[This post was originally written on January 15, but instead of publishing it I had only saved it as a draft. Sorry.]
On the final offensive play of Seattle’s season – and in spite of his 12 sacks this season – Green Bay’s Preston Smith became almost invisible. Almost no one saw him in time to do anything about him.
Just hours after Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes authored one of the greatest comebacks in playoff history, Seattle’s Russell Wilson was reading from the same Hollywood script. Down by 18 points twice, on the road in Green Bay, with his three top running backs done for the season and playing behind a porous offensive line, Wilson had brought the Seahawks back to the point where they trailed by just 5 (28-23) with still 3:22 left in the game.
But now it was third-and-five from his own 42, and Wilson needed a play to keep the drive going. As the Seahawks lined up with three receivers to the offensive left, Green Bay split their front seven. With Blake Martinez at his middle linebacker spot, the Packers had two clusters of three potential pass rushers at the edge of each line. To the right of the line, those potential rushers were Kenny Clark (lined up over right tackle Germain Ifedi), Adrian Amos (lined up over tight end Jacob Hollister) and Smith at the very end of the line with nobody opposite him – a potential free rusher.
At the snap, Clark crashed inside and Amos dropped into coverage, leaving only Smith actually rushing the passer. Smith was Hollister’s principle responsibility, and – because Preston lined to the outside of the line – the blocking scheme allowed him no help – a distinct advantage which Smith exploited by blowing past Jacob. Noticing Hollister’s distress after not seeing him initially, Ifedi turned to help. But Amos was still hovering, with the look of a safety who would come the moment Ifedi committed to Smith. It caused just a second of distraction on Germain’s part – just enough for Preston to race around him.
Wilson also didn’t see Smith – not until he was about a half second away from getting hit.
Now it was fourth down. Whether Pete Carroll thought about going for it on fourth-and-11 is unknown, but there were lots of factors mitigating against it. The distance of the fourth down, the fact that they were backed up on their own 36, the fact that they still had all three of their timeouts, plus the two minute warning (there was still 2:41 left on the clock) all recommended the punt.
But the strong, strong argument against the punt was the 11 men who would take the field after the punt – the Seattle defense.
Several years ago, this would not be a concern. In the Legion of Boom days, the Seattle defense would be another argument in favor of the punt. But these are not those days.
This year’s edition of the Seattle Seahawks finished twenty-sixth in total defense, and twenty-second in scoring defense. Among the 32 teams In the NFL, Seattle ranked twenty-second against the run (117.7 yards allowed per game), twenty-seventh against the pass (they allowed 383 completions during the year for 4407 yards), twenty-ninth in quarterbacks sacked (they dropped just 28 during the season), and thirtieth in sack percentage (just 4.5%).
Counting the playoffs, 15 of their 18 opponents scored at least 20 points against them – including four games where they allowed at least 30 points. They had five different games where they allowed over 140 yards rushing – topped by the 253 they gave to Arizona (of all teams) in a 27-13 loss in Week 16.
In a season marked by multiple injuries and inconsistent offensive line play, it is entirely fitting that Seattle’s ultimate demise should come at the hands of their ineffective defense.
Twice in Green Bay’s game-closing drive, the Seahawks had them backed up in third-and-long situations. But the Packers – who went 9-14 on third down that night – converted both, while Wilson could only watch from the sidelines. In the game’s second half, Packer quarterback Aaron Rodgers completed only 6 passes. But they went for 123 yards.
On to San Francisco
With the victory (gamebook) (summary), it’s on to San Francisco for Green Bay. The Packers are now 14-3 on the season – the same record that the 49ers hold. But like most of America, I have a hard time holding them in the same regard that I have for San Francisco. The relative softness of the Green Bay schedule – and the ease with which the 49ers won the midseason contest between these two teams – makes it difficult to imagine Green Bay overcoming San Fran.
But they will have their chance. Whether or not they are generally believed in, this team is still just one win away from the big game.
Meanwhile, the end of the season is almost a relief for battered Seattle. Once again, their final game of the 2019 season featured Wilson carrying the team. Operating around 5 sacks, 2 hurries, 5 hits and 7 forced scrambles, Russell still threw for 277 yards – with a 106.5 passer rating – and led Seattle to touchdowns in their first three second half drives. He also finished as their leading rusher with 64 yards on 7 rushes. All other Seahawk runners combined for 46 yards on 17 rushes (2.7 yards per carry).
As in their win over Philly, the offensive line that failed to adequately protect Wilson in the passing game, did very little to aid the running game. Marshawn Lynch – back with Seattle for the playoff run – was held to 26 yards on 12 carries. He had 0 yards before contact for the contest, with all 26 of his yards coming after contact.
It will no doubt be a busy offseason in Seattle.
Wither the Texans
But at least the Seahawks know the work they need to do. What do you do if you are Houston? Certainly, the numbers suggest that their defense could use an upgrade – among other disappointing numbers, they finished twenty-ninth in pass defense (a weakness that was exploited last Sunday afternoon).
But the numbers don’t adequately express the curiosity that is the Houston Texans.
Sunday’s first game was another jewel in the playoffs following the NFL’s historic 100th season. The Kansas City Chiefs – whose own playoff history has been a study in frustration – closed the regular season with a six-game winning streak that was highlighted by the euphoria of Week 17, when the home-standing Chiefs and their fans learned that they had qualified for the first-round bye by virtue of New England’s loss at home against Miami. Then, the day before the Chiefs took the field for their playoff opener, they inherited home field advantage throughout when Baltimore succumbed to Tennessee.
Finally, everything seemed to be coming together for Kansas City.
The atmosphere in Arrowhead Stadium was all but overwhelming as over 73,000 frenzied fans shook the foundations of that venerable venue, only to see their beloved home team immediately fall apart.
Dropped passes, special team’s mistakes, dropped coverages – for 19 minutes the Divisional Round game between the Chiefs and the Texans was a home town nightmare. With 10:58 left in the second quarter, Houston kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn added the field goal that made the score an impossible 24-0. In the now elongated history of post-season disappointment in KC, the 2019 Chiefs were about to set a new low.
Or so it seemed.
Back on their heels, and making a season’s worth of mental mistakes in just one quarter, the Kansas City Chiefs needed just one thing to go right for them to get them going again. That thing turned out to be kick-returner Mecole Hardman, who returned the ensuing kick-off 58 yards to the Houston 42. Mahomes and the offense took it from there.
From that point, Patrick proceeded to complete 8 of his next 12 passes for 100 yards and 4 touchdowns (while scrambling twice for 35 yards) to lead KC all the way back to a 28-24 lead.
And that was just the rest of the second quarter.
The second half was an offensive showcase. Kansas City only ran 29 offensive plays in that half, but averaged 9.0 yards per play. Mahomes completed 11 of his 13 passes (84.6%) for 178 yards and another touchdown – an average of 13.69 yards per pass and 16.18 yards per completion. They also added a couple of rushing touchdowns – finishing with seven touchdowns – all from the red zone where they were 7 for 8 (6-6 In goal to go situations) on their way to a remarkable 51-31 win (gamebook) (summary).
As impressive as the comeback was, the general composure of the Chiefs was just as impressive. Even as his season seemed to be self-destructing in front of him, Coach Andy Reid showed no outer signs of concern – and his calmness spread to his team. As to Mahomes, I can’t imagine that he ever trailed 24-0 in any situation ever. But the young man was absolutely undisturbed by the circumstances. In the two-play touchdown drive that followed the kick return, Patrick stood calmly in the pocket and delivered two perfect touch passes to get the Chiefs into the end zone for the first time.
The Kansas City Chiefs have a confidence level that matches their talent level – a truly scary combination.
But this still leaves us the mystery of the Texans.
The seasons of playoff teams usually follow a couple of familiar patterns. Some teams hit the ground running and never look back. Baltimore had this kind of season – mostly. They did drop a couple of games early, but they were mostly an elite team from the time they pushed Miami around on opening day.
Others start a little slowly, and find themselves along the way – Tennessee and Philadelphia had that kind of seasons. Others start off hot and fade at the end – like New England. And there are some that start hot, stumble a bit in the middle, but then get it all back together for the stretch run. Kansas City fit that pattern. But early or late, most of these teams have at least one sustained stretch of the season where they played playoff caliber football. Among all the teams in this year’s playoff field, every single one of them had at least one three-game winning streak.
Every single one of them except the Houston Texans.
Season in Retrospect
The Texans had some terrific moments this year. They blew out the Atlanta Falcons, and went into Kansas City in Week Six and won there. They beat the Patriots in one of those tight, one-score games that the Patriots almost always win; they went into Tennessee and beat the Titans in a three-point game; and came from 16 points down to win their Wildcard Game.
But half of their 6 regular season losses were to sub-.500 teams, including a 38-24 loss to Denver the week after their victory over the Patriots.
Their bi-polar nature was never more on display than in the playoffs. Playing at home against Buffalo in WildCard week, the Bills came into their house and pushed them around for 39 minutes. With just over 6 minutes left in the third quarter, Houston trailed 16-0.
From that point till about the 11 minute mark of the second quarter in Kansas City, Houston tore through the Bills and Chiefs by a combined 46-3. They were then outscored 51-7 from that point to the end of the game.
It’s hard to look at this and say exactly what the issue is. Always with Houston, you get the feeling that this is a team that should have a better record than it does.
There will be plenty for them to ponder during the offseason.