew Whitworth was mauling dudes on the second level and the Cowboys, for all the hype around their front seven and young linebacking corps, never had a chance on defense. They gave up 5.7 yards per carry and were apparently throwing out tells all game long as to how they planned on defending the Rams' run game.
If you know what your opponent is doing before he does it, you are going to destroy him. That speaks to coaching. You can make a case McVay was too aggressive going for it on fourth down from the 1, up eight, when a field goal would have made it a two-possession game. But it was a statement move, a reminder to the Cowboys how dominant the Rams were up front.
The Rams also neutralized the Cowboys other strength, their run game. Ezekiel Elliott was neutralized and the Cowboys averaged less than 2.5 yards per carry. That's a big old positive for the Rams heading into New Orleans, where Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram will attempt to be a major problem against a defense that was 28th against the run by DVOA during the regular season.
Andy Reid ... off the bye
Full disclosure: I had the Colts on Saturday, and I had them huge. I would say I'm mad about it, but I should have known better. Andrew Luck is awesome, but Patrick Mahomes is better right now. Frank Reich is awesome, but Andy Reid is better right now. And Reid was coming off the bye -- we sort of got away from the notion of Reid coaching his team up, expecting this physical Colts team that hadn't really played anyone the last few weeks (outside Dallas and Houston, no one was good during their post-bye run) to dominate.
Luck didn't look right. That's concerning. I think he was uncomfortable in the weather, having not played in those type of conditions since like early 2015. We didn't put enough stock into that, thinking, "Oh the weather's bad, the physical Colts will take care of business!" Mahomes has a cannon that can beat the rain, snow, wind, whatever.
And Reid's coaching staff just manhandled Reich's crew, outside of the blocked punt for a touchdown by the Colts, which represented their only first-half points. Bob Sutton's defense was missing Eric Berry and they still managed to get tons of pressure on Luck. Can they do that against the Patriots? If so, this could get ugly for Tom Brady, who has lost his last two AFC Championship Games on the road. Brady was an underdog in both of those games, and he'll be .
This will be a challenge for Reid, who does not have a good record against Bill Belichick. He was 0-4 straight up against the Patriots in his lengthy tenure with the Eagles (including a Super Bowl loss), but 2-2 against the spread. Both covers were as an underdog. He's been much better with the Chiefs, going 2-2 straight up against Belichick and managing to go 3-1 against the spread in those games.
Sunday's AFC title game will be just the second time Reid's ever been favored against a Belichick-coached team. He didn't cover as a three-point fave back in 2003.
Of note: the over is 7-1 in Reid-Belichick matchups.
Dynasty's not dead yet
To all the idiots picking the Chargers to beat the Patriots (of which I am one, yes, I had a very bad weekend picking games, thanks for asking): we are stupid and we should have seen this freight train coming. Tom Brady is old, but he's still Tom Brady. Bill Belichick had two weeks to prepare. The Chargers were on their third straight road game and their second straight East Coast 1 p.m. game.
Theor at least used it as motivation. Whoops.
I don't think the defense didn't come to play, but I do think Belichick sent the Chargers' vaunted pass rush a message early by receiving the opening kickoff. The goal was to wear them down early, and it worked: Brady engineered a 14-play, seven-minute, soul-sucking touchdown drive that set the tone for this game.
New England's offensive line came to play and Rob Gronkowski, for all the questions about what's left in his tank, opened a can on the Patriots in the blocking game on Sunday. This was a power run team -- Sony Michel finished with 24 carries for 129 yards and three touchdowns -- with the type of weapons perfectly designed to expose a Chargers defense unwilling to adjust. Julian Edelman (nine catches, 151 yards) picked up what felt like 34 third-down conversions in this game. James White caught 15 passes out of the backfield; no one allowed more receiving yards to running backs than the Chargers this year, and it showed on Sunday.
The Chargers offense was a disaster too. The Patriots loaded up the box and routinely blitzed Philip Rivers. Neither he nor offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt bothered to try and adjust to the pressure Brian Flores was bringing. I get it you can't make the offensive line play better, but the Chargers didn't use any screens or quick routes to counter the pressure at all. Rivers led all quarterbacks this week in intended air yards and completed air yards, per Next Gen Stats. Put another way: he was trying to get vertical on the Patriots.
Look at the depth of the targets on his passing chart:
Compare this to Tom Brady's passing chart -- Rivers took nine (nine!) shots of 20 yards or more down the field, while Brady took just a single one. Things might have been inflated by the Chargers being forced to abandon the run and play catch up, but there was no plan in place even early on to get Rivers in favorable positions. If I had to guess, I would say the Chargers faced an average of seven yards to go on their 13 third downs.
They also made costly mistakes -- multiple third down DPI calls and a back-breaking fumbled punt return by All-Pro returner Desmond King that led to a Patriots touchdown and a 35-7 halftime lead stand out -- which is a thing teams do against the Patriots in the playoffs. The Patriots, conversely, don't make mistakes. We were fooled by the end of the regular season.
But no takeaway here should be bigger than this: Bill Belichick saw the Chargers play seven defensive backs against the Ravens and spent a week with Josh McDaniels scheming up ways to torch that defensive design. It worked pretty well: the offensive line blocked to perfection and, per Scott Van Pelt on SportsCenter Sunday night, Brady went 20 of 24 for 206 yards and a touchdown against seven DB formations ... in the first half.
If you're picking one game this weekend where you might question the coaching of the winning team, you could point at the Saints, who struggled badly out of the gates against the Eagles. In the blink of an eye it was 14-0 Philadelphia and Nick Foles was doing Nick Foles things, refusing to go away in the playoffs and making it rain touchdown passes in hostile environments. He's been doing it for a long stretch of the playoffs now; at a certain point it's easy to sit back and expect him just to win games. Maybe the Saints were rusty after sitting out Week 17 and not playing for almost a month with the bye? Whatever the case, it was surprising to see Sean Payton and Drew Brees -- the latter of whom threw an interception on his first downfield pass -- look rusty.
Let's credit Payton though, because he has guts. This is not news. Payton once opened the second half of the Super Bowl with an onside kick. But it still takes a pair of steel rattlers to fake a punt from your own 30-yard line, which is precisely what Payton did, running Taysom Hill up the middle on a fourth-down where everyone was sure they were punting, including the Fox cameraman who failed to get a decent angle.
Or maybe that's a good angle? Whatever, who cares. It takes guts to make that playcall when your team is trailing. Miss and you're almost certainly down three scores at home, and you look panicked (ask Nick Saban about that).
"We played from behind a lot this season, we needed to shift the momentum," Payton said after the game.
Payton wasn't done. The Saints got down to the goal line and faced a fourth down, while trailing 14-0 and needing some points. Same situation. At home, blanked into the middle of the second quarter, needing a momentum shift, and Payton went for it on fourth down and dialed up a perfect play call.
The Saints would only score 13 more points -- they failed to cover thanks to a late missed Will Lutz field goal. That whiff came after, rather ironically, Payton elected to run the ball on third down out of a timeout to try and melt more clock and force the Eagles to burn their last timeout. The other option -- throwing on third down with Drew Brees -- had been much more effective all game long. It was surprising to see him tilt conservative there.
It didn't pay off thanks to the long miss, and it set up Foles with a short field. Trailing 20-14, everyone was sure Foles would do Foles things, move the ball down the field and win the game. It looked like it was happening after a big completion to Zach Ertz was followed by a Marcus Davenport roughing the passer penalty for striking Foles in the head. And then Alshon Jeffery picked a very bad time to have a very rare drop.
Let's make one thing clear: Jeffery dropped that ball, but he doesn't deserve any blame for the Eagles loss. Doug Pederson will tell you as much.
Alshon's been a warrior for the Eagles the last two years, spending most of last postseason playing with a shoulder injury that required surgery this offseason and then, according to offensive lineman Lane Johnson, playing against New Orleans with broken ribs.
Marshon Lattimore made a play and the magic, as Pederson called it, finally ran out. What a run for the Eagles and it nearly continued thanks to conservative coaching.
Well, well, well. Remember when I said that roughly 70 percent of divisional matchups ended up with road dogs covering? Yeah that didn't work out so well. We got 25 percent this weekend and every single home team advanced. Home teams in the divisional round are always the top teams, which means the NFL playoff bracket now features a pair of 1 vs. 2 matchups.
Last year only the Jaguars played "spoiler," jumping into the final four as a 3 seed. The two 1 seeds met in the Super Bowl with the Patriots and Eagles advancing (yes, the magical underdog Eagles were the top seed). 2017 featured a 4 seed with the Packers and Aaron Rodgers catching fire until they ran into the Falcons (No. 2 seed), who would eventually lose to the Patriots (No. 1).
The year before that, both the Panthers and Broncos were the top seeds in their respective conferences and beat the Cardinals (No. 2) and Patriots (No. 2). New England and Seattle were both top seeds in the 2014 season, and Seattle and Denver were the top seeds after the 2013 season.
We'll have to wait another year to see a team without a bye advance to the Super Bowl: the last time it happened was when Joe Flacco went and won the Super Bowl for the Ravens (No. 4 seed in the AFC) over the No. 2 seed 49ers.
For so long we understand a wild card team with a stud quarterback could really create problems for the opposition. We're now approaching a decade of top seeds from the regular season teams dominating in the bracket.
Offense, offense, offense
My bosses' bosses' bosses are guaranteed good news when CBS airs the 2019 Super Bowl, because we are going to get some points.
The top four teams by seeding in the NFL -- if you go two from each conference, of course -- also happen to be the top four teams on offense.
|Team||Points/Game (Rank)||Yards/Game||Yards/Play||DVOA Rank Off.||20+ Yard Pass Plays|
These teams pile up points. The over/under for both of the championship game matchups is 57 a pop. The four teams involved are playing rematches from earlier in the season. The Patriots-Chiefs (83) and Saints-Rams (80) combined for more than 160 points in those games earlier this season. Maybe we see a reduction in points because of the slow-it-down approach that the Patriots and Saints could attempt with the run game. The Saints managed a drive in the third quarter of more than 11 (!) minutes. It wasn't some throat-stomper or anything, but they still did it. That's out of the norm.
Expect a lot of fireworks over the next three weeks. We were told the offensive evolution had arrived earlier this year when the Chiefs and Rams matched up on Monday night. We're about to be reminded of it again, regardless of who matches up in the Super Bowl.
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