This is the Hot Read. In this column, you’ll find everything and anything I found interesting from the NFL’s wild-card weekend. There’s the stuff that everyone’s talking about, and the stuff that nobody’s talking about; the stuff that makes football incredible, and the stuff that makes football fun. I hope you enjoy it and learn something cool—and if you do, I hope you’re back next week, when we do it all again.
The Big Thing: Change Is Coming in Philadelphia
A lot happened in the NFL during the wild-card playoff round. If there’s one thing you need to know, it’s this.
“This is a defeated team, and it was when they came in. And there’s been no life to this team, for really the entire ball game.”
Those were Troy Aikman’s words in the beginning of the fourth quarter of Monday’s game between the Philadelphia Eagles and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Eagles were down by 16—technically a two-possession game with 11 minutes left—but the game felt decided everywhere but the scoreboard.
It was not Aikman’s first comment on the Eagles’ unenthusiastic demeanor, and rightfully so. He remarked that the body language of the Eagles players led him to believe they weren’t really in the ball game; he openly wondered on a Trey Palmer catch-and-run why the tackling and effort were so poor—something that his partner, Joe Buck, also commented on throughout the game.
The defending NFC champions played their first playoff game since a close, hard-fought Super Bowl loss, falling 32-9 to the Bucs. And the broadcast spent the entire time remarking on how obviously disinterested the team was in winning.
The fall for the Eagles was sudden and swift. Rewind the clock to November: As a 10-1 team with wins over the Dolphins, Chiefs, and Bills, the Eagles were the class of the NFC again. The team acknowledged that it had yet to play a perfect game, but hey—it was winning. It felt like the self-motivating adages of a team focused on greatness.
Then came the beginning of the exposure. The 49ers and Cowboys clowned on them in back-to-back weeks; 49ers pass rusher Nick Bosa claimed his defense had created a blueprint for defending Jalen Hurts and the Eagles offense. Philly suddenly felt like a poser among NFC contenders.
What was particularly remarkable about the Eagles’ subsequent free fall was exactly that: It was free. Unimpeded. Never slowed. There wasn’t a single thing done by the coaching staff or locker room leadership that delayed the descent or softened the crash landing.
Their first attempt came before a Monday Night Football game against Seattle: a defensive coordinator switch from Sean Desai to Matt Patricia (of all people). They lost to Drew Lock on a fourth-quarter, game-winning drive. They lost to the Cardinals and the Giants in consecutive weeks. A.J. Brown stopped talking to the media, and then had to clarify why he had stopped talking to the media. Speculation around head coach Nick Sirianni’s job grew.
For the entire month of December, it was largely unclear what the Eagles brass did over the work week. Set aside the defensive coaching changes, which amounted to virtually nothing, and focus on the offensive side of the ball. Everyone and their mama knows that Hurts and the Eagles offense cannot deal with the blitz. Hurts was blitzed more than all but two quarterbacks this season; against the blitz, Hurts was 25th in adjusted net yards per attempt, 22nd in success rate, 21st in expected points added per dropback. Buccaneers head coach Todd Bowles knows this better than most—he’s faced Hurts a few times, including in a 2022 wild-card game in which he (Bowles was Tampa Bay’s defensive coordinator) hassled Hurts all game with pressure packages.
Yet the Eagles lost to the blitz against the Buccaneers, again and again and again. They lost the same way they lost to the blitz against the Giants in Weeks 16 and 18, against the Cowboys in Week 14. With only spread formations, the Eagles struggle to get additional bodies in protection. Offensive coordinator Brian Johnson dials up only curls and vertical routes, hoping his star receivers can win a one-on-one and bail Hurts out. And Hurts, who hates a muddied pocket, drops his eyes and delivers inaccurate passes. Again, and again, and again. Hurts completed 12 of his 20 attempts when blitzed for only 92 yards. That’s 4.6 yards per attempt.
That Johnson could never solve this problem is an indictment of his work as a first-year offensive coordinator. But far more, it is an indictment of Sirianni. His background is on the offensive side of the ball, and when he first took the Eagles’ head-coaching gig in 2021, he called the plays. Only when he surrendered the job to then–offensive coordinator Shane Steichen did the Eagles offense improve, culminating with that 2022 season and Super Bowl appearance. Once Steichen left, it cratered again.
Sirianni should have been able to help Johnson, a first-time play caller at the NFL level, solve the problems of the offense—the Eagles had no such solutions. As the head coach, Sirianni also should have stopped the skid and pulled the team out of its tailspin—he never came close. Once the Eagles got punched in the mouth, they folded. They were a fair-weather team with a fair-weather coach; once conditions turned foul, nobody knew how to hunker down.
The question on the mind of every Eagles watcher, from the average fan to owner Jeffrey Lurie, is that one: What does Nick do here? What value does he bring to the team? If he isn’t calling plays; if his coaching adjustments, in either the offseason or midseason, aren’t working; if his culture is crumbling and the team can’t recover from a loss … what exactly is Sirianni doing?
The Eagles have an aging roster and face a difficult decision. They can push for one more year of contention or accept an inevitable youth movement and subsequent reload. Do the Eagles have confidence in Sirianni to lead them in either direction?
Mike Vrabel is unemployed right now. So is Pete Carroll. Those are some good coaches. There’s another one—William Belichick, I think his name is? The Eagles will do their homework, for sure. This is not an organization to sit on its thumbs and do nothing—it’s never been the way of Lurie and GM Howie Roseman.
Change is coming to Philadelphia. The only question is what sort of change it is.
The Little Things
It’s the little things in football that matter the most—zany plays, small victories, and some laughs. Here’s where you can find them.
1. JAMMED MY AHH TO CANCUN
I love irrational football players. Think defensive backs celebrating an incomplete pass when they did nothing to cause it, or offensive linemen pointing at defensive linemen that didn’t move an inch when they try to justify a false start.
With that said, there’s something pleasant and refreshing about the cheerful acceptance of Dolphins WR Tyreek Hill, who got pressed into next season by Chiefs CB L’Jarius Sneed.
A lot of teams want to press the Dolphins to stop their timing routes. Few actually can. Sneed makes it possible.
2. THROUGH THE CAR WASH
There are a lot of great, tried-and-true phrases to provide imagery for particular throws. “Dropped it in the bucket” is a great one. I love “could throw a strawberry through a battleship” for arm strength.
The best imagery for a throw perfectly delivered in a tight window is a “car wash throw,” because it could go through a car wash and still come out the other end dry. This is a car wash throw.
So is this one. What a spot.
3. ON A STRING
Actually, real quick, those throws reminded me of this throw from Matthew Stafford, which was also sick—not for the throw itself, but for the way he had Jack Campbell’s head spinning to create space for the throw. This is just mean-spirited quarterbacking.
OK, enough of the highlights. (Remember that Josh Allen third-down conversion?)
4. A HOME GAME
The Bills’ home game this weekend was a far greater headache than it was supposed to be, what with the inclement weather and the rescheduled kickoff. But they played it, and they won it, 31-17 against a Steelers team with a notoriously well-traveling fan base. This, after earning the AFC’s no. 2 seed with their surging finish to the season.
Now, the Bills get to do something no team has ever done: host Patrick Mahomes in the playoffs. That’s right: besides neutral-field Super Bowls, Patrick Mahomes has played in 12 playoff games—and they were all at home.
Home-field advantage may not be what it used to be, as visiting teams have learned how to adjust their cadences and procedures better to adverse conditions. But the Chiefs have long been a postseason bugbear for the Bills. Now Buffalo, after such a tumultuous season, faces those Chiefs again—but at home? It might just be the difference the Bills have needed.
The Zag: The Lions Can Win the Super Bowl
I tend to be a little contrarian. It’s not so much a personal choice as it is an occupational hazard. Here’s where I’ll plant my flag.
Before the playoffs began, I named the Lions my NFC wild-card team. Not wild card like the round of the playoffs, but rather, the wild card as in the chaos team. I could see them losing in the first round to the Rams at home. I could see them winning the conference and playing in Vegas in February. I could see anything in between.
Well, they survived the Rams by a point, 24-23, and with that win they got the monkey off their backs. They won a playoff game for the first time in over three decades, proving both internally and externally that they’re for real. Their rebuild worked. The curse is lifted.
Now that these Lions are clearly more than the same old Lions, we ought to recognize that they’re not just a placeholder or a speed bump on the 49ers’ inevitable ascension to the Super Bowl. They’re actually good.
There isn’t an offensive metric that doesn’t love the Lions. They’re top five in yards per play, points per drive, EPA per play, EPA per rush, EPA per drive, and passing success rate. In everything else I’d ever look at, they’re at least top eight. And critically, they’re healthy. Besides star TE Sam LaPorta, who was able to play but largely operated as a decoy against the Rams after hyperextending his knee in Week 18, the Lions have a clean bill of health among all offensive starters.
Oh, but the defense—that unit is far too weak for a Super Bowl run, right? Time for a fact check. Over the regular season, the Lions defense was marginally better by success rate (58.9 percent) than the 49ers defense (58.3 percent). The 49ers are strong against the pass, but liable against the run; the Lions are the opposite. Of course, if you could pick a phase of the game to defend well, you’d pick the pass—and the 49ers are a better defense by EPA accordingly. But it is just flat wrong to say the Lions defense is so bad that they can’t make a run. They’re the 13th-best defense by DVOA; last year’s Chiefs were 14th.
We often trick ourselves into thinking that teams have to be perfect to survive the postseason—rather, it’s an inexact blend of being good and lucky. A coach like Dan Campbell, who regularly rides the variance of fourth-down attempts and two-point conversions and fake punts, understands this. You have to be willing to introduce some risk in order to catch some good variance.
Speaking of understanding, the only remaining NFC quarterback with any significant postseason experience is Jared Goff. He’s been here before. Goff’s playoff experience came with the Rams under Sean McVay, and he was a different quarterback then. While Goff remains a bit lacking in the playmaking department, he attempts and makes tougher throws more frequently than he did in Los Angeles. Unlike many of the quarterbacks who developed under Kyle Shanahan–styled offenses, Goff actually has enough arm to stretch the field and work the sidelines. With years of experience under his belt, he survives blitzes and pressure better than he used to. Goff’s not an elite quarterback, but he’s more than good enough to captain a deep playoff run.
Yeah, San Francisco’s still the favorite in the NFC. Rightfully so. If I could pick only one team to go the distance, I’d pick them. With that said, the Lions haven’t been presented as a legitimate threat in the conference for much of the season, and I think that’s just plain wrong.
(Mostly Real) Awards
I’ll hand out some awards. Most of them will be real. Some of them won’t be.
The Timing Award: Houston Texans offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik
It’s been an excellent season for Slowik, who is following in the footsteps of many Shanahan disciples before him. What are those footsteps? (1) Get a play-calling gig at a super young age, (2) absolutely shred the entire league, (3) get a head-coaching gig at a super-duper young age. No, the 36-year-old hasn’t done that last step just yet—but he’s currently the odds-on favorite for the Titans’ head-coaching job. It feels like it’s coming.
While I’ve generally been impressed with Slowik this season, I have doled out plenty of credit to other agents of the Texans offense. Rookie QB C.J. Stroud is still, in my eyes, the primary driver of the offense. Wide receiver Nico Collins, long a favorite of mine, has elevated his game and is entering the top tier of receivers. The offensive line is underrated. Slowik has been doing his part, and he’s been great—but he wasn’t the main draw for me.
In the Texans’ 45-14 win against the Browns on Saturday, even in the face of an electric Stroud performance, Slowik was the draw. The Texans deployed the Take Care of an Elite Pass Rusher game plan as well as I can remember a team doing. It wasn’t just that they chipped Myles Garrett or got double-teams on him. They ran screens and reverses and naked bootlegs and shovel passes—anything to get Garrett’s eyes going one way, body going another way, and the actual play going a third way. That right there was a playoff game plan from the young play caller—and to do it just as head-coaching interviews are heating up? That’s just great timing.
Most Valuable Player (of the League) (in the Future): Green Bay Packers QB Jordan Love
Jordan Love is so cool. He’s a twitchy athlete with a natural feel for space and more arm talent than most quarterbacks in the league. I hesitate to compare anyone to Patrick Mahomes, and I’m not doing that with Love. But when I watch Love drop back and start to enter creation mode—bounce on his feet, direct traffic, slide in the pocket—it feels the way it did during Mahomes’s first season as a starter. I straighten up in my seat and get excited. There’s a looseness, an effortlessness to Love’s playmaking that’s reminiscent of young Mahomes.
It’s important to remember that development isn’t linear. Love has improved by leaps and bounds this year, which is a huge testament to him, the coaching staff, and the value of starting experience. It’s tempting to believe he’ll keep ascending year over year, but that may not be true.
What is true is this: If Love played all season like he has over the past five or six weeks, he’d have been an MVP candidate. So even if his development hits the ceiling and Love is close to his final form … his final form looks like a top-10 quarterback in the league.
Most Valuable Player (of the League) (in the Future) (Probably in a Different Year Than Jordan Love): Houston Texans QB C.J. Stroud
Speaking of looking like a top-10 quarterback …
There’s no quarterback in the league C.J. Stroud can’t go toe-to-toe with. He gets Lamar Jackson this Saturday, and if he beats the Ravens, he’ll earn a matchup with either Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen. That is lofty company, but Stroud belongs. Other AFC quarterbacks have made their forays into this group—Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert, Trevor Lawrence—and there’s always a preferred flavor of the month. But right now, the last one standing is Stroud, and he isn’t going away anytime soon.
The most impressive thing about Stroud in the win against Cleveland? He didn’t wilt. Stroud remained as aggressive a passer as he had been all regular season, despite playing in his first postseason game, despite going up against one of the league’s best defenses. Even after he missed a couple of big throws early in the game, he kept a short memory and found new connections.
The magic for Stroud all season has been his poise and comfort despite his young age. That remained on Saturday, and there’s no reason to believe he’ll bring anything less when he faces the top-seeded Baltimore Ravens, on the road, with the league MVP on the other sideline. Stroud is unflappable.
Old Guy Award: Los Angeles Rams QB Matthew Stafford
An underappreciated arc of the past decade of football was the persistence of the old guys. Tom Brady is the obvious one: He played well into his 40s, and every throw was a victory against Father Time. But even as Aaron Rodgers racked up MVPs, as Peyton Manning evolved, and as Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers and Matt Ryan stayed relevant into their mid-30s, the old dude at quarterback was a common trope.
That fell away fast, as those guys have all left the league save for Rodgers, who played only a few snaps this season. With injuries to Kirk Cousins and Ryan Tannehill, as well as the benching of Russell Wilson, it was not the year of the old quarterback.
Save for one guy: Stafford. The Rams, who fielded one of the youngest rosters of the season and made a surprise playoff appearance, looked into trading Stafford this past offseason, worried about his long-term health. What a statement season from Stafford, who played all but one game and showed not a bit of rust on that arm. Not only is the old guy still thriving—he’s hip! He’s with the times! He’s hitting no-look throws left and right.
The persistence of Stafford is one of the many catapults that quickly launched the Rams back into relevancy. If he’s got another one of these seasons under his belt, the Rams will be a real threat in the 2024 season.
Next Ben Stats
What it sounds like: Next Gen Stats, but I get to make them up.
7.4: That’s the average margin of victory in a Pittsburgh Steelers win this season
This is a two-parter.
13.5: That’s the average margin of victory in a Pittsburgh Steelers loss this season
The Steelers won 10 games this year—nine of them were by one score. They lost eight games this year—only two of them were by one score. That’s a 9-2 record in one-score games this season. That’s just … ridiculous.
It’s also bad news. Even though Mike Tomlin has been doing this for so long that he’ll probably never stop, the Steelers massively overachieved this year, and the end result was limping in as the 7-seed. I wrote about Tomlin’s reputation as a coach last month, and I think he’s still a great one—but there’s no doubt that the Steelers offense has been stuck in neutral for years. Pittsburgh needs a new quarterback in 2024—that is, not someone currently on the roster—and a new, dynamic play caller.
1: That’s how many pressures Micah Parsons had against the Packers
Here’s an actual Next Gen Stat for you. Call me Gen Solak.
The Packers held Micah Parsons to just 1 pressure on 19 pass rushes, his lowest pressure rate in a game in his career (5.3%).— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) January 15, 2024
Parsons had his only pressure come on an unblocked pass rush. Right tackle Zach Tom held him to 0 pressures in 9 matchups.#GBvsDAL | #GoPackGo pic.twitter.com/mlwKUrL3g2
Of course, on Parsons’s career-worst day, he also finally got that which he’s long deserved: a holding call! So it wasn’t all bad.
But the Packers had no issues working against Parsons in the running game, which has been a theme of the Cowboys’ season, and then finding structural solutions to him in pass protection. The Cowboys’ usage of Parsons deserves a more critical eye. He’s used creatively, just as other star rushers are. But part of Parsons’s unique, unmatched value is just how versatile he can be. It shouldn’t be this easy to get him out of a game plan. That falls on the coaching staff.