B/R NFL Staff's Biggest Winners and Losers from Wild Card Round
Now, the games truly matter.
The NFL's regular season is fun to watch, but the proliferation of mediocre to bad teams sprinkled into the mix of high-quality squads can make the product uneven at times.
Once the league's best enter the postseason, those teams face do-or-die scenarios in an attempt to reach the ultimate prize: a Super Bowl victory.
In 2021, fans got to enjoy the NFL's first "super" Wild Card Weekend after the postseason expanded to feature seven participants in both the AFC and NFC.
Win or go home. It's that simple.
Along the way, the Baltimore Ravens danced on the Tennessee Titans logo. Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen played like an MVP. Cam Akers set a Los Angeles Rams rookie rushing record. Washington Football Team quarterback Taylor Heinicke showed the world he could play.
Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson silenced critics. The New Orleans Saints likely ended Mitchell Trubisky's tenure as the Chicago Bears' starting signal-caller.
And the Cleveland Browns shocked the world.
Bleacher Report's team of NFL writers—Brad Gagnon, Brent Sobleski, Gary Davenport and Kalyn Kahler—watched each of these outcomes, sifted through the good and bad performances and determined the biggest winners and losers from Wild Card Weekend.
Jared Goff's Latest Performance Casts Doubt on QB's Future with Rams
Winner: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Not only did the Buccaneers put up 31 points against an elite defense in order for quarterback Tom Brady to put some spooky NFC East playoff pass-rushing ghosts away, but they avoided a divisional-round trip to Green Bay thanks to the Seattle Seahawks' upset loss to the Los Angeles Rams.
The New Orleans Saints also had trouble with the Chicago Bears, so the Bucs have a real shot at making a run as a wild-card team this January. Brady looks so much crisper this postseason than he did last year at this time.
Loser: Los Angeles quarterback Jared Goff
Yes, his team won. But it became obvious when Goff replaced John Wolford that he could have started if need be.
That, combined with head coach Sean McVay's decision to deactivate third option Blake Bortles, has cast understandable doubt on his confidence in Goff.
Is he sick and tired of the 26-year-old's lack of consistency? Goff hasn't been right since the home stretch of the 2018 season, and he completed just nine passes in relief of Wolford on Saturday. It's worth noting the Rams can save $12.4 million by trading him this offseason.
— Brad Gagnon
Washington's Taylor Heinicke Enters Offseason as Intriguing QB Option
Winner: Washington quarterback Taylor Heinicke
No individual's career path changed more drastically this weekend than Taylor Heinicke's.
Yes, the Washington Football Team fell short with a 31-23 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But its quarterback, who wasn't even on an NFL roster until Dec. 8 and didn't start as a member of the XFL's St. Louis BattleHawks, established himself as a legitimate NFL quarterback during a gusty performance in which he extended plays, carried the offense at points and kept his team within striking distance.
"I deserve to be in this league a little longer," Heinicke told reporters after a 352-yard, two-score performance. "I've been on the other side not playing, and it's not fun—not as fun as this."
Wide receiver Terry McLaurin added: "That dude plays with no fear. He's going to give his players a chance to make plays. He extends plays, he runs, he takes hits. He does everything you ask a quarterback to do in this league. He gave us a chance."
Heinicke is a free agent after this season. Bare minimum, the 27-year-old should be set as a quality backup for a long time. Maybe Washington will even re-sign its surprise gunslinger and give him a shot to win the starting job outright.
Either way, Heinicke is now one of the more intriguing quarterbacks of the coming offseason.
Loser: Seattle Seahawks offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer
Schottenheimer went from a potential head coach candidate to possibly being fired by Seattle within a week's time.
On Jan. 3, NFL Network's Tom Pelissero included Schottenheimer among the possibilities to fill Adam Gase's old spot with the New York Jets. Six days later, the Seahawks offense struggled during a 30-20 loss to the Los Angeles Rams, which only added to Seattle's issues down the stretch.
The Rams knew exactly how to slow the Seahawks' approach and understood which routes they planned to run.
Quarterback Russell Wilson went from being the front-runner for league MVP to quietly complaining about the unit's approach.
"The game kind of felt stale for us in a way—we kind of flatlined," he told reporters Saturday. "We needed to get going and make that happen. And the next thing you know, we didn't."
The frustration boiled over on the sideline with star wide receiver DK Metcalf losing his cool during the season-ending defeat.
Head coach Pete Carroll promptly threw his offensive play-caller under the proverbial bus after the game when he wished the offense "would have adapted better'' to how defenses attacked Wilson and Co.
Now that it's reached this point, it's time for a change because the Seahawks can't waste the prime years of Wilson, Metcalf and Tyler Lockett.
— Brent Sobleski
Buffalo Bills' Josh Allen on Precipice of Major Payday
Winner: Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen
It was a good weekend to be a third-year quarterback in Western New York.
Allen added another exclamation point to his breakout 2020 season, throwing for 324 yards and two scores with a 121.6 passer rating while chipping in another 54 yards and a score on the ground in a three-point victory over the Indianapolis Colts that gave the Buffalo Bills their first postseason win since before he was born.
And that might not be the best thing that happened to the 24-year-old Saturday.
Before the game kicked off, Ian Rapoport of NFL.com reported the Bills are prepared to approach Allen in the offseason with a "massive" contract extension that will make him one of the highest-paid signal-callers in the league.
Given the remarkable progress he has shown in 2020, it's hard to argue he isn't worth it. Lamar Jackson may have an MVP award, but if I were starting an NFL franchise, Allen is the quarterback from the 2018 class I'd pick to lead it.
Loser: Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Vrabel
Before I go any further here, a caveat: Mike Vrabel is a very good head coach. He deserves a considerable amount of credit for the success the Titans have enjoyed in recent years.
But Vrabel blew it in Sunday's loss to the Baltimore Ravens, and it's part of the reason Tennessee's players will be clearing out their lockers Monday.
With the Ravens up four and about 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Titans faced a 4th-and-2 from the Baltimore 40-yard line. Rather than hand the ball to the bruising running back who has led the league in rushing each of the past two seasons, Vrabel elected to punt.
The Ravens then proceeded to eat about six minutes off the clock with a drive that culminated in a field goal that ended the scoring.
According to Pro Football Reference, it was the first time since at least 1994 that a team in the playoffs punted on 4th-and-2 from that field position while down by a single score in the fourth quarter.
— Gary Davenport
Cleveland Browns Are Finally Winners
Winner: Cleveland Browns
Cleveland is a winner. For the first time in roughly forever, Browns fans can feel good about the direction their team is headed.
Kevin Stefanski will be back. Andrew Berry will be back. Baker Mayfield looks like the right quarterback for this franchise.
Stefanski finished with the best record of the three first-year NFL head coaches this season, and the organization gets a bit of desperately needed stability.
Mayfield, in particular, will benefit greatly from the consistency. Next season will be the first time he'll return to the same offense in his NFL career.
These Browns are young and talented and should be set up to be a regular playoff contender.
Loser: Chicago Bears
The Bears have been my loser two weeks in a row. It wasn't a surprise Chicago's offense fell completely flat during the wild-card outing in New Orleans.
The Bears are...who we thought they were, and that is a team without a quarterback or a functional offense with a defense that looks to be exiting its championship window.
The Bears came into the game short-handed, playing without linebacker Roquan Smith and rookie receiver Darnell Mooney, who was a key piece of the offense, and then they committed several errors (a Javon Wims drop on a wide-open touchdown and a jump offside on a Saints 4th-and-2) a playoff underdog can't get away with. They didn't score a touchdown until the last second of the game.
The AFC's seventh-seeded Indianapolis Colts made a great argument for the expanded playoff field in a tight game against the Buffalo Bills, but the Bears did not look like they belonged in the postseason. This is a team that has a lot of soul-searching to do.
— Kalyn Kahler