With a pair of home games for a pair of future Hall of Fame quarterbacks, wild-card weekend was at risk for blowouts and chalk finishes. Instead, all four games were competitive deep into their fourth quarters, and all four road teams had a chance to win. The Bills built the biggest lead of those road teams, but they were the one who couldn't close it. Deshaun Watson started his own Hall of Fame highlight reel in the Texans' comeback and made the first playoff game the most compelling one of the weekend.
Game of the Week
Bills at Texans
Traditionally, the television networks have liked to hide the wild-card game with the least intrigue in the early Saturday slot, leaving the marquee teams and players for when more eyes can find them on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. But these aren't Matt Schaub's Texans. In just his third year, Watson is an undeniable star. But he also really struggled in the first half against the Bills' No. 5 pass defense DVOA . With second-year starter Josh Allen making plays with his arm and his legs on the other sideline, Watson fell into a 16-0 hole that he only started to climb out of with a touchdown and two-point conversion in the final two minutes of the third quarter. That made this a one-score game, but Allen already had the ball back at midfield at the start of the fourth.
Watson needed his defense to make a play, and while J.J. Watt had provided a critical red zone sack in the third quarter to keep this a two-score game, he was limited to just 61% of the Texans' defensive snaps in his first game back from a torn pectoral muscle that had him on injured reserve since late October. Fortunately, the team also has pass-rushing linebacker Whitney Mercilus. On a third-and-8, he worked around tight end Tyler Kroft on the left side of the line. Allen ran up through the pocket to avoid a blitz off the right side, but Mercilus still managed to chase him down from behind and dislodge the ball with his left hand on a lunge and full extension.
The fumble recovery nearly doubled the Texans' Game-Winning Chance (GWC) from 11.4% to 20.3%, but they still needed more from Watson to complete the comeback. After a short Carlos Hyde run, Watson made a perfect back-shoulder throw to Kenny Stills (playing expanded snaps with Will Fuller inactive with a groin injury) to gain 20 yards and enter field goal range. He and Hyde added 7 more yards before Watson succumbed to a third-and-3 sack where he did well to avoid an initial Trent Murphy rush and only lose 2 yards. That put the Texans in a murky fourth-and-5. Head coach Bill O'Brien went with the conservative play of an attempted field goal, but with that down and distance, it barely moved the needle from a 17.9% GWC with the optimal choice of a pass attempt to 17.4%. Ka'imi Fairbairn split the uprights and cut the Texans' deficit to 16-11.
With just under 11 minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Texans still had plenty of time to continue their rally. And they didn't have to wait long for another offensive possession. Rookie running back Devin Singletary provided 6 combined yards on a run and a catch to start the Bills' next drive, and that left Allen in a manageable third-and-4. He likely would have earned a new first down as Duke Williams came open on a shallow crossing route, but Watt swiped at Allen's throwing arm and forced the pass low into the dirt.
After a punt, the Texans suddenly had their first opportunity to take a lead on a drive since early in the second quarter. And after a first-down scramble, Watson jump-started those efforts with a 41-yard completion dropped perfectly over star cornerback Tre'Davious White and into the outstretched hands of star receiver DeAndre Hopkins.
White's 5.8 allowed yards per pass this season were the fewest among cornerbacks who saw 60 or more targets and almost a full yard better than likely Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore (subscription required. He held the All-Pro Hopkins without a catch on two targets in the first half, but it's practically impossible to shut Hopkins out for a full four quarters. Buoyed by this 41-yarder, Hopkins ended up pacing the Texans with 90 receiving yards.
The deep completion quickly advanced the Texans into Bills territory, and after a defensive holding penalty and a Watson scramble and dive, they were in the red zone. A subsequent third-and-3 put them at risk of setting for another field goal, but Watson squeezed a 14-yard completion into tight end Darren Fells in the middle of the field. That put them at the 1-yard line. Hyde nearly undid all of Watson's hard work by fumbling on on-target pitch, but he was able to follow the wild, bouncing football and recover it at the left sideline. And the next play, he redeemed himself with a simple catch-and-run for a Texans touchdown.
Now up one, O'Brien made the correct choice to try for two points and build a field goal lead. And Watson made it happen with a jump throw to Hopkins, coming free on a slant in the middle of the end zone.
The Bills could easily have been shell-shocked from their blown 16-point lead, but they still had four and a half minutes to try to get it back. And offensive coordinator Brian Daboll started the Bills next drive with the perfect play call, a delayed screen to Singletary that took advantage of a Texans defense overcommitted to the pass rush in the fervor of their comeback.
Singletary outraced defensive tackle D.J. Reader for 38 yards down the left sideline and put the Bills into Texans territory in just one play. He didn't need a break, either, starting the team's next sequence of plays with carries for 6 and 3 yards that demonstrated his patience and ability to squeeze yards out of tight spaces. Now in a third-and-1, there was little mystery to what the Bills would do. They had not passed in that down and distance all season. But Allen bested the prepared Texans anyway, faking a pitch back to Singletary and then exploding through the right side of the line.
That landed the Bills a new first down at the Texans' 25-yard line and recovered their GWC to 54.7%. But that's where everything unraveled. Pressure forced Allen to throw the ball away on first down, and Frank Gore couldn't escape blitzing safety Mike Adams in the backfield. That put the Bills in an uncomfortable third-and-13 on the other side of the two-minute warning. And in such an obvious passing down, the Bills' pass protection -- bottom-10 in pressure rate allowed for the season (subscription required) -- couldn't hold up. Safety A.J. Moore came unblocked and wrapped up Allen, who unloaded the ball before the sack but couldn't avoid the loss on what was flagged as an intentional grounding (his pass was to offensive lineman Jon Feliciano; there were no eligible receivers in the area).
Backed up by the penalty to the Texans' 42-yard line, the Bills were left without an appealing option. A 59-yard field goal attempt was likely beyond the range of kicker Stephen Hauschka. A punt could only net them 40 yards of field position in the best-case scenario and would allow the Texans to win the game with a first down. Head coach Sean McDermott made the best bad choice by GWC estimations with a pass attempt on fourth-and-27, but this one went about as well as the one on the previous play. In just a four-man rush, Jacob Martin came free. Allen tried to spin backward and extend the play in a loop toward the left sideline, but Martin read the feint perfectly and sacked Allen for a 19-yard loss and turnover on downs.
With unexpected possession in Bills territory, the Texans should have won the game from there. Their GWC jumped all the way to 93.8%. But the Bills had all three of their timeouts, and they used them to stop the clock after Watson and Hyde runs for 5, 3, and 1 yard on first, second, and third down. That left a fourth-and-1 with 1:21 remaining. A conversion would lock up the Texans victory, and O'Brien's attempt for one increased the team's GWC by 11.9% versus a field goal attempt. Watson tried a sneak, but he and his linemen failed to get any push in the center of the line. Replay was inconclusive, but Watson and the football never emerged from the scrum short of the line to gain. The Texans turned it over on downs, breathing new life into the Bills' blown lead-turned-comeback.
Starting at his own 30-yard line, Allen no doubt knew he needed to make a play. But he may have tried a bit too hard to make something happen. Seeing daylight after a dropback in an empty backfield, Allen took off down the right sideline. A pass fake bought him some extra space and helped him cross midfield, but rather than accept a tackle in bounds that even with a running clock would have offered the Bills plenty of time to complete their comeback, he lateraled the ball in the direction of Dawson Knox.
The tight end Knox is 6-foot-4, but even he wasn't tall enough to catch that lateral. He made a tremendous play to even reach the ball and bat it backward out of bounds -- a legal play since the ball didn't advance. Even with the gaffe, the Bills were back in business with a 36.8% GWC at their own 47-yard line. That eroded to 25.7% on third-and-10 after Gareon Conley dislodged a would-be deep Allen completion to Williams down the right sideline and John Brown caught a similarly deep pass out of bounds. But Brown did catch a 14-yard out pass that Allen put on the money on the right sideline. That new first down had the Bills at the edge of field goal range at the Texans' 39-yard line. Allen nearly sabotaged those efforts, staring down receiver Isaiah McKenzie on the left sideline and throwing a pass from the right hash that Bradley Roby had plenty of time to undercut for a game-sealing interception. But as had happened earlier in the game, Roby dropped a would-be pick that hit him in the chest.
Allen took quick advantage of the reprieve, connecting with slot receiver Cole Beasley on a slant that he dove down right at the new first-down markers. But the uncertainty of the ball placement there created its own chaos. If Beasley came down short of the markers, it would have been fourth down, and the Bills would need to hurry their field goal unit onto the field to attempt to tie the game. But if Beasley converted the new first down, then Allen had time to spike the ball and try a couple of throws in the end zone.
Without a clear indication from the replay, McDermott had his field goal unit on the field, ready to go. And so when the officials ruled that Beasley had gotten the first down, it inspired an unusual play where the punter/holder took a snap with the special teams unit and clocked the ball to stop the clock. It was a bizarre sequence in a bizarre fourth quarter, but we were destined to see more. After a couple of off-target end zone throws, the Bills brought in Hauschka for a 47-yard attempt. He drilled it, sending this game to overtime.
The Texans won the overtime coin toss, but they sabotaged their first-drive efforts immediately with a Laremy Tunsil false start penalty that backed them into a first-and-15. Even a 10-yard Hopkins sliding catch couldn't put them back on track. In a fourth-and-3 from their 42-yard line, the Texans punted to the Bills, sending this game into true sudden death.
The Bills didn't suffer a penalty at the start of their next drive, but Allen made mistakes. He cut a designed first-down run to the outside, where he was tackled for a 2-yard loss, and then he inexplicably threw deep to double-covered fullback Patrick DiMarco on second-and-12. He was fortunate that neither Conley nor Justin Reid intercepted the pass.
Meanwhile, Knox bailed Allen out of those poor decisions, side-stepping a Vernon Hargreaves attempted tackle on a checkdown pass and running for 14 yards on a third-and-12. But Allen wasn't done making plays, either. After Watt forced a quick throw an incompletion on second-and-9, the Texans brought more pressure on third down. Allen escaped right from the pocket, paused, and ran further toward the right sideline. Just before he ran out of bounds, he threw left across his body and hit Singletary for an amazing 14-yard completion and another third-down conversion.
Once again, the Bills were on the precipice of field goal range, this time at the Texans' 43-yard line when a field goal would secure a victory. But once again, they self-destructed. Allen failed to escape linebacker Zach Cunningham on a first-down designed run. He threw a pass to an open Cole Beasley short and into the dirt. And then on third down, he scrambled right around the line. Trying to prevent Martin from back-tracking to tackle him, offensive lineman Cody Ford threw a blind-side block. That drew a penalty and 15-yard loss that threw the Bills out of field goal range yet again.
After a punt, Watson started the next Texans drive with another 10-yard strike to Hopkins. But a second-down sack -- Watson's seventh of the game against a Bills defensive front that was 10th in football in pressure rate this season (subscription required)-- backed the Texans into a third-and-18. Teams converted just 22 third downs of that distance or greater all season, but Watson split a pair of pass defenders and threw a pass that led receiving back Duke Johnson upfield. The Bills secondary started deep and trailed the Texans receivers even deeper past the markers, and that left Johnson with just enough room to dive and land on the line to gain at the Texans' 37-yard line.
It was a colossal mistake for the Bills, and one they followed by allowing 19 combined yards on a Watson carry, a Watson completion to Kenny Stills, and a Hyde carry. But the Bills still had a chance to turn things around, especially as Matt Milano and Siran Neal came free on a blitz and converged on Watson in the backfield. A sack there would have knocked the Texans back to a third-and-long in their own territory, but Watson had other plans.
Watson made a heroic effort to connect with Taiwan Jones on the line of scrimmage. But since the Bills had blitzed multiple defenders, Jones was left with just one man to beat. He sidestepped an attempted Micah Hyde tackle and then charged upfield. It ended up as a 34-yard catch-and-run that advanced the Texans to the Bills' 10-yard line. And O'Brien wasted no time from there, lining up Fairbairn for a 28-yard field goal that he centered to send the Texans to the divisional round.
Bills fans are no strangers to heartbreak, having lost four consecutive Super Bowls and failing to win a playoff game at all since 1995. But this lost extended that agony into the new century. Their 16-point blown lead was tied for the sixth-biggest in the playoffs since 1999.
|Largest Leads Blown, Playoffs, 1999-2019|
Allen's up-and-down play was a major factor in the unraveling. He was the driving force of the Bills' steep decline in offensive DVOA from 75.0% in the first quarter to 6.2% in the second quarter, -11.6% in the third, and -85.1% and -63.4% in fourth quarter and overtime. But if you can look past the poor timing of his mistakes in this game, he does offer some hope for a Bills resurgence in the 2020s. He struggled with his accuracy this season, especially on his deep passes. But Allen has all of the physical tools you would need in a franchise quarterback, and even a loss in this wild-card game has the Bills ahead of schedule in their rebuild.
Watson hardly played a flawless game start-to-finish himself, but he came up big in the second half and overtime when the Texans needed him to. And perhaps if Fuller can return healthy next Sunday, Watson will have the firepower to keep up with Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs' No. 2 DVOA offense.
The Best of the Rest
Titans at Patriots
The Titans and the Patriots both flew out of the gates on Saturday night, executing on two very different plans of attack on offense. The Titans relied on their top-five run-blocking offensive line (4.66 adjusted line yards) and the NFL's leading rusher Derrick Henry, who spearheaded the team's first-possession touchdown drive and finished the first half with 106 yards and eight first downs on just 14 total carries. The Patriots won at the line as well, with Sony Michel and James White breaking four first-half carries for more than 10 yards, often behind the lead-blocking of linebacker-turned-fullback Elandon Roberts. But their success stemmed from a diverse attack that mixed power runs with screens and play-action passes with jet sweeps, flea-flickers, and anything else offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels could dream up. The Patriots scored 10 points on their first two possessions, and this game looked like it would become a shootout.
That shootout didn't manifest for several reasons. First, the Patriots failed to finish a couple of their red zone drives with touchdowns, including one that reached a first-and-goal from the Titans' 1-yard line. That was a problem for the Patriots all season. They converted just 50.0% of their red zone drives into touchdowns, 26th-best in football. The Titans led all teams with a 75.6% red zone conversion rate. Second, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick was unusually and damagingly conservative. In addition to settling for field goal on what became a fourth-and-goal from the 3-yard line, he routinely punted from fourth-and-short distances at midfield and in Titans territory. Bad decisions on four such plays combined to cost the Patriots 31.7% of GWC. Third, Titans head coach Mike Vrabel's extreme reliance on Henry killed a lot of clock. The Patriots took just 61 offensive snaps on the day, tied for the lowest total of their season with last week's shocking upset to the Dolphins. And fourth, Belichick countered the Titans' run-heavy game plan with a second-half shift to the same effective six-man front -- with multiple linebackers playing up on the line -- that he used to limit Todd Gurley in last year's Super Bowl. Henry produced just 76 yards and three new first downs on 20 second-half carries, and the Titans declined from a 73.8% first-half DVOA to -27.4% in the second half.
That defensive adjustment opened the door for the Titans to counter with play-action, a strategy they used to great success in the regular season with a league-leading 10.9 yards per play (subscription required). But when Tannehill opened the fourth quarter with a play fake to Henry from the team's 32-yard line, he didn't draw a clean pocket. Linebacker Kyle Van Noy remained discipline on the fake and came unblocked off the right edge. That forced Tannehill to throw a pass before he was ready, and with his momentum carrying him backward, the sailed the pass high and short. Safety Duron Harmon -- playing for an injured Patrick Chung -- undercut the intended target Corey Davis and dove to make the interception.
It was the first turnover of the day, and it set the Patriots offense up with excellent field position at their own 41-yard line to try to break out of the 14-13 stalemate they had been facing since the second quarter. Eager to capitalize on the opportunity, Brady faked a pair of handoffs before throwing deep to Phillip Dorsett down the middle of the field. Dorsett had a narrow window of opportunity running between corners Adoree Jackson and Tramaine Brock, but Brock remained firm on Dorsett's back shoulder to box him out of what would have been a touchdown catch.
That lost first down did not hinder the Patriots as a defensive holding penalty awarded them a new one, but they still couldn't take advantage. Linebacker Rashaan Evans -- carrying an unusual burden after fellow interior linebacker Jayon Brown injured his shoulder in the first quarter -- closed on and tackled the shifty Julian Edelman for a modest 4-yard gain. Michel halved the remaining yards for a new first down with a 3-yard power run. But Brady missed Dorsett again on third down, this time forced to throw short by contact from defensive tackles Jurrell Casey and DaQuan Jones. And Belichick made the mistake he repeated all night, punting the ball on fourth-and-short in Titans territory. This one cost the Patriots' 6.8% GWC, and Jake Bailey's punt exacerbated the issue, sailing 2 yards too far and into the end zone, netting the team just 27 yards of field position after the touchback.
Henry's lack of efficiency in the second half did not induce Vrabel to change what he was doing. He started the next Titans drive with a pair of Henry runs that went for 2 and 3 yards, respectively. Henry came off the field for third-and-5, but the Titans pass protection gave Tannehill a clean pocket. And after failing to find an open receiver on his initial survey, he stepped forward, jumped, and lofted a pass to receiving back Dion Lewis, who came open after his defender Jamie Collins slipped and fell. Lewis ran after the catch for a new first down but then collided with star cornerback Stephon Gilmore, injuring both players.
The Titans could have used Gilmore's temporary absence from the game to try throw some passes to breakout rookie receiver A.J. Brown, who saw just one target and produced just 4 yards in the game. Instead, Vrabel stuck with the running game, starting his next sequence with another pair of Henry carries, these two for 4 yards apiece and the second coming on a tremendous second effort after Henry was initially contacted in the backfield. Tannehill faked to Henry on the resulting third-and-2, but he kept the ball himself on the zone-read carry. That left Tannehill one-on-one against the smaller safety Devin McCourty. He couldn't dodge McCourty in the backfield, but he powered through him to reach the first-down markers. That brought the game clock below nine minutes, and Henry's subsequent 15-yard carry -- the back half of which came over the top of cornerback J.C. Jackson -- advanced the Titans into Patriots territory.
The Titans reached another third-and-short two plays later. By that point, the clock was down to 6:39. The Titans had already bled six minutes of clock and had just barely reached field goal range at the Patriots' 34-yard line. At the pace they were going, they were poised to run into the end zone with just a few minutes for the Patriots to try to respond. But this third-and-short, the Titans finally made a mistake. Tannehill took the shotgun snap and tried to hand the ball to Henry before he had fully secured it. It was a fumble. Henry made an excellent play to just jump on the loose ball, but the recovery in the backfield created a 2-yard loss that made a field goal try for unproven kicker Greg Joseph -- who still had not attempted a field goal since joining the team in Week 16 -- untenable.
EdjSports' GWC model would have preferred him to leave his offense on the field for the resulting fourth-and-5, but Vrabel at least got creative in his conservativism. Taking advantage of the NFL rule that winds the clock after penalties with more than five minutes left in the fourth quarter, Vrabel had his team take consecutive intentional delay-of-game and false-start penalties. Those dropped the clock from the 6:39 on the previous play all the way to 4:51 when Brett Kern finally punted.
The stalling tactic could have backfired spectacularly if the Patriots had followed it with an extended drive and field goal. But mistakes of both execution and strategy sabotaged those efforts. In the end, Vrabel read his old head coach perfectly. That didn't look like it would be the case when Brady opened what would become the Patriots' final drive with a 20-yard short pass that White extended with a broken tackle. But after a 6-yard Dorsett completion, Edelman dropped a pass that hit him in the chest for what would have been a new Patriots first down.
It's unfair to label Edelman the scapegoat given how much of the Patriots' offense he shouldered this season -- the latter weeks of which he did with an actual bad shoulder. Edelman definitely outperformed the other primary Patriots receivers this season with a -7.5% DVOA versus -25.7% for N'Keal Harry and -32.4% for Mohamed Sanu. But drops have been Edelman's long-standing Achilles heel. He led the league with 13 this season, and his 10.1% drop rate of catchable targets since 2015 is 11th highest among heavily targeted wide receivers.
|Highest Drop Rate of Catchable Tgts, WRs, 2015-19|
|Minimum 150 catchable targets; data from SportRadar|
Brady and Belichick could have overcome the miscue, but the former threw wide of Dorsett on third-and-4, and the latter decided to punt a play later. The Patriots were on their own 37-yard line at the time, so an offensive play would have violated conventional coaching wisdom. But the punt decision here remains the most egregious strategic mistake Belichick made all day, costing the Patriots 18.3% GWC. And Brady wouldn't have another chance at offense before the final 15 seconds of the game.
The conservative decision still could have worked out for the Patriots, especially after a Titans illegal formation penalty nullified an 8-yard Davis catch that would have produced a new first down. But Tannehill followed that non-play with a third-and-8 conversion to tight end Anthony Firkser, the earlier recipient of the lone Titans' receiving touchdown. Firkser ran the perfect route for the Patriots' defensive alignment, cutting out toward the left sideline and away from the double coverage that awaited him in the middle of the field.
That was the last pass that Tannehill threw in the game. Henry took it from there, and even though he produced just one of the two necessary first downs to exhaust the full game clock, he advanced the Titans to a fourth-and-6 at their 41-yard line with just 25 seconds left in the game. As Kern prepared to punt, the Patriots sold out to try to block it. They had blocked four punts during the regular season, three more than any other team. They came close again here, but Kern got his line drive punt away and induced it to tumble perfectly down to the Patriots' 1-yard line.
That successful punt extinguished any realistic chances the Patriots had of a comeback. Their GWC at that point was just 0.3%. But fans exhausted by the Patriots dynasty were likely happy to have a play to perhaps punctuate the end of it. Brady threw a pass to a covered Sanu that got tipped up in the air, and former Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan snatched it out of the air and ran it in for a pick-six.
The Patriots tried a multi-lateral kickoff return to no avail. The Titans had won and will move on to face the No. 1-seed Ravens the same time next Saturday.
The Patriots' second-half-of-the-season fall from a seeming lock to be the No. 1 seed in the AFC to the No. 3 seed and an unceremonious exit in the first round of the playoffs has set off a heap of drama. At this point, there are rumors that both Brady and Belichick could leave for new teams. Either exit would end the Brady-Belichick dynasty by definition. But if they both do return, I wouldn't rule out another competitive season. Elite defenses tend to face stiffer year-to-year regression than elite offenses, but the Patriots' lack of impact skill talent offers the team a lot of options to make marked offseason improvements to their offensive personnel.
Meanwhile, the Titans deserve as much or more praise as the Patriots do vitriol. Whether or not every Vrabel decision that worked was the right one independent of results, he built a game plan that took advantage of the Patriots' weaknesses. And with Tannehill under center, the Titans are as hot as anyone with a 28.7% weighted offensive DVOA that isn't too far behind that of the team's next opponent, the Ravens.
Vikings at Saints
Two incredible AFC games left the NFC with a lot to live up to on Sunday. The Vikings-Saints game figured to be the letdown with the Saints a weekend-high 7.5-point favorite. But by the start of the fourth quarter, the Saints were fortunate to be down just 20-10. They failed to score a touchdown after starting their first drive off of an Adam Thielen fumble on the Vikings' 37-yard line. Drew Brees threw a head-scratching interception into double-coverage around Ted Ginn in the closing minutes of the second quarter, sparking a Vikings touchdown drive on a short field. And kicker Wil Lutz -- who had not missed since Week 8 -- pushed a gift of a 43-yard field goal attempt wide right at the end of the first half. Were it not for an incredible Taysom Hill 50-yard deep completion to Deonte Harris to set up a short Alvin Kamara touchdown in the second quarter, the Saints would have had a fraction of their already low 20.9% GWC to start the final period.
Brees and the Saints offense needed to wake up and wake up quickly. The desperate circumstances seemed to do the trick as Brees started the Saints' first fourth-quarter drive to Jared Cook, Kamara, and Cook again for 33 combined yards. The speedster Ted Ginn fooled cornerback Trae Waynes completely and made an uncontested 18-yard catch at the right sideline, and suddenly the Saints were within field goal range at the Vikings' 32-yard line. Former Vikings back Latavius Murray spelled Kamara with consecutive runs for 4 and 8 yards and another new Saints first down, and then Brees capped an 85-yard drive in less than five minutes with a 20-yard touchdown toss to versatile Hill.
Hill came free on a well-designed play that forced safety Harrison Smith to choose between covering Hill and Kamara in the flat. He chose the latter, and Hill ended up wide open in the left side of the end zone.
Still up 20-17 with less than 10 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, the Vikings remained in control. But that didn't stop wide receiver Stefon Diggs -- who saw just one target in the first three quarters -- from throwing a tantrum on the sidelines. Seemingly to placate their star receiver in a circumstance where it is unbelievable that that was necessary, the Vikings handed the ball off to Diggs twice on their next series with mixed success. The former went 6 yards after a nifty Diggs spin move and led to a first down, but the latter ended quickly after a Marcus Williams tackle. Dalvin Cook found no room either on a left-side pitch, and while Kirk Cousins nearly saved the drive with a perfect lob to rookie receiver Alexander Hollins in the middle of the field, Hollins couldn't maintain possession through a hard fall to the turf. That incompletion forced a Vikings punt that offered the Saints a chance to pull ahead with a touchdown drive and a little over seven minutes left on the clock.
Hill continued to make plays for the Saints on their next drive, first catching a Brees pass behind the line of scrimmage and scampering for a 5-yard gain and then taking a direct snap for 9 yards up the middle and an easy conversion on a third-and-1. Two plays later, Hill ran around the left end, survived an Anthony Harris attempted tackle, spun, and rambled down the left sideline for 28 more yards.
Just hours after I had made fun of him in Audibles, the restricted free agent Hill may have earned himself a chance to start at quarterback for a creative team in 2020. Too bad the Saints' future Hall of Fame quarterback Brees did not enjoy the same stellar performance. A play after the Hill run, Brees felt pressure from standout Vikings pass rusher Danielle Hunter -- who finished fourth in football with 59 pass pressures (subscription required) in addition to his 14.5 actual sacks. Hunter didn't strip the ball, but Brees lost the handle anyway, perhaps influenced by his torn thumb ligament from earlier in the season. The Vikings recovered the loose ball with 4:18 left in the fourth quarter.
Needing a handful of first downs to salt this game away, Cousins bounced a second-and-9 pass well short of Diggs but responded with a quick out completion to Thielen before a blitz could disrupt him in the backfield. Cook nearly returned Brees' favor, losing the handle of a pitch and carry that Vonn Bell returned 38 yards for a would-be touchdown. But replay showed that Cook's knee went down just before the ball popped into the air, narrowly averting a Vikings disaster.
The loss of the play still backed the Vikings up to a second-and-17 that became a fourth-and-23 after another Cook loss and a bad Cousins sack. That latter play at least kept the clock running, but Saints head coach Sean Payton could have shut that down with his final timeout with 2:45 left on the clock. Instead, he let it run all the way down to 2:10 at the time of the punt, which cost him another effective timeout in the two-minute warning when Harris' lasted until the 1:55 mark.
Brees still had enough time to orchestrate a Saints' game-winning touchdown drive, but his coach and teammates did not cooperate. Kamara cut a checkdown pass back inside and around Anthony Barr, trading 20 seconds for maybe 3 extra yards. And after quick barrage of completions to Cook, Kamara, Michael Thomas, and Cook again for 50 combined yards, the offense failed to get set in time for a spike at the Vikings' 26-yard line. The Saints still had their timeout, but Payton again chose not to use it, allowing the penalty-mandated 10-second run-off to cut the game clock from 21 seconds to 11 seconds. After a failed screen attempt, Payton called for his kicker Lutz to try a 49-yard attempt. They never even used their final timeout.
Fortunately for the Saints, Lutz split the uprights and forced a second overtime game on wild-card weekend. But Brees never saw another chance on offense after the Vikings won the overtime coin toss. Instead, Cousins completed a clutch, accurate pass to Diggs on a third-and-1, and three plays later, he dropped a teardrop of a 43-yard pass over cornerback Patrick Robinson (in for an injured Marcus Lattimore) that Thielen caught over his shoulders like Willie Mays. It was the best pass of the weekend and of Cousins' career.
Backed up to their 2-yard line, the Saints weren't completely dead. They still had a chance for a goal-line stand, limiting the Vikings to a field goal and earning themselves a shot to answer in these newer overtime rules. But after stopping Cook for losses on both first and second down, the Saints couldn't prevent tight end Kyle Rudolph from securing a fade in the back-left corner of the end zone. Replay showed that Rudolph clearly pushed off of P.J. Williams, but the referees never called for a review. The Vikings had won and will advance to face the No. 1 seed 49ers on Saturday.
Already with a pair of poor performances and first-round playoff losses from his Redskins days, Cousins was at risk of cementing his legacy as a fantasy quarterback who couldn't handle real pressure. After leading the Vikings to a 4.3% offensive DVOA in the first three quarters, he enabled the Saints comeback with a -50.1% team offensive DVOA in the fourth quarter. But Cousins exorcised those demons with a 46.0% team offensive DVOA in overtime and can now focus on the Vikings' Cinderella efforts with a clear conscience.
With a Super Bowl trophy already on their resumes, Brees and Payton didn't need this playoff win in the same way that Cousins did. But that 2009 title has papered over what has become a lengthy track record of mystifying playoff losses in the decade since.
|Saints Playoff Spreads and Results, 2010-19|
|*Lost on last-second Minnesota Miracle
**Lost on non-called Nickell Robey-Coleman DPI
Without the same fanfare, the Saints are at the same crossroads the Patriots are. Brees turns 41 years old next week and will become a free agent when his contract automatically voids on March 18. Given the success Payton has had with other quarterbacks like Hill and Teddy Bridgewater, it will be interesting to see how long the Saints continue to run back their current roster.
Seahawks at Eagles
The injury bowl between the Seahawks and Eagles provoked a different kind of fascination from the first three games of wild-card weekend. Russell Wilson and Carson Wentz had already dramatically overachieved in dragging their injury-riddled rosters to 11 and nine respective wins and playoff berths. But this game took even those regular season challenges to new extremes. On Sunday, Wilson had to play without his normal top three running backs -- Chris Carson, Rashaad Penny, and C.J. Prosise -- and normal top tight end Will Dissly as well as recently suspended receiver Josh Gordon and recently injured receivers Jaron Brown and Malik Turner. Meanwhile, Wentz's normal top two weapons -- rookie running back Miles Sanders and tight end Zach Ertz -- were playing diminished because of ankle and rib injuries. And Wentz of course continued to miss a bevy of receivers highlighted by DeSean Jackson, Alshon Jeffery, and Nelson Agholor. And both quarterbacks were stuck throwing behind patchwork offensive lines missing their respective best pass-protectors, Duane Brown and Lane Johnson.
In retrospect, it shouldn't have been a surprise that the oft-injured Wentz failed to make it out of the first quarter. He suffered a likely concussion when pass-rusher Jadeveon Clowney tackled him from behind, forcing his helmet face-first into the hard turf. But never underestimate the Seahawks' ability to play close games regardless of their competition. The Eagles' 40-year-old backup quarterback Josh McCown acquitted himself well, completing 18 of 24 pass attempts for 174 yards, no turnovers, and a -1.6% DVOA. A pair of big plays to David Moore and DK Metcalf were the major difference in 17-9 Seahawks lead at the start of the fourth quarter.
The Seahawks' had an opportunity to extend that lead into what may have been an insurmountable two-score advantage after Moore caught a slant and skipped past an attempted tackle for 19 yards at the start of the final quarter. But Wilson and Travis Homer managed just 1 yard apiece on back-to-back runs from the Eagles' 43-yard line. The Eagles defense may have allowed some big pass completions, but they lived up to their No. 4 ranking in run defense DVOA, limiting the Seahawks to 64 yards on 26 overall carries and 19 yards on 17 running back carries. Meanwhile, after hitting him all afternoon, the Eagles finally wrapped Wilson up for their first sack of the day on third-and-8, forcing a Seahawks punt and offering McCown another drive with a chance to tie the game.
This Eagles drive started particularly well with Sanders weaving through the right side of the line for 18 yards and McCown connecting with Greg Ward and Ertz for 16 and 12 yards and a new first down in Seahawks territory. Boston Scott and Sanders followed those chunk plays with a 2-yard carry and a 7-yard catch-and-run which featured a nifty backpedal and hard hit from defensive tackle Poona Ford that sent Sanders rocketing up to within a yard of the line to gain. In a critical third-and-1, McCown powered forward for a 3-yard quarterback sneak.
Finally within 30 yards of the end zone, the Eagles were approaching that critical touchdown. But that task became much harder after a run stuffed at the line, a sack, and a false start penalty. That string of poor plays left the Eagles with a third-and-16. McCown produced 12 of those yards with a checkdown that allowed Dallas Goedert to spin free for a few extra yards. But the resulting fourth-and-4 was murky. The GWC model slightly preferred (0.2%) a field goal attempt that could have afforded the Eagles a chance to win outright on a possible next drive. But it's hard to second-guess the aggressive Doug Pederson, no doubt worried that his backup quarterback would be unable to return this deep into Seahawks territory. McCown made the necessary throw to Sanders to spring a new first down, but Sanders couldn't handle the pass thrown a bit behind him with Clowney bearing down in front of him. And the Eagles turned it over on downs.
The Seahawks nearly undid that damage immediately as center Joey Hunt snapped the ball in shotgun before Wilson was ready for it. But Wilson dove on the ball to retain possession, and that allowed the Seahawks to drain another 80 seconds of clock before they punted back to the Eagles after a three-and-out. Oddly, all five fumbles in this game were retained by the team that dropped them.
McCown looked poised to take advantage of the new life the Seahawks provided him. On second-and-10, he threw a beautiful line drive that Goedert pulled down for a 17-yard completion in the middle of three Seahawks defenders. That advanced the Eagles to close to midfield, and they passed it and then some after McCown unloaded deep on another second-and-10. Just promoted from the practice squad, Shelton Gibson couldn't secure the catch over top of cornerback Tre Flowers. But Flowers' early grab of Gibson drew a defensive pass interference penalty advanced the Eagles 39 yards to the Seahawks' 13-yard line.
The Eagles needed one more big play and a two-point conversion to tie this game now with less than four minutes remaining. They just couldn't make it happen. McCown took a short sack of 4 yards on first down. Sanders tried his patented weave through the left side of the line on second down, but linebacker K.J. Wright chased him down after just a 1-yard gain. Sanders caught a short pass on third down and crashed into a pair of defenders for a 6-yard gain. And on fourth-and-7, McCown tried to run for the daylight the Seahawks offered between him and the left side of the end zone. He just wasn't fast enough to escape Clowney, who dove and pulled him down from behind still short of the line of scrimmage.
The turnover on downs all but wrapped up the Seahawks win, boosting their GWC to 95.8%. But they were still pinned back against the own end zone, and the Eagles still had all three of their timeouts. Homer and Marshawn Lynch made their fans a bit nervous with consecutive carries for 0 combined yards. But Wilson prevented another Eagles offensive possession, dropping back and lofting a deep pass against the Eagles' Cover-0. Metcalf got a step on safety Marcus Epps with a nice fake near the line of scrimmage, but even in tight coverage, Epps likely could not have prevented the athletic Metcalf from skying for the game-sealing reception.
That 37-yard reception capped off an incredible day of 160 receiving yards for Metcalf. It is the most receiving yards a rookie has ever produced in a post-merger playoff game, coincidentally breaking the record of former Eagles receiver Jeremy Maclin.
|Most Receiving Yards in a Playoff Game, Rookies, 1970-2019|
Bereft of playmakers, the Seahawks will likely need Metcalf to continue to play big in order to advance further in the playoffs. But the team also benefits from the Vikings upset that will send the Seahawks to Green Bay to face a Packers team that is the worst remaining in the NFC by both overall and weighted DVOA. With a possibility of snow in the forecast, this latest installment of the Seahawks-Packers rivalry is sure to deliver on its promise for excitement.