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The Winners and Losers of NFL Wild-Card Weekend

Mike McCarthy and the Cowboys got embarrassed; the Eagles quiet quit and completed their downfall; and Jared Goff got revenge in Detroit’s first playoff win in over 30 years. Here are the winners and losers from the full wild-card slate.

AP Images/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

This wild-card weekend, we’re celebrating the electric plays, investigating the colossal blunders, and explaining the inexplicable moments from the first round of the NFL playoffs. Welcome to Winners and Losers.

Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to include Monday’s wild-card games.

Loser: The Philadelphia Eagles

There were so, so many issues for Philadelphia in its season-ending 32-9 loss against the Buccaneers. The defense gave up 337 passing yards to Baker Mayfield. The run game produced a 15 percent success rate, per RBSDM.com. But perhaps the biggest problem was the team’s third-down offense: Philly finished 0-for-9 on the key down and threw two failed fourth-down conversions for good measure.

Todd Bowles’s deep bag of pressures overwhelmed the Philadelphia offense—and its coaches. Head coach Nick Sirianni and first-year offensive coordinator Brian Johnson will catch all the heat for not having a better plan for Bowles’s blitzes, and deservedly so. But this was a total team failure. The injured Jalen Hurts was indecisive and inaccurate in the face of pressure. The offensive line had trouble picking up blitzes and holding onto blocks when it did. The safety Hurts took in the third quarter, which effectively ended the game, was emblematic of the team’s struggles: nobody open, the offensive line gets pushed into the quarterback’s lap, and the quarterback turns a bad play into a catastrophic one.

Philly fared better on early downs, but that’s a low bar. Outside of DeVonta Smith targets, nothing worked for this offense. Even the tush push. The one positive that carried over from last year’s magical run to the Super Bowl got stuffed on a two-point conversion attempt—with the help of a missed face-mask penalty.

It now feels like the Eagles are right back where they were before that run in 2022, so it’s fitting that this season ended just like 2021: with a double-digit loss in Tampa on wild-card weekend.

It’ll be a long offseason in Philadelphia.

Winner: Baker Mayfield

You know how star college players opt out of bowl games to protect their draft stock? I’m not saying Mayfield should pull a similar move for the divisional round and end this contract year on a high note, but doing so would leave an awfully good taste in the mouths of NFL decision-makers.

The Mayfield we saw against the Eagles looked a lot like the quarterback who led the Browns to a playoff win not too long ago. That is to say, he’s still a system quarterback, but one who can be pretty damn good with a positive game script and a stellar supporting cast. While his receivers let him down multiple times on Monday night, they still managed to get open, and offensive coordinator Dave Canales—who will get a few interviews for head-coach positions after his performance—never put Mayfield in a bad spot. That version of Mayfield is good enough to convince a team to pay him to be its starting quarterback. The other version—the one who is skittish in the pocket, is too confident in his arm and playmaking ability, and completed just 51 percent of his passes and averaged 5.6 yards per attempt in a Week 6 loss to the Lions—will scare off teams if he shows up against Detroit for a second time.

This has been a season of redemption for Baker, and it continued on Monday night with his best performance of the year. If he can redeem himself in the matchup against the Lions and lead Tampa Bay back to the NFC title game, he’ll have a big contract waiting for him soon.


Winner: Sean McDermott

Five percent.

That’s where the Buffalo Bills’ playoff odds sat entering their Week 14 game in Kansas City, according to Next Gen Stats. Buffalo had lost three of its past four games, Josh Allen was playing erratically, and days before the game, reporter Tyler Dunne dropped an in-depth report titled “The McDermott Problem,” which painted the head coach as having lost his grip on the locker room. There was even an account that McDermott used the 9/11 terrorists as an example of good teamwork in a motivational speech to the team in 2019 (something he apologized for). Things were bleak, and McDermott’s seat was heating up.

Then the Bills won that game against the Chiefs—and they haven’t lost since. Buffalo pushed its win streak to six games on Monday with a typically uneven 31-17 victory over the Steelers. McDermott probably secured his job for 2024 a few weeks back, but he also avoided pulling a Mike McCarthy in the wild-card round and giving team ownership a reason to rethink things.

And it wasn’t just the result that should have the Bills feeling better about their coach. After taking over defensive play-calling duties following a divisional-round embarrassment against the Bengals last season, McDermott has been focused on improving the unit’s poker face. Buffalo’s defense had just been too easy to read, and Joe Burrow massively exposed that flaw in a 27-10 playoff win. While the Bills’ systematic approach to coverage had given bad quarterbacks headaches, good quarterbacks had no issues figuring it out—unless the pass rush was dominating. So this year, McDermott utilized disguises more often, and those changes have worked to bait quarterbacks into bad decisions.

Here’s an example from Monday’s win. It’s third-and-medium, and the Bills are showing soft coverage before the snap. Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph sees the space underneath and figures Diontae Johnson has plenty of room to get open for a first down. After the snap, though, Buffalo drops a player from the line of scrimmage into the throwing window, and the play is wrecked.

Compare that to this third-down play from the loss to Cincinnati a year ago. The Bills are in a blitz look with their secondary playing off coverage. The defense presents the open space underneath before the snap, letting Burrow know he’ll have Ja’Marr Chase open, and nothing changes after it.

You can’t give good quarterbacks the answers before they take the test. They’ll ace it every time. Now, this is just one play, and fooling Rudolph isn’t nearly as difficult as fooling Burrow. But McDermott has been throwing these changeups with great success all season, and he’ll have to do so again next week against Patrick Mahomes.

Loser: Tomlining

Mike Tomlin may not want to talk about his contract …

… but I think we should.

Let’s get all of the caveats out of the way: Tomlin is one of the best coaches in the NFL. He’s been one of the league’s most successful coaches throughout his 17-year tenure in Pittsburgh. If the Steelers fired him, every team with a coaching vacancy would request an interview or just immediately offer him the job over the phone. The work he’s done to keep his team competitive and in the playoffs despite its untenable quarterback situation—which stretches back to the final two seasons of Ben Roethlisberger’s career—is remarkable. The Steelers should keep him for 2024 and beyond.

With that said, we need to be honest about what’s gone on in Pittsburgh over the past few seasons. While Tomlin’s teams have typically overachieved year to year, if you step back and look at the past five years—and really the past decade of Steelers football—this team has probably underachieved by its lofty standards. Tomlin has won three playoff games since losing the Super Bowl to Green Bay in February 2011, and those wins came against teams starting A.J. McCarron, Matt Moore, and Alex Smith at quarterback. The Steelers have lost home playoff games to Blake Bortles and Baker Mayfield. Do I need to bring up the events of January 8, 2012? Results have only gotten worse in recent years.

Winning ugly has been framed as an endearing Steelers quirk, but, really, it’s their only path to success these days. That doesn’t mean they’re a tough-minded team. It means they’re a mediocre one. And while moving on from a top head coach is no way to turn things around, some adjustments to the old ways of doing things—starting with a better process for identifying the team’s next quarterback—seem long overdue.

Winner: Josh Allen, Running Back

“No other quarterback could make this play” gets thrown around too often in NFL circles, but it’s an appropriate description for Allen’s stampeding run through Pittsburgh’s defense on Monday.

People immediately compared the play to Kenny Pickett’s fake slide from his Pitt days, but that’s insulting to Allen, who didn’t have to deceive the Steelers defense to get past them. This was more like Allen’s version of the famous Michael Vick touchdown run to beat the Vikings in OT in 2002.

But instead of splitting defenders with blazing speed, as Vick did, Allen used his own superpower: being the biggest fella out on the field. No player in black and yellow wanted a piece of the Bills quarterback. And in that cold weather, I can’t blame them.

We should get to see more of Allen’s impressive runs next weekend as new offensive coordinator Joe Brady carries on the tradition of spamming quarterback runs in January. Allen racked up 74 yards on eight carries in the win over Pittsburgh and generated 3.3 expected points added on the ground. Since he entered the league in 2018, no other quarterback has had more rush attempts, and he’s nearly lapped the field in total rushing EPA over that time, per TruMedia.

EPA Leaders on QB Runs, Since 2018

Player Attempts OffRushEPA Yd/Rsh
Player Attempts OffRushEPA Yd/Rsh
Josh Allen 41 22.9 6.9
Dak Prescott 10 11.9 5.2
Jalen Hurts 37 5.7 4.2
Tom Brady (LOL) 3 5 -0.4
Taysom Hill 10 4 6.6
Via TruMedia

Let Josh run.

Winner: Jared Goff

It’s impossible to pick just one winner from a 24-23 win by the Detroit Lions that was cathartic for both the team and a football-crazed city that hadn’t seen a playoff victory in over 30 years. But this night was mostly about Jared Goff, who beat his former Rams team and the coach who traded him to Detroit three years ago, and had all of Ford Field chanting his name.

Goff certainly gave the home crowd plenty to cheer for—especially in the first half when he went 16-of-18 for 194 yards and a touchdown. While he cooled off in the second half, and the Lions managed only three points over the final 30 minutes, Goff put the game away right after the two-minute warning with a strong throw to Amon-Ra St. Brown to keep the clock ticking and the ball out of L.A.’s hands.

Goff did his job. And the rest of the Lions did theirs. Offensive coordinator Ben Johnson had a perfect opening script and rode his punishing offensive line to early touchdowns. That line blocked well in the run game early, even with L.A. choosing to load the box, and kept Goff clean all night. Goff took advantage of those clean pockets and exploited the mismatches Johnson and his receivers were able to create. Detroit’s offense played the game on its terms.

While Goff ultimately got his revenge on Sean McVay, the Los Angeles coach isn’t going to be having second thoughts about the trade for Matthew Stafford. If he ever does, he can just look at his shiny Super Bowl ring. This game illustrated some of the reasons McVay made the move three years ago: Stafford’s toughness and creativity from the pocket kept the Rams in the game all night. Despite dealing with mounting injury concerns—his throwing hand was bleeding after he jammed it on a defender’s helmet during a pass attempt, and he took a gnarly hit that sent him to the blue medical tent—Stafford put on one of the more impressive throwing displays we’ve seen all season. There were sidearm passes and no-look throws. On some plays, he even combined the techniques.

The Stafford–Puka Nacua two-man show (which resulted in nine catches for 181 yards and a touchdown) ultimately wasn’t enough—even as Goff struggled a bit under pressure. Per Next Gen Stats, Goff went 1-of-6 for 11 yards when pressed, and that doesn’t include his bizarre two-hand lateral that could have been recovered by the Rams defense if tight end Brock Wright weren’t there to fall on it.

So maybe it wasn’t a perfect game. And maybe Goff didn’t fully prove a point to his former coach with this performance. But the Lions quarterback will play again next week, and McVay will be watching from home. Goff has said throughout the week that this game wasn’t about revenge for him, but ending the Rams’ season had to feel good anyway.

Loser: Mike McCarthy

Mike McCarthy did the one thing he could not afford to do if he wanted to avoid an awkward conversation with Jerry Jones on Sunday night. He and his team got embarrassed. The 48-32 final score flatters the Cowboys’ performance. They fell behind Green Bay 27-0 late in the second quarter, and the Packers stretched their lead to 32 points midway through the fourth. This one was over before halftime. And now McCarthy’s tenure as Cowboys head coach could be over before the week’s end.

There’s a lot of blame to go around for the lopsided defeat—Dan Quinn’s defense got dog-walked by Green Bay’s young offense, and Dak Prescott threw two picks against a bad defense—but most of it will be pinned on the head coach. The team wasn’t prepared for a winnable game at home against an inexperienced opponent. And while the Cowboys did avoid a meme-able final play this time around, it was a third embarrassing playoff exit for McCarthy in three seasons. There hasn’t been much progress for the Cowboys over that time. And with a growing sense of urgency in Dallas—and a head coach hiring pool full of proven winners, including Bill Belichick—it would be a surprise if Jones didn’t part ways with McCarthy.

McCarthy’s offense did eventually find its footing in the second half, but by that point it had already been decided. Packers defensive coordinator Joe Barry won the coaching matchup, which has been a rare occurrence this season, and it’s not like he threw some great game plan at Dallas. Barry offered up his typical menu of coverages and pressures: conservative zone defense and soft man coverage. The goal, as always with Barry’s defense, was to stay on top of routes and limit vertical throws. And the Cowboys’ offensive resurgence this season was powered by vertical throws, especially over the second half of the season.

Those weren’t there—in the first half, at least—and Prescott didn’t have great secondary options to choose from. Prescott’s two picks will get plenty of attention, but his coach didn’t provide him with many open receivers, as Fox analyst Greg Olsen mentioned several times during the broadcast. That Green Bay was able to limit Dallas’s passing game with Barry’s typical zone coverages is a bad look for McCarthy, whose main selling point is his offensive acumen and play-calling.

Quinn also comes away from this game looking pretty rough. His defense gave up 48 points and a near-perfect day to Jordan Love in his playoff debut, and Quinn stuck with six defensive backs throughout the game, even when Green Bay put extra running backs and tight ends on the field. Having that extra speed on the field didn’t help Dallas in pass coverage, either, with Packers receivers finding acres of space downfield.

Quinn never really adjusted throughout the game. Even in the fourth quarter, when the Packers were just looking to bleed the clock, he kept his pass-first defense on the field and allowed Green Bay to run without much resistance. A failure to adjust has been a theme throughout Quinn’s career as a play caller. He has that in common with his head coach.

After the game, Jones called it the most shocking loss of his time in the NFL. Drastic changes are almost certainly coming to the Cowboys coaching staff. Whether McCarthy is included in those changes remains to be seen—but Jones isn’t going to keep us in suspense for very long.


Winner: Sports Talk Show Hosts

Stephen A. Smith was already on a heater this week, and now he’s getting an early exit from the Cowboys? Fans of the morning sports talk shows could be in for a Hall of Fame performance on Monday. This is pure joy.

On top of Cowboys misery, which is always good for ratings, we have McCarthy job security talk, a possible head coach search that could include Belichick, and a poor performance from Prescott, which will surely lead to some discussion about his contract. It’s as if this game were scripted by First Take and Undisputed producers.


Winners: Matt LaFleur and Jordan Love

If not for a missed pass in garbage time, Love would have finished his playoff debut with a perfect passer rating. That would have been a first in NFL history, and an incredibly cool accomplishment. But even without that, Love’s first postseason start could not have gone better. He was precise and efficient when playing within structure, dynamic and creative when that structure fell apart. Love made several of his trademark fadeaway throws in the face of the Cowboys pass rush, and the ball found its target seemingly every time.

Love looks like a star, and Matt LaFleur’s play-calling allowed him to shine bright on Sunday. The Packers run game kept the QB out of obvious passing situations. Green Bay’s play-action game provided him with clear throwing windows. And the protection plan completely stifled any blitzes the Cowboys threw at him.

Love’s development will steal all the headlines, but this is the youngest and cheapest offense in the entire league. There were question marks all over the depth chart entering the season—not just at quarterback. And their coach and his unit have answered them all. The young receiving corps got over its early growing pains and is now one of the deepest in the league. The two rookie tight ends are contributing in both the run and pass games. The offensive line has held up through injuries and some reshuffling—and was downright dominant against a defensive front led by Micah Parsons. Right tackle Zach Tom, a 24-year-old first-year starter, had a decent playoff debut himself.

LaFleur is off to one of the best starts in NFL coaching history, but there were still plenty who wondered whether all that winning was just because of Aaron Rodgers. This season was an emphatic response to that. Not only did he successfully develop a star quarterback of his own, but he also proved he didn’t need Rodgers to win big games. In fact, if the Packers win next week, LaFleur will have as many playoff wins with Love as he had in three seasons with Rodgers.

Winner: Wind Chill (and Steve Spagnuolo, I Guess)

After a week of speculation about just how bad the weather would get for Dolphins-Chiefs, the recorded temperature at kickoff was minus-4 degrees with a minus-27 wind chill. Smart football fans always prefer an advanced metric like wind chill. Raw temperature numbers? You might as well use passer rating to judge quarterback performance. From my warm couch, it looked more like a minus-27-degree night. I mean, Andy Reid’s mustache froze over and turned him into a play-calling Sam the Snowman.

The cold was expected to spoil a matchup between the NFL’s most electric offense and the league’s best quarterback. The over/under was the third lowest of the week at 43.5, behind only Buccaneers-Eagles and the Steelers-Bills game that was delayed by a snowstorm. And the cold did spoil things … for one side of the matchup, at least. While Patrick Mahomes was not affected, it broke Tua Tagovailoa and the Dolphins offense. Roll the lowlights:

Even Tua’s “best” throw of the night, his only touchdown pass, was severely underthrown.

He was throwing frozen turkeys out there. And Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo made Tagovailoa’s life even more miserable with an unsurprisingly sharp game plan that focused on taking away the middle of the field. That’s where Tagovailoa has done most of his damage this season. He came into the game leading the NFL in expected points added on throws of 10 to 25 air yards aimed in between the numbers, according to TruMedia. On Saturday night, he attempted three passes into that area and generated minus-2.5 EPA (plus an interception) on those plays.

As good as Spagnuolo’s plan was, though, it was Tagovailoa’s inability to throw the ball in the cold—and head coach Mike McDaniel’s inability to work around it—that led to Miami’s downfall. The Dolphins couldn’t access the intermediate windows they typically attack; the speed of the receiving corps isn’t so intimidating when the quarterback is struggling to get the ball downfield; and shorter throws to the perimeter were floating in the air, providing Chiefs defenders with plenty of time to make plays on the ball.

The Chiefs were the better team. If they played Miami in a dome 10 times, they’d probably beat them seven. Spags called a fantastic game. The secondary was awesome. The pass rush did its job. But the wind chill decided this game before it even started.

Loser: Tua Tagovailoa

We’re not done with Tagovailoa, who’s had a brutal two-week stretch heading into what will be a career-altering offseason. He is currently set to play on his rookie contract’s fifth-year option in 2024, which would guarantee him a $23 million salary. But he’s up for an extension, and Miami is in need of cap space in the offseason. Letting Tagovailoa play on the option and prove he’s worth a big investment may seem like the obvious play here, but extending the QB could provide some financial relief—assuming the Dolphins backload the deal.

All of that leads to a pretty big conundrum. The team’s two most sensible options are the two most extreme: a multiyear commitment, or an eventual breakup. My guess is that Miami will take the first option and extend Tagovailoa this summer. He led the NFL in passing yards in the regular season, and this franchise has been searching for a good starting quarterback since Dan Marino’s retirement in 2000. It would be hard to justify what many would see as an early split.

But Saturday’s ugly performance was not an isolated incident. Nor was it particularly surprising given the conditions in Kansas City. There’s a clear pattern here: In adverse situations, Tagovailoa plays his worst ball—whether it’s against good teams (which you tend to see in the playoffs) or in bad weather (ditto). OK, you scored 70 points against Vance Joseph’s defense in September. Do it in a cold front in January.

I don’t know how Miami feels good about giving all that money to a quarterback who doesn’t function well in situations that are unavoidable in the postseason. As terrifying as it would be to move on from a productive starting quarterback, the teams that have been in similar circumstances and made those terrifying decisions—like the Rams, the 49ers, and the team that took out the Dolphins on Saturday—have been better off for it.

Winner: The Patrick Mahomes Mythology

The only thing colder than Reid’s ’stache on Saturday night was this line he dropped about his quarterback after the game, which can also be interpreted as a subtle dig at Tagovailoa.

The main message isn’t up for debate. Reid is saying his QB is special, and Saturday’s game was another reminder. Mahomes’s traditional stat line wasn’t super impressive—he finished with an 83.6 passer rating—but the advanced metrics do a better job of telling the story of his performance.

And those numbers don’t account for the dropped passes and the fact that Mecole Hardman decided to give up on a deep ball that should have gone for six.

This was one of the coldest games in NFL history. It was straight-up dangerous to just be standing outside in Kansas City on Saturday night. And Mahomes made throws that most quarterbacks couldn’t complete in perfect weather.

This was a truly superhuman performance that will add to Mahomes’s growing lore. And this shot of his frozen helmet shattering will ensure that it will always be remembered.

The Chiefs passing game still has plenty of problems. Beating a Dolphins defense that has been decimated by injuries—and was forced into a risky blitz-heavy plan with its top three pass rushers out—doesn’t tell us how the offense will perform against Buffalo or Houston’s defense next week. But it was a reminder that Mahomes is still the league’s best player, and he’ll give the Chiefs a fighting chance no matter the opponent—or the weather.


Winner: The Texans Coaching Staff

The person most responsible for Houston’s first playoff win in five years, as head coach DeMeco Ryans said after the team’s 45-14 victory, was C.J. Stroud. The rookie quarterback turned in a 274-yard, three-touchdown performance and decimated Myles Garrett and a Browns defense that had dominated some of the league’s best offenses throughout the regular season. It was a veteran showing from the 22-year-old, who avoided any rookie mistakes, threw no picks, and took no sacks against a tough opponent.

But as good as Stroud was, he also received plenty of help from his coaching staff. Offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik dominated his battle with Browns defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, whose units are famously aggressive. Houston’s plan was built around misdirection. Slowik used pre-snap motion to draw defenders out of run gaps, double moves to exploit defensive backs left on an island, and screen passes to punish the Browns front seven when they bit on play fakes.

Slowik will be a popular head-coaching candidate this hiring cycle. That was true before Saturday’s showcase, and he’ll probably get a few more requests after dunking on Schwartz this weekend. Ryans made a similar transition last offseason, going from defensive coordinator in San Francisco to the head coach in Houston, and it was that experience as a play caller that helped him notch his first postseason win.

Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski, who calls the offensive plays for Cleveland, had his unit rolling early. This game initially looked a lot like the first matchup between these teams, a Week 16 Browns win in which Joe Flacco threw for 368 yards and Amari Cooper set the franchise’s receiving-yardage record for a single game. But Ryans quickly adjusted. He scrapped his initial plan, which called for a lot of single-high zone coverages that left the seams wide open, and instead called more two-high, which took away the deep throws for Flacco.

The changes worked almost immediately. And from there, it was only a matter of time before the boom-or-bust quarterback made a mistakeor two.

Cooper was also held in check this time around, thanks to one key adjustment by Ryans. While the Texans coach hasn’t typically asked his top cornerback, Derek Stingley Jr., to shadow opposing WR1s, he asked him to follow Cooper on Saturday. His young corner did the job, blanking the Browns star across 35 coverage snaps.

Ryans will be celebrated for changing the culture in Houston, for leading a locker room that had little to no winning experience in the NFL. But don’t confuse him for a CEO-type head coach. Ryans also knows ball. That helps when devising game plans—and apparently, when hiring offensive coordinators.

Loser: Is Joe Flacco Elite? Jokes

We always knew this was how it would end, right? This wild ride Flacco has taken Browns fans on over the past month was of course done in by a multi-pick meltdown in a blowout.

The truth is, there isn’t a lot separating Flacco’s performance in the playoff loss from his 368-yard game against Houston three weeks ago. In that first game, Flacco compiled those numbers with throws into tight coverage. And many of the decisions were the same on Saturday. But while his receivers caught the ball three weeks ago, this time, Houston’s defensive backs did. That made all the difference. The Texans defense played better; Flacco didn’t adjust.

This has been the case with Flacco throughout his career. He’s a point-and-shoot passer who has issues adjusting after the snap. When a play design works, and he can hit the intended throwing window, Flacco has the arm talent to execute a play. Any other time, whether the situation calls for a quick progression or a scramble, he’s not a useful quarterback … much less an elite one.