The AFC’s Wild Card games went into the books on Saturday, with the Houston Texans advancing to the divisional round against the Kansas City Chiefs in Arrowhead Stadium next Sunday — and the Tennessee Titans moving on to face the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium.
Here are four things we learned on an appropriately wild Saturday:
1. The NFL playoffs are great
Every season, there are those who want to fiddle with the format of the NFL playoffs. Their arguments have some merit. There is indeed something weird about a 9-7 team hosting another that finished the season 11-5 — which we’ll see on Sunday when the Seattle Seahawks play the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. And the NFL’s complicated tiebreaking procedures — which force fans to rely on Internet calculators in order to see where their teams stand as each season winds down — add a layer of sometimes-unwelcome confusion.
But there’s definitely something worthwhile in a system that rewards teams that have taken care of business against division rivals — and also recognizes those that find ways to play well during the second half of the season. Futhermore, the NFL is quite unlike NBA basketball or major league baseball, which play five and ten times more games than the NFL does; football exists in a world of small sample sizes, so complex tiebreakers are just part of its landscape.
Last season, road teams won three of four Wild Card matchups. And yet, the Super Bowl teams — as they do most every year — came from the top two seeds of each conference. So the playoffs begin with exciting, unpredictable Wild Card games — just as we saw on Saturday — but generally end with a championship contest between two teams that really deserve to be in it.
No playoff system is perfect. But the NFL’s gives hope to fans of overachieving franchises, a reasonable championship game and a lot of matchups that are fun to watch. What’s not to like?
2. J.J. Watt is scary — but not scary enough
On Saturday, Watt suited up for his first game since Week 8 against the Oakland Raiders. As one of the league’s star players — and one returning from a torn pectoral muscle, which is usually a season-ending injury — Watt’s presence received the requisite media coverage.
He didn’t disappoint. Playing on just three of every five snaps, Watt made an impact on the game — despite a relatively pedestrian stat line of one sack, one tackle and a pair of quarterback hits.
But it was when he made those plays that mattered. His sack of Josh Allen at the Texans’ 20-yard line halfway through the third quarter — while his team was trailing 13-0 — not only forced a field goal, but also sparked a comeback. The Texans scored their first touchdown on the ensuing drive — and on the next Buffalo Bills possession, Whitney Mercilus had a strip-sack that led to a Texans field goal. By the end of regulation, the Texans had gone on a 19-3 run that sent the game into overtime — an an eventual 22-19 victory.
To be sure, Watt can be a game-changer. But he played nearly every defensive snap for the Texans when they beat the Chiefs in Week 6. Meanwhile — as our Craig Stout noted on Saturday night — the Chiefs were missing a number of significant players.
Just a reminder that the Chiefs were missing Chris Jones, Eric Fisher, Sammy Watkins, and were easing Tyreek Hill back from injury (50% of the snaps) when they played the Houston Texans in Week 6.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) January 5, 2020
Drastic personnel changes from the last matchup.
Craig didn’t mention Chiefs defensive end Frank Clark — whom we now know was dealing with a painful nerve issue — or quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who still wasn’t playing his best on a bum ankle. The Texans also had both of their main receivers — DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller — available that week. But if Fuller plays in Kansas City — he missed Saturday’s game with a groin injury — he’ll likely be limited the same way Tyreek Hill was in the Week 6 game.
3. Derrick Henry is awesome — but not awesome enough
Credit where credit is due: Titans head coach Mike Vrabel has done a great job keeping his team relevant. He’s not exactly working with a roster full of star players — but he’s figured out how to get the most out of them.
It takes guts to pull a once-franchise quarterback in favor of an older veteran like Ryan Tannehill — or depend on a running back (albeit a fantastic one like Henry) to be the backbone of your offense. But there’s a rule for NFL head coaches: when you find your best foot, you’d better put it forward. It’s been enough for the Titans to get this far — but it won’t be enough to win four straight games against the league’s best teams.
The Titans beat the New England Patriots the same way they beat the Chiefs: by remaining in the game through halftime. That allowed them to keep feeding the ball to Henry — and hope that karma would do the rest.
In the Week 10 game against the Chiefs, karma came in the form of two consecutive missed field goal attempts — either one of which could have won the game for Kansas City. Against the Patriots on Saturday, it came in the form of a second-and-4 pass during the Patriots’ next-to-last drive that normally-reliable Julian Edelman simply dropped.
Those just aren’t the kind of breaks you’re going to get in every game — especially in the postseason.
But those who have suggested the Titans might be the team best-suited to beat the Baltimore Ravens at home could be be right; in the playoffs, anything can happen.
Besides... Vrabel has proven himself to be a crafty competitor. His handling of the situation on the Titans’ next-to-last drive on Saturday night — when he magically erased 1:48 from the clock before punting the ball away — was so Belichickian that Vrabel’s former coach pitched a sideline fit worthy of any two-year old’s admiration. For long-suffering fans of other teams that have been the victims of such shenanigans from Darth Hoodie, it might have been the season’s finest moment.
But if Vrabel and the Titans manage to get past the Ravens, they won’t get past the Chiefs.
Not this time.
4. The King is dead. Long live the King!
In the early 1980s, I was among of the first people I knew who owned a videocassette recorder. In those days, their most common use was for what we now call time-shifting: recording episodes of a television series so you could watch them at your convenience.
My then-wife was addicted to the ABC soap opera All My Children. So for a period of years, each evening began with inserting the cassette labeled Detergent and watching that day’s installment on our 12-inch black-and-white TV.
I learned an important life lesson from half-watching the exploits of Erica Kane, Adam Chandler, Greg Nelson and Jenny Gardner: the character isn’t dead until you see the body in the casket and it is lowered into the ground.
So until Tom Brady and Bill Belichick finally retire, it will never be time to declare an absolute end to the Patriots dynasty; reports of its demise could easily be exaggerated.
But the 42-year-old Brady can no longer carry the offense as he once did. And while Belichick will remain one of the league’s best coaches for as long as he wants to do it, there is only a finite number of times he can strike gold on the cheap by reclaiming talented players with personal issues (see: Brown, Antonio and Gordon, Josh) or harvest draft picks from quarterback-needy teams (see: Cassel, Matt and Brissett, Jacoby).
I’m hardly the first to suggest the Patriots dynasty might have (finally) come to an end. But Saturday’s defeat at the hands of the Titans wasn’t an isolated regular-season loss on the road — the kind of thing that has previously prompted people like me to make such a claim. This was the third loss in four home games — all of which had significant playoff implications.
The body might not be dead and buried just yet. But the King is clearly on life support. So long live the King — whether it turns out to be Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid or Jimmy Garoppolo and Kyle Shanahan.
We would, of course, much prefer (and predict) the former. But if it turns out to be the latter, there will still be a certain satisfaction to be found.