The NFL is a passing league, and the research is pretty clear that the best way to score points and win games is to have an effective passing game.
But a definite theme emerged in the four Divisional Round games over the weekend: Passing yards are for losers.
In all four games, the quarterback from the losing team had more passing yards than his counterpart on the winning team. And three of the winning quarterbacks produced fairly pedestrian passing numbers.
Ryan Tannehill threw for just 88 yards, but had a couple of big touchdown passes and finished with a 109.5 rating in the Titans’ 28-12 upset of the Ravens. The Titans have pulled off two road upsets in the playoffs, with Tannehill throwing for a total of 160 yards, joining Terry Bradshaw as the only quarterbacks to win two straight playoff games with fewer than 100 yards in each. Meanwhile, likely MVP Lamar Jackson threw for 365 yards Saturday night but had two costly interceptions and finished with a 63.2 rating.
Jimmy Garoppolo threw for only 131 yards in the 49ers’ 27-10 win over the Vikings. Kirk Cousins and the Vikings were stonewalled all day, but he still threw for more yards than Garoppolo (172 yards on 29 attempts).
Aaron Rodgers had mild numbers by his standards: 16 of 27 for 243 yards. But he tossed two touchdowns in the Packers’ 28-23 win over the Seahawks. Russell Wilson threw for 277 yards and a touchdown in the loss.
Patrick Mahomes was the only winning quarterback who produced fantasy-friendly numbers, throwing for 321 yards and five touchdowns in the Chiefs’ 51-31 comeback win over the Texans. Deshaun Watson threw for 388 yards and two touchdowns in the loss, becoming the only quarterback in the Super Bowl era to lose a playoff game with 300 passing yards, three touchdowns (one rushing), and no turnovers.
Big passing numbers are fun and all, but this year’s playoffs are proving that it’s more important to build a lead, run the ball well, and play defense.
Now let’s take a closer look at all four games in our Divisional Round Review:
■ That 49ers defense is no joke. The NFL’s No. 2 scoring defense in the regular season was absolutely stifling Saturday, holding the Vikings well below their season averages in several stats.
The Vikings gained just 147 total yards, more than 200 less than their season average and the fewest allowed in 49ers postseason history. And the Vikings were held to 21 rushing yards on 10 attempts, after finishing sixth in the NFL with 133.3 rushing yards per game.
Most impressive by the 49ers was their ability to sack Cousins six times, with none coming on a blitz. It was their bevy of former first-round picks doing the damage: Nick Bosa had two sacks, and Arik Armstead, Solomon Thomas, DeForest Buckner, and Dee Ford each had one.
Garoppolo didn’t have a big game, but the 49ers still ran the heck out of the ball (186 yards and two touchdowns), and they have a dominant defense that doesn’t have to blitz. I’m picking them to win the Super Bowl.
■ Much of the Titans-Ravens postgame analysis focused on the heroics of Derrick Henry, and rightfully so. Henry rushed for 195 yards, becoming the first player in NFL history to rush for 180-plus yards in three straight games.
But the Titans’ big upset was really about the defense. Forget the 530 yards the Ravens racked up; the only number that matters is 12, the number of points the Ravens scored (21 below their season average).
The Titans stymied the Ravens as no team had all season. The Ravens were the No. 2 red zone team this year, scoring touchdowns on 67.2 percent of possessions; they went 1 for 4 against the Titans. The Ravens were the best fourth-down team this year, converting a whopping 70.8 percent (17 of 24); they went 0 for 4 against the Titans. The Ravens had been 8 for 8 on fourth and 1 this year; they went 0 for 2. And the Ravens had only 15 giveaways this year, tied for third-fewest; they had three against the Titans.
The Titans stacked the box all night to stop the run, and forced Jackson to beat them on the outside, both with his throws and his runs.
“He had a lot of plays where he ran out of bounds — that was the key,” safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “Make him go inside-out. Don’t let him cut downhill.”
As for the Ravens, they are just the second No. 1 seed not to make a conference championship game in the last seven seasons (2016 Cowboys). And they became the second team in NFL history (1934 Bears) to lose their first playoff game after finishing the season on a 12-game win streak.
Despite a phenomenal season, Jackson is now 0-2 in the postseason, and once again will face the “can he win in the playoffs?” questions.
We can second-guess John Harbaugh’s decision to rest his starters in Week 17 and whether it made them rusty. But most likely, the Ravens just ran into a hot team that is thriving on both sides of the ball.
■ The most entertaining game of the weekend, and perhaps the season, was the Chiefs’ 51-31 win over the Texans after trailing, 24-0, in the second quarter. The Chiefs became the first team in NFL history to be leading at halftime after trailing by 24 points in the first half. They also became the first team to win a playoff game by 20 points after trailing by 20 points.
But the real story was the Chiefs defense. The Texans’ 24 early points were fluky — a blocked punt and a muffed punt accounted for 14 — and the Chiefs were dominant over the final 41 minutes, allowing just one touchdown in nine drives.
Between Weeks 9-17, the Chiefs defense was third in the NFL in points allowed (15.9 per game). The Chiefs switched defensive coordinators and changed schemes after last year’s loss to the Patriots and are bearing the fruits of that now.
Of course, the Chiefs offense is also fairly incredible.
After sputtering on three first-quarter drives, the Chiefs scored touchdowns on their next seven possessions. With Mahomes looking healthy after that knee injury earlier in the season, the Chiefs look tough to stop.
The Texans had been 5-0 this season when leading by 14-plus points, and the loss intensified the heat on coach Bill O’Brien, who is now 2-4 in the postseason. Many are calling for O’Brien to lose his job, but he has won four division titles in five seasons, and I would be surprised if the Texans pulled the plug after one bad (albeit really bad) loss.
■ The Seahawks also looked like they might pull off a huge comeback after trailing, 21-3, at halftime, but Rodgers and the Packers were able to bleed out the final 2:32 of the game and hold on for a 28-23 win.
The Packers have quietly won six in a row and seven of eight. And they are at their best when Rodgers isn’t throwing the ball a ton. In this 7-1 stretch, Rodgers has just one 300-yard game, and that came in Week 17, when they needed a big comeback to beat Detroit.
The Seahawks had been road warriors all season; they were 8-1 on the road entering this game, including a remarkable 6-0 in the Eastern time zone (Sunday’s game was their first in Central time).
Wilson was impressive in the second half, leading the Seahawks to three straight touchdowns. But he and the Seahawks had gotten off to a slow start in the first half, continuing a troubling trend from all season. The Seahawks were 21st in first-quarter point differential (minus-14), and tied for 18th in first-half point differential (minus-18).
■ Garoppolo: Threw for just 131 yards but still came away with a win in his first postseason game. Now 22-5 career as a starter (including playoffs).
■ Seahawks TE Jacob Hollister: Caught five passes for 47 yards and kept bouncing back to his feet after taking big hits. Hollister had injury problems in New England, but his athleticism and toughness are impressive.
■ Titans CB Logan Ryan: Led his team with 13 tackles, one for a loss, and also had a pass defended. The Patriots secondary has been just fine without Ryan, but he has been a tremendous addition for the Titans the last three seasons.
■ Packers RT Jared Veldheer: Played all 64 snaps after getting an emergency start when Bryan Bulaga got sick before the game. Boy, is Veldheer lucky that the Patriots were nice enough to release him in December, when he decided he wanted to play again. His surprise retirement in May left the Patriots perilously thin at tackle.
■ Mike Vrabel, Titans: The postseason isn’t supposed to factor into the Coach of the Year award, but no one is pressing more right buttons than Vrabel. That jump-pass touchdown by Henry Saturday night was just perfect.
■ Dean Pees, Titans defensive coordinator: Maybe there is something to this “inside knowledge” thing, because the Titans took down both of Pees’s former teams, the Patriots and Ravens. The Titans became the third team in NFL history to defeat the No. 1 scoring offense (Ravens) and No. 1 scoring defense (Patriots) in the same postseason.
■ O’Brien, Texans: For some coaches, the decision to call a fake punt deep inside your own territory while leading, 24-0, would be a fireable offense. Just an unnecessarily foolish decision.
■ Romeo Crennel, Texans defensive coordinator: Someone’s head in Houston needs to roll for this loss, and I’m looking at Crennel, whose unit had no answers for the Chiefs. Crennel will be 73 in June, and this is probably a good time to head off into retirement.
Stats of the week
■ Mahomes became the first player in NFL history with 300 passing yards, five touchdown passes, and 50 rushing yards in a playoff game.
■ Mahomes joined Doug Williams as the only players in postseason history with four touchdown passes in a quarter.
■ The Chiefs’ 24-point comeback was the largest in franchise history.
■ Chiefs TE Travis Kelce and RB Damien Williams became the first teammates to score three touchdowns each in a game since Jerry Rice and Ricky Watters in Super Bowl XXIX.
■ The Titans were outgained, 530 yards to 300, for the worst yardage differential (minus-230) in a win in NFL postseason history.
■ Jackson became the first player in postseason history with 300 passing yards and 100 rushing yards in the same game.
■ Only the 49ers’ George Seifert (17) and the Colts’ Jim Caldwell (16) had more wins in their first season as a head coach than Packers coach Matt LaFleur has this year (14 and counting). Seifert and Caldwell both went to the Super Bowl in those seasons.