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NFL Playoffs: What We Learned From Wild-Card Games

Blowouts in the NFL playoffs are rare. With no major star injury, teams are too good, too focused and have too many yards of film on their opponents at this point to be overwhelmed or surprised by a breakout performance.

That hasn’t been the case so far in the wildcard round, with the Buffalo Bills beating the New England Patriots 47-17 on Saturday night and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers being dismantled 31-15 against the Philadelphia Eagles Sunday afternoon. The expanded playoff field doesn’t bode much distinction to be had in the night game between Kansas City and the Pittsburgh Steelers, whose quarterback earlier this week admitted “we don’t stand a chance.”

There’s no larger narrative to wrap up such lopsided results, and it’s tempting to wonder if there really was whatever to glean during this year’s wild-card weekend.

There was.

Tampa Bay learned it wouldn’t have lead running back Leonard Fournette available for Sunday’s game and was already playing without receivers Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown, two of Tom Brady’s favorite targets. Still, the game couldn’t have been better set up for the Buccaneers offense, stylistically.

The Eagles lack the top-end talent to create big defensive plays, ranking in the bottom 10 in sacks, tackles for loss and broken passes. Their soft zone coverage and inability to create much pressure gave the greatest quarterback to ever “take what the defense gives” too much room to dive and dunk his way down the field. Brady finished with a sweatless performance of 29 of 37, including two touchdowns.

Philadelphia led the league in rushing yards per game, but no 2021 regular season team kicked the ball less often, and the threat of quarterback Jalen Hurts or any of the Eagles fullbacks was not. not enough to fabricate fairways against a defense plugged in by the gigantic combination of Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh inside.

Teams know better than to run against Tampa Bay: The Buccaneers saw the fewest rushing attempts of any team this season, but were still in the top 10 in tackles for loss, remarkable efficiency for a seven in front.

The only strength of the Eagles was played by a seesaw performance from the Buccaneers defense. Hurts led all Eagles rushers with 39 yards, and a 34-yard touchdown on Boston Scott’s garbage time swelled what had been a 3.8-yard average haul per team before.

Worse, Philadelphia failed to exploit their opponent’s most glaring weakness. Major losses have plagued the Tampa Bay secondary all season, forcing defensive coordinator Todd Bowles to try out cornerback Richard Sherman as a safety at one point. In his sophomore season, Hurts had worked hard to improve his passing craft, but some key streaky and through-the-seam receiver failures cost his team big yardage opportunities.

In the second half, Hurts’ indecisiveness gave rushers Shaq Barrett and Joe Tryon-Shoyinka time to flush him out of the pocket and force him to try to make sideline passes. Hurts was intercepted twice, one a backbreaking pick before halftime when DeVonta Smith opened up on a double move before safety Mike Edwards clipped a late low pitch.

Sunday’s fight ended in three possessions, with Tampa Bay scoring rushing touchdowns by substitutes Giovani Bernard and Ke’Shawn Vaughn on two of its three possessions. Ryan Succop’s 34-yard field goal in the second quarter made it 17-0, ending an 11-game drive in which Brady barely had to work.

While it was impressive to see a quarterback in his mid-40s rise and fall on the court in the playoffs, Sunday’s victory provided no tangible answer as to whether Tampa Bay is equipped to defend its throne. against the best in the NFL. teams, only that the team is clever enough to try.

Rob Gronkowski still has some of the best hands in football, but he was down a step and a half, highlighting Godwin’s injury and Brown’s exit in obvious passing situations. Jonathan Gannon, the Eagles defensive coordinator, brought in some second-half blitzes and played zone coverage behind, and Tampa Bay’s backup receivers couldn’t find the open windows that this vertical passing game thrives on. .

Darius Slay and Steven Nelson couldn’t keep Mike Evans (117 yards, one touchdown) unassisted at the top, but the few times Philadelphia provided man cover, there weren’t many others outlets available for Brady.

By then, however, Philadelphia had already been buried.

Buccaneers 31, Eagles 15: The Eagles fell to a 17-0 hole early, and their vaunted running game was ill-equipped to take them out. Four players, including quarterback Jalen Hurts, combined for 95 rushing yards that mostly came in garbage time. Tampa Bay relied on rushing touchdowns to open the field to Tom Brady, who threw for 271 yards on 29 of 37 passes, with two touchdowns.

Bills 47, Patriots 17: Buffalo scored touchdowns on its seven offensive possessions to dismantle New England by as playoff-decisive a margin as it has been in Patriots coach Bill Belichick’s tenure. Bills quarterback Josh Allen completed 21 of 25 passes for 308 yards and threw for five scores. He also ran for 66 yards.

Bengals 26, Raiders 19: Quarterback Joe Burrow led the Bengals’ powerhouse offense scoring in all four possessions in the first half, connecting for touchdowns with receiver Tyler Boyd and tight end CJ Uzomah as Cincinnati won his first playoff win in 31 years. On the Raiders’ final drive, a controversial passer-call roughness gave Las Vegas a scoring chance, but linebacker Germaine Pratt intercepted a pass from Derek Carr at the 2-yard line to end the threat .