Bills vs. Bills; Bengals Survive; Giants Leap Forward
NFL Wild Card - In this super, wild, Super Wild-Card Weekend edition of Walkthrough:
- Buffalo Bills ... kink-shamed?
- Cincinnati Bengals: too banged up for Buffalo?
- San Francisco 49ers: the Team of Destiny?
- New York Giants: stealth contenders or bunco squad?
- Brandon Staley: threat or menace?
… plus Wild-Card Weekend awards and more.
Let's get straight to the action.
Game Spotlight: Cincinnati Bengals 24, Baltimore Ravens 17
What Happened: We saw a lot of football this weekend. By the fourth quarter on Sunday night, your bingo card was probably full except for one square: the game-reversing Ravens cataclysmic short-yardage blunder.
So it came to pass that Tyler Huntley attempted a goal-line sneak, foolishly lifted the football high in the air as if he was presenting Baby Simba to the jungle kingdom, and…
Sam Hubbard takes the fumble 98 yards for the TD ‼️
— NFL (@NFL) January 16, 2023
Lots of other things happened, including five possessions after that fumble in which the Bengals could not munch the clock and the Ravens could not score. But ultimately, the Ravens season ended in the most predictable and maddening way possible, considering how hard they played on Sunday night.
What Sunday's Win Means for the Bengals: Like the Bills (see next segment), the Bengals cannot be thrilled with how they played on Sunday night. Ravens receivers inexplicably got wide open in crucial situations. Left tackle Jonah Williams got hurt, and an already rickety offensive line could not protect Joe Burrow or sustain the running game. The Bengals averaged just 4.3 yards per offensive play and barely moved the ball at all after one long third-quarter drive.
The Williams injury bears watching as the Bengals limp into Buffalo. Their offensive line is in no shape to face the Bills right now.
The real winners of wild-card weekend? The Chiefs. No one ever loses a bye week.
Looking Ahead to the 2023 Ravens: They will franchise-tag Lamar Jackson. We will then discover the truth about both Jackson's ankle and his willingness to keep playing for the Ravens. There will be no long-term contract and no trade, despite months of speculation and gossip. He will eventually sign on for a prove-he's-healthy year. And nothing else the Ravens do this offseason will matter all that much.
What's Next: Bengals at Bills, next Sunday at 6 p.m. The Bills open as 3.5 point favorites.
Game Spotlight: Buffalo Bills 34, Miami Dolphins 31
What Happened: The Bills took an early 17-0 lead, then indulged in their all-too-common urge for autoerotic asphyxiation. Three Josh Allen turnovers, a few not-quite-caught Allen bombs, and some missed tackles later, the Bills trailed 24-20 midway through the third quarter while Skylar Thompson and the Dolphins looked on in awkward astonishment.
A Kaiir Elam interception and Cole Beasley touchdown gave the Bills back the lead, but they weren't done choking themselves for jollies: coordinator Ken Dorsey broke out the Nothing But Hero Balls game plan to "protect" that lead, and the Dolphins pulled within a field goal on a Jeff Wilson touchdown run to cap a long drive.
That's when Mike McDaniel's hybrid edibles kicked in and he forgot what sport he coached. McDaniel began calling timeouts because he did not like the defensive formation as if he were Mike Krzyzewski. With no timeouts left when trailing by three, McDaniel took forever to get a fourth-and-1 call into the huddle, resulting in a delay-of-game penalty that led to a Bills defensive stop which (essentially) iced the game.
What Sunday's Win Means for the Bills: The Bills are the NFL's best team, and they will lose by two touchdowns to the Chiefs in two weeks if they do not stop spending the second and third quarter exploring their self-destructive fetishes.
To be clear, no one is saying Dorsey should call nothing but handoffs for 50 minutes after the Bills take a 17-0 lead. But … quick game? Screen game? Zone-reads? Anything but Elden Ring special attacks? Game management is a thing, folks. The Bills stink at it. It's a problem now that all the easy opponents are eliminated.
Looking Ahead to the 2023 Dolphins: Logically, the Dolphins should backstop concussion-plagued Tua Tagovailoa with a Jimmy Garoppolo type—Jimmy Garoppolo, for example—and keep trying to build a Miami YAC Machine with an older and wiser McDaniel calling the shots.
But logic does not matter: the Dolphins are a Stephen Ross vanity project. If Ross wants Jim Harbaugh, Sean Payton, Tom Brady, or a talking unicorn, neither common sense nor optics will stop him. The Dolphins will be a dwarf star of speculative nonsense throughout the offseason, with no rumor preposterous enough to be implausible.
The Dolphins enter the offseason over $10 million in cap debt but can easily clear enough space to make some really foolish decisions.
What's Next: As mentioned above, the Bills host the Bengals next Sunday night.
New York Giants 31, Minnesota Vikings 24
What Happened: This game was fun in a Division II playoff matchup between Lutheran Seminary of the Wilderness and Mount Nowhere Community College for Wayward Lads sort of way.
The Giants took an early 17-7 lead. The Vikings hung around in Vikings fashion without looking particularly dynamic or well-coached. Both defenses played as though it were the Pro Bowl. The Giants could not be bothered to cover the right sideline. The Vikings were stunned every time Daniel Jones ran and mystified by every shallow cross. Jalen Reagor muffed a punt but recovered. The Vikings lost a fourth-down sneak to a false start and settled for a field goal.
Does this sound like playoff football yet?
Saquon Barkley capped a 75-yard fourth-quarter drive with a rugged 2-yard touchdown run. The Vikings went three-and-out like it was their sworn duty to do so. The Giants tried to milk the clock, but a third-down pass bounced off Darius Slayton's belly, forcing a punt.
Kirk Cousins ran The Cousins Special (ticky-tack roughing the passer after an incompletion) to get a Vikings drive rolling. But then, facing fourth-and-8 trailing by a touchdown with no timeouts left, the Vikings dialed up the Ultimate Super Deluxe Kirk Cousins Special: a 3-air-yard pass to a well-covered T.J. Hockenson. Ballgame.
What Sunday's Win Means for the Giants: It was their Super Bowl, and the final validation of the job Brian Daboll and Joe Schoen did this season. But let's get real: the Giants would have gotten smoked by a real contender.
Looking Ahead to the 2023 Vikings: They will look a lot like the 2022 Vikings, who looked a lot like the 2020 and 2021 Vikings, though with fewer creaky veterans as the organization sheds $20 million in cap weight.
If the Vikings try to run this season back next year, they will go 6-11 against a tougher schedule. But the threat of sustained mediocrity never stopped them before, so there's no way they will make sweeping (but necessary) changes after faking their way through this charmed season.
What's Next: Giants at Eagles, Saturday night at 8:15 p.m. The opening line is Eagles -7.5. Take the Eagles and avoid the rush.
Jacksonville Jaguars 31, Los Angeles Chargers 30
What Happened: The Jaguars spotted the Chargers a 27-0 halftime lead on four Trevor Lawrence interceptions and a punt return fumble by Chris Claybrooks. The Chargers then melted like a candy bar on a summer dashboard thanks to defensive lapses, stalled drives, bad fourth-down decisions, meaningless replay challenges, sacks, batted passes, Joey Bosa tantrums, and an all-around lack of composure and game-management savvy.
"I'm hurting everybody in that locker room," Brandon Staley admitted after the game in a rare fit of self-awareness.
Oops, Walkthrough got that quote wrong "I'm hurting for everybody in that locker room," Staley said, per Michael David Smith of Pro Football Talk. Sorry, but the incorrect quote made more sense.
What Saturday's Win Means for the Jaguars: Lawrence's second-half comeback speaks well to his performance ceiling and long-term capabilities. His early-game blue-screen crash is a reminder that he's not a finished product, nor are the Jaguars. Lawrence's receivers could not get open for him in the first half, and the left side of the Jaguars line remains a problem with Cam Robinson unavailable.
The Jaguars defense played well when not trying to stop 16-yard touchdown drives after turnovers. Their pass rush continues to make big late-game plays, a trend that began late in the season.
Looking Ahead to the 2023 Chargers: Walkthrough's crystal ball sees Brandon Staley keeping his job by yeeting offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi into a volcano in favor of someone such as Mike LaFleur. That would be an upgrade, but Staley remains a problem
Staley is the Aaron Burr of head coaches. He was ultra-aggressive on fourth downs in 2021 but skewed conservative in 2022. He rested his starters for the entire preseason but inexplicably exposed Mike Williams to injury in a meaningless Week 18 finale; Williams' absence contributed heavily to Saturday's loss. Staley doesn't really have a philosophy, he just does what he thinks will bring him the least criticism. That's a dangerous trait in a leader.
Justin Herbert is now due for the Standard Rich and Famous Contract, and Tom Telesco must move money around to make that happen. (The cap situation is not great but very manageable.) The Chargers will select a wide receiver in each of 10,000,000,000 mock drafts over the next three months. The overall roster will be solid once Rashawn Slater returns and (optimistically) J.C. Jackson rediscovers himself.
Herbert's potential remains stratospheric, and he cannot be blamed in any way for Saturday's loss, but his signature highlights during the Jaguars comeback were a routine scramble and a roughing-the-passer penalty. Walkthrough can't wait to see what he can do with better coaching and support, nor can we wait for the early-week all-22 drop, when film-hipster Twitter will reveal that the Chargers secretly won.
What's Next: The Jaguars are 8.5-point road underdogs as they visit the Chiefs next Sunday at 1 p.m.
Game Spotlight: San Francisco 49ers 41, Seattle Seahawks 23
What Happened: The Seahawks led 17-16 at halftime thanks to a Geno Smith-to-DK Metcalf bomb and Kyle Shanahan's habit of settling for field goals. But the Seahawks had no answer for the tackle-breaking talents of Deebo Samuel and Christian McCaffrey.
Brock Purdy capped a seven-minute third-quarter drive highlighted by a 21-yard Deebo catch-and-run with a 1-yard sneak. Nick Bosa strip-sacked Smith at the Seahawks 19-yard line on the next series. Everything after that was just a long 49ers victory lap.
What Saturday's Win Means for the 49ers: The Seahawks exposed lots of little 49ers weaknesses in a game which was closer than its final score. Some flaws we knew about: the 49ers defense is susceptible to bombs whenever Bosa and the pass rush cannot get home (which is seldom). Others are still emerging, such as Purdy's habit of escaping to his left and running into trouble when the pocket collapses. None of it mattered thanks to Bosa, Deebo, George Kittle, and McCaffrey
The Cowboys or Buccaneers (who play on Monday night) must find a way to make Purdy's inexperience a factor. That means not just limiting YAC but taking advantage of Purdy's early-game off-target throws and Exit Stage Left scrambles while mounting a lead that forces Purdy to throw into tight windows (which rarely happens) and punishes Kyle Shanahan for playing for field goals in the red zone. Easy? No way. But the Cowboys are built for the task, and the Buccaneers ... um ... have Tom Brady.
Looking Ahead to the 2023 Seahawks: Overall, this was a phenomenal year for the Seahawks: the Russell Wilson trade was a historic blowout, the draft class a slam dunk that fast-tracked their rebuilding plan, the regular season filled with solid victories and the fun vibes that come from refreshed expectations.
Geno Smith deserves to sell his services as a premium "bridge" quarterback to the highest bidder. The Seahawks must decide how high they really wish to bid. They have $48.6 million in paper cap space, but they have needs all over the defense and along the interior offensive line, plus depth questions at nearly every position.
Keeping Smith with a $25-million cap figure and building through the draft sounds like the best course of action, especially with no guarantee that an A-tier quarterback prospect will be waiting for them with the fifth overall pick. (Will Levis does not count.) But if some suitor throws $150 million at Geno, the Seahawks would be wise to stay the rebuilding course instead of overpaying for what may have been a lightning-in-a-bottle season.
What's Next: The 49ers host the winner of Cowboys-Buccaneers next week.
Around the League
Some brief off-field news and notes:
Michael Vick thinks Lamar Jackson should have played through his ankle injury.
If that's what Vick thinks, imagine what the NFL establishment thinks.
Sean McVay expected to remain the Rams head coach.
Announcing Thursday Night Football on Amazon isn't as appealing as it sounded last year. Especially now that the Rams are likely to be frequent flyers on Thursday Night Football.
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos did not bid to purchase Washington Commanders.
The world was a slightly better place when the same three a**holes didn't own everything.
Rams expected to pick up Matthew Stafford's 2023 option bonus and guaranteed 2024 salary: a $62-million dollar combined package.
Walkthrough predicted/advocated for this a few weeks ago. It's the lesser of many evils and among the easiest of many difficult decisions the Rams must make in the months ahead.
Kliff Kingsbury visiting Thailand instead of interviewing for vacant offensive coordinator positions, per Peter Schrager.
One night in Bangkok and the tough guys tumble.
Wild-Card Weekend Awards
Time to dole out some hardware.
Defender of the Week
Chargers cornerback Asante Samuel II became the first player in NFL history to intercept three passes in the first half of a playoff game on Saturday night. Somehow, it wasn't enough.
Offensive Line of the Week
Trent Williams, Aaron Banks, Jake Brendel, Spencer Burford, Mike McGlinchey, and backup guard Daniel Brunskill (who filled in for Burford for much of the game) held the Seahawks to just one sack and helped Christian McCaffrey and company rack up 181 rushing yards.
Special Teamer of the Week
The Bills were trying so hard to mortify themselves late in the third quarter that Nyheim Hines muffed a punt. Fortunately, an alert Tyrel Dodson leapt on the loose football at the Buffalo 32-yard line, setting up the touchdown drive that gave the Bills some much needed breathing room.
Burn This Play!
There's a lot to choose from: a pre-halftime 49ers squib kick that set up a Seahawks field goal, Michael Bandy's third-and-1 jet-sweep fumble for the Chargers, and of course Kirk Cousins' failed end-of-game completion, shown here in dots form:
Thielen, Osborn, Jefferson. Left to right. On fourth-and-8 with the game on the line. The result was a 3 yard check down to Hockenson. Unbelievable. pic.twitter.com/OvVV4tdY3M
— Courtney Cronin (@CourtneyRCronin) January 16, 2023
K.J. Osborn was as open as anyone is going to be on fourth-and-long. Dalvin Cook might have been able to YAC his way to a first down. But Kirk Cousins is committed to his personal brand. (Thanks to @fakeninjitsu on Twitter for pointing out the dots.)
Kirk's dots deserve honorable mention. But we're giving this week's Burn This Play to whatever 500-word essay Mike McDaniel was dictating on fourth-and-1 with the game on the line which prevented the Dolphins from lining up until there were three seconds left on the play clock
— Sᴘᴏʀᴛs 24/7 (@Sports_24x7_) January 15, 2023
It should only take one second to say "quarterback sneak" into a headset. And since McDaniel clearly had something more esoteric than a sneak planned, he was doing fourth-and-short wrong.
Though perhaps not every fourth-and-short play needs to be a sneak…
Frame This Play!
Travis Etienne's T-formation sweep on fourth-and-1 is so sexy that it's NSFW.
— NFL (@NFL) January 15, 2023
Walkthrough is working on a New York Times feature on quarterback sneaks, which succeeded 82.8% of the time in 2022 and 78.7% of the time since 2016. The only time a team should not run a sneak on fourth-and-1 is when they are running a play that looks like a sneak.
Look at that yummy T-formation, with two tight ends in the backfield. They're just going to run up and push Trevor Lawrence, right? The Chargers defense thinks so. Even Samuel (26), tasked with stopping any sweeps, is sucked in by the threat of a sneak. And gaining 25 yards instead of 3 feet makes a big difference late in the fourth quarter, trailing by two points, on the fringe of field goal range.
It's almost as if Doug Pederson knows a thing or two about risk management in critical situations.
Best Supporting Actor in Someone Else's Highlight
Nothing screams "overmatched rookie teacher who has completely lost control of his class" like Brandon Staley scuttering around to fetch the helmet Joey Bosa slammed to the ground, then obsequiously handing it back to Bosa so he could slam it again.
— Chet Ubetcha (@chetUbetcha__) January 15, 2023
What a LEADER OF MEN Staley is!
Honorable mention goes to Mitch Morse, who Jedi Mind Tricked officials into giving Devin Singletary a game-clinching first down with his emphatic celebration, even though Singletary looked about a half-yard short and Morse had his back turned to the (still-continuing) play:
— Jonathan Deutsch (@JonathanD_TV) January 15, 2023
Rando of the Week
Walkthrough is drawn to Skylar Thompson's father. He reminds us of someone. We are not sure who…
Skyler Thompson’s dad is by far the most calm/coolest dude in Buffalo today. Son throws a playoff TD & he just smiles and nods… pic.twitter.com/UcqYQHEyyp
— B. Taylor: 1 of 3 with #DadBodGolfPod (@ause7en) January 15, 2023
Resemblance? What resemblance?
Aaron and Mike discuss the Wild Card matchups and make their predictions, plus pick out their favorite bets for the weekend!
— Football Outsiders (@fboutsiders) January 12, 2023
You're right: Thompson's dad DOES look like Aaron Schatz!