NFL

NFL wild-card weekend grades from around the league

The Bengals’ drought-ending win and Josh Allen’s near-perfect night preceded some shaky Sunday outings from the No. 7 seeds. The 49ers also survived a late Cowboys charge to book yet another playoff matchup with the Packers. Here are the weekend grades from the NFL’s wild-card games.

 

1 of 20

Steelers pass defense folds in Kansas City again

Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

A few teams contained the Chiefs’ aerial show this season, injecting doubt about the team sustaining its historic pace. The Steelers failed to do so in both meetings, giving the Chiefs more juice as they aim to defend their AFC title again. Sporting a top-10 pass defense, the Steelers (9-8-1) crumbled after a solid start. Letting Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill go by them for easy TDs reminded Kansas City viewers of previous seasons. Patrick Mahomes finished with 662 yards and an 8-1 TD-INT ratio in two Steelers meetings this season. With Cam Heyward 33 in May, Joe Haden likely exiting and Minkah Fitzpatrick soon set to make much more money, Pittsburgh’s equation looks more difficult going forward.

STEELERS GRADE: D-minus 

 

2 of 20

Mahomes mows down Steelers, sets up titanic QB matchup

Mahomes mows down Steelers, sets up titanic QB matchup

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Entering Sunday, Ben Roethlisberger was the only QB with a 400-yard, five-touchdown playoff game — a 2017 shootout loss to the Jaguars. Mahomes accomplished the TD part barely five minutes into the second half. Needing just 11 minutes, 31 seconds of game action to do this — appreciate Andy Reid’s goal-line play sheet while you can — Mahomes got to five TD tosses quicker than anyone in playoff history. This has not been the smoothest ride for the Chiefs (13-5), with teams’ two-high coverage efforts stifling Mahomes frequently. Devin Bush‘s INT notwithstanding, the once-pick-prone passer has a 17-2 TD-INT ratio since Week 14. Mahomes-Josh Allen IV will be a scene, man. 

CHIEFS GRADE: A | NEXT: vs. Bills (Sun.)

 

3 of 20

Big Ben’s Hall of Fame clock about to start

Big Ben's Hall of Fame clock about to start

Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Ben Roethlisberger was predictably overmatched Sunday night. The soon-to-be 40-year-old’s inability to keep up with Mahomes ends a steady decline. The NFL is losing another golden-generation QB. Big Ben’s ability to extend plays in his younger days produced some of this century’s signature highlights. He capitalized on the window the Steelers defense opened en route to three Super Bowls. The Killer B’s era left meat on the bone, and Pittsburgh playoff upsets occurred too often post-Super Bowl XLV. But Roethlisberger will coast to Hall of Fame induction. The Steelers did not do enough to find a successor, and if they truly do not intend to acquire a veteran, the franchise faces an interesting path ahead of a shaky QB draft.

 

4 of 20

Is Chiefs secondary ready for next test?

Is Chiefs secondary ready for next test?

Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Roethlisberger’s deep lobs fell incomplete during the relevant portion of Sunday’s rout, but it is difficult to articulate the divisional-round level jump that awaits the Chiefs DBs. Josh Allen carved up the Chiefs in October. Chris Jones did not play in that game, and the Chiefs have improved defensively since. But Jones was on the field in Cincinnati, when Joe Burrow (feat. Ja’Marr Chase, a lot) ripped through Charvarius Ward and the Kansas City secondary. Dodging Aaron Rodgers and seeing Dak Prescott stripped of his top two weapons, the Chiefs have not contained a high-end QB this season. This secondary against Buffalo’s deep aerial crew provides a captivating test.

 

5 of 20

Deebo’s versatility bails out 49ers again

Deebo's versatility bails out 49ers again

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

San Francisco’s defense passively let Dallas’ final drive approach the red zone, but Deebo Samuel had ensured the Cowboys needed a touchdown to win. The budding superstar’s 26-yard TD run kept Robbie Gould on the sidelines, amid a busy day for the veteran kicker, and gave the 49ers (11-7) a 16-point lead. Samuel is a historically efficient chess piece, reminiscent of Lenny Moore generations ago. Samuel’s 72 rushing yards are the most for a receiver in a Super Bowl-era playoff game; he totaled 100 from scrimmage. The All-Pro has moved to the top of the stellar 2019 wideout draft class. Deebo shaking off an injury-plagued 2020 provides a microcosm of why the 49ers are here.

49ERS GRADE: B-plus | NEXT: at Packers (Sat.)

 

6 of 20

Self-destruction ends promising Cowboys season

Self-destruction ends promising Cowboys season

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Unlike Willie Beamen’s Miami Sharks, who won a dramatic playoff game in Dallas thanks to a surprise final-seconds QB-designed run, the Cowboys could not pull off an opening-round miracle. Even before Dak Prescott’s post-scramble procedural gaffe ended the game, the Cowboys (12-6) tied an NFL penalty record. Dallas’ 14 accepted penalties match three other teams — including the 2009 Cowboys — for the most in a playoff game. That made Sunday’s conclusion cruelly appropriate. A besieged Prescott struggled, for the most part, throwing 20 incompletions — including a 3-for-12 mark on passes of 12-plus yards downfield — and a costly INT that set up Samuel’s back-breaker.

COWBOYS GRADE: C-minus

 

7 of 20

Shorthanded 49ers pass rush rises to occasion

Shorthanded 49ers pass rush rises to occasion

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The Packers drew key pass interference penalties and bested a 49ers defense on a rapid-fire final drive in a walk-off September win. San Francisco will enter its Green Bay rematch — the teams’ ninth playoff meeting; all since 1995 — with defensive momentum. Despite Nick Bosa‘s first-half concussion, the 49ers finished with five sacks for a second straight game, 14 QB hits and a season-high 22 pressures. Prescott tangled with Bosa’s supporting cast all day, with in-season trade get Charles Omenihu posting 1.5 sacks and three QB hits. Inside rushers, Arik Armstead and D.J. Jones added a sack apiece to cap a frustrating day for Dallas’ offense. The Packers may well have a tougher Round 2 opponent to navigate than the Bucs will. 

 

8 of 20

Latest January setback invites big-picture examination

Latest January setback invites big-picture examination

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Over a year’s time, the Cowboys went from allowing the most points in franchise history to fielding two defensive All-Pros. Trevon Diggs and Micah Parsons are two reasons for optimism. So is Dak’s status as by far the NFC East’s best quarterback. But this is a bad ending for a team that went 6-0 against its division but 1-5 against non-NFC East playoff teams. The Cowboys received bounce-back seasons from Hall of Fame-caliber O-lineman Tyron Smith and Zack Martin; both will turn 32 this year. Holding the third-worst cap situation presently, the Cowboys face a somewhat uncertain future following their 2021 rebound.

 

9 of 20

Playoff expansion keeps producing blowouts

Playoff expansion keeps producing blowouts

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL will trade a diluted playoff field for more postseason broadcasts and “Super Wild Card Weekend” references, but thus far, the Philip Rivers-led Colts’ near-upset of the Bills is the only thing propping up the 2020 bracket expansion. Derided in this space for much of the season, the race for the NFC’s No. 7 seed predictably produced a sitting duck. The Eagles (9-9) followed in the 2020 Bears’ footsteps. Fortunately, Jalen Hurts was ineligible for NVP honors. But the Buccaneers toyed with a team that went 0-8 against playoff competition this season. The Eagles’ arrow points up, to some degree, after last season’s crash. But they and the Steelers did not represent the No. 7 seed well Sunday.

EAGLES GRADE: F

 

10 of 20

For now, Tom Brady still in groove sans key weapons

For now, Tom Brady still in groove sans key weapons

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Brady made the Eagles look like the team that was setting completion percentage-against records earlier this season, firing passes during the Bucs’ hurry-up mission. Giovani Bernard and Ke’Shawn Vaughn (145 combined scrimmage yards, two TDs) helped the Bucs (14-4) build their lead without Leonard Fournette. While this 29-for-37, 271-yard performance will not rank among the all-timer’s best postseason games, it is remarkable the 44-year-old remains capable of this. Especially as his younger peers keep retiring. It will be interesting to see if Brady can replicate his post-Chris Godwin/ Antonio Brown form against tougher competition.

BUCCANEERS GRADE: A | NEXT: vs. Cardinals/Rams (Sun.)

 

11 of 20

Eagles on rise, but QB outlook shakier

Eagles on rise, but QB outlook shakier

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Unless the Packers or Seahawks decide to trade one of their future Hall of Fame QBs within the NFC (extremely unlikely), the Eagles standing pat with Hurts is fine. The dual-threat passer proved many wrong this season and will command a better roster — after the team makes three first-round picks or wheels and deals with those selections — next season. Still, the 2020 second-rounder did not look good when forced to pass, missing big plays and throwing two INTs. It capped an inconsistent aerial slate. If the Dolphins are truly prepared to pass on Deshaun Watson, the Eagles have to consider re-entering the conversation. Barring that, Nick Sirianni‘s postgame Hurts endorsement adds up. 

 

12 of 20

Bucs safeties lead Eagle dismantling

Bucs safeties lead Eagle dismantling

Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

The Bucs’ injured front-seven stalwarts returned to action. But their secondary did plenty to swing the lopsided wild-card tilt. The first of Jordan Whitehead‘s two tackles for loss set the tone for the NFL’s top-rushing attack’s long day (95 yards), and safety mate Antoine Winfield Jr. forced an ensuing punt with a sack on a blitz. Mike Edwards’ goal-line INT, when the Eagles were trying to enter halftime down only two scores, further drained Philly’s tank. This defense returning en masse from Super Bowl LV provides an intriguing safety net for a depleted Bucs offense, which now has situations to monitor on its usually sturdy O-line.

 

New territory for Bill Belichick, Patriots

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Even going back to Belichick’s Giants, Browns, and Jets days, he never endured a playoff defeat on this tier. The Patriots’ defense had nothing for the Bills in their Saturday rubber match, despite the team fielding a veteran unit. This 30-point loss marked the Pats’ worst playoff defeat since Super Bowl XX and Belichick’s most lopsided loss since the Lawyer Milloy revenge game 18 years ago in Orchard Park. Allen shredded the Pats (10-8) in the teams’ final two meetings, clouding New England’s return to the playoffs. With Devin McCourty and Dont’a Hightower’s futures uncertain, and J.C. Jackson on track for a monster payday, the Pats’ formula may change for the worse in 2022.

PATRIOTS GRADE: F 

 

14 of 20

Bills successfully atone for windy night’s result

Bills successfully atone for windy night's result

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The Bills scored a touchdown or knelt down on every drive — a first for any regular-season or postseason game. No one had previously scored a touchdown on their first five drives of a playoff contest. The Bills (12-6) did this against a No. 2-ranked Patriots defense. If this Josh Allen-directed conquest is not the greatest offensive game in NFL history — Super Bowl XXIV, played in above-zero-degree temperatures, was pretty good — it is one of them. In addition to Allen’s near-perfect night, Devin Singletary (81 rushing yards, two TDs) continues his best stretch as a pro, adding to this healthy skill corps’ scary capabilities.

BILLS GRADE: A-plus | NEXT: at Chiefs (Sun.)

 

15 of 20

2020s AFC East pecking order established

2020s AFC East pecking order established

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The Patriots’ windy triumph put the Bills on the ropes six weeks ago, opening the door to the near-two-decade AFC East kingpins restoring the status quo. Buffalo reeling off such a performance in the playoffs provides a clear divide between these teams, and New England’s task of unseating its new top rival looks more challenging. The Pats still have an edge with a rookie-contract QB, though Mac Jones lost his grip on Offensive Rookie of the Year with a slightly concerning stretch run. And Belichick is returning. Jones needs another starter-caliber receiver, and after trading Stephon Gilmore, the Pats have a major call to make on free-agent-to-be J.C. Jackson.

 

16 of 20

Has AFC title game been moved up a week?

Has AFC title game been moved up a week?

Jamie Germano/USA TODAY NETWORK

Bills-Chiefs feels slightly overqualified to be an AFC semifinal, reminding of the 2004 Colts-Patriots Round 2 encounter or the 1997 Broncos’ second-round trip to Arrowhead Stadium. The Bills entered last year’s AFC championship game with the No. 16-ranked defense. This year, they led the NFL. That included an October romp in Kansas City. Micah Hyde‘s diving INT signaled a bad Saturday night was ahead for the Patriots, and the Bills defense has played well in all but one game without Tre’Davious White. Tom Brady did wound Buffalo’s unit without its All-Pro corner, and Patrick Mahomes’ current tear presents a tougher assignment for Leslie Frazier’s troops. 

 

17 of 20

Raiders squander too many chances

Raiders squander too many chances

Albert Cesare/The Enquirer/USA TODAY NETWORK

Yes, the Raiders technically should not have been charged with the Joe Burrow-to- Tyler Boyd touchdown. The whistle being blown a fraction of a second before Boyd’s third-down grab does not erase Las Vegas’ 1-for-5 red zone TD rate. The Bengals protected their jungle end zone effectively. While the Raiders (10-8) offered reasonable resistance as well, Daniel Carlson’s four field goal makes — and Germaine Pratt’s clincher INT — reminded the visitors they were not quite good enough. Credit to Derek Carr nonetheless. The eighth-year QB rebounded from his lost fumble, threw for 310 yards, and nearly forced overtime in his first playoff outing. 

RAIDERS GRADE: C-plus 

 

18 of 20

Bengals will have QB advantage in Nashville

Bengals will have QB advantage in Nashville

Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer/USA TODAY NETWORK

The Bengals’ Marvin Lewis-era nucleus crash-landed at an ideal time, and the reward continues to transform a previously downtrodden franchise. For some reason behind Dak Prescott in Comeback Player of the Year odds despite leading the NFL in yards per attempt and completion percentage, Burrow reminded the Saturday-afternoon crowd of his talents. Relying heavily on Ja’Marr Chase, Burrow also fit in slick short- and mid-range throws to C.J. Uzomah — the first to put Cincinnati on the board and the second to set up the hosts’ debated TD. Burrow moved Cincinnati’s rebuild ahead of schedule, and he makes the Bengals (11-7) a very live underdog against the Ryan Tannehill-piloted Titans. 

BENGALS GRADE: B-plus | at Titans (Sat.)

 

19 of 20

Will Raiders reward career special teams coach?

Will Raiders reward career special teams coach?

Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Rich Bisaccia deserves tremendous credit for the Raiders moving into the playoffs, given the Jon Gruden- and Henry Ruggs-created turmoil that engulfed the team. That said, Mark Davis needs to be careful. Listening to his players’ endorsements would saddle the team with a 61-year-old career-long special teams coordinator with close ties to Gruden. Bisaccia worked under Gruden throughout his Tampa Bay and Oakland/Vegas tenures. The Raiders also finished with a minus-65 point differential — fourth-worst by a playoff team since the 1970 merger. The Raiders once stuck with interim HC Tom Cable, but with the team in better shape now, Mark Davis’ 2022 decision looms larger than his father’s 2009 call. 

 

20 of 20

Cincinnati defense steps up to end three-decade drought

Cincinnati defense steps up to end three-decade drought

Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer/USA TODAY NETWORK

Burying the Bo Jackson curse for good with their first playoff win in 31 years, the Bengals are set to face the shakiest AFC No. 1 seed in at least 13 years (the Titans interestingly have the market cornered on odd top seeds). Maybe longer. Trey Hendrickson’s sack-strip and Sam Hubbard dropping Carr near his own goal line set the table for the Bengals’ game-long lead, while Pratt and Jessie Bates’ late-game end zone protection finished the job. Had some of those Marvin Lewis-led Bengal teams won, Peyton Manning- or Tom Brady-quarterbacked squads would have awaited. Zac Taylor‘s Bengals, who beat the Titans 31-20 last season, have a great shot to become one of the least expected conference finalists in NFL history.

Sam Robinson is a Kansas City, Mo.-based writer who mostly writes about the NFL. He has covered sports for nearly 10 years. Boxing, the Royals and Pandora stations featuring female rock protagonists are some of his go-tos. Occasionally interesting tweets @SRobinson25.


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