The longer the Raven defense held Buffalo close, the more imminent their victory seemed.
Throughout the first half, Baltimore’s top-ranked running attack seemed one fingernail away from cracking the big run that would break the game open. They finished the half with 77 rushing yards, averaging 4.3 per running attempt. But no touchdowns, as the first half ended in a 3-3 tie.
Now, in the second half, Baltimore seemed poised to break through. Beginning at their own 25-yard line, Baltimore would drive to the Buffalo 9-yard line in 14 grinding plays – 7 runs (for 31 yards) and 7 passes (5 of 6 completed for 39 yards and a 4-yard sack).
Now there were only 58 seconds left in the quarter. Baltimore, facing third-and-goal, was one play away from tying this game up. Quarterback Lamar Jackson followed tight end Mark Andrews with his eyes as Mark settled into a void in Buffalo’s zone defense about three-yards deep into the end zone. Jackson’s subsequent throw would result in his only touchdown pass of the game.
Unfortunately for him, it wouldn’t be to Andrews – or any other Raven player.
Running Teams Begone
The Divisional Round in the AFC found two of football’s top three running games still in the hunt for the title. The Ravens – playing in Buffalo on Saturday night – had averaged an astonishing 191.9 rushing yards a game through the regular season. Their 555 rushing attempts, and their 5.5 yards per rush were also easily the best marks in football. Their 24 rushing touchdowns ranked third.
Sunday would see the defending champs in Kansas City host the surprising Cleveland Browns. Now 12-5 after holding off Pittsburgh in the WildCard Round, Cleveland carried the third most potent running attack – averaging 148.4 yards per game. They ranked fourth in attempts (495) and fifth in both yards per rush (4.8) and rushing touchdowns (21). Both played their final games of the season over the weekend, with both teams scoring fewer than 20 points. Baltimore fell to Buffalo, 17-3 (gamebook) (summary), while the Chiefs took down the Browns 22-17 (gamebook) (summary). Each journey to that result, though, was quite different.
Ravens Done In By an Old Weakness
As I speculated about this game last week, I pointed out that Baltimore wasn’t a long drive team. They were a big-play running team, every bit as dependent on the big play as Tampa Bay. Against Buffalo, Baltimore racked up 150 rushing yards – but none of their individual runs struck for more than 19 yards.
As this team still struggles to throw the ball with much effectiveness against the better teams, the more Buffalo forced them to put drives together, the more opportunity it presented for them to take advantage of the inefficiencies in the Baltimore passing attack – an incompletion, a holding penalty, a sack – an interception.
In the pivotal moment of this game, it was that interception that told the tale.
Aware that Jackson had locked onto Andrews, cornerback Taron Johnson dropped his zone a little deeper and edged toward the middle. His interception and subsequent 101-yard return broke the Ravens’ back, sending them home for the offseason, and sending the Bills into Kansas City with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.
Lamar’s final passing line of 14 for 24 for 162 yards and the interception pans out to a 61.5 passer rating. The rating system isn’t perfect, but that number fairly accurately describes Lamar’s afternoon. Jackson also found himself sacked three times, as Buffalo decided to pressure him. As opposed to Tennessee in the WildCard round – who sent extra rushers after Jackson just 4 times in the game – Buffalo blitzed him 13 times (a full 43.3% of his drop-backs).
This is still an effective approach as it forces Jackson to recognize protections and hot routes and forces him to speed up his process. Last Saturday, it was one final lapse in the passing that ended Baltimore’s season.
Valiant in Defeat
The loss is all the more bitter in light of another marvelous performance by Wink Martindale’s defense. One week after muffling Derrick Henry and Tennessee’s running attack (the Titans were second in the NFL, by the way, at 168.1 rushing yards per game), the Raven defense – with a bit of an assist from the gusting winds – mostly dismantled Josh Allen and his third-ranked passing game.
Josh threw only one touchdown pass of his own, was limited to 206 yards and an 86.1 rating. During the season, Allen ranked fourth in passer rating at 107.2. He averaged just 8.96 yards per completion Saturday night, as Baltimore mostly inhaled his deep passing game. Josh completed just 1 of his 6 passes of more than 20 yards.
Football’s finest receiver (as far as yards and catches go) was still unstoppable. Stefon Diggs finished with 106 yards on 8 catches. But Baltimore shut out two of Buffalo’s more important secondary receivers. Cole Beasley and Gabriel Davis had no catches on a combined 6 targets – Davis drawing especially close coverage. On the average throw in his direction, Gabriel had a defender 0.8 yards away.
The second-ranked offense by yards, Buffalo managed just 220 yards against Baltimore, scoring just ten points on offense (remember, the other 7 came courtesy of the Bills’ defense). It was a superior performance, more than worthy of sending the Ravens into the Conference Championship Game.
That will have to be comfort enough for Raven fans between now and next September.
Not the Same Old Browns, But Still . . .
The story in Arrowhead was quite different. Armed with a potent running attack against a team that has shown some weakness in stopping the run, Cleveland decided not to deploy it. Straggling into the locker room at the half, the Browns had run the ball just 6 times for 18 yards. Not coincidentally, Kansas City (which had run the ball 12 times for 60 yards) held a 17:43-12:17 time of possession advantage and a 19-3 lead. Former Chief Kareem Hunt, who had rushed for 841 yards and caught 38 passes for Cleveland this year, had no touches in the half.
The Browns forged their way back into the contest in the second half, on the strength mostly, of that running game.
Neglected for thirty minutes, Cleveland punched through the KC defense to the tune of 94 second-half rushing yards at a clip of 5.9 yards per carry. Had they started the game that way, the story might have been different. As it was, Cleveland began the second half in catch-up mode, and the passing game wasn’t up to the challenge.
Against the 94 rushing yards, Baker Mayfield threw for only 70 yards in the second half – averaging just 3.5 yards per attempted pass and 5.83 yards per completed pass – some of that influenced by a KC game-plan that blitzed Baker on 52.6% of his drop-backs.
As Cleveland’s season ends, and as KC prepares to meet Buffalo, it’s fair to remember how far the Browns have come this year. Just 6-10 last year, Cleveland is only three years removed from the team that was 0-16 in 2017. Whether or not they have actually turned a corner is a question that will have to wait for next year. They still lost both games to Baltimore this year, and the first game to Pittsburgh. That they beat the Steelers in the season’s final game is more attributable to Pittsburgh resting its starters. Their conquest of the Steelers in the WildCard round still feels more like a Pittsburgh meltdown than anything that Cleveland did – remember, that game began with the snap sailing over Ben Roethlisberger’s head and things went south from there.
Still, this Cleveland team nearly came all the way back against Kansas City after trailing by 16 points. But for a heart-breaking fumble through the end zone that eliminated a golden first half scoring opportunity, Cleveland might well be preparing for Buffalo. This Cleveland franchise will be one to keep an eye on next year.
Of Huntley and Henne
Adding to the intrigue of the Divisional Round games – and possibly to the Championship Game – both Baltimore and Kansas City finished the game (and not by choice) with their backup quarterbacks on the field as both of the league’s last two MVP quarterbacks went out of the game with concussions.
In Buffalo, on the drive that followed the pick six, Jackson had a second-down snap sail over his head. Lamar chased it down and managed to heave it out of bounds before he was tumbled by Tremaine Edmunds and Trent Murphy. He landed on his back in the end zone – bouncing his head off the turf. It was his last play of the season.
Into the breach came Tyler Huntley – a rookie out of Utah who had thrown 5 passes during the regular season. Tyler was Baltimore’s third back-up quarterback of the year after various difficulties befell Robert Griffin III and Trace McSorley.
Tyler wasn’t terrible. He completed 6 of 13 for 60 yards and ran for another 32. On Baltimore’s last possession of the season, Tyler drove the team to the Buffalo ten-yard line, where his fourth-down-pass was deflected away by Edmunds.
Honestly, at that point, the absence of Jackson wasn’t much of an issue. Lamar has never brought a team back from a 14-point deficit, and it’s most unlikely that this would have been the night. In this game, Jackson’s absence was mostly a footnote. That wasn’t the case in Kansas City.
About half-way through the third quarter, KC quarterback Patrick Mahomes tried to skirt right end to convert a third-and-one. He couldn’t get around Mack Wilson, and then struggled to get up after the hit.
And suddenly, the season rested on the shoulders of back-up Chad Henne.
From the hoopla that surrounded the event, one would think that no back-up quarterback in NFL history had ever made a play in a game. In truth, Chad’s situation wasn’t nearly as dire as the 35-3 deficit that Frank Reich inherited against Houston all those years ago. Still, there were plays that needed to be made, and Chad made them.
He entered a 19-10 game (KC in front), facing a fourth-and-one. He would finish this drive and have two more of his own in the fourth quarter. In this drive, he was on his 48-yard line, still needing quite a few yards to get into field goal range. This is a drive I will get back to.
On his subsequent possession, Chad threw an interception into the end zone to open the door a crack. The Chief defense quieted the uprising, forcing a punt that gave the ball back to Henne with 4:09 left in someone’s season – Kansas City clinging to a 22-17 lead.
Here, Chad’s job was to run out the clock. More than anything else, KC didn’t want to give the ball back to the Browns. It was during this drive that the legend of Chad Henne was born.
On third-and-four with 3:21 left, Chad completed a five-yard pass to Darrel Williams (whose contributions to this game would equal those of Henne). Then, on the final play before the two-minute warning, Chad suffered a sack at the hands of Myles Garrett.
Now, it was third-and-fourteen with KC still pretty deep in their own territory (their own 35). Without a huge play here, Cleveland would be getting the ball back with around a minute left to do something with. With his receivers covered and the pocket collapsing, Chad Henne pulled the ball down and darted up the left sideline. As he approached the first-down marker – and with M.J. Stewart closing in – Chad hurled himself, head-first, toward that precious first-down line.
As he slid across that line, the KC sideline (and the fans in the stadium) erupted. The moment was so galvanizing that it didn’t even matter that the officials marked the ball just short – bringing up fourth-and-inches. At that point, it only served to add one more memory for Chad – a five-yard, fourth-down completion to Tyreek Hill in the right flat that put a bow on things.
That Final Field Goal
The Chad Henne moment was – without a doubt – the most romantic moment of this round. He could be even more important in the Championship Game, depending on how things develop with Mahomes – who is in concussion protocol.
But, I keep coming back to that moment when Chad first came into the game – with a fairly critical first down to get.
Talking to the press after the game, coach Andy Reid made a point of the fact that the loss of Mahomes didn’t weaken the knees of his football team at all. That was evidenced on the fourth-and-one play, when Williams burst around left end for 12 yards to earn the first down with authority. He shot around the right end for 16 more on the next play (dragging Browns as he went), to pull the ball down to the Cleveland 24.
Four plays later, Harrison Butker kicked the 33-yard field goal that gave them an important buffer.
Williams – who finished with 78 rushing yards and 16 more on pass receptions – spent much of the season – like Henne – deep on the depth chart. His opportunity in this game came because of the injury to number-one back Clyde Edwards-Helaire. During the season, he had only 39 carries.
Sung and Unsung
Kansas City has now won 23 of Patrick Mahomes’ last 24 starts. So much of the attention during this run has gone to the marquee names – Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Chris Jones, etc. And justifiably so. These are franchise talents that have combined to vault this team into the elite circles of the NFL.
But just as critical are the contributions of many other players you don’t hear much about. Demarcus Robinson, Daniel Sorensen, Tanoh Kpassagnon – and now Darrel Williams and Chad Henne. These guys aren’t the most awe-inspiring talents to dot an NFL roster. But what they are is play-makers. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that Kansas City’s roster is deeper in guts than it is in raw talent, but the fact is that the deeper you grind into the playoffs the more important the guts of a team becomes.
There are now four teams left in the tournament. With most of them, I’m not at all sure how they will respond to the critical moments that will decide these last three games. But I know how Kansas City will respond. Someone on this roster will make a play. It might be a small play to keep a drive going, or pulling a receiver down a yard short of the first-down marker. It might be a play that the media won’t remember after the game.
But when the money is on the table, you can be sure that someone on this roster – starter or reserve – will make a play. Buffalo’s challenge is actually greater than It appears on paper.
But, if Patrick can’t go . . .
The NFL Profiles as a Touchdown Pass League
Four teams are left standing – in many ways, very disparate in their approaches to winning. It’s an interesting blend of strengths and weaknesses that will make, no doubt, for a lively finish.
These four teams do, though, have one commonality that binds them together. Their quarterbacks get the ball into the end zone.
Looking at the last four quarterbacks standing, we have Aaron Rodgers In Green Bay. His 48 touchdown passes led the league. He will be matched this weekend against Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady, who’s 40 touchdown passes ranked him second (tied with Seattle’s Russell Wilson). The AFC Championship Game will pit Number 4 (KC’s Pat Mahomes – assuming he’s available) against Number 5 (Josh Allen of Buffalo). Mahomes threw 38 in the regular season, and Allen tossed 37.
Whatever else you do in the NFL – whether you run and stop the run, throw high-percentage, low interception passes, or spend your games dialing up shot plays – the indispensable accessory your team must have if it’s going to make a deep playoff run is that quarterback who gets you into the end zone.
It’s the NFL’s gold standard in the early years of the new decade.