A wacky wild-card weekend is in the books, and the NFL’s playoff field is now whittled down to eight teams. The Colts dominated from start to finish, dispatching the Texans 21-7 with a nearly flawless performance on both sides of the ball, and the Cowboys held on to beat the Seahawks in an unsightly 24-22 slugfest to move into the divisional round. On Sunday, the Chargers held on to beat the Ravens 23-17, and the Eagles edged out the Bears, 16-15, in a back-and-forth thriller.
The weekend slate delivered plenty of excitement, but a few moments stood out as more pivotal or illuminating than the rest. Here is a handful of the biggest game-changing plays from wild-card weekend, along with what they can tell us about both teams involved and the implications for the postseason picture.
Nick Foles’s Fourth-Down TD Throw to Golden Tate
The legend of Nick Foles grows.
Philly’s backup quarterback and designated playoff superhero did what he does best again on Sunday, engineering a clutch, go-ahead touchdown drive in the closing minutes of the underdog Eagles’ matchup with the Bears. Foles distributed the football to a bevy of weapons on the 12-play, 60-yard drive, coolly picking apart the best defense in football—on their home turf—before connecting with Golden Tate for a touchdown on a dramatic fourth-and-the-season play from the 2-yard line with 1:01 to go.
At the snap, Foles sprinted out to the right and slung a side-arm throw to Tate, who beat veteran corner Sherrick McManis on a simple out route toward the pylon before reeling it in for the score.
That play brought the Eagles’ season back from the brink, and was the latest lead-changing fourth-down touchdown in a postseason game dating back to at least 1994. Philly held on to win when Bears kicker Cody Parkey missed a 43-yard field goal with 10 seconds go to (it may have been tipped)—sealing the fourth-down score’s place in Eagles lore.
For Tate, it was a little bit of redemption—and proof enough that acquiring the 30-year-old pass catcher from the Lions back in October for a third-round pick was a worthwhile investment. After he arrived in Philadelphia, the Eagles tried to clumsily force Tate into their scheme, but found little success; over the past few weeks, his snap count and role in the offense had fallen into the afterthought range, and he finished the regular season with just 278 yards in eight games with the Eagles. But the former Lion came up huge for Philly on Sunday, grabbing five passes for 45 yards—including an impressive 28-yard grab in the second quarter—and the deciding score, showing how his quickness as a route-runner and toughness over the middle can make a difference for his new team.
As for Foles, this finish is just the latest plot twist in what must be the strangest career arc for any player in league history. The reigning Super Bowl MVP was far from perfect, finishing 25-for-40 for 266 yards, with two touchdowns, two picks, and a 77.7 rating, but he showed what’s become a trademark unflappability in crunch time, confidently steering the team’s offense down the field.
The Eagles, who somehow clawed their way into the postseason despite sitting at 6-7 through 14 weeks, have hit their stride at exactly the right time—and seem to have a little bit of divine favor, or maybe magic, on their side. Their offensive line held Chicago’s fearsome pass-rush group at bay, the defense allowed just a single touchdown (forcing the Bears to kick three field goals deep in Philly territory), and Foles made a few big plays when his team needed him most. The Eagles aren’t the most complete team left standing, but it’s getting harder and harder to bet against them.
Uchenna Nwosu’s Game-Sealing Strip-Sack
The Lamar Jackson–led Ravens offense shrugged off an abysmal first three-and-a-half quarters with a late-game flourish, mounting a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown drives to cut the Chargers’ once-commanding 23-3 lead to just six points with 1:59 to go. After Baltimore’s defense held L.A. to a quick three-and-out, Jackson and Co. got the ball back at their own 34-yard line with 45 seconds left, setting up the game’s decisive final possession: Could the Chargers, who’d dominated for much of the game, bow up and make one last stop? Or would the suddenly hot Jackson lead his team down the field on a potential game-winning drive?
On first down, Jackson found tight end Mark Andrews over the middle for a gain of 13 yards, and after hurrying up to the line to spike the ball, Baltimore set up with a second-and-10 from their own 47-yard line with 29 ticks to go. Los Angeles defensive coordinator Gus Bradley dialed up a conservative prevent defense, rushing four at Jackson while dropping seven back into soft coverage in the secondary—but the Chargers were able to generate the pressure they needed nonetheless. Rookie outside linebacker Uchenna Nwosu sprinted off the edge, utilizing a long-arm to the chest of right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. to flatten the corner and close ground on Jackson. Reaching through just as Jackson began his throwing motion, Nwosu knocked the ball loose and it was recovered by Melvin Ingram to seal the deal.
That play was representative of what the Chargers were able to do up front for most of the game. Los Angeles gave the Baltimore offensive line fits, sacking Jackson an incredible seven times, hitting him on another nine dropbacks, and registering nine tackles for a loss. They mixed up looks with their front four to confuse the Ravens’ rookie quarterback and offensive line, rushing Joey Bosa from the inside while standing Ingram up to have him attack from a variety of angles.
Ingram finished with a historic playoff stat line, notching seven tackles, 2.0 sacks, two tackles for a loss, two quarterback hits, a forced fumble, and that game-ending fumble recovery. Along with Bosa, rookie Justin Jones, and Nwosu, L.A.’s defensive front controlled the line of scrimmage—and on the back end, Bradley leaned on an extraordinary amount of seven-defensive-back looks.
Chargers utilized 7 defensive backs on 58 of their 59 defensive snaps Sunday, per NFL Next Gen Stats. They used 7 defensive backs 50 times in the regular season, which accounted for just 5% of their snaps. No team had used 7 DBs on more than 18 snaps in a game this season.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) January 6, 2019
After giving up 159 rushing yards to the Ravens when these two teams faced off in Week 16, the Chargers held the run-heavy Baltimore offense to just 90 yards on 23 totes in this game, forcing three other fumbles (one of which L.A. recovered) early in the game. With more speed to the outside from their DB-heavy personnel groups, L.A. held Jackson at bay while completely bottling up Baltimore’s running backs (who finished with just 36 yards on 14 carries).
With a dominant defensive front line and an uber-versatile back seven, the Chargers defense took care of business on Sunday, and despite letting the Ravens back into the game late, finished strong with the game-ending strip-sack. They picked up their offensive counterparts and propelled L.A. into the divisional round—showing off the type of resiliency and toughness that makes them a real contender in the conference.
Dak Prescott’s 16-Yard Quarterback Draw
The stage was set for another round of fourth-quarter heroics from Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. Leading 17-14 with 2:33 to go, the Cowboys faced a third-and-14 from the Seattle 17-yard line, and it looked like their game-sealing drive was about to stall. Failing to convert a first down in that spot would force the Cowboys to settle for a field goal—and, assuming they’d make that—hand the ball back to Wilson and the Seattle offense with two minutes to go and a six-point deficit. Gulp.
Wilson—who’s helmed an incredible 23 game-winning drives in regular-season action since coming into the league in 2012 (second most in that stretch) and has four postseason game-winning drives on his résumé (tied for fifth among all quarterbacks, ever)—had been held in check to that point by a combination of Dallas’s suffocating defense and his own coaches’ mystifying unwillingness to let him loose in the passing attack. But in that moment, it felt almost inevitable that Wilson was about to deliver more two-minute-drill magic.
Instead, Dak Prescott did this:
On a designed QB draw, Prescott followed a bevy of blockers, bobbing and weaving through the Seattle defense—including first-team All-Pro linebacker Bobby Wagner—before diving and flipping for the improbable first down. After giving the Cowboys a fresh set of downs from the 1-yard line on one of the gutsiest runs of his career, Prescott finished the job on the next play by jumping up to reach forward to break the plane for a score.
Prescott has faced plenty of criticism in the past two years for his inconsistent play and penchant for taking back-breaking sacks, but the third-year quarterback came through in the clutch on what ended up being the game-sealing play. The 10-point lead ended up being a cushion the Cowboys needed. Wilson lived up to his reputation as a maestro of the two-minute drill on Seattle’s ensuing possession, and led the offense on a quick, six-play, 75-yard touchdown drive (spurred by a 53-yard bomb to deep-ball specialist Tyler Lockett), but for the Seahawks, it was too little, too late. Their subsequent onside kick failed, punching Dallas’s ticket to the divisional round.
In the end, the Cowboys beat the Seahawks at their own game, and I’m not just talking about Dak stealing Wilson’s late-game thunder. Dallas ran all over Seattle to the tune of 164 yards and two scores on 34 totes (averaging 4.8 yards per carry). Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, along with passing game coordinator Kris Richard—who came to Dallas after being fired as Seattle’s defensive coordinator last January—put together a masterful game plan, and the team’s talented unit completely shut down the Seahawks’ potent ground attack (which finished with 24 carries for 73 yards and star runner Chris Carson gaining just 20 yards on 13 totes) while holding Wilson and Co. to 2-of-13 on third downs.
It wasn’t always pretty, and the Cowboys will need to clean up coverage issues downfield next week against the Rams, who likely won’t hold their quarterback down for most of the game like Seattle did on Saturday. But this team, which combines a physical ground game and a dual-threat quarterback like Prescott with an athletic, stingy defense, is a tough out.
Andrew Luck’s 38-Yard Strike to T.Y. Hilton
It didn’t take the Colts long on Saturday to quiet the home crowd in a sold-out NRG Stadium in Houston. On their opening drive, Andrew Luck and Co. matriculated the ball out of their own end and into Texans territory with a trio of runs, a few crisp passes, and a pair of big third-down conversions to set up a second-and-10 from the Houston 44-yard line. That’s when Indy head coach and play-caller Frank Reich decided to dial up a haymaker. Luck dropped back from an empty set, calmly moved to his right to avoid pressure, and launched a deep bomb into triple coverage. He dropped the pass between a pair of safeties and a trailing linebacker to a streaking T.Y. Hilton.
That throw―which had just a 27.2 percent chance of being completed based on the distance downfield and proximity of defenders, per NFL Next Gen Stats―picked up 38 yards, set the Colts up at the 6-yard line, and created the biggest win probability swing of the game (7.54 percentage points, pushing the underdog Colts over the top to 54.7 percent odds for a win). It also set up the Colts for an easy score―a pitch-and-catch from Luck to Eric Ebron that gave Indy an early lead it’d never surrender.
Paired with another outstanding performance from its clamp-down defense, Indianapolis’s offense scored on three of its first four possessions to race out to a commanding 21-0 lead by the middle of the second quarter. The Colts never looked back. That early-game flurry of punches stunned Houston, and the Colts drew on everything that’s powered their offensive renaissance this year: Luck stood in the pocket and picked the Texans apart, targeting Hilton and a plucky group of relative no-names and cast-offs, including breakout red zone monster Ebron. Luck was protected masterfully by a newly healthy offensive line that returned its key cog in the middle, center Ryan Kelly. With Anthony Castonzo, Quenton Nelson, Kelly, Mark Glowinski, and Braden Smith from left to right, Indy had its entire starting offensive line intact for the first time since Week 11—the same group that held opponents sackless for a 239-snap stretch earlier this year. Paired with the Colts’ emphasis on getting the ball out quicker and with using more efficient, shorter dropbacks, the Texans had no answer. A vaunted front led by Jadeveon Clowney, J.J. Watt, and Whitney Mercilus registered zero sacks and logged just eight pressures all game. Indy’s offensive line group opened up huge holes for the team’s speedy running backs, too, and the team attacked the edge mercifully while racking up 200 yards and a touchdown on 35 totes. This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for this Colts team, but they showed again on Saturday that they’ve got the formula to compete with anyone.