Welcome to the latest edition of The Sunday Recap, a weekly column dedicated to thoughts on the previous day’s NFL action! Let’s dive right into the big storylines to come out of Wild Card weekend…
Titans shock Chiefs in a breakthrough performance from Marcus Mariota
If the NFL employed a selection committee similar to what the NCAA uses to select its four College Football Playoff participants, there’s little doubt that the Tennessee Titans, with only a 9-7 record and an 18th-placed finish in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric, wouldn’t have had the opportunity to play this past weekend.
Regardless, the Titans took advantage of the moment, proving that they did belong in the postseason after a shocking second half comeback that will be remembered fondly by Tennessee fans for many reasons, but mainly as the moment in which Marcus Mariota took a giant leap toward stardom. For the first time, there’s now hope that Mariota, who accounted for 155 yards of offense and two touchdowns in the second half of the Titans’ 22-21 victory over Kansas City, can transform Tennessee into a legitimate Super Bowl threat. And it’s about time! Though no one would have previously categorized Mariota as a bust, he hadn’t exactly met expectations given his high draft position, as evidenced by his 20-22 regular season record and poor 2017 campaign (13 TD, 15 INT).
But wow has the narrative changed after one sensational half of football! Not only did Mariota add to his reputation as one of the game’s most electrifying talents with that miraculous touchdown reception to jumpstart the Titans’ comeback, but he proved, more importantly, that he could come through in clutch situations. Of course, this isn’t to say that Mariota has officially entered the upper-echelon of quarterbacks: one impressive victory doesn’t make up for how he still makes too many mistakes and misses a few too many open throws. Tennessee’s trajectory, though, is certainly pointing up after its twenty-four year-old quarterback’s breakthrough performance.
So do the Titans have what it takes to be this year’s Cinderella story? I guess it’s possible. Tennessee doesn’t exactly have a wealth of talent at the skill positions outside of Mariota and two-time Pro Bowl tight end Delanie Walker, but Mike Mularkey’s squad is terrific in the trenches thanks to a stout offensive line that features two formidable tackles in Jack Conklin and Taylor Lewan. And since the Titans’ opponent in the next round, New England, has a run defense that is statistically as shaky as Kansas City’s, perhaps their line can once again pave the way for former Heisman winner Derrick Henry, who had nearly 200 yards from scrimmage in Saturday’s victory.
Nonetheless, the 9-7 Titans are huge underdogs next Saturday for a reason. Tennessee will likely have to take solace in the fact that it pulled off a monumental upset that should propel them to greater heights moving forward.
Moving on from Alex Smith isn’t the answer for Kansas City
Of course, on the losing end of the weekend’s most exciting game was Kansas City; and while there is certainly plenty of blame to go around for the latest in a series of agonizing playoff losses for the frustrated franchise, Alex Smith shouldn’t receive the brunt of it.
Actually, Smith should hardly receive any of it. For starters, he was the best player on the field for Kansas City on Saturday. Check out the numbers from his sensational first half: 19 for 23, 233 yards, 2 touchdowns (those numbers, by the way, would have been even better if not for two Tyreek Hill drops).
Yeah, but what happened in the second half? Sure, the fact that the Chiefs were held scoreless doesn’t look favorably on Smith. However, he was again the victim of drops, like on that crucial third-and-short play to Orson Charles (a.k.a. Travis Kelce’s replacement), and questionable play-calling as well. What were you thinking on that third down read-option play, Andy Reid?
More importantly, though, Kansas City’s offensive struggles in the second half wouldn’t have been so noticeable had its defense not been dominated by Tennessee. The Titans had four drives in the second half: it scored touchdowns on their first three and sealed the game on their finale one, chewing up nearly twenty minutes of clock in the process. And by game’s end, the Chiefs had allowed 6.2 yards per play and 202 rushing yards. But those stats really shouldn’t be too surprising. After all, Kansas City entered the game ranked 26th in opponent yards pre play and last in the NFL in run defense efficiency.
Why would the Chiefs make moving on from Smith in favor of the unproven Patrick Mahomes their top offseason priority given their glaring defensive issues? It’s not like the 33-year-old Smith is showing any signs of decline. In fact, after leading the NFL in passer rating and posting career-highs in passing yards, touchdowns, and adjusted yards per attempt, 2017 was the most productive season of Smith’s career.
The Alex Smith era may never amount to a Super Bowl appearance for the Chiefs. But as evidenced by the number of quarterback-needy teams already lining up for his services, it would be a mistake for Kansas City to wrongly identify the reason for its perpetual disappointment.
The Falcons are finally rounding into form
It’s no secret that Atlanta has largely failed to match its dominance from a year ago. What’s ironic, though, is that many of the more advanced statistical indicators have valued the Falcons as one of the best teams in football despite their relative struggles. If only they could just put it all together…the argument went for those who still believed in Atlanta.
Still, people were skeptical. Bill Simmons, for instance, had this sarcastic remark in his Wild Card preview: “Please, keep telling me how the talented Falcons could finally put it together after they failed to do so for four solid months—I’d love to hear more!”
Well, much to the chagrin of Simmons and the others who bought LA Rams stock, Atlanta finally put it together. The Falcons’ 26-13 victory was their most impressive and most well-rounded of the season, as Dan Quinn’s squad outplayed the potent, yet inexperienced Rams in every phase of the game. Though yards didn’t necessarily come easily, Matt Ryan and company played turnover-free football and moved the ball effectively enough to take up a staggering 37 minutes of possession time. And as evidenced by the Rams’ two return gaffes, special teams made a big difference as well.
But the real story was Quinn’s defense. On paper, Atlanta shouldn’t have dominated the league’s highest-scoring offense: it ranked just 22nd in defensive efficiency during the regular season according to Football Outsiders. Yet as I said in my Wild Card predictions, the Falcons have plenty of playmakers on the defensive side of the ball. Linebacker Deion Jones was one player I specially mentioned in my article and he came through against the Rams, totaling 10 tackles, including one for loss, and a pass defended. Even more encouraging, though, was the play of the secondary. Corners Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant, the latter of whom missed all of last season’s postseason run due to injury, were physical and kept any LA receiver in their midst contained.
If that duo, in particular, continues to play as well as it did on Saturday night, Atlanta can certainly make a second consecutive Super Bowl appearance. Next week they’ll travel to Philadelphia to take on Nick Foles and an Eagles’ passing attack that has struggled mightily since Carson Wentz’s injury. And the surging Falcons, for good reason, will take the field as the first team in NFL history to be favored against a number one seed in the Divisional Round.
Two observations from the Jaguars’ thrilling win over Buffalo
First, it was great to finally see a playoff game in Jacksonville (I was three-years-old the last time there was such an occasion). It’s not healthy for the league when teams like the Jaguars, Bills, and Browns have extended periods of misery, so I was happy to see such a lively atmosphere at EverBank Field. Plus, it’s not like those Jacksonville fans still have much to cheer for on the offensive side of the ball, which brings me to my second observation…
Blake Bortles is an absolute disaster. I’ll give him credit for being able to make plays with his legs, but 87 passing yards in a playoff game? Against a defense that’s not even that good? Boy was he lucky that two of his especially errant throws weren’t intercepted because if the Jaguars had lost yesterday, that would’ve been Bortles’ last start in a Jacksonville uniform.
But you know what? Next week’s game at Pittsburgh should probably be Bortles’ final start as a Jaguar anyway. First things first: it would be foolish to pick against Ben Roethlisberger and company on their home turf, regardless of how good Jacksonville’s defense is. So next Sunday will probably mark the end of the Jaguars’ surprising season.
Unless Bortles surprises everyone next week by throwing, say, four touchdowns, Jacksonville should look to upgrade at the game’s most important position. It’s obvious that the Jags already have a Super Bowl-caliber defense, as well as some highly-skilled players on the offensive side of the ball (keep in mind that their best receiver, Allen Robinson, was lost for the season in October with a torn ACL). But think about how much more dangerous Jacksonville would be if it acquired an above-average QB like Alex Smith or Kirk Cousins, both of whom could be available this offseason. The Jaguars would be the favorites in the AFC! With Bortles, though, that idea is not even a remote possibility.
Vikings/Saints: the de facto NFC Championship game?
It wasn’t a smooth landing for Sean Payton’s squad, but despite nearly blowing a twelve-point fourth quarter lead, the Saints held on for a 31-26 victory over Carolina and will now meet Minnesota in a matchup that I thought would take place in the NFC Championship round. But perhaps it will still feel like the conference’s play-in game for Super Bowl LII.
These are the two best teams remaining in the NFC, right? New Orleans proved on Sunday that even without impactful performances from Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, Drew Brees (376 passing yards, 89.3 Total QBR) still has no trouble putting New Orleans on his back. And even though there’s not much that should intimidate Minnesota’s top-ranked defense, Brees and company should scare the Vikings a little bit. This game will take place indoors, after all. Everyone knows how good the Saints’ offense plays in that kind of environment.
But regardless of who ultimately wins next week’s game, I’m confident that we’ll see either Minnesota or New Orleans representing the NFC on February 4th. Before kickoff next Sunday, both teams will know whether they’re playing for an opportunity to host Atlanta in the NFC Championship. Yet even if the Eagles were to beat the Falcons, both the Vikings and Saints would undoubtedly be favored against Foles and Philadelphia.
So as customary come this time of year, the stakes will clearly be high in Minneapolis next Sunday.