It was certainly a different experience watching the playoffs over the weekend with the Patriots not involved. Not worrying about potential matchups and how outcomes would affect New England down the road allowed the opportunity to simply watch without any potential biases seeping in.
The two best games were the first two each day with Buffalo and Baltimore posting impressive wins. Road teams enjoyed lots of success, winning four of the six games, which is a continuation of what we saw all season with the stadiums empty, or close to it in some cases.
Some thoughts from each game:
Buffalo 27, Indianapolis 24
Really impressive watching the continued maturation of Josh Allen. After cutting way back on the mistakes during the regular season, he was able to continue that Saturday in the playoffs. The Colts came in with an excellent game plan designed to orchestrate time-consuming drives, and for stretches it worked. It also backed Buffalo up into poor field position all day. It didn't matter because Allen was sensational, using all of his receivers but especially Stephon Diggs. Allen threw and ran effectively, combining for three touchdowns while building a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter.
Indy made it a game with a couple of impressive touchdown drives, and when Allen made his only real mistake - taking a sack and losing the ball by trying to extend the play - it looked like overtime was on the horizon. Allen was fortunate to have Daryl Williams recover his fumble, and then watched his defense keep the Colts at bay.
Of course this is the NFL playoffs so officiating had to play a role - and that was the case in pretty much every game. Philip Rivers hit a tumbling Zach Pascal for 17 yards to the Bills 46. Pascal was stripped of the ball after getting back on his feet, but the officials ruled him down by contact. Bills coach Sean McDermott frantically called timeout to force the replay booth to take a look, although referee Brad Allen said the play was stopped upstairs before the timeout.
Either way, replays showed Pascal was back on his feet before being touched, and therefore the fumble should have ended the game. Wrong. The play was upheld and Buffalo was forced to withstand four additional throws from Rivers, the final three of which were incomplete, in order to post its first postseason win since 1995.
LA Rams 30, Seattle 20
The story of this game was the Rams defense, which suffocated Russell Wilson throughout. The unit even put points on the board when rookie nickel back Darious Williams made one of the best defensive plays I've ever seen, jumping a wide receiver screen, defeating a block and posting a pick-6 to put the Rams in command at 13-3.
While the defense was the story, the Rams overall toughness as a team was quite impressive. Jared Goff didn't start after being just 12 days removed from thumb surgery, but he was pressed into action when backup John Wolford went down with a neck injury off a questionable hit by Seahawks safety Jamal Adams. Goff clearly was compromised physically and could barely grip the ball well enough to throw it with any degree of accuracy. But he persevered, made a few throws while completing 9 of 19 for 177 yards and a touchdown, and otherwise watched rookie Cam Akers do the rest.
Defensive Player of the Year candidate Aaron Donald left with a rib injury, and wideout Cooper Kupp was forced out with a knee injury. None of it mattered because the Rams simply beat up the Seahawks for 60 minutes in a game that wasn't as close as the score indicates. This is not the defense Aaron Rodgers wants to see in Lambeau next week.
Tampa Bay 31, Washington 23
Aside from a gallant showing from fourth-string quarterback Taylor Heinicke, this one was rather anti-climactic. Tom Brady was his typical self, lighting up a Jack Del Rio defense like he did back in Del Rio's Jacksonville days. Heinicke made enough plays to keep Washington within striking distance, but the game was never in doubt, and the Rams upset win in Seattle means the warm-weather Bucs avoid a trip to the frozen tundra - at least for another week.
The postgame storyline was about Heinicke and how his performance will impact him. He was out of the league until December and only got on the field due to Dwayne Haskins' meltdown and Alex Smith's injury. He showed great mobility and timing on his throws, but his lack of arm strength was also apparent. At 6-1, 210 pounds, Heinicke will be hard-pressed to hold up to the rigors of an NFL pounding - he appeared to suffer a shoulder injury in the fourth quarter. He most definitely earned the right to be in someone's camp in 2021, but the hyperbole stemming from his performance was over the top. He does not have the look of a full-time starter and I doubt anyone will be opening their checkbooks to make that happen. That said, his performance under the circumstances was remarkable.
Baltimore 20, Tennessee 13
These are my favorite games - true hatred on both sides. And I love the Ravens response, both on the field after going down 10-0 and after Marcus Peters' interception when players danced at midfield and picked up an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. It didn't matter because Baltimore was the tougher team and easily grinded out the first downs necessary to melt the clock anyway.
Couple of points here. First, the celebration. So, the NFL has added monitors behind the end zones where it encourages the entire defense to celebrate wildly after creating turnovers. But the same thing happens at midfield and suddenly the reaction is as if the Ravens desecrated a church? Not sure why the Titans logo changes anything.
My second point is on Lamar Jackson. I wrote last week that no player enters the postseason with more to prove. He now has that first postseason win, and now he's answered all his critics? Look, he was only 0-2 heading into the game so I wasn't of the mindset that he was a proven choker, especially when the first loss came as a rookie. But if you believed he wasn't capable of winning when it counts, does one win change all that?
Personally I believe Jackson is an exceptional talent. His running ability is special and when he throws the ball with any degree of success, like he did in the second half, the Ravens are quite formidable. But I'm not sure one win should change any narratives but that's how it works it the week-to-week life of the NFL.
New Orleans 21, Chicago 9
Easily the worst game of the weekend. The Saints defense made Chicago's offseason much simpler as Mitchell Trubisky was unable to get anything going. New Orleans dominated time of possession and did just enough offensively to win. Drew Brees will likely need more to take down Brady next week.
Strangely my biggest takeaway from the game was the willingness of the officials to call unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. The game had a Pop Warner feel to it with how flags flew seemingly every time the players looked at one another. I'd rather not see those kinds of calls in any game let alone the playoffs.
Cleveland 48, Pittsburgh 37
What a mess this game was. The Steelers gift-wrapped one for the Browns, coughing up three turnovers and 28 points in the first quarter. The remaining 45 minutes amounted to little more than garbage time.
It was a continuation of what the Steelers have been over the past month-plus of the season. The veteran group looked tired down the stretch and was unable to regain the play that allowed them to race to an 11-0 start. The Steelers finished 1-5, and as one of my Twitter followers accurately pointed out, Pittsburgh resembled the 2019 Patriots. Both teams had inflated records and ultimately collapsed when it mattered most.
Give Ben Roethlisberger credit for fighting throughout and making it at least quasi-interesting (Mike Tomlin needed to go for it on fourth-and-1 down 12 in the fourth quarter) but four interceptions will get you beat and the Steelers ineptitude early was the difference.
Hats off to Cleveland for finding a way to win without its coach and loads of key personnel. First postseason win for the Browns since 1994 when Bill Belichick took down the Patriots in a wild card game.
Time for the best weekend of the NFL season, aka the divisional round, where the top eight teams in the league battle for the right to make it to the conference championships. Here's one man's look at how things stand after postseason Week 1:
Kansas City (1st last week) - The Chiefs will take on Cleveland, which is likely their preferred opponent over Baltimore. Buffalo (2nd last week) - Solid marks for Josh Allen and the Bills offense, but the defense will need to step up against the Ravens physical rushing attack. Green Bay (3rd last week) - The Rams defense will make life tough of Aaron Rodgers but their banged-up offense will struggle to put points on the board. New Orleans (5th last week) - The Rams defense got most of the attention but the Saints are just as effective. Can they dominate Brady for a third time? Baltimore (6th last week) - The Ravens defense was much tougher against the Titans than in recent weeks. If that continues, the Bills game will be a bloodbath. Tampa Bay (7th last week) - Brady was razor sharp but the defense was less-than-impressive. Can Tampa solve the New Orleans riddle and advance? Los Angeles Rams (12th last week) - Really impressed with the Rams toughness and preparation. The lack of offense did not impact the team at all, but Sean McVay will have a tougher task in Lambeau. Cleveland (11th last week) - Give the Browns tons of credit for accepting the challenge - both mentally and physically. They also accepted plenty of help from the Steelers.