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What To Make Of A Wild Wild-Card Weekend

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): The NFL’s wild-card weekend was magnificent chaos. It was the first year since 1991 that all four games finished within one score — and despite the many things that one-score games can mean, all of these games were legitimately close. And entertaining!

Let’s start with the upset that none of us saw coming: the Minnesota Vikings beating the New Orleans Saints in the Superdome. Can I just respond to all analysis in this chat with GIFs of Kirk Cousins yelling “You like that?”

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): LOL

Do you get to do that, though? You specifically didn’t Like That, for most of the season.

sara.ziegler: I’ve changed my mind.

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): Hahaha

To his credit, Cousins made a play — and Drew Brees could not really put anything together all game. You want to give credit to the Vikings defense, though, given how well Brees finished the season. Michael Thomas was barely a factor. The Vikings dared the Saints to beat them with Taysom Hill.

I think a story of this weekend is whether a quarterback in his 40s can be relied on in the postseason. Or maybe Brees randomly had a bad game. He seemed to miss a lot of open receivers, though.

sara.ziegler: Well, a quarterback in his 40s did win the Super Bowl last year

Salfino: Sort of. He certainly won the AFC Championship game.

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): And Taysom Hill is 29, so…

neil: To be fair, the Vikings’ pass defense has been really coming on recently. Over their past six games, they’re holding opposing pass offenses to an average of 10.6 expected points added (EPA) below their usual output per game.

And they held New Orleans 11.9 EPA below their norm.

Salfino: But then you look and see that Brees completed 78.8 percent of his passes. But for just 8.0 yards per completion and no big plays. This was the one game where you wanted Sean Payton to use Hill more; usually I scream at the TV when he does it. And what does that tell you about Brees?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Nothing for me at least. He’s old, but he was his normal, excellent self all year.

neil: Btw Josh, that is so funny about Hill being almost 30. Commentators can’t stop talking about him like he’s this young, exciting new player, the next generation of Saints QBs after Brees.

He’s already at (or past) prime age for QBs.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Right, if his talent was so game-changing we would probably have seen more of it sooner. Or maybe the NFL is just really conservative and slow to change. I suppose both can be true.

Salfino: You would think that if Payton was going to turn to Hill post-Brees, like the announcers say, he would have done it this year when Brees was hurt.

sara.ziegler: Why use Hill when you have Teddy Bridgewater?!?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Teddy would have led the receiver better:

sara.ziegler: LOL

Salfino: The other thing about this game was that Alvin Kamara, who was maybe still hurt, could not make any of those big plays that had been a signature in prior years. He had zero 100-yard rushing games this year, just 21 yards on Sunday, and he’s averaged under 6.0 yards per catch in seven of his last eight games (just 4.3 vs. the Vikings).

sara.ziegler: What do we make of Cousins’s performance?

Salfino: Cousins erased a lifetime of narrative with one play. At least until next week.

neil: Does it, as Kyle Rudolph suggested after the game, put to rest the notion that Cousins can’t perform in big games?

sara.ziegler: It does not.

Salfino: No, it doesn’t. It’s not like he was aces from start to finish.

sara.ziegler: He made one great throw.

It was a beautiful throw, but it was one throw.

Salfino: It really was an amazing throw and catch. I was worried that the best of Adam Thielen was behind us, too, and he was vintage Sunday after really a nothing, injury-plagued year.

neil: Cousins played pretty well though! His 77.8 QBR was second only to Russell Wilson this weekend.

sara.ziegler: I mean, no QBs really played great this weekend, so that seems like faint praise, Neil.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I guess my frustration with Cousins bashers is that the complaint has always been that he can’t make that one throw, when his numbers say that he can and does all the time. So I think we have to just pack the whole “can’t win in the big games” narrative into a tight little ball and fire it into the sun.

Salfino: I think it’s fair to say that in the big games, Cousins plays too conservatively and doesn’t make the throw like he made to Thielen. The thing that is frustrating about Cousins is that he can make all the throws, the big-time, tight-window ones, but seems to hold back and check down too much. Plus, his coach acts like he doesn’t believe in him: Look at all the third-and-longs he was put into with early-down runs.

sara.ziegler: Look, I’m thrilled that he won this one, and I hate narratives, too. But he has not typically performed all that well when the big games were on the line. So I’m gonna need more than one success to change my mind.

Oh, wait, I already said I changed my mind.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Vikings fans, smh.

neil: You have to fight anecdotal, small-sample evidence with more anecdotal, small-sample evidence.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Only takes one time to prove never wrong.

sara.ziegler: LOL

neil: So true!

sara.ziegler: Anyone want to argue about the last play of the game? Should there have been offensive pass interference there?

neil: NO.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’m fine with the no-call.

neil: It would have been ludicrous to do anything other than what they actually did.

Salfino: If they called it on the field, I could have lived with it. But to make it via replay would have been a joke. Now, it’s difficult for me to process why I think that. Maybe it’s just my anti-replay bias.

neil: That’s not bias; the (non-) call on the field specifically should take precedence!

sara.ziegler: They haven’t called that kind of contact all season, so it would have been ridiculous to call it there, in my unbiased opinion.

joshua.hermsmeyer: There was, I believe, a 6-inch height discrepancy between the receiver and defender, and P.J. Williams was giving away 70 pounds to Kyle Rudolph. The play wasn’t won or lost by the limited contact.

The real scandal was a fade route winning a game for anyone.

sara.ziegler: LOL, fair

neil: A generation of the fade route being broken in Madden has forever ruined the play. Bring back NFL 2K’s beautiful fade ball trajectories!

(Also, just like bring back 2K, period.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: Yes, Neil.

sara.ziegler: The other big upset of the weekend was Tennessee ending New England’s season — and maybe Tom Brady’s career there.

You know who the only member of this chat to correctly call that game was???

neil: I have a guess.

Salfino: Um, not me?

joshua.hermsmeyer: I shouldn’t have doubted Lord Tannehill, erm, Derrick Henry.

Salfino: I figured that Henry would run to nowhere, and Ryan Tannehill would spit the bit in the big spot, and that basically happened. What I did not see, but should have been obvious based on the entire season, was that Brady wouldn’t be able to generate points — even against a very inviting Tennessee defense. This game is over, IMO, if the Patriots score that touchdown in the second quarter after first-and-goal at the 1. That was the fatal error.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Edelman drop at the end seemed to take the energy out of Brady and the team as well.

Salfino: Guys, how does EPA say that Tannehill contributed more to the Titans win than Henry?

neil: EPA hates rushing?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Well, not everyone doing analytics hates Henry.

Salfino: Where is the truth? Are those of us who watched the game and believe that the Titans could not have possibly won without Henry — that Henry was by far the MVP of the game — just wrong?

neil: IDK. Passing is inherently more valuable than rushing, so it kinda makes sense that a great rushing game would only be equal to an OK passing game. But Tannehill had a 38.8 QBR, so … not exactly OK.

The bigger takeaway might be that the Pats offense — and Brady’s performance, specifically — is broken.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think that’s the conclusion we can all sort of agree on.

If you told Bill Belichick coming into the game that he’d give up 200 rushing yards but only 14 points, I think he’d take it.

neil: Including the wild-card game, the Pats’ passing offense was above average by EPA (adjusted for opponent) just once in their last nine games.

Salfino: Brady is not coming back from this. It’s been all year, basically. I know there are excuses, but Brady used to rise above excuses. He couldn’t really even manage that game.

neil: That’s the thing for me, Mike. A lot of Brady’s whole career mythos has been about rising above scattershot receiving groups. He has made due much better with worse in the past.

(He also had the King of Making QBs Look Good for a brief, magical spell, but that’s a different tale for a different time.)

sara.ziegler: So will Brady play again?

Salfino: I would hope that if he doesn’t come back to the Patriots, he just retires. Seeing him like this for the Chargers would be silly.

neil: Well, who would the Pats get who’s better than Brady at this point?

ELI??????

(Fingers crossed.)

Salfino: Would Eli be an upgrade over Brady? Nah.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think Brady should retire, but I believe he will come back if the coaching staff stays intact and they add a stud receiver.

Salfino: Other than Los Angeles, where would he go? And Philip Rivers had 7.8 yards per attempt this year and is probably not finished at all. At least according to that stat, he has a lot more in the tank than Brady does.

sara.ziegler: Hard to picture Brady anywhere else, for sure.

neil: Could the Broncos bring in both Peyton Manning and Brady (and Flacco!) in the span of a few years? Maybe they can also someday get Nick Foles and Russell Wilson, to acquire every Super Bowl-winning QB from 2012-2018.

Salfino: The Broncos are seemingly very happy with Lock, as is football twitter.

sara.ziegler: The other upset of the weekend — according to Elo, at least — was Seattle over Philly, though that one wasn’t nearly as shocking as the other two.

Elo, of course, couldn’t have known that Carson Wentz would get knocked out of the game.

Salfino: I feel so bad for Wentz. That was a very dirty play, in real time.

You could tell something was wrong when he got up. All running QBs should be petrified by the refs saying after the game that the hit by Jadeveon Clowney was perfectly legit because Wentz was a runner.

neil: But it was good to see Seattle up to their usual tricks again, barely beating a team led by a 40-year-old literal high school football coach playing on one leg by game’s end.

“You don’t think we can keep it close with THESE guys? Then you don’t know us!”

joshua.hermsmeyer: A comfortable win? Seattle would never.

Salfino: Yeah, why were the Seahawks running so much? Fourteen first-down runs for 19 yards and only nine pass attempts from Wilson. They just refuse to use Wilson like they should. They should have tried to blow the Eagles out.

sara.ziegler: The Seahawks can’t help themselves — they just have to run.

Interesting that the score of Sunday’s game was exactly the same as the November matchup between these two two.

neil: 17-9 is exactly the kind of game these teams play.

Salfino: This was the JV team though.

neil: The Eagles also played a 17-9 game against the Cowboys between their 17-9 games against Seattle! The Seahawks or Eagles (or both) have been involved in each of the NFL’s last four 17-9 games. #FunFact

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’m glad Seattle won so we can see this rematch.

Salfino: The Packers are like the Seahawks. This is the Pythagorean Win Bowl. I mean, look at Green Bay’s differential: 63 points. They should have won nine to 10 games.

neil: Back in my day, playoff teams blew out weak opposition.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Right?

Salfino: I think the big reason for Green Bay’s point differential is that since 2014, Aaron Rodgers has slowly turned into Alex Smith.

Rodgers treats interception risk like it’s plutonium.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think I’m rooting for Green Bay to implode so the McCarthy redemption is fully realized.

sara.ziegler: LOLOLOL

So let’s talk about the other playoff game, which might have been the most entertaining: Houston came back to beat Buffalo in a game that really set the tone for the whole wild weekend.

joshua.hermsmeyer: That game was nuts. Best game of the weekend, by far.

neil: Poor Buffalo. 😔

Salfino: This sums up my view on that game and Josh Allen:

sara.ziegler: Mike, I actually LOL’d when I saw that tweet.

I read it out loud to my husband and couldn’t stop laughing.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Peak Salfino.

Salfino: He seemed to go crazy at the end of that game. The lateral in that spot was maybe the most reckless play I’ve ever seen, adjusting for game situation.

And then he missed the easy throws in the second half, too, after playing flawlessly in the first half. Allen is all tools, no toolbox.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The opening drive was so creative and bold, and it showcased all the best parts of Allen’s game (like catching TDs instead of throwing them — hey-o). When he was forced to stand and throw, things got more dicey, and it was clear — to me at least — that Buffalo wasn’t heading deep into the playoffs with Allen playing at that level.

sara.ziegler: I’m still so confused about why Buffalo went away from that.

Salfino: You mean running Allen more, Sara? I agree. Also, way too much Frank Gore in that game for Buffalo.

The question for the Bills is whether you can learn accuracy. I can’t think of many (if any) examples, though. I think it’s like free-throw shooting, in that when you are bad early in your career, you usually don’t get much better.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Devin Singletary was a beast! So difficult to tackle.

I was getting frustrated on Houston’s behalf.

Salfino: The Bills have done a great job containing Singletary all year.

sara.ziegler: LOL

neil: Maybe the best Buffalo can hope for is that Allen becomes Andre Drummond, who had a 38 percent free-throw percentage in his first five NBA seasons and has improved to 60 percent since then.

But 60 percent still ain’t great. And Allen still ain’t accurate.

sara.ziegler: Were you at all impressed with Houston’s comeback? Or was this mostly about Buffalo’s collapse?

Salfino: Yeah, Allen’s collapse. But it wasn’t exactly shocking. Neither was Deshaun Watson eventually finding something.

neil: It seemed like a “here we go again” moment for Houston, harking back to their flop against Indy last season.

But they eventually flipped that script.

Salfino: Now Watson gets Will Fuller back, and he’s totally different with him, as is the entire Houston offense. So they could keep up with the Chiefs in Week 19, I think. I’m not predicting it, but it’s possible, despite how well the Chiefs D has played of late.

sara.ziegler: What a good segue into our predictions!

We did NOT do well last week, guys.

neil: In related news, home teams did NOT do well.

Home games are supposed to be a HUGE advantage in the NFL playoffs. Not so much last weekend.

sara.ziegler: Mike was 0-4, Neil was 1-3, and Josh and I were 2-2.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I enjoy this result. Ice up, Mike.

Salfino: OMG, 0-4? Sad. I was right on the Bills, but the game was wrong.

This is what I tell my bookie every week.

OK — on to Cincinnati.

sara.ziegler: So can we do better this week? Who y’all got?

joshua.hermsmeyer: BAL – KC – SF – SEA.

neil: Ugh, I gotta go chalk again. SF, BAL, KC, GB. Too many wide spreads because of all these damn upsets.

Salfino: BAL-KC-SF-GB (even though the weather forecast at Lambeau is not bad). Baltimore opened at minus-10, and that seems light. I thought 13.

And based on it dropping to 8.5 in one casino and maybe everywhere, it seems the early money is decidedly on the Titans.

sara.ziegler: You guys … can I take the Vikings? Can I pull that trigger???

joshua.hermsmeyer: Do eeet.

Salfino: Sara, you have to take the Vikings. You sort of came to their defense last week after Josh and I bailed. You don’t want to reverse jinx.

sara.ziegler: OK, OK — I’m doing it.

Baltimore, Kansas City, Minnesota, Seattle.

neil: Looks like you really do Like That after all.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Sara Ziegler is the sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter 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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