NFL Wildcard Weekend. Mike Tyson once said, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”. It sprung to mind as Cleveland went 28-0 up on Pittsburgh, writes Matthew Carolan.
The Browns, in their first playoff game since 2003, did what they could not do all those years ago and beat their division rivals on the big stage. And they beat them comfortably.
Browns roll over Steelers
The Cleveland Browns have been a perennial punchline for some time now. Year after year, they would have high draft picks and get beaten badly by pretty much everyone in the NFL. Anything that could go wrong, went wrong. Even last year, with Baker Mayfield coming off an impressive rookie season with a plethora of talent around him, they fell short of expectations. But not this year.
In 2020, courtesy of Kevin Stefanski at the helm, the Cleveland Browns have become so much more. They are an efficient, dogged, well-oiled machine. Where Mayfield slumped in 2019 and started off slowly this year, he has regained confidence and is playing like a top ten quarterback in the league. Their run game is one of the best in the league and their pass rush can cause any quarterback problems. That is how things kicked off on Sunday night.
With the first play of the game, the Steelers over-snapped it and Ben Roethlisberger was left chasing the ball into his own end zone. The Browns swarmed on it and that was indicative of how the night would go, not just for Roethlisberger, but for the Steelers too. 7-0. A few plays later, he threw his first interception. 14-0. The Browns picked him off four times and although the Steelers amassed over 500 passing yards, they never looked like winning, and any game plan they had was thrown out the window by giving away such a commanding lead early on.
If the Browns had won this game by a point or in overtime, it would have been somewhat of a surprise. But to win the game so emphatically over a rival who has bullied them for years is remarkable. A historical night for the Cleveland Browns.
The Saints will give you a chance
Saints 21-9 Bears. The final score suggests that the Saints handled the Bears with ease. In some respects, that is true. The Chicago Bears displayed new levels of ineptitude with each passing quarter, and yet, they were never out of the game. That is because the Saints allowed them to stick around.
In the last few seasons, the Saints have been one of the best teams in the NFL. They finished 11-5 in 2017, 13-3 in 2018, 13-3 in 2019 and 12-4 in 2020. And each of those years has resulted in a heartbreaking playoff exit with some strange referee decision being the talking point of their loss. In actuality, the Saints could have - and should have - won the playoff games they lost each time. The problem is that they let teams hang around, and that comes back to bite them.
Thankfully for New Orleans, the Chicago Bears are as incompetent an offense as you will find in the NFL. Next up for the Saints is their divisional foe, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who they have beaten twice already this season.
If you watched the game last night, then you will have heard Tony Romo waxing lyrical about how Tampa Bay have made adjustments as the season has worn on. So, if Romo’s predictions are anything to go by (and they often are), then perhaps a third victory will be much trickier than anticipated for New Orleans.
Lamar gets his first playoff win
When Tennessee beat Baltimore last year in the playoffs, there were two takeaways from NFL media. 1) Lamar Jackson bottled it; and 2) he is not a leader. The narrative that Jackson bottles it in the playoffs always seemed like an absurd one. He is 24 years old and has been in the playoffs three times now. That in itself is impressive, and the first playoff win was an inevitability, not something that was out of reach.
A closely contested affair, the 20-13 scoreline seemed about right. The Titans are not a good match-up for the Ravens, so it was always going to be tough. Where Tennessee has got the better of Baltimore in recent times has been their run game, and Derrick Henry in particular. This time, Baltimore snuffed him out, as Henry ran 18 times for 40 yards - far from his best. With Henry well looked after, it was left to Tannehill to win the game and the Ravens’ defense picked him off to close it out.
Then there was Jackson, who put on a clinic in leading by example on the field. He completed 17 of 24 passes for 179 yards and carried it 16 times for 136 yards and a touchdown. One play that epitomised his performance came in the second quarter with the Ravens trailing 10-3. On 3rd and 9, Baltimore snapped the ball with a single back-formation (three wide receivers, one tight end, one running back), and as the Titans expected the pass, Lamar took off for the end zone with lightning speed to tie it up.
When the Ravens lost to the Titans in last year’s playoffs, Jackson was criticised for not leading. The same could not be said this year. On the field, he was electric, and off the field in his post-game interview, he cut the figure of the perfect leader for this team, stating; “It’s not about me and Derrick Henry…. it was about Ravens versus Titans, and we came out with the victory.” Next up, Buffalo.
Written by Matthew Carolan.