NFL Wild Card Playoffs: Expert Weekend Takeaways

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystJanuary 6, 2014

NFL Wild Card Playoffs: Expert Weekend Takeaways

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    The first weekend of the 2014 NFL playoffs started off in wild fashion and ended up a Popsicle. That was thanks to one of the biggest second-half comebacks in playoff history and a historically frigid contest in Titletown.

    Whether it's that crazy comeback by the Colts, the first road playoff win in Saints history, the Chargers' rout of the Bengals in Cincinnati or that frosty win by the 49ers in Green Bay, the first weekend of playoff action brought with it plenty of excitement.

    As we do each and every week here at Bleacher Report, we've gathered the National Lead Writers and Division Lead Writers to see what caught their eye on Wild Card Weekend.

    Here's what they had to say.

Eagles Weren’t Ready for Prime Time

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    For the last decade-plus in the NFL, a team has gone from worst to first.

    This year, it was the Philadelphia Eagles, who went from 4-12 in 2012 to NFC East champions in 2013.

    The Eagles fell by two at home to the New Orleans Saints on Saturday night. In the opinion of NFC East Lead Writer Brad Gagnon, that 26-24 setback shows that Philly still has work to do:

    The Philadelphia Eagles weren’t supposed to be this good, this quickly under Chip Kelly. Coaches with no NFL experience rarely get to the playoffs, and this was a team that won just four games in 2012.

    But the young Eagles showed their age during the first three quarters of their first playoff game of this new, exciting era. 

    Kelly made some questionable calls and used his timeouts poorly.

    Quarterback Nick Foles was shaky, lacked timing with his receivers and gave up two bad sacks along with an intentional grounding penalty.

    That extremely young defensive line was beaten up by the New Orleans offensive line.

    Riley Cooper dropped a pass in a game-changing moment.

    It was just too messy and scrambled. The team made an impressive comeback in the final 20 minutes, but it was too little, too late.

    The good news is that they got it out of the way. Now when the Eagles get back to the postseason, that young core of Kelly, Foles, Lane Johnson, Fletcher Cox, Bennie Logan and Mychal Kendricks—all of whom struggled to various degrees on Saturday—will know what to expect.

    The result was disappointing, and the performance was shoddy, but this was another step in the evolution of a team that should be competitive for many years to come. 

Saints Will Be in Trouble If Keenan Lewis Can’t Play

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    The New Orleans Saints won their wild-card matchup with the Philadelphia Eagles Saturday night, but that victory came at a cost.

    Cornerback Keenan Lewis was forced from the game with a head injury, leaving his status for next Saturday's matchup in Seattle very much in doubt.

    As NFC South Lead Writer Knox Bardeen reports, the Saints could be in real trouble without him:

    The New Orleans Saints got to see what life would be like without cornerback Keenan Lewis Saturday night, and it wasn’t pretty.

    Lewis left the game late in the third quarter of Saturday’s wild-card win over the Philadelphia Eagles after hitting his head on the ground while tackling wide receiver Jason Avant. Prior to his exit, Philadelphia’s top receiver, DeSean Jackson, had zero receptions. After Lewis left, Jackson caught three passes for 53 yards.

    Eagles quarterback Nick Foles zeroed in on cornerback Rod Sweeting after the latter took over for Lewis. Sweeting was targeted three times and gave up three catches to the man he was covering.

    Lewis is tasked each week with covering the opposing team’s top receiver, and he was quite good at it too.

    According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Lewis ranked sixth in the league in coverage among cornerbacks. He allowed one catch per every 13.8 snaps where he was the primary man. The Saints don’t have an option on their roster that can handle the burden of filling Lewis’ shoes.

    Lewis wasn’t allowed to speak to the media after the game due to concussion protocol, according to Larry Holder of The Times-Picayune. He will have to progress through the steps of the policy before being cleared to play next Saturday in Seattle.

    If Lewis is unable to play, the Saints defensive backfield will be attacked by Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson

Mark Ingram, Saints Answer Some Questions About Their Physicality

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    The possible loss of Keenan Lewis may loom over the Saints, but it wasn't all bad news by any stretch in the City of Brotherly Love on Saturday night.

    In addition to advancing in the postseason, the Saints also sent a message to the rest of the NFC, according to NFL National Lead Writer Matt Bowen.

    That message? The Saints aren't as "soft" as some people think:

    After being whipped by the Seahawks earlier this season on Monday Night Football, the narrative surrounding the Saints focused on their lack of physicality.

    They were a soft team. A finesse team. A passing team that couldn’t match up with a defense that would put a helmet under the chin.

    Get beat up on the national stage, and it’s easy to draw a cheap label.

    But we can’t call this Saints team soft after watching them control the line of scrimmage and wear down the Eagles on the road to pick up the playoff win on Saturday night.

    In a matchup where Drew Brees struggled early, Mark Ingram and the Saints' ability to run the football should be talked about. The Saints were more physical up front. They won at the point of attack and finished to create running lanes.

    And Ingram displayed his entire skill set for the national audience by using his vision, cut-back ability and burst through the hole.

    But what I’m most impressed about after watching the former first-round pick was his ability to drop his pads on contact and finish at the second level.

    The numbers for Ingram: 18 carries for 97 yards and a score.

    So, did the Saints shut down the narrative? I think so. Because when you can run the ball consistently on the playoff stage, there is no need to question how physical (or how tough) a team is. 

On Paper, Patriots Get a Favorable Matchup with Colts

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    The wild comeback win by the Colts, coupled with the Chargers' win over the Bengals, sends Indianapolis to New England to face the Patriots in the divisional round.

    AFC East Lead Writer Erik Frenz breaks down a matchup that he thinks favors the home team:

    At first blush, Indianapolis is a good matchup for New England. With a one-dimensional offense and a one-man pass-rush, the Colts are exactly the kind of team that makes a game plan easy for Bill Belichick, who has earned a reputation for taking away a team’s best weapon. Offensively, that title belongs to wide receiver T.Y. Hilton; the Colts’ defensive MVP is clearly outside linebacker Robert Mathis.

    Not coincidentally, those two players made key plays in the Colts’ big win over the Chiefs on Sunday. Hilton had two touchdown catches, including the game-winner, and Mathis recorded a sack-fumble.

    Typically, cornerback Aqib Talib would be the one to match up with Hilton, who is the Colts’ best receiver. But Hilton’s speed, quickness and small frame make him a tough matchup, especially when considering Talib’s hip injury. If he struggles, cornerback Alfonzo Dennard may be the matchup for Hilton. Dennard was having a standout season of his own before suffering a knee injury, but with a week to get healthy, he could be up to the challenge.

    Mathis led the NFL this year with 19.5 sacks. That’s 14 more than anyone else on the team, so taking him away could cause a ripple effect across the defense if the unit is unable to get pressure on Tom Brady. Thus, left tackle Nate Solder’s matchup with Mathis will be key for the Patriots to be successful on offense.

    There are other players who must be accounted for as well. Running back Donald Brown remains a steady presence in the offensive backfield, and tight end Coby Fleener has shown up in spots in the receiving game. Defensive tackle Cory Redding and cornerback Vontae Davis have made some plays of their own. 

    Still, Hilton and Mathis should be the focal points on offense and defense.

    Don’t be surprised if the Patriots go to great lengths to take those two players away. Bracketing Hilton with a safety over the top will be important, and fortunately for the Patriots, Devin McCourty returned to practice after missing Week 17 with a concussion. The Chiefs completely forgot to cover Hilton deep on the game-winning touchdown, but don’t expect the Patriots to make the same mistake.

    Leaving Solder on an island with Mathis may not be a bad idea to start, but if the Colts want to get Mathis wide of the formation, the Patriots may be forced to put a tight end on him.

    There are several keys to this game if the Patriots want to win, from running the ball against a soft front seven to dropping seven in coverage and inviting the run when the Colts have the ball. But on both sides, the game plan starts with eliminating one very key player.

    The Patriots’ ability to do that could determine their chances of winning the game.

Bengals Don’t Have Much to Rebuild After Loss to Chargers

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    Sunday's first game may well have been the most unexpected in a weekend filled with surprises.

    Not only did the San Diego Chargers hand the Cincinnati Bengals their first home loss of the season, but they did so in stunning fashion, outscoring the Bengals 20-0 in the second half of a 27-10 beatdown.

    Three straight years of playoff disappointment have some calling for big changes in the Queen City.

    AFC North Lead Writer Andrea Hangst doesn't see it it happening:

    It’s hard for a team to play as well as the Cincinnati Bengals have this season and go one-and-done in the playoffs. But that’s what the Bengals did on Sunday, losing for the first time at home to the AFC No. 6 seed San Diego Chargers 27-10. It was their third straight Wild Card Round playoff exit.

    There aren’t many improvements they can make. The Bengals went 11-5 in the regular season, won the AFC North and defeated the likes of the Green Bay Packers (with Aaron Rodgers), the Indianapolis Colts, the Detroit Lions (in Detroit) and the New England Patriots.

    They boast a defense that ranks highly in every important metric—yards allowed, points allowed, opponent red-zone touchdown percentage, third-down conversion percentage—even without having defensive tackle Geno Atkins and cornerback Leon Hall for much of the year.

    They have a balanced offense that features playmakers such as A.J. Green, Giovani Bernard, Marvin Jones and Jermaine Gresham. Even quarterback Andy Dalton has shown improvement this year, with career highs in yardage and touchdowns (and, unfortunately, interceptions).

    The coaching staff is solid too. Head coach Marvin Lewis has managed to command the respect of his players and the trust of Bengals owner Mike Brown. Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer have been connected to a number of head coaching vacancies.

    So, when thinking that the Bengals have to go start over in order to get over the playoff hump, it’s hard to imagine what else they need to do. Replacing Dalton won’t be a 2014 priority, given he has one year left in his rookie contract. Coaching changes might be on the horizon, which won’t likely come as a result of firings, but rather of Gruden or Zimmer opting to go elsewhere.

    It’s not as though the Bengals did everything right—especially not on Sunday against the Chargers. But when looking at individual situations that went horribly wrong for the Bengals this week and this season, there is no big, sweeping change that seems to be in order to fix them

    The question is whether this leaves the Bengals in a type of stasis or if they can just tweak the many little things that need improvement in order to get some tangible postseason success in the future. Little need to start from scratch could prove to be a blessing or a curse for the 2014 version of the Bengals, only because it’s so hard to see what needs to drastically change.

Jury Is in on Andy Dalton, and the Result Isn’t Pretty

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    Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton led his team to the postseason in each of his three seasons in the NFL.

    However, Dalton has yet to win a playoff game, and Sunday's debacle was the lowest in a series of low points for the Red Rifle where the playoffs are concerned.

    NFL National Lead Writer Michael Schottey feels that Dalton's faceplant against the Chargers delivered a verdict of sorts regarding his viability as an NFL starter:

    The Cincinnati Bengals will be watching the second round of the playoffs from home, and a big part of that is due to the play of their quarterback, Mark Sanch...oops, I mean, Andy Dalton.

    Dalton is an average NFL passer with an above-average offensive line in front of him, and he also has the kind of weapons that Tom Brady would give up Gisele for. (Well, maybe not, but you get the point.)

    Without that incredible supporting cast, it’s difficult to believe that Dalton would be anything more than what we saw from New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez last season or Houston Texans quarterback Matt Schaub this year.

    Some quarterbacks can do more with less. Other quarterbacks find it difficult to do anything more than the bare minimum, regardless of how much the team gives them.

    Dalton has good athleticism, passable arm strength, solid decision-making (most of the time) and an improving pocket presence. This indictment isn’t to say that Dalton can’t ever have success with Cincinnati—he already has! Nor is this to say that the he can never get better or that the team will never win a playoff game with him under center.

    Instead, consider this: With Andy Dalton at quarterback, the rest of the Bengals have to be darn near perfect to beat the AFC's best, especially in the playoffs. Injuries on defense? Dalton isn’t getting it done. Injuries on offense? Dalton is going to let you down. Ineffective running game? Guess what, Dalton’s going to be ineffective too.

    If the Bengals stick with him, he’s going to have great games and good games, and he’s going to lay some eggs. They might be able to head to some AFC championship games, like the Jets did with Sanchez, but they can’t expect Dalton to be something he’s not. 

The Last Opponent Denver Wanted to Play Was San Diego

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    By virtue of their big win over the Bengals, the San Diego Chargers will now head back out west to face a familiar foe.

    They say familiarity breeds contempt, and in the case of the Chargers and Denver Broncos, AFC West Lead Writer Christopher Hansen thinks that's very true:

    You would think that the Denver Broncos would want to play the No. 6 seed, but that’s not the case here. The San Diego Chargers and the Indianapolis Colts both beat the Broncos once this season, but the Chargers are the team that will keep Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning up late at night this week.

    When Denver lost to San Diego in Week 15, the Chargers controlled the clock. Manning didn’t get that many opportunities, and when he did, the offense had trouble finding a groove. If the Broncos don’t start fast and get an early lead, the Chargers are one of the few teams that can give them major problems.

    Even if Denver is able to score early and often, San Diego has an offense that is capable of lighting up the scoreboard. The Broncos don’t have a significant advantage because the two teams are similar.

    Since 2005, No. 6 seeds are 6-2 against the No. 1 seed. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers is also 2-0 against Peyton Manning in the playoffs.

    The Broncos may win the game Sunday, but they know how hard it will be to blow out the Chargers. Manning and the offense need to be efficient or he will give Rivers the opportunity to beat him at home. 

Colin Kaepernick Makes a Super Statement

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    Wild Card Weekend had quite the finale.

    The San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers played in subzero weather on Sunday afternoon at Lambeau Field. For the second straight postseason, the 49ers eliminated Green Bay, thanks in large part to Colin Kaepernick's second consecutive big game on the ground in the playoffs against the Pack.

    Sunday's 23-20 win felt like a statement game for Kaepernick, according to NFL National Lead Writer Ty Schalter:

    Colin Kaepernick stepped off the bench in 2012 and played like an All-Pro. He took the league by air, by land and by storm.

    With the help of an innovative offensive design tailored to his strengths, a power running game and one of the NFL’s stingiest defenses, Kaepernick played at a level unthinkable of a second-year quarterback in his first serious playing time.

    With the entire NFL hitting the books to try and stop Kaepernick, the Pistol and the zone-read runs he helped popularize, it was easy to project that he would have a Robert Griffin III-like fall back to Earth this season.

    Sure enough, Kaepernick’s numbers weren’t as eye-popping in 2013—but if the level he’s “regressed” to is out-playing Aaron Rodgers in the fourth quarter of a playoff game in record-threatening cold on the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field, he’s going to be one of the best there is for a long, long time.

    He made plays downfield when he could, he wisely checked down when he had to and he gashed the Packers on the ground when he had no other choice. With more pressure on Kaepernick than he’d faced since the Super Bowl, he played at a level we haven’t seen since the team's last playoff run.

    Every other surviving playoff team should be on notice: Kaepernick isn’t a gimmick, a flash in the pan, a riddle to be solved or a force of nature; he’s a Super Bowl-caliber quarterback, and he’s dead-set on winning the Lombardi Trophy. 

Colin Kaepernick Torches Dom Capers and Packers for Second Year in a Row

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    Schalter wasn't the only Bleacher Report Lead Writer enamored with Kaepernick's big game.

    NFC West Lead Writer Tyson Langland was also very impressed by the third-year pro, who is all but certainly headed for a huge raise in the offseason.

    That offseason has already started for Green Bay defensive boss Dom Capers, and Langland doesn't see Capers as the smiling type when his thoughts turn to the young quarterback:

    After a 444-yard performance in last year’s divisional round, quarterback Colin Kaepernick was up to his old tricks for the second year in a row. In addition to gashing Dom Capers' defense for 227 yards through the air, Kaepernick ran wild to the tune of 98 yards on seven carries Sunday.  

    However, the read option wasn’t Green Bay’s Achilles' heel in 2013. This time around, Capers’ defense failed mightily when it tried to contain the edge. Every time the Packers dialed up a blitz off the edge, their linebackers lost contain, and Kaepernick made them pay dearly.

    Kap’s ability to take advantage of Green Bay’s defensive miscues allowed him to register his season high in rushing yards. Additionally, it put the 49ers in prime scoring position late in the fourth quarter.

    On 3rd-and-8 with less than two minutes left, Kap picked up 11 yards on a broken play down the left sideline. Even though it went down as a simple 11-yard run in the stat book, it put kicker Phil Dawson into field-goal range. The third-down run proved to be the game’s defining moment.

    Five plays later, Dawson kicked a 33-yard field goal to end it. 

    Over the course of the last two playoff meetings between these two teams, the third-year signal-caller out of Nevada has amassed 490 yards passing, 279 yards on the ground and has scored five touchdowns.

    With two playoff wins versus the Packers, it’s evident that Kaepernick has Capers’ number.

Frank Gore Makes the Big and Small Plays in 49ers’ Win

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    It wasn't just Colin Kaepernick who had a big day in the 49ers win over the Packers.

    In addition to Kaepernick and a strong effort from the San Francisco defense, NFL National Lead Writer Matt Miller points out that running back Frank Gore was also a key contributor, even if it wasn't obvious at first glance:

    In the aftermath of the San Francisco 49ers’ win over the Green Bay Packers on a frigid afternoon at Lambeau Field, many players will receive credit for the last-second victory. Colin Kaepernick, Aldon Smith, Michael Crabtree and Phil Dawson all deserve attention, but it was Frank Gore who made this day possible.

    Gore didn’t dominate statistically, adding just 66 yards rushing on 20 carries, but his impact was MVP-worthy.

    Twice in the game, he made huge blocks for Kaepernick that sprung long runs. Gore was the man picking up blitzing cornerback Jarred Bush late in the game and allowing the mobile quarterback to take off down the sideline to extend the 49ers’ final drive.

    On that same drive, Gore made his best run of the night. On 3rd-and-3, he took the ball off right tackle. The Packers defense held and kept outside contain, but the ever-patient running back spotted an inside crease and took off through it. Gore’s short run was game-changing, as he secured the 49ers’ final first down and put them within Dawson’s field-goal range.

    Gore wouldn’t have won any fantasy football awards, but doing the little things that make the difference between a win and a loss is what he does best. 

Packers Defense Good, But Not Good Enough

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    Of course, there's a flip side to the 49ers winning, as it was another bitterly disappointing season in Green Bay.

    Given the injuries that ravaged both sides of the ball this year, it's more than a little surprising that the Packers even made it this far.

    However, what didn't surprise NFC North Lead Writer Zach Kruse was that the Green Bay defense continues to be the weak spot on the team:

    The San Francisco 49ers did not record 579 yards or score 45 points. Colin Kaepernick also did not throw for 412 yards and three touchdowns.

    The Green Bay Packers defense finally played a respectable game against a 49ers offense that has tormented the unit in recent seasons. But the performance wasn’t enough to prevent the Packers from falling for a fourth straight time to San Francisco.

    The Packers defense again struggled down the stretch.

    Kaepernick twice gave the 49ers a lead in the fourth quarter—on a 28-yard touchdown pass to Vernon Davis and a late drive that set up Phil Dawson’s chip-shot field goal as time expired.

    Every time the Packers gained momentum, the 49ers offense was ready to take it back.

    After Green Bay went up 7-6 in the first half, San Francisco marched five plays in just over three minutes to retake the lead. Later, Kaepernick’s touchdown to Davis came just five plays after the Packers went up 17-13. And he finished off the game by scrambling for a third-down conversion that allowed the 49ers to milk clock and kick the game-winner.

    Overall, Kaepernick totalled 325 yards, including 98 rushing.  

    On the final drive, rookie cornerback Micah Hyde had a sure pick-six go through his hands, which could have won the game.

    The Packers defense kept Green Bay in the contest for long stretches Sunday, but the encouraging effort was wasted with the late collapse. Another long offseason awaits a unit that still doesn’t look championship-caliber.