At the risk of blowing my own horn too greatly, because I realize no one cares, the weekend's lone actual upset was the one I picked. The Saints seemed to be winning with smoke and mirrors and good fortune for a lot of the season, and that ran out yesterday. I guess the good thing about the weekend is different people will have different choices for what the weekend's best game was. For me it was the one I expected to be the worst.
Packers 32, Rams 18. There was a moment where this game was very intriguing. It was when Cam Akers scored a touchdown to pull Los Angeles within 9, and then the Rams used a sweet hook-and-lateral play to get the 2-point conversion to pull within 7. (Aside: congrats to the announcers for making me at last see the wisdom in going for 2 in that situation rather than kicking the extra point to pull within 8. I've always felt you kick to pull within 8 -- one score -- rather than risk missing it to be down by 9 -- two scores. The explanation is since you need a 2-point conversion at some point when down by 15, you go for it initially so that you know how you stand the rest of the game. Simple but it finally got through to me.)
Anyway, shortly after that the Packers hit the long touchdown to Allen Lazard and the game was over. Now, no disputing the big difference between these two teams is that the Packers have future Hall of Famer Aaron Rodgers at quarterback and the Rams have Jared Goff, who Sean McVay basically hinted afterward is no lock to be the Rams quarterback in 2021. But to me the reason dreams of a Rams upset didn't happen was that Aaron Donald's rib injury was much more of an issue than the team let on all week. Donald played just half the snaps, a critical element in the Packers scoring 32 points rather than maybe 20-something. I won't insult Green Bay by suggesting the Rams would have won, but maybe it would have been in doubt longer. You can't take the best defensive player out of the game for half the contest and not see an impact.
Bills 17, Ravens 3. I've seen a few different takes on this game. One is that Lamar Jackson isn't good enough. One is that his receivers aren't good enough. Definitely a large portion of the blame goes to Jackson himself for this one. The Pick Six that essentially ended the game was a bad throw, an inexcusable mistake at that point; didn't see the defender. We can also look at the two early drives that ended with missed field goals off the upright (wind-influenced, certainly) -- a touchdown rather than a field goal attempt in either situation and maybe the Ravens win. Their defense certainly played well enough.
I guess the bottom line is that the Baltimore offense isn't good enough right now, and Jackson is a big part of that. They beat the Titans because of Jackson pulling a couple of big runs out of thin air. Those didn't happen against Buffalo. If you can stop that, he's not a good enough passer to win a playoff game with his arm. And it's concerning for those who are hoping for Super Bowls from Jackson, because he probably is what he is -- generally inadequate passers don't suddenly become good ones three years into their career. Somehow they've got to go back to the drawing board and figure out how to get the best out of him as a quarterback. Surrounding him with better receivers? Throwing more to the running backs? Something has to change or Baltimore's ensuing seasons will end like this again.
For Buffalo, they did just enough on offense against a very good defense. Josh Allen stepped up, and Stefon Diggs might be the best offseason acquisition ever -- what a season. If the Bills can spring the upset next week, and they can, Diggs will be a big part of that. (The concussion protocol will be the other.) Oh, as for the game itself, kind of a dud. One offensive touchdown will do that.
Kansas City 22, Browns 17. For a while this game went how I expected. Kansas City's offense moved the ball up and down the field fairly quickly and effectively. Baker Mayfield struggled with pressure and was on the run, throwing the ball away regularly. But things started to get interesting with Kansas City settling for a few more Harrison Butker field goal attempts than usual. There was a controversial sequence where the Browns nearly scored a touchdown but fumbled through the end zone, giving the ball back to Kansas City (which got away with a helmet to helmet hit). And another non-call on a pass interference. Just looked like it wasn't Cleveland's day, as most expected.
But then Cleveland scored a touchdown to pull within 19-10, and a tight game started to look possible. And a minute after that, Patrick Mahomes was knocked out with a concussion when Andy Reid inexplicably called an option on a third and short ("How could we possibly lose this game? Only by getting our quarterback hurt..."). Kansas City ended up kicking a field goal (Darrel Williams running, can someone explain why he was behind LeVeon Bell for most of the second half of the season?), but momentum had swung. Cleveland pulled within 5 and it was anyone's game.
The game-deciding sequence was arguably the weekend's most exciting. Facing a 3rd and 14, Chad Henne turned in a 13.5-yard dash where I think he got screwed by a bad spot. (Again I'll say: if you're not going to let coaches challenge plays in the last two minutes, you need to be more generous with reviews. Not only was this a bad spot, but the guy who spotted the ball was clearly just guessing -- not in position to make the spot due to Henne's gallop.) 4th and 1 at midfield, surely Kansas City was just trying to get the defense to jump offside. Announcers were confident, especially with Henne in the shotgun, not at the line to potentially sneak it. "Ah, there's no play..." Romo was saying -- as Henne took the snap and actually threw a pass to Tyreek Hill, ending the game. One of the boldest coaching moves I've seen in all my years of watching football; no question 95 percent of the coaches punt in that situation. Much as I disliked Reid's decision to run the option with Mahomes, I have incredible respect for that play. Remarkable. Kansas City wins, and we'll find out more about the concussion protocol this week than ever before.
Bucs 30, Saints 20. Different people will blame different Saints for this loss. Jared Cook, who had a very costly fumble and also let another ball bounce off his hands that was intercepted (granted he was well-covered). Drew Brees, who threw 3 interceptions and simply looked old. Sean Payton, who maybe should have got a lot more creative given that his trick play touchdown with Jameis Winston throwing it was the offense's most effective play by far. Or hell let's blame Michael Thomas, who somehow failed to catch a pass all game -- how is that possible? At no point in the entire game did he get as much separation as Emmanuel Sanders, TreQuan Smith or Deonte Harris, who all seemed to be busy? A guy who averaged nearly 10 catches per game last season gets shut out by a bottom-10 pass defense.
But I think it's clear this one is on Brees, who probably should have retired a year ago. Unless the Saints are able to scheme players wide open, which is tough to do when you're working with about 10 yards of distance, he couldn't make the throws anymore. Watching this game I saw Alvin Kamara looking like one of the game's very best running backs against a great run defense, while Brees looked like one of the worst quarterbacks. Tampa Bay's pass defense got better as the year wore on, a credit to Todd Bowles, who deserves another head coaching opportunity. But New Orleans was trying to win a divisional round game while scheming around the fact that their quarterback couldn't throw anymore. One of his picks can maybe be blamed on Cook, and another was a play where Kamara wasn't looking for it -- that one might have been his fault. But Brees' passes were floating. Even when they were ahead, it really didn't look like New Orleans was going to win the game.
With the Bucs, hats off to Tom Brady, who did just enough, as is often the case in the playoffs. A note also about Ronald Jones, who simply looks way better as a runner than Leonard Fournette. He looked like he had a lot more juice, including having a longer run wiped out by a penalty. I'm not entirely sure what the Bucs are doing with their backfield -- why Fournette, who simply isn't as talented a runner, played more yesterday. Been a rough couple of playoff games for Chris Godwin, but he almost came up with a spectacular end-zone grab yesterday; maybe next week.
Can the Bucs win? I think so. We'll talk about it a lot this week, but I think either way we should have some fun Super Bowl storylines to come.