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How The Chiefs Survived, The Packers Thrived And The Bills And Bucs Stayed Alive

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): After an up-and-down divisional round, only four teams remain — and, unbelievably, we’re only three games away from crowning an NFL champion.

Let’s start with the only upset of the weekend, a game that saw the longest pass of the night thrown not by either of the two legendary quarterbacks in their 40s, but instead by barely used Saints backup Jameis Winston, against the team he once led.

Tampa Bay had a prolific offense all year, second only to Kansas City’s in total passing yards, and the Buccaneers’ defense was by far the best in stopping the run during the regular season. And yet, probably based on the ease with which New Orleans won the first two matchups, people seemed to think the Saints would win this game going away — and by “people,” I mean “you guys,” in last week’s chat. How did the Bucs pull it off?

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): The Bucs’ defense was outstanding. Drew Brees had a 38.1 passer rating in what might be his final career game — what a brutal way to go out.

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): Turnovers. Teams are now 68-1 in the postseason with a turnover margin of plus-4 or more. The only team with that margin to lose was the 1977 Baltimore Colts (to the Oakland Raiders in overtime in the Ghost to the Post game).

neil: I also think the Bucs did a great job protecting Brady. The Saints’ D did not create the same pressure they had during those regular-season wins, particularly the 38-3 rout.

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): Yep, three interceptions and a fumble are not gonna get it done in the playoffs. But I’m not sure you put all of it on Brees. There was miscommunication, a fumble on a first-down conversion. All in all it was a sad way for Brees to end his career — and a pretty poor watch on a weekend filled with bad football.

Salfino: Totally agree that this slate ended up being very bad. And I really feel for Brees. He and Sean Payton deserved better. They just lose games in spectacular fashion though — it’s the mark of the Brees-Alvin Kamara era, which is probably over. Their 49 wins in four years is most ever without getting to the Super Bowl.

sara.ziegler: Just goes to show how hard it is to actually win the Super Bowl.

neil: Yeah. That’s now three straight seasons where their season ended as home favorites with Brees playing below expectations.

Salfino: And the fourth year was Sara’s favorite play in NFL history.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Ooof.

sara.ziegler: 😉

neil: I do wonder about the whole “hard to beat a good team three times” thing — we disagreed with that last week to some extent, but now each of the four most lopsided regular-season series that led to postseason rematches have seen the team that lost the regular season win the playoff game.

Dominating a series hasn’t ended always well

Biggest point differentials for teams that swept the regular-season series against a given opponent and later faced them in the playoffs, 1966-2020

Season Team Opponent Reg.-Season Point Diff. Playoff Result
2020 Saints Buccaneers +46 Lost
1998 Cowboys Cardinals +35 Lost
1994 Vikings Bears +34 Lost
1989 Oilers Steelers +34 Lost

Source: ESPN STATS & INFORMATION GROUP

I wonder if you show the opponent too much when you destroy them in the regular season.

Salfino: What’s Brees’s legacy? Overrated? I would hate that, but I think that’s going to be the view of most.

neil: I’m curious about that too, Mike. Or does he get a pass because of that 2009 Super Bowl? It’s funny how QB narratives work.

Salfino: The trophy case is super light.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think if you win one at any point, the narrative must be that you’re a champion.

sara.ziegler: Totally agree with that, Josh.

Salfino: That’s reasonable. But I don’t think that’s going to be the narrative.

neil: He’s one Tracy Porter pick-six away from being Dan Marino.

It’s also rough that the comparison point legacy-wise for all things Brees is Tom Brady — whom he just lost to.

Salfino: Do the Saints win on Sunday with Winston having the arm to make the Bucs pay for all those man coverages? It has to be asked.

sara.ziegler: If we’re just going on narratives … you put in Winston, and you double the interception count.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Mike, if the interceptions and missed opportunities were about arm strength and not accuracy, I would agree with the need to ask that question. But the Saints were in this game for a long time, and I’m not sure a strong arm that is also prone to turnovers is the answer.

Salfino: But the Saints could not move the ball consistently. Michael Thomas had no catches. They had the trick play with Winston, but the offense was basically a disaster against a Tampa Bay defense that is just OK/good. Nothing great.

neil: All the early season memes about Brees struggling to throw downfield came to fruition Sunday: He averaged only 5.4 air yards per attempt and had zero throws of 20+ air yards.

Salfino: Nothing was easy. I made fun of him for a couple of years, but the loss of Taysom Hill was big. The Saints had no Plan B.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Actually disagree about the Bucs’ defense. I think by the numbers they looked just good, but as we know numbers don’t really tell the story on defense. They have a talented unit on that side of the ball.

neil: (I think the Bucs D is good as well Josh. They are No. 3 in schedule-adjusted EPA per game.)

Salfino: OK, but a guy off the street just had a decent game against them last week.

joshua.hermsmeyer: That’s football!

sara.ziegler: And didn’t we just talk about how it can be harder to deal with a backup because you don’t have the film and were game-planning for someone else? That’s the Chase Daniel Theorem.

Salfino: Brees is going out in that game like Peyton Manning did in 2015, only without the win. He looked defeated and finished.

joshua.hermsmeyer: 😞

Salfino: Yet Brady is even older and, even though he did very little, it seems like he can play at least another year.

neil: I guess it’s better than Marino’s final game at least:

sara.ziegler: LOL

Charlie Brown played in that game???

neil: May as well have.

sara.ziegler: Well, the Bucs will move on to face the Green Bay Packers, who handled the Los Angeles Rams without too much trouble. L.A. defensive superstar Aaron Donald was obviously limited by his rib injury, and QB Jared Goff was still just a couple of weeks removed from thumb surgery (and without one of his primary targets, Cooper Kupp). But still, Aaron Rodgers looked like a man on a mission — particularly every time one of his receivers dropped a pass.

neil: “Hey, Allen Lazard, I’m going to give you multiple easy TD chances. Please try to convert, like, one of them.”

joshua.hermsmeyer: Rodgers’s range of facial expressions while pouting and frustrated have reached Jon Gruden levels this year.

Salfino: Rodgers was great. They made up for Davante Adams being largely contained by getting big plays from other receivers. Without Donald near 100 percent, the Rams just could not generate any consistent pressure. It shows just how unsustainable defense is. You’re an injury to a key player away from cratering.

neil: Very true. With Donald completely neutralized and Jalen Ramsey preoccupied with Adams, the Rams’ defense was nowhere near as imposing as it needed to be.

That was a classic strength-vs.-strength matchup, and the Packers offense won it big.

sara.ziegler: I loved their play design, too. The touchdown to Adams where they motioned him from side to side first was 👩‍🍳.

neil: Oh, yeah! Just get him open somehow.

Salfino: Do you guys buy the narrative that Rodgers is possessed because of Jordan Love being drafted? If so, that was a good draft pick. But this seems like a slander against Rodgers — that he was coasting previously.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think he’s possessed by play-action. Rodgers has thrown for 23 touchdowns with no interceptions on play-action this season.

neil: And we know the quality of the runner doesn’t really affect that as much as we’d think, but it certainly helped that Aaron Jones and company were able to run effectively on that Rams D as well.

I was worried that Cam Akers would have the big game against the Packers run D, a la Raheem Mostert last year. But it was Jones who was busting off the 60-yard runs.

Salfino: Green Bay’s offensive line doesn’t get enough love. It’s the best in football. They were knocked for drafting Elgton Jenkins over a wide receiver (D.K. Metcalf among them) in 2019, but that was a great pick. He dominated the injured Donald.

neil: And they’re doing it without David Bakhtiari!

sara.ziegler: That offensive line didn’t allow a sack on Sunday — pretty impressive.

neil: I can’t wait for Rodgers-vs.-Brady. Might well be the most decorated QB matchup in playoff history.

Salfino: At least since Sunday. 🙂

sara.ziegler: LOL

neil: OK, with the asterisk that both QBs are still actually good. (Sorry, Drew.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: I for one am yawning. But I guess I’m just tired of these two.

neil: Well, if we get Rodgers against Patrick Mahomes in the Super Bowl, it will be the two most talented QBs ever facing off. 🔥

sara.ziegler: Speaking of Mahomes…

Excitement about the weekend’s games was tempered some after Mahomes left the Chiefs’ win over the Browns with a concussion. Kansas City then needed heroics from backup Chad Henne to close out that win … not something I was expecting to type in 2021.

neil: What were they saying afterwards? HenneThing is possible? LOL

sara.ziegler: Terrible.

Salfino: Mahomes is really going to test the integrity of the concussion protocols. On paper, he should be very questionable.

neil: I really felt for the Browns in that game. We’ve said before that the touchback/turnover after fumbling through the end zone is possibly the worst rule in sports, and it cost Cleveland big.

For it to happen to a team with a history of fumbling near the goal line? 😬

joshua.hermsmeyer: My problem with the rule is that it punishes players for doing the thing we all want to see, which is fight for the extra yard by laying out and extending. The incentives are all wrong by the NFL here.

Salfino: That’s the best rule in sports. I love it because it’s so reviled. How about we don’t recklessly fumble near the goal line when we already have a first down?

sara.ziegler: Mike with the contrarian take, of course.

neil: Now we know you are being contrarian purely for its own sake, LOL.

Salfino: Bill Belichick doesn’t want to see it, Josh. He benches non-QBs for doing it.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Bill doesn’t allow it because the punishment is so severe.

neil: Right, the punishment doesn’t fit the crime at ALL.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Not just a turnover, but a turnover at the 20!

Salfino: I’m serious. It’s the one break the defense gets in today’s game. It’s bad enough that 30 percent of fumbles that were fumbles for most of NFL history get forgiven now with Zapruder-like replay reviews.

So it can be coached out, Belichick has proven. Don’t do it.

sara.ziegler: After seeing dozens of tweets yelling “WORST RULE IN SPORTS,” I did find myself agreeing with this take from Charles McDonald of USA Today:

Salfino: Yes, Sara! And why isn’t it exciting for the defense to win once in a while?

neil: If a weird, random occurrence like that is how we’re boosting defense, that’s a problem itself.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think it’s ironic that you’re talking about defense on a play where the defender committed a foul by leading with his head that wasn’t called.

neil: Yes, very true as well!

Salfino: I’m not condoning that. The leading with the head is a whole separate issue. I do agree that all things should be reviewable with your two challenges.

neil: I just don’t think the intention at all is to boost the defense. I think it’s a weird relic rule that has sat untouched in the rulebook because it doesn’t come up that often, and it hasn’t changed due to inertia.

In fact, the committee has said they didn’t think about changing it because it doesn’t come up enough.

sara.ziegler: They just needed it to come up in the playoffs. Done!

neil: My guess is it will be changed soon because now it has come up in the playoffs. And we’ll wonder why it was ever a rule in the first place.

joshua.hermsmeyer: 🙏

Salfino: And what about the fourth-down call? I guess there is no defending crazy (not going for it but passing with Henne). Andy Reid just called the game like Mahomes was in.

neil: I have long been waiting for a team to exploit the defense believing with 100 percent conviction they are just going to try to draw them offsides, and snap it instead.

sara.ziegler: It was really a beautiful call.

Tony Romo yelling hysterically was all of us in that moment.

Salfino: But why not just sneak there? It’s 6 inches.

neil: It was a complete case of zigging when everyone thought you would zag.

Salfino: Should Reid be knocked for exposing Mahomes to an option run on third-and-1 (when he got injured)? When Mahomes was already hurt with the toe? Was that reckless?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Not in the playoffs, Mike. Everything is on the table in my view.

Salfino: A sneak is, like, 95 percent on that fourth down. I think the call was dumb. It worked, but you also risked stopping the clock with a Henne pass.

sara.ziegler: Plays are always brilliant when they work.

neil: That’s just Coaching 101.

Salfino: I think that was play-calling arrogance by Reid. The obvious call would have been better.

neil: I just think it’s funny that they really did run exactly the same play they would have with Mahomes.

Like it was irrelevant whether it was Mahomes or Henne back there.

Salfino: Like when the manager bats the guy where the guy he’s replacing hits in the order. “The second baseman bats second!” It’s the old Sparky Anderson lineup.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I wonder how much it hurts Eric Bieniemy’s stock that each time we see interesting plays we immediately talk about Reid but seldom mention Bieniemy.

Salfino: That’s interesting, Josh. I agree, I think this definitely hurts Bieniemy.

sara.ziegler: It seems so backwards, and it’s got to be so frustrating for Bieniemy — especially while guys who have spent all of four years as assistants are getting calls.

Salfino: When you’re a coordinator on the same side as the head coach, it only works for you if he’s going to be a CEO and not remain a play caller, or you’re sort of locked in. (Matt Nagy was an exception to that rule, of course.) That also hurts Bieniemy.

And the Bills’ Brian Daboll is also not going to get a job?

sara.ziegler: Yeah, seems like the coordinators for the best two offenses will be left in the cold.

But those two offenses will meet in the AFC championship game after the Buffalo Bills’ charmed season continued with a strong defensive performance in a win over Baltimore. That was another game that saw a brilliant young quarterback knocked out with a concussion!

joshua.hermsmeyer: This was another weird playoff loss for the Ravens. Five drives ended inside the 30, and three ended inside the 20, and they came away with 3 points. Three.

neil: Hollywood Brown is probably on to something with his complaints about the Ravens offense.

Salfino: But Lamar Jackson was finished in that game before he left, IMO. Again, the Ravens have no Plan B. No team wants to play left-handed, but they can’t even a little bit. Their stuff works every year against the 24 teams that suck, but the eight actual good teams are usually going to beat such a one-dimensional offense.

neil: Agreed. For a reigning MVP, Jackson could not really impose his will on the game when they needed to pass.

Salfino: In Jackson’s defense, the center snap issue with the Ravens is like what the Jets went through for about six games in 2018. Very hard to play QB when the shotgun snapper has the yips.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Another amazing stat: This was the first time in his career that Justin Tucker missed two field goals from inside the 50 in one playoff game.

Salfino: Josh is going to get mad at me, but this is a high school offense. By that I mean that the QB runs better than he throws, and the way you beat them is to make them pass. Everything is backwards.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I don’t get mad at you about that, Mike. I save my frustration for the Ravens’ front office. They need to give Lamar weapons in the passing game, not second-round running backs.

neil: And the sad thing is that the Ravens’ defense — the strength of the team — played really well. The wind made passing tough, but this was one of Josh Allen’s worst games of the season.

But when you muster just 3 points, that doesn’t matter.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Lamar had a better QBR than Allen, FWIW (55.7 vs. 51.0).

Salfino: Allen was legit terrible. That game was ripe for the taking.

sara.ziegler: The conditions in that game were something else.

What did you all think of the play breakdown? Allen threw 37 times, while the non-Allen rushers ran just nine times.

neil: That’s how the Bills play — they are a pass-first (and second, and third…) team.

Salfino: The flags weren’t really moving on the goal posts. I thought the wind was being hyped too much. I wrote about this years ago: Any wind less than 25 mph is not significant, and it was apparently around 10 to 20 mph.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Well,,,

It’s not a binary thing Mike. The effect is continuous.

Salfino: Of course. But 10 to 20 mph? Snore.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Plus there are field effects, and cross winds. I think if Justin Tucker misses two field goals, that’s all you need to know.

Salfino: The field goals, sure. Those, like Lamar’s passes, aren’t spirals.

neil: Either way, according to Elias, Buffalo’s 32 yards on the ground was fourth fewest all-time in a playoff win.

The Bills didn’t win with their ground attack

Fewest rushing yards in a playoff win, NFL history

Season Team Round Rush Yards
2014 Patriots Divisional 14
1999 Rams Super Bowl 29
1999 Rams Divisional 31
2020 Bills Divisional 32

Sources: Elias Sports Bureau, ESPN Stats & Information Group

sara.ziegler: So, then, what are you expecting to see this weekend? More of the same from the Bills? Henne heroics from the Chiefs? (Ugh, please, no.)

neil: I certainly hope Mahomes can play.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I suspect someone will try and trot out the “mild” concussion misnomer at some point this week.

Salfino: It would be a shame if Mahomes doesn’t go, but are they going to treat Mahomes like he’s a generic player with the protocol?

neil: Meanwhile, I wonder whether the Bills’ strengths offensively are not right to exploit the Chiefs’ defensive weaknesses. K.C. is much more vulnerable against the run than the pass, and we saw that with Cleveland (a hard running team). But as we said, the Bills are as pass-heavy as it gets.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Agreed, Neil. The book on how to beat the Bills is to convince them not to pass. But I think you’re gonna need Mahomes to actually put any points on the board.

sara.ziegler: All right, let’s wrap things up with your predictions for the conference championships. Who are we going to see in the Super Bowl?

joshua.hermsmeyer: “Salfino is typing”

sara.ziegler: 🤣

neil: I say Packers and Chiefs.

I think Mahomes finds a way to play through the protocols.

Salfino: So hard to do this without knowing Mahomes’s status. I’ll assume he plays and will go chalk: Chiefs-Packers.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I need to know more about Mahomes. That’s the entire deal, for me.

sara.ziegler: I can’t believe none of you will bet on Chad Henne.

Damn.

Salfino: Andy Reid will!

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Sara Ziegler is the sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Josh Hermsmeyer is a football writer and analyst.

Michael Salfino is a freelance writer in New Jersey. His work can be found on The Athletic and the Wall Street Journal.

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