One of the NFL’s greatest features (along with high scoring, the college football pipeline, and Andy Reid food metaphors) is scarcity. Teams play only 17 games a season, so every game is a big deal. The league owns a day of the week in part because, most days, there is no football. But scarcity drives up the price of any commodity and the league will always have an incentive to try to sell more games, as long as they don’t become so abundant that it curbs fan appetite.
For example, the league just held its first three-day wild-card weekend. It’s been two years since the NFL altered its playoff format to introduce an additional team in each conference to the postseason. These changes eliminated the first-round bye traditionally enjoyed by the no. 2 seed and added two more games to the first round. This year, instead of splitting the games between Saturday and Sunday, the NFL stretched the schedule to put the final game of the slate, Rams-Cardinals, on Monday, when fans were treated to a 34-11 Rams blowout win. It was a fittingly lopsided end to a weekend of games that were, um, not very good or very competitive. Raiders-Bengals and 49ers-Cowboys delivered one-score games that went down to the wire, but the other four contests had an average margin of victory of 22.5 points.
On Saturday, the Bills scored a touchdown on all seven drives (kneeldowns excluded) of a 47-17 win against the Patriots. Buffalo did not punt, kick a field goal, take a sack, turn the ball over, or run a single play that went for negative yardage, while New England gave up the most points it’s ever allowed in the playoffs under Bill Belichick. Mitchell Trubisky got in the game for Buffalo, and it wasn’t even on Nickelodeon.
On Sunday, the Eagles could not test the Buccaneers with their offense or put any pressure on Tom Brady with their defense, and did not score until garbage time of a 31-15 loss. Later that evening, the Steelers lost 42-21 to the Chiefs after either punting or fumbling on their first eight drives of the game.
And on Monday, the Rams beat the Cardinals so thoroughly that, in the third quarter, Los Angeles wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. had more passing yards than Arizona quarterback Kyler Murray.
Virtually everything went well for Los Angeles. The Rams are built through splashy acquisitions, and nearly every one of them showed up Monday. Quarterback Matthew Stafford completed 76 percent of his passes and didn’t throw an interception in his first career playoff win. Beckham, who has scored in six of his nine games since joining the Rams, caught all four of his targets for 54 yards and a touchdown and added 40 passing yards on a trick-play deep shot to running back Cam Akers. Edge rusher Von Miller had three tackles for losses and a sack, and running back Sony Michel gained 58 rushing yards on 13 carries (4.5 yards per carry) while sharing a backfield with Akers, who added 55 on the ground and 40 through the air, and showed no lingering effect from his Achilles tear six months ago. The Rams are mercurial because they are built around a small group of star players and when those stars aren’t performing things can get bad in a hurry. Monday’s performance, though, was a fearsome example of their potential ahead of their divisional-round matchup against the Bucs.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals absolutely folded, finishing the season in a 1-5 slump in their last six games. Murray finished 19-of-34 for 137 yards, no touchdowns, and two interceptions, in part because his head coach, Kliff Kingsbury, called a game that completely disregarded his abilities as a runner. Murray rushed twice for 6 yards, and the Cardinals gained just 61 yards total on the ground. Arizona’s seven possessions in the first half went: punt, punt, punt, punt, pick-six, interception, punt. They also went 0-for-9 on third downs in the game. By the third quarter, Peyton and Eli Manning, hosting Cardinals fan Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson on ESPN’s Manning-cast, were essentially vamping, asking about upcoming projects while the Rock sat in front of a large dinosaur skull. (OK, the NFL also has the ability to make nonsense like that happen going for it.)
The Rock having the most complete T-Rex skull in existence while plugging every single business venture is exactly what this nation needed in order to heal. https://t.co/pBBQrRfk12— Mike Golic Jr (@mikegolicjr) January 18, 2022
Taking stock of this weekend’s wild-card games, there are two things happening. The first is a byproduct of the NFL’s playoff expansion. Since the no. 7 seed came into our lives last year, there have been four 2-seed-vs.-7-seed matchups. The only one that has been remotely competitive was when the 2-seed Bills beat the 7-seed Colts 27-24 last year. The Colts had the ball at the end of the game with a chance to tie or win the game. Can’t complain about that.
Otherwise, though, the 2-vs.-7 matchup has produced a 21-9 Saints win against the Bears (and NVP Trubisky) in last year’s playoffs and this weekend’s Eagles-Bucs and Steelers-Chiefs matchups. The Steelers were such underdogs that before the game, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said, “We don’t have a chance, so let’s just go in and have fun.” The benefit of the seventh seed (besides the money it earns for the league) is that teams with dedicated fans have real stakes to root for longer into the season, but the results so far have indicated that the teams that squeak into the last spot are not capable of playing competitively in the postseason. If you look at the win probability charts from all four 2-vs.-7 games played over the past two years, only the Colts had higher than a 50 percent chance of winning at any point during any of them (and that was for only a few plays).
Just one of the four 2-vs-7 NFL playoff games has been even remotely competitive. Expanding the postseason was a mistake. pic.twitter.com/X66kmPKq2U— Riley McAtee (@RileyMcAtee) January 17, 2022
The second thing happening is that Rams-Cardinals and Patriots-Bills were just a couple of stinkers. It was possible to see them coming given how Arizona and New England limped to the finish line, but both of those teams were the top seeds in their divisions as recently as Week 14. They didn’t turn out to be that good over the course of the full season, and they also faced more talented teams in the postseason that were apparently more motivated and better prepared. Sometimes teams simply peak at the right or the wrong time. That happens.
When that happens and the NFL sacrifices competition to squeeze more teams and games into the playoffs, though, you get an uncompetitive wild-card weekend.
The benefit to this, perhaps, is that we had chalk nearly across the board, which sets up some fantastic-looking divisional-round meetings. Packers-49ers and Bucs-Rams are two meetings between teams that have already proved themselves against the best competition. In that way, the playoff bracket has worked out marvelously so far. And despite several games being well over by halftime, picking the NFL to suffer in the ratings is usually a losing strategy as most fans remain content to suck down Roethlisberger throwing 3.5 yards short of the sticks on an average passing down like Augustus Gloop. Another thing the league has going for it is the ability to stick any old teams in prime time and have them out-rate the Golden Globes. It just usually didn’t happen in the playoffs.