Analysis

NFL Wild Card Weekend: What We Learned from Saturday’s Games

Of course, quarterbacks were at the center of a couple of Super Wild Card Weekend comebacks as the NFL playoffs opened for business on Saturday.

The San Francisco 49ers — led by rookie QB Brock Purdy and a suffocating defense — came from behind by playing a dominant second half in a 41-23 victory over the Seattle Seahawks.

That was just a warmup for a night of high drama in Jacksonville, where the Jaguars and Trevor Lawrence overcame a horrendous start to come back and beat the Chargers on a last-second field goal, 31-30. Trailing 27-0 late in the first half, the Jaguars outscored the Chargers 31-3 the rest of the way, walking off on a field goal as time expired for the third-largest comeback in NFL playoff history.

Here are 11 takeaways from the two games:

Jaguars 31, Chargers 30

No Guts, No glory

Want a bold call at a key moment during a big game? Then Doug Pederson is your coach. The author of the “Philly Special” in Super Bowl LII struck again with another concoction from his play-calling lab Saturday night.

Trailing by four points after scoring a touchdown with 5:30 to play, the Jaguars coach decided to go for two points after the Chargers’ Joey Bosa was called for an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty on the scoring play. The infraction moved the ball to the 1, just close enough for quarterback Trevor Lawrence to reach over the goal line and cut the deficit to 30-28.

Facing a fourth-and-1 with 1:27 left, Pederson put three players in the backfield behind Lawrence, and rather than calling a quarterback sneak, the coach called for a run around right end by Travis Etienne that went for 25 yards, all the way to the Chargers 16. That set the table for Riley Patterson‘s field goal as time expired to give Jacksonville a victory in a game that once appeared over at halftime.

About That Late Penalty …

Bosa obviously believed the Jaguars should have been flagged for, in no particular order, a false start and/or holding on Christian Kirk‘s fourth-quarter touchdown reception. He vented (and vented) his frustrations, finally taking them out on his helmet near the Chargers sideline while still standing on the field. That was a no-no.

But analyst Mike Martz of The 33rd Team thought the aggressor was the official, not Bosa.

“I think Bosa got a raw deal,” Martz said. “I think that referee made it personal. There’s a lot of things said on the field.

“Whatever he said, Bosa was walking away from him and said something, and the official was back there and ran over to him and asked, ‘What did you say? What did you say?’ To my knowledge, you just leave it alone unless you see him in your face saying that to you. Just let that stuff go. But I think the referee made this thing personal, and it’s regrettable because officials normally aren’t like that.”

All-Time Jekyll-and-Hyde Performance

Lawrence had a record-setting night, just maybe not the sort anyone envisioned. As bad as he was for most of the first half, when he threw four interceptions (three alone in the first quarter), he started down the path of redemption just before halftime, connecting with tight end Evan Engram to cut the score to 27-7.

That was just a warmup for a 24-point second half and the last-second victory. Lawrence threw touchdown passes to Marvin Jones, Zay Jones and Kirk on Jacksonville’s first three possessions of the second half. The fourth drive resulted in the winning field goal.

“The best attribute any athlete can have is realizing when you’re having one of your worst performances and find a way to turn it into one of your finest moments,” said Trey Wingo of The 33rd Team. “And that’s what Trevor Lawrence did.”

Lawrence’s stat line almost defies belief: four TD passes, four interceptions and 288 yards on 28-of-47 passing. In the process, he became the first quarterback to throw four picks and still win a playoff game (Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger in 2020 was the other).

Chargers’ Coverage Changes Confused Lawrence

Part of the reason Lawrence and the Jaguars imploded in the first half was because the Chargers did their homework on Jacksonville’s offense. They baited the second-year quarterback into throwing four first-half interceptions — three by Asante Samuel Jr., one more than he had during the entire 17-game regular season.

“The Chargers looked at it as whole, how many balls actually go past 10, 12, 13 yards? Not many,” Martz said. “So what they’ve done in their man (coverage) they just clamped everything down real tight, safeties in, the corners are leveling and keeping the quarterback really hard. So he’s not getting any separation by anybody whether it’s zone or man. And it’s confusing him, and he’s holding the ball, letting that ball go later than he should.”

Of course, it was the adjustments Pederson and his staff made at halftime, along with the mental toughness of Lawrence in the second half, that allowed the Jaguars to eventually call checkmate on the Chargers.

Chargers’ Offense Short-Circuits

Los Angeles’ first-half scoring drives covered 18 (touchdown), 57 (field goal), 16 (TD), 67 (TD) and 1 (FG) yards. The Chargers punted three more times after a total of 11 plays. Needing to drain the clock after the Jaguars pulled within two points after Lawrence’s two-point conversion with just over 5 minutes left in the fourth quarter, they punted after five plays. That came on the heels of a missed field goal after a 17-play drive.

Clearly, the Chargers offense wasn’t up to the task. It generated 320 yards for the game but twice got bogged down in the red zone, settling for 22- and 23-yard field goals.

“I was surprised at how punchless the Chargers were on offense, because if you take away the takeaways from their defense, offensively they didn’t do anything,” Martz said. “They got the ball on the 5-yard line in the first half, and they ran a couple of plays and threw the ball and missed this and missed that, and they kicked a field goal. It happened to them twice, the defense puts them down nice and tight to get touchdowns, and they get field goals, and then they miss a field goal.

“It’s a game they should have easily won, but offensively I though it was a very poor performance.”

Is This the End for Staley?

The Chargers finished with a 5-0 turnover advantage, helping them build a 27-0 lead before halftime … and lost. How do they recover from this playoff meltdown?

And maybe the bigger question: Will this disaster end up costing Brandon Staley his job? The Chargers head coach came off a week of heavy criticism for playing his starters last week in what ended up being a meaningless game. Wide receiver Mike Williams wasn’t available Saturday night (in a game Staley could have used him) after suffering a fracture in his back while playing in the season finale.

“You have to wonder if this game cost Brandon Staley his chance to be the head coach going forward, especially when you have a guy like Sean Payton out there,” Wingo said. “Sean Payton is talking to a bunch of teams right now, but imagine Sean Payton with his offensive genius and his resume and everything else he’s done in the NFL as a head coach, imagine him paired with Justin Herbert. Think what that would do for the power structure in the AFC West, which has been owned and dominated by the Kansas City Chiefs.”

49ers 41, Seahawks 23

Purdy Impressive Second Half for 49ers

What more can be said about Brock Purdy? The rookie quarterback overcame a lackluster first half to spark the 49ers’ second-half surge. Purdy accounted for four touchdowns, passed for 332 yards and finished with a 131.5 passer rating. He directed three drives of 70 yards or longer after halftime, including one that he finished quickly with a 74-yard catch-and-run play to Deebo Samuel. As a result, San Francisco flipped a one-point deficit into a 24-point lead.

“He was a little off on a couple (of passes), but he also made a couple off-schedules in the first half that were really good,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “He ended up playing a hell of a game. The most impressive thing is not turning it over.”

Purdy’s poise stood out to analyst Robert Smith of The 33rd Team.

“Really, there’s nothing that rattles the guy,” Smith said. “I believe at the beginning of the game, probably because of a little bit of anxiety, maybe a little bit of butterflies, he was a little bit late on a couple of throws, a little big inaccurate on a couple of throws. But once he settled in, he was the exact same player I saw on the field at Iowa State who could make any throw to any area of the field with timing, with accuracy and could escape the pocket.”

Sounds like another quarterback who enjoyed a pretty good career in San Francisco.

49ers Go Back to Their Identity

San Francisco put the ball in Purdy’s hands in the first half before returning to its running roots in the second, when it hammered out long drives, including its 15-play statement-maker to start the third quarter.

“I was surprised San Francisco didn’t run the ball more in the first half than they did,” said analyst Eric Mangini of The 33rd Team. “They ended up running 10 times. They’re averaging 11 yards a carry, but they let Brock Purdy throw the ball 19 times, which was totally different from in the second half. In the third quarter alone, they had 12 carries.

“In that (first second-half) drive they ran the ball nine times. … That’s what they’ve got to do. They’ve got to run the ball consistently to allow Purdy to be as effective as possible with play-action, and also give him more time in the pocket.”

Christian McCaffrey was one part of the 49ers’ 33-carry onslaught, gaining 119 yards on 15 carries and scoring the 49ers’ first touchdown on a short pass from Purdy.

“He’s no stranger to adversity, and he responds really well,” McCaffrey said of Purdy. “That’s a mature football player, especially playing quarterback.”

Fast Start for Seahawks

Seattle played a mistake-free first half in taking a 17-16 intermission lead. The Seahawks held the 49ers to field goals three times, and then climbed back from an early 10-point deficit behind quarterback Geno Smith, running back Kenneth Walker and receiver DK Metcalf. Walker rushed for a touchdown among his 63 yards, and Metcalf caught 50-yard bomb from Smith in the second quarter before Jason Myers kicked a 56-yard field goal as time expired to give the Seahawks their only lead.

“If anything, I was impressed by the way Seattle played the game,” Mangini said. “Seattle played a clean first half — no turnovers, penalties — consistency, approach, toughness. All of those things I thought were really good.”

The reverse happened for the Seahawks in the second half, and credit the 49ers defense for playing up to its top ranking. Smith lost a fumble on a strip sack and later threw an interception.

“They got two penalties on that drive, that’s why (Smith has to) look down the field, eat up more time,” Mangini said. “He gets strip sacked, really frustrating I’m sure from a coaching standpoint and from a players’ standpoint, too, for all the good things they’ve been doing to let that be the thing that turns the game.”

Purdy’s Impact Extends to Playoffs

Purdy’s performance was his fifth 100-plus passer rating in his six starts, something the the final pick in the 2022 NFL Draft took in stride.

“It’s playoff football, everyone plays their best football,” he said. “Overall it wasn’t, ‘Oh, my gosh, we’re in the playoffs, … we gotta get all tense.’ We’ve just got to play our game and let everything else fall into place.”

There is no downplaying what Purdy is accomplishing, however.

“He’s not only ruined it for Mr. Irrelevant, but he’s ruined it for every top quarterback pick moving forward when you have the success that he does as early as he did,” Mangini said. “The guys who come as a top-5 pick, there’s already a ton of pressure on them now.

“(Purdy is showing) you can go in and be successful as a rookie quarterback and light it up.”

49ers Putting Playoff Teams on Notice

So the question begs to be asked: How do you stop the 49ers’ offense?

Smith isn’t so sure that’s possible.

“The real danger of the 49ers offense is that it’s a lethal combination of creativity from an offensive play-caller, versatile pieces that can be used in a lot of different ways and give a lot of different looks,” he said. “And three, a rookie quarterback, 23 years old and only in his sixth start, has already shown he’s going to be able to handle any type of pressure situation.”

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