Skip to main content

NFL Playoffs Debrief: December lies exposed in Divisional Round

December lied. After the best teams in the NFL stumbled down the stretch in the regular season, this playoff field was advertised as one of the most evenly matched, balanced tournaments in memory, especially in the AFC. Smash cut to the Divisional Round, where the Chiefsput up 24 points before the Colts had a first down and where the Patriots scored four touchdowns in their first four drives on the way to a 35-7 halftime lead over the Chargers, conjuring memories of their beatdown over the Tim Tebow-led Denver Broncosin January 2012.

At least the Eagles and Cowboys made their opponents sweat. The tensest moments of the weekend came during the crucial fourth-down plays in Los Angeles and when the No. 1-seeded Saints were forced to overcome a 14-point deficit.

Nick Foles' hold on the NFL is over -- at least until the offseason -- but the pattern of top seeds holding form in the NFL playoffs is nothing new. This will be the sixth straight season in which all eight teams that played on Wild Card Weekend failed to reach the Super Bowl. It shouldn't be that surprising to see home teams with superior records and a week of rest usually win, yet it's somehow fitting this weekend went so chalk in the year we believed was wide open. Even when the NFL goes as expected, it's somehow busting a narrative. Before looking ahead, let's break down some other shattered storylines.

Busted narratives of Divisional Round

Top defenses adjusted late in the season: When scoring went down in December, the members of the Defense Wins Championships camp trotted out the usual party lines, getting downright gleeful in noting that the Rams-ChiefsGame That Changed Football Forever hot takes didn't age well. The entire argument is tiring, as if there's ever going to be one way to win football games, as if the evolution of the sport is infinite and as if we need to divide into pass-first or defense-first camps to analyze the game.

Saying something doesn't age well inevitably doesn't age well. The two best defenses in the playoffs -- Chicago and Baltimore -- didn't make it out of the first round. The team with the higher-ranked defense according to Football Outsiders' DVOA lost three of the four games in the Divisional Round, with the Saints being the exception. The Chiefs, Saints, Rams and Patriots comprise the NFL's four highest-scoring teams this season and were four of the top five teams in offensive DVOA (which gives more credence to late-season games), with the Saints and Patriots finishing behind the Chargers.

Of course there were excellent defensive performances, but perhaps the biggest commonality in the four teams remaining is excellent offensive line play. The Rams ran roughshod over the Cowboys' young linebackers. The Patriots kept the Chargers off balance with heavy fronts. The Chiefs' Damien Williams and the Rams' C.J. Anderson showed that quality running backs can be found cheaply, but diverse offenses that can challenge every aspect of a defense are the stuff of champions. Whatever "adjustments" that defenses made in December were countered by January, when everything sets up for a high-scoring Championship Sunday.

The Colts were built for cold weather: This take gained steam late last week as it became clear how chilly it would be in Kansas City. Colts general manager Chris Ballard did impressive work improving Indy's overall toughness, but the team's improved offensive line was out of sorts in K.C. Dee Ford and Justin Houston blew up plays from the back side before they got started. Colts right tackle Braden Smith couldn't handle Ford in the passing game.

As impressive as the Chiefs' defensive line was, the Kansas City offensive line dominated even more. This game should be a wake-up call for Ballard in how he attacks the offseason. The Colts' talent base on the defensive line and at the skill positions still needs serious upgrades.

Nick Foles is an infallible deity who will one day rule us all: Foles would have never bought into this narrative. He's the one, at the very moment of his greatest triumph, who came up with a defining quote about failure.

It was still jarring to see Foles play a significant role in the Eagles' letdown in the Superdome. Foles played brilliantly in the first quarter, but his heat-check interception in Saints territory to start the second quarter helped turn the game around. Perhaps Foles would have written another surprising comeback had Alshon Jeffery caught his fourth-quarter pass, but that play was part of a sustained run of unforced errors that the 2017 Eagles didn't make. Foles occasionally looked rattled by pressure and made a few off-target third-down throws. It happens.

Now Foles enters an offseason where he holds all the cards. Barring the Eagles making a shocking, shortsighted choice to trade Carson Wentz and give Foles the guaranteed money worthy of a starting quarterback, Foles seems likely to buy back his freedom with a mutual option in his contract, or just head straight for the market if the Eagles don't pick up the option. It's almost better this way because Eagles fans don't handle failure with as much grace as Foles. They can remember him in all his glory.

Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley has uncovered a new way to play defense: The Patriots saw Bradley's defensive-back heavy, zone-dependent scheme and ran right through it. While the Patriots' coaching staff adjusted on both sides of the ball from drive to drive, the Chargers stuck too long on what wasn't working. Which reminds me ...

The Patriots' struggles were so different this year: This was a relative down year for the Patriots' offense, and the team as a whole was more of a top-five or top-six group all season rather than a juggernaut. But that's exactly what makes the Patriots' run under Tom Brady and Bill Belichick so different: They are very, very good even in down years. It's not like they are more short-handed than the 2011 squad that almost won a Super Bowl with one of the league's worst defenses. They aren't struggling offensively like the 2015 team that came a few plays away from the Super Bowl despite a poor offensive line and inert running game led by Steven Jackson at the bitter end. Their offensive and defensive rankings are very similar to the 2013 team that lost to the Broncos in the AFC Championship Game, which was around the time when some fatalistic Patriots fans began to think they could no longer win the big one.

Probably the biggest departure for this team is the least talked about. Belichick is coaching up a mediocre special-teams group for the first time in a long time, so he had to be thrilled when it helped create a turnover Sunday.

While Rob Gronkowski is clearly not the player he once was, the performances by Julian Edelman, James White, Trey Flowers and the interior offensive line felt very familiar. This is not the best Patriots team Belichick has coached and they'll probably come up short like the editions mentioned above, but this season never marked a big departure from the last decade. No team in NFL history has put itself in position to win more, with Belichick knowing better than anyone how often good fortune can decide whether history remembers his team or not.

What we know after Divisional Round

1) The Cowboys' offensive line is no longer special. It has two future Hall of Fame candidates in Tyron Smith and Zack Martin, but center Joe Looney and left guard Connor Williams were huge liabilities Saturday night in Los Angeles. Even Martin struggled to handle the power of Ndamukong Suh, Aaron Donald and Michael Brockers.

The Cowboys called plays all season as if the team's old offensive line was still around. The return of center Travis Frederick -- who missed the season after being diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome, an autoimmune disease, in August -- would provide the team with a huge boost in 2019. Whether that happens or not, the Cowboys staff needs to do a better job of putting Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott in a position to succeed. We do know coach Jason Garrett will be there to oversee it all, which doesn't make me more optimistic about an offense still searching for its 2014 efficiency.

2) Anyone who thinks differently about Andrew Luck after one rough performance in Kansas City needs to watch more Colts games. This season was a massive victory for Luck and he was poignantly grateful for the experience even after his bitter defeat. Luck showed enough under Frank Reich to believe that Luck, like Tom Brady, could be a better player in his 30s than he was in his 20s.

3) Rams coach Sean McVay is not afraid. His decision to go for it on fourth-and-goal in the fourth quarter was not as bold as his decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the Rams' 45-yard line in the first quarter. McVay also dialed up a Brandin Cooks end-around on third down inside the 11-yard line and a Jared Goff keeper on third-and-7 to close out the game when the outcome was still very much in doubt.

What we don't know after Divisional Round

1) What Eagles general manager Howie Roseman will do this offseason. Saying goodbye to Nick Foles may be the simplest part of the Philadelphia offseason. Veterans like Jason Kelce, Timmy Jernigan and Jason Peters could be released. They also have free agents like Ronald Darby, Golden Tate, Brandon Graham, Haloti Ngata, Darren Sproles and Jordan Hicks.

2) Whether Drew Brees needs to regain his MVP form for the Saints to win the Super Bowl. Despite the Saints' win, Brees made enough poor throws Sunday to spark concern that he's not quite out of his late-season slide. New Orleans' offense has perhaps been too reliant on Brees magic all year and many of his logic-defying completions haven't worked since Week 12. The Saints' defense, running game and the presence of Michael Thomas, however, could make New Orleans the most well-rounded team still playing. Brees and Jared Goff might be more alike in their strengths and their roles heading into the NFC Championship Game than most believe.

3) How the Patriots' success will impact a division rival's future. NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport broke the news that Patriots defensive play-caller Brian Flores is expected to become the next Dolphins head coach. It's uncertain how badly the timing will impact Flores' ability to put a coaching staff together, especially if the Patriots make the Super Bowl. Six teams have already made their coaching hires official, so Flores could be playing catch-up if he continues to demonstrate why the Dolphins picked him in the first place.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.

Related Content