What we learned in the NFL’s wild-card round
By Diante Lee
In the early goings of the wild-card rounds, favored teams won out thanks to reliable plays: the Cincinnati Bengals leaned on Joe Burrow-to-Ja’Marr Chase to open up plays for others, the Buffalo Bills balanced Josh Allen’s throws with just enough running (from backs and Allen himself) to demolish the Patriots, and the Buccaneers ran up a lead behind replacement rushers before being tempted to take to the air.
That was, until Sunday afternoon, when the Cowboys’ takeaway-or-bust defense yielded to the 49ers’ balanced attack and Dallas had to rely on careful game management to have a chance to complete a late comeback.
Mike McCarthy’s play-calling will haunt Dallas’ offseason.
Throughout the season, San Francisco never enjoyed the same peaks as Dallas. Coach Kyle Shanahan led his team through what felt like an endless loop of two consecutive losses following two consecutive wins, remaining steady in his approach — and his flawed quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo, who was just good enough to beat the Cowboys, 23-17, in Dallas on Sunday.
Garoppolo was mostly steady and risk-averse, playing within Shanahan’s system and throwing accurate passes on third down. But in a game where both teams combined for 147 penalty yards — and the Cowboys set a new playoff record for infractions (14) — the late-game sloppiness gave way to what was the wild-card round’s most chaotic ending.
The Cowboys, down 23-10 at the start of the fourth quarter, executed a desperately needed fake punt from their own 48-yard line to keep possession. On the next play, Dallas tried to goad San Francisco into wasting a timeout by keeping its punt unit on the field, but failed to realize that the 49ers already had the majority of its defensive players, not their special teams personnel, on the field.
Realizing the tactical error, the Cowboys swapped in the offense but could not get a play off in time and took a key delay of game penalty that pushed them to San Francisco’s 41-yard line, the edge of Greg Zuerlein’s field goal range. The drive stalled out after the penalty, and Dallas settled for a 51-yard field goal that cut the lead to 23-13.
On the 49ers’ next possession, Garoppolo was intercepted in his own territory, on an overthrown ball meant for Trent Sherfield that instead landed in cornerback Anthony Brown’s gut. Dallas scored on Prescott’s 5-yard rushing touchdown to cut the lead to 6 and forced San Francisco to punt on its next two drives.
Gifted the game’s final possession with 32 seconds left, Dallas completed three consecutive passes and got out of bounds to stop the clock. Dallas looked to cut the distance to the end zone before attempting a final Hail Mary throw.
On second-and-1 from the 49ers’ 41-yard line, instead of throwing to a receiver or a running back again, Prescott tried for a quarterback draw, gaining 17 yards. But he mismanaged the trade-off between yards gained and time saved. In the rush to spike the ball, with 10 seconds remaining, the clock ticked to zero and ended the last-gasp effort.
The head coach has to answer for how their team handles pivotal game situations, especially in the case of McCarthy, who does not call plays on either side of the ball but rather manages the game action. Sunday was not McCarthy’s first time bungling situational football in the 2021 season, but the loss will stick with Dallas’ fans and ownership.
His top assistants, offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, have drawn interest from franchises searching for head coaches, and it’s possible McCarthy’s staff will be emptied out by February.
In that circumstance, Dallas will have nowhere else to look for an answer as to how this team found a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
Playoff expansion resulted in blowouts.
Blowouts in the NFL playoffs are rare. In the absence of an injury to a major star, teams are too good, too focused, and have too many yards of film on their opponents by this point to be overwhelmed or surprised by a breakout performance.
That was not the case in the wild-card round, with the Buffalo Bills routing the New England Patriots, 47-17, Saturday night. The expanded postseason field, which added another team from each conference in the 2020 season, meant little distinctive play in the pairings between the No. 2 and No. 7 seeds, as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers dismantled the Philadelphia Eagles, 31-15, on Sunday afternoon and the Pittsburgh Steelers, whose quarterback earlier this week admitted “we don’t stand a chance,” showed it in a 42-21 prime time loss to Kansas City.
There is no larger narrative to wrap around such unbalanced outcomes, and it is tempting to wonder if there was actually anything to be gleaned in this year’s wild-card weekend.
The Buccaneers can dink their way through as long as the defense holds.
Tampa Bay learned it wouldn’t have its lead running back, Leonard Fournette, available for Sunday’s game, and was already playing without receivers Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown, two of Tom Brady’s favorite targets. Still, the game could not have been teed up any better for the Buccaneers’ offense, stylistically.
The Eagles lack the top-end talent to create big defensive plays, ranking in the bottom 10 in sacks, tackles for loss and passes broken up. Their soft zone coverage and inability to create much pressure gave the greatest quarterback to ever “take what the defense gives” too much room to dink and dunk his way down the field. Brady finished with a sweatless 29-of-37 performance, including two touchdowns.
Philadelphia led the league in rushing yards per game, but no team in the 2021 regular season threw the ball less often, and the threat of quarterback Jalen Hurts or any of the Eagles’ backs was not enough to manufacture alleys against a defense plugged by the gigantic combination of Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh on the interior.
Teams know better than to run against Tampa Bay: The Buccaneers saw the fewest rushing attempts of any team this season but still were in the top 10 in tackles for loss, remarkable efficiency for a front seven.
The Eagles’ only strength played to a buzz-saw performance by the Buccaneers’ defense. Hurts led all Eagles rushers with 39 yards, and a 34-yard touchdown in garbage time from Boston Scott inflated what had been a 3.8 yards-per-carry team average prior.
Worse, Philadelphia could not manage to exploit its opponent’s most glaring weakness. Key losses have dogged Tampa Bay’s secondary all season, forcing defensive coordinator Todd Bowles to try cornerback Richard Sherman as a safety at one point. In his second season, Hurts had worked hard to improve his craft as a passer, but some key misses of receivers streaking up and across the seams cost his team opportunities to gain big yardage.
In the second half, Hurts’ indecision gave edge rushers Shaq Barrett and Joe Tryon-Shoyinka time to flush him out of the pocket and force him to try to squeeze passes up the sideline. Hurts was intercepted twice, one a backbreaking pick before halftime when DeVonta Smith broke open on a double move before safety Mike Edwards undercut a low and late throw.
Sunday’s contest was over in three possessions, with Tampa Bay scoring rushing touchdowns by backups Giovani Bernard and Ke’Shawn Vaughn on two of its three possessions. Ryan Succop’s 34-yard field goal in the second quarter ran the score to 17-0, ending an 11-play drive in which Brady barely had to exert himself.
Although it was impressive to watch a quarterback in his mid-40s march up and down the field in the postseason, Sunday’s wild-card win didn’t provide any tangible answers as to whether Tampa Bay is equipped to defend its throne against the NFL’s better teams, only that the team is wily enough to try.
Rob Gronkowski still has some of the best hands in football, but he has lost a step and a half, making Godwin’s injury and Brown’s exit stand out in obvious passing situations. Jonathan Gannon, the Eagles’ defensive coordinator, brought a few blitzes in the second half and played zone coverage behind it, and Tampa Bay’s backup receivers couldn’t find the open windows downfield on which this vertical passing game thrives.
Darius Slay and Steven Nelson couldn’t guard Mike Evans (117 yards, one touchdown) without help over the top, but the few times Philadelphia ran man coverage, there weren’t many other outlets available for Brady.
By then, though, Philadelphia had already been buried.
Around the NFL Playoffs
Chiefs 42, Steelers 21: Patrick Mahomes demolished the Steelers, throwing for five touchdowns and averaging 10.4 yards per pass Sunday, in what may have been the final game of Ben Roethlisberger’s 18-year NFL career. Kansas City will host the Bills in the divisional round.
49ers 23, Cowboys 17: San Francisco ran out to a 13-point lead and managed it handily until Jimmy Garoppolo’s fourth-quarter interception allowed Dallas to pull within a score. The Cowboys’ final drive featured a frantic 47-yard scurry that ended when Dak Prescott botched spiking the ball — with 1 second remaining to hurl a Hail Mary touchdown pass — and time expired. The 49ers travel to face the top-seeded Packers next weekend.
Buccaneers 31, Eagles 15: The Eagles fell into a 17-0 hole early, and their vaunted running game was not equipped to shovel them out. Four players, including quarterback Jalen Hurts, combined for 95 rushing yards that mostly came in garbage time. Tampa Bay relied on rushing touchdowns to open up the field for Tom Brady, who threw for 271 yards on 29-of-37 passing, with two touchdowns. The Buccaneers will face the winner of Monday night’s Cardinals-Rams wild-card game.
Bills 47, Patriots 17 (Saturday): Buffalo scored touchdowns on all seven of its offensive possessions to dismantle New England in as decisive a playoff margin as there has been in Patriots coach Bill Belichick’s tenure. Bills quarterback Josh Allen completed 21 of 25 passes for 308 yards and threw five scores. He also ran for 66 yards.
Bengals 26, Raiders 19 (Saturday): Quarterback Joe Burrow led the Bengals’ high-powered offense on scoring drives in their four possessions in the first half, connecting for touchdowns with receiver Tyler Boyd and tight end C.J. Uzomah as Cincinnati secured its first playoff win in 31 years. On the Raiders’ final drive, a controversial roughing the passer call gave Las Vegas a chance to score but linebacker Germaine Pratt intercepted a Derek Carr pass at the 2-yard line to end the threat.