The Schein Nine  

 

Alex Smith, Cam Jordan among men defined by Wild Card Round

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Wild Card Weekend lived up to its name. Wild indeed. Great games. Upset specials. Comebacks. And Blake Bortles.

One of the truly special things about postseason football is the way it defines careers. For better or worse, these games leave a lasting mark, changing how we perceive the combatants in a broader sense.

Here are nine guys whose respective reputations were irrevocably stamped by the events of this past weekend:

1) Alex Smith, quarterback, Kansas City Chiefs

I love Alex Smith. He can still play at a high level, as he did for the vast majority of this season. But now he holds the inglorious -- and unfortunate -- distinction of quarterbacking what might have been the worst home loss in Chiefs playoff history. Kansas City entered the second half on Saturday with a 21-3 lead and full control of the game. Two quarters later, the Chiefs walked off the field for the last time this season -- as 22-21 losers.

I've always been of the belief that this was Smith's last year in K.C., even if the Chiefs had won the Super Bowl. K.C. made an aggressive move in the 2017 NFL Draft, jumping into the No. 10 slot to select hot-shot gunslinger Patrick Mahomes. Yes, the rookie rode the pine this season -- partially because he was raw and partially because Smith posted the best passer rating in the NFL (104.7). But the Chiefs snatched up the cannon-armed Texas Tech product to take this offense to the next level. The writing's on the wall: The Mahomes era begins in the fall.

This season, which started with a bang (5-0) and ended with a thud (first-round exit), isn't remotely Smith's fault. In addition to leading the league in passer rating, he posted career bests in passing yards (4,042), passing touchdowns (26) and yards per attempt (8.0). Oh, and he did all of this while mentoring his replacement, without ever raising a stink. Class act. This season-ending loss wasn't Smith's fault, either. He put together one of the best-quarterbacked halves in recent playoff memory, completing 19 of 23 passes for 231 yards and two scores in the first 30 minutes of play. But after the break, he completed just five passes for 33 yards. Still, it wasn't his fault Travis Kelce got hurt. It wasn't his fault K.C.'s game plan became nonsensical (more on that in a second).

As NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport unsurprisingly reported Saturday, the Chiefs will be open to trading Smith, who's owed $17 million next season. And I believe the 33-year-old still has plenty of reliable and winning football left, whether it comes in Arizona, Washington, Jacksonville or elsewhere. But it's a shame that this is how Smith's Chiefs tenure comes to an end, with a fourth loss in five postseason games with the franchise.

2) Matt Nagy, offensive coordinator, Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs' offensive coordinator did a really good job taking the play-calling reins from Andy Reid in early December. So good, in fact, that he just nabbed the Bears' head-coaching job.

But for members of #ChiefsKingdom -- and football fans who witnessed Saturday's meltdown in Kansas City -- it'll be hard to forget Nagy's final play-calling performance on the Chiefs' sideline.

There's plenty of blame to go around, as Kansas City choked up an 18-point lead in Arrowhead Stadium. But Nagy tops the list. WHERE WAS KAREEM HUNT?!?!?! The NFL's leading rusher ran the ball 11 times for 42 yards and a touchdown. In the second half, when K.C. was sitting on a robust lead, Hunt received a grand total of five carries. That's bonkers. Everyone knows it -- including Reid.

"Could we have called [Hunt's number] more? Yeah, we look back at it and maybe we could have, maybe we could have handed it to him more," Reid said, via the team's official website. "The three-and-outs were hurting us a little bit."

Reid's being kind -- there's no "maybe" about it. Nagy definitely should've stuck the ball in No. 27's belly a whole lot more. This was a bad loss -- and a really bad look for the play caller.

3) Mike Mularkey, head coach, Tennessee Titans

I thought it was over for Tennessee. The game. The season. The Mike Mularkey era.

Heck, it was beyond thinking the Titans were cooked, down 21-3 at half -- I wanted the NFL to flex out Tennessee for the Chargers in the third quarter, or at least have Josh McDaniels replace Mularkey midgame.

Wrong. I was very, very wrong.

Mularkey, a good man who instilled toughness into this Titans franchise, survives and advances. If Tennessee had lost, I would've used this space to demand a coaching change -- something like general manager Jon Robinson dipping into his Patriots roots and hiring McDaniels to get Marcus Mariota back on track. Instead, the Chiefs collapsed and Tennessee took advantage. Mariota threw a touchdown to himself, another scoring strike to Eric Decker and even made the key block on Derrick Henry's game-sealing run. Mularkey got the vote of confidence he craved from ownership and a date with the Patriots in Foxborough on Saturday.

Luck? Skill? Coaching? Opportunity? I'll say ... yes. Mike Mularkey and the Titans live to fight another day. Thanks in large part to ...

4) Derrick Henry, running back, Tennessee Titans

What a monster game from the monster back -- and hardly a surprise. The 6-foot-3, 247-pound Henry had a favorable matchup against the Chiefs' defense -- which ranked 25th against the run during the regular season -- and he took full advantage, rumbling for a career-high 156 yards (and a touchdown) on 23 totes. Henry punished Kansas City defenders with a hard-charging style that got more and more effective as the game went on.

I've always liked DeMarco Murray, but the Titans overused the 29-year-old back for most of this season. His balky knee forced Tennessee to ride the second-year man Saturday -- and this is a development Mularkey and Co. should fully embrace. Regardless of Murray's availability this week, the Titans must deploy Henry as the bell cow against New England -- and beyond. We all saw what Henry's capable of in his first playoff game. Don't overcomplicate a simple situation.

5) Aaron Donald, defensive tackle, Los Angeles Rams

I've written it. I've screamed it into the microphone. Sometimes I get the sense that you don't believe me or think I'm exaggerating, but it's true:

Aaron Donald is the best defensive player in the NFL and has been for multiple years.

Yes, the Rams lost to the Falcons, 26-13, on Saturday night. I don't care. Donald was a one-man wrecking crew. This cat was unblockable. According to Pro Football Focus, Donald finished the game with one sack and a whopping 10 hurries on just 34 pass-rushing snaps. That's crazy production, especially coming from an interior defensive lineman. And how about that fourth-quarter tackle for loss of Devonta Freeman, when he just brought left guard Ben Garland along for the ride?

This kind of performance -- in Donald's first playoff game -- illustrates exactly what I've been talking about. And it further underscores why the Rams MUST pay the man. ASAP.

6) Tyrod Taylor, quarterback, Buffalo Bills

I like Tyrod Taylor more than most, but I can't defend that awful performance in the Bills' 10-3 loss at Jacksonville. I never thought there was much of a chance Taylor was coming back to Buffalo next season -- not after Sean McDermott inexplicably benched him for Nathan Peterman back in mid-November -- but the divorce seems like a foregone conclusion after the veteran QB's ghastly outing on Sunday. Completing just 17 of his 37 passes for a measly 134 yards and no touchdowns -- though he did have a pick -- Taylor punched his ticket outta town. Tyrod can still start in the NFL, just not for McDermott.

With five picks in first three rounds of April's draft (including Nos. 21 and 22 overall), Buffalo has the currency to go get a quarterback of the future.

7) Steve Wilks, defensive coordinator, Carolina Panthers

The Panthers' defensive coordinator might not be in this position much longer. Wilks is a hot coaching candidate, and that certainly didn't change in Carolina's narrow loss at New Orleans.

OK, so Drew Brees threw for 376 yards. Look, it's nearly impossible to defend a perfect pass -- especially with today's rules -- and No. 9 had plenty of those in a surgical performance. What impressed the heck out of me was Wilks' game plan (and the Panthers' execution) against the best RB tandem in the NFL. Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram made history during the regular season, becoming the first backfield duo to each record 1,500-plus scrimmage yards. On Sunday, they posted 68 total yards combined.

Wilks' reputation is reality, not perception, and it was stamped this year -- and solidified even in a loss.

8) Cam Jordan, defensive end, New Orleans Saints

Jordan's had such an incredible year for New Orleans, establishing himself as a legit Defensive Player of the Year candidate and earning first-team All-Pro honors (yes, I voted for him). I love it when good players become great -- and put on exclamation point on it during the postseason. That's what Jordan did in Sunday's 31-26 win over the Panthers.

Jordan was a terror in the Panthers' backfield all game long, and rocked Cam Newton (while blowing up the offensive line) multiple times on Carolina's final drive. According to Pro Football Focus, Jordan finished the game with two sacks, two hurries and two batted passes. This guy's a gem, on and off the field, and the 2018 playoffs are his time to shine.

9) Jalen Ramsey, cornerback, Jacksonville Jaguars

I've called him the best corner in the NFL. There's stiff competition, no doubt. Xavier Rhodes has a claim. Darius Slay remains vastly underrated. Heck, even Ramsey's teammate, A.J. Bouye, is amazing. But in his first playoff game, a 10-3 rock-fight win over Buffalo, Ramsey showed why he's the top dog. Targeted five times, according to PFF, Ramsey allowed just three receptions for 29 yards.

It was quite fitting that his incredible instincts, athleticism and play-making ability were all on display in the game-clinching pick. And yes, he absolutely caught it.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.

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