NFL Wild-Card Sunday Takeaways: Can the 49ers Continue Their Playoff Run?January 17, 2022
NFL Wild-Card Sunday Takeaways: Can the 49ers Continue Their Playoff Run?
The second day of "Super" Wild Card Weekend featured three games—and something of a football sandwich.
The bread for that sandwich was a pair of blowouts. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers opened the day looking very much like the defending Super Bowl champions in dispatching the Philadelphia Eagles 31-15. The Kansas City Chiefs closed the evening (and probably Ben Roethlisberger's NFL career) by blowing out the Pittsburgh Steelers 42-21, setting up a much-anticipated AFC showdown with the Buffalo Bills in the process.
The filling for that wild-card hoagie was Sunday's closest game, and the first upset of this year's playoffs. The San Francisco 49ers will be moving on to Green Bay next week, while the favored Dallas Cowboys are left staring at yet another disappointing end to what was supposed to be a promising season after falling at home 23-17.
It was a day that left us with no shortage of takeaways, whether it's that looming brouhaha at Arrowhead Stadium, potentially uncertain futures for one young quarterback and a not-so-young head coach, or the injuries that threaten to put a serious damper on San Francisco's Cinderella status.
Here's a look at some of the biggest.
Defensive Injuries Could Steal Shine from 49ers' Upset of Cowboys
You aren't going to have much luck stopping the San Francisco 49ers from smiling Sunday. In a "Super" Wild Card Weekend that had been dominated by the favorites, they pulled off an upset of the NFC East champion Cowboys in Dallas.
It was an upset powered by an old-school effort—running the ball and playing defense. Niners running back Elijah Mitchell and wide receiver Deebo Samuel combined for a whopping 168 yards and two scores on the ground on 37 carries. Defensively, San Francisco limited the NFL's most prolific regular-season offense to 307 yards of offense and 17 points.
This is only the third time this season the 49ers won a game in which San Francisco quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo threw an interception. But the victory may have come at a high cost.
That San Francisco's defense fared so well in the game is all the more impressive when you consider that the 49ers played much of the game with their two best defenders on the sideline. Edge-rusher Nick Bosa, who paced the team in sacks this season with 15.5, was lost in the first half after taking a nasty-looking shot to the head. He was joined on the sideline in the second half by linebacker Fred Warner (ankle), who led San Francisco in tackles by a wide margin this season with 137.
Against Dallas, the absences really didn't matter. Fellow linebackers Dre Greenlaw and Azeez Al-Shaair (who both have missed substantial time of their own with injuries this season), chipped in five tackles apiece in helping hold the Cowboys to just 77 yards rushing on 21 carries. Bosa or no Bosa, the San Francisco pass rush harassed Dak Prescott all game long, registering five sacks and 14 QB hits.
But Sunday's 23-17 win also came with an assist from a Dallas team that sabotaged itself all afternoon with mistakes and penalties. Next week's divisional-round matchup won't be against a self-destructive Dallas team that led the league in penalties—it's against the NFC's No. 1 seed and a Packers team that had the fourth-fewest penalty yards and tied for the league's fewest giveaways with 13.
The Packers don't hurt themselves, and they ranked 10th in both total offense and scoring offense this season. If San Francisco is going to have a legitimate shot of avenging a Week 3 loss to Green Bay and advance to the NFC title game, the team is going to need Bosa and Warner on the field.
And even then, it will take a nearly flawless effort (and a turnover-free game from Garoppolo) to knock off the Pack.
Mike McCarthy's Status in Dallas Could Be in Jeopardy
Frankly, on a list of potential topics we expected to be covering after Sunday's tripleheader of postseason games, Mike McCarthy's job security in Dallas wouldn't have ranked especially high. After all, he had just led the Cowboys to their most regular-season wins since 2016 and an NFC East title.
However, this is Dallas, where anything short of a Lombardi Trophy will be viewed as a failure by some. And on Saturday night, Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports reported that rumors were swirling that in the event the Cowboys made an early exit from the playoffs, there was a possibility Dallas grand poobah Jerry Jones could ax McCarthy in favor of highly coveted offensive coordinator Kellen Moore.
"If this season doesn't end the way Jerry thinks it should, don't be surprised if Kellen Moore is their next head coach much sooner than later," a source told La Canfora. "He does not want to lose him."
Sure enough, Dallas is one-and-done in the postseason and still hasn't made it out of the divisional round since winning its last Super Bowl in 1995. After the loss, Jones was asked by reporters if McCarthy's status as head coach could be in jeopardy.
"I don't even want to discuss anything like that at this particular time," he said. "That's not on the table. The game speaks for itself."
It's that last part that makes one wonder just how thick the ice under McCarthy's feet really is. It's not just that the Cowboys lost in the first round of the playoffs—again. It's the way it happened. Their offense sputtered, checking in a full 100 yards and over 14 points under their season averages. They repeatedly shot themselves in the foot, tying a franchise record with a whopping 14 penalties.
That sloppiness is an even worse look for McCarthy than the early playoff exit.
And it's fair to wonder how the 78-year-old Jones will respond to the crushing way the Cowboys' season ended.
Long Live the King: Chiefs Send Message in Rout of Steelers
On Saturday night, the Buffalo Bills made NFL history against the New England Patriots with what amounted to a perfect offensive performance—seven drives, seven touchdowns, no turnovers and no fourth downs. It was a buzzsaw in every sense of the word.
The Kansas City Chiefs weren't quite as lethally efficient in Sunday's blowout win over Pittsburgh, but the two-time defending AFC champions still sent a message.
The road to the Super Bowl in the AFC may travel through Nashville, Tennessee, this year, but to get there you gotta get past the Chiefs.
This was a game where the Steelers actually had a 7-0 lead after a fumble return by star edge-rusher T.J. Watt. Kansas City was sluggish offensively in the opening quarter. But when it flipped the switch, things got out of hand quickly.
With starting running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire out and backup Darrel Williams hampered, the Chiefs were forced to turn Jerick McKinnon in the backfield. He responded by gaining almost 100 scrimmage yards in the first half alone. Tight end Travis Kelce logged his fourth consecutive 100-yard game in the postseason, tying an NFL record. Patrick Mahomes topped 400 passing yards with five touchdowns to five different receivers, including offensive lineman Nick Allegretti.
Oh, and Mahomes did all that in the game's first three quarters.
Kansas City's defense did its part, too. Over the first three quarters Sunday night (before things truly hit garbage time), Pittsburgh had all of 118 yards of offense. The Steelers didn't run a play in Chiefs territory until well into the third quarter—with the score 35-7.
There is absolutely zero question now what the most anticipated matchup of the divisional round will be. Next week in Kansas City, Josh Allen and the Bills will face Mahomes and the Chiefs in a rematch of last year's AFC title game. A duel between two of the game's best young quarterbacks. A battle between one of the league's most stifling defenses and arguably the NFL's most explosive offense.
It was the Chiefs who advanced last year at Arrowhead by a score of 38-24. But the last time these teams met back in Week 5, it was Allen and the Bills who earned a 38-20 win.
Big Ben Goes Out in Brutal Fashion in Steelers' Loss to Chiefs
There has been no official announcement that Ben Roethlisberger will retire after this season. But he hasn't exactly said anything to deny the rampant speculation that once Pittsburgh's playoff run was done, he would be as well.
Well, the Steelers are most assuredly done. And as is so often the case with aging players, there was no riding off into the sunset. No storybook ending to his career a la Peyton Manning and John Elway. Instead, there was a loss to the Kansas City Chiefs that was nowhere near as close as the final score.
And one of the worst 30-minute stretches of football in Roethlisberger's 18-year professional career.
With the Chiefs sitting on a huge second-half lead and Kansas City playing pillow-soft coverage, the 39-year-old was able to eke out a semi-respectable stat line for the game: 215 passing yards, two scores and a passer rating of 92.5. But those numbers don't give nearly as accurate an indicator of how he played as the first half.
In that excruciating half of football, Roethlisberger was 5-of-14 for 24 yards. Per Sunday night's broadcast, it tied for the second-worst half yardage-wise of his entire career.
It's not like anyone was surprised by how bad Big Ben was Sunday night. His 6.2 yards per attempt this year was the second lowest of his career. His three worst seasons in that category were 2019, 2020 and 2021.
Roethlisberger has won a pair of Super Bowls. He will all but certainly be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. But he's done—and has been for a while now. Any mobility he had is gone. His arm strength isn't far behind.
Per a report by Ian Rapoport of NFL Network, as of now Pittsburgh's tentative plan is to let backups Mason Rudolph and Dwayne Haskins battle for the right to be Roethlisberger's successor in 2022. If you have seen either play it's not a plan that inspires confidence, and there will no doubt be loads of speculation connecting the Steelers to both veterans who might become available and rookies in this year's class.
But if Sunday's blowout showed us anything, it's that as great as Roethlisberger may have once been, it's time to move on.
Buccaneers Continue Shrugging Off Injuries in Lopsided Win over Eagles
Injuries are a fact of life in the NFL. Every team deals with them. How those teams deal with that adversity is a big factor in determining which clubs move on to the playoffs and who watches the postseason from their couch.
The Super Bowl champions haven't been immune from the sting of the injury bug this season. Far from it. The Buccaneers have watched big names on both sides of the ball miss significant time.
Not only have the Bucs overcome those injuries, but they have also barely seemed to matter most weeks, as was the case in Sunday's dominant 31-15 win over an overmatched Philadelphia Eagles team.
For most teams, losing two of its top three receivers would be a massive blow to the passing game. But not Tampa.
Despite Chris Godwin being gone for the year and Antonio Brown just being gone, Tom Brady carved up the league's 11th-ranked pass defense in the regular season with relative ease. The veteran quarterback also set a franchise postseason record for completions in a game, while Mike Evans erupted for nine catches (also a Bucs postseason record) for 117 yards and a score.
The Bucs aren't just short-handed at wide receiver, either. Tampa was also short of its top two running backs in Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones II.
Again, no problem.
On a per-carry basis, youngster Ke'Shawn Vaughn and veteran Giovani Bernard (who only recently returned from injury himself) weren't especially impressive—the pair averaged well under four yards per carry in the game. But Tampa ran the ball well enough to maintain offensive balance, both Vaughn and Bernard scored on the ground and combined for over 140 total yards.
There is hope that Fournette (hamstring) and Jones could play next week in the divisional round, and the Buccaneers are getting healthier defensively with the return of players like edge-rusher Jason Pierre-Paul and linebacker Lavonte David.
But there could be another big injury to shake off at Raymond James Stadium next week. After playing every snap for Tampa in each of the last two regular seasons, Pro Bowl tackle Tristan Wirfs was forced from Sunday's victory with an ankle injury. And although he did return to the contest, he was eventually ruled out.
Eagles Have Tough Decision to Make After Embarrassing Loss to Tampa Bay
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers handled the Philadelphia Eagles 28-22 in Week 6, but leading up to Sunday's rematch, Eagles tight end Dallas Goedert said that this time would be different—in part because Philly isn't the same team offensively it was back then.
"Looking at that last game, I feel like it's really not the same team we've got now," Goedert told reporters. "Playerswise, it's pretty similar, but the way we attack teams is completely different."
To be fair, Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni deserves credit for rebounding from a 2-5 start to post a 9-8 record and finish as the only rookie head coach to make the playoffs. Rather than stubbornly insist on running "his" offense, he tailored Philly's offense around what his players did well.
However, the rematch with the Buccaneers didn't go better. It went worse. And a big part of the reason why the Eagles got bounced from the postseason is the same one that caused them to become so run-heavy over the second half of the 2021 season: Jalen Hurts' limitations as a passer.
There's no sugar-coating the quarterback's performance against the Buccaneers—for most of the game, the second-year pro was awful. He didn't see open receivers on multiple occasions, and when he did see open players down the field, he sailed the ball. He didn't throw a touchdown pass until the game was completely out of hand, and he finished the afternoon 23-of-43 for 258 yards with two picks and a miserable passer rating of 60.
Granted, the 23-year-old wasn't solely to blame for the loss, but his first playoff appearance was a game he would no doubt rather forget. And it wasn't an anomaly; the Eagles played seven games against teams in this year's playoff field this season. And lost all seven.
Thanks to last year's offseason wheeling and dealing, there isn't a team better positioned to be aggressive under center in the offseason. Whether it's swinging a deal for a veteran signal-caller or moving up in the 2022 draft, the Eagles' three first-round picks give them draft capital galore to pursue a potential upgrade at quarterback.
If Sunday's loss was any indication, the Eagles would be well-served to think long and hard about being aggressive at the game's most important position. It's either that or settle into life as a team that is good enough to challenge for a playoff spot but not good enough to do any real damage once it gets there.
The Eagles offense we saw Hurts lead Sunday isn't a legitimate threat in the NFC.