We entered the 2016 NFL Playoffs with the expectations of a Wild Card Weekend filled with mostly bad football, and four games devoid of fourth quarter drama affirmed those expectations. Injuries to starting quarterbacks in both games ruined the AFC side of the Wild Card draw while in the NFC, comfortable second halves at home from the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers failed to salvage at least one memorable game from a weekend that will quickly fade from the playoff memory banks.
Still, for those in the business of covering the fallout from a very tepid weekend of Wild Card games, the aftermath must be addressed regardless of the forgettable nature of the events that took place on Saturday and Sunday. With that in mind, this column attempts to give thoughts to a group of games that won’t be re-broadcasted on NFL Network or ESPN Classic anytime soon with a final recap of a Wild Card round that failed to deliver the excitement we all crave from the playoffs.
Thought 1: Injuries to Marcus Mariota, Derek Carr have the Texans in a miraculous AFC Divisional Round matchup with the Patriots
The Houston Texans won their first playoff game under head coach Bill O’Brien on Saturday after a banged-up Oakland Raiders offense put an end to their season on the road in a 27-14 loss that was an inevitability once both Derek Carr and starting left tackle Donald Penn were going to be absent. Those injuries loomed large after the Raiders fell behind in the second quarter as rookie quarterback Connor Cook proved limited under center and the Texans held on to a 20-7 halftime lead to move onto the AFC Divisional Round.
Saturday was the second instance of the Texans benefitting from injury luck on their road to the second round of the playoffs, their AFC South title also featured a very similar narrative if you ask fans of the Tennessee Titans. The Titans controlled their destiny in the division before a season-ending injury to Marcus Mariota in a loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars sunk their playoff hopes in Week 16 and allowed the Texans to lock up the division crown after a missed Randy Bullock chip shot gave them a win over the Cincinnati Bengals.
Mariota’s injury in the first half to the Jaguars gave the Texans the tiebreaker over the Titans after Houston lost to Tennessee in the season finale and now after taking the backdoor into the playoffs, they are now up against the New England Patriots in a lopsided second-round matchup. Foxboro will be where the Texans run of fortunate luck runs out with Tom Brady and the Patriots machine the executioners of a Houston roster that managed to overachieve after they appeared destined to lose the AFC South at worst or lose in the Wild Card at best in late December.
The Texans deserve credit for a playoff win and it is tough to write off a team as benefactors of the misfortunes of their opposition, but it is hard to see this Houston team at this point if Carr or Mariota had remained healthy. Or if Donald Penn wasn’t ruled out the day before the game for Raiders. Or if Randy Bullock made a relatively easy field goal in Week 16 for the Bengals. The point is, the Texans have been lucky and won’t be lucky again on Saturday as the Patriots will serve as a grim reminder of where this team falls on the spectrum of playoff teams this season.
Thought 2: We shouldn’t overvalue the Steelers dominance over the Dolphins
In the other AFC matchup, the Pittsburgh Steelers also benefitted from a backup quarterback situation in a highly dominant win over the Miami Dolphins. The Steelers offense arguably had their best performance of the season in a game where Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, and Antonio Brown showcased what their three-headed superstar monster can do when firing on all cylinders at the same time in a 30-12 blowout.
The Steelers dominance over the Dolphins allowed Roethlisberger to throw just 18 passes in the Wild Card round, but that didn’t stop Antonio Brown from a monster afternoon of 124 yards and two touchdowns. Le’Veon Bell led the rest of the way after the Steelers pulled in front thanks to Brown’s highlight reel first half, taking 29 carries and turning it into two touchdowns of his own along with 167 yards on the ground.
— Antonio Brown (@AntonioBrown) January 9, 2017
Brown, Bell, and Roethlisberger played so well against the Dolphins that many are now considering the Steelers to be the favorites on Sunday when they travel to Arrowhead Stadium to take on the Kansas City Chiefs. That belief the Steelers are the favorites to come out of Arrowhead with a win over the rested Chiefs would be a bit of a reach, even if Pittsburgh did score a 43-14 win in their earlier matchup at Heinz Field on October 2.
Since that loss on October 2, the Chiefs have went on a 12-2 run that has included a season sweep of AFC West opponents to win the NFL’s toughest division. The return of Justin Houston and the emergence of Tyreek Hill as an offensive weapon has also turned the Chiefs into a far different team than the team the Steelers faced at home in early October when the absence of Houston and the problems on offense caused by Jamaal Charles injury woes played crucial factors.
To take the Steelers early season blowout over the Chiefs and their dominance on Sunday afternoon over a Dolphins team that had little hopes of a Super Bowl run and put them as road favorites is a huge sign of disrespect to a very good Kansas City team. With Andy Reid’s noted success after a bye week where he is 19-2 combined and a perfect 3-0 in the postseason, we should probably pump the brakes soon on the Steelers red hot form. The Chiefs deserve equal attention and will be a very tough out at home in front of a loud Arrowhead Stadium crowd as a fresh team that will be well prepared by Andy Reid to get the job done after their first round bye.
Thought 3: The Giants were always one season away from contending for a Super Bowl
This will be a Boat Trip free column, so apologies are in order for lack of thoughts on Odell Beckham Jr. and co.’s trip to hang with Trey Songz and decline Adderall. The fallout in New York does, however, need to be addressed after the Giants fell apart in the second half to the Packers in Green Bay.
Whether you want to blame the Giants failure to turn a special year from their defense into postseason success on a trip to Miami or average play from Eli Manning, the fact at hand is this Giants team was not ready to make a run at a championship this season. That fact was particularly true in the build towards Sunday afternoon where the Giants once again proved to be a disjointed team defined in the awkward relationship between Manning and Beckham, with the former’s continued veiled criticisms of the latter in the media often showcasing the lack of cohesion on offense that has hamstrung the team.
While the Giants have been one of the best teams in the league on defense, the struggles on offense despite their possession of one of the league’s best wideouts and a quarterback who has two Super Bowl rings has kept them from achieving their true potential. Mediocre offensive line play and problems at the running back position where Rashad Jennings, Paul Perkins and Bobby Rainey provide little impact made things even worse for the Giants, who have significant question marks to answer on offense to get to the next level for 2017.
With an offense that struggled throughout the season and the divide between Manning and Beckham, the Giants were always a team doomed to fall short of the finish line this season that overachieved themselves into an opportunity to make a run. If head coach Ben McAdoo and general manager Jerry Reese want to build on a year of promise from a defense that was one of the best in football this season, plenty of work will need to be put in to ensure that the offensive side of the football can catch up.
Sunday’s result at Lambeau Field made it perfectly clear that help for both Beckham and Manning is sorely needed if the Giants want to avoid the Wild Card next year and make a serious run at a Super Bowl. If the Giants can bring in talent to take the next step, next January will be a different story for a team that has the talent to win the championship and needs to find the right pieces to take things to the next level.