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The NFL’s Wild-Card Weekend Was Weirder And Dumber Than It Had Any Right To Be

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): Though only a third of the games were competitive on the first weekend of the NFL playoffs, we still got plenty of weirdness across the board. An inadvertent whistle! A tight end throwing a touchdown! Players forgetting that a ref needs to place the ball

Lots to talk about before we move on to the divisional round, so let’s start with the wildest of the wild-card games: San Francisco at Dallas. The Niners looked like they had this one in hand until a fourth-quarter comeback from the Cowboys — and that’s when things got weird. Guys, why did both of these teams seem so desperate to lose the game?

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): Sometimes you just have to commit a penalty at the worst possible time. And then watch your opponent do the same.

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): I thought this was the worst weekend of playoff football in this round in history. Just brutal. Even the “good” games weren’t really good or actually that competitive. 

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): Agreed, Mike. I can’t remember watching as many games and thinking, “Wow, this is over by the second quarter,” as I did this wild-card weekend.

Salfino: I thought the Niners were better than the Cowboys and still feel that way. They have a physical component to their game that Dallas lacks. Neither QB played that well: Jimmy Garoppolo was great in the first half but bad in the second, while Dak Prescott was bad throughout. They both made a critical error that sort of canceled each other out. But San Francisco always has that running game to lean on.

neil: On paper, Dallas had the better resume. I don’t know whether that makes them better, though — and you can’t really afford to take that many penalties (and also not protect your QB at all) and still win. And that was all before the worst last-play play call in NFL history.

Salfino: Dallas’s offense has been a problem for many weeks now. They have no ability to make a big play. Dak has turned into checkdown Charlie. You can’t have Dalton Schultz be your top-targeted receiver and have any explosion on offense. Those two things are highly correlated.

sara.ziegler: And yet they got things going on that last drive when San Francisco played such a soft defense.

If not for their horrific clock management, Dallas really could have won that game.

Salfino: Yeah, I was shocked, Sara, that the success rate for a 40-yard Hail Mary is 11 percent, according to ESPN. That seems so high to me. A Hail Mary from the 25-yard line really has no better odds. So the Cowboys, of course, were very stupid at the end. Perhaps foolishly, I never felt on that last drive that Dallas really had a chance. But I guess they had a 22 percent chance if they had just thrown two bombs from the 40. 

neil: That assumes Dak would have time in the pocket to even let the receivers get down there. But obviously you have to take a shot at it.

Salfino: Maybe the rate is high because getting the ball into the end zone with the receivers there from the 40 is relatively easy.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I didn’t hate the call there from offensive coordinator Kellen Moore. It was kind of a massively long “two to get it” situation, so the QB draw — if executed correctly by the players — gives you a more manageable shot on the second throw to the end zone. 

neil: My issue is that Dak and company were completely dependent on how fast a ref could sprint from the 50-yard line to the 25, grab the ball, spot it and then let them get the snap off. You’re going to let your entire season ride on THAT?? 

Salfino: Dak not knowing the ref needs to spot the ball was really bad. I don’t think he knew it in the postgame, either.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Dak said they practiced the situation a ton, and I believe him. Just need to get up there and spike it!

sara.ziegler: I didn’t hate the play-call, but there wasn’t quite enough time left — you can only do that if your players know exactly what to do … and it turns out that they didn’t. Or at the very least, they forgot about the ref’s involvement.

What I wouldn’t give to see tape of their practices to see if they remembered to look for the ref!

neil: I just can’t think of another playoff game where the game ended on a run up the middle by the losing team with no timeouts.

It’s the worst way to lose because you never even gave yourself a chance.

Salfino: The dumbest play of the entire game on both sides was the fake punt. What was Josh Norman doing? How do you call that against a team’s base defense if you’re Dallas, and how do you not cover the gunner if you’re a starting defensive back? One of the dumbest plays all around in playoff history. And then the delay of game and all the time running off for no reason afterwards, the French kiss.

neil: Yes, leaving the punt team on for first down after the fake punt and then taking the delay was one of about 5,000 Cowboy mistakes in this game.

sara.ziegler: Bet Dallas would have liked those wasted seconds from after the fake punt back for the end of the game!

joshua.hermsmeyer: Speaking of coaching in Dallas, do the Cowboys let Kellen walk and stick with McCarthy? That seems like a terrible idea.

sara.ziegler: Feels like the wrong move to me, Josh. 

Salfino: I want to say something about Deebo Samuel, who is the most fascinating player in football now. He’s a throwback to Lenny Moore and Bobby Mitchell, when the halfback position in the late 1950s and early ’60s was a hybrid RB/WR position. Moore is still the only player in NFL history with at least 40 TDs rushing and 40 TDs receiving, and I think Samuel will eventually join him. This just works.

neil: I love Deebo. He is truly carrying the banner for positionless football.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Kyle Shanahan’s first drive with Deebo was the best part of the game for me. Opening with the run with him and then the entire script after — from the play-action boot to the run off of it later — was perfect.

neil: And I loved the call to go to him on that third-and-10 that really looked like it succeeded, then was overturned on replay (but should never have been that close, because the Cowboys should have known they would give Deebo the ball there when a first down ends the game).

Salfino: That pitch play when they run it inside is awesome.

sara.ziegler: This brings up another point, though: We need to talk about Kyle Shanahan and his play-calling down the stretch.

He called a punt at midfield with just under three minutes left in the fourth quarter that kind of blew my mind. Our friend Seth Walder of ESPN couldn’t understand it either:

Is there anything more disappointing than a coach who’s supposed to be analytical botching so many “analytics” calls?

Salfino: Kyle is a fake sharp when it comes to things like going for it. I think him punting on fourth-and-1 from midfield in that spot was borderline criminal.

The thing about not going for it there is that it seems like the offense always gets right to where you punted from in seconds. 

neil: And that sequence led to a few penalties, which wasn’t even the most penalty-addled sequence of the game, in a game that wasn’t even the most egregiously officiated game of the weekend!

joshua.hermsmeyer: Yeah, I don’t think Kyle is “analytics” in any way that really matters. Instead the Niners coaches are just master tacticians, hyper focused on finding little edges in how they disguise their plays. It’s the school of the primacy of the play call and far less focus on general strategy.

Salfino: 👏

neil: In retrospect, I find it amazing that the Cowboys came as close as they did. That the Niners didn’t just put the game away after the Cowboys’ mistakes seemingly handed them the win. 

joshua.hermsmeyer: Jimmy G’s throw on that terrible interception had a lot to do with it, Neil. 

sara.ziegler: And we don’t even have time to talk about the other wildness of that game — the glare in the stadium, the punt that hit the scoreboard, the fans throwing things at the refs, etc.

Salfino: Jerry Jones needs to throw some shades down on that roof.

neil: It’s the most technologically advanced stadium in the NFL, though. LOL

sara.ziegler: So let’s move on to the worst officiated game of the weekend: Las Vegas at Cincinnati. The Bengals needed a goal-line interception with just seconds left to secure their first playoff win since Jan. 6, 1991 — though they got a little help from the refs earlier in the game, when a ref’s whistle blew during a Joe Burrow-to-Tyler Boyd touchdown that should have invalidated the score … but didn’t. 

Salfino: I love how the NFL tried to tell us we didn’t hear the whistle when we heard it. That we actually heard it much later.

neil: My take on the whistle might be unpopular. The ball was in the air and like 90 percent of the way into Boyd’s hands when we heard it blow on replay. It would have been a bigger injustice to overturn a TD that was going to happen anyway over an inadvertent whistle that late in the play.

sara.ziegler: I think I agree with that, Neil. The whistle didn’t seem to have any actual bearing on the play, did it?

Salfino: But it’s a whistle, and rules are rules. The play is dead.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think I agree as well. Seems we all share the unpopular opinion. Except Mike. Weird.

Salfino: I heard the whistle before the throw. I thought it was weird that Joe Burrow — who is sharp — would step out of bounds.

neil: It blows in midair.

The ball is already floating over the end zone when it blows.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Its Blows In Midair: The Story of The 2021 Raiders.

sara.ziegler: LOLOL

Salfino: I don’t get the, “Hey, what’s fair here?” I don’t get the “replay assist.” What is going on? You have to live with the bad calls.

sara.ziegler: Yeah, Mike — the biggest problem for me wasn’t the outcome of the play, it was the lack of acknowledgement of what happened.

If the refs want to say, “We’re ignoring the rule here,” that’s fine with me in this case. But they just kind of ignored the entire situation.

neil: They should have blamed it on a rogue fan.

“Wasn’t us!”

Salfino: I used to hate the fans who blew whistles in the stands and messed up the telecast.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Used to?

Salfino: I don’t notice it much anymore.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Ah, I thought you had come to appreciate the trolling.

Salfino: Maybe because I have so many games on.

neil: Mike, do you have a DIY Octobox with just eight different TVs?

Salfino: The channel that has all the games and an iPad and another TV.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I just look at the box scores and scream on Twitter.

sara.ziegler: We all know that’s true. 🤣

At the end of that game, the Raiders gave us a fresh example of why spiking the ball isn’t always a great idea. On their final drive, they got down to the 9-yard line and spiked it at 30 seconds left, thereby throwing away first down. They followed that up with incompletions on second and third down, and then they had just one more down to work with, with 17 seconds still on the clock.

Why are teams still so reliant on spikes when they need the downs more than they need the time?

Salfino: The spike play needs to be outlawed. It’s almost always stupid. I guess 5 percent of the time it makes sense — maybe. If you can snap the ball, just run a play. It’s a lack of preparation, to me, that the team doesn’t have a play called.

neil: I never understood why the spike was even legal under intentional grounding rules. But that’s another can of worms I don’t feel like opening.

sara.ziegler: LOL

joshua.hermsmeyer: Yeah, there’s not much good about the spike. And as a general observation, spikes in late-game situations are often the result of wasted timeouts earlier. 

Salfino: When Dan Marino faked a spike in 1994 against the Jets, that showed the spike itself was stupid. But it’s only been 27 years. The coaches will figure it out one day.

sara.ziegler: Will they tho?

joshua.hermsmeyer: whispers: no

Salfino: I was not impressed by the Bengals, BTW. They’re going to run themselves right out of the postseason.

joshua.hermsmeyer: 300 yards on offense, woof. As good as the Chiefs! 😛

Salfino: Yes, I may regret my “as good as the Chiefs” take, but they were when they played.

Joe Mixon hasn’t been the same since he tested positive for COVID-19. He has no juice. They have to pass to beat the opponent, and then if they want to run to beat the clock, fine.

neil: I agree on Cincy, Mike. The Raiders were one of the worst teams to ever make the playoffs in terms of point differential. A home playoff game against them should not have been close for a true contender.

sara.ziegler: The four other games this weekend weren’t all that close at all. Let’s start with the one we thought would be fun: New England at Buffalo. That game was very cold but not very exciting. Mike, can the Bills avoid building a dome now after that win?

joshua.hermsmeyer: I will — for once — defend Mike a little and note that Mike’s dome take was shared by another smart person: Mina Kimes. But it certainly doesn’t look like California Josh Allen was behind center against the Patriots. That was East Coast Winter Assassin Josh Allen.

Salfino: I give the Bills credit because they turned to Devin Singletary, who was there all along but ignored for some reason. He gives them a real RB running threat, and then of course you can go pedal to the metal with Allen running, too. They are not a dome team anymore. They adjusted after that game vs. NE in the wind.

neil: That was as perfect an offensive game as we’ve ever seen. Literally perfect.

joshua.hermsmeyer: It was glorious.

sara.ziegler: I still don’t really understand how that happened.

Salfino: The Patriots were really exposed as being far, far away from championship caliber. They are just so slow. It was like they were running in the mud.

neil: That was the Bills’ revenge for the Pats dominating them for so many years. Just total catharsis.

sara.ziegler: The Bills will head to Kansas City this weekend to face the Chiefs. I thought for a hot second that Mike would in fact be forced to eat a bug live during this chat, but alas, K.C. got its act together and took care of Pittsburgh.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The bug libel must end. They are delicious.

Salfino: Bug-free still. 

neil: That was another case early on of, “Guys, do you know who you are playing? This should not be close.”

Salfino: To the surprise of no one, I like the Bills in the game against K.C., but it’s going to be a field goal either way, I believe.

The Chiefs offense is back, 100 percent.

neil: This looks like one of the best divisional round matchups ever on paper.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The “on paper” matchups this playoffs are off the charts. The actual games, meh.

Salfino: The big on-paper thing is the quarterbacks are evenly matched, IMO, for K.C. and Buffalo.

neil: Everything always seems better on paper.

Which is where, as nerds, we live.

So things are always great for us! LOL

sara.ziegler: Hahaha

neil: Actually, we live in our calculators. 

Not on grass, where games are played.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I live in an expanded spreadsheet cell, Neil. Not sure where you post up.

neil: LOL

I’ll have to vlookup my current location.

sara.ziegler: So terrible, LOL. Just awful.

The other game we thought could be interesting was Arizona at Los Angeles, but the Rams just ran roughshod over the Cardinals, who couldn’t seem to get anything going. Matthew Stafford threw two touchdowns and scored on an awkward quarterback sneak for his first rushing TD since 2016

neil: That game was awful in every way, from Kyler Murray’s Carson Wentz-like pick-six to the terrible injury to Budda Baker.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Stafford should be banned from QB sneaks for at least a year. That was horrible, and he should be ashamed.

sara.ziegler: The refs should have let the original “no TD” call stand as punishment.

Salfino: I thought the Rams offense was very unimpressive given the struggles by the Arizona defense the last five games or so. But the Cardinals and Murray were just shockingly bad. So bad that it’s reasonable to evaluate everything. This Cardinals offense hasn’t scored more than two touchdowns in six games, all without DeAndre Hopkins. And Hopkins seems to be aging out of dominance.

neil: I was ready for the first round to be over before Monday night, and they should just not have played that game at all if Arizona was going to come out unprepared and unfocused like that.

Salfino: What do we make of Kliff Kingsbury? 

joshua.hermsmeyer: Kliff had a plan, Mike!

sara.ziegler: Ah, yes, the no turnover plan. What a good thing to hang your hat on.

Salfino: That is such a luddite view. How can Kingsbury take this seriously? It’s so obviously stupid.

neil: Things like this are why it was nice to see the Real Sean McVay beat McVay Lite.

Sometimes the original is just better, you know?

Salfino: I guess the plan was to not let Stafford beat the Rams.

sara.ziegler: And L.A. will next face Tampa Bay, which answered the question “do we really need seven wild-card teams?” with an emphatic “no.” The Bucs dismantled the Philadelphia Eagles and seem to finally be healthy on defense, with Jason Pierre-Paul, Shaq Barrett and Lavonte David all back in action. 

neil: In the span of two weeks, we saw the NFC East embarrass itself in every possible way, from stadium railing collapses, coach rants, QB sneaks on third-and-9, a total blowout loss here and that botched final-play run without any timeouts we discussed earlier. What an amazing division. 

Salfino: Massey-Peabody game scores show how remarkably consistently good the Bucs have been all year, with just one or two exceptions. Now with their defense healthy really for the first time, I think this team is very dangerous. Tom Brady still has Mike Evans, a Hall of Famer, and of course Rob Gronkowski. That’s more than enough.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Brady was playing at a high level against some really terrible competition. One of the screen passes to Evans was one where he looked hard to the right before snapping his head around and firing to Evans on the left. The corner tried to jump the route and intercept, but flailed and missed, which was basically the Eagles all game.

Salfino: I thought Brady looked sharp.

sara.ziegler: It’s interesting to me that the blowout winners will all face each other in the next round, while the winners of the competitive games now get the No. 1 seeds: The Tennessee Titans face the Bengals, while the Green Bay Packers get the Niners. How are we feeling about the top seeds right now?

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Titans are a fake No. 1 seed, but that is funny how it worked out.

neil: The Bengals just eliminated one of the weakest playoff teams ever, so why not also one of the weakest No. 1 seeds ever?

Salfino: I think the Packers would have had a much easier time with the Rams or Cardinals than the 49ers. They got screwed. Remember, the Packers are a soft defense, so this is a bad matchup. I will not be surprised if the 49ers run for 200 yards.

neil: I agree, Mike. Maybe it’s availability bias sneaking in from the Packers’ many (many) previous playoff losses to the Niners and their running game, but it could happen again. (Even if the relevance of Colin Kaepernick shredding them nearly a decade ago is perhaps questionable.) 

sara.ziegler: So given all that, what’s the most likely upset, do you all think?

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Bengals are dogs against the Titans, so I’ll go with them. 

neil: I’m still saying Bengals over Titans, because Tennessee is perhaps not that great. Although they will be getting Derrick Henry back.

Salfino: The 49ers over the Packers. I think the Titans win.

Neil, I think A.J. Brown being back is way more important. Also, the Tennessee defense is not bad of late and even good.

neil: They’ll have the Big Three together! A.J., King Henry and Julio Jones. They were much better with all of those guys on the field together than not.

joshua.hermsmeyer: You’re abandoning your Bengals in their darkest hour, Mike! 

Salfino: I know. But Mike Vrabel is a great coach! 

Actually abandoning them in their brightest hour.

joshua.hermsmeyer: So contrarian. I like it.

Salfino: Plus EVERYONE is going to take the Bengals.

sara.ziegler: Everyone minus Mike.

Can’t love that more.

Salfino: I’m a lone wolf, Sara.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Sara Ziegler is the former sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Josh Hermsmeyer was 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.