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Lessons from the 2021-2022 NFL Divisional Playoffs

The Divisional Playoffs were a football clinic; what lessons did they teach?

NFL: AFC Divisional Round-Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

The 2021-22 NFL Divisional Playoffs round is already being spoken of as possibly the best weekend of football, perhaps ever. I’m not sure this is an exaggeration. And while I’m on the side that thinks the overtime rules suck (and screwed the Bills), I probably enjoyed this past weekend’s games as much as I ever have with the Steelers eliminated.

I had a lot of thoughts as the games progressed, and so I thought I’d pop up a series of quick-hits that I feel like they illustrated — mostly game by game. Let’s get right to it.


NFL: AFC Divisional Round-Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

— Is 5 yards always worth burning a timeout?

This is a reference to the fact that all teams (from the champs to the worst team in the league) call timeout when the play-clock is about to expire, even though a delay of game flag is only 5 yards.

It happened several times over the weekend. It happens every week. It doesn’t seem to matter if we’re on the third play of the game, or the 11th play of a drive. Teams do it by rote. Then later in those ballgames announcers say, “boy, that’s why taking that timeout was so devastating…” So, um, why take it? Is the five yard penalty that crucial? Sometimes, sure. But every time?

With all the analytics people demanding that teams go for it on 4th and 9 from midfield, or going for 2PAT on the first score of the game, why is this still seen as a requirement?

Lessons from Bengals/Titans

AFC Divisional Playoffs - Cincinnati Bengals v Tennessee Titans Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

— You can’t just go in 100% with a guy who’s coming off injury.

The Titans ran Derrick Henry 20 times on Saturday, for 62 yards (only 3.1 yards per carry). Yes, Henry is usually spectacular, but he hadn’t played since Halloween. The Titans ran 27 times against Cincy. Three of those were scrambles, so that means Henry carried 20 out of 24 times. In his first game in three months. That’s dumb.

— Having a stable of horses matters (if you’ll use them).

In the nine games they played without Henry this year, Tennessee broke 100 yards rushing six times, including 198 yards or more three times. They had other guys. The four non-Henry designed runs OC Todd Downing called against the Bengals were to D’onta Foreman. He gained 2, 45, 9, and 10. And he looked good doing it.

If you don’t have that second guy, go get one. If you’ve got one, get him some carries!

— Slot corner is underrated.

The loss of Mike Hilton in Pittsburgh has been vastly under-reported. Watching him create a tip-drill interception on a corner blitz of Ryan Tannehill was rough for a Steelers fan. Hilton was the best blitzing CB in the NFL in 2020. You can’t just have a warm-body at that position. A playmaker makes a difference.

— Unless you’re a powerhouse offense, kick PAT’s early & go for two late.

The Titans accepted a penalty on a kicked PAT early in the game, and decided to go for two from the 1 yard line. They failed.

If they had that point back, they’d have probably won the game, because they’d have had a late lead instead of a tie, and could have run out the clock rather than trying to drive for the win (a drive which ended in a Tannehill pick, and led to the last-second Bengals winning field goal).

— Joe burrow is the next annoying crown-prince (which sucks, because he’s good. But it’s getting hard to root for him with all the gushing...).

Burrow is impressive but flawed — he takes a lot of sacks and is prone to throwing picks (14 on the season) — which actually makes me like him more. I like watching guys rise to the occasion, rather than robotic surgeon types, so I’m into this. But man, the overflow of mania in the national press is obnoxious.

If they’re going to plug him (since he’s in the conference title game), I get it. But at least I wish they could (a) identify something he does well instead of just “he plays with confidence,” or “he’s not afraid of anything” (which is all they ever seem to mention), and (b) find someone other than Joe Montana to compare him to (since they don’t really play alike much at all).

Lessons from Packers/49ers

NFC Divisional Playoffs - San Francisco 49ers v Green Bay Packers Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

— Play until the gun.

Late in the first half, Aaron Rodgers rolled right and spotted a busted coverage downfield, and hit Aaron Jones for a 75 yard gain. That put Green Bay into field goal range just before the gun. But San Francisco didn’t let up. First, they nearly forced a fumble on the Packers final offensive play. Then they attacked the field goal, and got the block. Fantastic.

Conversely, late in the game, after the 49ers somehow blocked another kick — this one, a Green Bay punt, which they returned for their only touchdown on the day — the Packers powerful offense responded with a 3-and-out. Ugh.

The game is still going. Get out there and play…

— Personnel matters; scheme can’t do everything.

This isn’t basketball, where one guy can just take over a game (even quarterbacks), but you still need talent. On Saturday, Deebo Samuel was often the only offense for the 49ers. While George Kittle and company were dropping passes all over the field, Samuel did it all.

In the middle of the third quarter, San Francisco had 117 yards of total offense; Samuel was responsible for 52 of those, plus a 45 yard kickoff return. Yikes.

— Special teams matter.

Please see notes above, re: blocked kicks…

— If you want to win in January, get you a defense.

Aaron Rodgers completed 20 of 25 for 229 yards on the day. That’s not a bad stat line. But he only hit four receivers, and two of them (Allen Lazard and Marcedes Lewis) caught one ball each, for six and zero yards respectively. Every other attempt went to Davante Adams or Aaron Jones. Anyone who’s read me before knows that I’m less impressed with Rodgers than I’m supposed to be, but I’ll readily admit he’s a terrific quarterback. But I don’t know if I’ve ever heard of a guy so locked in on two receivers.

What’s more, Jones had that huge catch in the second quarter, and Adams had one 25 yard grab. Absent those two plays, the presumptive MVP was 18 of 23 for 129 yards (that’s 5.6 ypa and zero touchdowns) Yes, the weather was bitter cold, but the 49ers defense outplayed the Packers offense. Anyone who thinks all you need is a star quarterback should watch this game.

— The 1-seed isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Both #1s lost on Saturday, and neither one looked good doing it.

Lessons from Buccaneers/Rams

NFC Divisional Playoffs - Los Angeles Rams v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

— No one is above the law (thank goodness).

Tom Brady has long believed he can say and do whatever he wants on the field. He has a long history as a trash talker (including earlier this year, when he ran at the Saints bench and yelled something I can’t reprint here). Hell, Brady said as much in the middle of the week, admitting on his radio show that he gets away with his mouth a lot on the field.

On Sunday, he discovered that he can get an unsportsmanlike call too. Good.

I can’t roll my eyes hard enough to respond to all the idiots out there claiming “you can’t flag Tom Brady!” But I love that Shawn Hochuli isn’t one of them.

(Side note: Dear Tom, if you tell the world how you get away with crossing the line a lot, then get flagged for crossing the line, it’s your fault.)

— Discipline matters.

At some point in their first-half meltdown, the Buccaneers had THREE unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. That’s a bad way to win a playoff game.

Remember that famous Steelers vs Bengals wildcard game in 2015? My favorite part of it was that the Steelers could play with just as much anger and violence as the Bengals, but they kept their cool, while Bengals players were coming off the bench to take cheap shots and start fights (long before Burfict and PacMan ended their own seasons).

Discipline doesn’t mean “be robotic,” but it means “be controlled.” Tampa wasn’t controlled on Sunday, especially in the first half.

— The Rams are alchemists.

I have no idea where their salary cap money comes from. There are so many expensive veterans on that squad. Lots of ink is devoted to their draft strategy — choosing vets over draft picks. But how are they affording this stuff?

— Bleeding doesn’t make you tough.

Yes, I’m going to pick on Brady again. Remember a few years ago, when Haloti Ngata broke Ben Roethlisberger’s nose so badly Terrell Suggs said it looked like an S, and the doctors said the x-ray looked like corn flakes? (Shudder.) Ben didn’t complain that day as much as Brady did with a split lip on Sunday.

Remind me again how Ben’s a drama queen but Brady is “so tough…”

— Defense matters.

Tampa Bay came into the Divisional Round having scored 30+ points in five straight postseason games. They had 3 at halftime vs. the Rams, and only managed 27 because L.A. lost an absurd four fumbles. The Rams defense was (largely) terrific.

— But a QB and WR sure do matter too.

Matt Stafford and Cooper Kupp devastated the Bucc’s on Sunday the way Big Ben and Antonio Brown used to devastate teams — where you knew where the ball was going, and he threw it there anyway… and somehow it was complete… and somehow it went for 60… (Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase had a similar thing happening against the Titans. Whereas, Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams couldn’t do it against the 49ers.)

Lessons from Bills/Chiefs

AFC Divisional Playoffs - Buffalo Bills v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

— WRs blocking is crucial.

The Bills opening drive TD had a great WR block. I wish I’d caught the player who was sealing the edge, but I didn’t. He was a wideout. On that note, Rams’ superstar Cooper Kupp blocks downfield like a pro as well. I don’t know how good the Steelers are at blocking downfield since Hines Ward retired, but I haven’t heard anything about it in a while. It would be nice to emphasize that in Pittsburgh.

— Don’t fight on the sidelines.

The Chiefs eventually won the game, so maybe this doesn’t matter, but after Buffalo’s opening touchdown, Melvin Ingram and Chris Jones got spotted on camera jawing with each other on the bench. After the FIRST drive… That’s a bad look so early, guys.

— WR playmakers are underrated.

All four winners don’t win without their star wideout — JaMarr Chase, Cooper Kupp, Deebo Samuel, and Tyreek Hill. The QBs are the ones who’ll get the headlines (especially with Joe Burrow and Pat Mahomes) but those four WRs controlled the action this weekend.

— Then again, having a great QB matters.

Josh Allen is a monster. He might be my favorite non-Steelers quarterback in the NFL.

He played perhaps the best two-game post-season series of all time as a passer, while also rushing for 67 yards per game. But the reason I’m pointing to him is that the Chiefs largely shut down his two star receivers, Cole Beasley and Stefon Diggs. So Allen hit the Bills fifth-best pass-catcher — a second year kid named Gabriel Davis who had 35 catches on the season — eight times for 208 yards and four touchdowns. What!?

It reminds me of that crazy Steelers loss to the Seahawks back in 2015, where the Legion of Boom essentially shut down AB and Martavis Bryant, so Big Ben hit Markus Wheaton nine times for 201 yards (Wheaton’s only career 100 yard receiving day). That’s what a great QB can do.

Allen played like a champion on Sunday. I was sad to see him lose.

— The OT rule sucks.

This game was fantastic, and it shouldn’t have come down to a coin flip. Lots of people say “then play defense…” but the rules are SO skewed toward offense. (Just look at the stats explosion of the last decade or so.) It’s not right that possession is everything; and at this level, it is.

And there you have it. It’d be nice to have the Steelers involved in this stuff next year. But maybe some of these lessons will filter through, and the black-and-gold will turn another corner next year. Time will tell. Onward.