The matchups this weekend didn’t look so great on paper. All these backup quarterbacks? Three games with a point spread of more than a touchdown? The Jaguars vs. the Chargers?
Instead, the NFL’s Wild Card Weekend delivered unexpectedly exciting football. The Jaguars pulled off the third-greatest comeback in playoff history (27 points). The Bengals won on the longest fumble return in playoff history (98 yards). The Dolphins almost upset the Bills with their third-string quarterback. The Ravens gave the Bengals everything they had without Lamar Jackson. The Giants and Vikings played a high-scoring, 60-minute battle.
Not only were the games entertaining, but the lack of expectations made them even better. Let’s look at the top stories:
▪ The Bills gained 423 yards and scored four touchdowns in a 34-31 win over the Dolphins, so it seems strange to feel worried about their offense. But the Bills were their own worst enemies again, with Josh Allen throwing two interceptions and losing a fumble that the Dolphins returned for a touchdown to keep the game close.
Ball security has been an issue for the Bills all season. They were third in the NFL with 27 giveaways, and Allen led the NFL with five interceptions in the red zone (no one else had more than three).
The Bills were lucky they were playing Dolphins seventh-round rookie QB Skylar Thompson, who played his heart out but completed just 18 of 45 passes (40 percent) for 220 yards, a touchdown, and two interceptions. If the Dolphins had had a semi-competent quarterback, the Bills probably would be booking tee times for next weekend. Allen was sacked seven times, completed just 59 percent of his passes, and led the Bills to points on only 6 of 15 drives.
The Bills have won eight in a row, but have committed 13 turnovers in that span, including five games with multiple giveaways. The Bills won’t be able to get away with that next weekend against the Bengals.
▪ Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel got some egg on his face with his team committing four delay-of-game penalties, including one at the end that cost the Dolphins the game. McDaniel said he didn’t realize the Dolphins faced fourth and 1 and deployed the wrong personnel, and the confusion cost the Dolphins 5 crucial yards.
The communication errors were unfortunate, but forgivable considering McDaniel was working with a rookie third-string QB (Thompson) in a hostile environment. And those errors were minor compared to the terrific job McDaniel did in preparing his team to fight hard for 60 minutes.
The Dolphins didn’t seem fazed by having to start Thompson on the road. They came roaring back from a 17-0 deficit, and almost pulled off an upset in a game that had no business being close.
The Dolphins end their season with a 9-9 record, finishing on a 1-6 streak, but McDaniel had a great season. The Dolphins’ problems revolved around health at quarterback.
▪ The Bengals-Ravens game took a similar tack, with the undermanned Ravens, playing backup quarterback Tyler Huntley, fighting their tails off, and putting an unexpected scare into the Bengals. The Bengals ultimately won, 24-17, but once again John Harbaugh’s team came in well prepared and did a great job of managing Huntley and limiting Joe Burrow to just seven offensive possessions (though Harbaugh’s clock and timeout management at the end of the game left something to be desired). Huntley learned the hard way about not reaching the ball over the goal line after it ended disastrously with a fumble and 98-yard touchdown for the Bengals’ Sam Hubbard.
The Bengals’ win sets up an emotional rematch next weekend with the Bills, this one in Buffalo, just three weeks after Damar Hamlin’s on-field collapse. Football-wise, the Bengals should be worried about an offensive line that is down three starters.
▪ Trevor Lawrence had a superb season, but he wasn’t the most dynamic downfield passer. Lawrence ranked 18th in yards per attempt (7.04), and his 16 passes of 25-plus yards ranked 24th. He relied on a steady diet of shorter, safer throws.
But Lawrence proved in Saturday night’s epic 31-30 comeback win over the Chargers that he is tough and unflappable. Lawrence became the first quarterback to have a game with four straight interceptions (all in the first half) and then four straight touchdowns (all in the second half).
The 10-8 Jaguars have won six games in a row, and those who voted Doug Pederson for Coach of the Year are feeling good about their pick.
▪ The Chargers probably should fire coach Brandon Staley after the way their season ended. Staley hasn’t won a playoff game in two years, and the Chargers aren’t getting the most out of Justin Herbert, essentially wasting his cheap rookie contract. It’s hard to see Staley commanding the locker room next season after suffering one of the worst collapses in NFL history. And the Chargers can have their pick of coaches, from Sean Payton on down, to coach a generational talent in Herbert.
But just because they should fire Staley doesn’t mean they will. The Chargers’ owners have never been known to have the deepest pockets, and there is reason to doubt that they would want to buy out the final 2-3 years of Staley’s contract, or pony up $20 million per year for Payton and give him control of the football operation.
Saturday night, Staley kicked three short field goals in situations where he would have gone for it last season. If the Chargers do keep Staley, the owners need to let him follow his instincts on fourth down.
▪ Brock Purdy continued his streak of remarkable play in Saturday’s 41-23 win over the Seahawks, throwing for 332 yards and three touchdowns with no turnovers. Purdy is 6-0 as a starter (plus another win in relief), with 16 touchdowns, 4 interceptions, and a 111.0 rating. The Seahawks played well for 45 minutes, but the 49ers overwhelmed them in the fourth quarter with two takeaways and 18 straight points.
Not to take anything away from Purdy, but the 49ers’ run isn’t about him. Purdy is the beneficiary of a great offensive system under coach Kyle Shanahan, and unbelievable talent around him, with Deebo Samuel, Christian McCaffrey, George Kittle, Brandon Aiyuk, Trent Williams, and the NFL’s No. 1 defense. Purdy wouldn’t play like this for most other teams.
Still, I rescind everything I said about the 49ers not being able to win a championship with a seventh-round rookie quarterback. The 49ers are so well coached and talented that, yes, they can win a Super Bowl with Mr. Irrelevant at quarterback.
▪ Not to besmirch the Vikings’ 13-4 season, which came with impressive wins over the Bills and Giants, but that record always felt like a mirage. The Vikings finished the season with a negative point differential and the 28th-ranked scoring defense, and got exposed in Sunday’s 31-24 loss to the Giants, with Daniel Jones throwing for 301 yards and the Giants gaining 431 yards with no turnovers.
With the game on the line, the Vikings fell short. Their defense let the Giants march 75 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter, and Kirk Cousins and the offense failed on two straight drives, including a last-ditch fourth-and-8 play in which Cousins threw 5 yards short of the sticks. Cousins puts up good numbers in the regular season but is 1-3 in the postseason in eight years as starter.
Tracking Former Patriots:
▪ Giants coach Brian Daboll: Took a 4-13 Giants team and a broken Daniel Jones and brought them to 9-7-1 and a win in the playoffs, with Jones turning in an all-time performance against the Vikings. The well-prepared Giants went 7 for 13 on third down and 2 for 2 on fourth down, with Daboll’s aggressive tactics paying off. He is quickly becoming the best of Bill Belichick’s proteges, and I wouldn’t bet against the Giants next week in Philadelphia.
▪ Dolphins S Eric Rowe: Had zero sacks in his first seven seasons, but had two this year, and had a huge strip-sack of Allen on Sunday that resulted in a fumble return touchdown for the Dolphins. Rowe also had seven tackles.
▪ Chargers LB Kyle Van Noy: Had three tackles and a pass defended in the loss. Played in all 18 games this season and had five sacks, a forced fumble, and two recoveries.
▪ Chargers CB Asante Samuel: He’s not a former Patriot, but his father is. Samuel became the eighth player since the 1970 merger to have at least three interceptions in a playoff game, and just the second to have six passes defended, joining the Packers’ Mike McKenzie from 2004. That would make Samuel the only player in NFL history to have three interceptions and six passes defended in a playoff game.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.