compiled by Andrew Potter
Each Sunday, the FO staff sends around emails about the games that each of us are watching. We share information about the games that the rest of the group might not be watching, ask questions, and keep everyone else informed about which games they might want to tune into (if they can).
On Monday, we compile a digest of those emails and produce this feature. By its nature, it can be disjointed and dissimilar to the other articles on the site.
While these emails are generally written with Audibles in mind, they do not represent a standard review of all the games each week. That means we aren't going to cover every game, or every important play. We watch the games that we, as fans, are interested in watching, so your favorite team's game might not be covered to your fullest desires or even at all. (If you are a Seahawks or Patriots fan, you are probably in luck; if you are a Lions fan, not so much.) We have no intention of adding new authors solely to cover every game on a given Sunday, nor will we watch a different game from the ones that we're personally interested in watching just to ensure that Audibles covers every game.
This special edition playoff Audibles covers the three Sunday wild-card games. You can find discussion of the Saturday games here.
Baltimore Ravens 20 at Tennessee Titans
Scott Spratt: Did Brian Griese call Titans left guard Rodger Saffold a "war daddy?" Is that a thing?
Tom Gower: Definitely an actual scouting term for powerful interior line players.
Bryan Knowles: With six games in two days, I actually really value the alternate broadcast methods the networks are using today. I'll probably flip between the main broadcast, ESPN2's Xs and Os-themed coverage, Freeform's watch party coverage, and ESPN+'s more stats-based coverage, especially if the game ends up being a blowout one way or another.
This afternoon's Nickelodeon game might trump them all for uniqueness, however.
Bryan Knowles: So, A.J. Brown is going to be a bit of a challenge to deal with today, isn't he? The Brown-versus-Marlon Humphrey matchup might be the most interesting one in this game, and advantage so far is very much Brown -- three receptions for 52 yards and a touchdown on that Titans touchdown drive.
Dave Bernreuther: I thought -- and the broadcast is now agreeing -- that that was a pretty egregious push-off on the touchdown catch for Brown. Were I a Ravens fan, I'd be really upset right now.
I toggled over to the ESPN2 coverage but could only last a minute before it became intolerable. I want to pull up the ESPN+ one, but that'd put me on a lag (and I couldn't toggle back and forth then). I assume it's good, but is it so much better than Louis Riddick to make it worth the effort to try to time them up?
Malcolm Butler is turning into the Ty Law to Lamar Jackson's Peyton Manning, huh?
Scott Spratt: Well this looks like a familiar story so far.
Bryan Knowles: On the one hand, it's still the first quarter; there's no reason for the Ravens to abandon the game plan that got them where they are, there's plenty of time.
On the other hand, the Ravens have yet to come back from a 10-point deficit with Lamar Jackson at quarterback. The questions will continue until the stat is no longer true!
Aaron Schatz: Well, Lamar Jackson at least made a deep throw outside the numbers, which is his weakness. Hit Marquise Brown for 28 yards. But the Titans got a third-down sack to set up a field goal to go 10-3 Titans.
Scott Spratt: The Ravens made a couple of critical plays to extend their second drive, the first of which was a beautiful Lamar Jackson 17-yard strike to Mark Andrews down the right sideline while being chased on a third down. But the Ravens had to settle for three points when Brooks Reed sacked Jackson in the red zone on another third down.
It is news to me that Reed still plays, but his hair still looks stylish.
Aaron Schatz: The problem with Tennessee's man coverage against the Ravens is that Lamar Jackson will do things like scramble through defenders for a 48-yard touchdown. That's why you don't play man against mobile quarterbacks.
Bryan Knowles: Moving the ball down the field gradually is great and all, but sometimes, you just need your superstar quarterback to see some space between the tackles and go into warp speed.
Jackson didn't step up in the pocket on his earlier sacks. He, uh, found a way out of pressure this time around.
— NFL (@NFL) January 10, 2021
Scott Spratt: He is Houdini.
The Titans have to feel like the Colts did yesterday. It feels like they controlled the first half but will enter it tied at 10-10 unless they can add some points in a two-minute drill.
Aaron Schatz: Interesting to note that the Ravens pulled Marlon Humphrey off A.J. Brown after the touchdown, put him on Corey Davis. Then in the two-minute drill, they put Humphrey back on Brown. We'll see what they do in the second half.
Cale Clinton: Crazy what a difference positioning can make. The broadcast pointed out that Titans safety Kevin Byard came up to meet Jackson near Tennessee's 40-yard line. Lamar was able to beat Byard pretty easily with his seamless ability to change directions. Once Byard was behind him, the next Titans defender able to make a play on Jackson was Adoree' Jackson, who made an attempt to shove Jackson out of bounds inside the 5. One simple miss was the difference in 35-plus yards and six points.
Carl Yedor: Do we think Baltimore should have called timeout there after that big loss by Ryan Tannehill? Tannehill was trying to throw what looked like a tight end screen, but because he caught the ball instead of knocking it down after it was batted back to him, they lost 10 yards and kept the clock running. I guess if you let it run to the two-minute warning, you are trying to prevent Tennessee from getting another possession if they punt and then force Baltimore to punt, but for a team that likes running the ball as much as Baltimore does, I can also see the logic of wanting timeouts in your pocket (as opposed to 20 seconds or so) when you have the ball. Normally that isn't as typical in two-minute situations, but I suppose it gives them added flexibility with their play calling.
Cale Clinton: If you've ever needed evidence to suggest that sacks are the fault of the quarterback, Lamar Jackson is giving you an ample amount. I'd chalk three of Tennessee's four first-half sacks up to Jackson simply holding onto the ball too long. NGS has Jackson's average time to throw at 2.93 seconds.
Bryan Knowles: 10-10 at the half, as both team's two-minute offenses sputter and die.
One question: do the Ravens have ANY quick passing plays in their playbook? Jackson finished the season with the fourth-longest time to throw, per Next Gen Stats, and it's pretty apparent on the field. I get that he hangs on the ball forever because he can turn almost anything into a huge run play, but I think he could have avoided a few of those four sacks if he had just gotten rid of the ball at some point.
Tom Gower: Pretty even game, really. The Titans got the early 10-0 lead before the Ravens equalized, but the way I'd look at that is, the Titans had their two good drives (of five) before the Ravens had their two good drives (of five). Neither offense seems to be moving the ball with much success with what they like to do. One of the keys to Tennessee's upset in Baltimore last year in the playoffs was how their line handled Baltimore's defensive front. So far, the Ravens are winning that matchup as Derrick Henry has 10 carries for 18 yards and hasn't gotten any big runs even by "runs are bad plays so we'll set the baseline for success lower" standards. The Titans found some big plays to A.J. Brown on the touchdown drive and their field goal drive was basically the big pass play to Anthony Firkser, but yeah, not much sustained success. Baltimore has had similar results. I think they can and should be doing more to put Tennessee's linebackers in conflict, but that's not how their offense tends to work, so...
Vince Verhei: Got off to a late start here and got caught up just as the second half started.
I'm not surprised the game is close, but I am surprised that the Titans are succeeding with the pass rush while their rushing offense hasn't done much.
I didn't even know ESPN2 was doing a film room style. I cringed at a lot of the personnel they had in there (Rex Ryan? Tedy Bruschi?) but it was worth it to see Keyshawn Johnson's mind blown at Baltimore using 300-plus-pound Patrick Ricard as a target in the passing game.
And, to answer Bryan's question, Baltimore opens the second half with a series of passes to the flats to get them into favorable down-and-distance scenarios, and then Jackson keeps the ball and breaks down the sideline for a big gain, and Johnson's the one pointing out how Hollywood Brown blocked two guys on the play. Another pass to the flat converts a third down in the red zone as Ryan is talking about how Baltimore's 22 personnel confused the defense. Dobbins scores on a power play, taking a shotgun handoff and following his pulling guards, and after one drive I'm very impressed with this broadcast.
Bryan Knowles: Now, THAT was a drive, coming out of the half. Quarterback keepers, read-options, heavy use of the fullback, the works. Seriously, when was the last drive you can remember with the fullback being involved on three plays, as Patrick Ricard was there?
It looks like the Ravens saw the same thing we all saw in the first half -- Tennessee was getting to Jackson on those long dropbacks. So, shorten the time in the pocket, and just march right down the field. Impressive, impressive drive.
Aaron Schatz: Just to note, I checked, and Patrick Ricard doesn't play two ways anymore which is a bummer. No defensive snaps this year.
Bryan Knowles: Alright, if you have the first-team All-Pro running back, someone you've gone out of your way to highlight as the focal point of your offense, how do you punt on fourth-and-2 from midfield? You've gotta trust Derrick Henry in that situation, right?
Scott Spratt: The Ravens have now twice run the play where Jackson throws a pretty hard lateral back to his left. That just seems to be begging for a turnover. This time, Jackson threw the ball behind Marquise Brown, and Brown barely corralled it on the doorstep of their own end zone.
Cale Clinton: The Titans offensive game plan has me contradicting myself inside my own head. That last offensive drive had me questioning why Tennessee is still going back to Derrick Henry, then asking why they're not turning to Henry on third-and-short. Per RBSDM's box score, the Titans are averaging a -0.35 EPA/play on run plays with a 21% success rate, but Derrick Henry's still averaging 2 yards per carry. Third-and-2 from midfield feels like the time to take two quick inside runs with Henry.
Both the live television broadcast and ESPN+'s simulcast (which has been a fantastic accompaniment to this coverage) continue to mention that Derrick Henry improves as the game goes on, but doesn't that happen when you put him in a position to succeed and make plays?
Vince Verhei: The fourth quarter just started, and Derrick Henry and the Tennessee Titans have yet to run for a first down.
Scott Spratt: Marquise Brown went out of bounds with more space to run and went to the sidelines for a play with a trainer at his feet. And then after he returned, he couldn't run open on a go route. I think he may have suffered a cramp or tweaked something, which could be a factor late since the Ravens have so few receiving options.
Scott Spratt: The Titans just went pass, pass, and punt starting at second-and-2 from the Ravens' 40-yard line. Yikes.
Aaron Schatz: That punt from fourth-and-2 on the other side of the field was a 14% GWC error according to the EdjSports model.
Bryan Knowles: They keep passing up makeable fourth downs in the middle of the field. You have to imagine that will come back to haunt them.
Vince Verhei: And the first-down play was Derrick Henry rushing for 8 yards, his longest run of the day! Isn't the whole point of Henry to batter down opponents and trample them in the fourth quarter?
Vince Verhei: And then Baltimore goes for it on fourth-and-2 in field goal range. That's just a middle finger to Mike Vrabel. They convert, but it's called back for offensive pass interference, so they kick the field goal anyway. Justin Tucker does not miss twice, and the Ravens go up by seven with five minutes and change to go. This could be Tennessee's last chance coming up.
Scott Spratt: That OPI call on the Willie Snead pick play could prove huge. John Harbaugh seemed to dislike it because there wasn't a ton of contact. I was trying to figure out if it happened within the first line of the line of scrimmage. Could anyone tell?
Aaron Schatz: That pick may have been within a yard of the line of scrimmage. I guess on replay it looked more like 2. You're allowed to pick the defender within 1.
Bryan Knowles: I can't seem to find a replay from straight down the line, but it looked like the OPI happened at about the 22-, 21-yard line. It's CLOSE.
Vince Verhei: ESPN2's analytics guys are saying Baltimore should have kicked the field goal even before the penalty. I'm a little surprised by that, but the difference between a seven-point lead and a four-point lead is obviously substantial.
Aaron Schatz: It looks like our model preferred going for it but only by 1% so it was very close, could go either way.
Bryan Knowles: Oh no! Khalif Raymond falls down on a pass route, the ball goes right to Marcus Peters, and it's a turnover. Tennessee has three timeouts left so it's not victory formation, but that's a killer.
Cale Clinton: Good grief. On the last replay of the Peters interception, the broadcast highlighted that A.J. Brown had beaten his man. Not just that, Brown stuck his hand straight up in the air and gave the universal symbol for "I just burned my man." Considering his production today (6-for-10 for 83 yards and a touchdown, 0.57 EPA/play), one would think Brown would be a prime target with the game on the line.
Bryan Knowles: I love the adjustments the Ravens made coming out of halftime -- their offensive strategy looked entirely different in the second half, and it paid dividends. The shift to quick plays, attacking the edges, was a great shift.
And I'm glad we'll never have to hear the "Lamar Jackson can't win a playoff game" spiel ever again.
Vince Verhei: Well, Baltimore deserved to win that one, that's for sure. Better on offense, defense, and especially coaching. I have no idea what Tennessee's game plan was -- spent the whole day putting together 2-yard gains to "establish the run" and then decided not to run when they needed to in the fourth quarter.
ESPN2 broadcast was tremendous, Keyshawn Johnson in particular. He always struck me as a Macbeth announcer -- full of sound and fury, signifying nothing -- but he really showed his knowledge today. Lots of receiver stuff, as you'd expect -- critiquing route technique and what guys should do to gain YAC -- but also Xs and Os stuff, quarterback anticipation, defensive tendencies and tells. I felt like I was getting smarter every play. Four guys in the room was probably too many cooks, but overall I really enjoyed that, much more than most broadcasts.
Vince Verhei: Dots on the interception. Looks like Tannehill made his decision before the snap and failed to adjust -- the free safety breaks to the offense's right before the pass is even delivered but Tannehill still goes that way. Meanwhile, as Cale noted, A.J. Brown is open on the left.
Ryan Tannehill is picked-off by Marcus Peters increasing the @Ravens from 93% to 99% with under 2 minutes left in the game.
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) January 10, 2021
Tom Gower: I wasn't surprised by Mike Vrabel's punt on fourth-and-2 from the Titans 44. At 17-13, the Ravens are almost in field goal range already, the defense had been playing fairly well, and you're still probably a couple of first downs from scoring territory. Plus, Derrick Henry had been on the sideline the prior two plays, apparently because of a shoe issue, so I'm not absolutely sure he would have been available for that play (and that's why they didn't use him on either of the previous two plays).
The subsequent punt, from the Ravens 40, none of those reasonable caveats applied. Henry was available. The Titans would have been in field goal range (if they were in a bad fourth down, granted, still down four at that point). A failure would have forced the Ravens to move the ball about 30 yards before they got into field goal range. It's later in the game, so fewer future possessions (and the Titans would in fact only have the ball one more time). It's just completely indefensible and one of the worst moves a coach has made all season.
Notwithstanding what Vrabel did, the most fundamental reason the Titans lost is they couldn't move the ball on offense. Derrick Henry did barely more in the second half than he did in the first half (nine carries for 22 yards, total of 18 for 40). He didn't have one of his better games on an individual basis, with Next Gen Stats giving him -18 rush yards over expectation. Even an average rushing performance would have been just over 3.0 yards per carry, a strong testament to the game-long effectiveness of Baltimore's defensive front. If you judge the offseason acquisition of Calais Campbell by how much he helped solve the problems that led to last year's postseason defeat, today that trade gets a grade of A.
Corey Davis got banged up late and was apparently unavailable, but before that had just two targets and zero catches and seemed like a total non-factor, a disappointing conclusion to a year that had many fewer total non-factor games than his first three seasons. That Kalif Raymond, a rarely used pure deep threat who hadn't played 20 snaps in a game since Week 8, was the targeted player on Tannehill's interception speaks to their lack of depth at the position. And after Anthony Firkser's big play to set up the first-half field goal, the tight ends were similarly a non-factor. Heck, maybe the "hidden" key play was Jonnu Smith's failure to haul in a contested catch that even gave Vrabel the opportunity to screw up and punt on fourth-and-2 from the Ravens 40 down four in the fourth quarter of a playoff game. (OK, I'm definitely not over it enough to not keep harping on it ... win the game with your most important players!)
Also, it has been pointed out, but Greg Roman adjusted and started attacking the opposing defense in a different way, and the Ravens had much more consistent offensive success in the second half because of it. It's not obvious to me that Arthur Smith did. I think this actually worked for Tennessee in the regular-season game between the two teams -- they stuck with their base offensive approach even down 21-10 in the second half and came back to win in overtime. But Lamar Jackson didn't give them a crucial second-half turnover today, and they never broke through today like they did in the regular-season game. That was one of my worries coming in, that they'd stick with an approach that wasn't working because they had gotten away with it before. And they never changed their approach today, that I noticed, until the two-minute drill at the end of the game, and it never worked.
Broadcast note: I spent basically all of my time on the main ESPN broadcast. Had it not been the Titans game, I would have spent time checking out the ESPN2 film room broadcast for sure, and maybe one of the other options if they were close enough to real time (or at least the delayed version of real time that is the main ESPN/ABC broadcast).
Chicago Bears 9 at New Orleans Saints 21
Scott Spratt: I knew Darnell Mooney and Roquan Smith were out for the Bears, but they're missing cornerback Jaylon Johnson, too? Those are some massive losses for an already outmatched team.
Bryan Knowles: There are reports that Drew Brees will retire once the Saints' playoff run is over.
I feel confident we'll get him for at least one more week.
Cale Clinton: Nickelodeon is on my television for the first time since I was 10 years old, and boy am I excited. First off, it needs to be addressed just how good Nate Burleson is at hosting this. He was put in charge of counting down Spongebob Squarepants' "Top 10 Sportiest Moments" as the lead-up to the game, and he was delightful. He even took the slime like a champ.
The broadcast kicked things off by explaining the scoring permutations of this game, introduced the "NVP" trophy they'll be giving out after the game, and scored their pregame sizzle reel to the Kidz Bop version of Imagine Dragons. This is going to be bizarre and delightful.
Bryan Knowles: Nick does have to fix their graphics, though -- the slimed first-down line keeps moving around as the play happens, not following the camera move.
Bryan Knowles: "This is going to be a little harder to explain, but Taysom Hill is in the game."
I feel you, Nickelodeon announcers.
Scott Spratt: I thought maybe Taysom Hill had the wind knocked out of him because he landed with his abdomen on the football. But a replay showed that his head crashed pretty hard into the turf. I'm wondering if he suffered a concussion there.
Aaron Schatz: Michael Thomas is back, kids. Three catches so far including the touchdown to put the Saints up 7-0. He's such a focus of the Saints' passing game that I would consider running a box-and-one defense on him like the Seahawks did with Steve Smith back in, I think 2006 (2005 postseason) ... zone except for one man assigned specifically to Thomas.
Cale Clinton: I think I've achieved the perfect viewing experience for this game. Nickelodeon is slightly ahead of the CBS broadcast, so I get to watch this acid trip unfold live on my television, then watch Jim Nantz and Tony Romo on my iPad two plays behind.
The neon colors and funny analogies between NFL players/situations and Nickelodeon characters/storylines has been a nice distraction from a whole lotta nothin' in this first quarter. We've got a Saints punt from Chicago's 38-yard line, and Mitchell Trubisky nearly threw a costly interception.
Cale Clinton: The Saints have driven downfield and Michael Thomas has found the Slime Zone!
Bryan Knowles: Alright, back on CBS to cover with appropriate gravitas 11 men wearing matching shirts attempting to move a ball over a fake lawn.
It's hard to believe that was Michael Thomas' first touchdown of the year. It's even harder to believe this is only the fourth game this season where the Saints have had Thomas and Drew Brees healthy at the same time, and yet they're still a second seed.
Scott Spratt: I think Javon Wims just erased all of the good will from his nice sideline catch with that long touchdown drop. It was perfectly thrown.
Javon Wims oh no pic.twitter.com/yty4MEYGC2
— The Action Network (@ActionNetworkHQ) January 10, 2021
Bryan Knowles: It's time to play "Is That A Catch," with your host, Javon Wims!
A bobbling catch on the border of the sideline? A catch, after review. A perfectly thrown touchdown pass? Not a catch, as Wims lets it go right through his hands. Sickest man in America, et cetera, et cetera.
Bryan Knowles: We are really getting a full and thorough examination of the catch rule today, aren't we? We're getting a long, long look at a tipped ball that appears to be a Bears interception -- but the tip of the ball grazes the ground.
I'm expecting the "not enough evidence to overturn" call, but no, they reverse it on replay. I think Bears fans have a rightful bone to pick there.
Scott Spratt: At least the Bears got the karma of a Wil Lutz missed field goal, Bryan. It remains 7-0 New Orleans a minute into the second quarter.
Scott Spratt: Woah. That big Taysom Hill wind-up was going to be a touchdown. Deonte Harris was way open, but Hill couldn't get it off before the strip sack/interception.
Bryan Knowles: Yeah, Scott; I'm the first to yell at Sean Payton for his Taysom Hill fanaticism, but that play would have worked if the protection was just a little better.
Aaron Schatz: I don't think "bring in Taysom Hill, let the defense play run, and take a shot deep" is a bad idea. The protection just couldn't hold up until the play developed.
Tom Gower: My edit to Aaron's last note: the protection couldn't hold up long enough for Taysom Hill to make a decision to throw the ball and complete his throwing motion to get the ball out of his hands. Which is one of the issues with Taysom Hill.
Aaron Schatz: Note that the Saints haven't thrown to Michael Thomas since the touchdown. Kyle Fuller was just very tight on him on a third-and-12 that didn't go anywhere for the Saints (incomplete to Alvin Kamara) and led to a punt.
Scott Spratt: If you slow down the replay of the David Montgomery play enough, it looks like he had possession and fumbled, ha-ha.
Aaron Schatz: Both defenses really dominating this thing at halftime. Bears at 4.1 yards per play and 0-for-6 on third downs, but even the Saints are only at 4.7 yards per play and have the turnover. Bears defensive performance is very impressive considering that they are missing Roquan Smith and two of their top three cornerbacks. Kyle Fuller, the remaining starting corner, is doing a fantastic job on Thomas, Thomas' only catch in the second quarter came in a zone with Fuller on the other side of the field. Maybe more surprising, Emmanuel Sanders has one catch for 0 yards. And the Bears are getting pressure even though Brees hasn't taken a sack because he's Brees and he doesn't take sacks.
Bryan Knowles: Considering the Bears are down to fifth-round pick Kindle Vildor in the secondary, they're doing an amazing job so far.
Tom Gower: Down three starters, the Bears defense is looking great. The old criticism about the Saints pass game is that it tends to go through very few players (if I recall correctly, I noted this both last year against the Vikings and maybe even both games against the Eagles and Rams the year before that). True again here, as Deonte Harris played his schemed role early and got a couple of targets, and despite what Aaron has said about Kyle Fuller doing good work on him, Michael Thomas is the other player who has played a role in the pass game. Nobody else has multiple catches. The biggest surprise to me is that Alvin Kamara doesn't even have a target. Not sure exactly what the Bears are doing to take him away, but I'd be surprised if Sean Payton doesn't look to get him involved in the second half.
The Bears offense is the Bears offense, and the Saints have a good defense. It's too bad Javon Wims couldn't hang on to the ball in the end zone, if only for competitiveness reasons. Sure, at 7-3 after 30 minutes, we're within a single fluke play of the Bears taking a lead. But it's also hard to see them repeatedly executing enough to beat the Saints if they do anything consistently on offense. Or if Sean Payton decides to stop punting on fourth-and-medium-ish in plus territory.
Bryan Knowles: With Kamara, you also have to wonder how much missing practice and/or any lingering COVID effects might be slowing him down. The plan might have been to rather slowly work him back in, rather than give him his usual full workload right off the bat.
Aaron Schatz: The Bears did rank second in DVOA against running backs in the passing game, so that could be part of it.
Vince Verhei: I watched most of the first half on the Nickelodeon broadcast. First, the positive: Nate Burleson is a star. I don't think that's news, I know he's on NFL Network all the time, but the last NFL player to cross over as a major mainstream TV star was Michael Strahan, and Burleson already seems more of a natural to me. Otherwise ... it was just a bad, boring football broadcast. If you're going to broadcast a game like this, go all in with it. The silly graphics only really came up on scoring plays and commercial bumpers, so they were basically a non-factor. That left us with an entire game of commentary with Nick star Gabrielle Nevaeh Green, a 15-year-old young lady who is clearly funny and smart and charming but knows nothing about football. Which is the point, of course -- they picked her because she'd be the voice of the typical Nickelodeon viewer, I'd imagine -- but when she responds to a critical turnover by asking Burleson about choreographing his touchdown dances, well, that's bad. And then when the Saints appeared to score a defensive touchdown, they were all too eager to show their slime cannon graphics instead of a replay of the "fumble," which, eventually, was correctly ruled as an incomplete pass. I'm skimming social media now and it appears I'm in the minority here, so I'll step down from my Grumpy Old Man pulpit and let everyone who enjoys it, enjoy it.
As for the game itself ... is this Rams-Seahawks II? The Bears can't do anything -- four first downs, 0-for-7 on third/fourth downs -- but they should be ahead, and would be if not for a terrible Javon Wims drop in the end zone off a flea flicker. The Saints are the opposite of Seattle yesterday, constantly moving the chains without actually going anywhere. How do you get 11 first downs on less than 5 yards per play? They had three different drives that lasted six-plus plays but gained less than 40 yards. It's like they're on a hamster wheel and can't get off. Efficiency is wonderful, but at some point you've got to get an explosive play to win.
Bryan Knowles: C.J. Gardner-Johnson isn't having a particularly good season by the numbers, but those numbers don't include "got multiple Chicago receivers disqualified for throwing punches at him."
Bryan Knowles: It feels like more hard counts have worked this postseason than the rest of the year combined -- New Orleans just picked up fourth-and-3 on a Taysom Hill hard count. It's 3 yards! It's OK to be a tenth of a second late!
Vince Verhei: And it worked in Buffalo yesterday! And Washington got Philadelphia on one to ice the NFC East! That play never works and it has now worked three times in the last six NFL games!
That was set up because the Saints finally got an explosive play, 38 yards to Michael Thomas on a seam to the left on third-and-4. And then it led to Brees' scrambling checkdown to Latavius Murray for a 6-yard touchdown, and the Saints go up 14-3 and I think we're done.
Carl Yedor: Last thing I'll say about Nickelodeon's broadcast, as I've finally put Romo and Nantz on my main screen: their version of dots is way more fun.
.@Nickelodeon showing highlights in Minecraft. Brilliant.
— Jeff Eisenband (@JeffEisenband) January 10, 2021
Bryan Knowles: Even needing the fourth-down fake, that was New Orleans' best drive of the game by far. Lots of vintage late-career Brees, finding the open receiver and letting them go for tons of YAC. Michael Thomas gets back into the game. Brees throws a little ... sky hook, I guess, to Latavius Murray, who jukes and weaves his way for the touchdown. On what has not been their best day by any stretch of the imagination, the Saints are up 11 points.
I disagree, Vince, that the game is over -- if the Bears come back and have an impressive scoring drive, this is still a contest.
Vince Verhei: That's true, Bryan, but it's Mitchell Trubisky and the Bears. They're not going to have an impressive scoring drive. They're going to throw a 3-yard pass on third-and-8 and then punt.
I mean, LOOK at what the Bears have done today. Their only points came on a field goal on a drive that gained 6 yards -- and that took them six plays to do! Their longest drive gained 48 yards and ended when Trubisky scrambled out of bounds for a 2-yard gain on fourth-and-4. I'm really struggling to envision how they're going to score twice in the last 18 minutes here unless the defense can do it themselves.
Bryan Knowles: I had this stat ready for the Seahawks-Rams game, before Seattle got things into gear, but there have only been two playoff games in the 21st century where a team failed to convert a third down, and both the 2018 Colts and 2012 Bengals at least picked up a fourth-down conversion at some point.
The Bears are currently 0-for-8 on third down, 0-for-1 on fourth. Still a quarter to go, but it's something to watch for...
Andrew Potter: It felt to me at halftime like the Bears defense was just about holding the dam from bursting while begging the offense to do something, anything, to help. The offense almost answered the call with a play-action-heavy drive to open the second half, but a sack killed it in plus territory. The Saints immediately drove for their second touchdown, and even a 14-3 lead feels almost insurmountable for an offense that is averaging just 17 yards per drive.
Scott Spratt: Did Jim Nantz just imply that Phil Mickelson had Alvin Kamara on his fantasy team in Week 16 when he scored six touchdowns and still lost the championship game? I desperately want to know who the loss was to and who everyone in the league is.
Aaron Schatz: The Bears' backups have finally given way. Bad tackling by Kindle Vildor on Lil'Jordan Humphrey let Humphrey get a first down, then holding on Vildor cancelled a 14-yard sack by Khalil Mack.
Bryan Knowles: So -- and I know I'm calling this with nine minutes left, and with Nickelodeon Valuable Player Mitchell Trubisky coming back onto the field -- we'll get Buccaneers at Saints and Rams at Packers in the divisional round.
I'm assuming Saints-Bucs will be closer to the relatively close Week 1 game and not the throttling we saw in November. At least, I'm hopeful.
Vince Verhei: God, Sean Payton was trying SO HARD to get Taysom Hill his hero moment. First-and-goal, Hill runs for no gain; second-and-goal, Hill throws an incomplete pass. At least the pass drew a DPI for a new set of downs, and Payton just turned to his best player instead, and Kamara scores to make it 21-3 with 8:50 to go.
Still holding out hope for those Bears, Bryan?
Bryan Knowles: I'm holding out hope they fail to convert a third or fourth down and all my "offensive futility" research this weekend doesn't go to waste!
Vince Verhei: Trubisky throws wide on third-and-9, the Bears are white-flag punting down 18 points in the fourth quarter, and I think you're going to get your wish.
Scott Spratt: I think Bears fans will get their wish as well for the Bears to move on from Trubisky this offseason. I got the feeling they risked an extension if he pulled the upset today.
Vince Verhei: So how do we feel about the seventh playoff team now? I think it added some drama to Week 17, especially in the AFC, and we did get Colts-Bills yesterday, which might have been the best game of the weekend. But then today we get ... this.
Bryan Knowles: It would never happen for obvious reasons, but I wonder if there couldn't be some kind of quality threshold for adding extra wildc-ard teams. Like, stick with six per conference, but every team with at least 10 wins makes it in.
I mean, that's obviously a disaster with scheduling and bye weeks and competitive fairness and selling rights to all of your football games and all that, but I'd rather have seen Chiefs-Dolphins this weekend then Saints-Bears.
Scott Spratt: It's too much football to watch for an old man like me, Vince. But in terms of matchups, I don't think you can assume that every seven seed will be like the Bears. I mean, the Kyler Murray Cardinals could have had a seven seed, and they're incredibly fun if not necessarily great.
Aaron Schatz: Yeah, this was a lot of football, two tripleheaders. Maybe I'm old now but I preferred a four-game weekend.
Andrew Potter: The lack of a second bye also nuked some of the drama from Week 17, though, so I think that was a wash. We justifiably berated the NFC East throughout the season and lamented their guaranteed home playoff game, but the Bears with their former No. 2 overall pick at quarterback look considerably worse than Washington with a couch free agent. Philosophically, I can see an argument that the No. 5 seed might be better than the No. 4, and that's worth a playoff game. I can even see that argument for the No. 6 versus the No. 3. By the time we get to the No. 7 versus the No. 2, that's a very tough argument to make.
Vince Verhei: I'm glad I'm not the only one who thought six games was too much. I woke up today just completely exhausted. I thought maybe that was because the Seahawks loss was so ugly, but no, I think we're all just burned out.
Scott Spratt: I guess it's fair to point out that we're all coming off obsessive coverage of the regular season since it's our jobs. Maybe this is more fun for fans who don't live this every single day all season?
Scott Spratt: Sean Payton just allowed Drew Brees to jump over the top to (maybe) score a meaningless touchdown in the final three minutes, already up three scores. That is hubris.
Dave Bernreuther: Almost every time they've put Taysom Hill out there I've hated it (although I do agree with Aaron about the idea with the deep ball on the fumble play) and said they'd be better off just running their normal offense.
Now, late in a blowout, Payton leaves Brees in for a jump over the top that gets him hit. If ever there actually WAS a good time to park him on the bench in favor of Hill...
Bryan Knowles: And, the biggest tragedy of the game: the Bears just converted a third down. My stats, they are useless!
Vince Verhei: Jimmy Graham with the leaping one-handed grab for a totally meaningless touchdown and just morosely jogging straight into the locker room is such a perfect ending to this game.
Cale Clinton: In an Internet hijacking, Mitchell Trubisky has won the fan-decided NVP award from Nickelodeon. He won 49% of the vote. They're going to have to give him this trophy on-air. People have already updated his Wikipedia. What bizarre salt to throw in the wound of a guy who tried to end his Bears career on a high note.
Tom Gower: Finally getting to recap the second half of this game, I was going to say something about how it felt like the Saints offense was incredibly successful in the second half, though they only scored 14 points. But New Orleans only had the ball three times in the second half, which almost assuredly ties the record for fewest possessions by one team in a half, and their one drive that didn't end in a touchdown finished with Drew Brees just barely not scoring on fourth-and-goal from the one. These were all very much current-era Saints possessions, extended drives with the offense repeatedly executing, even if not regularly gaining yardage in chunks. But they kept going and going.
On the other side of the ball, the Bears were still the Bears. A couple of Allen Robinson catches got them into borderline field goal range on the opening drive of the second half, then a Trubisky sack knocked them out of it, and even I don't blame Nagy for punting on fourth-and-15 down 7-3 with almost 27 minutes to play. And they had two bad drives, and then they were down 21-3 with two minutes to play.
Cleveland Browns 48 at Pittsburgh Steelers 37
Bryan Knowles: First snap of the game, Maurkice Pouncey snaps the ball over Ben Roethlisbergers' head, the Browns scoop it up in the end zone, and Cleveland takes a 7-0 lead. Welcome back to the playoffs, Browns!
Scott Spratt: Possibly an intentional move by the Steelers so they can pass the ball 60 times without criticism?
Vince Verhei: That is the play that should have been on Nickelodeon with the slime cannons.
Bryan Knowles: I will say, when I picked the Steelers to be the team that most underperformed their Almanac projections, this is the kind of team I was thinking of. Took three months for them to arrive.
The Steelers' second drive ends with Roethlisberger airmailing his target under pressure. M.J. Stewart comes down with it, and the Browns offense comes onto the field for the first time in Pittsburgh territory with a seven-point lead.
Scott Spratt: The Ravens went down 10-0 early in their game against the Titans, but this feels different. The Steelers are down 14-0 barely five minutes in. Incredible.
Bryan Knowles: The Steelers also went down 14-0 in the first 10 minutes of their last playoff game, the 2017 loss to the Jaguars.
Also, how crazy is it the last time the Steelers were in the playoffs was the 2017 season?
Dave Bernreuther: So ... Bryan's idea about throwing 60 times went right out the window. Three runs and a punt. Down 14-0. To a team with two corners out. When you haven't run the ball effectively all season.
I mean ... I guess it's a tendency-breaker?
Vince Verhei: It's 21-0 before we can even recap what's happening, and I'm starting to think that in-season practices in the NFL are really, really overrated.
Cale Clinton: One practice this week. Kevin Stefanski is sitting in his basement. Under-staffed and short-handed due to COVID-19. None of it matters. 21-0 Browns after nine total plays of offense.
Bryan Knowles: This would be the fourth playoff game in history where a road team jumped out to a 21-point lead in the first quarter.
Most recently, of course, was last year's Chiefs-Texans game, which started Texans 24-0, and we all know how THAT ended.
I don't think the Steelers are quite as potent, offensively, as last year's Chiefs, however. And the 2009 Ravens (over New England), 1981 Chargers (over Miami), and 1940 Bears (over Washington) all hung on to various levels -- an overtime win for the Chargers in the Epic in Miami, the 73-0 beatdown in the 1940 NFL title game. I'll call it SOMEWHERE between those two results.
Scott Spratt: I guess the silver lining is that all of us worn-out writers can go to bed early.
Scott Spratt: Did NBC have first dibs on the games for Saturday and Sunday night? Because they netted the two worst games, and I don't think that was only in hindsight.
Bryan Knowles: And now, Ben Roethlisberger is intercepted AGAIN, the Browns start with the ball inside the red zone, and I'm calling ballgame in the first quarter.
This is a stunner.
Carl Yedor: If the Browns manage to lose this one somehow after another Roethlisberger pick (this one was tipped) that set them up at the Pittsburgh 15, it would be an all-timer Browns loss though.
Scott Spratt: Also, man, there's another Roethlisberger pick. As a Panthers fan, I wouldn't wish this on anyone, but Roethlisberger could go full Delhomme tonight.
Bryan Knowles: Forget road teams -- no team in NFL playoff history has ever had a 28-point margin in the first quarter. This is impossible.
Vince Verhei: The Steelers only gave up 28 points once all year -- the Eagles got 29 back in Week 4 (and the Steelers still won).
The Browns got 28 points in barely 13 minutes tonight.
Aaron Schatz: Pittsburgh just punted from the Cleveland 38. They are losing by 28 points.
Scott Spratt: Probably not much of an error since the Steelers have to be below a 1% GWC at this point haha.
Tom Gower: It was fourth-and-9. You should consider going for that in a tie game! Down 28, the only person who might be trying to win who would punt might be Mike Vrabel! (I'm clearly not over it yet!)
Bryan Knowles: Alright, here's the question:
Do you pull Roethlisberger?
Scott Spratt: I'd pull him about halfway through the third if things don't get closer. I'd try to keep him from hanging that fourth turnover just for legacy purposes. But I assume the Steelers still feel like they can score some points. There's so much time left.
Vince Verhei: Looking at the score, I would assume they already did.
Bryan Knowles: I think my question is more, does Mason Rudolph give you a better chance of coming back? Probably not, but at this point, what do you have to lose?
Cale Clinton: At this time, I feel it's appropriate to remind everybody that Ben Roethlisberger will be a $41.3-million cap hit for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2021.
Scott Spratt: I don't think Rudolph gives the Steelers a better chance to win. After the first few series when Roethlisberger was airmailing everything, his passes seem on target now. That most recent pick was just crazy luck on a batted pass.
Dave Bernreuther: Not going to lie, I was hoping that Mike Tomlin would kick a field goal there, just for the comedy.
Still, they went back to the run ... and if it was goal-to-go, they wouldn't have gotten it. I guess when your quarterback has thrown three picks, running isn't a bad idea. But still, this is the 2020 Steelers.
Right on cue, they score on the ground. So they're on the board and down three scores. Now would be a good time for Tomlin to play coach like Tony Dungy and just keep them calm, remind them that they're facing a team missing its coach and two corners, and just make a point to win the next drive too. And it's not THAT tough a sell.
Still, since we were talking about fatigue ... I guess I'll revert to wishing they had kicked. Because now this means I'm going to watch the second half too.
Scott Spratt: Maurkice Pouncey almost sabotaged that effort, too, when he low-snapped on fourth-and-1 from the 2-yard line. Roethlisberger made a great play to get the ball to James Conner, who churned his way to a new first down the play before the score.
Scott Spratt: I love that the Browns are trying to score more points. In a similar situation in the Super Bowl a few years ago, the Falcons offense kind of turtled with their 28-3 lead, and that allowed the Patriots to catch them when they played flawless offense in the second half.
Vince Verhei: The Browns got 35 points in the first half.
The Steelers had not given up 35 points in a game since a 42-37 loss to Kansas City in Week 2 of 2018, the third start of Patrick Mahomes' career.
So, it's 35-10 at the break. Roethlisberger's up to 30 passes already. Per Stathead, the single-game playoff record is 65 by Steve Young in a 27-17 loss to Green Bay in the 1995 postseason. Does Roethlisberger get there?
Scott Spratt: I think 65 pass attempts is in play for sure. The Steelers started to extend some drives at the end of the first half. I think they could get to 30 points.
Aaron Schatz: Uh ... I tried to turn off my brain but it appears we actually have a game here. The Steelers just scored another touchdown to make it 35-23 with 2:57 left in the third quarter. The Browns are playing some weak zones and the Steelers are moving the ball fairly easily.
Carl Yedor: Don't look now, but it's only a 12-point game. Cleveland had a chance at another interception, but the trapping corner couldn't haul it in. Pittsburgh took advantage of the additional opportunity and continued their drive, punching it in on fourth down on a crosser to JuJu Smith-Schuster. Three minutes left to play in the third quarter. If the Browns don't score here this could turn into quite the nailbiter.
Bryan Knowles: Wellity, wellity, wellity.
The Browns are still in control of this game, but it's no longer seeming quite as salted away as it did early in the second quarter. The Steelers have scored touchdowns on each of their first two drives of the second half -- they missed a two-pointer, so it's just 35-23, but all of a sudden, it's only a two-posession game.
Another Browns score likely would be enough to re-extend this lead out of the question, but if there were to be a comeback, it would start like this.
Vince Verhei: Third quarter ends with Pittsburgh facing a fourth-and-1 just shy of midfield. Roethlisberger is up to 52 passes.
Carl Yedor: Pittsburgh punted on fourth-and-1 from their own 46 (taking a delay of game as they tried to draw the Browns offsides). Disagree with that one, as they give Cleveland the ball back instead of trying to continue their drive while still being down 12 points.
Bryan Knowles: Did Mike Tomlin, Pete Carroll, and Mike Vrabel get into a bad punting competition this weekend?
Bryan Knowles: Four plays to get back to where the Steelers punted, and then a 40-yard Nick Chubb touchdown to re-ice the game afterwards. I can not believe the Steelers punted in any situation, much less fourth-and-nada from midfield.
Tom Gower: Fourth-and-1 at midfield is literally my go-to example for why you shouldn't just bring the punt team out. And I normally just use first half of a tie game against an equal opponent as the scenario. Down 12, in the fourth quarter, of a playoff game (where teams are definitely trying to win), it's just ... unbelievable. But, uh, I guess at least the Browns scored quickly?
Vince Verhei: Since Pittsburgh's first touchdown of the second half, the Browns have had three drives and run 12 plays -- four runs and eight passes. That includes three clock-stopping incompletions on a pair of three-and-outs. But that doesn't stop Mike Priefer -- he calls five passes and only one run on the next drive, and the last of those passes is the touchdown to Chubb.
Scott Spratt: I take back my earlier comment that this game wasn't interesting.
Vince Verhei: Browns get a field goal to go up 45-29 -- a critical 16-point lead -- with 4 and a half minutes to go.
Baker Mayfield, playing behind a MASH unit offensive line against the best defense in the league, has thrown 33 passes without a sack or interception.
Scott Spratt: Tough look for the No. 1 DVOA Steelers defense to allow the Browns to go 80 and 59 yards over 19 plays in their last two drives, but at least they held this one to a field goal. Now the offense needs two touchdowns and two two-point conversions in the last four and a half minutes to force overtime. Slightly possible?
Aaron Schatz: Interception by Sione Takitaki, so, no, not slightly possible.
Carl Yedor: Roethlisberger's fourth pick comes on his 60th attempt of the night. If the Steelers can get the ball back, it seems like Roethlisberger should have a good shot at the record by picking up a first down or two on what would be a meaningless drive assuming they don't just turtle and call it a season.
Bryan Knowles: Schedule for next week:
- Saturday has Rams at Packers in the early game, Ravens at Bills in the nightcap.
- Sunday is Browns at Chiefs early and Bucs at Saints late.
Color me shocked Josh Allen gets the nod over Patrick Mahomes for one of the two prime-time games.
Scott Spratt: That's insurance in case the Chiefs blow out the Browns, right?
Tom Gower: OK, where does this swan dive by the Steelers rank among the worst six-game stretches to end a season, ever? Considering the 11-0 start and then limping to a 1-4 finish and a bad home playoff defeat, it has to be up there.
Bryan Knowles: I don't know about six-game stretches, but it probably at least replaces the 1969 Rams: 11-0, and then lost their last four games and were done.
Tom Gower: That's one of the contenders for worst end to a season. A friend also nominated the 1986 New York Jets, though the 45-3 loss that started their collapse from 10-1 technically falls outside the arbitrary six-game threshold (and oh, yeah, they actually won a playoff game). Among bad teams, another contender is the 1984 Vikings, who went full quitzilla in Les Steckel's only season has head coach and lost their last six games by an average of 27 points.
Tom Gower: Zero sacks, zero QB hits for the defense that ranked first in the league in adjusted sack rate this year. And the Browns were playing without their good left guard, who's on COVID, and lost both their right tackle and replacement left guard during the game.