For the most part, the only thing that exceeded expectations over the course of the NFL’s first Super Wild Card Weekend was the average margin of victory in a six-game slate that featured four legitimate blowouts that were borderline unwatchable.
Those games — Patriots-Bills, Eagles-Buccaneers, Steelers-Chiefs and Cardinals-Rams — were bad, and the other two — Raiders-Bengals and 49ers-Cowboys — weren’t really that much better as both were marred by issues with the officials.
Regardless, the weekend is over and the Bengals will be moving on to face the Titans, the 49ers will take on the Packers, the Rams will lock horns with the Buccaneers, and the Bills will battle the Chiefs in the second round of the playoffs while the Raiders, Patriots, Eagles, Cowboys Steelers and Cardinals watch from home.
Instead of looking ahead at the games to come, let’s extend what was largely a painful football weekend by probing into the biggest reason why each of the weekend’s six losers lost their matchup on Saturday, Sunday or Monday night.
The Raiders Lost Because Their Luck Ran Out
Essentially playing with house money after winning four games in a row to finish the season at 10-7 despite having an abysmal -65 point differential on the season, the Las Vegas Raiders went to Cincinnati and were just a play away from taking the favored Bengals to overtime. That didn’t happen as Derek Carr, who threw for more than 300 yards in the defeat, was picked off at the goal line and the Bengals escaped with their first playoff win since the ’90s.
With interim coach Rich Bisaccia, who was elevated from special teams coordinator to the full-time head-coaching job after the resignation of Jon Gruden, running things from the sidelines, the Raiders fought hard and got the most out of the talent on their roster. The problem is, starting with Carr, the roster just simply isn’t that talented and playing hard (with a bit of luck mixed in) only goes so far in the NFL.
The Raiders, who managed to 5-0 in overtime and 7-2 in games decided by seven points or fewer over the course of the 17-game season, don’t excel on offense or defense and their only truly elite player, aside from pass-catching tight end Darren Waller, is placekicker Daniel Carlson. Going forward with the combination of Carr, who has a year remaining on his contract, at quarterback and Bisaccia, whose fate has yet to be determined, at coach will keep Las Vegas in contention for a playoff spot but probably won’t be enough to get the Raiders their firs playoff win in nearly 20 years.
They say it’s better to be lucky than good — but only until that luck runs out.
The Patriots Lost Because Their Defense Is Horrendous
Rookie quarterback Mac Jones, who threw an interception on his first possession in Saturday night’s game, will likely bear the brunt of the criticism for New England’s beatdown at the hands of the Bills, but the key to the Patriots’ demise was the putrid defense they played in Buffalo.
Out of the eight times that the Bills had the football, the Buffalo offense walked off the field with a touchdown after seven of ’em. The only time the Bills had the ball and didn’t score was when they were kneeling to run out the clock in the fourth quarter.
Despite a game-time temperature of 7 degrees, the Bills and quarterback Josh Allen came out on fire en route to a 47-17 win, the biggest defeat in the playoffs for the Patriots since coach Bill Belichick’s tenure began in 2000. It’s unclear why, but New England’s defense was incapable of stopping Allen or even slowing him down as Buffalo became the NFL’s first team in the Super Bowl era to score on its first seven possessions.
“Shoot, every drive we couldn’t get a stop was frustrating,” said Patriots linebacker Matthew Judon. “It wasn’t only one play. It wasn’t one single player. It was everything. It was the whole game.”
And it was a game that was over at halftime as Buffalo had already gained 300 yards of total offense, notched 19 first downs and built a 27-3 lead by the time 30 minutes had elapsed off the clock. Things only got worse in the second half when New England’s defense basically quit as the Bills continued to pile it on against their long-time tormentors as a game that opened with a spread of less than a touchdown became a non-competitive pigskin pummeling.
Jones, who finished with two interceptions and was sacked three times, wasn’t great, but he wasn’t a problem nor was he the reason that the Patriots lost. That distinction belongs to the defense that showed up for New England in Buffalo.
The Eagles Lost Because Jalen Hurts Isn’t Ready Yet
Limping in on an injured ankle against the defending Super Bowl champions in Tampa Bay, Philadelphia quarterback Jalen Hurts would have had to have played the game of his life for the Eagles to have a chance against the Buccaneers. The second-year player, who went 23-of-43 for 258 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions, wasn’t able to do it and the Eagles fell 31-15 in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score indicates.
To be fair to Hurts, the loss was also partially on the defense and their inability to stop Tom Brady, something the rest of the NFL has also had lots of trouble with this season. But Hurts, who has struggled to throw the ball for much of the season and wasn’t able to compensate for it as much as usual due to his ankle injury, wasn’t able to do enough in the passing game to keep the Eagles close.
Hurts, who completed 61.3% of his passes for 3,144 yards with 16 touchdowns to nine interceptions while leading all quarterbacks with 784 rushing yards and 10 rushing touchdowns, is just 23 and largely looked the part during his first year as a starter while leading the Eagles to a 9-8 record and the seventh and final playoff seed. But he also had just one victory over a team with a winning record this season and, while clearly an upgrade over departed previous starter Carson Wentz, may not be the long-term solution for the Eagles at quarterback unless he can develop as a passer.
Hurts is young and he should get better as the Eagles add more talent around him, but Philadelphia also has the option of moving on or at least bringing in some competition at quarterback as the Eagles hold three first-round picks (Nos. 15, 16 and 19) in April’s draft.
“I know we’re all judged on the last game that we played, I fully get that, but I felt like Jalen grew throughout the year,” Eagles coach Nick Sirianni said after the game. “He got better as a passer, he got better reading the defense, getting the ball to the right place. He developed so much in his ability to extend plays, not only making plays with his feet but also making plays downfield on the scramble. I feel really good with what we have in place right here at the quarterback position.”
Let’s see if he still feels the same way in April.
The Cowboys Lost Because Their Head Coach Is Awful
Back in November, the Cowboys set a record with 166 penalty yards in an overtime loss to the Raiders that saw 28 total penalties — 14 on each team — called by referee Shawn Hochuli’s crew.
“Twenty-eight penalties,” Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy said of the penalties, including four for 91 yards on cornerback Anthony Brown for defensive pass interference. “‘I don’t really know what the hell you want me to say. Write whatever you want. I’m all for it.”
What McCarthy apparently wasn’t all for was correcting the issues that led to those penalties as the Cowboys were an undisciplined mess on Sunday against the 49ers as Dallas somehow managed to rack up another 14 penalties for 89 yards. Tied for the second-most in a playoff game in NFL history (the 1993 Raiders had 17 in versus the Broncos), the Cowboys’ 14 penalties were the most-ever in a postseason loss.
From pre-snap violations to holding calls on defensive linemen for literally tackling members of San Francisco’s offensive line, the penalties were as blatant as they were stupid and are a clear example of McCarthy not having his team prepared and tuned in with the task at hand. Thanks to that, the Cowboys, who led the NFL with 153 penalties and finished second with 1,103 penalty yards (one yard behind the league-leading Raiders) during the regular season, were the only team to lose at home on Super Wild Card Weekend.
Now 18-15 in two seasons as the coach of one of the best on-paper rosters in the NFL, McCarthy doesn’t run the offense or the defense in Dallas and is mainly in charge of making in-game decisions and keeping his team focused, motivated and disciplined. At a minimum, he failed at the latter and the favored Cowboys failed to win because of it.
The Steelers Lost Because Time Ran Out on Big Ben
A surefire Hall-of-Famer, Ben Roethlisberger ended his NFL career with two touchdown passes and 215 yards as the Steelers were drubbed by the Kansas City Chiefs 42-21 on Sunday night. Old, slow and unable to throw the ball down the field with much force, Roethlisberger did what he could in the loss which, at this point, is not too much.
Despite having a talented group of receivers to throw the ball to as well as a competent dual-threat running back in Najee Harris, the Roethlisberger-led offense was stagnant, as it has been for the duration of a season that saw the Steelers manage 16 fewer touchdowns (34) than a season ago (50) despite having one extra game on the schedule. Including the playoff loss, the Steelers gained under 300 yards in a game six times and were able to score 30 or more points just once in 18 attempts.
Not all of the blame can be heaped at Roethlisberger’s feet as offensive coordinator Matt Canada certainly bears some of the responsibility for Pittsburgh taking a step back in nearly every offensive category, but it is fair to say the 38-year-old quarterback’s limited abilities certainly placed some restrictions on the type of plays the Steelers could run.
Though he didn’t name Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin certainly hinted at his decreased abilities when asked if Canada had to hold back some of the offense as the season went on because of personnel.
“I think when you got red paint, you paint your barn red,” Tomlin said. “I acknowledge that we took a step back. There are some obvious tangible reasons why that occurred, so I am not going to get into that. I am not going to seek comfort in that. We have to be better. We intend to be, and that requires a lot of planning.”
For the first time in Tomlin’s lengthy tenure in Pittsburgh, that planning will not include Roethlisberger and it probably shouldn’t include backups Mason Rudolph and Dwayne Haskins if the Steelers actually want to compete. They certainly couldn’t on Sunday against the Chiefs and Pittsburgh’s soon-to-be-retired QB was the main cause.
The Cardinals Lost Because Kyler Murray Needs Help
By the time the Arizona quarterback Kyler Murray and the Cardinals got their initial first down on offense against the Rams on Monday night, it was midway through the second quarter and they were trailing 21-0 in what would eventually be a 34-11 loss.
It was an ugly start, middle and finish for Murray in a game where the Cardinals went three-and-out on their first four possessions (the first time that’s happened in a playoff game in at least 10 seasons) and were outgained 180-40 in the first half. In his first playoff start, Murray ended up with a 40.9 passer rating and a passing line of 19-of-34 for 137 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions, one of which was returned for a score by the Rams.
Looking to connect with pass-catchers like Christian Kirk, Rondale Moore, Eno Benjamin and Zach Ertz, Murray found himself under siege and was forced to throw short and inaccurately with 11 of his 34 attempts ending up as passes thrown behind the line of scrimmage. A talented runner, Murray had a season-low two rushing attempts for six yards.
Murray needed someone else on Arizona’s offense to step up and make a play to help alleviate all of the pressure that had built up and no one did. Had star wideout DeAndre Hopkins, whose season-ending MCL tear largely coincided with Arizona losing five of their final six contests including Monday’s defeat, been playing, he likely would have come to Murray’s aid. But with Hopkins injured and unavailable, the help Murray needed never arrived.
Perhaps making sure it is there in the future is as simple as Hopkins getting healthy and returning to the field next season, which he is fully expected to do. But even with a healthy Hopkins back in the fold, the Cardinals would likely be wise to add some sure-handed veterans who can catch check-down passes and make solid, not spectacular plays. They went the other route this season by adding former star wideout A.J. Green, who was held without a catch versus LA.
“It’s disappointing that we didn’t make it a game and come out and play the football we know we’re capable of playing. That’s really the most disappointing part,” Murray told reporters following the loss. “Losing is one thing, but when you don’t even make it competitive, it’s another thing. I put a lot on my shoulders. To play the way I did was disappointing.”
And it’s going to happen again unless Arizona gets Murray some veteran help, not more flashy star power, on offense.