There was SpongeBob SquarePants, a former XFL quarterback with a fondness for Bud Light seltzers, a postgame flap involving a midfield logo, and a team that had a head coach stuck in his basement. That’s just a small part of the winners and losers from the NFL’s wild-card weekend. Here’s our complete list:
Taylor Heinicke: The former Patriots’ practice squad member, who was crushing postgame Bud Light seltzers a year ago in the XFL, went toe-to-toe with Tom Brady down the stretch in Saturday’s game between Tampa Bay and Washington. Heinicke went 26-for-44 for 306 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He ran for a score as well. An unrestricted free agent, he injected himself into what should be a very interesting offseason conversation when it comes to the quarterback position. (Honestly, guys have been signed for doing less.)
Tom Brady: Brady was Brady, leading the Buccaneers past Washington , going 22-for-40 for 381 yards and a pair of touchdown passes. He also added to what is his most unassailable record: 42 postseason games played. While it’s an admittedly inflated stat with the additional layer of playoffs as opposed to what things were like, say, 50 years ago, it’s notable that he’s still 10 games ahead of his nearest competition. (Adam Vinatieri — who has apparently not retired — is second with 32.) The only other active player with more than 25 playoff games under his belt? Tennessee kicker Stephen Gostkowski.
The Browns: No head coach? No practice? No problem. With Kevin Stefanski watching from his basement and only a few hours of practice during the week because of coronavirus-related issues, Cleveland gleefully rolled over Pittsburgh Sunday night, winning 48-37 and snapping a 17-game losing streak at Heinz Field. Baker Mayfield went 21-for-34 for 263 yards and three touchdowns behind a makeshift offensive line. There were a few dicey moments in the third quarter, but for the most part, Cleveland was in charge most of the evening. The Steelers were a hot mess much of the year — more on that in a second — but I’m not sure anyone outside of northeast Ohio saw this sort of beatdown coming.
Josh Allen: After this weekend, the smart money is on a Kansas City-Buffalo AFC title game, thanks in large part to the quarterbacks. Allen was 26-for-35 for 324 yards and a pair of touchdowns as the Bills survived a 27-24 outcome against Indy. Buffalo is a smart, tough, hungry young team that’s going to be a handful the rest of the way.
Aaron Donald: The Rams defense was overwhelming against Seattle on Saturday, and while we could single out just about anyone on the defensive side of the ball for Los Angeles, in this case we’ll go with Donald. The defensive tackle had two sacks and three quarterbacks hits while proving to be the most disruptive player on the field. Given the state of their offense, the Rams will only go as far as their defense will carry them. With Donald, there’s no telling how far they can get.
Nickelodeon: I’m not the target audience, but it was a smart way to try and reach out to a younger demographic. (Loved the comparison of Drew Brees and Taysom Hill and SpongeBob and Patrick as “Dynamic Duos.”) “I appreciate the light touch in the Nickelodeon broadcast, which makes you realize the average NFL game is narrated like an Eisenhower documentary,” wrote Jason Gay of the Wall Street Journal. In particular, Nate Burleson again proved he’s the rare analyst who can deliver serious football talk, but also explain the importance of something like the slime zone. Bottom line? We’re not going to see this every week, and there should be some fine-tuning before we see it again. But CBS deserves kudos for a bold maneuver.
Mike Vrabel: Trailing by four with 10 minutes left, the Titans were facing a fourth-and-2 on the Ravens’ 40-yard line. Instead of giving the ball to Derrick Henry, Vrabel decided to punt the ball away. According to Pro Football Reference, it marked the first time since 1994 that a team in the playoffs punted on fourth-and-2 from that field position down by one score in the fourth quarter. (PFR stats for that particular category only go back to 1994.) He later said he felt like his defense was playing well enough to get the ball back. I love Vrabel, but coaching not to lose instead of coaching to win is going to lead to an early exit every time. Henry’s 2.2 yards per carry didn’t help things, obviously, but in the end, it was a complete team collapse that led to Tennessee’s defeat.
The Ravens: MLB’s unwritten rules — no bat flips, no watching home runs, etc. — deserve to be roasted. The same goes for the NFL’s unwritten rules, which include messing with the opposing teams logo at any point or complaining about someone messing with your logo. It was apparently a revenge thing, but if you need some sort of artificial motivation to get cranked up for a playoff game, well … I don’t know what to tell you. ( Even Baltimore legend Ed Reed thought it was a bit much.) This all goes back a few years between these two teams, and Dez Bryant ‘s unnecessary roughness penalty earlier in the game also could have played a role, so there’s probably more than enough blame to go around. But in the end, for a team like the Ravens that hadn’t won a playoff game since 2014, it all came off as a bit much.
Pete Carroll: At what point are we going to start talking about the fact that the Seahawks — who have a truly elite quarterback in Russell Wilson — haven’t reached an NFC championship game since 2014 and is 3-5 in the postseason since Super Bowl XLIV? The Seattle fan base has every right to question the direction of the franchise coming off Saturday’s loss to the Rams, and that starts with Carroll. It’s fair to speculate about his job security after Saturday, especially if Seahawks’ GM John Schneider ends up taking a job elsewhere.
The Steelers: We’ve written about their weird year frequently over the course of the last few months — from 11 straight wins to three consecutive losses, before things looked like they had stabilized over the last couple of weeks. Really, Sunday’s game was a microcosm of their season — there were times where they were razor sharp, and there were times where it looked like they had nine guys on the field. But to offer that sort of performance was inexcusable. Ben Roethlisberger finished 47-for-68 for 501 yards with four touchdowns and four interceptions. (For the record, the Steelers haven’t won a playoff game since the 2016 postseason.) The Browns should get a lot of credit for their level of execution, but the simple fact is the Steelers awful start put them in a hole that was just too great to crawl out of.
Christopher Price can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at cpriceglobe.