The first day of playoff football is finished and what a crazy start to Wild Card Weekend. Both lower seeded teams (the Titans and the Falcons) took care of business and sent their opponents home. Here are 5 rapid takeaways from both games, and the playoff implications moving forward.
Tennessee Titans (22) @ Kansas City Chiefs (21)
1. Mike Mularkey remembered who his Quarterback is
Man this game was a doozy. Everyone picked the Titans to lose this Wild Card game, and with a 21-3 lead for the Chiefs at halftime, the yawns had begun at Arrowhead stadium. Then all of a sudden it was like Mike Mularkey decided to finally play to Mariota’s strengths. The Titans moved to a hurry up offense with read-option patterns, and used the QB to confuse the defense. This opened up lanes for Derrick Henry on the run, and play action passes. Everything changed at that point. For the entire season pundits have been asking why Mularkey’s offense has been forcing the run without involving Mariota. Yes, he has a history of injury, but he’s not a pocket quarterback, they didn’t draft him to be one. Teams actively try to take away the Titans’ QB’s legs, and when your offensive gameplan does it for them, you see a final regular season stretch of losses. As a side note? Mariota looked healthy and at times dangerous today.
2. Marcus Mariota’s first playoff TD pass was also his first playoff TD reception
This was an athletic achievement that will be on top 10 lists. As the pocket collapsed, the Titan’s QB took off on the run. Right at the line of scrimmage, at the last possible second, he launched a pass intended for Corey Davis in double coverage. Newly acquired cornerback Darrelle Revis jumped up and swatted the pass….right back into Mariota’s hands. The QB didn’t miss a beat, just ran forward and dove through the front left corner of the end zone. This will be a fun trivia question in a couple of years. The last time a QB was their own TD receiver? Brad Johnson, Minnesota Vikings, 1997.
3. The referees didn’t decide the game for the Titans, but they tried
The officials are an easy target at this point, but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve it. In the second quarter, Mariota was absolutely drilled, and fumbled the ball with a clear Chief’s recovery. Except the referees determined that forward momentum meant the play was dead. That’s absurd, he wasn’t moving forward. At best he was shifting his weight upfield. The game would have been much different if the Chiefs had one more drive before the half. Later in the game, on a Titans 2PC attempt, Mariota was again sacked and fumbled, recovered by the Chiefs and returned for two points. Except the referees blew the play dead. Those two points would have won the Chiefs the game. But even still…
4. 0 points in the second half is inexcusable in playoff football
Harrison Butker is going to have nightmares about his missed field goal for weeks to come. It bounced off the left upright, and that miss was the deciding factor in this game. I want to like Alex Smith. I’ve been a fan of his since his time in San Francisco, and this season he proved himself to be a top tier option under center. Except he has this one issue, he cannot win in the playoffs. When you are the leader of an offense, you have to be able to adjust to what the defense is throwing at you. But the Chiefs seemed content to just rest and let the Titans come at them. In the second half, Smith was constantly under pressure, and missed routine throws leading to far too many punts. When the game was on the line, and all eyes were on the quarterback to make a play, he didn’t. He was a second half dud. The entire Chiefs offense deserves the blame for this loss. I’ll give them one caveat though…
5. Losing Travis Kelce hurt the flow of the offense
Kelce is the safety net for this offense, and when he went out with a concussion, the Titans defense was able to watch Kareem Hunt and Tyreek Hill much more closely. As soon as the big man was out, despite his replacement having a great game, the Titans came alive.
If the Bills win tomorrow, then the Titans move on to play the Steelers next week. If the Jaguars take home the W then the Titans will head to Foxboro to take on the New England Patriots. I don’t think the Titans can stand up to either team, but I also thought they’d lose today so you never know. Today they wanted it more. Playoff football is fantastic.
Atlanta Falcons (26) @ Los Angeles Rams (13)
1. When the game is on the line, Matt Ryan is the guy to trust
With 5:48 left to play, and the Rams regaining momentum, Matt Ryan was leading the Falcons down the field. The ball was snapped, and the Rams blitz broke through the right side bearing down on the Falcons QB. He looked up, registered the rusher, readjusted his entire body as he slipped on the turf and launched a floater of a pass perfectly into the arms of Julio Jones. If he hadn’t added the extra pop and leaned back the way he did, I think this pass would have been incomplete, but Matty Ice was on a mission today.
2. Sean McVay still deserves Coach of the Year
Look, the Rams have been bad for so long. In walks the youngest Head Coach in history and he turns this team around in one year. The game was much closer than that the final score would have you believe. The Rams are young, they’re hungry, and they will be a contender again next year. Jared Goff looked like a 2nd year quarterback today, especially compared to Matt Ryan. That shouldn’t take away from the great season he’s had, and the amazing progress he made getting over his rookie year miscues. Credit McVay for his development.
3. The Falcons know how to win
This was the biggest difference that I saw. The entire game, the Falcons played like a team who know what January football feels like. The Rams played like a team on fire. It was a great game to watch, but there were too many small mistakes, penalties, and defensive miscues on the part of the Rams that seems attributable to nerves. The Falcons were not perfect, but they played with poise and calm. As the Rams fought to come back and make a game of it, the Falcons defense forced two back to back turnovers on downs to finish the game.
4. The Falcons secondary earned this win
If they’re handing out game balls and they give it to anyone other than Robert Alford, then there is no justice. Alford played one of the best games of football as a Cornerback that I’ve seen in years, and practically registered Sammy Watkins a non-factor while avoiding PI calls. It was textbook secondary play and deserves acclaim. He wasn’t alone though, Desmond Trufant played like a man possessed. Alford’s tight coverage meant Goff checked down his passes all night. Trufant made sure that Robert Woods got no easy yards, and punished Woods on every reception. Alford and Trufant made sure Goff could never get comfortable, and exposed him as a young quarterback going up against veterans.
5. The Rams need to fire John Fassel
After the firing of Jeff Fisher last season, Special Teams coordinator John Fassel took over as interim head coach. Sean McVay retained Fassel as the head of the Special Teams this year, and they have been the story of miscue after miscue. Tonight a muffed punt was definitely the dagger that killed the Rams having any chance for momentum for the rest of the game. If Fassel is truly good at his job, then they need to clean house and bring in some players who won’t cause as many Special Teams errors as they had this year.
The Falcons will play the Philadelphia Eagles next week. I don’t think a Nick Foles lead team can stand up to the experience of the Falcons. The Eagles have been a great story this year, and maybe with Carson Wentz they could take care of business, but I think the #1 seed in the NFC loses to the Falcons handily next week.