The first lesson: If your quarterback can’t move, he had better be an all-time great. Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes threaten defenses with their legs, and while Baker Mayfield is not on their level, his scrambling and rollouts are key to his game. Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Drew Brees again have quarterbacked their teams into the quarterfinals. Elite expertise or elite athleticism plays in January. Mahomes is the one quarterback who fits both categories — 25 years old or not, he belongs with the latter group.
The outlier is Jared Goff, but the Los Angeles Rams represent another lesson. For all the offensive innovation and explosion of the past three seasons, defense still matters. The Rams trounced the Seattle Seahawks because their defense provided a pick-six and dominated.
Five of the last eight teams standing finished in the top 10 in points allowed. The New Orleans Saints yielded only nine points to the Chicago Bears, who late in the season underwent an offensive revival. If they knock off the Tampa Bay Buccaneers next weekend, it’ll be because Sean Payton understood his team had shifted away from a points machine under Brees to a defensive menace.
From the opening kickoff until late Sunday night, the NFL chose its last eight teams. Here is what to know.
Lamar Jackson can win in the playoffs. Anybody paying attention didn’t need hard evidence to know that. Here it is, anyway. A year after the Baltimore Ravens’ shocking upset loss, a defeat that haunted them all season, Jackson’s Ravens are rolling after beating the Tennessee Titans, 20-13, behind his 136 rushing yards, which included a supersonic, 48-yard touchdown burst, the second longest by a quarterback in postseason history.
Any more questions about whether Jackson can win in the playoffs? The final score did not reflect the dominance of the Ravens, the way they crushed a team that tormented them all year. They fell behind 10-0 on the road, but unlike last year they remained committed to their game plan and pounded the Titans with runs. “My coaches didn’t get rattled,” Jackson said in ESPN’s on-field postgame interview, an insightful summation of the game.
The Ravens exorcised one demon in beating the Titans, who also beat them this regular season in overtime. To continue their tour against the Kansas City Chiefs, who crushed them early this season and also dealt them a loss in 2019, they’ll have to get past the Buffalo Bills first. The first playoff meeting between Jackson and Allen will feature two of the most athletic quarterbacks in the league. The Bills are home, but their suspect rushing defense is a severe vulnerability against the Ravens.
Tom Brady is getting comfortable. For so much of the season, Brady struggled to adapt to Bruce Arians’s offensive system, which is predicated on deep passing. Late in the regular season, against three lousy defenses, he padded stats and started connecting on deep balls. On Saturday night, Brady held off the Washington Football Team not with efficiency, but with explosive plays.
Brady attempted seven passes more than 20 yards past the line of scrimmage and completed four of them. Two went for touchdowns, and another, a laser down the left sideline to Mike Evans, essentially sealed the win.
He completed 22 of 40 passes for 381 yards, a telling stat line for the style his new coach employs. Brady’s completion percentage Saturday night was his eighth lowest of 42 career playoff games, but it was his fourth highest in passing yards.
Brady needed no affirmation of his genius, but this year has provided it in a new way. Even at 43, he can play in any kind of passing offense he needs to or wants to. After a career of hitting crossers and option routes over the middle, Brady attempted more deep throws than any quarterback in football this year. Given time, he has emerged again as one of the best passers in the NFL. The way he deciphers the defense, darts and shifts within the pocket and releases the ball quickly with accuracy remains unmatched.
Coaches need to stop wasting timeouts in the second half. The Indianapolis Colts lost a winnable game at Buffalo for so many reasons. The least excusable was Coach Frank Reich’s misuse of timeouts.
After earning a first down on their opening drive of the third quarter, the Colts burned a timeout because the play clock was about to expire. They prevented first and 10 from becoming first and 15 at the cost of 40 seconds at the end of the game.
The difference in value between those five yards and that time is massive. A second-half timeout should be treasured. It is the most undervalued resource in a football game, and coaches should make it a mandate to arrive at the game’s final minutes with all three intact. They should not be viewed as instruments to solve minor inconveniences. They should be viewed as tools that can preserve a game.
The Bills had complete control of the endgame because the Colts entered it with only one timeout. It let them dictate pace and prepare for the Colts’ play-calling on their final drive. Reich also lost a timeout trying to overturn a fumble call. A turnover would be worth risking a timeout if there’s a chance to gain an extra possession. Using a challenge on that particular play, which wasn’t close to being overturned, was terrible judgment but defensible strategy. Using the timeout to save five yards in the middle of the field early in the third quarter on first down is one of the most atrocious decisions a coach can make.
Reich saw several marginal decisions backfire, and there’s nothing he could do about that. But he and every other NFL coach should learn a lesson.
Where does Ben Roethlisberger go from here? As players walked off Heinz Field after the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 48-37 loss to the Cleveland Browns, Roethlisberger sat alone on the end of the Steelers’ bench, helmet still on, tears in his eyes. After several minutes, center Maurkice Pouncey sat down next to him. The pair stared out at the field.
“It’s been so much fun to share a football with him,” Roethlisberger said. “I hate that it ended the way it did.”
Roethlisberger later clarified that he meant the season, not his career, but he sounded and looked like a man who might not play another snap. Roethlisberger has flirted with retirement before. He will be 39 next season. He threw four interceptions Sunday night, an effort that prompted him to apologize publicly to teammates and fans.
The Steelers have to wonder if they would be better off moving on. Roethlisberger has grown completely stationary as the sport moves away from immobile quarterbacks. His arm strength, once elite, waned this year after elbow surgery. He can still guide and improvise, but there are more mistakes between the brilliant plays. The Steelers have not won a playoff game in four years. It’s worth wondering if Roethlisberger will play in another one.
Deshaun Watson is fed up. ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reported Sunday that the Houston Texans’ quarterback is unhappy with the franchise and implied he could push for a trade. Watson’s anger, according to Mortensen, stems from the direction of the franchise, including its approach to social justice and equitable hiring practices. One thing that rankled Watson, Mortensen said, is that Houston chose not to interview Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy for its head coaching vacancy.
Few players in the NFL possess the leverage to influence their franchise. Watson is one of them, and this is a righteous use of it. The NFL has failed for its entire existence to provide fair opportunity for Black coaches. It should not be Watson’s burden to fix that, but holding Texans owner Cal McNair accountable is a worthy use of his power.
Any franchise with the good fortune to acquire Watson should make every subsequent decision with the aim of maximizing his impact and comfort. The Texans have failed utterly in that task. Watson has transcended the organizational dysfunction around him, becoming one of the NFL’s best players despite the obstacles placed in front of him by his own team.
If Watson is traded to a competent team, he would make it an instant Super Bowl threat — and if he does become available, all but a handful of teams should consider parting with significant draft capital and young players to acquire him.
The Los Angeles Rams are banged up. Traveling to Lambeau Field in the playoffs is never easy, but it will be a particular challenge for the Rams on Saturday. All-everything defensive tackle Aaron Donald exited the Rams’ first-round victory with a rib injury. Wide receiver Cooper Kupp, a crucial component of the Rams’ running game because of his blocking, tweaked his knee on a noncontact play in the final minutes and limped off. Goff is playing through a surgically repaired thumb, and his backup, John Wolford, was taken to the hospital with a neck injury.
Any reason for optimism for the Rams against Green Bay can be found in the ability of Jalen Ramsey to make life miserable for Davante Adams and in Sean McVay’s coaching acumen. The Rams thumped the Seahawks based largely on the difference in coaching. McVay knows Packers Coach Matt LaFleur well, having coached with him years ago on Washington’s staff. The Packers are more talented and playing at home, but McVay gives the Rams a chance.