NFL wild-card overreactions and looming questions for next round

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You win, they say all the time, or you go home. That’s January football, and we’re in the thick of it. Eight teams played on wild-card weekend; four advanced; four confront earlier offseasons than they wanted. We don’t want to ignore anybody.

For the teams that lose playoff games, overreaction season begins. The disappointment and finality of a January loss can make you forget all about the long winning streaks, brilliant comebacks and other thrills your team gave you from September through December and convince you the thing you thought was wrong with it all along is a terminal problem that’ll never be solved.

For the teams that win, the next thing is to look ahead — to wonder whether the formula that worked on wild-card weekend can work again, especially against a top seed coming off a bye week. Maybe you feel like all your problems are solved. Maybe you worry you got away with one.

So as we look back over the first playoff weekend and ahead to the ones to come, we’re splitting this thing into two groups: one overreaction for each team that lost, and one big question for each team that won. Whichever category your team occupies, we hope you find it enlightening and/or entertaining.

Jump to a team:
Bears | Chargers | Colts | Cowboys | Eagles | Ravens | Seahawks | Texans


OVERREACTIONS FOR WILD-CARD LOSERS

Texans coach Bill O’Brien is on the hot seat

Deshaun Watson picked a lousy day to play his worst game of the season. DeAndre Hopkins hurt his shoulder. The Texans couldn’t block anybody, so they couldn’t run the ball. They didn’t score until the fourth quarter, and it took a 17-play, dink-and-dunk drive to do it. It looked as if Colts coach Frank Reich was playing chess when his team had the ball and O’Brien was playing some sort of scaled-down checkers when Houston did. Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong for the Texans on Saturday, and we haven’t even mentioned the defense yet.

Graziano’s verdict: OVERREACTION. O’Brien just signed an extension a year ago and won a power struggle that saw the ouster of GM Rick Smith. He steered this season’s Texans out of an 0-3 ditch to a division title. He and GM Brian Gaine have work to do to build a more complete offense around Watson, but O’Brien should get the chance to do it. A good place to start? How about committing some draft capital to the offensive line? Watson was sacked 62 times in the regular season. The team that beat the Texans Saturday has first-round picks at left tackle, left guard and center, and a rookie second-rounder at right tackle. If that doesn’t bring it home for you, what does?

Brian Schottenheimer’s run-heavy game plan cost the Seahawks their season

Through the first three quarters of their very close playoff game against the Cowboys, the Seahawks ran the ball 23 times and threw it 14. Which, fine. This is the way they played all season. Committing to the run and succeeding with it kept Russell Wilson better protected and helped the Seahawks to a surprise wild-card berth. That’s who they are, and you can make the case that it was working Saturday night, as they finished that third quarter with a 14-10 lead. But the defense couldn’t hold on, the Cowboys put a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns on the board, and by the time Wilson’s arm and Tyler Lockett and Doug Baldwin‘s clutch catches were driving the bus, it was too late.

Graziano’s verdict: NOT AN OVERREACTION. Especially on the road against one of the best run defenses in the league, and especially with the Cowboys struggling to put touchdowns on the board for most of the night, it would have been worth it for Seattle to take some shots and put the game in Wilson’s hands earlier than it did. The Seahawks’ formula was a fine one for grinding out 10 regular-season wins and staying consistent for four months, but time and again we’ve seen that you need explosive plays to separate yourself in the playoffs. Kudos to Pete Carroll, Schottenheimer and the Seattle coaches for getting the most out of this group this season, but if they get back to the playoffs next season, they’d do well to remember what they have at quarterback before it’s too late.

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Lamar Jackson breaks down his struggles in the Ravens’ 23-17 playoff loss to the Chargers.

John Harbaugh should have replaced Lamar Jackson with Joe Flacco in the second half

Jackson, the Ravens’ electrifying rookie quarterback, was an abysmal 3-for-9 for 25 yards, an interception and two fumbles (one lost) for the first three quarters of Baltimore’s loss to the Chargers on Sunday. Former Super Bowl MVP quarterback Joe Flacco spent the bulk of that time sitting on the bench in a parka and knit cap. The Baltimore crowd chanted for him for part of the game as Jackson struggled to solve the Chargers’ defense. Jackson turned it on with 156 passing yards and two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter, but his third fumble of the game killed a potential game-winning drive.

Graziano’s verdict: OVERREACTION. A huge part of a coach’s job is to know his team, and by this point in the season, the Ravens’ locker room was all the way behind Jackson. They went 6-1 in their final seven regular-season games with Jackson as their starter after starting the season 4-5 with Flacco as their starter. Nothing against Flacco, but he hadn’t played in a couple of months and almost all of Baltimore’s success this season came with Jackson as its quarterback. As rough as things were with Jackson facing the Chargers’ defense for the second time in three weeks, there was no reason to think it would have gone better for Flacco. Jackson’s fourth-quarter performance showed that he had the ability to bring the team back. That Harbaugh left him in for the whole game showed that it’s Jackson’s team now for better or for worse.

The Bears can’t win a Super Bowl with Mitchell Trubisky at quarterback

The best defense in the league just held the defending Super Bowl champions to 16 points in a playoff game, but Trubisky and the offense managed only 15 points. The question Bears fans have been asking for months now is whether Trubisky was enough quarterback to get them where they needed to go, and in the playoff game Sunday he was 26-for-43 for 303 yards and a touchdown pass. If you’d told the Bears on Sunday morning they’d need only 17 points to win, they probably would have signed up for that. But they didn’t get the points, and they head into an offseason during which they’ll need to add pieces to the offense.

Graziano’s verdict: OVERREACTION. Come on. The kid threw for 300 yards, didn’t turn the ball over and made a picture-perfect sideline throw to help get the team in position for a game-winning field goal in the final minute. This game is a perfect example of why it’s crazy to characterize coaches’ and players’ legacies based on the result of one or two games in January. If Cody Parkey‘s kick had sailed through the uprights, would that have somehow made Trubisky a better or more reliable quarterback? It was a great season for Trubisky, who developed and occasionally flourished in Matt Nagy’s offense. The Bears will surely structure their offseason in a way that surrounds him with more and more helpful pieces. The future is bright in Chicago, no matter how much this one hurts.

BIG QUESTIONS FOR WILD-CARD WINNERS

Can the Colts’ defense do to Patrick Mahomes what it did to Deshaun Watson?

With an interview scheduled Sunday for the Browns’ head-coaching vacancy, Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus slapped a sweet résumé tape together Saturday in Houston. The Colts stifled the Texans’ run game, kept DeAndre Hopkins from wrecking the game (though Hopkins’ shoulder injury may have helped with that) and kept the heat on Houston even after the Indy offense stalled in the second half. Watson, who completed 68.3 percent of his passes and averaged 8.2 yards per pass attempt in the regular season, saw those numbers dip to 59.1 and 4.8 for this game, and the Colts also held his running in check for the most part.

But now comes Mahomes, the presumptive MVP, who just finished the third 50-touchdown-pass season in league history. Kansas City’s offense is far more dynamic and creative than Houston’s. For all of Andy Reid’s well-known playoff struggles, his teams are 20-4 all-time (regular season and playoffs) coming off bye weeks. Andrew Luck & Co. should be able to put up points on the Chiefs’ defense, especially if the line can hold off the pass rush the way it did Saturday. But can Indy find a way to get just enough stops of Mahomes to allow Luck to outscore him? This should be a popcorn-worthy matchup.

Can the Cowboys’ defense dominate on the road?

Dallas is 8-1 this season at AT&T Stadium, including victories over three playoff teams — the Saints, Eagles and of course the Seahawks. But the Cowboys were only 3-5 on the road, and they allowed an average of 77 more yards per game on the road than they did at home in the regular season. On average, they sacked the opposing quarterback on 9.5 percent of his pass attempts at home and 4.9 percent of the time on the road. The Cowboys can draw some encouragement from the memory of the back-to-back road November wins in Philadelphia and Atlanta that started the five-game win streak that saved their season.

But their last two road games of the regular season were a 23-0 loss to the Colts and a 36-35 shootout victory over the Giants. The Dallas defense is loaded with playmakers at all three levels, but repeating Saturday night’s performance is going to be a lot tougher in Los Angeles against a rested Rams team than it was at home against an insufficiently ambitious Seahawks offense. It’ll help if the Cowboys can get Ezekiel Elliott going early and keep the potent Rams offense off the field as much as possible.

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Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn explains how impressed he is with his defensive coaches after the team’s win over the Ravens.

Do the Chargers own a road-field advantage?

Everybody’s heard about a HOME-field advantage, but these Chargers are deadly on the road. Sunday’s victory in Baltimore improved them to 8-1 this season in games in which they’re the visiting team. They also won a “home” game against the Titans in London, and the only blemish on their road record is a loss to the Rams up the highway in Los Angeles. What this means is, every time this season the Chargers have had to fly to a game, they’ve flown home with a win.

The Patriots are obviously very tough at home this time of year — not to mention that Philip Rivers is 0-7 in his career against Tom Brady — and West Coast teams have historically struggled with road games that start at 1 p.m. in the Eastern time zone. But the Chargers just won such a game Sunday, and it’s clear by now they aren’t scared of such games. Chargers coach Anthony Lynn hasn’t been shy about using the Chargers’ nomadic past couple of years (move from San Diego, play home games in a small soccer stadium that always seems to fill up with fans of the visiting team) as a rallying point. They’re used to playing and winning road games. They actually seem to enjoy it. Does that make them more dangerous to the Patriots than any other team that might have rolled into New England next week? We will find out.

Last year was one thing. The Eagles were the No. 1 seed, had a bye and had to win two home games to get to the Super Bowl. This year, they’re the No. 6 seed and have to win three road games to get to the Super Bowl. But somehow, it’s one down and two to go, and how are we going to doubt this guy at this point? Foles’ first start in December in relief of an injured Carson Wentz was a 30-23 road victory over the second-seeded Rams, and he just went on the road and took out the third-seeded Bears. The top-seeded Saints are coming off a bye and playing in a building where they’re always incredibly tough, but this is a championship team with a championship defense led by a Super Bowl MVP quarterback. At some point, the unbelievable just becomes reality. Let’s enjoy this remarkable ride as long as it lasts. The 30-for-30 on Foles is going to be one my kids watch with their kids and shake their heads at.



Source : ESPN