Here they are, the proud victors of Wild Card Weekend: bruised, battered, drenched, frozen and, in most cases, lucky to either still be standing or still be alive.
The Steelers used Ben Roethlisberger's last 1-Up Mushroom to get past the Bengals, who were eager to give away the game but flattened Antonio Brown (concussion) and injured Roethlisberger's shoulder as a going-away present. (Jason La Canfora of CBS reported Roethlisberger would probably not start throwing again until Thursday.)
The Packers soundly defeated the Redskins 35-18 after a shaky start, but they lost defensive back Quinten Rollins and wide receiver Davante Adams to injuries. The Packers don't have any wide receivers to spare (Adams told reporters "I think I'll be fine" after hurting his knee). No team facing the Cardinals has any defensive backs to spare (Rollins hurt his quad).
The Chiefs lost Jeremy Maclin, the last of the "last players they could afford to lose," in a 30-0 romp over the Texans, who lost their best defensive player and possibly their best quarterback when J.J. Watt finally succumbed to one too many triple-teams. (Maclin is day-to-day with a sprained ankle.)
The Seahawks survived a 10-9 win over the Vikings on Ice Planet Hoth on the strength of a series of mystifying and semi-fluky events: a botched snap turned into a 35-yard pass, an Adrian Peterson fourth-quarter fumble and a missed 27-yard field goal with 26 seconds on the clock. The Seahawks escaped major injury, but it was a grueling, physical victory in punishing conditions, and it was hardly an emphatic statement.
All four first-round winners were road teams, which of course means they will once again be road teams—four wild cards facing the toughest opponents possible in some of the toughest home stadiums in the NFL.
The only way to really win Wild Card Weekend is to skip Wild Card Weekend.
There's usually talk this time of year about some first-round winner entering the divisional playoffs with "momentum" against a contender that spent this weekend eating pizza and forgetting the playbook or something. There won't be much of that talk this week.
The Chiefs, Steelers and Seahawks look softened up for a knockout punch. The Packers look a little better, but they will be facing a team that could have beaten them 112-8 three weeks ago if it chose to.
Still, it's not all gloom and doom for the road underdogs. Here's an early-week, MRIs-pending countdown of the most to least likely wild-card winners to pull an upset next week.
Most Likely (Though Not All That Likely): Seahawks at Panthers, Sunday, 1:05 p.m. ET
Reasons to Think "Upset": The Seahawks played the Panthers tough in a 27-23 loss in Week 6. They beat the Panthers in last year's playoffs. The Seahawks proved once again Sunday they have a knack for come-from-behind playoff victories.
That's not just luck; combine a defense that limits big plays and touchdowns with an offense that can strike from anywhere under any circumstances, and no game is over until the final gun.
But Let's Get Real: Sunday's Seahawks did not look like the Seahawks of last year's playoffs or the team that won five straight games late in the season. They looked more like the skin-of-the-teeth Seahawks of early in the season, the ones that survived on a trickle of big plays per game (and lost to the Panthers).
It's impossible to calculate how much the sub-zero conditions of Sunday's game will take out of the Seahawks. Back-to-back road games are always difficult. The Seahawks are going through three weeks of time-zone and temperature-change madness. That cannot be shrugged off.
Next-Most Likely: Steelers at Broncos, Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET
Reasons to Think "Upset": The Steelers beat the Broncos 34-27 in Week 15. Bringing Peyton Manning back to start feels a lot like those old Star Trek movies where they kept making excuses to make over-the-hill William Shatner a captain again.
But Let's Get Real: Roethlisberger is not likely to be close to 100 percent. The Broncos took a 27-10 lead in Week 15 but lost because the Steelers defense figured out and shut down Brock Osweiler in the second half. That's not going to happen a second time, in Denver, when Gary Kubiak can call the bullpen if he needs a fresh arm.
Second-Least Likely: Packers at Cardinals, Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET
Reasons to Think "Upset": The Packers looked better in the second half against the Redskins than they have since they started the season.
Eddie Lacy, James Starks and the running game clicked in the second half. The pass rush teed off on Kirk Cousins. Aaron Rodgers started looking Aaron Rodgers-like for the first time in weeks. Left tackle David Bakhtiari—a game-time decision for the matchup at Washington—may return and put safety brigade Don Barclay and JC Tretter back on the bench.
But Let's Get Real: Go back and watch the Cardinals' 38-8 win over the Packers in Week 16 and imagine how much improvement would have had to happen in three weeks to close the gap.
Least Likely: Chiefs at Patriots, Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET
Reasons to Think "Upset": Remember that 41-14 Chiefs victory over the Patriots in Week 4 of 2014? Something like that could happen. The Chiefs are on an 11-game winning streak, which of course means they will never, ever lose again and don't need healthy quality players to keep going. And maybe Tom Brady is much, much more injured than the Patriots are letting on.
But Let's Get Real: Don't bother checking the Patriots' injury report for news of Brady's ailing ankle or anything else. Getting information out of Foxborough will be like getting plot spoilers from a Star Wars shooting set. It won't matter.
The Chiefs could use traps and fake reverses to generate offense against the demoralized Texans, but they'll need Maclin back for New England. Tom Brady will commit, at most, 20 percent as many turnovers as Brian Hoyer gift-wrapped. And the first team to 20 points will win. That will be the Patriots, by halftime.
Bottom Line: The smart money is on chalk next week. But then, the smart money is always on chalk in the divisional round. This season is just an extreme case.
Russell Wilson Highlight Capability
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VIDEO: Seahawks QB Russell Wilson turns broken play into huge gain, leads to TD vs. Vikings https://t.co/z9UMTosjPY https://t.co/97dwg2AypT1/10/2016, 8:33:29 PM
You no doubt saw Wilson's game-changing, errant-snap-retrieving scramble and throw to Tyler Lockett.
Only two quarterbacks in NFL history were consistently able to turn catastrophes like that into positive plays. One was Randall Cunningham, but Cunningham's problem was that he was capable only of turning catastrophes into positive plays. The other spent most of his career exhaling steam in Minnesota: Fran Tarkenton.
Wilson looks so much like Tarkenton at times that it was only fitting for him to win a very 1970s-style playoff game. Rising.
Calling Out Teammates
On his 93.7 The Fan radio show this past week, Ben Roethlisberger challenged Martavis Bryant's toughness after Bryant was slowed by neck and hip injuries (plus flu symptoms) over the final month of the season. Bryant responded with a high-degree-of-difficulty touchdown catch in the corner of the end zone and a 44-yard run on an end-around.
Bryant said he accepted the public challenge. Keep in mind that this sort of thing only works if you are Ben Roethlisberger and routinely claw your way out of the coroner's freezer to lead last-second field-goal drives.
With Brown concussed late in Saturday's game and Roethlisberger not really looking like himself after re-entering that game following a shoulder injury, Bryant will have to be extra tough in Denver. Rising.
Bengals' Coaching Staff
Marvin Lewis' job may be in jeopardy after Saturday's loss. The Bengals were reportedly thinking of firing Lewis and promoting defensive coordinator Paul Guenther from within, though a report by ESPN's Adam Schefter put the kibosh on that speculation. Both Guenther and offensive coordinator Hue Jackson are hot coaching candidates on the carousel.
Let's see, Jackson: a) ordered an AJ McCarron bomb during the worst part of the downpour Saturday, resulting in an interception; b) called a ridiculous pitch-lateral play on a two-point conversion; and c) trusted fumble-prone Jeremy Hill with a wet ball in a late-game situation when three kneels and a field goal could have sealed the game.
Guenther's defense, meanwhile, spent the whole game spoiling for roughness and unsportsmanlike-conduct penalties that finally came in bunches on the Steelers' final drive.
Keeping the troops settled down is mostly Lewis' job, but Guenther and his staff had to know it was time to lean on players individually when Domata Peko was walking on the field in a parka specifically to cause trouble.
The Bengals have to do what the Bengals have to do with Lewis: The final two minutes of that game felt like a program running its course once and for all. Jackson's and Guenther's drippy Saturday performance should give other organizations pause. Falling.
The Quick Snap
In the first half against the Redskins, about the only Packers offensive play that worked was the Aaron Rodgers quick snap to earn a free play and a 12-men-on-the-field penalty. Rodgers used the tactic to convert a third down and then used a second free play to throw a touchdown to Randall Cobb against an unprepared defense. (More on that game in my article from Landover.)
The Rodgers quick snap is a joy to watch live. He spots a defender jogging slowly off the field and springs into action, watching the slow poke and timing the snap so the defender is still on the field, but the offense is set.
The tactic is a good reason for offenses to be able to shift into and out of uptempo tactics. Without a robust no-huddle system, you can't suddenly line up and have a meaningful play ready. Go uptempo all the time, like Chip Kelly, and defenders spend the week practicing their substitutions.
Look for Tom Brady to do his best Rodgers impersonation next week if the Chiefs are sluggish leaving the field. Actually, Rodgers is doing more of a Brady impersonation. You get the idea. Rising.
Resistance to the Elements
Bud Grant, the 88-year-old former coach of the Vikings during their Purple People Eater days, walked onto the field as an honorary Vikings captain, wearing a short-sleeved polo shirt in sub-zero temperatures. It only goes to show what you can accomplish when you lost all feeling in your extremities circa 1975.
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Former Vikings coach, Bud Grant, is 88-years-old and wore a polo to coin toss in -6 weather https://t.co/pcrBlKtauz https://t.co/x023RYxoNP1/10/2016, 6:24:05 PM
If Grant were an honorary captain of the Bengals-Steelers game, he would have been expected to walk on the field in a tank top and cargo shorts and slug someone. Steady.
The only hope the Chiefs offense has in the second round if Jeremy Maclin can't play lies with Alex Smith's ability to do all the "little things" 100 percent correctly.
Those little things include: a) using the snap count to identify blitzers, as he did constantly Saturday, and adjusting protection; b) audibling into the best-possible plays and out of the worst ones; and c) getting the absolute most out of play action by selling every fake, including fakes on reverses and options.
Smith will have to manufacture every possible yard and point if Maclin's out or ineffective, and it won't be as easy as it was when the Texans were having a composure crisis without Watt in the second half. Rising.
Vanity Play Calls
Using J.J. Watt on offense is not a bad idea. Watt draws extra defensive attention, can help the Texans conceal tendencies and is probably a better goal-line threat than the Texans' reserve tight ends or fullback.
But using Watt as a Wildcat quarterback? That's a reward play when leading 30-7, not a legitimate goal-line strategy. No one in the stadium respected the pass threat when Watt plunged into the line for no gain.
Why no fade to DeAndre Hopkins? Why not a Cecil Shorts III Wildcat, which has had success during the season? Because Bill O'Brien decided to act like a junior-high kid in a Watt jersey instead of an NFL coach. Falling.
Coaching Against Tendency
Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley coached predictably in the first quarter, ordering a series of wide receiver screens that screamed: I have no idea who this zydeco accordion player is in the backfield, and there is no way I am giving him the football.
Haley finally relented and started giving carries to both Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman. The pair combined for 123 yards on 28 carries, with Toussaint adding four catches for 60 yards. Rising.
Chiefs You Never Hear About
Allen Bailey, a space-munching defensive end who is supposed to occupy blocks for Justin Houston and the other star Kansas City pass-rushers, sacked Brian Hoyer twice, forcing a pair of fumbles.
Albert Wilson and Chris Conley had mixed results stepping in for Maclin. Wilson failed to tap his feet on a third-down catch in the first half and negated a long Alex Smith scramble with a holding penalty, but Conley made a fine touchdown catch in the back of the end zone.
Zach Fulton filled in for Mitch Morse (concussion) at center and had a great game.
Knile Davis, forgotten in the running game, started the rout rolling with a kickoff-return touchdown.
The Chiefs are running out of players you ever hear anything about, so they need contributions from the obscure crevices of the roster. Look for reserve lineman Jarrod Pughsley to blow up and have a big game next week, possibly as a wide receiver. Rising.
That song you hear in the GMC truck commercial that runs during every other commercial break—the one with the tinkly synthesizer—is "Eminence Front" from one of the later albums by The Who.
As the title suggests, the song is about putting up a front. More explicitly, it's about an aging man ("That big wheel spins, the hair thins") spending money on speedboats and ski trips to conceal his crushing emptiness and insecurity.
It's literally the song that echoes in my mind the moment I consider ordering top-shelf scotch at a bar to impress some fellow sportswriters. Don't do this. It looks like you are compensating for something.
It's not the best song for selling pickup trucks is what I'm saying. Falling.
"You Like That?!"
Kirk Cousins' catchphrase was cute. But it always sounded like just that: a catchphrase, something with the shelf life of a Saturday Night Live sketch or Internet meme.
Both Cousins and the Redskins are aspiring for much more than just another one-year sensation, so it's best to leave "You Like That?!" in the 2015 season and concentrate on creating something more lasting.
The worst thing about "You Like That?!" has always been the question mark and exclamation point at the end, which is sometimes called an "interrobang." Cousins and the Redskins were never quite sure whether they were asking us or telling us what to like.
It's a confusion they have potential to sort out with a vengeance next year. Falling.
"Interrobang" sounds too much like naughty role play, anyway. OK, dear, you pretend you are the Black Widow, while I am the Hydra agent with a secret...
Let's...let's move on.
Coaching Carousel Update
Having a hard time finding the motivation to host a "We Hired Adam Gase" pep rally? Worried that Chip Kelly might show up in your home city and start trading away civic landmarks? Wondering why Lovie Smith lost his job but Jeff Fisher and Jason Garrett kept theirs? Not even 100 percent certain if the Lions and Titans are looking for head coaches?
Hangover has answers to none of these questions, because the coaching carousel is a seething hive of disinformation disseminated by some of the league's most disorganized organizations.
But here's a Monday morning reset that will give you a better idea of the personalities involved and the reasons why this year's carousel feels ready to teeter off its axle and roll into the petting zoo.
Seeking a new head coach because: They are currently being run by a lawyer and a baseball statistician. Next year, they will be down to an accountant and a dungeon master.
Monday morning front-runner: Whoever whiffs on the Dolphins, Eagles and Giants jobs.
Hiring process: The first two candidates to interview were Johnny Manziel wearing a dirty Patriots hoodie and Mike Scioscia.
Seeking a new head coach because: Restructuring the entire front office while keeping Jim Caldwell in place is like renovating your kitchen while keeping a stack of dirty dishes in the sink. That said, Caldwell was still the Lions head coach as of press time.
Monday morning front-runner: Print a list of Patriots coaches. Close your eyes. Point to the page.
Hiring process: New general manager Bob Quinn is a Patriots guy, which means the Lions are about to become another Patriots Lite franchise. More imitation, less innovation: It's the NFL (and American auto industry) way!
Sought a new head coach because: Endless front-office power plays are no fun without one.
Monday morning front-runner: The Dolphins named Gase head coach Saturday.
Hiring process: Mike Tannenbaum controlled the East Wing of team headquarters. Chris Grier's forces were clustered in the cafeteria and weight room. Dennis Hickey loyalists booby-trapped the locker room and mined the parking lot. Dan Campbell hid in a tree with a Bowie knife like Rambo to ambush potential applicants.
Gase's first task will be calling Campbell in from the cold; the interim coach is still kinda sorta in the team's plans for some reason. This will be fun.
Seeking a new head coach because: Hazmat crews are currently spraying the locker room to remove all of the alienation and resentment.
Monday morning front-runner: Tom Coughlin or Doug Pederson; whoever causes more of a Philly talk-radio uproar.
Hiring process: Jeffrey Lurie calls in applicants and asks, "Can you try on this false mustache? Dye your hair red? Gain 40 pounds? Grunt a lot? Call two timeouts in the first quarter? I really miss Andy Reid!"
New York Giants
Seeking a new head coach because: You gotta shake things up every quarter-century or so.
Monday morning front-runner: The Giants appear to still be trying to get the wording just right in the newspaper want ad.
Hiring process: Monitoring news on the ticker, making phone calls on the land line, wondering why no resumes are coming across the fax machine.
San Francisco 49ers
Seeking a new head coach because: General manager Trent Baalke is currently spinning around in the head coach's chair yelling, "Wheeeeeeeeee!"
Monday morning front-runner: Hue Jackson. The first battle for personnel control is scheduled for nine seconds into their first meeting.
Hiring process: The 49ers interviewed Chip Kelly, because Baalke and Kelly are two men who can subsume their egos and use their awesome interpersonal skills to build a consensus. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA, sorry it's impossible to even type that sentence without going a little insane.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Seeking a new head coach because: General manager Jason Licht's historical research confirmed that Rome was, in fact, built in a day.
Monday morning front-runner: Dirk Koetter.
Hiring process: [Standing over Koetter's hospital bed as he recovers from hip surgery.] "Dirk? You want to coach the whole enchilada? Blink once for yes and twice for no. No, don't reach for your cellphone to check messages. Nurse! Nurse!"
Seeking a new head coach because: It will get Josh McDaniels to stop calling.
Monday morning front-runner: None.
Hiring process: It starts with an extensive general manager search (Martin Mayhew, Chris Polian, Jon Robinson, Marc Ross, Ted Sundquist), which starts with conditioning owner Amy Adams Strunk to stop referring to everything within the organization as "interim."
"So, why are you applying for this interim position with the interim Titans? Are you thirsty? Would you like my interim assistant to bring you a bottle of interim water?"
The Browns hired former Mets statistical analyst and Billy Beane disciple Paul DePodesta as chief strategy officer this week, prompting the usual superficial and ill-informed discussion about whether "Moneyball" can work in the NFL.
Because a vast percentage of the general population equate "Moneyball" with making decisions entirely based on spreadsheets and possibly video game ratings, the debate was about as substantive as you might expect.
It's simple: Data is better than no data. Good data is better than bad data. And understanding data is better than misunderstanding data. This applies to every single venture in life, including football.
Now, baseball sabermetrics don't really work in the NFL, for dozens of reasons, such as (most importantly) the NFL and NCAA still don't officially count the kinds of basic statistics (dropped passes, for example) that baseball has tabulated for 100 years. A football analyst still has to accumulate and organize the kind of data baseball statisticians have taken for granted since Bill James in the 1970s.
Back when I wrote for the Pro Football Prospectus books a decade ago, there were a lot of moonlighting baseball sabermetricians in the football business, tossing raw quarterback statistics into a sausage grinder and creating some mush that might look good in a headline but didn't stand up to basic logical scrutiny.
But you can't take raw football data from Pro-Football-Reference.com, perform some long division and create a scouting tool. And no one working seriously in the football statistical field does that sort of thing.
On the media side, everyone from Football Outsiders and Pro Football Focus to ESPN Stats & Info and several emerging college football sites mix stats with scouting out of absolute necessity. You can't be a straw-man Poindexter and "not watch the games" because you need to watch the games to find things like missed tackles, lengths of throws, blitz tendencies and hundreds of other scouting artifacts.
On the NFL side, each team has its own in-house analytic systems for scouting, game-planning and cap management. Some are sophisticated, some are primitive, but all involve doing a little math.
My only quibble with the DePodesta hire is that a baseball analyst faces both a learning curve and a rude awakening when he discovers just how scant and unruly NFL numbers are. That said, DePodesta is an experienced major-sport executive with the brains and resources to adapt quickly.
Those of us who have worked in NFL analytics for years know how this story ends. Old-school tough guy after old-school tough guy can fail in Cleveland, and it would just be written off as the Browns' fault. If DePodesta fails, it's math's fault. And if a head coach with an economics degree wins four Super Bowls and counting, it's because he's magical or evil or something.
No one wants to eat at the lunch table with the computer geeks, but everyone wants a new iPhone. Adapting to the 21st century is one of the best things the Browns organization can do. Let's stop pretending to be cool kids by pretending it's one of the worst.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.
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