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One lesson learned from each NFL Wild Card game

Wild Card weekend was crazy, and there is a lesson to be learned from each game which took place.

Green Bay Packers v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images

With the Steelers eliminated from the NFL playoffs, I’m able to watch football and just observe things. It turns out there’s a lot to learn. Each game taught us a dozen lessons, but here’s one lesson I picked up from each contest:


Lesson: Trust your eyes

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are a mediocre team on their best day. They finished the season with a losing record. They can’t run the ball. Their defense is average at best. They never appropriately replaced Rob Gronkowski or Antonio Brown from their Super Bowl run. And Tom Brady’s record numbers this year were always smoke-and-mirrors — he threw for a lot of yards, but it was all on volume (he averaged fewer yards per pass than Davis Mills, Matt Ryan, or Baker Mayfield — and Mills and Ryan were benched, while Mayfield was released by two different teams).

Dozens of commentators talked themselves into believing that the inconsistent Cowboys were going to lose, because of some misguided belief that Brady was a one-man show who could win the game by himself (also that he was 15 years younger, and had Randall Cunningham’s skillset?). But that was always something of a pipe dream. Brady looked bad all game, highlighted by an interception in the end zone in the Buccs only meaningful drive of the first half. In the middle of the third quarter, he was 15 of 33, for 125 yards and an INT (a 43.1 rating — otherwise known as 3.5 points better than if he’d have thrown every pass into the dirt). Meanwhile, the Tampa defense had no answer for Dak Prescott. It was so bad that, when Dallas kicker Brett Maher missed FOUR extra points, it didn’t matter at all.

I know, any given Sunday and all that. But the Buccaneers haven’t looked like a good team at any point this year. If you’re picking a winner, believe your eyes. The Cowboys were the better team, and the better team tends to win. And they did.


Lesson: There’s nothing wrong with patience

The Bills were dominant this entire contest, besting the Dolphins by nine first downs and nearly 200 yards, but only won by 3. So how did Miami stick so tight? Because the Bills kept committing turnovers. In particular, Josh Allen did.

I’m something of a Josh Allen fan. When he’s on his game, he’s probably my favorite current NFL quarterback to watch. But he presses.

His interceptions were generally examples of going for the kill shot, over and over. They were deep balls and they were unnecessary. Allen, who possesses a bazooka of a throwing arm and an outstanding collection of long-ball receivers, is really good downfield. (We saw that ourselves, with Allen’s 98 yard touchdown pass against the Steelers.) But the Bills were in control of this game. They’d jumped out to a 17-0 lead. They had a late-round rookie named Skylar taking snaps on the other team. The game was in the cold of Buffalo. You don’t need a highlight play on every drive.

Consider: the Pittsburgh Steelers finished 2022 on a 7-2 run by converting 54% of their third downs and putting up more 10+ play drives than any team in football. Pittsburgh actually had a problem in their inability to rip off a big play, but that patient ball control game proved to be a winner. Meanwhile, a playoff game within the division is always a toss-up. The opponent knows your roster and they’re not afraid of you. If you jump out to a lead against a divisional opponent in the playoffs, the one thing you don’t want to do is to let them back into the game.

Patience, Bills. Take the big play when it’s there. Otherwise, suck out their souls one play at a time. You’re the better team. Play like it.


Lesson: Putting undue pressure on your backups is dumb

I know that John Harbaugh is supposedly above reproach as a coach. (Gag.) But I thought he cost the Ravens this game.

J.K. Dobbins (arguably the best player on either offense Sunday) saw only 13 carries against the Bengals. In particular (as Dobbins himself later lamented) Harbaugh and Greg Roman put the ball in backup quarterback Tyler Huntley’s hands on the most consequential play of the weekend — sending Huntley over the top from the goal line, instead of handing it to Dobbins. It sure felt like shades of Marshawn Lynch in the Super Bowl a decade ago. In that game, Russell Wilson was intercepted, sealing the loss for Settle, as Lynch never got a single shot at the end zone. As we all saw on Sunday, Dobbins didn’t get a shot either. Huntley lost the ball, and Cincinnati’s Sam Hubbard returned the fumble 98 yards, to finally break Andy Russell’s 46 year old postseason record for longest fumble return touchdown — what Sports Illustrated once called the “longest” touchdown ever scored (Russell apparently wasn’t a fast man).

Why put the game in Huntley’s hands instead of Dobbins? Good question. The answer is probably related to Harbaugh’s later decision to let the clock run on the Ravens’ final drive, declining to call his remaining timeouts as the clock ran down on Baltimore’s season. At that point, Harbaugh clearly thought the Ravens would score on their final drive, and didn’t want to give the Bengals time for a last second drive of their own. And so he schemed for that. But Baltimore had a backup quarterback leading the drill. That’s a lot of pressure. And (perhaps predictably) the Ravens didn’t score. In fact, they ran out of time.

There are a million ways for a coach to be a good coach, but the one element of the profession that stretches across them all is the old cliché: “he put the players in a position to succeed.” Harbaugh did exactly the opposite. He put maximum pressure on his backup quarterback. In crunch-time of a playoff game. Is it any wonder the Ravens are watching the playoffs from home now?


Lesson: When the opponent gives you a gift, accept it

Much has been written about this game (and all the big comebacks this weekend). I don’t honestly have much to add in general. Should the Chargers have run the ball in the second half? Yes. Should Joey Bosa have kept his cool late, and not thrown his helmet (the penalty allowing Jacksonville to go for a two point PAT that wound up creating the margin of victory)? Yup. Should Brandon Staley have done, I don’t know, everything differently once the Chargers were up by 27? Evidently.

But what I’m stuck on is how the Jaguars were minus-5 in turnovers, and still won.

There’s an old aphorism I’ve always liked: “defense starts comebacks; offense ends them.” The logic is that it’s usually takeaways and big defensive plays that spark a big comeback. But that’s not what happened here. The Chargers didn’t give the game away the way we usually see. They just sort of refused to win.

I want to have something smart to say about this. But the Chargers — despite a ton of talent, homefield advantage, and a giant lead — just wouldn’t close the deal. When someone hands you a gift, accept it.


Lesson: Let your winners win

There are a lot of reasons the Giants came out ahead in this game. Daniel Jones played out of his mind. The Vikings defense is terrible. Kirk Cousins played a good game, but panicked on the final drive. But I think the biggest problem was that they stonewalled Justin Jefferson in the fourth quarter.

Can you imagine the mid-2010s Steelers, in a heavyweight playoff bout, needing to drive for points late in the fourth, and NOT throwing to Antonio Brown once? I can’t. Back in those years, Ben used to say, “even when AB is covered, he’s open.” That’s how Jefferson plays too. The most memorable game of the Killer B era, to my thinking, was the Steelers 17 point comeback against the eventual champion Broncos just before Christmas 2015, where Ben and Brown torched the “No Fly Zone” in a frantic rally, to the tune of 16 catches, 189 yards, and two touchdowns (against Chris Harris, who hadn’t allowed a TD catch in two years).

That’s what you do when you need it. But the Vikings, who have their own miniature Antonio Brown in Jefferson, threw him zero passes in the fourth quarter (according to Pro Football Reference). Insanity.


Lesson: The #7 seed might have been a mistake

I like the Seahawks story this year — after trading away Russell Wilson, geriatric Pete Carroll starts a bunch of rookies and runs with washed up Geno Smith, and the Hawks somehow make a playoff run. In fact, I thought it was really exciting that they were leading the 49ers at the half. But did you ever really feel like the Niners were going to lose? Again, any given Sunday. But Seattle was playing absolutely lights out and still only led by two; San Francisco just seemed like the better team. When they pulled away in the second half, it didn’t even seem that hard.

There have been four #7 seeds since that playoff position opened up. Only one game was competitive — the Dolphins/Bills game, which really should have been a blowout (see above). Last year, our very own Pittsburgh Steelers got blown off the field at Arrowhead from that position, while the NFC #7 was Philly, who were kicked around in Tampa 31-15. The average score of a 7-v-2 playoff game is 37-22.

I know the NFL loves the extra game for the purposes of TV money. But it’s not good football. It cheats the bye from the #2 seed (especially meaningful as they add games), it devalues post-season qualification, and it waters down playoff competition. They’ll never get rid of it (because of the money), but I don’t think it’s been good for the game.

Hey, can we start talking about the draft yet?