Entering Wild Card weekend, the first round of the NFL Playoffs, we all thought we had it figured out with each of the home teams entering the game as at least six point favorites. As usual though, the NFL had some surprises in store.
Kansas City- 21
Many fans outside of Tennessee seemed to be disappointed to even see the Titans advance to the playoffs, considering they were not expected to give the Chiefs much of a game and their head coach, Mike Mularkey was firmly on the hot seat even after sneaking into the postseason. The Chiefs led 14-0 after one quarter as RB Kareem Hunt and TE Travis Kelce each found the end zone and this looked to be no contest. By halftime, the score was 21-3 and most hope for an upset was gone.
The second-half was a different game though as the Chiefs went away from what had given them the lead and the Titans shut them out. 19 unanswered points after intermission gave the Titans a comeback victory for the ages. There is a lot of blame to go around for the Chiefs. First of all, they lost Kelce with a first-half concussion, which led to more playing time for TE Demetrius Harris (2/22) and WR Demarcus Robinson (4/57/1). This loss clearly hurt, but a coaching decision, giving Hunt just 11 total carries, may have sealed the deal. Hunt rushed for 42 yards and was barely involved in the passing game. Veteran QB Alex Smith finished with 264 passing yards and a pair of scores, but that may not have been enough to keep him in Kansas City. Almost immediately following the loss, reports began to surface suggesting the team would be willing to trade Smith with rookie QB Patrick Mahomes waiting in the wings. WR Tyreek Hill turned a team-high 11 targets into a 7/87 line for the game.
The Titans’ second-half surge was jump started by the strangest of plays. A scrambling QB Marcus Mariota released the ball near the goal line, but it was deflected and Mariota grabbed the ball out of the air and leapt for the end zone, resulting in the quarterback throwing himself a touchdown pass. That was a huge play both for Tennessee and for fantasy players who used Mariota in their lineups as he exceeded 11 fantasy points on the one play.
The Titans continued to dominate the second-half, scoring two fourth-quarter touchdowns to overtake the sputtering Chiefs. Veteran TE Delanie Walker was the top target for Mariota, catching six passes for 74 yards, but the story of the game for Tennessee was second-year RB Derrick Henry, who drew another start for the injured RB DeMarco Murray. Henry wore down the Chiefs, running 21 times for 156 yards and a touchdown. While Murray’s status for next week is uncertain, his time as the team’s lead back may have come to an end and fantasy players are already anxious to get the powerful Henry on their rosters for 2018. After the game, the Titans announced that Mularkey would be retained as the team’s head coach for 2018. It is safe to say this upset win saved his job. The Titans will travel to New England for next week’s Divisional round of the playoffs.
LA Rams- 13
The upstart Rams were the home favorites over defending NFC champion Atlanta, but this is another game that was decided by a dominant second-half. The Falcons led 13-0 before a touchdown from rookie WR Cooper Kupp gave the Rams some hope. The teams then traded field goals from late in the second-quarter into the fourth-quarter before a late touchdown pass from QB Matt Ryan to WR Julio Jones sealed the win for the Falcons.
Rams HC Sean McVay had made a point this season to lean on superstar RB Todd Gurley, but in this game, the back carried just 14 times and although he did record four receptions, he managed just 10 yards. Gurley still rushed for 101 yards on his limited carries. Playing from behind for the entire game, the Rams were instead forced to pass the ball as QB Jared Goff’s 45 pass attempts were the second most of his season. As they have all season, WRs Robert Woods (9/142) and Cooper Kupp (8/69/1) were Goff’s top options, while free agent to be WR Sammy Watkins (1/23) was an afterthought. Goff finished with 259 passing yards and just the one touchdown.
The Falcons employed a balanced offense and took advantage of turnovers to get the win. Ryan threw for 218 yards and a touchdown, while RB Devonta Freeman rushed for 66 tough yards. WR Julio Jones easily led the team in targets with 10, catching nine for 94 yards, while WR Mohamed Sanu chipped in with a 4/75 line. The Falcons will meet the top-seeded Eagles in Philadelphia next week in a game that Atlanta could be favored in with QB Carson Wentz out of the lineup.
This was a game many around the league were looking forward to as the Bills made their long-awaited return to the NFL playoffs, matching up with the top defense in the league in Jacksonville. That would be the bright side of what we witnessed Sunday afternoon. The reality is that both teams are likely looking to replace their starting quarterback during the off-season and we were reminded of why as Blake Bortles and Tyrod Taylor combined for 221 passing yards. Bortles actually had more rushing yards (88) than passing yards (87), though he did connect with backup TE Ben Koyack for the game’s only touchdown. This is one of those games that made fans long for the off-season.
The Bills’ best weapon was, as always, RB LeSean McCoy. It was not a certainty that McCoy would play after being carted off the field in Week 17 with an ankle injury, but he played and led the team in both rushing (75 yards) and a receiving (6/44).
The Jaguars’ offense wasn’t much to speak of, either. Rookie RB Leonard Fournette, facing one of the weakest run defenses in the league, could only total 57 rushing yards on 21 carries. Rookie WR Dede Westbrook caught five balls for 48 yards of the Jaguars 88 passing yards. Westbrook was the only Jaguar receiver to record a catch, with WRs Marqise Lee and Keelan Cole being shut out. Next week, the Jags will travel to Pittsburgh to face the Steelers in the second round of the playoffs.
New Orleans- 31
The premiere game of the Wild Card round was a battle of NFC South teams as the Saints and Panthers met for a third time. Although the old saying says that it is difficult to beat a team three times in one season, that had happened in 13 of the previous 20 times that two teams met for the third time in the NFL postseason. On Sunday afternoon, the Saints made it 14 for 21, but they didn’t make it easy. Once again, a late-game surge made this playoff matchup a close one. The Panthers trailed 24-12 entering the fourth-quarter, but a pair of touchdowns brought them to within one score. A Saints failed fourth-down attempt near mid-field gave the Panthers the ball and hope with under two minutes remaining. After some promising gains early on the drive, things took a turn for QB Cam Newton and the offense and a sack of the quarterback ended the Panthers season.
The good news for the Saints after the near-disaster is that they won a different type of game than they have all year, relying on the passing game and QB Drew Brees. This Saints team has turned into a run heavy offense, but RBs Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara combined for just 45 rushing yards, while Brees threw for 376 yards and two scores. The yardage represents the second-best mark of the year for Brees. He hit WR Ted Ginn (4/115/1) for an 80-yard bomb to get the scoring started and routinely looked for WR Michael Thomas (8/131) to move the chains.
The Panthers’ offense came alive late in the game, but it was just too late. Newton finished with 349 yards and two touchdowns, along with 37 rushing yards. His top WR Devin Funchess played despite missing some practice time during the week. He was visibly dealing with pain at times during the game, but pulled down four passes for 79 yards. Veteran TE Greg Olsen was the top target in this one, catching eight of his 12 looks for 107 yards and a touchdown, while rookie RB Christian McCaffrey totaled a 6/101/1 line as a receiver, including a 56-yard touchdown in the fourth-quarter that proved to be the final score of the game. The Saints will face off with the Vikings in next week’s second round.
The Raiders made it official, announcing an unprecedented 10 year/$10 million contract for new HC John Gruden, who announced his final game over the weekend. … Former Heisman Trophy winner QB Lamar Jackson announced that he will leave the University of Louisville early to enter the NFL Draft. The opinions on Jackson as a prospect are going to vary greatly from source to source. … USC RB Ronald Jones II also announced his intentions of going pro. … Although Patriots DC Matt Patricia recently interviewed with the Cardinals, he is now expected to be the next head coach of the Detroit Lions. … The Cardinals also interviewed Panthers DC Steve Wilks and Eagles DC Jim Schwartz. … Panthers HC Ron Rivera signed a two-year contract extension prior to his team’s loss in the opening round of the playoffs. … The Packers announced the hiring of former Director of Player Personnel Brian Gutekunst as their new General Manager.
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