NFL-Playoff opening-weekend observations, many of which relate to the Skins.
Saturday: Houston 27, Oakland 14
The biggest takeaway is how bad Connor Cook was as he became the first quarterback to make his first career start in a postseason game in the Super Bowl Era. ESPN’s QBR stat is on a scale of 0-100. Cook’s Raw QBR (unadjusted for opponent) for this game was 5.5. He had the third-fewest yards per pass attempt (3.6) in a playoff game since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. But the Texans’ defense should not be overlooked. Houston finished the regular season seventh in the NFL in total defense per Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric. The work of guys like Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus in this game was tremendous.
Clowney offers hope to the Redskins fan regarding Josh Doctson, serving as a reminder of how a first-round pick shouldn’t be judged after his first or even second season. Do you remember Clowney’s first NFL game? It was also Jay Gruden’s first game as Redskins head coach, a 17-6 loss at the Texans in Week 1 of the 2014 season. Clowney suffered a knee injury in that game and played in just four games that season. He was healthier in 2015 but still wasn’t having a ton of impact. This season, though, has been different. He had the third-best grade from Pro Football Focus against the run among all edge defenders at 89.5, trailing only Michael Bennett and Von Miller. And Clowney was a monster in this game. No play was more impressive than his first-quarter third-and-12 interception, on which he tipped the ball twice before making the catch.
By the way, the Texans defense has done what it has done this season despite having J.J. Watt for just three games due to back surgery. Remember that the next time your hear about injuries as an excuse for bad defense. Joe Barry has been feeding local media various stats about how many different players the Redskins started on defense during his two seasons as defensive coordinator: nine safeties, seven corners, six nickel corners and six inside linebackers over 33 games. I get his point about how injured and talent-deprived his defenses were. But that stuff only goes so far in excusing bad defense.
Speaking of the Redskins’ defense, for those lamenting the loss of David Amerson, think again. The Redskins cut the 2013 second-round pick just two games into the 2015 season. Yes, he has resurrected his career to some extent with the Raiders over the last two seasons. But did you notice how many negative moments he was involved in in this game? Amerson stumbled on DeAndre Hopkins’ second-quarter second-and-12 13-yard reception, was beaten by Hopkins on a first-and-10 38-yard reception later in the second quarter and committed a second-quarter third-and-nine five-yard holding penalty and an early-fourth-quarter second-and-seven 17-yard pass-interference penalty. Did the Redskins not do enough to get more out of Amerson? Perhaps. I’m open to that. But understand that he hasn’t blossomed into some stud corner for the Raiders, who by the way were just 25th in the NFL in pass defense during the regular season according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric.
You know what annoyed me more than anything in this game from a Redskins perspective? The Texans and Raiders going a combined 5-for-5 in the red zone. How come our Redskins, with their great offense, were so bad in the red zone this season (29th in the NFL in red-zone touchdown-scoring percentage), but these two jobroni offenses in this game were flawless? Watching Brock Osweiler’s early-fourth-quarter second-and-goal one-yard I-formation play-action-boot touchdown run made me wanna scream – why didn’t we see more boot action from the Redskins in the red zone this season?
What a weird season for the Raider fan. On the one hand, your team made the playoffs for the first time since 2002. On the other hand, you lost your MVP-candidate quarterback (Derek Carr) to a broken right fibula in Week 16 and his replacement (Matt McGloin) to a left shoulder injury and your starting left tackle (Donald Penn) to a fractured knee in Week 17. Be bitter. A passing offense that was outstanding for so much of this season became a shell of itself due to injury.
Saturday night: Seattle 26, Detroit 6
I hated the notion that the Redskins were a mediocre team that only would have lost in the playoffs had it defeated the Giants in Week 17. That is a loser, noncompetitive attitude that ignores so much of recent NFL history (i.e., mediocre teams like the 2008 Arizona Cardinals and 2011 New York Giants that made Super Bowls). All of that said, I don’t know how you could have loved the Redskins’ chance at the Seahawks given what we saw in this game. Exactly how many yards would Thomas Rawls have run for against that porous Redskins run defense? Exactly how high would the Seahawks’ third-down efficiency have been given that it was 9-for-16 against the Lions?
Remember those Matt Jones-Marshawn Lynch comparisons? How ‘bout we leave those for Rawls? He had a Seahawks-playoff-record 161 rushing yards and a touchdown on 21 carries. According to ESPN Stats and Info, Rawls had 72 yards after contact in this game. The last player with more in a playoff game? Lynch in Jan. 2011 in a 41-36 win over New Orleans that included his epic Beast Quake 67-yard touchdown run. Rawls’ yardage-after-contact total, though, was exceeded less than 24 hours later.
How the officials missed Paul Richardson’s blatant facemask grab on his sensational one-armed second-quarter fourth-and-goal two-yard touchdown reception that helped to give the Seahawks a 7-0 lead I do not know. That pass-interference was actually called on the facemask victim, Tavon Wilson Sr., was incredible. Officiating isn’t close to being the primary reason for the Lions losing, but there were other instances of Detroit getting jobbed or at the very least being on the wrong end of calls or non-calls by the officials in this game:
- Second-quarter Lions drive that resulted in a punt with the Lions trailing 7-0…Anquan Boldin was called for a third-and-nine 15-yard unnecessary-roughness penalty for shoving a Seahawks player with a coat over his shoulders on the sideline…Boldin after the game: “As I’m going out of bounds, a guy hit me, a guy on their sideline. And the ref is standing right there and you don’t call it. I shouldn’t have retaliated. It is what it is…”
- Fourth-quarter Lions drive that resulted in a punt with the Lions trailing 13-6…Boldin was called for a first-and-10 eight-yard unnecessary-roughness penalty for on a Zach Zenner first-and-10 one-yard shotgun-handoff run, giving the Lions the ball at their 9… Boldin said that he was blocking on the play, no one had blown the whistle and then the Seahawks player he was blocking looked at the official and drew a flag…the next snap was a Matthew Stafford second-and-17 shotgun deep incompletion on which pass interference could have been called on DeShawn Shead for holding TJ Jones but wasn’t…the ball was said to be uncatchable, even though it landed a few feet in front of Jones
The Seahawks are the anti-Redskins when it comes to prime-time games, especially those at home. You by now likely are familiar with the Skins’ absurd 2-16 record at FedEx Field on Monday Night Football. Well, this win improved the Seahawks to 21-3-1 under head coach Pete Carroll in prime-time games (including the playoffs) and 14-1 at home in those games.
The Seahawks now have won 10 consecutive home playoff games, three shy of Green Bay’s NFL record. The Lions now have lost an NFL-record nine straight playoff games.
Sunday afternoon: Pittsburgh 30, Miami 12
The Dolphins’ 30-15 win over the Steelers in Week 6 was highlighted by Jay Ajayi embarrassing Pittsburgh to the tune of 25 carries for 204 yards and two touchdowns. His final line in this game: 16 carries for 33 yards.
I talked on The Morning Blitz with Al Galdi on Friday about how LeVeon Bell is one of the few true “franchise” running backs remaining in the NFL. Boy he did he play that way in this game: 29 carries for a Steelers-playoff-record 167 yards and two touchdowns. The patience with which he runs is amazing to watch. Bell seemingly will come to a complete stop behind his blocking, allow it to develop and then explode. He did this time and again in this game and has done that for much of his career. Bell’s free agency may be the single-most interesting one this offseason. You’re not supposed to pay running backs big money in this pass-happy NFL. Bell is one of the few exceptions. He gained 90 rushing yards after contact in this game, besting Rawls’ 72 the previous night for the most in a postseason game since Marshawn Lynch’s Beast Quake game against the Saints in Jan. 2011.
Mike Mitchell had a sack-strip that resulted in a takeaway on the opening drive of the third quarter. Not signing Mitchell is among the many what-ifs that help to make up the Redskins’ struggles at safety over the last decade. The Redskins supposedly wanted him big time after the 2013 season but didn’t get him, as he signed with the Steelers. He struggled in 2014 but has been much better the last two seasons.
Another Steeler who balled in this game was James Harrison. He had 1.5 sacks, including a sack-strip on a first-and-goal at the 8 on the penultimate play of the first half in becoming the second-oldest player to record a postseason sack since it became an official stat in 1982. If Harrison truly is clean, then his story is amazing. The dude is in his age-38 season and continues to make major contributions to the Steelers, for whom he came out of a temporary retirement in Sept. 2014. He was signed by the Steelers as an undrafted free agent out of Kent State in 2002, was cut multiple times before finally sticking with them in 2004 and this season became the franchise’s all-time leader in sacks. Harrison is a workout warrior. Again, if he has done all of this clean, all props to him. Honestly, even if he hasn’t he deserves at least some credit.
As well as his team played, Mike Tomlin deserves to be filleted for a) having his starters in the game deep in the fourth quarter with a 30-12 lead and b) having Antonio Brown return a punt early in the fourth quarter with a 30-6 lead. Coaches routinely play starters deep into games with substantial leads despite the risk far outweighing the reward. Heck, as we saw in the Redskins’ season-ending loss to the Giants, Ben McAdoo played a number of starters the entire game despite it meaning nothing to the Giants from a standings standpoint. McAdoo was lucky no injury of consequence took place. Tomlin was perhaps not so lucky, as Ben Roethlisberger was wearing a walking boot on his right leg after the game, having gotten hurt on his fourth-quarter interception to Xavien Howard.
The Steelers spent their first two second-half timeouts on a third-quarter offensive drive. That’s a big no-no, though it obviously didn’t matter in this game. What was particularly mind-boggling was the second timeout, which came after Ben Roethlisberger failed to draw the Dolphins offside as the Steelers feigned going for it on a fourth-and-three. Just a total unnecessary waste of a second-half timeout that could have proven precious later in the game had it been close. Second-half timeouts are free offensive plays. The irony? The ensuing snap, which was to result in a Chris Boswell field-goal attempt, instead resulted in Tony Lippett totally mistiming the snap and jumping across the line of scrimmage for a five-yard neutral-zone-infraction penalty and a Steelers first down.
Did it not warm your heart to see Bacarri Rambo take a bad angle on Brown’s first-quarter 62-yard touchdown reception? The Dolphins are Rambo’s second team since the Redskins waived him two games into the 2014 season.
Sunday: Green Bay 38, Giants 13
Aaron Rodgers put on a clinic for Kirk Cousins and every other quarterback on extending plays. Rodgers excelling in this department is nothing new. But given how often this has come up with Kirk over the last two seasons, it’s worth highlighting what Rodgers did. His second-quarter second-and-goal five-yard shotgun touchdown pass to Davante Adams was classic. Rodgers held the ball for 8.3 seconds, dancing around, avoiding pass rushers and reestablishing pockets so as to allow his pass catchers to eventually get open. This is the no. 1 area in which Kirk needs to grow.
Rodgers went just 6-of-14 for 54 yards over the Packers’ first five offensive drives, which included Jordy Nelson being lost for the game due to a rib injury suffered on a hit from Leon Hall that should have been flagged. But Rodgers went 19-of-26 for 308 yards and four touchdowns the rest of the game. He still has not thrown an interception seek Week 10.
No play was a bigger gut punch in this game than Rodgers’ fourth-and-two 42-yard shotgun Hail Mary touchdown pass to Randall Cobb on the final play of the first half. The Giants had a first-and-10 at their 32 with 2:13 left but went three-and-out. The Packers then went 80 yards on an eight-play drive capped by a play that a great defense such as the Giants’ should never allow. Cobb caught the ball in the back of the end zone behind four Giants in a cluster of players. Another aspect of this play: the Giants rushed just four players, giving Rodgers ample time to move to his right, reestablish a pocket, allow his pass catchers to get deep and make a quality throw. Connecting on touchdown bombs involves a lot of luck, but this was Rodgers’ third Hail Mary touchdown over the last two seasons. The touchdown helped to give the Packers a 14-6 lead, increasing their win probability from 66 percent to 88 percent according to ESPN Stats & Info.
Odell Beckham Jr. and Sterling Shepard did not play well, combining for just eight receptions versus five drops on 20 targets. Each player had an end-zone drop and a third-down drop. However, I can’t bring myself to blame their bad performances on the much-talked-about party trip to Miami the previous Sunday night and Monday. That, to me, was a classic low-hanging-fruit Xerox-radio topic that was easy to grab onto and a lot harder to validate. What the heck does partying on a Sunday night and Monday, during which the Giants were off, have to do with a game six days later? Players like Sonny Jurgensen and John Riggins were celebrated for partying and then playing well. Maybe, just maybe, the game-time wind-chill temperature of 4 degrees had something to do with the drops.
The Giants were guilty of some boneheaded moments in this game.
- Bobby Rainey inexplicably caught a third-quarter Mason Crosby kickoff as it was headed out of bounds and then went out of bounds himself. So the Giants, instead of having a first-and-10 at their 40, got a first-and-10 at their 3.
- What was officially a fourth-quarter first-and-10 sack-strip-recovery by Clay Matthews came thanks to him continuing to hustle and go after the ball while seemingly everyone else thought that the play was an incomplete pass and thus over. The visual of Paul Perkins, who scorched the Redskins in Week 17, just casually going to pick up the ball while Matthews charged toward it was something else.