THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
The strangest of seasons, and yet there was still an air of familiarity around the teams entering this year’s NFL Playoffs. Those that were meant to be there, were there, and as usual a couple of surprise teams made it through to the postseason tournament. Obviously COVID-19 still rears its ugly head and forces many stadiums to be largely closed, if not completely empty. Teams have adapted to this, as we all have, so the lack of atmosphere should not have an adverse effect to the on-field play – unless maybe you are the 12th Man in Seattle!
The weekend was billed as Super Wild Card Weekend due to the restructured playoffs, only the top seed being given a bye, and the introduction of a 7th seed. So, we had three games on each of the Saturday and Sunday, instead of the usual two, which was great for the fans. If on this side of the Pond, you get extra marks if you lasted the whole nights coverage lasting until the small hours.
Kicking off the action was the Buffalo Bills, winner of the AFC East, and raising memories of the great team there in the early 1990s. They are tipped by many to be the next great thing, and why not? They are young and brash, and loaded with talent. The only thing that could stop them going all the way this year will be their inexperience at this time of year. They lasted the late comeback by the Indianapolis Colts to win 27-24, a score that flattered the Colts, but did show that the Bills must be on their game if they want a deep run.
The middle game on Saturday was a divisional matchup and had the Los Angeles Rams defeat the Seattle Seahawks 30-20. A damaged thumb meant that quarterback Jared Goff did not start the game, and when he was put into the game after backup John Wolford suffered a neck injury he kept things ticking over, but largely relied on the record-breaking play of back Cam Akers, who set a new Rams rookie playoff mark of 131 yards on the ground. The Seahawks limped through the game, not managing to get any consistency throughout and they will have to strengthen in the offseason if they are to remain on top of a fiercely competitive NFC West.
Late on Saturday the Washington Football Team, the best of a bad NFC East, hosted Tom Brady and his Buccaneers. Brady, playing his first playoff game outside of his stupendously successful times in New England, did not miss a beat as he passed for close to 400 yards and two touchdowns. It was his opposite that raised eyebrows and kept the game closer than many anticipated. Taylor Heinicke stepped up when Alex Smith was declared inactive late on. His ability to keep plays alive, and his darting, dashing runs, were a reminder that in the playoffs anything could happen. On this occasion Tampa Bay had enough in their tank to advance, by a score of 31-23.
It seemed the Sunday set of games rolled around as soon as Saturday’s ones had finished. Off we were to Tennessee, and the Titans hoping to repeat their heroics of last season’s playoff run. Like last year they were matched up with Baltimore. It was difficult to see an outright favorite in this game, and so it proved as they fought out a more tactical game, jockeying for field position, as opposed to the breakout, fast-moving, offensive battle that some were looking forward to. To beat the Titans you need to stop back-to-back rushing champion Derrick Henry, and when his stat line reads 18 carries for 40 yards, there is a fair chance you can win the game. Ravens managed to keep their own run attack going – 236 yards in total, with Lamar Jackson gaining 136 of them, to edge a 20-13 victory.
Chicago had flown under the radar for most of the season, and with their 8-8 record they headed for New Orleans. The Saints have had a mixed bag of a year, and this game epitomized just that. The Bears did stymie them enough to keep the score close, but without really threatening to challenge. In the end Drew Brees kept the ball moving, using 10 different receivers. Aided by Alvin Kamara’s 99-yard rushing day, it was enough to see off a plucky yet inefficient Chicago, 21-9.
The last matchup of the weekend was a clash that will live long in the memory of Cleveland fans. Having endured the longest playoff drought of any active team they came to play, and Pittsburgh had no idea what hit them as by the end of the first quarter they were effectively out. A 28-0 domination ended up a 48-37 rout. The tone was set after the very first play when an errant snap went over the head of Ben Roethlisberger, and Karl Thomas rumbled through to pounce on the loose ball in the end zone. From there the Browns never let up, running all over the Steelers. Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb had the freedom of the Pittsburgh backfield, combining for 206 total yards of offense between them. Baker Mayfield threw for three scores and looked every part a playoff star.
On to next weekend and the Divisional Round. Cleveland’s reward is to go to number one seed, current champions Kansas City. It’s hard to see them repeating the demolition put on Pittsburgh, and the Chiefs will be even more prepared and wary of an upset. The Rams will face the NFC top seed, Green Bay Packers. They will need to bring an A+ defense to upset the odds at Lambeau and an MVP caliber season by Aaron Rodgers. Buffalo host Baltimore which could turn into a points fest, while the weekend will finish with two of the most talented QB’s of this generation facing off. Brady v Brees was once tipped as a Super Bowl face off. Now, they are in the same Conference, we must make do with a playoff game that could be the last time they square off against each other, as the Saints host the Buccaneers.
Saturday 16 January
Los Angeles Rams at Green Bay Packers – 21.35
Baltimore Ravens at Buffalo Bills – 01.15
Sunday 17 January
Cleveland Browns at Kansas City Chiefs – 20.05
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints – 23.40