Staggering Into (and Out of) the Playoffs

Week 17 is always the most unpredictable week in the NFL season (Week One is the second most unpredictable).  The week is a composite of varying energies and passions, and it’s nearly impossible to tell, sometimes, which games mean more to which teams.

For the Baltimore Ravens, it was all there to be had.  At 9-6, the playoff berth was theirs for the taking if they could win at home against a disappointing, 6-9 Cincinnati team.  They lost.

The Chargers did everything they could to complete a stunning turnaround from an 0-4 start to almost claim a playoff spot.  They beat Oakland 30-10 (finishing with a 9-7 record), but were edged from contention when both Buffalo and Tennessee won – both claiming wildcard spots.

In a season that seems to be something of a changing of the guards, Buffalo, Jacksonville, the Rams (St Louis and Los Angeles) and Tennessee all broke long playoff droughts.  How long any of them will last in the playoffs is another question.  All of them have question marks.

Of the playoff neophytes, the Rams have had the best season (and sit with the best record).  But they will enter the playoffs without place-kicker extraordinaire Greg Zuerlein.  The quickest way to lose playoff games is to miss points in the kicking game.

The other three are harder to take seriously.  Buffalo’s 9-7 record includes only two wins against over .500 teams.  They have wins against Atlanta when the Falcons were slumping early and Kansas City while the Chiefs were going through a mid-season slump.  In between, they have losses to Carolina, New Orleans (47-10), the Chargers (54-24) and New England twice (23-3 and 37-16).  At one point during the season, their starting quarterback was benched.

Tennessee Takes Jacksonville

As to the Titans and Jaguars, they finished the season against each other in a game in which neither managed to impress.

When the dust had settled, it was Tennessee who walked off the field with the victory, 15-10 (gamebook), but it was hardly a showcase effort.

The Titans began four drives on Jacksonville’s side of the field – including two inside the Jaguar’s 30-yard line.  The results were two field goals, a punt and a fumble.  They controlled the clock for 19:40 of the second half, but managed only 3 points.  Eric Decker dropped three passes in the second half, and the Titan running game (minus quarterback Marcus Mariota) managed just 56 yards in 29 carried (1.93 yards per carry).

The only consistent offense the Titans had all evening came on keepers by Mariota.  Up until his kneel-down ended the game, Marcus had sprinted for 61 yards on 9 carries – most of them designed runs.  Tennessee ran for 5 first downs in the second half – and Mariota accounted for 4 of them.

But as beatable as Tennessee looked last Sunday, Jacksonville – already in the playoffs –  seemed even more mortal.  Even granting that they had less to play for than the Titans, their performance was just as concerning – especially as the game wore on.

They finished with just 74 total yards in the second half, averaging just 2.8 yards per offensive play.

With their running game throttled (Jacksonville managed just 83 rushing yards on 24 carries – with none of them longer than 9 yards), the Jaguars put the ball in the hands of quarterback Blake Bortles, who finished the game with 2 interceptions and a sobering 33.7 passer rating.  He was especially cold in the second half, when he connected on just 4 of 15 passes for just 47 yards and both interceptions.  His passer rating for the second half was an almost impossible 0.6.

Jacksonville never did score an offensive touchdown.

Jacksonville’s defense ranks among the best in the league – second in both yardage and points allowed.  Tennessee finished the season ranked thirteenth in total defense and seventeenth in points allowed – not gaudy rankings, but they are fourth against the run, and they proved once again that the Jaguar passing attack is unlikely to win a game without significant contributions from its running attack.

Tampa Bay Wins in Strange Fashion

The New Orleans Saints – with their division crown on the line – ended the regular season in Tampa Bay.  Were they to lose and Carolina to win, the Panthers would win the division and send the Saints to the tournament as a wild card.  The Buccaneers (already eliminated from the playoffs) were only playing for pride.

But for the game’s first thirty minutes, that pride looked like it might be more than enough.  Tampa Bay held the ball for 20:02 of the half, converting 10 of 11 third downs.  They went into the locker room with a 233-125 lead in yardage and a 17-7 advantage in first downs.  In just the first two quarters, Tampa Bay had rolled up 101 rushing yards and 24 carries – numbers many teams would be pleased to see at the end of a game, much less at halftime.

Yet – courtesy of two interceptions, a blocked extra-point, and a 106-yard kickoff return against them – the Bucs trailed 14-13 at the half.

New Orleans mostly reversed the domination in the second half.  Quarterback Drew Brees completed 15 of 17 passes (88.2%) and rolled up a 125.2 passer rating for the half.  He finished the game completing 22 of 30 passes (73.3%).  Meanwhile, the run defense that was dominated in the first two quarters surrendered only 9 rushing yards on 4 attempts over the last two quarters. They controlled the ball for 18:29 of the last half.

Yet a fumbled punt that Tampa Bay returned for a touchdown, and a 39-yard touchdown heave from Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston to Chris Godwin with 9 seconds left pushed the Bucs past the Saints 31-24 (gamebook).

One of the NFL’s dominant teams through October and the first half of November, the Saints look very much like a team that peaked too soon.  They finished the season splitting their last six games.  After being untouchable throughout most of their 8-game winning streak, New Orleans looks decidedly vulnerable as they begin the playoffs.

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