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The Winners and Losers of the NFL Divisional Round

Derrick Henry and Patrick Mahomes did things we’ve never seen before in the second round of the playoffs. Plus, the Ravens came up short when it mattered most.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Every week this NFL season, we will celebrate the electric plays, investigate the colossal blunders, and explain the inexplicable moments of the most recent slate. Welcome to Winners and Losers. Which one are you?

Winner: The Unprecedented

The first weekend of the NFL playoffs featured two overtime games, with every game decided by a single score. It was thrilling for the reasons we know things to be thrilling—games being decided in the final moments, surprise upsets, the works.

From that perspective, the second weekend of the NFL playoffs was a letdown. Only one game came down to a single score—a 28-23 Packers win over the Seahawks in which Green Bay had led by 18 in the third quarter before some Seahawks scores gave the game the impression of closeness. The other games were decided by 20, 17, and 16 points—not exactly thrillers. But while the scores weren’t close, anybody who watched these games saw things nobody has ever seen before.

The Titans beat the Ravens 28-12, which would be surprising enough as is. The Ravens were the best team in the NFL this year, both in terms of record and Football Outsiders’ DVOA. The Titans were a 9-7 team that scraped into the playoffs in the final weeks of the year. No. 6 seeds were 0-9 against no. 1 seeds since 2010, when the Jets beat the Patriots in the divisional round (that really happened!) and the Packers beat the Falcons. The Patriots were the defending champions and had the no. 1 scoring defense this year; the Ravens were the no. 1 seed and had the no. 1 scoring offense this year. The Titans dumped them both.

By those standards, the Titans’ win was merely rare. If you watched the game, you would know the Titans are doing something that has never been done before. For the second straight game, the Titans won on the sheer power of Derrick Henry, who has become unstoppable since the halfway mark of the season. Henry had 195 yards—the most in a playoff game since 2008. He had 182 yards last week to knock out the Patriots, and 211 in Week 17 to get the Titans into the playoffs.

That makes Henry the first player in NFL history to have 180 yards rushing in back-to-back-to-back games. Henry’s 377 rushing yards in the postseason are the most a player has ever had in a team’s first two playoff games. With Henry dominating on the ground, Ryan Tannehill has barely had to throw: The Titans are the first team since 1988 to have multiple playoff wins without 100 yards passing.

Henry now has four of the top six rushing performances of the year—and three of them in the past three weeks. After a somewhat lackluster career, he has picked the most important juncture of the season to prove that he is the best running back in the NFL with a string of back-to-back-to-back performances that nobody has ever pulled off in the history of the league.

The other AFC game was equally unprecedented. The result wasn’t as surprising—the Chiefs, who were favored over the Texans by 10 points, won by 20. But the way it happened was. Early in the second quarter, the Texans took a 24-0 lead after returning a blocked punt for a touchdown and recovering a muffed punt within the 10-yard line. And then the Chiefs scored 41 unanswered points, with touchdowns on seven straight drives. Kansas City led by halftime and won a blowout. Patrick Mahomes finished with five touchdowns, making him one of just nine players in NFL history to have five touchdowns in a postseason game.

There have been big comebacks, but this was unheard of. The Chiefs were the first team in NFL history to turn a 21-point first-half deficit into a halftime lead, and the first team in postseason history to turn a 20-point deficit into a 20-point win. (It has happened only twice in regular-season games.)

The Texans built their lead with flukes; the Chiefs erased it with consistent dominance. Mahomes is the best quarterback in the NFL, and Sunday he proved he can jump over even the highest hurdles and clear them by record distances.

This weekend, we saw the best thrower and the best runner in the NFL cement their status by achieving the unprecedented. The games weren’t close, but they were spectacular.

Loser: The Vikings’ Strength Coach

Most of the time, it’s easy to tell when a team got their asses kicked: The score is like 45-10, one quarterback had four touchdowns, the other quarterback had three interceptions, and the second half probably should’ve been played with a running clock.

Saturday’s game between the Vikings and Niners was a sneaky ass-kicking. San Francisco won only 27-10. Both quarterbacks threw a touchdown and an interception, and the Niners led by only seven late in the third quarter.

But make no mistake: The Niners kicked ass. San Francisco outgained Minnesota 308-147 without the benefit of a massive turnover advantage (both teams turned it over twice) or big plays (their longest play of the game was 22 yards). They just destroyed the Vikings in the trenches. The Niners ran the ball for 186 yards, including one eight-play touchdown drive in which quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo never threw the ball. The Vikings, who were sixth in rushing yards this season, had just 21 rushing yards. They lost 46 yards on six sacks, leaving Kirk Cousins with just 126 net passing yards on 35 dropbacks. Minnesota actually had the longest play of the day, a 41-yard touchdown where a San Francisco cornerback fell down. The Vikings had eight drives where they gained fewer than 10 yards and three where they actually went backward. The Niners had 21 first downs; the Vikings had seven, tied for the fourth fewest ever in an NFL playoff game.

The Vikings could not run the ball because the 49ers defensive line was kicking their offensive line’s ass. They could not pass the ball, because the 49ers defensive line was kicking their offensive line’s ass. They could not stop San Francisco from running the ball, because the 49ers offensive line was kicking their defensive line’s ass. I guess you could say they stopped the 49ers passing game, but that’s mainly because the Niners barely threw the ball. The game was played on Saturday in Santa Clara, but it was won over the past decade in every weight room the Niners have ever used.

Loser: Fourth-and-1 Analytics

A coach should try to make the decisions that work most often and live with the fact that sometimes those decisions backfire. For example: If something works 80 percent of the time and backfires 20 percent of the time, you keep doing it over and over and over and over again, even if it costs you sometimes.

Counting the playoffs, when they went for it on fourth-and-1 this year, the Ravens converted 80 percent of the time. Pretty good! Knowing that, you’d advise them to go for it on fourth-and-1 every time they had the opportunity. However, entering Saturday’s game, Baltimore was better than converting on fourth-and-1 80 percent of the time—before facing Tennessee, the Ravens hadn’t been stopped on fourth-and-1 all year long. With an analytics-friendly coaching staff led by John Harbaugh and a rushing attack skilled in picking up short yardage led by Lamar Jackson, the Ravens led the NFL this season in both fourth-down conversions (17) and fourth-down conversion rate (70.8 percent). They were the team anybody could point to when explaining why teams should be more aggressive with their fourth-down decision-making.

And then they played the Titans, who pantsed them. In the first half, the Ravens faced a fourth-and-1 on their own 45-yard line. They called a QB sneak—the best play in football!—and were stuffed, as Tennessee’s defensive line pushed the Ravens back. On the next play, Ryan Tannehill threw a 45-yard touchdown. All of a sudden, the best team in the league was down two touchdowns to the 6-seed.

On the first drive of the second half, the Ravens faced a fourth down on the Tennessee 18-yard line. They called a QB sneak—t h e b e s t p l a y i n f o o t b a l l, I scream—and again, were stuffed, as Tennessee’s defensive line busted through and left Jackson hopeless. The Titans then went on a six-play, 81-yard touchdown drive, and the game felt over.

It was an “I told you so” moment for the anti-analytics crowd, a victory for every coach who relies on their gut to make choices rather than the numbers. The tide of the league is certainly flowing in the direction of teams like the Ravens that make analytically sound choices, but Saturday’s prominent failures will certainly cause a few owners, general managers, and coaches to rethink trusting the numbers.

The numbers say the Ravens did the right thing. The problem is, even when you make the choice most likely to lead to success, there is still the possibility for failure in certain situations. The Ravens’ failures happened to come in their most important game of the season, and they’ll be remembered for it.

Loser: The Chicago Bears

Maybe it’s unfair that everything that subpar quarterback Mitch Trubisky does for his entire career will be compared to legitimate superstars Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes. He didn’t ask to be drafted ahead of them! But, as you’ve probably heard, the Bears drafted subpar quarterback Mitch Trubisky above legitimate superstars Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes. In fact, they traded up to do so!

Sunday, Bears fans had to watch Mahomes and Watson go off in a 51-31 thriller, one of the greatest combined passing performances in NFL postseason history. Mahomes threw for 321 yards and five touchdowns; Watson threw for 388 yards and two touchdowns. Neither threw an interception. Mahomes led his team in rushing; Watson nearly did, too. It was the first time in NFL postseason history that quarterbacks combined for seven touchdowns without throwing an interception.

Watson’s 388 yards surpassed Trubisky’s career high of 355 yards. Mahomes’s five touchdowns and 9.2 yards per attempt were better than any Trubisky game of the year—he topped out at three touchdowns and 8.9 yards per attempt. You could legitimately argue that both Mahomes and Watson played better games on Sunday than Trubisky did in any of his 15 starts this year. (Maybe Trubisky’s 338-yard, three-touchdown, one-interception performance against the Lions in Week 13 was better than Watson’s day? I think the pick and Watson’s rushing yardage make his game better.)

It might be unfair to compare everything Trubisky does to Mahomes and Watson, but I suggest Bears fans get used to it, if they’re not already. Watching them duke it out on Sunday for a spot in the AFC championship game, it’s pretty clear they’ll be doing awesome things for a while.

Winner: The Griffins

Identical twins weird me out. You can never tell which one you’re talking to! They have their own languages! They want to do everything together, like sacking Aaron Rodgers on critical third downs in the fourth quarter of playoff games.

The people sacking Rodgers here are Shaquill and Shaquem Griffin. Shaquill was a highly sought-after recruit, but while Shaquem was as fast and strong and explosive as Shaquil, teams were skeptical that he could contribute for one big reason—Shaquem’s left hand was amputated when he was 4 years old. The pair went to UCF, one of the few schools that offered scholarships to both of them, and the pair helped UCF go undefeated in 2017. (National champs, baby!) Shaquill was drafted in the third round by the Seahawks, where he immediately became a starting cornerback.

But just like colleges, NFL teams were skeptical of the one-handed Shaquem, despite his incredible combine results. The Seahawks took a flyer on Shaquem, taking him in the fifth round of the 2018 draft, once again pairing the Griffins. Shaquem played almost entirely on special teams as a rookie, but he began receiving snaps on defense down the stretch this year.

When he dragged down Rodgers on Sunday, it was his first career sack. He has only one hand, but it doesn’t seem to matter—especially when his brother is flying in a few steps behind him.

Loser: The Cleveland Browns

Vikings-49ers was the Browns Bowl. Cleveland fired head coach Freddie Kitchens at the end of the regular season, and was apparently deciding between two candidates to take over—49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh and Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski. It seemed like Saturday’s game could decide whom Cleveland would pick.

Let’s be clear: Picking a coach based off of one game would be a terrible idea. We have extravagant amounts of information on any head-coaching candidate. You could watch full seasons of their schematic choices and break down near-infinite data about what their teams accomplish. It would be foolish to break everything down to a single game between teams of varying talent levels.

However, as we’ve noted, the game was an absolute ass-kicking. The Vikings could not run or pass. The Vikings went three-and-out over and over and over and over again, succeeding on plays only when the 49ers literally slipped and fell. Saleh’s defense was dominant. Stefanski’s offense was inept. If the game was a winner-take-all battle for the Browns job, Saleh won it.

Then on Sunday, less than 24 hours after the ass-kicking, news broke that the Browns had hired ... Stefanski. Cleveland’s decision was not based on the playoffs at all, as Stefanski has reportedly been a favorite of Browns executive Paul DePodesta for quite some time. The Browns nearly hired Stefanski last year and went with Kitchens; this year they fixed that apparent mistake.

That said, it sure looks like the Browns watched Saturday’s game, saw Saleh’s defense stuff Stefanski’s offense in a locker for 60 minutes, and said “see that team getting its ass kicked a billion different ways? THAT’S BROWNS FOOTBALL, BABY!” If there was such a thing as a Browns Bowl, of course the loser got the top prize.