B/R Staff NFL Weekly Report Card for Divisional Playoff Weekend

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystJanuary 13, 2020

B/R Staff NFL Weekly Report Card for Divisional Playoff Weekend

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Did that just happen?

    Normally, an opening like that is an obvious reference to a particular moment or game during a typical NFL weekend. But that's not the case for the divisional round of the 2019 postseason. So much out-of-the-ordinary stuff happened that it's hard to keep track of what's wilder.

    The Tennessee Titans stunned the Baltimore Ravens and knocked the league's best team—or so it seemed before this weekend—out of the playoffs.

    Yet Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson still became the first quarterback ever to record 300 passing yards and 100 rushing yards in a playoff game. Titans running back Derrick Henry countered by becoming the first running back in NFL history with two 175-plus-yard postseason rushing performances.

    The Houston Texans and Kansas City Chiefs decided the Ravens-Titans outcome wasn't enough of a surprise. The Texans built a 24-0 second-quarter lead before the Chiefs roared back by scoring 41 unanswered points.

    Wild stuff.

    Bleacher Report's team of NFL writers—Brad Gagnon, Brent Sobleski, Gary Davenport, Mike Freeman, Mike Tanier and Ty Dunne—tried to make sense of it all and grade things that would have been unthinkable just a few days ago.

             

Titans Should Sign Tannehill to a Long-Term Deal

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    The Titans continue to roll with Henry and, yes, quarterback Ryan Tannehill leading the way.

    Henry deserves the lion's share of the credit, of course, since he ran roughshod over the Titans' first two playoff opponents. The league's leading rusher carried the ball 64 times for 367 yards against the Ravens and New England Patriots.

    Conversely, Tannehill didn't throw for more than 88 yards in either contest.

    "It's definitely unusual," the quarterback said, per the New York Post's Steve Serby. "… That's kind of the way the games have played out. At this point in the season, it's about doing whatever it takes to win, whether it's throwing 30 or throwing 10."

    But his recent performances hide the fact he led the NFL in both yards per attempt and quarterback rating during the regular season.

    Has everyone seen enough for Tannehill to warrant a long-term contract and become the Titans' franchise signal-caller?

            

    Ty Dunne: A

    Why mess with success, regardless of that success equation? Sure, the Titans are running to glory like it's the 1940s, but Tannehill has proved he can beat teams with his arm this season, too. Roll with this nucleus as long as you can.

    Mike Freeman: A

    Hell yes. They'd be fools not to. Tannehill is the perfect complement to what the Titans do. He's become one of the most important players in the NFL, and I can't believe I just wrote that sentence.

    Mike Tanier: D

    Ryan Tannehill is what Nick Foles would be if Foles only threw for 72 yards against the Patriots in the Super Bowl.

    Brent Sobleski: B+

    Tannehill may never be on the same level as other quarterbacks who elevate the play of those around them, but he's the perfect system quarterback in Tennessee. That's certainly not a knock. His athleticism and vertical passing touch are wonderful complementary pieces aligned with an overwhelming power running game.

    Brad Gagnon: C-

    I think this is a classic franchise-tag situation. That's how I felt after he put together a great but abbreviated regular season with lots of help from the best running back in the league, and 15 completions in two playoff games won't change that.

    Gary Davenport: C

    I will confess I'm on the fence here. The safest play remains tagging Tannehill, but Henry's impending free agency is a consideration, too. Breaking the bank is a risky move, but with each win, a shorter-term Cousins-esque deal becomes more palatable.

Kyle Shanahan is the NFL's New Best Young Coach

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    Every NFL organization wants the next great thing at head coach. Successful franchises are often imitated yet rarely duplicated as a result.

    A year ago, the Los Angeles Rams' Sean McVay was the hottest name in professional football, and nearly every hire during the last cycle involved his influence in some manner.

    Fast forward a year.

    Kyle Shanahan led the San Francisco 49ers to the league's second-best regular-season record, and his team advanced to the NFC Championship Game after a 27-10 walloping of Minnesota Vikings. The 40-year-old coach has always been considered an offensive genius, but he now has his team one game away from the biggest stage.

    Considering how well the 49ers continue to play on both sides of the ball, is Shanahan currently the best young coach in the league? Or should that title belong to someone else?

          

    Ty Dunne: A+

    All the motions. All the misdirection. Shanahan can do an infinite number of things out of the same exact look offensively. He's on a different level. This personnel can beat you in countless ways, and his ability to think two or three moves ahead at all times is unparalleled.

    Mike Freeman: B

    I'mot sure if he's the best, but it's close. The Green Bay Packers' Matt LaFleur is pretty damn good, too. What Shanahan has done well is skillfully manage a locker room that has some of the biggest personalities in the sport. Not to mention he's tactically sound.

    Mike Tanier: B+

    What do you mean "new?" Didn't he help the Falcons reach the Super Bowl a few years ago? But yes, Shanahan's offense is what McVay's offense is supposed to be: dynamic, adaptive and flexible.

    Brent Sobleski: B

    It's too easy to answer "yes" at this point since no one would strongly argue against Shanahan's standing. His offense is a joy to watch, and he's built an impressive defensive staff. But McVay is still a wonderful coach. LaFleur deserves recognition. Hell, Brian Flores took the tanking Miami Dolphins to five wins!

    Brad Gagnon: A

    Considering what he's done with Jimmy Garoppolo and that offense, I don't know how you could make an argument for anyone else, including McVay. The shine has come off there, while Shanahan appears to be hitting his stride at the end of his third season.

    Gary Davenport: A

    This is becoming less debatable by the week. From the moment Shanahan took the job in San Francisco, it was apparent he had a vision—a vision he stuck with through one year of rebuilding and another that was wrecked by injuries. That vision is coming to fruition now—or at least it will after one more win next week in the NFC title game.

Mike Zimmer's Job Security in Minnesota

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer received a vote of confidence from the Vikings organization less than two weeks ago.

    "We value Mike and Rick [Spielman's] leadership and we have every intent of Mike continuing as the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings and Rick leading our football operations, next year and beyond," co-owner Mark Wilf said in a statement.

    Both the head coach and general manager are entering the final year of their contracts.

    Obviously, the Vikings have performed well during the regular season throughout Zimmer's tenure. But the team fell flat during Saturday's 27-10 loss. Minnesota managed only 147 offensive yards and surrendered 186 rushing yards to the 49ers.

    How secure should Zimmer feel, knowing he's now a lame-duck coach after yet another postseason disappointment?

          

    Ty Dunne: C-

    This is a team with talent, and it's a team that can stay in contention. But it's a team missing...something. That something, in the end, just may be a forward-thinking head coach.

    Mike Freeman: B

    He should feel secure, and he is. It's not necessarily Zimmer's fault the Vikings sometimes lack firepower. And who the hell fires a coach after they win at New Orleans in the playoffs?

    Mike Tanier: B+

    If the Vikings were the sort of team that fired people for getting outclassed in playoff games, they would have all fired each other long ago.

    Brent Sobleski: C

    The Vikings basically reached the same point the Cincinnati Bengals did under Marvin Lewis: They're a competitive team capable of putting together winning regular-season records and claiming the occasional division crown, only to bow out of the playoffs early and often.

    Brad Gagnon: B

    This rarely looked like a Super Bowl-caliber roster, and the impressive win in New Orleans was more encouraging than the blowout loss in San Francisco was discouraging. I think Zim's a good coach, and the Vikings know it.

    Gary Davenport: B-

    Vikings ownership has already said Zimmer will be back in 2020, and I doubt Saturday's loss changes that—especially after the big win in New Orleans the week before. But 2020 is also the final season of Zimmer's contract. The seat under Captain Sunshine ain't hot, but it's not exactly frigid, either.

Lamar Jackson's Performance in Disappointing Playoff Loss

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    Todd Olszewski/Getty Images

    The Baltimore Ravens had no answer for the Titans and running back Derrick Henry. The prohibitive Super Bowl favorite was knocked out the playoffs before it really had a chance to do anything.

    Quarterback Lamar Jackson posted exceptional numbers with 365 passing yards and 143 rushing yards. But he also threw two interceptions and lost a fumble.

    "Kid played his ass off," 13-year guard Marshal Yanda said of Jackson's performance, per the Baltimore Sun's Jonas Shaffer. "That's where I stand on it."

    Clearly, the MVP frontrunner did all he could do to help the Ravens win. Even so, his mistakes, along with Baltimore's inability to slow Tennessee's ground game, cost the champions of the AFC North.

    All things considered, how well did Jackson actually perform in his second playoff appearance?

        

    Ty Dunne: D

    He fought hard late, but Jackson was finally shut down. The Titans' plan was brilliant: load the box, force him to the sidelines, rally. He is no doubt the best player in the league this season, but similar to last year, he'll head into the offseason with specific areas of his game to tweak.

    Mike Freeman: B-

    It sounds wrong to say that a player who had over 500 total yards was stopped, but he was. The Titans took away a lot of Jackson's explosive touchdown plays. There's still no question that he is a superstar and will be for years to come.

    Mike Tanier: C

    He looked spectacular at times throwing to rookies and journeyman wide receivers in the second and early third quarter before everything came unglued. The fumble and second interception were rough, but the Ravens loss had more to do with forces beyond Jackson's control than with Jackson.

    Brent Sobleski: C

    Jackson did everything in his power to help win and lose the contest. He never backed down and continually made plays. Unfortunately, his mistakes can't be overlooked. Look, he's still the league MVP. The Ravens are still a good team. But they were beaten by a better coached and more disciplined squad this weekend.

    Brad Gagnon: D

    I understand he was out of his element as a result of the deficit, but that alone is an indictment on Jackson. They're going to have to win some games in which not everything is clicking, and they're going to have to come back here and there. He has just one fourth-quarter comeback in his career. Jackson is a superstar, but he's got obvious strengths and obvious weaknesses. He was also terrible under pressure Saturday, literally and figuratively.

    Gary Davenport: D

    As it turns out, Jackson is mortal. Turnovers are the kiss of death in the playoffs, and Jackson had three. Until things were already out of hand, the Titans did a fantastic job containing him on the ground, and it was evident that the frustration got to him a little. For as great as the presumptive 2019 MVP was this season, he's yet to play well in the postseason—something he'll hear about ad nauseam in the weeks and months to come.

Kirk Cousins' $84 Million Contract After Two Years

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    Kirk Cousins signed a record-breaking three-year, fully guaranteed $84 million contract prior to the 2018 campaign.

    At the time, he was treated as one of the greatest free agents in the game's history because he was a franchise quarterback hitting the market in his prime. Now, he's about to enter the final year of said contract, and the Vikings my attempt to extend him this offseason.

    Before going any further, his play so far must be assessed.

    In two seasons, Cousins has completed 69.7 percent of his passes for 7,901 yards, 56 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. He also helped orchestrate a road playoff victory in overtime against the New Orleans Saints this year, and he received the game ball for his performance. 

    "It was just about him solidifying himself with all of the bad rhetoric that he gets all the time about this or that," Zimmer told reporters after the wild-card victory. "I just felt like it was time to tell a lot of people he's our guy and he did it."

    A week later, Cousins threw for only 172 yards, and the 49ers sacked him six times.

    How much value have the Vikings received from their investment through two seasons?

          

    Ty Dunne: B

    The win in New Orleans was proof that Cousins can win a big game in a big moment. He can still deliver on this contract.

    Mike Freeman: B

    There have been splendid moments and some ugly ones. Overall, though, this season has pushed things into more of a positive direction. The win at the Saints is what changed things.

    Mike Tanier: D

    Cousins did exactly what it says on his label; it's not his fault teams love to overpay for that. But here's the rub: The Vikings are already above next year's salary cap, per Over The Cap. Know how they can clear lots of operational cap space? Convert Cousins' $29.5 million salary into a bonus and add a few years to his contract! So the Vikings either pinch pennies to keep this team together for next year or commit to Cousins for more years! Now there's a catch-22 that should keep Vikings fans awake all offseason.

    Brent Sobleski: C

    People forget the market dictates a player's worth, not the other way around. Cousins worked the system and received a windfall as a result. He's not a bad quarterback per se, but he's not capable of taking an offense on his shoulders and carrying it, either. He gets what's available to him and that's it.

    Brad Gagnon: D

    He just doesn't have the ability to string together strong performances against strong opponents, and you can't commit that kind of money to a player like that. That being said, the Vikings didn't know that for sure at the time, and I don't totally blame them for rolling the dice. It just hasn't worked.

    Gary Davenport: B-

    Cousins isn't a great quarterback, but he's a pretty good one. And in 2020, the financial reality is even that will cost you over $25 million per season. With Cousins about to enter the last season of that contract and the ninth of his career, there's going to be all kinds of pressure for him to take the "next step" and get the Vikings into the Super Bowl, and it's going to be fascinating to see how things unfold when that doesn't happen.

Bill O’Brien’s Job Security

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    Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    The Texans didn't just squander a 24-point second-quarter lead against the Chiefs; Kansas City blew out Houston by 20 points in Sunday's 51-31 outcome.

    Another poor performance might not reflect well on the Texans staff after it was outcoached multiple times this season.

    Head coach Bill O'Brien counters a 52-44 regular-season record and four division championships with a 2-4 performance in the team's four postseason appearances.

    "There's no doubt," quarterback Deshaun Watson said when asked if O'Brien is the right coach for the Texans, per ESPN's Sarah Barshop. "I mean, you might have doubt, but there's no doubt. ... Y'all can say whatever you want to say through all the media and all the writing, but as long as I'm at quarterback, he's cool with me." 

    Well, is Watson right?

          

    Ty Dunne: C+

    He keeps churning out division titles, but at some point, O'Brien will need to do more. We've seen coaches let go in his position before. The Texans need to maximize their superhuman talent—Deshaun Watson—in every way imaginable.

    Mike Freeman: A

    The question is will he get fired, and the answer is no. He won't. Thus the A grade. But if the question is should he be fired, the answer is yes. I rarely advocate for a coach to get fired, but this game was one of the great coaching disasters in league history.

    Mike Tanier: A

    "Houston Garrett" has job security because A) he's his own boss and B) the Texans make the playoffs each year, making it appear that he is doing a pretty good job. So, O'Brien will be able to make shortsighted personnel decisions and ridiculous game-planning blunders until the Texans collapse into a 4-12 heap, probably when J.J. Watt retires and Deshaun Watson starts to feel the effect of 45 sacks per year.

    Brent Sobleski: C

    Mediocre isn't good enough, and that's essentially where the Texans are at the moment. Their relative stranglehold on the AFC South might be going away, too, if the Titans take this year's success and roll it into next season by re-signing Tannehill and Henry.

    Brad Gagnon: B-

    I doubt the Texans make a move, and maybe they'll justify not doing so because there was likely no stopping the Chiefs once they got hot. Maybe O'Brien's poor decision-making didn't completely cost the Texans that game, but it contributed and gave Kansas City a lot of momentum. It's something he's never been able to kick, and it's holding his team back. If I owned the Texans, I'd move on from a terrible game manager who has won just two playoff games in six seasons despite having plenty of talent.

    Gary Davenport: B

    A pretty good argument can be made that O'Brien shouldn't have the job security he does, but the Texans have put all their eggs in that basket. The question then becomes how long being good but not great will be good enough for the McNair family.

Matt LaFleur’s First Season in Green Bay

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    Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    A first-year, first-time head coach has led the Green Bay Packers to the NFC Championship Game. Matt LaFleur turned into everything the organization wanted when it moved on from Mike McCarthy and decided a new approach was necessary.

    In fact, LaFleur ranks third all-time behind George Seifert (17) and Jim Caldwell (16) for wins (14) by a rookie head coach, according to NFL Research.

    "You've got to be true to yourself," he said of his first-year approach, per ESPN's Rob Demovsky. "You've got to know who you are as a person, what you're strong at and what you're maybe not as good at, and just be honest with yourself but also be willing to be accountable."

    Clearly, LaFleur is doing something right since his team will face the San Francisco 49ers for the right to play in the Super Bowl. How does the rookie coach's first season rate amid all the team's success?

           

    Ty Dunne: A

    He inherited a team at a crossroads and turned it into a title contender. Unbelievably impressive. The Packers are winning in ways they haven't in years and years, and LaFleur absolutely deserves credit.

    Mike Freeman: A+

    It could not have gone better. He's transformed the Packers from Aaron Rodgers-dependent to a true team. He's demonstrated immense ability.

    Mike Tanier: B+

    This is the best Packers team we've seen since at least 2014. And every minute a head coach spends in meetings with Aaron Rodgers takes 10 years off his time in purgatory.

    Brent Sobleski: A-

    Change can be a good thing as long as the team buys into the approach. Obviously, Packers players accepted LaFleur after years of McCarthy's antiquated approach. The only reason the grade is an A-minus is the wait to see if Green Bay can make another Super Bowl appearance.

    Brad Gagnon: A-

    The Packers are a good-not-great team, and Aaron Rodgers hasn't often been special. Yet they're in the NFC Championship Game. That's absolutely a success.

    Gary Davenport: A

    It hasn't been without bumps in the road, but LaFleur and Rodgers appear to have reached a middle ground. And while the Green Bay offense is hardly a buzzsaw, the Packers are 14-3 after beating Seattle on Sunday. The NFL is all about results, and the Packers are one win from the Super Bowl.

Marshawn Lynch’s Short Stint for the Seahawks

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    Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    The Seattle Seahawks were desperate. With Chris Carson, Rashaad Penny and C.J. Prosise injured, the organization turned to a familiar face.

    Marshawn Lynch returned to the place where he became a household name in an attempt to provide the Seahawks run game with some punch.

    In two postseason games, the man known as Beast Mode managed 18 carries for 33 yards and three touchdowns. Quarterback Russell Wilson was the leading rusher in both contests.

    How did Lynch perform when called upon to help his old team?

    Ty Dunne: D

    I'm not sure what anybody could expect out of a back who's been out of football for so long. But Lynch, it turns out, wasn't a savior, and the Seahawks are left wondering what could have been if Carson didn't go down with an injury. He made this offense go.

    Mike Freeman: B

    Everything is better when Lynch is in the NFL, including the Seahawks.

    Mike Tanier: B+

    It was fun watching him thump his way to a few more touchdowns. Had he helped the Seahawks reach the Super Bowl, I think it would have made Lynch a serious Hall of Fame candidate. And I wanted to spend another week watching my colleagues get stonewalled for interviews by him because I'm a jerk that way.

    Brent Sobleski: F

    What? Beast Mode played this season? I missed it? What happened? Nothing? OK. No big deal.

    Brad Gagnon: D

    He averaged 1.8 yards per carry. He wasn't a major liability, but he wasn't an asset either. We shouldn't have expected anything better from a dude who hadn't played in 14 months.

    Gary Davenport: A

    It was what it was. The idea that he was ever going to make a real impact on the field was wishful thinking and then some. But it was still fun to see Beast Mode in the backfield again, if only for a little while.

Za’Darius Smith’s Pro Bowl Snub Shirt

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    Dylan Buell/Getty Images

    Why so serious? Everyone is just having a little fun.

    Za'Darius Smith's addition completely changed the Packers defense. The free-agent signing developed into one of the game's elite edge-defenders. Smith demolished opposing game plans and finished sixth overall with 13.5 sacks during the regular season.

    But his outstanding play wasn't recognized at every level.

    Smith wasn't named to the Pro Bowl or All-Pro teams even though his play warranted such recognition. So, the linebacker clapped back by wearing an undershirt that read "snubbed."

    The 27-year-old defender added an exclamation point with a pair of sacks during the Packers' 28-23 victory over the Seahawks.

    How should Smith's obvious critique be received?

    Ty Dunne: B

    Smith is one of the three best—if he's not the best—pass-rushers in the NFL. He disrupts practically every game and should've reeled in every accolade possible this time of year.

    Mike Freeman: A

    More shirts like that, please. It was fun...and true.

    Mike Tanier: C+

    Za'Darius got that shirt from the discount bin of the Terrell Owens Hall of Fame collection. But it's still cooler than the old "I'm With Stupid" T-shirts Aaron Rodgers always wore when standing next to Mike McCarthy.

    Brent Sobleski: A+

    There's nothing better than when someone feels wronged and gets an opportunity to show how wrong everyone else really was. Smith isn't just an All-Pro-caliber player; he should be firmly in the conversation for NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

    Brad Gagnon: A

    I guess it could give the impression that he's focusing on more than just the team and its Super Bowl goal. But it's also funny, and the Pro Bowl is a joke. So it's good with me, especially since they won and he had an awesome game.

    Gary Davenport: A+

    It was glorious, especially since he wore it in a playoff game in which he had two sacks. Well played, sir.

Travis Kelce Back to Being NFL's Best TE?

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    Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    Rob Gronkowski's retirement before this season left a void at the tight end position. Gronk was viewed as the very best at his position, maybe ever.

    Someone had to step up and stake his claim as the top performer at tight end.

    The argument generally comes down to three players: the Kansas City Chiefs' Travis Kelce, the Philadelphia Eagles' Zach Ertz and the San Francisco 49ers' George Kittle.

    Kelce made a strong claim Sunday with a 10-reception, 134-yard, three-touchdown performance during the Chiefs' amazing comeback against the Texans.

    At times, the five-time Pro Bowl tight end can be absolutely unstoppable in the Chiefs passing game. But is he back to being Gronkowski's true successor?

    Ty Dunne: C+

    Maybe so. Kelce was Gronktastic on Sunday. But I can't shake the image of Kittle uprooting Vikings defensive linemen the day before. He's the best tight end because he does it all.

    Mike Freeman: B

    I still think it's Kittle because he's such a devastating blocker as well as being a superb pass-catcher, but I can't blame anyone who picks Kelce. It's close.

    Mike Tanier: B+

    I'll take George Kittle over Kelce and would love to see what Ertz would do in an offense where he wasn't the only target. But Kelce cheeses off the Patriots media for some reason, and that's worth bonus points in my book!

    Brent Sobleski: F

    Did someone say George Kittle? Yep, Kittle is easily the NFL's best all-around tight end as a receiver, someone who creates after the catch and a dominant blocker.

    Brad Gagnon: A

    I already thought he was. I give him a slight edge over Kittle, and obviously that performance isn't changing things after Kittle had a quiet game Saturday. It would be a lot of fun to see them go head-to-head in the Super Bowl.

    Gary Davenport: C

    That Kelce went off Sunday (while banged up, no less) is a testament to just how awesome he is capable of being. But this gets a vote right down the middle from me. Kelce and Kittle are six of one and half a dozen of the other. It's a compliment.