After a surprisingly one-sided Wild Card Weekend, we take a look at the key factors in each game.
Oakland Raiders 14 Houston Texans 27
Injuries killed the Raiders’ hopes, but not in the way that you might think. Whilst losing both Derek Carr and Matt McGloin was without doubt a hindrance, they could’ve won this game even with Connor Cook under center. The crucial loss, though, was left tackle Donald Penn, who was ruled out with a leg injury on the day before the game. That meant that Menelik Watson (the other Brit to make the playoffs, not that the media would let you know that anyone but Jay Ajayi had!) had to shift from right to left tackle, a move often described as having to learn to write with your ‘wrong’ hand. Having inexperienced players in both tackle positions up against two first round picks in Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus was just a recipe for carnage.
That wasn’t the end of it for the Raiders, though. Veteran center Rodney Hudson was an early departure with an ankle injury, effectively ending their plans to run the ball. Meanwhile, on defense, Super Bowl winners Malcolm Smith and Bruce Irvin also fell victim to the injury jinx, meaning that even Brock Osweiler, officially the Texans’ $37m backup quarterback, could pick apart the secondary.
Some boneheaded play calling didn’t help, either. It was clear that the Raiders didn’t trust Cook to make any deep throws, but even so some of the options that they left him with defied believe. Most egregious was the screen pass on the second play of their opening drive that Clowney almost intercepted. Running the same play again on the third play of the next drive fooled no-one, least of all Clowney, who pulled off a fine juggling interception.
Detroit Lions 6 Seattle Seahawks 26
Both teams wound the clocks back to 2013. This meant that Seattle became the power running offense with a smothering defense that took them to two Super Bowls. Unfortunately for Detroit, it meant that they went back to being, well, a bit rubbish.
We mentioned in our preview of this game that the Seahawks’ offensive line had been better this season than in several before, and so it proved as they opened up huge holes for Thomas Rawls to maraud through. Yes, they still gave up three sacks, but some intelligent play calling by the oft-maligned (at least by us) Darrell Bevell kept Russell Wilson relatively secure.
The big difference between the two sides, though, was in the performance of their receivers. Whilst Doug Baldwin was catching balls all over the field, including with the aid of his backside, and stealing touchdowns from his teammates, the Lions’ corps dropped half of the catchable balls sent their way by Matthew Stafford, whilst Anquan Boldin conceded two costly personal fouls in a performance which would’ve seen him benched by a stronger coaching staff. Detroit announced before the game that Jim Caldwell will return as head coach in 2017, but after this performance the Ford family will be wondering if that was such a smart move.
Miami Dolphins 12 Pittsburgh Steelers 30
Miami lost this game on defense, and quite comprehensively so. Despite the fact that they were playing a team whose offense is ‘only’ Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, they seemed unable to prevent either of them scoring at will. Bell rushed for 167 yards (most of them in the first half) and two touchdowns. Brown also had a hundred yard game and two scores. By contrast, the Dolphins vaunted defense could muster only one sack and two interceptions, one of which was a flukey rebound as Brown attempted to juggle the ball.
Offensively, Miami were always on the back foot. Matt Moore gamely attempted to pass them out of it and actually completed over 80% of his passes, even after the brutal sack which knocked him out of the game for a play. Ajayi, on the other hand, was almost completely ineffective, managing just 33 yards from 16 attempts as the Steelers shut down the man who had put up over 200 yards on them earlier in the season. Indeed, Miami managed just one rushing first down all game, compared to nine by their opponents.
Despite all of this, the Dolphins will be quietly pleased with their first season under Adam Gase. Making the playoffs as a first time head coach is an achievement in itself. At the same time though they’ll be rueing the fact that the defense picked a very bad time to have a collective off day.
New York Giants 13 Green Bay Packers 38
What was supposed to be the closest game of the weekend turned out to be, well, an utterly bizarre one. For the first twenty-five minutes the Giants totally dominated. Their defense, the best in the NFL over the final weeks of the season, held Aaron Rodgers to barely 30 passing yards. Their offense seemed able to move the ball despite Paul Perkins having one of his worst games of recent weeks. What went wrong?
Well, first of all, they failed to turn their offensive dominance into points. Two Robbie Gould field goals were scant reward for all of the pressure they exerted. Moreover, that offense just got sloppier and sloppier as the game went on. Every receiver was guilty of dropping easy passes, to the point where no one put up more than 73 yards and tight end Will Tye posted the second most with 66. Odell Beckham Jr – who apparently punched a hole in a wall of Lambeau Field after the game – was held to just 28 yards, only one more than Perkins achieved in catches from the backfield.
Whilst much has been made of that offensive performance, the defense must take equal blame for what happened. Losing a defensive leader like Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie early in the game was of course unfortunate, but it cannot be an excuse. To put it bluntly, they seemed to have planned for Randall Cobb being inactive after the ankle injury that had plagued him for a couple of weeks, and then seemed to have no answer to him in the second half even after they knocked Jordy Nelson from the game with a late hit so blatant it ought to land the officiating crew – who missed it – with a fine. Five touchdowns – three of them to Cobb – later and the game was over for the Giants.