The NFL’s first ever Super Wild Card Weekend was true to its name: super and wild. What a satisfying two-day football feast!
Of course, every postseason triumph is accompanied by devastation. That’s the cruel beauty of the win-or-go-home format. So, with that in mind …
Here are the winners and losers from the opening round of the NFL playoffs, Schein Nine style:
1) Cleveland Browns
Congrats, Cleveland! First playoff win in 26 years!! And the fact that the 48-37 victory came against a hated rival that had stomped on the Browns for decades? Yeah, that made it extra sweet.
These Browns are legit. I anticipated they’d beat the Steelers because, well, they’re better than the Steelers. But still, doing so without head coach/play-caller Kevin Stefanski, Pro Bowl left guard Joel Bitonio and starting cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Kevin Johnson is incredibly impressive. Honestly, it was shocking, as Cleveland jumped out to a 28-0 lead in the first quarter, before eventually staving off Pittsburgh’s second-half push to get back in the game. What a testament to this team’s mettle in an NFL season defined by adversity.
Baker Mayfield was superb in his first playoff game, completing 21 of 34 passes for 263 yards and three touchdowns. Jarvis Landry, who led Cleveland with 92 receiving yards and scored one of the Browns’ four first-quarter touchdowns, is a foxhole wideout: You want him on your side in high-leverage situations. Meanwhile, the best running back duo in football (Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt) overpowered Pittsburgh to the tune of 206 total yards and three scores on 31 touches. And the Browns, a league laughingstock for decades, won the all-important turnover battle 5-0.
This glorious postseason success was long overdue, well-earned and freakin’ awesome. Cleveland rocks!
2) Buffalo Bills
One day before the Browns won their first playoff game since the 1994 season, the Bills earned their first postseason triumph since the ’95 campaign. And it was all sorts of sensational for this fan base in lovely Western New York, as knowledgeable, passionate and loyal a bunch as you’ll find in this league.
Bills Mafia has been waiting for a moment like this for decades. It didn’t come easy, though, as the visiting Colts came to play. And then Indianapolis got a HUGE break late in the game, when referees inexplicably botched what clearly looked to these eyes like a fumble by Colts WR Zach Pascal. But Buffalo held on for a 27-24 victory. And winning that type of game — in which the Bills didn’t play their absolute best — shows that this is a different type of Buffalo team, one that can absolutely win the Super Bowl.
Josh Allen is special. Not only did he just become the first quarterback to lead Buffalo to a playoff win since Jim Kelly, but according to NFL Research, he just joined Joe Montana as the only players with 300-plus passing yards, 50-plus rushing yards and a completion percentage of 68-plus in a playoff game during the Super Bowl era. Allen’s connection with first-year Bill Stefon Diggs, who caught six balls for 128 yards and a touchdown, is something to behold. And Buffalo’s defense, which hasn’t always been a strength for the Bills this season, came up with some huge stops.
Over the summer, I said Allen would become an MVP candidate, the Bills would take the AFC East by multiple games and then win a home playoff game. Check, check, check. And honestly, it feels like this could really be just the beginning. Talking to Allen last week on my SiriusXM Radio show, “Schein on Sports,” the Bills QB waxed poetic about the amazing culture Sean McDermott has established and the spectacular work of offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. Something tells me this special group isn’t done doing special things.
3) Sean McVay
One of the most staggering statistics that we were all reminded of this weekend: McVay’s Rams are now 37-0 when leading at halftime. Wow! That’s the nugget of domination to end all nuggets of domination. Clearly, this 34-year-old is a fantastic coach. And with the Rams’ 30-20 road win at Seattle on Saturday, McVay is now 6-3 against the great Pete Carroll.
These Rams were ready to rock in their rubber match against the NFC West champion Seahawks. Jared Goff was the epitome of toughness. Just 12 days after thumb surgery, Goff came off the bench in the first quarter to replace the man who replaced him, John Wolford, and gutted his way to the winner’s circle. Running back Cam Akers was a beast, racking up the second-most postseason scrimmage yards (176) ever by a rookie in the Super Bowl era. The offensive line blew open holes for Akers all day, allowing the back to gain 131 yards and a touchdown on 28 carries. And then there was the Rams’ defense. Remember when McVay raised eyebrows by replacing beloved DC Wade Phillips with a little-known outside linebackers coach named Brandon Staley? Yeah, that move worked out pretty well. L.A.’s defense was flat out amazing on Saturday, as the unit has been all season, flummoxing Russell Wilson into an ugly stat line: 11 for 27, 174 yards, two touchdowns, one interception, five sacks.
Despite serious issues at the quarterback position, the Rams hit the road and imposed their will on the rival ‘Hawks. That’s incredible coaching and preparation.
4) Lamar Jackson
Immediately following Baltimore’s 20-13 win at Tennessee, Jackson admirably stressed that it was a team effort. The Ravens’ defense was indeed spectacular, holding the Titans 187 yards and 18 points below their regular-season averages. Derrick Henry, fresh off becoming just the eighth 2,000-yard rusher in NFL history, could only manage 40 yards on 18 carries — a meager 2.2 yards a pop. All that said …
This game was about Lamar. It’s always about Lamar. And after a rough start briefly fueled the naysayers’ fire, the reigning MVP delivered the goods in impressive fashion and got his much-needed first playoff win.
With a three-and-out and a bad Jackson pick in Baltimore’s first two possessions of the game, Tennessee jumped out to a 10-0 lead. But then Lamar started doing Lamar things. His jaw-dropping, 48-yard touchdown run was the second-longest by a quarterback in NFL playoff history, trailing only Colin Kaepernick‘s 56-yard scoring scamper against the Packers in the 2012 Divisional Round. And when it came to throwing the football, Jackson rekindled some superb chemistry with speedster Marquise Brown, who finished with a season-high 109 yards on seven catches. By game’s end, Lamar had piled up 179 yards with his arm and 136 yards with his legs.
And speaking of game’s end, I appreciated how honest Jackson was in explaining why Baltimore players stomped on the Tennessee logo and didn’t shake the Titans hands: The Ravens were still annoyed by the Titans’ actions when the teams met back in Week 11. Real sports venom is refreshing and genuine. And so is Lamar.
5) Tom Brady
Never take greatness for granted — especially when it comes from the G.O.A.T. himself.
Sure, Tampa Bay’s 31-23 win over Washington was more competitive than most anticipated. But the 43-year-old quarterback still worked his magic, throwing for 381 yards and two scores, the first of which made him the oldest player with a TD pass in NFL playoff history. Brady now boasts a staggering 31(!) playoff wins, nearly twice as many as the second-place QB on this list, Joe Montana (16).
6) Pittsburgh Steelers
We said it all season, even when Pittsburgh sat at 11-0: This team is fraudulent.
The Steelers couldn’t run a lick, they had a 38-year-old quarterback clearly affected by reconstructive elbow surgery and a defense that was seriously depleted by injuries to key cogs. And then on Sunday night, they embarrassed themselves from the jump, with Maurkice Pouncey sending the first snap of the game way over Ben Roethlisberger’s head toward the end zone. Big Ben and James Conner did a Three Stooges routine, allowing Cleveland to pounce on the football and take a quick 7-0 lead. Then Roethlisberger threw a ghastly pick, giving the Browns a short field for another touchdown. Then a Pittsburgh three-and-out. Then a ball that bounced off Diontae Johnson‘s hands for another pick. The game was 28-0 Browns with two minutes left in the first quarter!
Pittsburgh briefly tried to make a game of it in the second half, but Mike Tomlin’s strange decision to punt on fourth-and-one near midfield abruptly stopped the Steelers’ momentum. And another year goes by without a Pittsburgh playoff win.
7) Frank Reich
I like the Colts’ head coach, but he did not have a good day at the office in Indianapolis’ 27-24 loss at Buffalo.
The third-and-goal pitch wide to Jonathan Taylor that was swarmed for a 3-yard loss. Then the ensuing decision to eschew a field goal for a (failed) fourth-down attempt? That’s just goofy game management. And how about the arbitrary approach on the two-point conversions? Same deal with punting. And where was Jacoby Brissett on the Hail Mary at the end? Philip Rivers — predictably, with his arm strength sapped at age 39 — couldn’t reach the end zone.
Indy had way too many self-induced mistakes. That kills you in a three-point loss.
8) Mike Vrabel
With Tennessee trailing 17-13 and just over 10 minutes remaining in regulation, Vrabel punted on a fourth-and-2 from the Baltimore 40. Seriously. Then after the game, Vrabel cited field position (um, you were on their side of the field, coach) and his defense (a lackluster unit throughout the season). You can’t make it up.
You employ the 6-foot-3, 247-pound force of nature called Derrick Henry, Mike. The other team employs the terrifying weapon that is Lamar Jackson. You have the ball in your opponent’s territory. And you … punt it away?! According to Pro Football Reference, that was the first time in their database (going back to 1994) that a team in the playoffs had ever punted on fourth-and-2 in similar field position when trailing by one score. The first time!
That was a farce, Mr. Vrabel. Oh, and your team was up double digits, at home, and blew it.
9) Chicago Bears
The Bears need a new general manager, head coach and quarterback. Don’t let a playoff berth as the NFC’s first ever No. 7 seed fool you. Chicago was simply outclassed in a 21-9 loss at New Orleans.
Bad mental mistakes, horrible drops, pathetic quarterback play. It’s all predictable. The Bears haven’t won a playoff game since trading for Khalil Mack. Shameful. What a waste. It would be the definition of insanity to bring the band back and expect different results.