Analysis

NFL Wild Card Weekend: What We Learned From Sunday’s Games

A Super Wild Card Weekend that’s been full of surprises did not disappoint on Sunday, kicking off with an underdog taking a powerhouse to the brink, followed by another slight dog winning on the road. But the best might have been saved for a wild finish in prime time. 

The Bills were heavy favorites heading into their game against the Dolphins, but they didn’t look like it for much of the third meeting of the season against their AFC East rival. Despite jumping out to a 17-0 lead, the Bills allowed the Dolphins to storm back and take the lead before eventually falling to Buffalo, 34-31. 

In Minnesota, Daniel Jones and Saquon Barkley spearheaded five scoring drives for the Giants, who went toe-to-toe with the Vikings’ No. 7-ranked offense and emerged with a 31-24 victory. The win earned the Giants a second rematch with their NFC East rival, the Philadelphia Eagles, in the Divisional Round on Saturday. 

The Bengals held on for a 24-17 victory after taking the lead on an improbable 98-yard fumble return by defensive end Sam Hubbard. Cincinnati punched a ticket to Buffalo to take on the Bills next Sunday, a runback of a Week 17 matchup that eventually was postponed after Bills safety Damar Hamlin went into cardiac arrest on the field. 

Here are notable takeaways from each of Sunday’s games (if you missed Saturday’s takeaways, you can find them here):

Bengals 24, Ravens 17

Goal-line Magic, Part 1

As momentum swings go, Bengals defensive end Sam Hubbard’s NFL playoff-record fumble return of 98 yards is as big as it gets. Hubbard’s jaunt ended up being the winning score with 11:54 left in the fourth quarter.

The Ravens had gone 80 yards in nine plays down to the Bengals’ 1 when Tyler Huntley jumped at the line and tried to reach the ball over across the goal line. Bengals linebacker Logan Wilson alertly poked it away right to Hubbard, who caught it at the 2 and was off to the races.

“It really came down to that one play in the fourth quarter with Huntley acting as if he was Trevor Lawrence, trying to stick that ball over as opposed to just following his line and letting them push,” said The 33rd Team analyst Samari Rolle. “This is the playoffs. That was too big a play. The momentum was too much to come back from, that was the game right there in a nutshell.”

Baltimore had tied the score one series earlier on a seven-play, 81-yard drive with 2:20 to play in the third quarter that was capped by Huntley’s 41-yard scoring pass to Demarcus Robinson. The Ravens then forced a Bengals punt on the next possession.

It was the first touchdown of Hubbard’s career. It was particularly sweet because not only did it come in the playoffs against an AFC North rival, but the 6-foot-5, 265-pounder has strong ties to the area. He is a Cincinnati native who played college ball for Ohio State.

“You can’t dream that one up,” Hubbard said. “It’s pretty special.”

Goal-line Magic, Part 2

The Bengals, in spite of some questionable clock management on their final drive, still had an opportunity to tie the score on Huntley’s throw to the end zone on the last play of the game.

His pass was tipped just inside the goal line and fell off James Proche’s fingertips.

The Ravens burned up the game’s final 3:14 on a drive that started at Cincinnati’s 46. The final two minutes were particularly ugly as the Ravens had two penalties and five incompletions in a nine-play sequence. They stopped to huddle after Huntley ran for four yards, taking the clock down to 1:25, then they didn’t use their remaining two timeouts until the game’s final play at 8 seconds.

Ravens Face QB Questions This Offseason

Two of the looming questions for the Ravens undoubtedly will be: Where was Lamar Jackson, and would he have made a difference?

The answer to the first question: back in Baltimore, which probably indicates a deeper problem as the Ravens head into an offseason of uncertainty with their star quarterback.

The issue might be approaching the point of no return, according to former Ravens cornerback Samari Rolle.

“The unfortunate part about everything Lamar Jackson has had to go through is if you look historically at any quarterback that’s won an MVP in the past or any successful franchise quarterback, they haven’t gone through all of this,” The 33rd Team analyst said. “If it’s a contract that guaranteed money, the injuries, just the way the Ravens have presented it this week, coming into the game saying, ‘Well, I can only worry about the players that are here who are healthy.

“So if you can is there and say you don’t know what’s going with the franchise quarterback and put him in a position to where he has to come on social media to defend himself and explain why he’s hurt, the relationship is ruined.”

As for the second question, in a one-score game, the former league MVP probably would have made a big difference for the Ravens, although Huntley, who sat out the Week 18 matchup against the Bengals because of shoulder and wrist injuries, performed a reasonably decent impersonation of Jackson.

The Ravens’ backup quarterback accounted for 280 total yards, including 226 on 17-of-29 passing. He connected with Robinson and J.K Dobbins for touchdowns and threw one interception. Huntley also rushed for 54 yards, frustrating Cincinnati’s defense.

“Your quarterback, whether he’s playing or not, you want him there,” Rolle added. “He and Huntley are really tight, and obviously he could help Huntley with what he sees out there, and what checks are available.”

Huntley is the third quarterback the Ravens have started in three games against the Bengals this season. Jackson, a pending free agent who did not accompany the team to Cincinnati and has not practiced in more than five weeks as he deals with a knee injury, led the Ravens to a 19-17 victory in Week 5 at Baltimore. Third-stringer Anthony Brown started in Week 18 when the Bengals won 27-16.

Burrow Stays the Course

The “other” quarterback in this game, Joe Burrow, accounted for both of the Bengals’ offensive scores — one by land and one by air to college/pro teammate Ja’Marr Chase. Burrow was a workmanlike 23-for-32 for 209 yards with a touchdown on the ground and, as importantly, did not throw an interception.

This was almost exactly in line with his first two performances against the Ravens this season. He went 24 of 35 for 217 yards with a TD and a pick in Cincinnati’s Week 5 loss and was 25 of 42 for 217 yards with a TD last week.

What Burrow didn’t have Sunday was a rushing attack to take the pressure off him. His 9 yards on five carries were the second most on the Bengals. Bell-cow back Joe Mixon had 39 yards on 11 carries (3.5 average) as Cincinnati made few attempts to run the ball.

Giants 31, Vikings 24

Jones’ Dual-Threat Ability Tough To Stop

Any more questions about Giants quarterback Daniel Jones?

The fourth-year pro turned in a playoff performance for the ages, using his right arm as well as his feet to roll up 380 total yards. In the process, Jones became the first player in NFL history to pass for more than 300 yards (301), rush for 70 or more yards (79) and pass for two touchdowns in a playoff game.

It was Jones’ third 300-yard passing game of the season, but the Giants lost the first two – Week 11 against the Lions, when he had 341 passing yards, and Week 16 against the Vikings, when he threw for 334 yards. He had 391 total yards in the former game and 368 in the first meeting at Minnesota. 

“That ability that he showed coming out in the draft and that toughness that he has is now translating into big plays in the running game with him as a runner, and then that’s creating opportunities for Saquon Barkley, that’s creating opportunities for big plays,” said analyst Eric Mangini of The 33rd Team. “He’s done a much better job of processing defenses, where oftentimes (in the past) it looked like he didn’t really know what he was look at. Now it feels like not only does he understand what he’s looking at defensively, and he’s getting the ball in the right place. When it’s not there, he’s getting the ball out of his hands quickly or pulling it down and running.”

Jones wasn’t the Giants’ only dual-threat weapon on Sunday. Barkley rushed for 53 yards and two touchdowns and added five receptions for 56 more yards.

The big question that will need to be answered sooner or later, with both Jones and Barkley owning expiring contracts, is which dual threat gets extended and which one gets franchise tagged in the offseason.

But first things first. The Giants, headed to Philadelphia next week for a divisional matchup with the Eagles, have another game to play.

Giants’ Clock Control

How do you keep a top-10 offense in check? One way is keeping it off the field, which is exactly what the Giants did. Give Big Blue credit because not only did it string together several lengthy drives, it made nearly all of them pay off with points. 

The Giants’ five scoring drives covered 85 (touchdown), 81 (TD), 90 (field goal), 75 (TD) and 67 yards (TD). The field goal drive covered 21 plays, while the fourth touchdown drive consumed 16 more. 

The Giants rolled up 431 yards of offense against a Vikings defense ranked 31st overall. It was only the fourth time in 18 games this season New York surpassed 400 yards. The Giants had 436 vs. Jacksonville, 413 in the loss to Detroit, and 445 in their first meeting against the Vikings.

“This is really once again about what the (Vikings’) defense hasn’t been able to do all year long,” said analyst Robert Smith of The 33rd Team. “The combination of Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith on the edges has been great, but they don’t have any twitchy players on the inside, on the interior of that defense. Time and time again what we saw was Daniel Jones exploiting that, being able to get inside of that edge pressure and escape up the middle and get some big gains.”

New York won the time-of-possession battle, too, holding an advantage of more than 7 minutes (33:36 to 26:24).

Don’t Blame Kirk Cousins

Much has been made of Kirk Cousins’ inability to win big games, but it’s tough to pin this loss on him. In fact, it would not be fair at all. The veteran Vikings quarterback was very good to excellent Sunday, something the stats, if not the scoreboard, reinforced. 

Cousins was 31-for-39 passing (79.5 percent) for 273 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. He also did not take a sack.

“Don’t you dare try and put this loss on Kirk Cousins,” Smith said. “He had a very efficient day — 31-of-39 throwing the football. He was making throws when he needed to most of the game, evading pressure, didn’t take any sacks, and certainly could have with some of the issues on that offensive line. I thought Kirk played really well.”

If one wanted to split hairs, his choice of checking down to tight end T.J. Hockenson for a 3-yard pass on a fourth-and-8 with less than 2 minutes to play in the game was a bit concerning. 

Also concerning was that he didn’t try to find Justin Jefferson, who led the NFL this season in receptions and yards.

“[I] saw single-high [safety], tried to work Justin, didn’t feel good about putting it up to Justin, and when I went to progress, I just felt like I was about to get sacked and I felt like I’ve got to put the ball in play, and I can’t go down with sack,” Cousins said. “So I thought I’d kick it out to T.J.”

Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell took the blame for the play-call.

“I could have done a better job in the moment,” O’Connell said. “(Cousins) knew it was fourth down, and he just didn’t want to — he wanted to make sure he put the ball in play. … The pocket may or may not have been collapsing on him, and he just wanted to make sure he gave somebody a chance, and they made a play.

“Our two-minute offense has been pretty darn good all season helping us, and in the end we didn’t get it done on that drive, and it did feel rather abrupt the way it happened.”

Giants Fix Past Mistakes

So much for the notion of defenses rising to the challenge in the postseason. The teams combined for 763 yards, only a slight improvement from 798 in the Week 16 game, which the Vikings won, 27-24. 

Even the breakdowns were eerily similar. On Sunday, the Giants had 431 total yards after amassing 445 in the first meeting. The Vikings had 332, down from 353 in the first meeting. 

One difference for the Giants this time was they cleaned up many of the issues they had in the first meeting.

“The Giants really didn’t play a very good game (in Week 16),” Mangini noted. “They were 3-for-11 on third down, they had two turnovers, they had seven penalties. They cleaned up those things. It was a totally different situation this time, where they were 7-for-12 on third down, 2-for-2 on fourth down, no turnovers, less penalties.

“That’s coaching, that’s identifying those problems and making sure that you don’t make the same mistakes you did the first time.”

Bills 34, Dolphins 31 

Bills Defense Needs to Rebound

Dolphins third-string quarterback Skylar Thompson, an afterthought in the 2022 NFL Draft as a seventh-round pick, led Miami to 31 points. So what could Joe Burrow or Patrick Mahomes do against a suddenly susceptible Buffalo defense? 

Bills fans likely will be asking themselves that question all week with Burrow and the Bengals on deck. Get past Cincinnati, and Mahomes and the Chiefs could be standing in the way of the Super Bowl.

Count Greg Jennings, a former NFL receiver, among those on edge about the Bills’ prospects going forward.

“But I am concerned about the Bills moving forward, primarily Josh Allen, because there were some overthrows,” said the analyst for The 33rd Team. “There was obviously some turnovers that he has been prone to all season long, and he hasn’t been able to shake loose of that vice.”

More Clock-Management Issues

Clock management was a common theme throughout Wild Card Weekend. And not the good kind.

It came up again late in the Dolphins-Bills game when Thompson, with 4:13 to play, was trying to lead the team down the field and tie the game. On fourth-and-1 near midfield, with the play clock ticking down, the play from the sideline was taking too long to get relayed. The play clock ended up hitting zero before the ball was snapped, causing a delay-of-game penalty and moving the ball back 5 yards. Thompson threw an incompletion and the game was essentially finished as Buffalo ran out the clock.

There appeared to be confusion on the play prior to the delay of game on fourth down as to whether running back Salvon Ahmed had gained a first down on a short run. Time was wasted in the confusion and personnel substitution, leaving Thompson very little time to receive and run the play.

It was one of several issues with clock management that popped up throughout the game for the Dolphins.

“The last one in particular had to do with whether it was officials or coaching, there was some communication that we’d gotten first down,” McDaniel said. “So then we were deploying a group of players for the first-and-10 call and then it was articulated that no, it was fourth down. That’s all the stuff that you do in this business, is you never stop finding the things that you can improve on and it was a piece of the reason why we were unable to come out with a victory, but it definitely wasn’t the only reason.”

Elam’s Play Sinks Dolphins

Trailing by three points with just over two minutes remaining, Thompson and the Dolphins faced a fourth-and-6 with their season on the line.

Rolling out to his right, Thompson targeted tight end Mike Gesicki, who appeared to have a half-step on his man, headed toward the sideline. But a diving effort from Bills rookie Kaiir Elam led to a game-sealing pass breakup.

That play came immediately after Miami was called for a delay-of-game penalty that apparently was created by a sideline mix-up. Coach Mike McDaniel said afterward it was communicated to him that the Dolphins  had picked up a first down on the previous play, and he didn’t have a fourth-down play immediately ready.

“There was some communication that we’d gotten first down,” McDaniel said. “So then we were deploying a group of players for the first-and-10 call. Then it was articulated that, no, it was fourth down.

“It was communicated to me through upstairs, from the headset I think. I was standing by an official, I had just gotten convicted information that it was a first down. So I don’t really know exactly who it was from. It was probably the first time all year that that has happened.”

Elam, meanwhile, previously made another big play that affected the outcome.

Midway through the third quarter, with the Bills down 4 points, Elam undercut his man and extended up for a game-changing interception. The Bills scored on the subsequent possession and didn’t look back, eventually winning the game and advancing to the Divisional Round.

Turnover Problem in Buffalo

After squandering a 17-0 lead, the Bills added a field goal at the end of the first half, regaining the lead at 20-17 and rolling momentum back into their favor. They then took possession to start the second half. 

That momentum was short-lived. 

A Josh Allen fumble was picked up and returned for a touchdown by Miami defensive tackle Zach Seiler. 

That was Allen’s third turnover of the game after two first-half interceptions. The first was a deep pass picked off by Xavien Howard, intended for John Brown. The second was a Jevon Holland interception on a pass intended for Cole Beasley, allowing the Dolphins to take over at the Bills’ 18. 

“I thought we did some good things today. I did some bad things today,” Allen said. “Some stuff to clean up, some things to learn from — but we’ll grow from it. All that matters is surviving and advancing. Doesn’t matter how we win, it’s if we win.”

The Bills should be pleased that they’re still alive in the playoffs, but they should also be alarmed at how they’re playing, Mangini said.

“If you let a team that you should easily beat hang around as it gets later in the game you tense up, your team tenses up, and their team gets more relaxed, and it should have never been that way,” Mangini said. “The Dolphins had 17 points off turnovers, and you look at Josh Allen’s game – two interceptions, has the fumble that’s returned for a touchdown. The Bills fumbled four times, and he was sacked seven times. They let the Dolphins hang around. This is a team that had two missing offensive linemen, missing their quarterback, missing their starting running back.

“It should never ever have gotten to were it was.”

Clutch Cole, Like He Never Left

Cole Beasley is back in Buffalo and making his presence felt. The wide receiver caught just two passes for 35 yards, but both were key in the Bills’ comeback. 

Down 24-20 midway through the third quarter, Beasley caught a 6-yard pass from Josh Allen and dove into the end zone to give the Bills back the lead — and the momentum. 

On the Bills’ subsequent drive, he again came up clutch. On a third-and-6, Allen dropped back around midfield and completed a short inside route to Beasley that he took 29 yards, to put the Bills deep into Miami territory. Buffalo capped off the drive with a Gabe Davis touchdown reception on the next play. 

Beasley joined the Bills in early December after spending a few weeks with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to start the season. He retired in October but came back to help Buffalo down the stretch. 

“It’s been a ride for sure,” said Beasley, who was previously with the Bills from 2019 to 2021. “It’s been a tough year for me just being at home and watching and then coming back. … Still feeling like I’m getting back in the groove, but trying to enjoy it.”

The Tua Difference

After falling by just three points to their division rival, the Dolphins’ decision-makers should be emboldened by the fortitude their team showed in spite of an injury to one of their most important players, quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. 

McDaniel will head into his second season knowing he has a core group that, behind a third-string quarterback, took one of the NFL’s best teams down to the wire in a playoff game. The question becomes: who is the QB that can make the difference next year?

“The Miami Dolphins, moving forward after suffering this loss at Buffalo Bills, have to be thinking immediately about their future,” Jennings said. “No. 1, no one is more important than Tua Tagovailoa, their quarterback. Obviously he didn’t play because of the concussion, so you have to address the quarterback position — whether you move forward with Tua and you bank on him being healthy … or you look elsewhere.” 

Like northwest, perhaps, toward Tampa?

Hamlin Strong

Buffalo’s Highmark Stadium was filled to the brim with Bills’ faithful showing their support for No. 3 — Bills safety Damar Hamlin. 

Hamlin was released from a Buffalo area hospital on Wednesday, just nine days after suffering cardiac arrest during Monday night game at Cincinnati on Jan. 2. Hamlin tweeted before the game that he was watching the Bills’ wild-card game at his home as he continues to focus on his recovery. 

On Saturday, however, Hamlin was able to visit the Bills’ facility and encourage his teammates in person, as seen on linebacker Matt Milano’s Instagram story

Speaking with reporters after the Bills’ win, coach Sean McDermott addressed the positive impact Hamlin’s visit had on the team. 

“It was great having him, he came to the walkthrough yesterday along with his parents and his little brother, which was great to see him,” said McDermott. “Word traveled fast because by the end of the walkthrough, everyone had gotten down there to say hello.” 

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