If the rest of the NFL playoffs are going to be as good as Wildcard Weekend was, then we're in for a treat.
The NFL pushed both AFC games to Saturday night, keeping the primetime Sunday slots available for the juicier NFC matchups. But Saturday delivered. The Houston Texans and Buffalo Bills played out an insane game that made little sense and was packed with drama from start to finish. The New England Patriots and Tennessee Titans produced one of the dullest second halves of football ever played, but the upset value of the Titans taking out Tom Brady and Bill Belichick carried with it major significance.
Arguably the biggest matchup of the weekend, the Minnesota Vikings against the New Orleans Saints, went to overtime on Sunday. Even before Russell Wilson and Carson Wentz faced off in Philadelphia, Wildcard Weekend had over-delivered on expectations.
1. Deshaun Watson's Superstar Performance
It was an awful football game.
It was a great football game.
The Houston Texans and Buffalo Bills played a thrilling, terrible game of football on Saturday night. The Texans defence repeatedly blew assignments, missed tackles and couldn't cover anyone. The Bills offence just kept letting them off the hook. The Bills defence was outstanding, but that was in large part because the Texans offence was overwhelmed on the offensive line. The Texans were overwhelmed to the point that they were shut out in the first half.
Fortunately, the Bills were so incompetent that the furthest they could get away was 16 points. In other words, two possessions. And that was when Deshaun Watson went super saiyan.
After opening the second half with a pass that should have been intercepted, Watson finally connected with DeAndre Hopkins for his first reception of the game. Hopkins fumbled that ball and the Bills recovered. It wasn't until the next drive when Watson connected with Hopkins on an intermediate crossing route that the defence finally offered some give to it. Watson converted a Third-and-9 by beating the blitz with timing. He connected with DeAndre Hopkins on an out route past the first down line when the Bills blitzed their slot cornerback. Hopkins beat celebrated cornerback TreDavious White in single coverage.
That play moved the offence into field goal range. But Watson wanted more. He kept the ball on a designed run, following his fullback around the edge. Once in space, he bulldozed over a defensive back five yards from the goalline. Watson is skinny, but he's strong. He was able to reach the goalline despite being hit five yards out. He converted the two-point play by forcing his way to the pylon past two defenders.
Watson had two deep connections into tight coverage, one to Hopkins against White again and one to Stills on a backshoulder throw. Those big plays were protagonists on scoring drives. The Texans reached 19 points, giving them an improbable three-point lead in the fourth quarter. Watson then showed his strength off again in overtime.
All throughout the game, the Bills had disguised their blitzes to hit Watson. They sacked him six times and should have sacked him a seventh in overtime. Instead, Watson took hits from two defenders, then hit former Bills running back Taiwan Jones underneath in space. Jones ran the ball to the goal line, setting up the game-winning field goal.
This was a superstar performance from one of the league's eminent quarterbacks. The Bills were better than the Texans at every position outside of quarterback and wide receiver.
2. Josh Allen isn't Good Enough
Josh Allen threw the ball 46 times against a Houston Texans secondary that was constantly out of position. He finished the game with 264 passing yards. That's 5.7 yards per attempt. That's awful. It's especially awful when you consider the Bills screen game was successful. It should have been worse.
In this game alone, Allen...:
- ...had two egregious interceptions dropped by Bradley Roby. One would have been a pick-six. One would have ended the game.
- ...heaved the ball into double coverage for his fullback. That should have been intercepted too.
- ...turned backwards to take two sacks late in the fourth quarter when the Bills were on the doorstep to win the game.
- ...misread the coverage so his wide-open tight end didn't get a potential touchdown throw.
- ...fumbled the ball close to midfield at a crucial time.
- ...threw a lateral with 1:13 left in the fourth quarter at midfield for no apparent reason.
A game that began with Allen catching a touchdown pass ultimately reminded us why he's still more of an athlete than a quarterback. The Bills argument for moving on from Tyrod Taylor was that he wasn't a good enough passer. So far, Allen has been a much worse passer than Taylor without any real reason to think he's going to be better long-term. He's still relatively young, but this season exposed him as an awful deep passer and someone who is incapable of managing NFL pockets.
His fumble in this game was his 15th of the year. The passing game was limited to the point that there was no real downfield threat. This game wasn't an anomaly. It was a typical performance for him this year. The anomaly was the primetime display against the Dallas Cowboys. That's the only game this year where Allen impressed.
But the Bills won't be moving on from him. He is their guy.
The standard for Allen is completely different from what it was for Taylor. The Bills will view this season as a stepping stone forward rather than a sign that they need to change to get better. They will believe that Allen will come back in Year 3 as a refined pocket passer. No quarterback has ever gone from being historically inaccurate, historically lacking in poise and historically inept at diagnosing coverages to become a good starter. The closest thing is Jared Goff and even that isn't a good argument.
3. New England Patriots Finally Falter
The NFL hasn't had a Super Bowl without the New England Patriots since February 2016. They will this year.
Losing to the Tennessee Titans at home isn't the way the Patriots expected to go out. Up until a week ago, they were expecting to have a bye week. The offence's inability to move the ball against the Miami Dolphins in Week 17 put them in this position. Their inability to move the ball against the Titans put them out of the playoffs. Scoring just 13 points against a defence that ranked 16th in the league and 21st against the pass during the regular season is astonishingly poor. Furthermore, their touchdown came on a misdirection handoff to Julian Edelman.
Tom Brady finished the game with 209 passing yards on 37 attempts. He didn't throw a touchdown and completed only 54.1 per cent of his passes. Brady has played 41 playoff games, that completion percentage ranks 35th in all of his appearances. Astonishingly, the Patriots went 4-2 in those six games where he had a worse completion percentage.
While Brady insisted that he won't be retiring this offseason, it's clear that his play has suffered a significant drop-off. This game wasn't a one-off, it was discussed this week on The Snap as a likely result. The Patriots offence has been declining all season and wasn't impressive during last year's playoff run either. Winning made everyone ignore that the Patriots offence was equally as bad as the Rams offence during that Super Bowl. Arguably worse since the Rams were at least facing a great defence.
So even though this won't be the end for Tom Brady, there's no doubt that he's about to be a severely limited starter.
It's both a physical and a mental decline. Brady can't throw the ball outside the numbers effectively anymore and he isn't as sharp reacting to post-snap shifts. The assumption is that he returns to the Patriots. If that happens, they need to revamp their passing game and upgrade the talent around the quarterback position significantly. If he leaves to join another franchise, it's hard to be excited about the prospect because he's a short-term option who may not even play well in the short-term.
4. New Orleans Saints Follow Soon After
The New Orleans Saints were a 7.5-point favourite over the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday. The Saints had breezed through the regular season, Drew Brees even got to rest his shoulder because of a thumb injury early in the season. Sitting out those games had allowed Brees to look more energetic toward the end of the regular season than he had in the previous two seasons. Yet, for the third consecutive season, Brees put in a bad performance in the playoffs that cost the Saints a victory.
He threw an inexplicable interception into double coverage in the second quarter. That play was inexplicable because the Saints snapped the ball prior to the two-minute warning when they didn't need to and because Brees made a throw he should have never made. Then, in the fourth quarter, after Taysom Hill had dragged the offence deep into Vikings territory, Brees came in and fumbled it away. Danielle Hunter forced that fumble when Brees held the ball too far away from his body.
Hunter and fellow defensive end Everson Griffen were outstanding. The Vikings secondary was missing Mackenzie Alexander and Mike Hughes. Their only available cornerbacks were Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes, two outside defenders who have massively struggled this season. The Vikings needed their defensive line to dominate this game for them to avoid being blown out by the Saints passing game.
Both Hunter and Griffen generated consistent pressure while the linebackers behind them excelled at containing the running game. Mike Zimmer contributed with smart play designs, including one successful pass rush where both Hunter and Griffen moved from the outside to the inside to create a better matchup.
Just like with Tom Brady, Drew Brees' age is showing. The Saints have to really question if they can advance in the playoffs with him after playing a full regular season. Teddy Bridgewater is the obvious successor, but he's not under contract for next season yet.
5. Ian Book will be back for Dublin in 2020
Notre Dame tight end Cole Kmet declared for the NFL draft this week. Kmet had previously stated his intention to return to Notre Dame for the 2020 season, but the allure of being the top-ranked tight end prospect proved too much. Star wide receiver Chase Claypool is also going to the NFL. Brian Kelly is in a tough spot. Miles Boykin, currently playing for the Baltimore Ravens in the NFL playoffs, left the offence last year. Claypool was excellent in replacing him, but it's hard to anticipate that happening two years in a row.
What will help is the return of starting quarterback Ian Book.
Book was eligible for the draft this year but has decided to return to school for his senior season. He's 20-3 as a starter and became the first Notre Dame quarterback to ever throw for 3,000+ yards and run for 500+ yards in a single season this year. If Notre Dame wins 10 games with Book as the starter in 2020, he will have more wins than any other quarterback in school history. That's saying a lot considering the Tom Clements, Ron Powlus and Brady Quinn all reached 29 wins.
Some stability at the most important position is huge considering the turnover in front of this offence. Not only are they losing their starting tight end and starting wide receiver, they also have the lingering uncertainty left over at offensive coordinator. Tommy Rees will presumably remain in charge entering next season. That's the best-case scenario. But even then you're entering the season with someone who has never been a full-time play-caller or coordinator.
Should Book have another strong season for Notre Dame, he's likely to be a mid-round pick in the NFL draft. He lacks the physical size to really get NFL evaluators excited, but he has an NFL-level skill set.