Where Did Each of the Losing NFL Playoff Teams Go Wrong?

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystJanuary 22, 2018

Where Did Each of the Losing NFL Playoff Teams Go Wrong?

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    There is a maddeningly thin margin for error in the NFL playoffs. All the work a team has done since April—every route run in practice, every bench press in the gym and every hour in the film room—comes down to one game. 

    There's extra intensity attached to each play and decision in the pressure-packed moments. And that heightened focus gives us plenty to choose from when looking back with the benefit of hindsight and assessing where each losing team went wrong.

    In some instances, those missteps will be painfully yet brutally obvious. Just ask Marcus Williams or Pharoh Cooper. In others, there was more of a slow burn, such as inept play from an entire unit. Just ask Steve Sarkisian or Tyrod Taylor.

    Let's take a journey through January misery, then, with a playoff post-mortem to address what went wrong and how quickly the pieces can be picked up to ensure success in 2018.

Carolina Panthers

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    The final score in the Carolina Panthers' NFC Wild Card Round loss to the New Orleans Saints shows two evenly matched teams.

    In a game won by only five points (31-26), both squads had quarterbacks with 350-plus passing yards. Each offense boasted a pass-catcher who recorded 100-plus receiving yards. The difference for the Panthers was a simple yet critical one, and it turned out to be a fatal flaw. The damage and chunk plays their defense allowed came early and often.

    The first blow was an 80-yard touchdown heave from New Orleans' Drew Brees to Ted Ginn Jr., the same guy who averaged only 52.5 receiving yards per game throughout the regular season. That happened in the first quarter, and the Saints scored twice more in the second, as Ginn and fellow receiver Michael Thomas combined for 149 receiving yards in the first half, pushing the Saints to a 21-9 lead at halftime.

    Brees did what he's done so often in his career by exposing a secondary's weakness. Lapses in coverage were an issue for a middling Panthers pass defense that ranked 18th while giving up 229.1 yards through the air per game and 23rd with a passer rating of 92.9 during the regular season. The Carolina defense crumbled if a pass rush that generated 50 sacks couldn't reach the quarterback often enough.

    The secondary is an obvious area for the Panthers to address heading into the offseason, especially with some of their pass-rushing power potentially set to decrease if defensive end Julius Peppers (11 sacks in 2017) retires after his 16th season.

New Orleans Saints

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    One of the most incredible plays in NFL playoff history shouldn't have happened.

    The Minnesota Vikings know that after wide receiver Stefon Diggs sprinted free for a game-winning 61-yard touchdown to beat New Orleans. The Saints knew it as they absorbed a heart-wrenching defeat in the divisional round and headed home. And most of all, safety Marcus Williams knew it the moment he missed what should have been a routine tackle and said as much in his postgame interviews.

    The Saints' playoff mistake is clear, then, and the screenshot of Williams' ducking under a leaping Diggs will live on forever. But he shouldn't let that play define him because New Orleans likely wouldn't have had a shot at a comeback without his brilliance to begin with.

    Late in the third quarter, the Saints scored a touchdown to make it 17-7. Lengthy drives by both teams sucked back most of the clock to begin the second half, and the ensuing kickoff came with only 1:18 left in the quarter. New Orleans needed the ball back, and it needed it right then. That is when Williams capitalized on an ill-advised throw by Vikings quarterback Case Keenum and elevated for the interception.

    Williams was among the promising defenders who fueled the Saints' defensive turnaround in 2017. The second-round pick finished his rookie year with five interceptions including the playoffs.

    He combined with cornerback Marshon Lattimore to address a core weakness for New Orleans—one that had led to wasting some of the prime seasons Brees has left. With that first-year duo leading the way, the Saints went from allowing 273.8 passing yards per game in 2016 to 224.8 in 2017.

    The Saints are a rising team, especially on the other side of the ball given rookie running back Alvin Kamara's 1,554 yards from scrimmage with 13 touchdowns. Brees has told the media he's coming back too, which means New Orleans should have no problem retaining its contender status in 2018.

Atlanta Falcons

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    The Atlanta Falcons managed to win a playoff game and then nearly advance to the NFC Championship Game for the second straight year. That, in hindsight, is impressive considering how much the offense was in disarray under coordinator Steve Sarkisian.

    Hiring Sarkisian to replace Kyle Shanahan was where the Falcons' 2017 season began to skid off the tracks before it even started. They averted disaster for a while, and after a sluggish start, they clung on to a playoff spot while winning six of their final eight contests. But a winnable divisional-round game against the Philadelphia Eagles and their backup quarterback, Nick Foles, slipped away because a once high-octane offense faded with a whimper.

    In 2016, the Falcons stomped any defense in their path. Led by quarterback Matt Ryan during his MVP season, Atlanta's offense averaged 415.8 yards per game (second). That average fell to 364.8 yards in 2017. Even more stunningly, Ryan's per-attempt passing average spiraled by 1.6 yards.

    An offense that bulldozed the league in 2016 was wildly inconsistent under Sarkisian and sputtered when it mattered most. Atlanta was down by five and had the ball at Philadelphia's 9-yard line with 1:19 left of its divisional-round game. Time wasn't a factor, as the Falcons still had two timeouts and stood nine yards away from a likely game-winning score.

    Sarkisian needed to get his four best plays for inside the 10-yard line together. Apparently, that included a shovel pass that nearly ended in disaster and a rollout on fourth down that took away half the field while limiting Ryan's options to one receiver. For reasons that are still unclear, fullback Derrick Coleman—who has 12 career receptions—was split out wide to the left on that final play too.

    It seems the Falcons and head coach Dan Quinn learned nothing from that experience, as Sarkisian is expected to return in 2018, according to a report from NFL Network's Ian Rapoport. Hopefully, his 2017 playbook doesn't return with him.

Los Angeles Rams

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    The league's highest-scoring offense in 2017 was undone in cruel fashion, showing the football powers above just might enjoy evil sorcery.

    The Los Angeles Rams underwent a swift transformation under rising first-year head coach Sean McVay. His remodeling of the team's offense and guidance of quarterback Jared Goff led to an average of 29.9 points per game. The Jeff Fisher experience ended in 2016 with an offense that had mostly the same core pieces but averaged only 14 points (32nd).

    But any plan McVay had for the Rams' first playoff game since 2005 had to quickly change after two awful mistakes by a usually sure-handed kick returner. Pharoh Cooper, who finished second in the league with 932 kick-return yards and is going to the Pro Bowl, misplayed a punt and then fumbled on a kickoff return. His gaffes gave the Falcons prime field position.

    Atlanta scored 10 points directly off those turnovers, which quickly put the Rams in a 13-point hole. Los Angeles clawed back 10 points in the second half, but the defense couldn't keep up with all-universe Falcons receiver Julio Jones (nine catches for 94 yards and a touchdown). The Rams were outscored 13-3 in the second frame and left to wonder what could have been had they not given away those early points.

    After the bitter playoff disappointment subsides, the arrow is still pointing way, way up on the Rams. Goff was a much-improved quarterback under McVay and averaged eight yards per attempt. Even more impressively, running back Todd Gurley looked like the 2015 version of himself again after leading the league in yards from scrimmage (2,093).

    There will be offseason decisions and maneuvering to make, most notably with stud defensive end Aaron Donald and his potential contract extension. But for the first time in a while, the Rams are filled with excitement and optimism as a season ends.

Buffalo Bills

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    The most flattering compliment we can give to Buffalo Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor is to say he doesn't screw up too much. There's value in that, as throwing few interceptions is the main quality needed to be a vanilla game-managing quarterback, one supported by a solid backfield and even better defense.

    The problem for the Bills all season long is they only had one of those two supporting ingredients to place next to Taylor. That was running back LeSean McCoy, who finished the regular season with 1,586 yards from scrimmage.

    But while their defense took promising strides forward, its play wasn't anywhere near the same level as, say, the one the Philadelphia Eagles fielded. The Eagles won a playoff game with backup Nick Foles as their quarterback and held a Matt Ryan-led Falcons offense to 10 points.

    Teams like Philly and the Jacksonville Jaguars can win with weak quarterbacks. The defense needs to mask a weakness at such an important position. The Bills were never able to quite get to that point.

    Buffalo's defense received standout performances all season from players like safety Jordan Poyer (five interceptions) and rookie cornerback Tre'Davious White (18 passes defensed). But the unit still allowed an average of 355.1 yards per game (26th) and 22.4 points (18th).

    That's why the burden of keeping a mediocre quarterback afloat became too much, especially during the playoffs, when the caliber of competition increased. Taylor sunk the Bills because he was woefully inaccurate against the Jaguars in the Wild Card Round, averaging 3.6 yards per attempt with a 45.9 completion percentage.

    Nathan Peterman isn't the long-term answer for the Bills, either. It seems likely Buffalo will explore every possible avenue for an upgrade over Taylor during the offseason.

Tennessee Titans

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    In the early stages of their divisional-round game against the New England Patriots, it looked like the Tennessee Titans could pull off a massive upset—or at minimum that they could keep the score close to give us an entertaining playoff game.

    Then the cold, icy grip of reality took over, and what Tennessee was throughout an inconsistent 2017 season rose to the surface yet again.

    The Titans have the pieces necessary for the grinding rushing offense former head coach Mike Mularkey always wanted. They still have a solid offensive line, and running back Derrick Henry is a fast-moving bungalow who finished with 191 yards from scrimmage during an upset Wild Card Round win over the Kansas City Chiefs.

    But relying on a bruising backfield gets difficult fast when your defense is getting picked apart as the deficit on the scoreboard grows. That's what happened during much of the season for Tennessee, and it resulted in a 9-7 record.

    Any hope the Titans had of riding their rushing offense against the Patriots quickly evaporated when an adjustment was made and quarterback Tom Brady started to slice Tennessee's secondary up with a death-by-a-thousand-short-passes approach. Three New England pass-catchers finished with six-plus receptions and 70-plus receiving yards. As expected, the 25th-ranked secondary was the Titans' undoing.

    Tennessee still has exciting youth in place offensively in Henry and quarterback Marcus Mariota and defensively in cornerback Adoree' Jackson. The hope now is new head coach Mike Vrabel can get the most out of those growing talents, because Mularkey certainly wasn't that guy.

Kansas City Chiefs

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    It's easy to blame the Kansas City Chiefs' early playoff exit on an injury to tight end Travis Kelce. It's so easy a convenient narrative is created.

    Yes, Kelce's loss stung. The three-time Pro Bowler left the field in the final minutes of the second quarter of the Chiefs' wild-card meeting with the Titans. He had already recorded four receptions for 66 yards and a touchdown, which came after the 28-year-old's standout season with 1,038 receiving yards.

    But shortly after Kelce exited, the Chiefs scored their third touchdown of the first half and went into the locker room comfortably ahead 21-3. Even when the Titans scored a touchdown to begin the second half, Kansas City still held an 11-point lead with much of the third quarter gone (Tennessee scored at the 6:31 mark).

    The collapse wasn't on Kelce's absence, then, and it can't purely be shrugged off as crummy injury luck. Instead, the Chiefs crumbled because of woeful defense and an awful game plan with the lead.

    The former is obvious, as Kansas City allowed three unanswered touchdowns to blow an 18-point lead against the league's 23rd-ranked offense during the regular season. Their defense was ripped apart by Henry, who galloped for 147 yards from scrimmage in the second half.

    But the Chiefs' downfall was their offense's inability to sustain drives and grind the clock away. Kansas City had four second-half possessions but gained just 50 yards, which included a mere six yards in the third quarter. Somehow during that sputtering second half, running back Kareem Hunt was given only five carries.

    The Chiefs have plenty of young talent. However, they have four double-digit win seasons and back-to-back AFC West titles under head coach Andy Reid but just one playoff win.

Pittsburgh Steelers

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    The Pittsburgh Steelers had a fine, if less than spectacular, run defense throughout the regular season, allowing an average of 105.8 rushing yards per game (10th). The unit couldn't eliminate the opposition's backfield, but at least the Steelers defense could be trusted to not get torched on the ground.

    Or at least they could until the loss of linebacker Ryan Shazier, whose football future remains uncertain after he suffered a spinal injury late in the season. Without him, the defense severely lacks both speed and muscle up front, and it showed against the Jacksonville Jaguars.     

    In the divisional round, Pittsburgh was gashed by Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette, who recorded 51 rushing yards in the first quarter of his team's win and 81 yards in the first half before leaving briefly with an ankle injury. Overall, the Jaguars finished with 164 yards on the ground and a whooping four rushing touchdowns.

    The ground-game pummeling is the primary reason why we didn't see a Steelers-Patriots rematch in the AFC Championship. But Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin's game management was a factor too.

    The Steelers offense clawed back, with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger throwing for 469 yards and five touchdowns. With 2:18 remaining in the fourth quarter, they trailed by a touchdown and could stop the clock three times (two timeouts and the two-minute warning).

    If they kicked deep and their defense could get a stop, the Steelers would get the ball back with plenty of time left. Instead, Tomlin choose to onside kick. The Jaguars inevitably recovered and gained just nine yards on the next three plays to get into field-goal range for what ended up being the game-winning points.

    Tomlin surely looked at his defense, which had given up 42 points at the time, and decided he couldn't risk giving the ball back. But the opportunity to stop the opposing offense three times when you are down by one score with timeouts should always win over the low-percentages chances of a successful onside kick.

Jacksonville Jaguars

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    One of the oldest and dustiest cliches in sports has stuck around because, well, it's often true. You have heard it annually, or weekly in January: offense wins games, and defense wins championships.

    But there's only so much a team can ask of its defense, which even applies to the Jacksonville Jaguars and their swarming and pummeling unit that allowed only 286.2 yards per game throughout the regular season (second) and 16.8 points (also second).

    Eventually, even defenses that seem to erect steel barriers need support, and the Jaguars offense simply didn't supply any during the critical moments of a 24-20 defeat to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game.

    Through three quarters, the Jaguars held a Patriots juggernaut offense to just 10 points. That included shutting New England out in the third quarter while forcing two punts and a three-and-out. A thumping run defense also prevailed and held the champions to a mere 46 rushing yards at 2.4 yards per carry.

    After an early fourth-quarter field goal, the Jaguars led 20-10 with 14:52 to go. They held the same lead at the 12:03 mark, when Jaguars linebacker Myles Jack erased a promising Patriots drive by stripping running back Dion Lewis of the ball. Then the Jaguars offense did nothing with that gift, gaining only nine yards before punting.

    The Jaguars gained 64 yards in the fourth quarter and earned only two first downs over four drives. A team rooted in defense needed the bare minimum from its offense at a defining point in the season, but that was too much to ask.

    Still, once the bitter disappointment of this playoff defeat subsides, there's plenty to feel great about going forward for the Jaguars, a team suddenly on the rise after years of being a laughing stock. They have one of the league's best cornerback tandems in Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye, a ferocious pass rush and Leonard Fournette, a thundering running back who finished his rookie season with 1,342 yards from scrimmage.

    Oh, and they narrowly missed going to the Super Bowl following a game wherein quarterback Blake Bortles, the Jaguars' supposed Achilles heel, threw for 293 yards with a touchdown on the road in Foxborough, Massachusetts.

    The Jaguars are going to start a season with respect and contender status. That still feels a little strange, but here we are.

Minnesota Vikings

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    The Jaguars were a defense-oriented team that had a legitimate chance to upset an AFC heavyweight because of that strength. Meanwhile, the Minnesota Vikings saw their hopes erased quickly because their usually imposing and punishing defense wasn't either of those things in the NFC Championship Game.

    The Vikings defense finished the regular season as the only unit better than the Jaguars in yards allowed per game (276) and points (15.8). Yet stunningly, the unit gave up 24 points in the first half alone Sunday night on their way to getting thumped 38-7 by the Philadelphia Eagles.

    Minnesota could have become the first team in Super Bowl history to play the game on its home field. Instead, a secondary that usually keeps throwing windows narrow was beaten deep badly and repeatedly. That included two 40-plus yard touchdown passes by Eagles quarterback Nick Foles, who finished with 352 yards on the night.

    The three turnovers Vikings quarterback Case Keenum committed didn't help matters (two interceptions and a fumble). And neither did the team's inability to score in the red zone on three trips.

    But Minnesota's downfall one week after a miraculous win was simple, and it came down to one number: 456. That's how many yards the league's top-ranked defense allowed.

    Now an offseason with difficult decisions at quarterback begins for the Vikings. The core of that dominant defense isn't going anywhere, but all three of Minnesota's quarterbacks are pending free agents. Do they believe in Keenum enough? Is Teddy Bridgewater the preferred offensive building block? Does Sam Bradford have any place or role?

    Those quarterback questions will need to be answered. But the Vikings just came one game shy of the Super Bowl without running back Dalvin Cook, who recorded 444 yards from scrimmage over only four games as a rookie before suffering a season-ending ACL injury. They are not going anywhere in the NFC North.