We got a Super Wild Card Weekend with six games spread throughout Saturday and Sunday. While the added teams didn’t give us more exciting games, it did help give us great Divisional Round matchups. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s take a look at what drove each team to win on Wild Card Weekend.
Buffalo Was Always One Step Ahead
Early in the season, the Colts got by on defense by keeping things controlled in zone coverage. That allowed Indianapolis to cover as much ground as possible and generally play better as a unit than the individual talent in the secondary. Throughout Buffalo’s 27-24 win, the Bills worked to spread out the Colts on defense and stress the limits of each zone.
After a 12-yard second down scramble on the Bills’ first drive, they faced a first-and-10 from their own 27-yard line. Buffalo came out in a 3×1 set with three receivers to the left and tight end Dawson Knox inline to the right against a two-deep look from the Colts. Knox ran vertical, which occupied the safety to that side. Off the snap, Gabriel Davis ran outside the slot corner from the middle of the trips set and Stefon Diggs ran inside the middle linebacker. Both second-level defenders passed off the receivers and the deep safety to the trips side went with Davis. That left the middle of the field open for Diggs and a 36-yard gain.
Diggs’s inside release and route through the middle put both safeties in no-man’s land to cover him. Even as Khari Willis recognized what happened and broke off for Diggs, it was too late. It was the perfect call against the Colts’ zone.
That drive led to a wide-open 3-yard Knox touchdown catch on a delayed-release off a fake Allen run.
Another aspect of the Colts’ defense is how infrequently they blitz. Indianapolis had the second-lowest blitz rate in the regular season at 17.1%, per pro-football-reference. Only the Los Angeles Chargers were lower (16.3%) and they were the only teams under 20%. Indianapolis was still a below-average team in pressure rate, 19th (37.8%) per Sports Info Solutions. The Colts couldn’t get pressure with four against the Bills and Allen averaged 3.38 seconds to throw in the game, per NFL Next Gen Stats.
Allen already had one of the highest average times to throw during the regular season, but he consistently had clean pockets throughout the game and was able to extend plays without much pressure. That led to two scramble drill passes to Davis at the end of the first half that set up a 5-yard Allen rushing touchdown with just 14 seconds left.
Eventually, the Colts did try to create more pressure, but even that didn’t work. Early in the third quarter, Indianapolis brought a six-man rush on a first-and-10 from the Colts 47-yard line. The blitz was picked up as Devin Singletary was able to cross the formation for a block on a looping blitz from Darius Leonard. Without pressure, Allen was able to sit in the pocket and wait for Diggs to come open for a 16-yard gain.
The Bills also used their own tendencies against the Colts. While the idea of pairing Diggs and Allen focused on the deep ball — there were certainly hits on those plays — Diggs opened up more in the short and intermediate area of the Bills passing game this season. Defenses prepared to get hit deep, then Diggs would break off his route for an open reception. No receiver was targeted on curls more than Diggs this year with 50, per SIS. DeAndre Hopkins was second with 33. On those plays, Diggs had 43 receptions and 412 yards, which accounted for over a third of his receptions (33.8%) and over a quarter of his receiving yards (26.8%).
On the third play of the fourth quarter with the Bills up 17-10, they faced a second-and-4 from the Indianapolis 35-yard line. Cornerback T.J. Carrie was ready for the curl, but as the corner stopped his feet ready to break on the ball, Diggs ran right past him on a go for an easy touchdown.
Buffalo’s plan put them a step ahead of Indianapolis, which was just enough for the field goal victory. Allen was excellent (9.2 yards per attempt, 0.31 EPA per dropback per nflfastR, and a QBR of 85.0) but he was matched by the effort of Philip Rivers (6.7 yards per attempt, 0.32 EPA per dropback, and a 91.9 QBR).
The big plays and the right calls at the right time allowed the Bills to advance.
Russell Wilson Had Nowhere To Go
The Seattle Seahawks that opened the season and the Seattle Seahawks that closed the season and fell 30-20 to the Los Angeles Rams in the Wild Card Round were wildly different teams. Early season Seattle was a team on offense that passed early and often and destroyed teams in single-high coverage. But midway through the season, a switch flipped. After a few turnovers and close calls, Seattle reverted back to a run-first offense and opposing defenses were better prepared for the deep passing game with a switch to more two-high looks.
There might not be a team better equipped to run out what the Seahawks struggles against than the Rams. They have the cornerbacks to hold up against Seattle’s receivers, the defensive stricture to play two deep safeties, and the ability to create pressure up front.
At every point in the game, at least one of those aspects clicked for the Rams. Not all of them were needed at every turn to shut down the Seattle offense. Even just the threat of them working started getting to Russell Wilson, who had one of his worst games as a pro with -0.38 EPA per dropback, a 28% success rate, and a 17.6 QBR.
Early on, Wilson’s process and internal clock were sped up. On Seattle’s first third down of the game, Wilson could have had an open D.K. Metcalf down the field but quickly stepped up and forced a pass to a tightly covered Jacob Hollister. On the next drive, the Seahawks had a first-and-25 from their own 10-yard line. After Wilson’s first read was covered, he expected pressure, fled the pocket, and ran into Aaron Donald for a nine-yard sack. Two plays later, Donald lined up wide, came in against rookie third-round guard Damien Lewis, and took Wilson down for another sack.
Wilson was forced to hold the ball (3.29 average seconds to throw) but the Rams’ coverage didn’t allow for many big plays to open up late in the down. Wilson took five sacks and the Seahawks were 2-for-14 on third downs in the game. He consistently found his first read covered and was forced to move from the pocket. Wilson’s expected completion percentage was only 52%, per Next Gen Stats, yet he still came in 11.3% below that mark.
Even the easy stuff was a struggle for Seattle. Rollouts were covered down the field, which limited Wilson’s options to throw. When the Seahawks tried a screen to get Metcalf involved, Darious Williams read it all the way, broke through the blocking, and jumped the pass for a pick-6.
Among 148 cornerbacks with at least 100 coverage snaps during the regular season, Williams had the fifth-lowest completion rate allowed and ranked 17th in Adjusted Yards allowed per coverage snap. Jalen Ramsey ranked seventh and 20th, respectively.
Ramsey again held Metcalf in check. Per Next Gen Stats, Ramsey was on Metcalf for 22 of the receiver’s 31 routes and limited Metcalf to three receptions for 33 yards on seven targets.
The Rams’ dominant defensive effort was enough to cover an offense that couldn’t do much in the game. John Wolford started because of a thumb injury to Jared Goff, but Wolford was knocked out of the game on a hit to the head from Jamal Adams on the Rams’ second drive. Goff came in and was immediately sacked. The status of his thumb was revealed when he made sure no teammate grabbed his right hand to help him up after the sack.
An injured Goff was inconsistent but hit just enough big plays. Despite completing only 9-of-19 passes, he averaged 8.2 yards per attempt and 0.11 EPA per dropback. He hit a 44-yard pass to Cooper Kupp out of empty, something he didn’t he often enough during the regular season.
Cam Akers was the driving force of the offense with the limited passing game. Akers finished with n impressive 131 yards on the ground, but importantly his 50% success rate didn’t put the Rams behind the sticks often. Los Angeles had to rely heavily on early down runs — 31 rush attempts to 21 passes — and the Rams had a 52% success rate on those runs, per nflfastR.
Tampa Bay has too many weapons
Throughout the season, the offense of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers looked disorganized. There was no motion, play-action was limited, deep shots weren’t connecting, and there was miscommunication all over the field. Throughout the second half of the season, those things started to click and the offense was fully functional. Now the Buccaneers have an impossible number of weapons for opposing defenses to worry about and that showed up against one of the best defenses in the league in a 31-23 win.
Washington was supposed to have the type of defense that could give the Buccaneers and Tom Brady trouble. The book on Brady has always been about getting pressure with four and that’s what Washington could do. Brady even took three sacks and was hit seven times total. The problem is that pressure has to be constant because Brady has been incredible with a clean pocket this season. Brady had the second-highest total EPA from a clean pocket this season because 76% of his pass attempts were clean during the season.
Brady was pressed on 39.5% of his dropbacks, but that didn’t always come with just a four-man rush. Washington sent extra rushers 41.9% of the time, per Next Gen Stats.
With time to throw, Brady has been able to push the ball down the field. Against Washington, he was 13-of-23 for 280 yards and two touchdowns on throws that went 10 or more yards beyond the line of scrimmage. His average completion came 11.4 yards past the line of scrimmage, per Next Gen Stats, the highest figure of the Wild Card round and well above his 7.0-yard mark from the regular season, though that ranked as sixth-highest among quarterbacks.
Brady averaged a ridiculous 0.45 EPA per dropback even though he completion 5.1% fewer passes than expected, per Next Gen Stats. The hits on the big plays made up for some other misses and that was the biggest difference between how the Buccaneers have rebounded from earlier in the season. Those misses would have killed them.
It started early in the game with a perfect call that allowed a 36-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown. On a third-and-3, Brown and Chris Godwin lined up in a tight split to the right. Both ran vertical and the safety stepped up to defend the intermediate middle. That stressed a dropping Ronald Darby, who tried to run with Godwin to the post. Brown was passed off through the zone on the outside and had an open lane for the score. It was a touchdown whether Brady went to Godwin or Brown on the play.
Godwin led the team with 16 targets and Cameron Brate got heavily involved with four catches for 80 yards.
Mike Evans had a team-leading 119 yards on six receptions and 10 targets. All six of Evans’s receptions came at least 10 yards down the field. Deep passes to Evans partially served as Tampa’s answer to running out the clock with a lead. Evans had catches of 20, 19, and 35 yards in the fourth quarter. The 35-yard catch came from Tampa’s own 25-yard line with just over four minutes remaining in the game while the Buccaneers had a five-point lead. The catch helped set up a field goal to go up eight.
Of course, the surprise was how well Taylor Heinicke played at quarterback for Washington. Heinicke looked better than his 0.07 EPA per dropback would lead on, buoyed by some nice plays of his own down the field. Washington’s offense had been so stale throughout the season without the threat of going deep due to quarterback play. The best thing Heinicke did in the game was give Washington a chance down the field. He was 12-of-29 for 224 yards and a touchdown on passes that went 10 or more yards past the line of scrimmage. The regular season-high for a Washington quarterback on throws of that length was 189 yards from Alex Smith in Week 10, per SIS.
Eventually, the magic wore out for Washington and a sack on third-and-10 forced a four-and-impossible on the final drive. Still, this was a game much closer than it should have been thanks to competent quarterback play that had been missing from Washington all year. The problem was the other team had way more than competent quarterback play and the Tampa Bay offense has continued to get better.
Adjustments Mattered For the Ravens
All the narratives are dead. Lamar Jackson won a playoff game (check), against the Tennessee Titans (check), in a come from behind effort (check). Jackson was the catalyst in a 20-13 Baltimore win over Tennessee that was decided by the adjustments that were made on one side and ignored on the other.
Tennessee has sported one of the worst defenses all season, 29th in defensive DVOA. But early in the game, the Titans were ready for everything the Ravens had. The misdirection wasn’t working, There were a number of plays designed to put defenders in conflict but Desmond King made a few disciplined plays by committing himself to the run.
Jackson felt the need to force some throws down the field and Baltimore’s passing game was a mess in the first half. That was evident on a poorly thrown interception intended for Miles Boykin on the Ravens’ second drive of the game.
45.5% of Jackson’s throws were into a tight window in the first half per Next Gen Stats. There was a point in the second quarter when that number was above 70%. By the end of the game that dropped to 25% and while that’s still a high number for a full game, it shows how the Ravens opened things up in the second half. Easier throws were on the table and Jackson didn’t have to force anything that wasn’t there.
It also helped that the running game picked up, especially with Jackson involved. A 48-yard touchdown run at the end of the second quarter helped, but the consistent chunks came in the second half. The third quarter started for the Ravens with an easy throw to Patrick Ricard in the flat for an 11-yard gain with a 10-yard read option run from Jackson two plays later. Three plays later, on a third-and-2, Jackson ripped off 23 yards on another option from pistol that set up a 4-yard J.K. Dobbins touchdown run. Jackson averaged 0.12 EPA per attempt on the ground and 0.20 EPA per dropback.
Part of the offensive adjustment for the Ravens came with getting easier touches for Marquise Brown. His touches were more manufactured starting in the second quarter. On the drive that ended with Jackson’s long touchdown run, Brown had a quick out that broke in front of coverage for nine yards and then a motion and reverse pivot in the backfield that went as a 15-yard rushing attempt. (Though they tried it again later in the game and it only went for four yards.)
Early in the fourth quarter, Brown had an intermediate out that went for a gain of 17 and a quick break to the flat that went for a 20-yard catch-and-run on second-and-9. With some other deep shots thrown in, Brown finished the game with 109 receiving yards and 0.78 EPA per play.
The story of Tennessee offense this season has been how they’ve stuck with what they do. Even when trailing, the Titans have relied on the early down run with heavy play-action. Typically that’s been enough to get by, but it didn’t work against the Ravens. Derrick Henry had a terrible day with 40 yards on 18 carries. That’s a poor total, but Henry was only expected to rush for 58 yards based on the blocking and the Ravens’ defense, according to Next Gen Stats. So even if things went as planned, Henry would have been stuffed on the ground often.
Henry had -0.31 EPA per play on the ground with a 28% success rate. He had no rushing first downs in the game and despite that, the Titans stick with the plan — 18 early down runs to 19 early down passes even though there was a 0.40 EPA per play difference between the two (-0.26 rushing to 0.14 passing).
Baltimore went all-out to stop the run. 72.2% of Henry’s attempts in the game came against a stacked box, per Next Gen Stats. Henry only had one run that lost yards, but he had nowhere to go once he crossed the line of scrimmage on most carries.
Between the Titans not adjusting by moving away from what wasn’t working and making decisions like punting on fourth-and-2 from the Baltimore 40-yard line, which cost them 14% win probability according to EdjSports, Tennessee consistently put itself behind in the game.
The Saints Have the Benefit of Options… and the Bears don’t
There’s not much of a story here, but it’s one that shows the margin of error granted to different qualities of quarterback. Drew Brees wasn’t particularly sharp in the New Orleans Saints’ 21-9 win over the Chicago Bears, but he did just enough to push in two passing touchdowns and finish with 0.38 EPA per dropback despite just 6.8 yards per attempt.
Early in the game, it looked like the offense was going to click with the return of Michael Thomas. The Saints’ offense is a completely different beast with Thomas when the short success rate jumps to 70% rather than the league-average 50% it is without him. Thomas killed the short area on the first two drives and capped the second with an 11-yard touchdown. But the Bears eventually shifted Kyle Fuller over to Thomas and his production slowed down throughout the game.
New Orleans shifted and got Deonte Harris more involved. Harris had seven catches for 83 yards in the game after having just 20 receptions for 186 yards in the regular season.
Meanwhile, Javon Wims dropped a touchdown off a trick play late in the first quarter and the Bears couldn’t recover. Mitchell Trubisky averaged 6.9 yards per attempt with -0.18 EPA per dropback and a QBR of 13.1. The Bears didn’t convert a third down until their meaningless final drive of the game. They went 0-9 before the conversion.
Trubisky had no margin for error on anything he did. He actually had a +8% completion percentage over expectation, which was the third-highest mark on Wild Card Weekend, but his expected completion percentage was only 57.5%. The Bears offense is made out of low percentage throws, made more complicated by a quarterback that often can’t raise the offense around him. Chicago’s only hope has been throws to Allen Robinson. Look at the EPA difference in the game between throws to Robinson and the other Bears receivers:
New Orleans was able to hold strong on defense. That low expected completion percentage for Trubisky is as much about the coverage as it is the quarterback and offensive scheme. The defensive line also dominated on the ground, with David Montgomery held to 28 yards under expectation despite not seeing a stacked box in the game.
Everything broke right for Cleveland
No team was in a worse spot heading into Wild Card Weekend than the Cleveland Browns, who were missing multiple players and coaches, including head coach Kevin Stefanski, due to COVID-19. On a night when nothing could have broken the Browns’ way, everything did. The 48-37 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers sounds closer than it was since Cleveland had the game in control nearly from the opening snap.
Of course, the fumbled snap for the touchdown and the ensuing interception were big for the Browns, but they were also prepared with their game plan. One of the players lost for the game was left guard Joel Bitonio. Bitonio was just voted a second-team All-Pro and was being replaced by Michael Dunn, who had played one offensive snap in the regular season.
Cleveland used that to their advantage against an aggressive Pittsburgh defense. Cleveland’s second drive, already up 14-0, had gains of 17, 20, and an 11-yard touchdown that all went through Dunn’s gap. The Browns mixed up all the looks. On the first, Dunn popped out and got to the second level. On the 20-yard run, Dunn down blocked while second-team All-Pro right guard Wyatt Teller pulled on a trap. The Kareem Hunt touchdown run came to the left with right tackle Jack Conklin getting down the field for the second-level block.
Hunt’s 8-yard touchdown run on the next drive was another run to the left that saw center J.C. Tretter pull for the key block to spring the run.
The Browns worked around their makeshift line, which also lost Dunn in the fourth quarter. The Stefanski offense is often reliant on rollouts (especially to the left) that increase the time to throw. During the regular season. Baker Mayfield averaged the second-longest time to throw at 3.05 seconds. But against the Steelers, Mayfield only averaged 2.34 seconds to throw and that helped the quarterback see zero pressures despite a 52.9% blitz rate from the Steelers, according to Next Gen Stats.
Getting the ball out extra quickly to avoid pressure is a Ben Roethlisberger move and he averaged the quickest time to throw during the regular season at 2.3 seconds. He didn’t really have that luxury during Sunday night’s game as he was forced into playing from behind early. Cleveland’s defense was ready for what the Steelers have done with two (somewhat) deep safeties, mostly ignoring the middle of the field, and corners playing tight, ready to jump shallow routes.
Roethlisberger was forced into pushing the ball down the field, which resulted in some nice plays but also costly mistakes in two late turnovers. Like the Titans, no matter how much the offense was able to pull through, inexcusable coaching decisions like Mike Tomlin’s punt at the start of the fourth quarter by choosing to take a fourth-and-1 from the Pittsburgh 46-yard line into a fourth-and-6 with an intentional delay of game never fully gave the Steelers the extra edge they needed. At the time of the punt, the Steelers were down 35-23. The Browns scored on a 40-yard screen pass to Chubb six plays later.
Even without factoring in the fluky scores to start the game, the Browns won this game in a completely different way than they had during the regular season. That’s a positive sign going forward when things won’t break as perfectly, which they’re not likely to do against the Kansas City Chiefs.