Sports

NFL Wild Card weekend grades

The Browns’ upset changed the AFC bracket and ensured its divisional round will include only young quarterbacks, while three first-ballot Hall of Famers are still left in the NFC. Here are grades for the opening playoff weekend’s 12 teams, along with some early outlooks for the squads now looking ahead to next season.

 

1 of 24

Browns capitalize early to squash Steelers comeback

Browns capitalize early to squash Steelers comeback

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Steelers handed the Browns their first touchdown, but the shorthanded visitors pouncing on subsequent opportunities keyed the franchise’s first playoff win in 26 years. The Browns (12-5) refusing to settle for field goals — via Jarvis Landry’s 40-yard TD and ensuing 65- and 64-yard drives — in a 35-point half made a Steelers comeback farfetched. Despite missing Pro Bowl guard Joel Bitonio and losing All-Pro right tackle Jack Conklin, Cleveland’s O-line did not allow Pittsburgh (first in sacks, No. 1 in defensive DVOA) a single pressure. Steelers turnovers defined the game, but the Browns’ no-mercy responses sealed the upset.

BROWNS GRADE: A-plus | NEXT: at Chiefs (Sun.)

 

2 of 24

Steelers’ playoff unreliability hits new peak

Steelers' playoff unreliability hits new peak

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

After a dreadful regular-season stretch run, the Steelers (12-5) seemed poised to glide to the divisional round because of the Browns’ COVID-19 issues. But the long-unreliable playoff team reached a stunning new level. In addition to the first-quarter chaos, Mike Tomlin’s game management interfered with his team’s comeback. After becoming the first team in five years to punt from inside an opponent’s 40-yard line while down 28 points, the Steelers punted on fourth-and-1 to predictably break up their second-half charge. Tomlin-era losses to a Tim Tebow-led Broncos team and the Blake Bortles Jaguars notwithstanding, this defeat marked unexplored territory.

STEELERS GRADE: D-minus 

 

3 of 24

Cleveland will not win again without reinforcements

Cleveland will not win again without reinforcements

Danielle Parhizkaran/NorthJersey.com via Imagn Content Services, LLC

The Browns scored the most first-quarter points (28) in playoff history and posted their highest postseason point total since routing the Lions in the 1954 NFL title game. They did so without Kevin Stefanski, several assistants, and key starters. No encore will commence in Kansas City without their troops. Coaching impeded a Steelers comeback, which featured pass-catchers less talented than Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill running amok. The Browns ranked 25th in defensive DVOA with  Denzel Ward, Olivier Vernon (out for the season), and Co. Fortunately, Stefanski, Ward, and Bitonio are on track to return. Safe to say Patrick Mahomes will not preside over a five-turnover game.

 

4 of 24

Storied franchise facing downhill slope

Storied franchise facing downhill slope

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Accustomed to being up against the salary cap, the Steelers are projected to be $21 million north of a reduced 2021 cap. This is without Bud Dupree, JuJu Smith-Schuster, or Mike Hilton on the payroll. Pittsburgh has replaced starters effectively during the Tomlin-Ben Roethlisberger era, but this will be a new challenge. Big Ben will turn 39 soon; the Steelers must acquire a non-Mason Rudolph heir apparent. Roethlisberger has not delivered in the playoffs since the Steelers disbanded their Super Bowl-era defensive nucleus, but he kept Pittsburgh competitive. It is hard to see how their 2021 roster will be better than this one.

 

5 of 24

Dropped pass dooms improbable Bears effort

Dropped pass dooms improbable Bears effort

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Needing at least one trick play to go their way against a much better Saints team, the Bears ran one to perfection. Javon Wims’ crushing touchdown drop changed Sunday’s 2-7 matchup. Instead of a 40-yard TD, the Bears proceeded to accumulate 140 total yards before garbage time. They failed to convert a third down until that meaningless final drive, limiting the Nickelodeon audience’s engagement in an otherwise well-orchestrated simulcast. Mitchell Trubisky’s NVP award aside, a soft late-season schedule propped up a flawed Bears team (8-9) facing major questions going forward.

BEARS GRADE: D 

 

6 of 24

Saints defense allows offense time to find groove

Saints defense allows offense time to find groove

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The Saints sacked Trubisky once and only hit him thrice, and they forced no turnovers. But Pat O’Donnell punted seven times, with the Saints (13-4) showcasing their superiority in the second half. Dennis Allen’s No. 2 DVOA defense did a masterful job giving Trubisky few chain-moving windows. Save for a few Allen Robinson moments, the Saints dominated the Bears on all three levels without top sacker Trey Hendrickson. This provided Drew Brees and Co. enough time to navigate a talented Chicago defense. This defense backing New Orleans’ balanced offense provides a unique formula that will be difficult to beat. 

SAINTS GRADE: A-minus | NEXT: vs. Buccaneers (Sun.)

 

7 of 24

Bears squandering elite defensive pieces

Bears squandering elite defensive pieces

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Khalil Mack’s three Pro Bowls, 30 sacks, and 14 forced fumbles have proven worth the lofty trade price, and Akiem Hicks was a savvy free agency addition. Mack will turn 30 this year, Hicks 32. Robert Quinn and Danny Trevathan will be 31 next season. Chicago’s defense is officially aging. It finished as a top-10 DVOA unit in each of the past three years and drove two playoff berths in that span. Trubisky’s outing Sunday should  convince GM Ryan Pace this team has no path to the NFL’s upper reaches with its current offense, but the Bears are on the verge of missing their window with their stout defense.

 

8 of 24

Suddenly healthy Saints making last-chance charge

Suddenly healthy Saints making last-chance charge

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Down Drew Brees, Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, and Emmanuel Sanders at various points this season, the Saints had all their top guns in the lineup Sunday. If Hendrickson returns, the defense that smothered Tom Brady twice this season will be in place. Although Brees was in a better position to carry New Orleans to a title in 2017 or ’18, this is the best team he has been given since the franchise’s late-2010s reload. The Chiefs are the scariest team left in the playoffs; the Rams carry the flashiest defense. The Saints, as was true in August, boast the best roster. After historic playoff agony, this nucleus still has a shot at salvaging its potential.

 

9 of 24

Ravens take out top tormentor

Ravens take out top tormentor

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Derrick Henry’s 195-yard day last January inserted doubt about the Ravens’ championship viability; his 133-yard November outing nearly wrecked this team’s playoff hopes. The Ravens (12-5) issued a statement Sunday, holding the league’s runaway rushing leader to 40 yards on 18 carries. Henry going nowhere stalled a play-action-dependent Titans team. Baltimore’s defense, healthier than it was in the Titans’ Week 11 win, hit the throwback dynamo behind the line on 11 of his 18 totes and held the NFL’s No. 2 offense to a season-low 209 yards. The unit did its part to keep a Lamar Jackson comeback in play.

RAVENS GRADE: A | NEXT: at Bills (Sat.)

 

10 of 24

Titans offense shows little with Henry grounded

Titans offense shows little with Henry grounded

Andrew Nelles / Tennessean.com via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Henry finished the season with an NFL-most 397 touches, including 34 in a Week 17 win that clinched his 2,000-yard season. The Titans’ limitations when Henry cannot dominate a good team were on display Sunday. Ryan Tannehill notched only 88 passing yards in Tennessee’s comfy win in Baltimore last January; his 165 Sunday were not enough. The Ravens stopped the Titans on multiple third-and-2s, the second leading to an ill-advised Mike Vrabel fourth-and-2 punt from the Ravens’ 40-yard line in the fourth quarter. Tannehill, who had little help outside of the still-underused A.J. Brown, sputtered in a chance to lead a Titans rally.

TITANS GRADE: C-minus 

 

11 of 24

Certainly not the matchup the Bills wanted

Certainly not the matchup the Bills wanted

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Jackson remains limited as a passer, but he led his first double-digit comeback as a pro during another big day for the Ravens ground attack. Jackson’s first 100-100 game of the season doubled as a 236-yard Baltimore rushing day, coming after its historic 404-yard outing in Cincinnati. The Ravens’ 1,573 rushing yards during their six-game win streak are the most in a six-game span since 1949, per the Elias Sports Bureau. Jackson also led the Ravens to a 24-17 win in Buffalo, albeit over a lesser Bills team, last year. Jackson overcoming an early-season slump makes Ravens-Bills divisional-round weekend’s best matchup. 

 

12 of 24

Tannehill, Henry need more help

Tannehill, Henry need more help

Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

In Henry and Brown, the Titans have skill-position anchors. Regardless of how Corey Davis’ free agency unfolds, Tennessee must improve defensively. GM Jon Robinson’s Jadeveon Clowney and Vic Beasley signings bombed, and the Titans finished with the NFL’s worst third-down defense (52%) since this stat began being tracked in 1991. Among veteran contracts, the Titans are not committed to any defender beyond safety Kevin Byard. They need upgrades on all three levels, and with Henry logging 827 touches over the past two years, the Titans will require better defensive insurance next season.

 

Donovan Smith wins high-level trench battle

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Smith dominating Chase Young led to a vintage Tom Brady performance and the Buccaneers’ first playoff win since Super Bowl XXXVII. The Buccaneers left tackle rendered Washington’s standout rookie a nonfactor, doing the most to enable Brady’s 381-yard, two-touchdown night in Washington. A sixth-year tackle whom Pro Football Focus consistently views as an average-at-best blocker, Smith primarily faced off against Young and held the Defensive Rookie of the Year favorite to zero QB hits. The Bucs (12-5) have long disagreed with PFF’s stance and benefited from their 2019 extension for Smith on Saturday.

BUCCANEERS GRADE: B | NEXT: at Saints (Sun.)

 

14 of 24

Washington’s QB4 nearly steals victory

Washington's QB4 nearly steals victory

Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Brady has run into a spate of below-average QBs in the second half of his career in the playoffs — from Tim Tebow to Brock Osweiler to Marcus Mariota to Blake Bortles. But Taylor Heinicke, Washington’s fourth starting passer this season, was easily the most random name to face the all-time great in the playoffs. The restricted free agent-to-be accounted for 352 yards and two touchdowns, playing through injury and throwing to one of the NFL’s lowest-profile skill-position cadres. A former UDFA who was out of the league until Washington (7-10) signed him in December, Heinicke increased his chances of having a 2021 gig considerably.

WASHINGTON GRADE: B-minus 

 

15 of 24

Bucs defense not exactly surging into New Orleans

Bucs defense not exactly surging into New Orleans

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The first two Brady-Brees matchups went for Brees’ squad decisively, the series’ Florida leg being one of the season’s most one-sided games. The Bucs just allowed Washington’s 32nd-ranked DVOA offense — a Dwayne Haskins-aided placement, but still — and a quarterback who was out of football on Thanksgiving to nearly ruin Brady’s NFC playoff debut. Of Washington’s skill players, only Terry McLaurin would start for the Saints. Although the Bucs will have Devin White back next week, their fifth-ranked DVOA unit encountered persistent issues against good offenses — aside from its Week 6 Packers demolition.

 

16 of 24

Washington back to ground zero at quarterback

Washington back to ground zero at quarterback

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Two years after Haskins and three years after the Alex Smith trade, Washington remains in search of a steady QB1. Smith is a lock for Comeback Player of the Year but will be 37 soon. Beyond his heroic return to an NFL lineup, Washington’s top 2020 starter finished with a 6-8 TD-INT ratio. Smith’s previously onerous contract can be shed this year, creating $14.7M in cap space. Barring a major pay cut to return as a mentor, Smith retiring might be best for all parties. Washington’s playoff berth dropped the team to the draft’s No. 19 slot, limiting its options. However, it is projected to hold $42M in cap space before a Smith transaction. 

 

17 of 24

Rams defense lands knockout blow in rivalry

Rams defense lands knockout blow in rivalry

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Even with Russell Wilson and Sean McVay involved, defense swung each of the three Rams-Seahawks matchups this season. The Rams’ final statement was the best. Los Angeles (11-6) sacked Wilson five times, hit him 10, forced multiple blatant holding penalties to prevent further sacking, and stamped its performance with Darious Williams’ pick-six — this third INT of Wilson this season. Despite monster Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey contracts and significant 2020 dead money, the Rams have retooled their defense after a non-playoff year. This outing will increase first-year DC Brandon Staley’s chances of landing a coaching gig.

RAMS GRADE: A-plus | NEXT: at Packers (Sat.)

 

18 of 24

Seahawks pass attack descends further

Seahawks pass attack descends further

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Losing at home in the playoffs for the first time since a 2004 Round 1 game against the St. Louis Rams, Seattle (12-5) closed its season with its worst passing day. Wilson’s historic aerial pace morphed into the Seahawks’ usual run-based M.O. by the stretch run, but the future Hall of Fame QB could not dial up much of his past brilliance since the initial Rams game in Week 10 sidetracked an MVP push. Despite having two 1,000-yard receivers for the first time, Wilson went 11-for-27 — by far the worst completion rate in his playoff career — and ended his season with eight sub-250-yard games in his final nine. 

SEAHAWKS GRADE: F 

 

19 of 24

Limited offense set for Green Bay trek

Limited offense set for Green Bay trek

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

While the Rams defense may be capable of jumping a level and dragging this team to a Super Bowl in 2015 Broncos fashion, Jared Goff looked severely limited in Seattle. Days after thumb surgery, Goff was understandably inconsistent — though productive enough — in his fifth playoff game. With John Wolford’s status unknown (but presumably on the doubtful side) after a neck injury, the Packers backed into a better matchup than a second Buccaneers duel. Goff deserves credit for keeping Los Angeles’ effort on course and saving McVay, whose refusal to dress a third QB had Johnny Hekker dangerously close to action.

 

20 of 24

Seattle continues to tread water in NFC

Seattle continues to tread water in NFC

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Like Wilson’s season, the Seahawks traversed an odd path. They would have earned the NFC’s No. 1 seed had they only beaten a Colt McCoy-quarterbacked Giants team; instead, they finished their season before the championship round for the sixth straight year. High standards, but they were on a dynastic track prior to Malcolm Butler’s INT. They have settled for good, not great, teams since shifting from a Legion of Boom-centric roster to a Wilson-led outfit. The Seahawks will have limited resources, having dealt two first-round picks for Jamal Adams, but certainly could use help on the O-line (evergreen need). 

 

Inconsistent Frank Reich day hurts Colts

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The Colts gained a season-high 472 yards in a game they were on the cusp of winning. Some Reich game-management decisions burned the Colts in Buffalo, though the most scrutinized call — a fourth-and-goal pass from the 4-yard line that caromed off Michael Pittman’s fingers — was defensible. The third-year coach, however, cost the Colts (11-6) a second-half timeout with a bad challenge — after having a commercial break to deliberate — on a Zack Moss non-fumble. And Philip Rivers huddling with the clock running was not a good look on a last-minute drive that required a Hail Mary. 

COLTS GRADE: B-minus

 

22 of 24

Josh Allen’s dramatic development on full display

Josh Allen's dramatic development on full display

Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

This could be the Bills’ final game in the early-Saturday playoff window for a while. In Buffalo’s previous Saturday-afternoon postseason game — a collapse in Houston — Allen was a liability. This year, he made plenty of impact throws — including a perfectly placed 37-yard sideline lob to Gabriel Davis on a game-changing end-of-half drive — and accounted for 388 yards and three touchdowns. Pairing stunningly enhanced accuracy with probably the NFL’s strongest arm, Allen has completed one of the most remarkable one-year ascents in recent history. After facing the Colts’ No. 7 DVOA defense, the Bills (14-3) will meet the Ravens’ No. 9 unit.

BILLS GRADE: B | NEXT: vs. Ravens (Sat.)

 

23 of 24

Colts could do worse than bringing back Rivers

Colts could do worse than bringing back Rivers

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The Colts are projected to hold nearly $60M in cap space, with big deals for Darius Leonard and Quenton Nelson yet to factor into the equation, but have no starting quarterback on the roster. Rivers elevated the Colts back to the playoffs, and his 91.9 QBR figure is the third-best mark in a postseason loss in the QBR era (since 2006). The Colts also dropped six passes and missed a 33-yard field goal. Indianapolis will be connected to ex-Reich pupil Carson Wentz and maybe Matthew Stafford. The latter would be a better option than Rivers, who is a low-ceiling play, but the 39-year-old passer bounced back after a bad Chargers finale.

 

24 of 24

Ultimate test coming for Bills run defense

Ultimate test coming for Bills run defense

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Somehow operating at a higher level than their record-setting 2019 attack did, the Ravens ground game presents a tougher matchup than the run-discarding Steelers would have. Since Sean McDermott turned the Bills into a top-tier pass defense in 2018, they have lagged in ground stoppage. Buffalo ended this season 17th in run defense and allowed multiple Nyheim Hines breakaway jaunts during the Colts’ 163-yard rushing day. The Bills can scramble the Lamar Jackson code by jumping to an early lead and are better equipped to do so than when these teams last met. And Buffalo did hold the ’19 Ravens to a season-low 257 yards.




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