I promise you that there is no truth to the rumors that Frank Reich and the Indianapolis Colts are petitioning the Supreme Court to overturn the results of their WildCard playoff game against the Buffalo Bills. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised, though, to find out that there are many members of that team and organization who are still having a hard time believing that they didn’t win that game. By a lot.
Significant underdogs entering the contest (the final Vegas line had them as 7 point dogs), the Colts played as near-perfect a first half as humanly imaginable. Controlling the clock for 19:41 of the half, Indy ran a beautifully balanced attack (19 runs, 19 passes). They allowed no sacks, committed no turnovers, and held football’s best third-down offense to 0-for-4 on that down. Now, with two minutes left in the half, holding a 10-7 lead, the Colts sat on Buffalo’s one-yard line facing a third and goal.
To that point in the game, Indy had out first-downed Buffalo 13-5, and outgained them 226-to-108. The next two minutes would arguably be the most excruciating of the Indianapolis season.
It began with allowing the goal-to-go situation to slip through their fingers. Jonathan Taylor lost three yards on a pitch to the left. Now, it was fourth-and-four. In retrospect, the field goal here would have made all the difference. But, understanding that kicking field goals would probably not be sufficient to beat a team as explosive as Buffalo – and not knowing how many more chances they might get to put their collective foot on Buffalo’s neck – they went for it – with Philip Rivers’ pass for Michael Pittman falling incomplete.
There was still 1:46 left in the half, and the Colts had all of their time outs – so they had every expectation of getting the ball back with good field position before half-time. But the nightmare wasn’t over yet.
Instead of going conservative – backed up as they were against their own goal line – Buffalo’s offense came out going deep. After quarterback Josh Allen missed on a deep pass over the middle on first down, he came back and fired a second deep ball on second down. Thirty-seven yards downfield, receiver Gabriel Davis caught the ball along the right sideline as he went out of bounds.
Ruled a catch on the field, the play went to a booth review. Clearly Gabriel dragged the left toe. The question was the right. Did it come down on the line? After a long review, they couldn’t tell for sure, so the play stood. Honestly, I thought I might have seen the narrowest band of green in between his toe and the line, but it wasn’t at all clear. Davis was given the catch, and now – with still 1:33 left in the half – Buffalo was almost to mid-field.
And then, two plays later, it all happened again. The identical situation, with just two minor changes. The pass was shorter this time (only 19 yards) and it went to the left sideline. But, again, it was Davis grabbing the pass as he stepped out of bound. Again, the officials called it a catch. Again, by the thinnest of margins, there wasn’t enough evidence to overturn.
If either of those calls had been ruled incomplete, they couldn’t have been reversed. If either of those calls had been reversed, it’s probable that Indy would have won.
Nonetheless, the Buffalo drive continued. The Bills sat on the Colts’ 33 with still 59 seconds left.
Twenty-two seconds later, it was fourth-and-three. A stop here would have forced a field goal that still could have won the game for Indy. But, on a hard count at the line, defensive lineman Kemoko Turay jumped, and Buffalo was gifted a first-down on the Colt 21.
On the very next play, Allen took a shot for John Brown up the right sideline where he was working against a back-up cornerback named Isaiah Rodgers. Isaiah – going full horizontal in the end zone – intercepted the pass, ending the Buffalo drive and sending the Colts into the locker room at the half with their 10-7 lead still intact.
Except that Isaiah didn’t quite intercept it. With his hands still trying to settle around the football, Rodgers hit the ground in the end zone. As he did, the ball bounced ever so briefly off the ground and out of his control. On review, the interception was overturned.
Two Josh Allen runs later, and Buffalo was in the end zone, taking back the lead that they wouldn’t relinquish again – on their way, now, to the 27-24 victory (gamebook) (summary) that sent Indianapolis home for the offseason and sets the Bills up for a Divisional Round matchup against Baltimore.
For the afternoon, Indianapolis ended all 9 of their possessions in Buffalo territory – ending up with 472 yards of total offense. But all they had to show for those drives were three touchdowns, 1 field goal, two punts, two failed fourth downs, and one makeable 33-yard field goal attempt that bounced off of both posts before falling, unsuccessfully, to the turf. Meanwhile, Buffalo’s final points on the night came on a 54-yard field goal off the toe of Tyler Bass.
If any one of those incidents had gone the other way, it might very well be Buffalo waiting until next year. You get the feeling sometimes that some things are just not meant to be.
Finding Out About the Bills
Like many other fans, I expected this victory to be much easier for Buffalo. That this game was a down-to-the-wire struggle (and the game ended with Rivers throwing a Hail Mary into the end zone from the Buffalo 47) showed me the things I’ve been waiting to find out about this Buffalo team. The Bills rode into the playoffs on the strength of a six-game winning streak cobbled together largely against poor teams. The two winning teams that were a part of that streak (Pittsburgh and Miami) were fading at the time Buffalo played them. Regardless of the opposition, none of their final six games ended closer than ten points.
What would happen – I wondered – when they ran into that opponent that would force them to fight through the whole sixty minutes. That opponent was the Colts. While it was important to see this team answer every challenge handed to them by this very good Indianapolis team, it was more important for me to see how they did that.
The Josh Allen Experience Rolls On
You may have noticed that I don’t jump quickly on the bandwagon of every promising young quarterback who has a good couple of games. The playoffs are my litmus test. Can he stand in the pocket and deliver against a top opponent with the season on the line. Saturday afternoon, Josh checked all of the boxes – and not just with his arm.
Josh Allen – the runner – had been dialed back in recent weeks. He ran 11 times against the Jets in Week Seven, and then 10 more times the next week against New England. In the first game after the bye against the Chargers, Josh toted the ball 9 more times. But over the last five games of the season, his legs became more and more an afterthought. In their Week 17 win over Miami, Josh ran just twice for 3 yards.
But Josh, the runner, was on full display against the Colts. He ran 11 times (8 intentionally). The rest of the team carried the ball just 10 times. He gained 54 yards on those rushes – with the rest of the team running for just 42 yards. Not numbers that would necessarily impress Lamar Jackson, but an added element that I think caught the Colts by surprise, and could provide more worries for defensive coordinators down the line.
But mostly Josh threw the ball. Thirty-five times he hurled it – sometimes under pressure, sometimes not. He finished with 26 completions for 324 yards and 2 touchdowns. He was particularly effective in the important second half of the game, when he completed 78.9% of his passes (15 for 19) for 186 yards. And he delivered the deep ball, looking even better throwing deep in the playoffs than he looked during the season. He was 10 of 16 for 223 yards and a touchdown on throws more than ten yards from scrimmage (a 127.1 rating), including going 4 for 5 for 129 yards and a touchdown on his throws of more than twenty yards.
Throughout the game, Josh threw the ball like a quarterback who expected to have success – who expected to win. To those of us whose resident image of the Josh Allen Bills was their melt-down in last year’s playoffs and their loss earlier this season to Arizona, this was an important re-set.
Done In By Their Own Mistakes
For the second consecutive week, the Chicago Bears lost a game that was closer than the score indicated. Their Week 17 contest against the Packers (that ended up 35-16) was a 21-16 game until less than four minutes remained. As participants in Super Wildcard Weekend, the Bears went into the half trailing just 7-3 against 11-point favorite New Orleans. Again, the game got away from them, the Saints eventually claiming a 21-9 victory (gamebook) (summary).
Regardless of the final score, Chicago had its window of opportunity. While New Orleans finally had all of their major players (Drew Brees, Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas) healthy and on the same field at the same time, their practice time together had been limited – and it showed throughout the entire first half. While the offense sputtered through that first thirty minutes, the Saints’ defense also began the game just slightly back on its heels.
For thirty minutes on Sunday afternoon, this was a very vulnerable team.
But, when you are an underdog team playing one of the NFL’s elite teams, there are plays you just have to make. When the opportunities present themselves, you have to take advantage. Over a 9:35 span of that first half, the Bears had three opportunities slip through their fingers – golden invitations to re-write the narrative of the game that they and their fans will be lamenting over the long offseason ahead of them.
With 3:58 left in the first quarter, quarterback Mitchell Trubisky rifled a 28-yard pass to receiver Javon Wims. The Bears were now set up on the New Orleans’ forty. At this point, with 3:42 left, coach Matt Nagy dialed up the flea flicker. Mitch shifted out of his quarterback position to line up as the outside receiver on the right side, with running back David Montgomery assuming his position behind center and taking the direct snap. Montgomery handed the ball to Cordarrelle Patterson, who looked like he was going to run a sweep to the right. But before he reached the corner, he lateralled the ball back to Trubisky.
Dazzled by the eye-candy, New Orleans had dropped coverage. Wide open in the end zone was Wims, and Trubisky’s pass was deadly accurate, dropping right down into – and completely through – Wims’ hands.
Like a punch to the stomach, you could feel the air come out of the Chicago sideline.
Three plays later, the Bears came up short on a fourth-down scramble by Trubisky, and the Saints took over on their own 32.
As the second quarter opened, New Orleans had progressed up to the Chicago 41. But here cornerback Duke Shelley made a huge interception of a deflected pass. Almost. As with the interception that wasn’t for Indianapolis, before Shelley could secure the pass, the tip brushed off the turf. On review, the play was changed to incomplete.
With 11:38 left in the half, the Bears recovered a New Orleans fumble on the Saint 24. It was 7-0 New Orleans at the time. Presented with a final golden opportunity in the half, Chicago moved to a second-and-six at the 10-yard line. But, after a one-yard pass to tight end Cole Kmet, Saint defensive back Malcolm Jenkins left Kmet with a quick opinion, before turning and heading back to the huddle.
If Kmet had just let him walk away, the Bears would have had third-and-five at the nine-yard line. But Cole, with the ball still in his hands, followed after Jenkins, offering a few opinions of his own – a move which drew the attention of line judge Greg Bradley and field judge Nathan Jones, who tried to push them apart – with Kmet vocalizing all this time. With his piece finally said, Cole flipped the ball – somewhat disdainfully to Jones who was standing behind Bradley. No angle of the play shows who actually threw the flag, but it almost must have been Bradley – who couldn’t have seen that the flip was to Jones and who must have assumed he was flipping it in the direction of Jenkins – an assumption made all the easier by the manner in which Kmet flipped the ball.
The flag came out, and now Chicago had a third-and-20. They settled for a field goal on the drive. On the first Chicago possession on the third quarter, another squabble ended with receiver Anthony Miller punching defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson. He was summarily ejected, thus depriving Chicago of yet another weapon.
Don’t get me wrong. The penalty against Kmet was bad officiating. The officials should have conferred and picked up the flag – and in this situation, it was inexcusable of them that they didn’t. But still if Cole hadn’t escalated the situation by following after Jenkins and jawing at him, the entire thing could have been avoided. The same could be said for Miller’s disqualification.
To take advantage of a team like the Saints at their vulnerable moments, teams like the Bears need to keep their composure.
Is Trubisky a Franchise Quarterback?
Throughout all of this meltdown, there was Trubisky. His only contribution to this fiasco was to throw a perfect pass into Wims’ arms. Throughout this game – as he did in the Green Bay game – Mitch played pretty well. He didn’t turn the ball over and completed 65.5% of his passes against one of football’s best pass defenses. In watching both games, it’s hard to say that the problem was the quarterback. At the very least, I would say that Trubisky – the Mitch Trubisky that we saw coming down the stretch – isn’t a quarterback who will hold your team back.
That, of course, isn’t the question that Chicago needs to have answered. They need to know if Mitch is THAT guy – the one who can put the team on his shoulders and carry them into the promised land.
There is still a thing I need to see from Mitch – something that’s almost a little unfair to ask of him. The elite guys have an ability to raise the level of play of everyone on the field with them. There’s a confidence and a command that exudes from a Tom Brady or a Drew Brees that I haven’t yet seen from Mitch. I’m not necessarily suggesting that if Brady had thrown the same pass that Wims would have caught it for him – and yet, that’s exactly the kind of thing that happens for Tom and Drew and all of the other top quarterbacks. Unfair? Yes, it is a little. But it’s real.
At the same time, I don’t know that even Tom Brady could pull out a win when the other team controls the ball for 21 and a half minutes of the second half.
On the broadcast, Tony Romo suggested that you change quarterbacks when you have someone better. At this point, Chicago doesn’t have anyone better. My suggestion to the Bears’ organization (and fans) would be to build up the team around Mitch, and then see what he looks like.
Getting Back in Sync
Coming off a shaky first half, the Saints advanced in the playoffs and re-discovered their rhythm by turning back to the run game to augment their horizontal passing attack. Twenty-two of their final 38 plays were runs, with Kamara getting 15 of them. Alvin finished the day with 99 rushing yards (and a touchdown) on 23 carries. Brees, meanwhile, completed 14 of 16 second-half passes (87.5%) for 145 yards and a second touchdown.
For the game, 28 of Drew’s 36 actual passes (minus 3 throw-aways) were at targets less than ten yards from scrimmage. He completed 25 of those (89.3%) for 193 yards and 2 touchdowns (a 119.2 rating on those throws). This included 6 of 7 screen passes for 31 yards and a touchdown, as New Orleans remains one of the most dangerous screen teams remaining in the playoffs.
None of this was terribly splashy. Drew completed just one downfield pass the whole game (a 38-yard strike to Thomas up the left sideline). But an effective running game setting up a proficient short passing attack can have a devastating effect.
The Saints only had three second half possessions – each running at least 11 plays, each driving at least 64 yards, and each draining at least 5:11 off the clock. The Saints converted 6 of 8 third downs during the half, and sustained one of those drives by getting Chicago to jump off-sides on fourth-and-three (another damaging lack of discipline from the Bears).
The first two possessions ended in touchdowns, and the last ended with Brees trying to leap over the goal line from the one-yard line on fourth down. Originally credited with a touchdown, the call was reversed and the Bears were given the football on about their one-inch line, down 21-3 with 2:19 remaining in their season.
At that point – for the game – Chicago had run just 38 plays, gained 140 total yards, earned a total of 6 first downs, and had 19 minutes and 43 seconds of possession. The Bears finished up the game salvaging a little pride. They used the last 139 seconds of their season to drive those 99 yards on 11 plays, the last 19 of those yards on a final touchdown pass to former Saint Jimmy Graham – who sprinted off the field and up the tunnel immediately after the catch.
For the Bears, that drive will be the starting point of an important offseason. The Saints will use that dominating second half as a springboard into the Divisional Round, where they will renew acquaintances with an old friend from their division.
Careful What You Ask For
As he sprinted off the field on the heels of his team’s division clinching win over Philadelphia, Washington’s loquacious rookie defensive end Chase Young was heard to chant “I want Tom, I want Tom.” The reference, of course, was to Tampa Bay quarterback Tom Brady – Washington’s opponent in the WildCard Round. The old saying is “be careful what you ask for, you just might get it.”
After Tom and his Buccaneer teammates opened up on Young and his young Washington defense to the tune of 507 yards and 31 points, you would think Chase has seen enough of the legendary Mr. Brady – at least for a while. As for Chase himself, he finally did get to Tom. But it was only to chat him up after the game. Coming off an encouraging rookie season that saw him finish second on the team in sacks and tackles-for-loss, and third in quarterback hits, Chase rarely put himself in shouting distance of the Tampa Bay quarterback during the actual game.
Except for their opponent’s continued dominance in the red zone – Washington ranked fourth in red zone defense this year, and limited the Bucs to just 1 touchdown in 5 red zone visits – the Tampa Bay offense and its veteran quarterback was generally unhindered by Washington’s second-ranked defensive unit.
As for Tom, he looked as proficient as ever. Running the extreme downfield passing attack that coach Bruce Arians loves, Tom completed only 22 of his 40 passes (just 55%), but for 381 yards and 2 touchdowns – a stunning 17.32 yards per completion (the NFL average is just 11.1 yards). During the regular season, Tom’s average target was 9.3 yards from the line-of-scrimmage – the highest average of any passer with at least 150 attempts. Against Washington, he upped that to an average of 11.3 yards downfield (these numbers, by the way, are taken from the Next Gen Stats page), as 23 of Brady’s 38 actual passes (again, discounting throw-aways) went more than 10 yards from scrimmage – an uncommonly high 60.5%. He completed 13 of those throws for 280 yards and 2 touchdowns (a 128.9 rating on those throws). This number includes 4 for 7 on throws of more than 20 yards, for 118 yards and both of his touchdowns (these numbers are also from Next Gen).
One of the running narratives of the 2020 season was the sometimes uneasy marriage of Brady and Arians. Bruce had more than one uncomplimentary thing to say to the media about his quarterbacks’ early struggles. But now, Brady heads into New Orleans on his best roll of the season. His 104.3 passer rating against Washington marks his fifth consecutive game over 100 in that category. This is the only time he’s done that this season, and not un-coincidentally Tampa Bay has put together its only five-game winning streak of the season.
It all begs the question, what changed? Was football’s most decorated quarterback holding this team back because of his repeated screw-ups? Has Tom finally figured out what he was doing wrong?
The truth is it was never really about Tom. He had a minor learning curve as he transitioned into a new philosophy without benefit of a training camp, but as I pointed out after their last loss to New Orleans, the major issues were the issues endemic to the system itself. What has changed is that Bruce has shored up the two major areas I identified after Week Nine.
In the last New Orleans game (a 38-3 loss in which Brady threw for 209 yards and 3 interceptions with no touchdowns), Tom was hit constantly. This was fairly common in the early going. Tom was under near-constant pressure. The old man (yes, he’s 43) still moves around in the pocket pretty well, but he doesn’t have the escapability of some of the younger dual-threat quarterbacks. If you want Brady to throw downfield, then he has to be protected.
Washington sacked him three times Saturday night, but pressured him very little otherwise. Even though Washington ramped up their blitzing as the game went on (sending extra rushers Tom’s way on 41.9% of his drop-backs) the protection schemes were more than up to the challenge.
But this came after an adjustment. Bruce kept lots of would-be receivers in the backfield, frequently running six- and seven-man protections – leaving just two or three receivers running routes. Rob Gronkowski – for example – coming off a 45 catch season, had only one pass thrown in his direction as his function on Saturday was primarily as a blocker (very often on Chase Young).
Whether or not this irked Bruce – losing receivers downfield – I can’t say. But that extra time was a major difference in the efficiency of the offense. As was the second major adjustment.
Oh Look, It’s the Tampa Bay Running Game
After the first half ended, I made the following entry in my notebook, “Surprising run commitment.” Tampa Bay had run the ball 14 times. Before the half. In their last game against the Saints, Tampa Bay ran the ball only 5 times the entire game (an all-time low). That was one of four separate games in which the Bucs failed to make it to 20 rushes, and they finished twenty-ninth in rush attempts for the season with 369. The only NFL teams to run less frequently were Detroit, Texas and Jacksonville – teams that spent almost the entire season trailing.
The running game was another factor that I pointed to after the last New Orleans game. On Saturday, out of nowhere, the Bucs started handing the ball off. Leonard Fournette was awarded a season-high 19 carries (which he turned into 93 yards and a touchdown) as the foundation of a 29-carry, 142-yard ground attack that exploited a slight weakness in the Football Team’s defense (they were thirteenth against the run this year) and further slowed the Washington pass rush. Additionally, the healthy running attack kept Washington out of any exotic formations and coverages.
When a team is running the ball against you, you have to stay fairly basic in your personnel and schemes. Few things open up a passing game as effectively as a strong running attack.
In all, it was the biggest rushing game from Tampa Bay since they trampled Carolina in Week Ten. In that game, the Bucs hit season highs in rushes (37) and rushing yards (210). That was the game that Ronald Jones ripped off a 98-yard touchdown run.
This is the thing about Tampa. Every so often, they embrace their running game – almost always to good effect. But the commitment is fleeting. The very next week, they ran only 18 times (for 42 yards) in a 27-24 loss to the Rams. As much as any team in the league, the Buccaneers stand ready to abandon their running game on any pretext. Even in this game, as soon as Washington closed to 18-16 late in the third, Bruce went straight to the air. Brady threw (or attempted to throw) on 7 of the 8 plays the next drive lasted. The drive – which answered the Washington touchdown with a field goal – removed only 1:28 off the game clock before the ball was back in the hands of the Washington offense.
In a lot of ways, Arians reminds me of Mike Martz. Mike – as some of you older St Louisans will recall – was Dick Vermeil’s offensive coordinator when he led the Ram franchise to its only Super Bowl win following the 1999 season. Martz was then elevated to head coach after Vermeil retired. This was the era when the Rams were known as The Greatest Show on Turf.
These teams had Marshall Faulk and a top offensive line. They could easily have been a dominant running team in the mold of the Cowboys of the 1990s. But Martz was overly fond of his passing attack, and would go for long stretches of a game absolutely forgetting that he had a running game. Toward the end of his five-year run, the Rams would see all kinds of bizarre defenses, linebackers lining up everywhere and blitzing from all angles, safeties littering all levels of the defense – the Ram wide receivers got to the point where they would hit the ground as soon as they caught the pass because there was always a safety behind them ready to run through their backs.
Though this was as deep and as diverse a collection of offensive talent as you are ever likely to find on one team, the offense began to struggle to put points on the board because they made themselves one-dimensional. Arians does this from time to time to his team.
The Tampa Bay offense that ran through the Washington team is a formidable group whose threat is magnified when they stay balanced and when they protect their passer.
Looking Forward to the Saints
This approach won’t be so easy to pull off against the Saints. New Orleans features the fourth-ranked run defense, and could very well encourage Bruce to abandon the run early. The Saints also feature a fine pass rush, but their secondary is much better than Washington’s and their defensive backs are much more comfortable in man coverage – which could make three-man routes problematical if the Bucs continue to keep six or seven in to pass protect.
Still, the Bucs look like they have figured some things out and now present as a much more potent foe than the last time they faced the Saints.
On offense, anyway. Defensively, the Bucs are still trying to solve their season-long issues with the passing game.
The sensation of WildCard Weekend was a previously unheard of backup quarterback named Taylor Heinicke. With Washington’s starting quarterback – Alex Smith – unable to go, Taylor would make the second start of his career, and his first since 2018. He had thrown 77 passes in his entire career prior to lacing it up against Tampa Bay. His career passer rating was a modest 71.7.
And yet, for 60 minutes Saturday night, Taylor gave the Tampa Bay defense all they could handle. Running for 46 yards and a touchdown, Taylor also threw for 306 yards and another touchdown. His success in throwing the ball down the field was almost Brady-like.
On throws to targets more than ten yards away, Heinicke was 12 of 19 for 224 yards and a touchdown – a 121.4 passer rating. These included 3-of-5 on passes over twenty yards from scrimmage, good for 88 yards.
Taylor – who carried Washington to the Tampa Bay 49-yard-line with 2:22 left in the game before suffering the sack that ended the comeback – well deserved all the attention that surrounded him in the aftermath of his team’s narrow 31-23 loss (gamebook) (summary).
For the Bucs defense, though, it was the same conundrum that the better passing attacks have been taking advantage of all year. Tampa can’t get a pass rush unless they blitz, but blitzing compromises their coverage. They have also struggled in zone coverage all year, whether they run it behind a blitz or not.
The Saints will present a handful of difficult man-to-man matchups – Kamara, Thomas, Cook, Emmanuel Sanders – but I expect that this is how Tampa Bay will approach this contest. They will come after Brees and hope the coverage can hold up. Blitzing Drew is always a dangerous proposition, but this much is assured. If they sit back in their leaky zone coverages, they will get picked apart.
In both of the previous two matchups, New Orleans ran the ball a lot. They ran even though they didn’t have much success on the ground – and nobody runs with much success against Tampa Bay, possessors of the league’s top run defense. But New Orleans persisted. Thirty-four rushes (for just 82 yards) in the first game and 37 more (for 138 yards) in the re-match. This is something that they’ve understood all along. The running game allows the offensive line to do their share of the hitting. It lets them work over the defensive line, removing a great deal of spring from the pass rush.
My expectation is that this will continue. New Orleans will force Tampa Bay to defend the running game for the whole sixty minutes and take their chances with a lot of third-and-manageable situations.
I’m still of the opinion that New Orleans is the better team. But Tampa Bay has improved since the last meeting. And it’s always difficult to beat the same team three times in one season.
Difficult, but not impossible.