Game balls – Super Wild Card Weekend

Unlike the regular season, shocks and upsets were few and far between in our slate of six games, with all but one of the division winners (Dallas) progressing to the next round. But echoing recent weeks, we continued to have offensive masterclasses from Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen, another fine defensive display from TJ Watt and yet more controversy from the zebras in black and white stripes.

So, dear reader, dive in and I shall reveal our Wild Card game ball winners.


Offensive player of the week

Josh Allen, QB, Buffalo Bills

New York Post

Hundred-yard rushing games were conspicuous in their absence this weekend. The 49ers’ Elijah Mitchell got closest with 96 yards on the ground while Buffalo’s Devin Singletary (81 rushing yards) was the only RB with two TDs. Deebo Samuel racked up 72 rushing yards plus three catches for 38 yards for the Niners (not bad for a wide receiver), while his teammate Jerick McKinnon posted 61 on the ground and an impressive 81 from 6 receptions (not bad for a running back).

Bills TE Dawson Knox, the Patriots’ Kendrick Bourne and Chiefs wideout Byron Pringle all found the end zone twice for receiving TDs. Another three players topped the ton as far as receiving yards are concerned – Mike Evans (117), Ja’Marr Chase (116) and Travis Kelce (108) – with Evans and Kelce adding a touchdown to boot. In doing so, Chase broke the Bengals’ franchise record for receiving yards in a playoff game while Kelce became the first player in NFL history to throw and catch a touchdown pass, while breaking 100 receiving yards, in a playoff match.

With all that said, the offensive player of the week contest came down to a two-horse race between two impressive quarterbacks. It’s hard to believe that Patrick Mahomes, who threw five touchdown passes in Kansas City’s 41-21 takedown of the Steelers, is only the runner-up here but we’re talking fine margins. He led all QBs with 404 yards through the air but he was also sacked three times and gave up an interception via a tipped pass. Trailing 7-0 well into the second quarter, his team had gone punt, punt, pick, punt and fumble return TD on their first five possessions. Then Mahomes suddenly went ballistic, orchestrating six consecutive TD drives. All five of his scoring passes came in an 11-minute spell either side of half time as the Chiefs put an inferior opponent to the sword in ruthless fashion.

But, by a hair’s breadth, the game ball goes to JOSH ALLEN as the Buffalo Bills trounced their AFC East rivals, the New England Patriots, 47-17 (the Pats’ worst post-season loss since 1986). In their third meeting of the season, the team banged in seven TDs and Allen threw for five of them. While he notched almost 100 fewer yards than Mahomes, he also rushed for 66 in an historic performance. As well as not getting sacked or giving up an INT, his completion stats (21 of 25, 84%) exceeded those of Mahomes (30 of 39, 76%). He also led his Chiefs counterpart in average completion (12.3 yards to Mahomes’ 10.4) while his QB rating of 157.6 is the highest recorded since it became a stat in 2006. Allen became only the third player in NFL history with 5+ passing TDs, 0 INTs and fewer than five incompletions in a playoff game, joining Peyton Manning and Kurt Warner in a very elite club.

In the forthcoming Divisional Round match-up, Allen and Mahomes will go toe-to-toe and if this week’s box scores are anything to go by, it’s going to be a humdinger.


Defensive player of the week

TJ Watt, DE, Pittsburgh Steelers

Danny Medley – USA TODAY Sports

In Tampa Bay’s 31-17 win over Philadelphia, Todd Bowles’ defence kept the Eagles’ top-ranked run game in check and allowed just one drive with more than one first down. Safety Mike Edwards led the team with nine tackles and an end-zone interception while Shaq Barrett’s tipped-ball recovery sealed the deal.

But Philly were not without their defensive standouts either. Defensive end Ryan Kerrigan had 1.5 sacks, leading the way alongside San Francisco DE Charles Omenihu, who also bagged a forced fumble. Meanwhile, Kerrigan’s fellow Eagle, linebacker Alex Singleton, topped the charts with 16 tackles, as well as a sack of his own.

Turning to the first Monday night playoff game in NFL history, the Rams’ Von Miller made a nuisance of himself in their 34-11 win over a Cardinals team that just didn’t turn up. Miller took Kyler Murray down for a sack and made three tackles for loss. Cornerback David Long Jr also ran in a simple defensive touchdown when Kyler had a brain fart inside his own end zone and tried to throw the ball away rather than take a sack and concede a safety.   

But let’s not delay the inevitable; it’s time for our obligatory TJ WATT paragraph! The Pittsburgh DE began the weekend as joint holder of the NFL’s single-season sack record and made an early impact on Sunday night against the Chiefs. The league’s top edge rusher logged a pass deflection that fell to teammate Devin Bush for an interception and was also ‘Johnny on the spot’ when he spoilt a Kansas City trick play, recovering a fumble and taking it back to the house, sliding in for the opening score of the game.

With the Steelers crashing out of the postseason action, at least someone other than the future Defensive Player of the Year will win the game ball next week!


Coach of the week

Kyle Shanahan, HC, San Francisco 49ers

Yahoo! Sport UK

Before we name our game ball winner, I think the Buffalo Bills Offensive Coordinator Brian Daboll should get some recognition. His unit put up 300 yards by the break against New England and scored touchdowns in seven straight drives – a new NFL record for a playoff game. No team had ever gone an entire NFL game without kicking a field goal, turning the ball over or punting before, but Daboll’s guys did that too.

In the 49ers/Cowboys clash, I think we can say the better-coached team triumphed too so here’s your F10Y game ball, KYLE SHANAHAN. The Niners’ HC had his guys dialled in from the start and they were 13 points to the good before Dallas got going.

As with their win over the Rams last week, the 49ers leaned on the basics in their 23-17 victory: running the ball on offence and stopping the run on defence. It’s been a successful formula for a few weeks, ever since WR Deebo Samuel started getting snaps in the backfield, and he had 10 carries for 72 yards, including a decisive 26-yard TD, on Sunday night. While the 49ers ran the ball 38 times for 169 yards, the Cowboys – trailing for most of the game – rushed only 21 times for 77. Defensive Coordinator DeMeco Ryans also called an excellent game, leaving Dak Prescott with just 23 completions from 43 attempts.

Having conceded nine penalties, San Fran will need to clean up their act against the Packers in this week’s clash, but at least they looked prepared and ready for anything. Even when their two best defenders, Nick Bosa and Fred Warner, were forced off the field through injury, the D held firm. So well done Mr S for masterminding a solid performance from a road underdog and, in a Wild Card weekend with few upsets, the only non-divisional winner to progress.


Play of the week

Micah Hyde, S, Buffalo Bills  

Timothy T Ludwig – Getty Images

Let’s sprinkle a few of my favourites onto the page first, before we get to the winner.

For some younger Cincinnati fans, the goal-line interception by linebacker Germaine Pratt made with barely seconds left could well be the most euphoric moment they have yet to experience while following their team. On a 4th-and goal from the Cincinnati 9-yard line, the snag denied the Raiders a memorable comeback and their 26-19 victory ended the Bengals’ 31-year playoff victory drought – not just the longest in the NFL but across all US professional sport. So, over to you, Detroit… (There’s another high-profile Bengals play that we need to talk about but you’ll have to read on for that one.)

Other enjoyable plays include a few I’ve already mentioned: a scoop-and-score fumble recovery TD by Pittsburgh’s TJ Watt, a mazy 26-yard touchdown run for the Niners by Deebo Samuel, Shaq Barrett’s one-handed tip, catch and run for the Buccaneers and David Long Jr’s easy interception TD for the LA Rams after a howler from a very poor Kyler. Another Rams ‘Junior’, Odell Beckham Jr, also lofted a 40-yard pass to Cam Akers on a trick play, while Patrick Mahomes’ sneaky underarm TD pass to Jerick McKinnon was rather effective.

However, my two favourite plays came courtesy of the Buffalo Bills. On a 2nd-and-goal from the Patriots 8, Josh Allen sat back and waited for someone to get open, beat a man to evade a sack as he rolled out to the right touchline and then, just as he was edging out of bounds, dropped a rainbow to tight end Dawson Knox, who made a back-arching catch at the back of the end zone. The whole 10-second play is a masterclass in improvisation, patience and composure.

Yet for all that, I think my winner is his teammate, safety MICAH HYDE, for his impressive interception. With Buffalo up by seven after the first drive of the game, the Patriots were moving the ball well too. On a first down at the Bills’ 34, Mac Jones launched a pass toward a wide-open Nelson Agholor steaming into the end zone and would’ve been pretty sure he’d levelled the game when the ball left his hand. The wide receiver had cornerback Levi Wallace trailing in his wake but Hyde, running in at an angle from the middle of the field, took the rock away inches above Agholor’s gloves, turning a certain touchdown into an eye-catching INT. The Patriots’ attack never recovered and by half time, they were 27-0 behind. Game-defining play = game ball.


Gaffe of the week

The erroneous whistle on the Bengals’ winning TD

Touchdown Wire – USA TODAY Sports

In their 23-17 loss to the Niners on Sunday night – the only game decided by less than a touchdown – the Cowboys’ 2021 campaign ended in confusion. With 14 seconds left and devoid of timeouts, Dallas seemed to have enough time for two plays from San Francisco’s 41-yard line. Dak Prescott rushed up the middle and slid to the 24 but handed the ball to center Tyler Biadasz rather than an official. NFL rules (more of them in a moment) state the ball must be spotted by an official and umpire Ramon George ran in to do just that, but collided with Prescott and Biadasz in so doing. That led to a short delay – only a few seconds, but long enough to prevent Prescott from spiking the ball before the clock hit 00:00.

Dallas obviously preferred to bank those yards and give themselves another shot from a closer distance as opposed to attempting a long Hail Mary straight away. Alas, it didn’t quite go to plan. HC Mike McCarthy believed the play would be reviewed and that time would be added back to the game clock but that wasn’t the case, leaving the Niners to march on and the Cowboys to head home.

Before we press on to more weighty matters, I also wanted to mention poor old Dallas linebacker Leighton Vander Esch. I don’t want to dwell on this but as a writer and editor by trade, I was struck by the incorrect spelling of his name across his shoulders. The typo pretty much summed up the Cowboys’ level of preparation for this game. The lesson here? Proofread everything!

Twitter

Now, if you’re a regular reader – bless you for that – you’ll know that the officials sometimes come in for a bit of stick here. I know it’s a thankless task, and one where you’ll only get talked about if you get something wrong, but the OFFICIATING CREW IN THE RAIDERS/BENGALS GAME did make their fair share of errors.

The most talked-about play was Joe Burrow’s mid-air cross-body throw to Tyler Boyd for Cincy’s second – and decisive – touchdown with less than two minutes left in the first half. While it should’ve been a point of discussion for the perfect timing of the throw, it ended up the centre of controversy because line judge Mark Steinkerchner blew his whistle for incorrectly assuming Burrow has stepped out of bounds.

As per NFL rules, a play should be ruled dead and replayed if a whistle is blown during a play, even if done so in error; nothing else matters. Rule 7, Section 2, Article (o) of the NFL Rulebook states: When an official sounds the whistle erroneously while the ball is still in play, the ball becomes dead immediately. So, that seems fairly categorical.

Yet that didn’t happen on Saturday night and the TD stood, as called on the field. That’s because Senior VP of Officiating Walt Anderson said the officiating crew “did not feel” the whistle came after Boyd’s TD catch. Yet even the most cursory of checks shows that the whistle clearly came before it reached Boyd.

The time between the throw, the whistle and the reception can be measured in nanoseconds so it didn’t affect the play to any degree – no one stopped in their tracks, for example – but quite reasonably, Raiders players immediately assumed the play had been blown dead and would be replayed.

So, by the letter of the law, head referee Jerome Boger and his crew bungled this one. It was an amazing play by Burrow and should have counted (as it did) because he was in bounds when making the throw. But as NBC expert Terry McAulay said on the TV broadcast, the ball was dead as soon as the whistle blew.

Now, here’s where it gets really confusing. If you flick forward to Rule 15, you’ll find that an erroneous whistle is not a reviewable play. So it seems that the play should’ve been replayed yet couldn’t be reviewed. (Does your head hurt too?)

So in summary:

  • the TD pass and catch were legitimate and within the laws of the game
  • the whistle was incorrectly blown but it should’ve have nullified the play regardless
  • the officials incorrectly said the whistle came after the catch
  • the league could not review the timing of the whistle, which is a judgement call, so the on-field decision stood.

God, what a dog’s breakfast…



Feature image: The Athletic

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