The smoke has settled from the NFL’s divisional round, revealing this year’s final four. In the AFC, the Chiefs took care of business and dispatched the Colts 31-13, moving to a championship-round matchup with the Patriots, who blew out the Chargers 41-28. In the NFC, the Rams ran all over the Cowboys, 30-22, and the Saints came back from a 14-point deficit to beat the Eagles 20-14. Put together, this weekend’s action sets up a championship round that features the four top-scoring teams in the NFL.
The divisional round delivered plenty of excitement, but a few moments stood out as more critical or illuminating than the rest. Here are a handful of the biggest game-changing plays from the weekend, along with what they can tell us about both the teams involved and the implications for the postseason picture.
Marshon Lattimore’s Second-Quarter Pick
The first quarter couldn’t have gone much worse for the Saints, who came out of their bye week looking rusty on both sides of the ball. The Eagles intercepted Drew Brees’s first pass, and Nick Foles promptly picked apart the New Orleans defense, finding Jordan Matthews on a 37-yard touchdown strike on the Eagles’ first drive. The Brees-led offense gained zero yards and went three-and-out on its second possession, precipitating another Philly touchdown drive, and when the Saints punted the ball back to the Eagles on their third possession—setting Philly up at its own 30-yard line with a 14-0 lead in the final seconds of the opening frame—it felt like New Orleans was about to let the game slip away. The Saints needed a stop in a bad way. Lattimore delivered.
On a second-and-8 from the Philly 48-yard line, Foles dropped back and let go a deep shot toward tight end Zach Ertz. But Lattimore, who carried Ertz up the sideline on a wheel route, kept his eyes on the ball the entire way, leapt up, and plucked the pass from the air.
It was textbook technique—and, perhaps, the turning point of the game. Lattimore’s interception worked like a shot of adrenaline to wake the Saints up from their bye-week slumber. Brees and Co. mounted a 12-play touchdown drive on the ensuing possession, and the New Orleans defense stiffened up from that point on, forcing the Eagles to punt on each of their next five drives. The Saints’ epic 18-play, 11-minute, third-quarter touchdown drive gave New Orleans its first lead of the game, and Lattimore came up big again in the closing minutes, picking Foles off in a right-place-right-time play on Alshon Jeffery’s drop.
It felt apt that the Saints defense delivered such a pivotal play in this game—picking up the team’s sluggish offense—after watching that group come alive in the second half of the season. The Saints started the year as a one-dimensional offensive juggernaut who couldn’t stop anyone on defense, but have morphed into a complete team that can beat you on both sides of the ball. Over their final eight games, the Saints tied for the league lead with 16 takeaways, held opposing quarterbacks to an 87.8 passer rating (tied for 10th), and racked up a league-best 32 sacks. Along with a Brees-led offense that features big-time playmakers like Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, Mark Ingram, and more, the team’s newfound balance could be the edge the Saints need to get past the Rams in next week’s NFC championship tilt.
James White Picks Up 17 Yards on a Shovel Pass
New England’s offense set the tone from the start in this one. After winning the toss and surprisingly electing to receive, the Patriots matriculated down the field on an authoritative 14-play, 83-yard drive that ate up over seven minutes of first-quarter clock (the longest opening possession in head coach Bill Belichick’s time with the team). Play-caller Josh McDaniels scripted a brilliant set of plays against L.A.’s heavy-defensive back looks, jump-starting the run game while getting the team’s running backs involved through the air with a clever array of screens and dump-offs—including this shovel pass to White that picked up 17 yards and moved the ball into Chargers territory for the first time.
There was nothing too special about that one particular play, but rather the drive as a whole served as a prelude for what was to come. White and rookie running back Sony Michel were the clear early focal points for New England, with 12 of the team’s 14 opening-drive plays going to the versatile duo (Michel rushed for 15 yards and a score while White grabbed five passes for 45 yards). But that was just the start: The Patriots mercilessly attacked a Los Angeles defense that gave up more pass yards to running backs than any other team all year, and White finished with 97 yards on a playoff-record-tying 15 catches. Michel played his part as an effective complement, notching 129 yards and three scores on the ground. Perhaps most incredible about the team’s offensive performance is that New England barely even tried to hide its intentions:
Sony Michel and the Patriots took advantage of the Chargers DB-heavy defense, despite clear run-pass predictability based on RB on-field:— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) January 13, 2019
Michel: 82% Run
Michel & Develin: 90% Run
White: 97% Pass
The Chargers did not stack the box once against 21 Personnel.#LACvsNE | #GoPats pic.twitter.com/JsjAo7fovp
In frigid 26-degree weather in Foxborough, New England finished with 498 yards of offense and dominated time of possession nearly two-to-one (38:20 to 21:40). The run game and running-back-heavy passing strategy helped protect Tom Brady from the Chargers’ top-tier pass rush—his time to throw clocked in at just 2.33 seconds per dropback this week, lowest among all eight starting QBs, and his 4.33 air yards per target was also the bottom of the bunch. But that kept him clean all game (he took zero sacks and was hit just twice), and the veteran signal-caller distributed the ball with cool efficiency, completing 34 of 44 passes for 343 yards and a touchdown. After a regular season in which the Patriots offense, and Brady himself, at times looked vulnerable, New England put together a completely dominant performance that served as a sobering reminder of why this team’s played in each of the past seven AFC championship games.
After the game, Brady tried to play up the underdog “no one believes in us” angle (and, for what it’s worth, Brady is set to be a Vegas ’dog for the first time in 68 games next weekend), but with the future Hall of Famer under center and Belichick and McDaniels on the sideline, there likely aren’t many out there still doubting that this team is capable of winning it all. The Pats showed Sunday that they still know how to build their game plan around their opponents’ weak link, they’re still capable of getting the most out of their versatile combination of skill players and offensive linemen, and with Brady at the center of it all, this offense is still more than able to dismantle even the best defenses in the league. Next week’s matchup with the Chiefs at Arrowhead has all the makings of an instant classic.
Todd Gurley’s 35-Yard Touchdown Run
The Rams accomplished exactly what the Seahawks tried and failed to do to the Cowboys last week, grinding Dallas’s formidable defense into dust with its unrelenting smashmouth ground game. L.A. attacked the Cowboys’ biggest strength with abandon on Saturday, mixing Gurley’s slashing, home-run-hitting style with a bevy of battering-ram totes by a mini–Mike Tolbert–looking C.J. Anderson. The Rams finished the game with a franchise playoff record 273 rushing yards and three touchdowns on an incredible 48 rushes, including this pivotal cut-back scamper by Gurley late in the second quarter.
Gurley’s run pushed the Rams’ first-half lead to 20-7, and boosted their win probability to an overwhelming 87 percent, leaving Dallas in a big early hole it’d never climb out of. That specific play—a wide zone run that first stretched the defense thin with blocking to the right before Gurley smashed it up inside and broke out to the left—was an excellent representation of what’s made the L.A. offense so deadly this whole season. It wasn’t just that the team’s offensive line dominated the line of scrimmage and helped open up that gigantic cut-back lane, or that Gurley had the explosiveness to beat safety Xavier Woods to the outside; it was the sum of all the tenets of head coach and play-caller Sean McVay’s innovative offense, a scheme that can be boiled down to one astoundingly simple goal: making your opponent defend the entire field.
McVay’s scheme keeps defenses on their heels from the first whistle to the last with a steady dose of deception, marrying the downhill run game with the play-action pass and plenty of pre-snap motion. The result is an offensive symphony: Running their offense almost completely out of 11 personnel (one tight end, one running back, three receivers), the Rams force opponents into lighter five- and six-defensive back nickel and dime looks and then give opposing defenders impossible decisions to make on nearly every play. The team’s play-action passing game stresses defenses vertically, giving opposing linebackers and safeties false reads (Jared Goff threw off play-action on Saturday on a career-high 51.7 percent of his dropbacks), coercing them into stepping forward early in the play while allowing receivers to get behind them. Meanwhile, the pre-snap motion stresses defenses laterally: With receivers or tight ends slashing across the field just prior to and after the snap, these defenders must also honor L.A.’s ability to take an end around or jet sweep to the outside. We saw that orbit motion on Gurley’s touchdown run.
The @RamsNFL ran 76 plays yesterday. On 35 of them they had some PRE-SNAP shift/motion/jet sweep...McVay clearly wanted to test the young LB’s and their eyes, and it had HUGE impact on the run game. #rams— Dan Orlovsky (@danorlovsky7) January 13, 2019
Together, those concepts allow the Rams to use simple geometry as a force multiplier, boosting the capabilities of what’s already a supremely talented unit. Goff threw into tight windows on just 13.2 percent of his passes this season—tied for the eighth-lowest rate leaguewide, and doubly impressive considering he finished fourth in air yards per completion—and Gurley faced opposing boxes of eight-plus defenders on just 8 percent of his runs in 2018, lowest among all backs with 100-plus carries. On Saturday, that number for Gurley was just 6 percent (Ezekiel Elliott, meanwhile, faced eight-plus defenders on 40 percent of his rushes). That’s a massive mathematical advantage for Gurley and the team’s offensive line—the All-Pro running back averaged 5.75 yards before first contact per run—and it’s also a big reason Anderson (who faced a loaded box on just 17 percent of runs on Saturday and averaged 3.22 yards before first contact) was so effective for L.A. as well. The Rams dominated with a complex-yet-simple defense-stretching scheme, and they’ll look to do the same next week against the Saints in the NFC championship game.
Tyreek Hill Scores an End-Around Touchdown
During the regular season, Patrick Mahomes II and the Chiefs offense proved it was matchup-proof. Not only did Kansas City lead the NFL in overall points per game (35.3), but it scored at an incredibly consistent rate, against any and all comers, becoming the first team in NFL history to put 26-plus points on the board in every game. In the team’s 31-13 win over Indianapolis, Kansas City’s offense eclipsed that mark again, proving along the way that it’s weatherproof, too.
A common argument against the postseason viability of high-flying passing attacks like that of the Chiefs is that when it’s cold, rainy, windy, or snowy in January, it’s harder to rely on the thing that got you to the postseason in the first place. Well, I’m not convinced that a little snow like we saw in Kansas City on Saturday is consistently going to neuter the Chiefs’ pass offense, but on the team’s second offensive possession, a pair of ugly drops (one by Tyreek Hill, another by Sammy Watkins) nearly derailed a promising drive, setting up a third-and-10 from the Kansas City 44-yard line. An Indy penalty, a Mahomes scramble, and an 11-yard run by Damien Williams on fourth-and-1 salvaged the possession, though, and gave the Chiefs new life at the Colts 36-yard line. That’s when Hill did this:
Like the Rams, the Chiefs use a motion-heavy scheme to stretch defenses thin and confuse front-seven defenders—they mix end-arounds, sweep plays, and a multitude of run-pass options to augment their vertical passing game—making this offense so much more than just its deep-passing attack. Mahomes was held without a passing touchdown for just the second time this season, but the Chiefs got the job done on the ground instead: In addition to Hill’s 36-yard touchdown scamper, running back Damien Williams rushed for 129 yards and a score on 25 totes, Darrel Williams powered in for a score, and Mahomes kept the ball on a scramble to dive in for another touchdown to make Kansas City the first team in playoff history with a rushing score from a quarterback, running back, and receiver in the same game.
The Chiefs exorcised their playoff demons, snapping a six-game home playoff losing streak that dates back 25 years. And they did it with steely performances on both sides of the ball: The offense kept things rolling with another 31-point outing, and the defense played one of its best games of the year, sacking Andrew Luck three times while knocking down an astounding 11 passes. Kansas City has taken on the personality of its brash first-year starter, who continues to do something every week that defies logic. With a matchup-proof, seemingly weather-proof offense and a surging defense, the Chiefs look ready to give the Patriots a run for their money next week at Arrowhead.