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The Six Biggest Lessons From NFL Wild-Card Weekend

After three blowouts, one legitimately close game, and another that will be remembered for a series of Mike McCarthy blunders, wild-card weekend is almost in the books. And there’s plenty to learn from what transpired.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Well, that was kind of a letdown. What initially looked like a solid wild-card slate has so far resulted in three blowouts and two competitive games that will be remembered more for stunning moments of incompetence than the football that was played. Referee Jerome Boger and his crew already have been dismissed from the playoffs after making a mockery of the Bengals-Raiders matchup; and Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy got himself and his team sent home Sunday after a genuinely impressive array of fuckups.

Overall, the football was bad—unless you’re a Bengals fan; I’m sure this weekend ruled for you. But even so, the games didn’t leave us completely empty-handed. They taught us these six valuable lessons about the NFL and its teams—and to unpack them, we have to start in Dallas.

Don’t trust Mike McCarthy to manage your team.

In theory, McCarthy has it pretty easy as head coach of the Cowboys. He doesn’t call plays on either side of the ball—those jobs belong to Kellen Moore on offense and Dan Quinn on defense. Nor does he have team-building responsibilities, so any positive personnel moves are the product of Jerry Jones and his front office. All McCarthy really has to do is avoid significant game management mistakes, and he can say he’s done his job. Well, in Sunday’s 23-17 loss to the 49ers, he decidedly did not do his job.

If not for two comically inept moments from Dallas in the fourth quarter, we’d probably be talking about how the Cowboys came out flat in a home playoff loss. Or about how the team set a franchise record for penalties in a postseason game with 14. But MY GOD, those two mistakes. I’m of course talking about the sequence after a successful fake punt, when a wholly unnecessary gambit to trick San Francisco to waste a timeout it didn’t need in the first place led to a delay-of-game penalty, and the galaxy-brain decision to run Dak Prescott on a quarterback draw down six with only 14 seconds left and no timeouts. Those two decisions were not the only things that lost the Cowboys the game, but they were so bad that the rest doesn’t even matter. If McCarthy wasn’t already on the hot seat, he certainly is now.

The ill-fated draw play will get most of the attention this week, but the fake punt sequence might be the more comical blunder. Mere seconds into the final quarter, with Dallas trailing by 16 and facing a fourth-and-5 near midfield, punter Bryan Anger flipped a pass out to an uncovered C.J. Goodwin to move the chains. Then, in what announcer Tony Romo guessed was a ploy to get the 49ers to burn a timeout, the Cowboys kept the special teams unit on the field for the next play. That ploy did not work. The 49ers defense had no problem getting out on the field and lined up before the snap, so there was no need to call the timeout. And the Dallas offense ended up rushing back in a last-ditch effort to run an actual play, but it was too late to avoid a delay-of-game penalty. It was some real “This game is on Nickelodeon” bullshit.

These are the kinds of decisions you get when McCarthy tries to get tricky. It’s as if he was banking on the 49ers coaching staff being as ill-prepared as his staff was. Unfortunately for him, it was not.

After Sunday’s display, it’s fair to ask what McCarthy brings to the table. The Cowboys are not running his offense, so we can’t give him too much credit for this unit leading the NFL in scoring. Many of the team’s best players were already established stars by the time he got to Dallas, so he doesn’t get to say he developed a talented roster, either. Game management is his only job on game days—he even made a pilgrimage to Pro Football Focus during his time away from the NFL to get a crash course in analytics-based decisions—and he is still so, so bad at it. You have to wonder whether this team is any better off than it was with Jason Garrett at the helm. And that’s a sad reality.

This is who McCarthy has been throughout his 15 years as a head coach. If Jones sticks with McCarthy going forward—the Cowboys owner said after the game that he couldn’t remember the last time he was this disappointed in a loss and elected to not answer a question about a possible coaching change—he’ll have only himself to blame the next time Dallas throws away a winnable playoff game.


Tom Brady will always break a “bend but don’t break” defense.

There is no blueprint for stopping Tom Brady. There is, however, a blueprint for how to get dissected by the league’s greatest player, and the Eagles defense executed it as well as any team I’ve seen this year. Philly defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon has been employing a bend-but-don’t-break approach all season long. That means a lot of conservative zone coverages designed to take away deeper passes while giving up shorter ones. The idea is to force the offense to string together long drives—hoping that eventually it’ll make a drive-killing mistake—and it’s been an effective plan against big-play hunters like Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen. But Brady has won seven rings by taking exactly what the defense gives him. And if there was ever a time for Gannon to deviate from his preferred style of defense, it was Saturday’s matchup with the GOAT.

Gannon did not do that, and the Eagles gave up 31 points in a game in which the Bucs probably could have scored 50 if they really wanted to. It’s unfair to pin the loss solely on the defense when quarterback Jalen Hurts seemingly forgot how to throw a football for large stretches of the game, but there’s only so much you can do on offense with a limited quarterback taking on a good, experienced defense. I’m not sure what the Eagles could have done differently on that side of the ball outside of simply playing better. But the issues on defense were the result of inferior talent and a naive game plan.

Philadelphia’s defense was quite good on third down on Sunday. Brady averaged 0.39 EPA per play on early downs with a success rate of 58 percent on passes, according to RBSDM.com. Both of those marks would have (easily) led the league during the regular season. But on third down, when the Eagles played more man coverage, Brady had problems finding open receivers and was forced to hang on to the ball a bit longer, leading to a season-high four sacks. The splits are quite telling:

Tom Brady’s Performance Fell Off on Third Down vs. the Eagles

Stat Early Downs Third Down
Stat Early Downs Third Down
EPA/Play 0.32 -0.41
Yards/Play 7.7 1.1
Pressure Rate 3.3% 45.5%
Sack Rate 0% 36.4%
Time to Throw 2.1s 2.5s
Data via TruMedia

Overall, Brady averaged 0.23 EPA against Philly’s zone coverage. That number fell to 0.0 against man. Gannon eventually adjusted in the second half and played more man on early downs too, but the game was already over. The Bucs’ win probability surpassed the 95 percent mark in the second quarter, according to RBSDM.com’s model.

This was an easy win for the Bucs, and now they’ll go on to host the winner of Monday night’s Rams-Cardinals game. But those problems on third down can’t be overlooked. Losing Chris Godwin (ACL) and Antonio Brown (Being Antonio Brown) has made things a lot easier for opposing defenses. Without those players on the field, the secondary can throw extra bodies at Mike Evans and Rob Gronkowski and all of a sudden, Brady is relying on Tyler Johnson and Scotty Miller on key downs. That didn’t stop the Bucs from beating the Eagles—but if the NFC’s top two seeds advance to the conference championship game, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers won’t be so forgiving.

The Patriots have a long way to go to catch up to Buffalo.

This season will ultimately be seen as a step in the right direction for the Patriots. There was a brief stretch in early December, after a wind-aided victory over the Bills, when New England sat atop the AFC standings and looked like a potential Super Bowl candidate. But with a rookie quarterback under center, a limited receiving corps, and a banged-up defense, a quick playoff exit was always the most realistic fate. That said, the way in which the Patriots’ season ended—a 47-17 throttling at the hands of the Bills on Saturday night—might make this offseason a bit less enjoyable.

It’s not that New England lost to its divisional rivals. It’s how it lost—both the wild-card game and the Week 16 contest that decided the AFC East. Neither game was very competitive, and it was evident in both that the Patriots just weren’t equipped to keep up with Buffalo’s A-game. This season, New England built an old-school offense, centered on a physical running game, that many defenses aren’t equipped to stop. Paired with a solid defense, that offense is enough to win against probably 90 percent of the teams in the league. But against teams with superstar quarterbacks and highly productive passing games, the margin for error is just too small—especially when the game script falls out of favor early. The Patriots’ Plan A was awfully effective in 2021. In 2022, they’ll need a better Plan B.

Becoming the kind of team that can win a game like we saw on Saturday is going to take some work, though. The Patriots need to add speed on both sides of the ball. They’ll also need to overhaul the offensive scheme if they’re going to get the most out of Mac Jones. The smashmouth style of play helped protect the rookie this season and made sense for New England’s personnel, but it didn’t necessarily play to Jones’s strengths as a passer—his accuracy and quick decision-making. A quick-passing offense that operates out of the spread would do that, but you need the right collection of players to run such a scheme—and the 2021 Patriots simply did not have it. Bringing in receivers who can get open in a hurry would be a good start. That would punish teams for crowding the line of scrimmage and playing tight man-to-man coverage, a defensive strategy that gave New England issues down the stretch. That won’t be enough to close the gap on Buffalo, but it would give the Patriots offense a chance to keep up when Allen goes into human flamethrower mode.

After last season’s spending spree, the Patriots don’t necessarily have the resources to completely make over the roster, so this overhaul could take a bit of time to pull off. In the meantime, the AFC East will be the Bills’ division to lose. And given the importance of the playoffs’ lone first-round bye, which you can’t earn without winning a division, New England will need to start there before we can talk about Super Bowls again.

Zac Taylor is the biggest threat to the Bengals offense.

Wild-card weekend’s first game ended up being its best. A Raiders team that couldn’t get out of its own way—and had no answer for Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase—managed to stick around just long enough to give itself a chance to force overtime. I’m still not quite sure how the Bengals needed a red zone stop to escape with a victory. But it probably has something to do with Zac Taylor’s insistence on running a bad imitation of Sean McVay’s offense.

Recently, Taylor has done a better job of turning things over to Burrow and the passing game on early downs. Over the first half of the season, Cincinnati ranked 20th in early-down pass rate, according to RBSDM.com. That led to a lot of obvious passing situations on third down and put pressure on Burrow to beat complex coverages and hold steady behind a struggling offensive line. From Week 9 on, though, the Bengals jumped up to 12th in early-down pass rate and the offense took off.

On Saturday, Taylor reverted to his old ways, calling runs on 21 of 47 first and second downs. Those run plays lost the Bengals a total of 4.83 expected points and only 19 percent of them produced a positive EPA, according to RBSDM.com. Fortunately, Burrow was able to bail Taylor out on third down—Cincinnati converted five of 12 attempts—just enough to avoid a first-round loss. But things won’t be so easy as the Bengals advance through the playoffs.

Next week, Cincinnati will get a Titans defense that finished second in success rate allowed on third down, thanks in large part to a dominant interior pass rush and some clever coverage concepts. Taylor can’t afford to throw away those early downs against Tennessee. If he does, the Bengals will need more than another superhuman effort from Burrow to advance.

The Chiefs offense has officially adjusted to two-high coverages.

Remember back in early November when we were all worried about the Chiefs offense? When we thought that the powerhouse unit led by Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes had been dismantled by defenses simply putting a second safety back deep? That didn’t last very long.

To be fair, those two-high coverages did give Kansas City’s passing game all sorts of issues. Over the first 11 weeks of the season, Mahomes averaged 0.10 EPA per play against two-high coverages, according to TruMedia. That isn’t a bad number by any means, but it’s well below his overall average (0.22). The explosive plays that had fueled the Chiefs’ passing game for the previous three seasons had disappeared, and Mahomes was reluctant to adopt a more patient approach. There was tangible evidence suggesting that Kansas City was in trouble. But there was even more evidence to suggest that Reid and Mahomes would eventually figure things out. After all, two-high coverages had never been a problem for this offense in the past.

After a 42-point outburst against a good Pittsburgh defense on Sunday night, we can now say that the Chiefs have officially made their adjustments. Sure, this wasn’t the first time Kansas City put up a big number on the scoreboard this season. But if you don’t count the games against the Raiders—and we probably shouldn’t, given Gus Bradley’s refusal to come out of his preferred single-high coverages—we had yet to see Kansas City destroy a defense with downfield passes during the 2021 season. On Sunday, we finally got one of those games.

Kansas City isn’t really doing much different from how it operated over the first 11 weeks of the season. The downfield passing game is still built on getting Tyreek Hill open on deep crossing routes. But Mahomes’s newfound willingness to keep making a profit on short throws underneath has brought renewed success—since Week 12, he’s averaged 0.27 EPA per play against two-high coverages—and forced opponents to go away from the downfield-clogging schemes they deployed earlier in the year.

Now that Mahomes is willing to take those layups, defenses have to decide: Do they want to suffer a slow death and allow Mahomes to dink and dunk his way down the field with ruthless efficiency? Or do they want to tempt fate and give him those downfield opportunities? With Mahomes playing like this, it doesn’t really matter which option the defense chooses. The result will be the same.


Quarterbacks like Jimmy G rarely change who they are.

When the 49ers were in the process of building a two-score lead over the Cowboys on Sunday, it would have been logical to wonder why they felt the need to trade three first-round picks last offseason to draft Trey Lance, Jimmy Garoppolo’s heir apparent. At the time, Garoppolo—the quarterback the team will reportedly shop in the offseason—was playing well and had made a few key third-down conversions to keep the offense on the field. But later, when the 49ers were in the process of blowing said two-score lead, Garoppolo showed us exactly why San Francisco did what it did.

Even with the 49ers offense rolling early, there was a persistent feeling that Garoppolo would eventually allow the Cowboys back into the game. He’s done similar things countless times in the 2021 season—including in a particularly ugly display in a nationally televised loss against the Titans—and even did it in San Francisco’s Super Bowl loss two years ago. And sure enough, he did it again on Sunday. A couple of bad misses to wide-open receivers and an untimely interception late in the second half gave Dallas life. And now here we are once again asking whether Jimmy is good enough to lead a well-rounded 49ers roster on a deep playoff run.

When Kyle Shanahan’s offense is humming, Garoppolo is an ideal point guard. He gets rid of the ball quickly and typically gets it to his intended target. It’s when the 49ers fall behind and defenses no longer have to worry about defending Shanahan’s running game that Garoppolo’s weaknesses as a quarterback are highlighted. Jimmy isn’t the quickest thinker in the pocket, and his accuracy falls off the longer he’s forced to hold on to the ball. That’s when the mistakes happen. Because Shanahan is so good on early downs, Garoppolo isn’t put in those situations very often. But in the playoffs, against stiffer competition, those situations are inevitable—as are Jimmy G’s game-altering mistakes. The legitimate Super Bowl contenders have starting quarterbacks capable of getting their teams out of those situations. The 49ers do not.

Hoping Garoppolo eventually develops into that guy has already cost the 49ers a few seasons and well over $100 million. Eventually, it may cost this year’s team a chance at winning a Super Bowl. With Rodgers and Brady standing in San Francisco’s way, Shanahan won’t be able to hide his quarterback for 60 minutes. At some point, Garoppolo will be forced to make a play without the schematic crutches his coach consistently provides. And you know how that typically ends for the 49ers.