sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): The Buffalo Bills and Cleveland Browns each won their first playoff games since the 1990s, Lamar Jackson put an end to the “he can’t win in the playoffs” narrative (which came about after two whole games), and Sean Payton got slimed. Quite the weekend in the NFL!
It took some questionable play calls and even more dubious officiating, but we made it through the “super” wild-card weekend, and we’re left with an eight-team field for the divisional round.
Let’s start with the biggest upset, by the Vegas line, anyway: the Browns over the Steelers. Cleveland jumped all over Pittsburgh, recovering an errant snap for a touchdown on the first play of the game and going up 28-0 by the end of the first quarter. What happened at Heinz Field?
Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): I thought these teams were evenly matched and were both playing the only teams in the AFC playoffs that they could beat.
The game was like Super Bowl XLVIII, in that it started with a horrible football folly. And it just kept going sideways for Pittsburgh the entire quarter.
neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): Many of the Steelers’ late-season problems were encapsulated in this one playoff game. Ben Roethlisberger had a terrible first half. Turnovers wrecked them. They couldn’t run the ball (nor should they have even tried, given the hole they were instantly in). And perhaps most shocking, their defense was horrific. This had been one of the best defenses in the NFL, particularly early in the season, but you would never have known that from watching Sunday’s game. I guess you are right, Josh — teams can’t really count on defense as a sustainable path to winning.
joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): Well, no victory laps on that particular stance for me today, Neil. There was a pretty fantastic game I’m sure we’ll talk about soon that featured great defense — and it was completely by design. But for Pittsburgh, it is pretty incredible how far they’ve fallen in Elo since Week 11.
sara.ziegler: Wow, that’s stark.
neil: Injuries, exhaustion and regression to the mean — a bad combination.
Salfino: The Steelers have one way to play and keep getting exposed in horrible matchups when their pass rush isn’t first rate, which it hasn’t been since the injury to linebacker Bud Dupree. Covering wide receivers in the slot with linebackers is bad practice, and it keeps happening.
In my opinion, the Steelers had the biggest in-season collapse since the 1986 Jets, who started 10-1. But at least that team won a playoff game and would have won another if not for, ironically, the Browns (and Mark Gastineau).
joshua.hermsmeyer: I give the Steelers credit for staying competitive after being down 28-0. Everyone knew they were cooked, but Mike Tomlin kept them playing hard. He’s a great coach.
neil: I thought they might even be able to claw back, but that 40-yard Nick Chubb TD was a killer.
Salfino: I love Tomlin, but those punts were mystifying, given the way his defense was playing, or rather not playing. Especially the second punt, when they were down just 13. He just could not accept that his defense was horrible. I mean, he also punted down 28 and inside the Browns’ 40-yard line, which was historically rare.
joshua.hermsmeyer: And that wasn’t even the worst punt yesterday!
neil: That was awful. I felt like the whole weekend was full of those types of terrible punts.
Salfino: Though the Browns were gutted in garbage time, they played essentially a perfect postseason game. But they’re going to be demolished next week in Kansas City, which has to now be the happiest team in the postseason. It’s going to be like a mini-bye week for the Chiefs.
sara.ziegler: The Browns will be joined in the next round by the other AFC North playoff team, the Baltimore Ravens. Though Tennessee jumped out to a 10-point lead on Sunday, the Ravens came roaring back, tying the game on a gorgeous 48-yard run from Jackson.
Was this game more about how Jackson played, or the calls made by the Titans?
joshua.hermsmeyer: Great way to frame this game. I’d say the game was about Jackson, the Baltimore defense and an absolutely egregious punt by Vrabel on fourth-and-2, down 5 with 10 minutes remaining. It’s the most cowardly punt we have on records, and it cost Tennessee almost 8 points in win probability.
sara.ziegler: It was just … inexplicable? I will never understand the obsession with field position over, you know, SCORING MORE POINTS.
neil: Even though Henry was having a bad game, you’d think you would go for it with him on fourth-and-2 if your entire identity is based around his success in short-yardage situations.
sara.ziegler: If he can’t make it there, then what are you even doing?
joshua.hermsmeyer: It literally was inexplicable. Vrabel had no real explanation for it. “Just decided to punt” ranks up there with the biggest non-answers in coaching history.
Salfino: The NFL needs to save coaches from themselves by making touchbacks on punts back to the 30-yard line. That will mostly fix this. Nothing else will. They just think we’re nerds.
neil: I like that idea, Mike. And it seems to fit with the NFL’s overall rules momentum toward eliminating kicking plays.
Salfino: I give Jackson and the Ravens credit. The big story was that the Ravens made an in-game adjustment to avoid bad matchups against multiple-tight end formations. And the Ravens just destroyed Derrick Henry, avenging last year’s playoff loss.
neil: I thought it was telling that, in this battle of running teams, Baltimore decisively won the EPA battle on the ground. Jackson was a big part of that.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Right, Neil, and I think it was by design from Baltimore, but it wasn’t the key in my view. The key was to not give up the short plays and then rally to tackle Henry. NOT AN EASY JOB. But the Ravens got it done. Tannehill was just 2-5 for 46 yards on passes that traveled at least 15 yards in the air, and Henry averaged just 2.2 yards per carry for 40 total yards rushing.
Salfino: Offensively, the Ravens are such a knuckleball team, to take a term from my colleague Scott Pianowski of Yahoo. They are setting all-time rushing records in a passing era. Teams just are not equipped to deal with this explosive running at this level. We figure that you can shut down a run game by putting men in the box, but nothing right now seems to be stopping Baltimore and Jackson.
sara.ziegler: So the Ravens will now face the Bills on Saturday night after Buffalo took care of business against Indianapolis. Indy kept that one close, though! I thought for sure it was going to end with a Philip Rivers interception, but alas, no.
Was anyone else worried by the Bills not quite putting Indy away? Might that mean problems for them against the Ravens?
neil: Rivers and the Colts might have exposed Buffalo’s defense some, and we were kind of already worried about the Bills there going into the playoffs.
Salfino: Rivers played GREAT. This was the best game of the week by far. The QB play was phenomenal on both sides. But the story here was bad efficiency and bad decision-making in the red zone. Through three quarters, the Colts had 282 yards and 10 points — 28.2 yards per point when the average is about 15. They ended with 24 points on 472 yards, or 1 point every 19.7 yards — just awful.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I think the way you beat the Bills is very similar to how you beat the Titans — it’s just even more important to encourage them to run. The Bills don’t have a Henry, and Allen is much better than Tannehill. But if Baltimore can replicate its defensive effort against the Titans, I like their chances.
Salfino: The Bills don’t run, though, Josh — to their credit. They are very aggressive passing.
neil: Six different Indy players had at least 30 receiving yards, which probably isn’t too different from Baltimore’s ideal passing game plan. Lamar being able spread the ball around against Tennessee (even if they were mostly short passes) really opened up space for him to run.
joshua.hermsmeyer: They ran a lot against Indy, Mike! It was because Indy was taking away the deep stuff pretty well.
Salfino: Well, they had 37 passing plays and 21 runs, with 11 of those by Allen. The Bills’ running backs ran only 10 times!
joshua.hermsmeyer: Well, we’re talking about Baltimore being a running team with Lamar.
neil: I will say that the game script didn’t necessarily scream RUN! for most of the game. Buffalo didn’t lead by more than a TD except for about five total minutes in the fourth quarter.
Salfino: My point is that if the Ravens are counting on the Bills to run, they’re in big trouble. This is a high-flying passing offense, period.
joshua.hermsmeyer: The idea is to encourage them to run with light boxes, and give yourself a structural advantage against the Allen passes when they do come. And it’s a winning combo if you have the defensive backs to get it done.
neil: Either way, Buffalo scored “only” 27, which was tied for its second fewest in a game since Nov. 8.
Salfino: Neil, I think the Bills’ points were a function of the Colts offense. Buffalo had the ball for only 26 minutes, and they had 20 fewer plays. The Bills just could not get Rivers off the field.
neil: That’s a good point — and Baltimore was actually pretty close to that time of possession split against Tennessee.
sara.ziegler: Right — it does seem like the Ravens offense could do the same thing, no?
Salfino: Yes, Sara, I definitely think the Ravens could do the same thing. The Colts ran it well, too. Baltimore is going to have to beat Buffalo with its offense, IMO.
sara.ziegler: So over in the NFC, the biggest upset by far was the Los Angeles Rams taking down the Seattle Seahawks on the road. The Rams lost starting quarterback John Wolford to a neck injury and had to turn to Jared Goff and his nine working fingers — and those two QBs were still better than Russell Wilson (at least by QBR). Is L.A.’s defense this good? Or was Seattle just … not very good?
Salfino: Well, I thought the Rams were going to win the game because they were going to win the battle of the passing game no matter who their QB was. And they did. Not only do the Rams have the only defense in football that is likely to dictate outcomes, but Wilson hasn’t passed well since October, when the Seahawks basically decided to put the passing game in the deep freeze.
neil: The Rams were the all-defense team (made even more so because of the QB injuries you mentioned), and the Seahawks were the all-offense team (relative to their mediocre defense). And the Rams’ defense showed up and just dominated the Seahawks’ offense.
Salfino: I think the Rams have the two best defensive players in football. One is a shutdown corner (Jalen Ramsey) and the other (Aaron Donald) allows them to get immense pressure on QBs without blitzing. The rest of their defensive line is solid, too. Wilson was hopeless against standard pressure on Saturday.
joshua.hermsmeyer: The legend of Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley grows.
Salfino: Staley is fascinating. Should he be discounted for having two of the bluest of blue chips? Is that defense portable? (I doubt it.)
joshua.hermsmeyer: Yes, I think you should discount him, Mike. But not too much. Gotta give him credit for correctly using the players he does have.
Salfino: Looks like Donald will be OK after missing some of Saturday’s game.
I’m predicting the Rams to win outright at Green Bay, which is a paper tiger.
joshua.hermsmeyer: (We give GB a 78 percent shot to win, for the record.)
neil: I predict Sean McVay, who was coy on whether Goff might start until about 30 minutes before kickoff, might be a bit less than fully forthcoming about those injury statuses.
sara.ziegler: Instead of starting, Goff closed.
neil: Haha, yes. And did fine. So maybe those guys are OK, too.
Btw, if you knew Jared Goff would have a 93.1 passer rating with a messed-up thumb, and Cam Akers would have a huge game on the ground as well, you’d know the Seahawks were in huge trouble. I’m not sure that formula carries against the Packers, but maybe!
sara.ziegler: Salfino says so!
Salfino: Goff was bad for most of that game, no matter what passer rating says. I don’t think he matters against the Packers if he can just manage the game.
joshua.hermsmeyer: He was hurt!
Give the guy a small break.
Salfino: Fair. But, I mean, we know who he is.
Salfino: Remember, you can pretty much cross out Davante Adams’s production, with him going up against Ramsey. Let’s see how the Packers deal with that matchup.
OK, I have to put away the Rams pom-poms. (I don’t even like the Rams!)
In the other “backup QB needing to play a big role” game of the weekend, Taylor Heinicke was pressed into action for Washington on Saturday. He kept Football Team in the game, but Tampa Bay proved too much in the end. The Bucs defense — best in the league against the run — gave up only 40 yards on the ground to players other than Heinicke, but I was pretty surprised that he passed for 306 yards against them (and ran for 46).
Salfino: Guys, does Heinicke show that, gulp, QBs are fungible, too? What kind of madness was that? Against a pretty good pass defense.
sara.ziegler: I always wonder how hard it is for defenses when they’re not prepared for a backup QB.
neil: Yeah. We’ve often speculated that guys who don’t have much tape might have an unexpected advantage in that first game out.
Salfino: This dude was out of the league for two years, though!
joshua.hermsmeyer: Heinicke was eighth of 12 QBs this weekend in Total QBR, even with the counting stats. I’m not sure we need to throw out our “QBs matter” priors.
neil: OK, so Kurt Warner he ain’t.
neil: But I admired the effort.
sara.ziegler: The Bucs will face the Saints, again, in the next round, after Drew Brees and New Orleans beat Chicago in the biggest slog of the weekend. The most interesting part of that game was the Nickelodeon broadcast of it, which I found delightful. Slime cannons in the end zone! A question about players needing to pee during the game! It was so much better than the on-field action.
Salfino: I wish I watched that. It got away from me.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I couldn’t watch it — I don’t get Nickelodeon. But from what I saw on Twitter, it was a treat.
neil: Losing 21-9 is such a “Bears playoff game” kind of score.
(At least the 9 wasn’t three FGs — it was 1 FG + a TD as time expired.)
Salfino: As for the next game, don’t most teams that win the first two also win the third? People think it’s less likely. Is it more likely?
sara.ziegler: I have no idea if the axiom “it’s hard to beat a team three times” is true.
neil: Yes, once you go 2-0 against a team, it’s actually not very hard to go 3-0.
Salfino: The Saints are the best team in the NFC by far, and I think they win this game easily, despite how well Tom Brady is playing. Brady’s recent performance has been historic, actually:
joshua.hermsmeyer: Just gonna throw out that 340 yards is such a weird cut-off.
neil: I’m excited about Brees vs. Brady, duel of the ancient QBs. It’ll be just the eighth time they’ve faced off, and obviously their first-ever playoff meeting.
sara.ziegler: The Saints did not look great to me against the Bears, the slime of the broadcast notwithstanding. But I don’t know how much stock to put in that, really.
neil: Idk, I think it was not too different a game from what I was expecting. The Bears’ defense is good. But their offense is not.
Salfino: I mean, the Saints had 27 first downs to 11 for the Bears and had the ball for 39 of 60 minutes. How much better can you be? That was complete domination.
neil: Shoutout to Latavius Murray: He blocked Khalil Mack AND scored a TD on the same play, which not many people can say they’ve done.
(AND got slimed!)
joshua.hermsmeyer: I think the champion will come out of the AFC again this season. It really is the better conference.
sara.ziegler: Yeah, no argument there from me.
neil: I’m not totally sure how much we learned about the big picture in the super wild-card round. We had a few upsets, but they happened to teams (Seattle, Pittsburgh) we had concerns about beforehand. And perhaps the Bills didn’t handle Indy as easily as expected, or the Bucs didn’t totally dominate Heinicke. But mostly things played out about how you’d have predicted.
Salfino: The divisional round is usually the best weekend of football in every season, and I think the right teams are in it. Brady has a chance the way he’s playing. Ravens-Bills and Rams-Packers are going to be great games, IMO. I think only one is basically no contest: the Brownies against the Chiefs (though I hate rubbing salt into wounds on the 34th anniversary of The Drive).
joshua.hermsmeyer: The divisional round doesn’t have many close contests, and I think that’s interesting. Our model says the most exciting game will be Baltimore vs. Buffalo, and I agree — but we give the Ravens just a 35 percent chance at winning.
sara.ziegler: Well, since we can’t get more sliming, let’s at least keep our fingers crossed for some quality football.
Check out our latest NFL predictions.