49ers Slime Cowboys; Chiefs and Bills Go Brrrr
NFL Wild Card - So, Bills Mafia, how are you feeling after that victory over the Patriots on Saturday night?
Only one thing for it pic.twitter.com/O5dd5vuLWW
— Jay Arnold (@JArnoldTAMU85) January 15, 2022
Yeah, that tracks. And how are you feeling, 49ers fans?
— NFL (@NFL) January 16, 2022
Yikes: looks like everyone took their Viagra to improve their blood circulation. If that persists for more than four hours, consult your physician. Though, since the fluids in question are green, go ahead and call your doctor now. Please.
— Aditi Kinkhabwala (@AKinkhabwala) January 16, 2022
What's the matter, Joey? Don't like the dad jokes? You won a big game, so stop looking like the kid in the back row of Multicultural Studies 150 who finds everything "problematic."
Let's check in on Cowboys fans…
— Jane Slater (@SlaterNFL) January 17, 2022
… and let's check out. Good thing Eagles fans didn't do that or it would make the CNN crawl. But no, Eagles fans wisely gave up midway through the third quarter of Sunday's loss to the Buccaneers.
We all watched the same games on Saturday and Sunday, which is why Walkthrough favors Monday previews over Monday reviews in the postseason. But don't worry, we'll glance back through the rearview mirror at Saturday and Sunday's blowouts and upset (singular) plenty of times while still keeping our eyes focused on next weekend's matchups.
Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs, Sunday, 6:30 p.m.
Early Line: Chiefs -2.5
How the Kansas City Chiefs Got Here: Stop us if you have heard this one before: the Chiefs started the game committing penalties and unforced-error turnovers because they were trying to score a 14-point touchdown on every play, then got their act together and curb-stomped their opponent—the Steelers this time—in a 42-21 win.
Sunday's messy start and magnificently brutal beatdown felt similar to the Chiefs' 51-31 defeat of the Texans in the divisional round of the 2019 playoffs. But it was not the most impressive victory of the weekend so far, because...
How the Buffalo Bills Got Here: Saturday night's 47-17 table-smashing of the Patriots was the Bills' greatest "statement" victory since Jim Kelly and company whupped the Los Angeles Raiders 51-3 in the 1990 AFC Championship Game. It was also the most spectacular public demolition of the Patriots since Super Bowl XX against Da Bears in 1985. Josh Allen and the Bills needed that huge a win against their eternal tormentors to wash the taste of an up-and-down season out of their mouths.
What We Learned About the Bills on Saturday: They have an invincibility power-up that they must have been saving for January.
Also, Josh Allen went 37-230-5 on designed runs this season, with a league-high 110 yards after contact. Allen finished second to Daniel Jones among quarterbacks with 10 or more designed rushes at 6.2 yards per rush. Saturday's victory not only demonstrated the diversity of Brian Daboll's option-keeper game—one of Allen's best runs came on a play that looked like the old Washington counter trey, except Allen was John Riggins—but also the difficulty of tackling the 240-pound Allen when he has a full head of steam and a playoff game to win.
What We Learned About the Chiefs on Sunday: Jerick McKinnon enjoyed several productive seasons as Adrian Peterson's change-up back for the Vikings in the mid-2010s. He then signed with the 49ers, lost two full seasons to an ACL tear and its complications, and essentially vanished from the NFL consciousness. McKinnon reemerged for the Chiefs late in the season and produced 12 carries for 61 yards with 6-81-1 receiving on Sunday with Clyde Edwards-Helaire inactive and Darrel Williams in the doghouse after a fumble. McKinnon's success is not only a reminder that running backs are largely interchangeable, but that few coaches get their deep-bench players as ready to contribute in a big game as well as Andy Reid.
Keys for the Chiefs Against the Bills: The Chiefs gave up too many gash plays in the first half of their 38-20 Week 5 loss to the Bills: a long Josh Allen touchdown run, a 35-yard Emmanuel Sanders touchdown, and a 53-yard touchdown to Dawson Knox. The Chiefs defense was still in disaster mode in Week 5 and is much better now, but the Bills offense is playing halfway-decent football these days too. In what promises to be a shootout, the Chiefs need to come out ahead in the big-play battle.
Key for the Bills Against the Chiefs: Keep doing what they did on Saturday. Don't change a darn thing.
Bottom Line: Look, it has been a long season for those of us who watch nearly every single game. Covering the NFL isn't exactly hard labor, but watching game after game can grow tedious this time of year, when the kickoffs spread out to consume entire weekends. Some matchups, such as Raiders-Bengals on a Saturday afternoon, can feel more like paperwork than an exciting spectator event. By the end of many Sunday-nights-into-Monday-mornings, Walkthrough feels like Big Ben trudging off the field for the last time.
But Bills-Chiefs? Let's all bathe in this. Let this matchup be our atmosphere. I have no idea who will win, but I am hoping for a 42-41 shootout, with zero penalties. Because all of us deserve it.
San Francisco 49ers at Green Bay Packers, Saturday, 8:15 p.m.
Early Line: Packers -5
How the San Francisco 49ers Got Here: The 49ers beat the Cowboys on Sunday the way they beat many opponents in the regular season: by controlling the clock and the line of scrimmage, excelling in the short game on offense, and choking out their opponent's short game on defense.
The 49ers also benefited from 14 Cowboys penalties and survived both some signature self-destructive Jimmy Garoppolo behavior and an awful late-game fourth-down decision by Kyle Shanahan. Factor in injuries to Nick Bosa and Fred Warner and it becomes difficult to get excited about the 49ers' upset chances next Saturday.
How the Green Bay Packers Got Here: The Packers overcame long-term injuries to critical players such as Jaire Alexander, David Bakhtiari, and Za'Darius Smith; shrugged off multiple Aaron Rodgers pity parties; and made claiming their familiar spot atop the NFC North look much easier than it probably was.
What the Packers are Best At: Beyond Rodgers-to-Davante Adams, the Packers have coaxed surprising performances from unheralded defensive free agents such as De’Vondre Campbell and Rasul Douglas as well as slow-cooked in-house prospects Elgton Jenkins (now injured) and Rashad Gary.
AJ Dillon has also joined Aaron Jones to give the Packers a credible thunder-and-lightning backfield. The Packers are excellent at playing ahead of the sticks: they're second on second-and-medium and third on third-/fourth-and-short according to DVOA, giving their offense some effective jabs to go with Rodgers' deep haymakers.
What the Packers are Worst At: The special teams are a disaster. Packers opponents average 12.8 yards per punt return and 25.7 yards per kickoff return, and Mason Crosby is coming off an unreliable year.
The Packers also play down to their opponents a bit, which is one reason why their DVOA was relatively low throughout the year. Opponents such as the Bears (twice), Steelers, and Browns hung around games they should not really have been competitive in.
What We Learned About the 49ers on Sunday: It's hard to sustain drives against a team that ranked second in adjusted line yards, fifth in adjusted sack rate, and fourth in defending short passes. The Cowboys could not run the ball or get any consistency from their underneath game. Of course, about 285 Cowboys holding and motion penalties helped the 49ers a bit.
Key for the Packers Against the 49ers: The 49ers ranked last in the NFL at stopping deep passes. Rodgers and Adams know what to do next.
Key for the 49ers Against the Packers: Garoppolo and Shanahan were excruciatingly bad late in Sunday's win, with Garoppolo unable to throw a spiral unless he was targeting Anthony Brown and Shanahan squandering 17 percentage points of win probability with a foolish fourth-and-1 punt. But it's not like either of them have a reputation for coming up small in big moments or anything, amiright? To manage an upset here, Shanahan may need to dial up his 2019 NFC Championship Game plan: the one where Garoppolo only threw eight passes.
Bottom Line: Bakhtiari, Za'Darius, and Whitney Mercilus should all be back for the Packers. Alexander is probable to return as well. The Packers are healthier than ever, while the 49ers are now pretty beaten up on defense.
The 49ers pulled a near-upset in their 30-28 Week 3 loss to the Packers thanks to (surprise) a long kickoff return and some of their tantric slow-groove scoring drives, and heaven knows we have seen the 49ers make the Packers look silly in the playoffs a few times. History aside, however, the 49ers aren't playing well enough—and Shanahan is not coaching well enough—to anticipate a third-straight must-win road victory.
Cincinnati Bengals at Tennessee Titans, Saturday, 4:30 p.m.
Early Line: Titans -3
How the Cincinnati Bengals Got Here: The Bengals outplayed the Raiders thoroughly on Saturday night, but the Raiders remained alive in what ended as a 26-19 Bengals victory until the final moments because the Bengals settled for too many field goals and their defense suffered too many lapses on third- and fourth-and-long. It was the first Bengals playoff victory in over 30 years, but it wasn't quite an emphatic statement.
How the Tennessee Titans Got Here: It's tempting to divide the Titans season into two segments: BDHA (Before the Derrick Henry Apocalypse) and ADHA. But the Titans were 6-2 with Henry and 6-3 without him, and four negative rushing DVOA results when Henry was healthy illustrate how minor and unreliable the impact of even an outstanding running back can be.
It's also tempting to claim that the Titans rode their soft AFC South schedule to a division title, but they went just 3-2 against the Texans, Jaguars, and Jets while beating the Rams, Chiefs, and Bills.
It's most accurate to state that the Titans overcame multiple injury emergencies, swept the Colts, and manufactured enough other close victories to meet their preseason expectations despite not being certain who would be able to suit up from week to week.
What the Titans are Best At: When close to full strength, the Titans match a balanced offense with a defense that generates pass pressure from all angles and doesn't give up chunk plays against the run. The Titans have rarely been at full strength this season, however. What they might be best at is compensating for their ever-changing weaknesses due to injuries, protocols, etc.
What They're Worst At: Even when Henry, Julio Jones, and A.J. Brown were all healthy and the offensive line was more or less intact at the start of the season, the Titans offense rarely added up to the sum of its parts. Coordinator Todd Dowling has drawn criticism for being too predictable and not deploying play-action efficiently. D'Onta Foreman came on strong as Henry's replacement late in the year, but the Titans offense otherwise lacks tertiary weapons.
What We Learned About the Bengals on Saturday: Trey Hendrickson finished the regular season fifth in the NFL with 43 hurries and fourth with 71 pressures (per Sports Info Solutions) to go with 14 sacks. The Bengals ranked just 18th in hurries and 16th in pressures during the regular season, which provides a sense of how important Hendrickson is to their pass rush. That played out against the Raiders: Hendrickson delivered an early strip-sack, but the Bengals barely mounted any pass rush after Hendrickson entered concussion protocols.
Saturday was also the big-game coming out party for safety Jessie Bates, a second-team All-Pro this year and the perennial designated "good player on a bad defense" during the Bengals' lean years. Bates had three critical pass breakups against the Raiders. Bates happens to be entering free agency after the season, despite the fact that the Bengals enter 2022 with over $55-million in cap space. That's just a reminder that, despite this season's success, the Bengals organization doesn't have the foggiest idea what it's doing.
Keys for the Bengals Against the Titans: The Bengals ranked 23rd in goal-to-go offense in the regular season and settled for too many field goals against the Raiders. Zac Taylor may want to consider just pounding Joe Mixon inside the 20. The three-man pass rushes the Bengals relied on in the second half on Saturday must go: replacing Hendrickson with nobody was not an option, guys. Taylor also had one of his play-calling fugues late in the game when he tried to run out the clock with 3:29 to play.
In summary: Taylor and defensive coordinator Captain Lou Anarumo have to call a smart game instead of just hoping Joe Burrow, Ja'Marr Chase, Hendrickson, and Bates can make them look smart.
Keys for the Titans Against the Bengals: The Titans rank 23rd at stopping opponent's deep passes. That's not gonna cut it. The best way to beat the Bengals is to sack Burrow into oblivion, so middle-of-the-pack hurry and pressure statistics further make this a shaky matchup for the Titans.
Bottom Line: Walkthrough is leaning toward an upset, especially if Hendrickson is available, largely because we haven't seen a truly impressive Titans win since they beat the Rams in Week 9. Perhaps we will change our mind as the week goes on. Either way, these two teams appear to be playing for the right to be clobbered by the winner of Bills-Chiefs.
Walkthrough takes one last look at the teams which have been eliminated so far this weekend.
The nightmare scenario for the Cowboys over the next few weeks would be to lose Kellen Moore and/or Dan Quinn to head coaching opportunities elsewhere, allowing Mike McCarthy to repopulate his coaching staff with cronies. The Cowboys have Super Bowl talent but could not line up properly or remember the snap count this year, and they grew far too comfortable with whining about the refs instead of fixing their mistakes late in the season. The last thing they need is even more laissez-faire leadership from the football world's standard-bearer for swinging the work-life balance pendulum too far in the other direction. The Cowboys don't need more talent, they need better fundamentals and a Plan B when the game doesn't precisely go their way. McCarthy isn't a Plan B type of coach, and if his staff gets brain-drained, even Plan A may never make it past the PowerPoint stage.
Las Vegas Raiders
Rich Bisaccia did a fine job keeping the Raiders together throughout a tumultuous season. He deserves a long late career of assistant head coach titles and majordomo gigs at the right hand of apple-cheeked Mini McVays, and maybe even a USFL head coaching job. But let's get real: the Raiders were a fluke playoff team that needs a hard reboot, not a kindly caretaker. Mike Mayock has also earned a triumphant return to broadcasting.
Mark Davis needs to act as if the Raiders went 6-11 this season, because that's what probably would have happened if not for COVID outbreaks and pass interference penalties.
New England Patriots
The Patriots need to get faster, more talented, and younger at several positions. It's time to give Devin McCourty a gold watch and let Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins (again), and some of the veteran bench guys such as Branden Bolden and even Matthew Slater move on to the Texans as free agents or retire
Bill Belichick probably never bought into the rebuild-is-complete hype back when the Patriots were steamrolling Jets/Panthers/Falcons types in late autumn. After all the drama, the 2021 Patriots were a .500-ish team whose schedule had a creamy center. Hanging around as a wild card for another year or two could be easy, but getting back to where the Patriots want to be is going to be much harder than it looked in early December.
Like the Patriots, the Eagles rode the veterans in their trenches and some soft patches of schedule into the playoffs. Also like the Patriots, the Eagles have a young Alabama alum at quarterback who had his moments of brilliance during the regular season but also has obvious weaknesses and proved less than playoff ready down the stretch.
Three first-round picks will make the Eagles popular fodder for the Disgruntled Quarterback Trade Rumor Mill, which is fine. But Walkthrough will only entertain the notion that Hurts was "exposed" on Sunday if we can also talk about whether Mac Jones was "exposed" over the last month.
Replacing Jalen Reagor with any NFL-caliber receiver, upgrading the edge rush, reinforcing the secondary, and rolling with Hurts for another year makes more sense than any Eagles improvement plan that doesn't involve showing Ciara around some luxury Rittenhouse Square apartments.
Farewell, Ben Roethlisberger: you left everything you had on the field this year, and then some. Farewell, Kevin Colbert, the low-key, steady-handed general manager who is expected to step down after the draft. Hello, change and uncertainty, two things the Steelers organization cannot stand. It would be out of character for the Steelers to enter any sort of Russell Wilson sweepstakes, so get ready to find out what a Steelers rebuild looks like. They have never truly rebuilt in the conventional sense in the modern era, so the Steelers themselves will likely be as surprised by what comes next as we will.
Super Wild Card Weekend Awards
This week's serving of awards comes with a Nickelodeon bucket o' slime on the side.
Defender of the Week
T.J. Watt did all he could: a fumble-return touchdown, a deflected pass, three hits on Patrick Mahomes, at least one forced holding penalty, and a garbage-time sack. Unfortunately for the Steelers, Watt cannot play quarterback. Wait … are we sure about that? Perhaps that's something the Steelers should consider this offseason.
Offensive Line of the Week
The Bills offensive line of Dion Dawkins, Ryan Bates, Mitch Morse, Daryl Williams, and Spencer Brown made a Patriots defense that appeared to be impregnable in early December look like a bunch of guys who won Super Bowls in a previous decade and are now so very, very tired.
Special Teamer of the Week
Robbie Gould nailed 40-, 52-, and 53-yard field goals, and the 49ers needed every one of them.
Honorable mention goes to Bryan Anger and C.J. Goodwin of the Cowboys, whose fake-punt pitch-and-catch had the potential to be the turning point of the game, except that the Cowboys took too long to regroup after the play, got flagged for delay of game, and were forced to settle for a field goal.
Best Supporting Actor in Someone Else's Highlight
Well, the Eldritch horror lurking beneath AT&T Stadium is certainly a worthy candidate:
— Timothy Burke (@bubbaprog) January 16, 2022
So are the Ninja Turtles—Michelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael, Ghilberti, Fra Angelico, Bellini, Mantegna, Verrocchio, Botticelli, Ghrilandaio, Titian, Lippi, Del Sarto, Garoppolo, Giorgione, Signorelli, Uccello, Pontormo, Veronese, Tintoretto, and Al Del Greco—for their reenactment of this Cowboys touchdown:
— Nickelodeon (@Nickelodeon) January 16, 2022
The Patriots are eyeing up some of those turtles as free-agent wide receivers!
The sun simply does not get enough credit for all it does to make life on earth possible, but it was the 12th Man for the 49ers against the Cowboys, so it deserves honorable mention:
“oh god yes” pic.twitter.com/T5F58UHnmQ
— Jonathan Jones (@jjones9) January 16, 2022
Ancient peoples built monuments such as Stonehenge specifically to line up with solstices and equinoxes, but Jerry Jones lacks the good sense to make sure that his receivers won't drop passes due to sun glare during late-afternoon playoff games. Primitive people were far smarter than Jerry Jones, in other words.
Where on earth is Patrick Mahomes going on Travis Kelce's touchdown pass to Byron Pringle? Is he sneaking off to fetch Ben Roethlisberger's retirement cake?
— NFL (@NFL) January 17, 2022
All are worthy candidates, but this week's BSASEH is umpire Ramon Judge for providing a metaphor for the weekend by very literally inserting himself into the middle of a game-deciding play:
— NFL (@NFL) January 17, 2022
That final Dak Prescott draw also earned consideration for Burn This Play, but we rather liked the concept, if not the execution. If Prescott slides one second earlier or the Cowboys were capable of lining up with any discipline, they might have gotten one more crack at the end zone.
Burn This Play!
Second runner-up: the Mecole Hardman-Darrel Williams Wildcat package. Because when facing an opponent with no offense or run defense, it's always wise to tempt fate with a player who has little experience fielding a shotgun snap or executing an option exchange:
T.J. Watt puts the Steelers on the board first!
— TSN (@TSN_Sports) January 17, 2022
First runner-up: Jimmy Garoppolo demonstrating why completion percentage is a misleading evaluative stat.
this is one of the dumbest throws I think I've seen. pic.twitter.com/ZjDsGfTmEF
— Dalton Miller (@DaltonBMiller) January 16, 2022
The throw was ridiculous, of course, but where was Garoppolo supposed to go with that ball? It looks like the play is designed for George Kittle, leaking off the line of scrimmage and running a wheel up the right sideline. It could be a highlight-reel touchdown if Garoppolo is not pressured, freezes the defense so no one picks up Kittle, throws an accurate deep ball across his body … did we mention that this is Garoppolo we are talking about? That play concept would be great for Trey Lance, who could at least run for 10 yards if everything falls apart. Most 49ers play concepts would be better for Lance than Garoppolo.
And now for the winner: let's check out the tape of the Raiders' fourth-and-goal do-or-die pass from the 9-yard line late in the fourth quarter on Saturday:
As called on Raiders radio: pic.twitter.com/2O65LQkVsx
— Timothy Burke (@bubbaprog) January 16, 2022
The call on Raiders radio was incredible: the perfect timbre of swelling disappointment, like a doctor delivering an unwelcome prognosis. I have heard Merrill Reese find that blue note and riff upon it many times over the decades. But that's not what we're here to talk about. Let's check the dots.
FINAL: Bengals 26, Raiders 19
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) January 16, 2022
So, we have curl-flats on both sides, with the Raiders' best offensive weapon (Darren Waller) chipping the edge rusher before releasing and only Bryan Edwards running a route into the end zone. Hunter Renfrow is wasted on a play where he could have at least forced the linebackers to hold their levels if he ran a shallow drag. DeSean Jackson isn't even on the field, and while he's not a traditional goal-line threat, he could have ran a deep cross in the back of the end zone. Instead Rich Bisaccia and coordinator Greg Olsen just mashed buttons through the Madden play-calling windows and dialed up a fine play for a high school to run on first-and-10 from the 20.
One look at that play design and personnel should shake any Raiders believers from the pipedream that the team did anything more than tread water this season.