AFC Wildcard Weekend
This wasn’t the command performance we were perhaps expecting from the Bills. After a week seventeen domination of the wildcard hopeful Dolphins, I half expected to see Josh Allen, Stefon Diggs and the boys put up a fifty-spot on Indy. But the Colts defense looked ready for the task, keeping this game in reach of Philip Rivers the whole time. In the end, Rivers and the Colts came up just short, in a result that must feel all too familiar for the veteran quarterback, who owns a career 5-7 mark in the playoffs, and has never made it to the big game. Josh Allen stayed calm and poised throughout, completing just under 70% of his passes and throwing for over 300 yards in the contest, including six connections with Stefon Diggs for 128 yards and a touchdown. Things got weird late, with the Colts driving, down by three, and you can hardly blame the playoff-cursed Bills fans for freaking out when an obvious fumble was ruled down by contact, then reviewed and upheld. It was a crystal-clear case of the league not wanting to affect the outcome with a replay reversal, but any outcome that allowed Indy to tie the game or take the league would have been far, far worse from an optics perspective. Luckily for all involved, the Bills defense held up, and Buffalo won their first playoff game since Jim Kelly was under center. I know that there are game purists out there who want to see the role of replay minimized in football, in hopes of “letting the game be decided on the field”. Unfortunately, too often, bad calls in real time have major consequences for teams, players, coaches and fans. We have the technology to get calls right, so let’s do it. Yes, this means MORE replay, not less. It means adapting the pro tennis “Eagle Eye” system for boundary calls. And it also means automatic replay of all potential turnovers and scores, not just plays that were ruled as such on the field. Yes, I mean it. Coaches challenges can be reserved for in game scenarios that don’t fall into one of these two categories, but why are we making coaches risk a timeout to ask the refs to correct their mistakes, especially when it’s clear that in certain scenarios, they just flat out refuse to reverse the call regardless of the obvious and clear visual evidence. It makes no sense.
Unstoppable force; meet immovable object. The Titans, mighty though they may be, played with fire in week eleven. The Titans celebrated on the Baltimore midfield logo, dancing and taunting in the regular season game as a way to rub salt in the still raw wound of a 2019 divisional round upset. On Wildcard Sunday, the Ravens came home to roost. Baltimore utterly stifled the unstoppable Derrick Henry, holding him to a paltry 40 yards on eighteen carries. Baltimore outgained Tennessee 236-51 on the ground and controlled the clock in a win that may not have felt flashy to some but showed me that Baltimore is every bit as dangerous this season as they were last year. Say what you want about Lamar Jackson’s passing stats. I don’t care. The Ravens defense is once again the type of unit that can pitch a shutout on any given day and the offense simply runs over every defense they see. Baltimore averaged 194.5 yards per game on the ground this season, thirty-plus yards more than the next best team, the aforementioned Titans with their previously unstoppable force. I said before the playoffs started that the Ravens were the most dangerous team in the AFC North. I meant business. So do the Ravens.
Browns – 48
Browns fans rejoice. You finally beat the Steelers and got your first playoff win since (checks antique parchment) 1994. That’s awesome! A few quick points to put this in perspective.
With this win, the Browns are have finally scored as many points as they allowed. Cleveland’s point differential for the season, including the playoffs = 0. (No longer in the negative…High five!) The average point differential of the remaining AFC playoff teams is +137.33. Uh-oh.
Those Steelers have now lost five of their last six, including one to a team from the NFC East. This just isn’t the same team that won eleven games straight. They’ve folded like a lawn chair. Sorry, Steeler fans. I thought you might have one more rodeo.
The Browns won by eleven points despite winning the turnover battle 5-0 and holding an NFL record 28-0 first quarter lead, which unraveled rapidly for the rest of the game. Solid fundamental football by both teams, this was not.
How weird must it be to be Kevin Stefanski? You coach your team to eleven wins and a Wildcard spot despite scoring fewer points than you allowed, then you miss the ensuing playoff game as Covid rips through the whole building, then they somehow win the game without you being there. Are you excited? Proud? Confused? There are shades of Brady replacing Bledsoe here. “Wait? Are they better without me?”
Up next for Cleveland is probably a brutal demise at the hands of the Chiefs, who are not in any way moved by the heartwarming tale of the plucky Browns trying to return to prominence. We’ll discuss this more in the Divisional Round preview, but there’s not a lot of ways that I can see the Browns beating the Chiefs next weekend. Unless LeBron comes back to save Cleveland again.
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Image Source: Associated Press Images