The NFL playoffs opened on Saturday, January 9th, for Super Wild Card Weekend. Throughout the weekend, six games were played featuring the top teams in the AFC and NFC, in a testament to the steps taken by the NFL to ensure that the regular season was successfully and safely completed.
This season, the NFL introduced new changes in the playoff seeding, by adding a seventh seed into the mix in both the AFC and the NFC. Therefore, only the first seed in each conference would be allotted a first round bye, allowing for six first round playoff games that the NFL has termed, “Super Wildcard Weekend.” The Kansas City Chiefs of the AFC and the Green Bay Packers of the NFC, both own the first seed of their conference and look to play the lowest seed in the next round of the playoffs.
The weekend kicked off in Buffalo, as the 2nd seeded Bills faced off against the 7th seed Indianapolis Colts in the first AFC matchup. The Bills, led by the hot hand of quarterback Josh Allen and wide receiver Stefon Diggs, entered the game as favorites over the Philip Rivers, led Colts. The Colts snuck into the playoffs due to a Miami Dolphins loss against the Bills, and a Colts win over the Jacksonville Jaguars that secured them the final playoff spot. The game was a back and forth battle, with both teams exchanging long and efficient drives, with the Bills maintaining the lead going into the fourth quarter. The Colts attempted a final drive in the fourth while losing 24-27, but lack of timeouts and solid secondary play by the Bills kept the Colts out of field goal range, which ultimately led to a failed hail mary attempt by Philip Rivers as time expired. Both Allen and Rivers both had solid games as Allen was 26/35 for 324 yards and three total touchdowns. Rivers, who potentially played his last game after securing a one year deal with the Colts, finished 27/46 for 309 yards and two touchdowns.
The first NFC playoff matchup consisted of the 10-6 Los Angeles Rams and the 12-4 Seattle Seahawks, division rivals who had split the series 1-1 in the regular season. Rams quarterback Jared Goff, who broke his thumb in the week 16 game against the Seahawks that required surgery, would not be the starter as he was an emergency quarterback behind backup John Wolford. Unfortunately, Wolford left the game early with a neck injury, following a hit by Seahawks safety Jamal Adams. Luckily, for the Rams, their dominant defense held, Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson in check as he threw 11/27 for 174 yards, two touchdowns and one interception by Rams cornerback Darious Williams, who was returned for a touchdown. The Rams offense was provided a boost by running back Cam Akers who rushed for 131 yards and one touchdown on 28 carries. Goff, with his broken thumb, played adequately going 9/19 for 155 yards and one touchdown as the Rams beat Seattle 30-20.
Saturday concluded with a matchup between the 5th seeded, Tampa Bay Buccaneers led by Tom Brady and the 4th seeded Washington Football Team. Washington, who finished the season 7-9, and can attribute their playoff berth to the low records of the NFC East division, entered without quarterback Alex Smith, and hoped that their defense led by rookie defensive lineman, Chase Young could cause Brady troubles. The Buccaneers opened with an early 9-0 lead, but Washington’s second string quarterback, Taylor Heinicke helped keep the game close as he went 26/44 for 306 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He also made a fantastic play that ended with a diving run into the endzone. However, Tom Brady was his normal playoff self. He was efficient and made plays for his assortment of offensive weapons such as Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, and Leonard Fournette. Washington gave viewers an exciting game, but ultimately the Buccaneers prevailed winning 31-23.
Sunday began with a AFC matchup between the Baltimore Ravens and the Tennessee Titans. Earlier in the season, the Titans and Ravens battled in an intense and contentious game that ended in a Titan victory. On Sunday, the Ravens who were coming off of a five game win streak to finish the regular season, looked for revenge. The Raven’s defense did a fantastic job shutting down running back Derrick Henry, who led the league in rushing yards, to only 40 yards on 18 carries. Titan’s quarterback, Ryan Tannehill played a solid game going 18/26 for 165 yards, one touchdown and one interception. However, the Titans were unable to stop the rushing attack of the Ravens, led by quarterback Lamar Jackson, who ran for a 48 yard touchdown and had over 136 rushing yards by the end of the game. Through the air Jackson finished 17/24 with 179 yards and one interception. The Ravens would win the game 20-13 as they moved onto the Divisional Round.
The final NFC game of the weekend took place between the 8-8 Chicago Bears and the 12-4 New Orleans Saints. In a change of pace, the game was televised on Nickelodeon in addition to CBS. This led to graphics being added to players and the field, such as the face of SpongeBob SquarePants. Unfortunately, the game was not as exciting as the new implementation of the cartoons. The Bears were unable to generate offense against the Saint defense while Saints quarterback Drew Brees played well going 28/39 for 265 yards and two touchdowns in addition to running back Alvina Kamara rushing for 99 yards and one touchdown. Going into the fourth quarter, the Bears had only scored a field goal and were unsuccessful to get points until the very end of the game, in which quarterback Mitch Trubisky threw a touchdown to tight end Jimmy Graham as time expired. The final score was 21-9.
Sunday night concluded with a game between two AFC North rivals in the Cleveland Browns and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Entering the game, the Browns had not been in the playoffs since 2002, in which they had lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The game began in an absurd fashion, as Steeler center Maurkice Pouncey snapped the ball over quarterback Ben Rothlisberger’s head and the Browns defense was able to recover and score a touchdown in the endzone. On the Steelers next drive, Rothlisberger threw his first interception of the night, which led to the Browns scoring with a 40 yard touchdown pass from Baker Mayfield to wide receiver Jarvis Landry. The Steelers were then stopped on a 3rd and one play, and after the punt, the Browns drove down the field and finished with a rushing touchdown by running back Kareem Hunt. The following drive another interception was thrown by Rothlisberger, and the Browns scored again with a Hunt rushing touchdown. By the end of the first quarter, the Steelers found themselves down 28-0. At halftime, the score was 35-7 as Cleveland’s defense began to play more conservatively and the offense stalled as the Steelers cut the score to 35-23. The Browns responded with a 40 yard screen pass to running back Nick Chubb that ended in the endzone and made the score 42-23. The Steelers attempted to claw back, but late in the fourth quarter, Rothlisberger threw his fourth interception of the night as the Browns secured the victory, 48-37. Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield had a strong performance as he went 21/34 for 263 yards and three touchdowns. Ben Rothlisberger, who threw the ball 68 times due to the weak Steeler rushing attack finished 47/68 for 501 yards, four touchdowns and four interceptions.
“I am super excited for next week,” said senior Kidus Efrem. “Being a Packers fan it will be interesting to see how the high powered Packers’ offense matches up against the Rams’ defense.”
As the Wild Card games finished, matchups for next week’s Divisional Round playoffs were set as the Los Angeles Rams will face the Green Bay Packers and the Baltimore Ravens will travel to Buffalo to play the Bills on Saturday. Sunday will begin with a matchup between the Cleveland Browns and Kansas City Chiefs and will conclude in a game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the New Orleans Saints. The path to Super Bowl LV continues and between these eight final teams as teams look to secure their spot in the Championship in early February.