About five and a half minutes.
The Philadelphia Eagles seemed to be playoff longshots through Week 13. Coming off their Week 10 bye, the Eagles lost three in a row – the last to the Miami Dolphins. At that point they sat at 5-7 for the season, but still only one game behind their division rivals from Dallas. Since one of Dallas’ six wins was a 37-10 clobbering of Philadelphia in Week Seven, Dallas’ lead was really two games with four games left.
To that point, the Cowboys were also 4-0 in the division, and held that tie-breaker as well (the Eagles were 1-1).
Philadelphia’s one ace in the hole was that their Week 16 re-match would be in Philadelphia, but in reality they knew that they would have to win out – including the Dallas game – and the Cowboys would have to drop a winnable game somewhere in these last four contests.
Other than Dallas (and perhaps including the Cowboys), the Eagles’ closing schedule wasn’t all that formidable – two games against the Giants and one against the Redskins. But Dallas’ remaining schedule was also a little soft. In addition to the Eagles, Dallas had the Bears, Rams and Redskins.
But a Week 14 loss to Chicago completed Dallas’ own three-game losing streak, and put the division clearly on the line in Philadelphia three days before Christmas. The game wasn’t necessarily an artistic success, but the defense rose to the occasion, closing down Dallas’ running game and sending the Eagles on to the playoffs with a 17-9 victory (a curiously recurring score for the Eagles this year).
And so, three days into the new year, the improbable Eagles were hosting a playoff game. After all the sound and fury of the chase, their opportunity to advance more-or-less evaporated about five and a half minutes into the game.
Beginning their second series on their own 25 with 9:41 left in the first quarter, quarterback Carson Wentz play-faked to running back Miles Sanders and dropped back into the pocket. But none of his receivers managed any early separation, and as the pocket began to crumble, Carson rolled to his right. Seeing the movement, cornerback Bradley McDougald came crashing down on Wentz.
Realizing he wouldn’t have time to throw this pass, Carson pulled the ball back down and tried to duck inside of McDougald (taking a step back toward the rush). Bradley didn’t miss the tackle, tripping Carson up while he was trying to get by him. As Wentz began to go down, Jadeveon Clowney – in pursuit – was leaving his feet (also trying to bring Wentz down). Clowney would tumble over Wentz in what appeared to be a harmless contact. Chris and Al – calling the game on NBC – cut away to show a replay of the field goal attempt that Philadelphia had just blocked. Meanwhile Wentz finished out the series, gaining a first down and moving Philly as far as their own 36-yard line before they were compelled to punt the ball away.
The Eagles have been in the playoffs, now, for three consecutive seasons – winning it all two seasons ago. In both of the previous two years, Wentz could only watch from the sidelines. Finally, Carson (Philly’s franchise quarterback) was making his playoff debut. And after two series, it was over. On the play in question, Clowney’s helmet collided with the back of Wentz’ helmet, driving his head forward into the turf.
And just like that, the Eagles were playing playoff football again with their backup quarterback. This time, though, it wasn’t Nick Foles (who had gone 4-1 in the previous two playoff runs). Nick had moved on to Jacksonville. The season now belonged to 40-year-old Josh McCown (who was also making his playoff debut). In his seventeenth season – mostly as a backup – Josh brought a 23-53 record as a starter, along with a 79.7 career passer rating into the contest.
The Attrition Bowl
If you were going to predict that an injury would play a critical part in any of the wildcard games, you might have expected it would be this one. Seattle came into the contest missing – among others – all of their top three running backs, two starting offensive linemen, and a starting linebacker.
The Eagles also were missing two starting offensive linemen, and all of their playmaking wide receivers (DeSean Jackson, Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor). Starting running back Jordan Howard dressed for the game, but never saw the field.
Whoever would walk away from this one, would go limping into the division round. And, although they were mostly outplayed by Philadelphia, that team – thanks mostly to Wentz’ injury – will be Seattle.
It’s difficult to pin this defeat on Josh, who came off the bench and did better than anyone could have expected. McCown was 12 for 15 in the second half, throwing for 147 yards. He looked as good throwing the ball as the numbers suggest, and brought the home crowd to its feet with an 11-yard first-down scramble in the first half. His passer rating for that second half was 109.6 – arguably as much as they might have expected from Wentz.
Behind Josh in the second half, the Eagles chewed up 195 yards of offense and 13 first downs. They controlled the ball for 19:13.
At the same time, though, they were 1-5 on third down, 0-2 on fourth down, and 0-3 in the red zone. They also turned the ball over on downs just outside of the red zone on their next to last possession. McCown played admirably. It is, however, reasonable to expect that Carson would have coped better on third and fourth downs and in the red zone. On Philly’s last offensive play of the season, McCown saw a clear rushing lane to the end zone (by the way, he has 13 career rushing touchdowns). But at 40 years old, McCown couldn’t navigate those last 10 yards.
In a one-score game, all Philly would have needed was one play from Carson.
For the Eagles, it was a frustrating end to a difficult season. It seems they have spent the last two seasons paying for the good fortune of 2017. They will take some positives into the offseason – particularly their defense. After finishing the season tenth overall and third against the run, the Eagles mostly dominated the Seattle offense – especially the running game.
Seattle came into the game just behind the Ravens, 49ers and Titans in rushing yards. The final numbers (64 yards on 26 rushes) don’t begin to tell the story. Forty of those yards came on two long scrambles from quarterback Russell Wilson. Subtract those, and Seattle’s other 24 running plays totaled 24 yards.
It’s difficult to say that the missing running backs were much of an issue, as Travis Homer and recently re-signed Marshawn Lynch were barely able to take the hand-off before they encountered Eagle defenders. The yards-before-contact for each tell a decisive story. Homer managed -3 yards for the night before contact. Lynch had it even worse at -5.
Defensive lineman supreme Fletcher Cox was the most un-blockable of the Eagle front seven, but all of them had a hand in abusing Seattle’s offensive line. This might have been the worst performance ever by an offensive line for a team that won a playoff game. This battered line will now travel into Green Bay where they might expect similar treatment at the hands of the Packers’ Za’Darious Smith, who has been nearly untouchable over the season’s last few weeks.
If that isn’t enough of a concern, the Hawks also fly to Green Bay saddled with the leakiest defense of any team left in the playoffs after having given up 398 points during the season. They have allowed more points this season than Houston has scored. Ranked twenty-second against the run, they gave another 120 to the Eagles. From time to time, the Packers have been a running team, so that will interest them. And when Aaron Rodgers wants to throw the ball, he will undoubtedly target Tre Flowers – like everyone else has.
On Sunday evening, Seattle was flagged for 11 penalties, costing them 114 yards. Mostly these were two pass interference penalties against Flowers and multiple holding penalties by various offensive linemen trying to keep Cox out of their backfield.
As much as any team out there, the Seahawks are a team that finds a way – usually getting just enough magic out of Russell Wilson to squeak by. But they will be going into Green Bay with significant concerns.
Defense Undoes Saints
Statistically, the Saints finished the 2019 regular season in about the middle of the pack defensively – they were eleventh over-all and thirteenth in points allowed. They profited significantly from playing in a division of mostly offensively challenged teams. When matched against quality offenses, they didn’t perform nearly as well.
They allowed more than 20 points 9 times, including giving 31 to Carolina in Week 12, and 48 to San Francisco in Week 14. They also allowed six passer ratings of over 100, and allowed more than 140 rushing yards on four other occasions – two of them in the last 4 weeks of the season. This includes a game where Tennessee piled up 149 yards without Derrick Henry in the lineup.
The Minnesota Vikings were a fairly average offense in 2019 – they ranked sixteenth. They were eighth in scoring – principally thanks to a defense that provided them 31 takeaways. And they ranked sixth rushing the football – averaging 133.3 yards per game.
Against New Orleans, the Vikings put up 106 rushing yards by halftime, and quarterback Kirk Cousins averaged 12.74 yards per completed pass against them. He put the dagger in the Saints’ season with a 43-yard chuck to Adam Thielen in overtime that set Minnesota up at the two-yard line. In a situation where they just needed to keep the Vikings from reaching the end zone, Minnesota moved 75 yards in 9 plays to end New Orleans 26-20 (gamebook) (summary).
The Vikings have shown some vulnerability against the run this year. They have allowed 140 or more yards five time – including three games allowing more than 150 – all of those over their last five games of the season.
But New Orleans could never get a running game going and had difficulty keeping ends Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen off of Drew Brees’ back. For all of this, though, the Saints had every opportunity to win this game. They made a few mistakes, but made them at the worst possible times.
Mistakes, Big and Small
The Vikings had just closed to 10-6 on a field goal with 2:54 left in the first half. Starting on their own 24, the Saints faced a third-and-six from their twenty-eight, with still 2:18 left in the half. They also had all of their time outs.
So patient all year, Brees suddenly got impatient and floated up a deep pass to a double-covered Ted Ginn. With help over the top, Anthony Harris undercut the route and picked the pass, bringing it all the way back to the Saint 45.
One minute and forty seconds later, Dalvin Cook sliced through the middle of the Saint line for the touchdown that gave Minnesota the lead.
But the Saints would get a golden opportunity to tie the game before the half when electric kick returner Deonte Harris brought the ensuing kickoff back 54 yards to the Viking 45 with still 12 seconds (and two timeouts) left.
Fast forward to the third quarter, Vikings now ahead 20-10. With 2:08 left in the quarter, the Saints faced a fourth-and-three from their own 35 and sent the punting unit out to the field.
Moving forward to the fourth quarter. The Saints have pulled to within 20-17. There are four and a half minutes left in the game. Again the momentum maker is Taysom Hill, whose 28-yard burst up the sideline brought the Superdome crowd to its feet and left New Orleans with a first-and-ten from the Viking 20-yard line.
On the very next play, Hunter stripped the ball away from Brees and the drive abruptly ended. It was Drew’s only fumble of the entire season.
The Vikings played one of their best games of the season, and will advance to San Francisco on Saturday. The Saints will start to look toward next season. For the third straight season they have been ousted from the playoffs under agonizing circumstances.
The Vikings will be underdogs again against the 49ers. San Francisco, of course, has precious little playoff experience among their young roster, and have seen their defense slip a bit over the last few weeks of the season. So you never know.
About This Hill Guy
Here were New Orleans four longest plays of the game:
1 – A fifty yard pass from Taysom Hill to Deonte Harris that set up the Saint’s first touchdown of the day.
2 – Taysom Hill runs 28 yards around left end – an electrifying run during which Hill shook off would-be tacklers like so many rag dolls.
3 – Drew Brees throws 20 yards to Thomas to set up the missed field goal at the half.
4 – Drew Brees throws a 20-yard touchdown pass to Taysom Hill, cutting the Viking lead to 20-17 in the fourth.
To this point, Taysom has been an appendage to the Saint offense – a kind of change of pace, brought in mostly to run for a first down on third and short – which he does very well, by the way. He was on the field for only 41% of the New Orleans offensive plays.
The Saints in 2020 may look fairly different than they did this season. I will make one bold prediction for them. Mr. Hill – on the heels of his dynamic performance in this game – will begin to be a regular feature of the offense. This can only be good news for those of us who watch the Saints on a regular basis.