maya (Maya Sweedler, editor): The 2022 NFL playoffs started off with some exciting games that produced unexciting results, with only the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys knocking off a higher-seeded team (though the Cowboys, who had a better record, entered the game favored by 2.5 points). But the chalkiness of the results belies how close some of these games were.
One major throughline of Super Wild-Card Weekend was many games were a tale of two halves. Whether it was Jacksonville coming back from a 27-point deficit against Los Angeles or both Seattle and Baltimore up by 1 point over San Francisco and Cincinnati, respectively, at the half, we saw some pretty significant differences in play between the first two quarters and final two. What stood out to you about these halftime adjustments?
joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): In the Jaguars-Chargers game, the second-half adjustment was that the Jags were somehow able to shake off a half where they experienced pretty much all the adversity the game of football can throw at a team.
I’m not much of a believer in the hot hand in football, but I do think negative momentum is real. Meltdowns are real. And the Jags were having one. And that’s why it’s so impressive that Trevor Lawrence was able to bounce back. That really was the adjustment — just play the kind of ball he played all season. Because the Chargers really didn’t play great football in the first half, with almost all their points coming off turnovers.
neil (Neil Paine, acting sports editor): My predictable nerd-take is that most of what we call halftime adjustments is just regression to the mean, and the Niners-Seahawks game seems like a classic case of that, with Geno Smith just not being able to sustain a high-level performance against the S.F. defense for an entire game. The clock struck midnight for one of our favorite Cinderellas at halftime of that game.
But the other games didn’t really subscribe to that regression-is-everything theory. No amount of positive regression alone can pull you out of a 27-0 hole, and in other cases (like the Bills and Dolphins), there was barely any regression to speak of in favor of the favorite.
Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): Peyton Manning agrees with Neil:
neil: Although, for Lawrence, I guess not throwing a pick every sixth pass is a form of good regression!
joshua.hermsmeyer: The Lawrence interceptions were interesting. One was an opportunistic defensive play, which came on a tipped pass by Joey Bosa. Then the second interception came on a fourth-and-7 play that seemed like it could have been called for interference. After that Lawrence appeared to be in shock. He got tunnel vision on a few passes, either staring down receivers or missing defenders, like on his third interception to Asante Samuel Jr.
maya: Yeah, Lawrence struck me as a little nervous at the outset of the game (understandable, it’s his playoff debut!). He had a fairly clean pocket most of the game — his contact rate of 9.1 percent was third-lowest of any game this season. But he was getting rid of the ball somewhat quicker than usual in the first half, below his regular-season average of 2.58 seconds.
Salfino: The Jags actually scored a TD at the end of the first half that I think is really underrated in their comeback.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Yes, Mike! And the defensive stand after the muffed punt near the end of the half.
Salfino: Right, and then forcing that Justin Herbert fumble on third-and-1 the next drive was huge. They go in 27-0, it’s a different game.
neil: That end-of-half TD really sparked a basketball-style “run” that you don’t often see in football (at least not to that degree/extreme). Including that drive, the Jags scored on all five of their remaining drives, including four TDs.
Salfino: My take on Lawrence is that it’s the rare player who bounces back from disaster within the same game to the level that Lawrence did. That’s a greatness trait. Especially to do it in your first postseason game. Very, very impressive.
neil: And you scoffed at my Peyton comparison for him a few weeks ago!
Really, that game was a microcosm of his first two NFL seasons in 60 minutes.
joshua.hermsmeyer: If only every young QB could play the Chargers in their first playoff game.
Salfino: Now, it is the Chargers, so anything is possible. The Jaguars did adjust on the TD drive at the end of the half in going more downfield since the Chargers defense was squeezing the shallow routes. But a big problem for the Chargers is they are not built to hold a lead. They have no reliable running game. Austin Ekeler is not a move-the-chains back as a runner. His success rate was well below average all year plus the Jaguars are a decent run defense. So the criticism of them running, when they can’t really run, is unfair, IMO.
neil: Don’t you know that the real reason they lost is because Brandon Staley is disrespectful to the game?
joshua.hermsmeyer: They certainly couldn’t run in that game. As a team, the Chargers rushed for just 2.9 yards per attempt. But Herbert passing for almost a full yard per attempt through the air under his seasonal average — which was already low — was not smart football.
Salfino: Herbert also did not have a good game. He left a couple of touchdowns on the field to Keenan Allen, specifically.
maya: I mean, it was certainly a weird time for Staley to get conservative.
The other Saturday game saw the 49ers turn what was a close first half into a blowout. A lot of us were riding high on the Niners in these playoffs — did any of you see anything on Saturday that changed that?
neil: Not really. Brock Purdy had an 89.5 Total QBR. As long as he keeps playing well, they are scary.
Salfino: Seattle’s defense is hot garbage, but you have to be impressed with Purdy. The Niners have so many weapons that there are big plays to be made on just about every play, but Purdy, to his credit, made them.
maya: To be fair, he wasn’t asked to do too much. He attempted only 30 passes, which was the second-lowest figure on the weekend (behind Tyler Huntley).
joshua.hermsmeyer: Purdy started the game like you would expect for a rookie seventh-round pick, and he made passes in the second half that you would not expect from a rookie seventh-round pick. I don’t think they win it all with him. But I hope they do. And their defense gives them a solid shot.
Salfino: Purdy has to have the best setup of any rookie QB ever. A good defense so he can play in hitter’s counts with the lead. Three elite weapons in Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel and George Kittle and a very good one in Brandon Aiyuk. And a master playcaller.
My takeaway from the Seattle-S.F. game is that the Niners pass defense is vulnerable. You wish they were as good against the pass as they are against the run. Or that it was flipped. Having the best run defense in football is pretty meaningless.
neil: And yet, even there, they clamped down when they needed to. Geno’s QBR dropped from 84.9 in the first half to 26.9 in the second.
maya: Miami’s Skylar Thompson, the other seventh-round pick to make his playoff debut this weekend, also has some pretty elite weapons in Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle, and a playcaller from the Shanahan coaching tree. Why weren’t the Dolphins able to replicate the Niners’ success against an admittedly stronger opponent?
neil: They almost did!
That game was supposed to be a laugher, and the Dolphins were in it to the bitter end. If Miami had won, it would have been hands-down one of the most improbable upsets in playoff history.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Thompson was 18-for-45 for 4.9 YPA. He wasn’t anything approaching good. But the Bills defense looked porous, and that was my takeaway from the game. They need to be able to stop teams from scoring — like on that 11-play, 75 yard drive they gave up in the third quarter — even when they are given short fields due to Josh Allen miscues.
neil: (Also they need to not have Josh Allen miscues.)
Salfino: Well, the Bills are a real defense. Miami’s offense was mostly turnover driven. They had less than 250 total yards. They also have no real running threat and problems on the offensive line. Plus seventh-round picks should be expected to be terrible and in that regard Thompson does not disappoint. He’s not competent. He couldn’t even get plays called as they flirted with delays on almost every snap. McDaniels has to take a lot of blame here, too, especially on the last drive when he turned fourth-and-1 into fourth-and-6 — that was a brutal penalty.
maya: Both Thompson and Allen seemed to struggle against press coverage. When both outside corners played press (which Miami and Buffalo did at the weekend’s highest rates), the two QBs saw their completion rates drop quite a bit.
But it was a real killer for Thompson. Both his interceptions came against this coverage. He had a completion rate of just 36 percent against press in the second half. In the first half he made almost 50 percent.
Salfino: Thompson had no downfield game, either: He went 4-for-17 on passes of 10-plus air yards.
neil: The fact that Allen barely out-QBR-ed Thompson (26.1 to 22.6) at home in a playoff game is concerning.
Salfino: Allen has all the tools but sometimes no tool box. He’s very Brett Favre-like. It’s going to be very hard for him to ever navigate the full playoff slate with this playing style.
maya: The Bills get the Bengals next week, who amassed 234 yards of offense Sunday — second-fewest of the season. Does this bode well or poorly for Allen getting back into rhythm?
neil: Speaking of teams that should have lost if not for miscues by a backup thrust into starting a playoff game …
joshua.hermsmeyer: The Ravens always play the Bengals tight, and DC Mike Macdonald had the Ravens defense well prepared. I think that was probably the worst the Bengals offense will look all postseason, win or lose.
Salfino: The Bills almost beat themselves, but the Bengals were actually badly outplayed, IMO. Plus their offensive line, with the Jonah Williams knee injury, has gone from passable to non-passable.
neil: Bengals were lucky. That end-to-end fumble return TD off of Huntley’s sneak might end up being the highest-leverage play in these playoffs in terms of EPA and/or WPA swing.
maya: Burrow was sacked four times against the Ravens, his most during the team’s nine-game win streak, despite averaging 2.38 seconds on his throws, tied for second-quickest in his career.
Salfino: The Bills are going to make Burrow’s life miserable on Sunday with relentless pressure.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Speaking of that Huntley play — Lawrence did the same thing and got away with it.
neil: I hate that play. It’s such a gamble if you don’t actually break the plane.
maya: I see outstretched arms and I get so nervous.
Salfino: That’s the dumbest play in football but they were lined up to just push him in, which would have been the play of course. You sneak there by going low, not high.
neil: Totally agree.
Or maybe just give it to J.K. Dobbins …
Salfino: I like the sneak there. But Dobbins would be fine too.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Yes, Neil. Greg Roman is completely lost in the red zone.
Salfino: Why don’t teams just snap the ball to RB? Can’t you practice it? How do you stop a RB or say Mark Andrews on a direct snap there? Impossible.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Well, Roman tried a handoff to Andrews earlier in the game. It didn’t end well.
Salfino: No handoff. Just put him under center.
Of course, it needs to be practiced. But why have the QB sneak when there is no surprise on these plays, typically?
maya: Especially when you compare it to some of the imaginative offensive plays teams like the Jaguars pulled out (T formation, anyone?), the Ravens’ play-calling definitely felt a little staid.
Salfino: Love that Jaguars play. Doug Pederson is such a good coach.
joshua.hermsmeyer: That was Travis Etienne’s longest run of the game — 25 of his 109 yards. In the game’s biggest moment. Incredible play call.
maya: Pederson is one of three Super Bowl-winning coaches left in the playoffs, alongside Andy Reid and Mike McCarthy. And only one will advance out of the divisional round in the AFC, as the Jags travel to Kansas City next weekend.
neil: Reid and Pederson, both ex-Eagles coaches, LOL. (You’re good too, Nick Sirianni!)
maya: And those Philadelphia Eagles will be coming off their bye to face a very familiar team in the New York Giants. The Giants lost both regular-season matchups, but after dispatching the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday in the only significant upset (again, sorry to Tampa Bay), what are you liking about this team?
neil: Obviously you have to love the Daniel Jones-led offense, the peak of their breakout improvement under Brian Daboll so far.
It was hilarious to hear the cherry-picked “first time a QB threw for 300-plus yards with two or more TDs and ran for 75-plus yards in a playoff game” stat, but at the same time … that IS impressive.
joshua.hermsmeyer: All season Daboll and Mike Kafka have put Jones into good situations with great play sequencing. I think that is their secret weapon heading into the next game — that and a fully weaponized Saquon Barkley.
Salfino: The Giants compensate for their ham-and-egg receivers with Jones’s proactive running. He had the perfect balance of run/pass versus the Vikings, who of course are the worst 13-win team ever and can’t play defense to save their lives. Still, Jones made it look easier than anyone expected.
neil: Yes, to be fair, the Vikings were well-established frauds. And Kirk Cousins did exactly what you would expect of Kirk Cousins, throwing way short of the sticks on fourth-and-8 to end Minnesota’s season.
But I still think the G-Men were impressive.
maya: Jones just seemed totally oblivious to pressure. I thought his quickness was most evident when he got outside of the pocket. But he was effective both inside and out! When Jones ran outside the left or right tackle, he averaged 8.2 yards a rush, including three first downs (that’s where he gained 41 of his 81 yards). When he ran toward the guards or up the middle, he averaged 5 yards a carry — but also rushed for four first downs.
Salfino: I’m reminded with Jones, who looked like he was going to be out of the league this time last year, of what Bill Parcells told me once for an article on draft busts — almost all are coaching/organization failures, not player failures. Jones has optimal coaching now and this offense isn’t even complete given the deficiencies at WR. Ironically, Jones is set up to be the 2023 Jalen Hurts now. What a difference a year makes.
maya: OK, but let’s get real — can these Giants match up against the Eagles?
joshua.hermsmeyer: No. On the other hand…
Salfino: Yes. The Eagles are very turnover dependent and the Giants avoid turnovers. Jones has the lowest interception rate in football. Their defense just shut down Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson. The Eagles passing game is of course more diversified but if you take A.J. Brown out of the game, you have a chance.
joshua.hermsmeyer: If you take Brown out of the game, you’re probably getting gashed by Hurts on the ground.
neil: We sort of have two conflicting data points on this. On the one hand, the Eagles handed the Giants a 48-22 thrashing on Dec. 11 that might have been their most dominant victory in what was a banner season. On the other hand, in a game they needed to win for seeding, with Hurts at QB, they barely beat the Giants’ backups on Jan. 8.
Salfino: Yes, the Giants just played the Eagles tough with their backups.
joshua.hermsmeyer: In terms of matching up on paper, this isn’t close. Now, variance is a thing. But come on.
Salfino: I agree, Josh. Probably. But is Hurts healthy enough to take on that kind of rushing workload? I would find out if I were the Giants.
neil: Right. The Eagles’ fate depends on how right Hurts is coming back from that injury. Last time we saw him, he was not quite his MVP-caliber self. But he’s had an extra week of rest since!
However, let’s just say this: Would I be surprised if the Giants were hanging with the Eagles throughout the game? Not at all. This is not the Bills versus the Dolphins and their third-string rookie QB, where I was stunned it was a ballgame late.
Salfino: Jones has a better chance to advance than Dak Prescott, IMO.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I hope it’s close. I can’t remember a better week of football … if you remove the Bucs game Monday night.
maya: Speaking of, we haven’t really touched on the Cowboys-Buccaneers matchup. Does anyone have thoughts, or should we just send thoughts for Brett Maher this morning and move on?
neil: Only time Tom Brady and the opponent’s melting-down kicker can relate to each other.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Never thought I would see four interceptions and four missed extra points in the same wild-card weekend.
maya: Both came from winning teams!
neil: But in all seriousness, that was the game the Cowboys needed to make a case that this is actually, finally the year for them.
Salfino: NARRATOR: This was not the year for them.
My thought is that Brady is done. He just can’t make downfield throws anymore — 4-for-14 on 10-plus air yards. Only Thompson was worse. And that interception in the red zone was UNCONSCIONABLE.
neil: Oh yeah, he clearly needs to retire.
He stayed one year too long.
Salfino: I don’t think Brady retires, Neil.
neil: I am not sure either, I just know he should.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Maya, I recall in a chat earlier this year you said: Imagine blowing up your family just to lose in the wild card. Prescient.
maya: Brady was bad. But I also very much blame Todd Bowles for this loss. The Buccaneers already ran by design on an NFL-low 32 percent of plays in the regular season, but they ran by design on only 12 of their 80 plays Monday, the third-lowest designed rush percentage in the last 15 postseasons.
Salfino: Bowles is the worst coach and this is the worst staff in football.
maya: Sigh. I liked Bowles in New York and thought he should’ve been given one more year. But I wasn’t super impressed by him this year.
neil: Yeah but Maya, they had the worst YPC in football this year. I don’t blame him for abandoning the run. I think the Buccaneers would have preferred to establish the run all season to keep pressure off Brady. But it never worked well enough to be remotely viable.
And I agree with Marcus Spears: Brady just can’t win games for you and elevate a bad team anymore.
Salfino: Brady can’t elevate good teams anymore.
joshua.hermsmeyer: That punt in the second quarter was a fireable offense for Bowles.
Salfino: I’m not giving the Cowboys props for beating this downright bad Tampa Bay team. First road playoff win since 1992, BTW, which produced the famous, “How ‘bout them Cowboys!” Jimmy Johnson locker room clip.
maya: My impression of this Super Wild-Card Weekend is it successfully weeded out the weaker teams and has left us with four good to great divisional-round matchups. Does anyone want to make a case for an eliminated team?
neil: No. They all deserved what they got. Some just hung tougher than others.
Salfino: I feel badly for Chargers fans, all five of them.
maya: Low-hanging fruit, Mike. 😂
joshua.hermsmeyer: The Ravens with Lamar Jackson would have been dangerous. It’s unfortunate that we didn’t get to see Lamar in the tournament. And I wonder if we’ll see him on the Ravens again.
Salfino: I think we could have four blowouts this weekend. If Josh is right about the Eagles.
maya: I’m not actually sure who wins in a blowout in the Bills-Bengals game — who’d you have in mind, Mike?
Salfino: Bills are going to smash the Bengals given that offensive line sliding into “problem” territory.
Lamar is not taking $133 million guaranteed if Deshaun Watson got $230 million. So that’s at an impasse.
joshua.hermsmeyer: This game is dangerous. If any athletes deserve guaranteed money it’s football players. Skip me with the crying about guaranteed money by management.
Salfino: Totally agree. But the owner in Baltimore is dead set against fully guaranteed money. (Reportedly.)
maya: OK, so I was going to end by asking for everyone’s conference championship predictions. Mike, safe to say yours are Bills vs. Chiefs and Eagles vs. Niners?
Salfino: Yes, Bills-Chiefs on a neutral field indoors will be like a Super Bowl game. And Eagles-Niners, too. The Niners are the most complete team right now but do have a rookie QB so there is no obvious leader of the pack, for me. Plus that Niners pass defense like I said is just OK.
maya: Honestly, I think my picks are the same. But I would love the chaos of Giants vs. Niners.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I will eat the chalk again along with Mike. Chiefs-Niners Super Bowl, with the Chiefs the champs.
Salfino: The Bengals to be clear are down three offensive linemen now. I can’t see Burrow overcoming this.
But the Chiefs have exactly one dynamic skill player. And he’s a tight end. I’m far from sold on them. Their defense is meh, too.
Mahomes is maybe the GOAT though, so … ?
neil: I wanna pick some upsets, but it’s hard to. Niners are a tough draw for the Cowboys, whom I want to pick to just be contrarian.
Salfino: If you try to imagine tomorrow’s headlines, a rookie QB spitting the bit is not exactly surprising.
neil: But San Francisco just seems like such a complete team; I can’t in good conscience pull the trigger on Dallas beating them. So I’ll go K.C. vs Buffalo in the AFC and, what the heck, Giants (!) vs. Niners in the NFC.
Salfino: Calm down, Neil.
neil: LOL. I’ve been burned by Giants devil-magic too much in the past.
maya: I would love a road-warriors Giants run. Those are FUN.
neil: Although there are no Patriots or Packers for them to beat this postseason …
So maybe I need to re-think this.
Check out our latest NFL predictions.