They say the Divisional Round is the most entertaining football weekend of the year. Well, I don't know who "they" are, but Wild Card Weekend was pretty doggone good.
Week 18 in the NFL featured three fantastic games, with the fourth proving that anyone owns a puncher's chance of punching a ticket to Super Sunday. And now, yes, the table's set for an enticing Divisional Round.
Playoff Santa (Old St. Nick) has an opportunity to right the Eagles' ills in New Orleans. The Cowboys and Rams -- two old NFL powers -- meet in the postseason for the first time since back when every kid playing football wanted to wear rec specs. Those pesky Coltshope to halt the legend of Mahomes, while the Chargers and Patriots reprise the 2007 AFC Championship Game.
My buddy Michael Gabaldon would've loved all of it. This is the time of year that makes memories -- not just for players and coaches, but fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, wives, husbands, grandparents ... and friends. I lost a friend last week, as did NFL Network and my former colleagues at Fox Sports. Mike G. loved his Broncos, even though he hailed from College Station, Texas (home of the Texas A&M Aggies) and interned with the Texans. He was passionate and owned a big heart, which showed through in his career stops, as well as in his relationships. Knowing Mike was a hard worker, I helped him get a job at the Network. Which was the least I could do, given that he had helped me prepare for my interview years prior. Mike G. didn't just make sure we prepped -- oh, no -- the guy came over with his backpack, then removed a long, color-coded spreadsheet with the NFL's various front office figures and notable assistant coaches on it. The Dolphins' section was marked by aqua-shaded squares, with orange font for the names. Of course. I can still see it in my mind's eye. We made nachos and studied together, before arguing about something we always argued about.
Friends help each other. They bicker like siblings. And all too often, they lose touch as jobs change, families grow and so forth. But this is also a time of year when all of us who love football have so much to talk about. If you have a friend or sibling that you haven't reached out to ... pick up the phone. A wild playoff weekend like the one we just saw is the perfect conversation starter, an entry point for picking up where great friends left off. If making memories is part and parcel of what makes the playoffs special, so is sharing them.
Mike G. loved his NFL history, as do so many of you. Man, oh man, this coming weekend's matchups are filled with legacy. Starting with Saturday's opener ...
Before we get too far away from instant history, people should recalibrate their perceptions of what they just saw.
Just for some balance, folks.
Let the dissension commence!
PROGRAMMING NOTE: For more in-depth analysis on the updated league pecking order, tune in to NFL Network every Tuesday night at 6 p.m. ET for "The Power Rankings Show." Want to add YOUR voice? Provide your thoughts in a tweet to @HarrisonNFL, and your comments could be featured on air.
Previous rank:*No. 1*
The Saints remain in the top spot, as they should. They're not scared of big Nick energy. Now with that bit of accounting out of the way, it's story time: The other day, while working on my piece about the finalists for the Hall of Fame's Class of 2019, your friendly writer popped on the 1987 NFC wild-card game between the Vikings and Saints for background ambiance. (It was either that or "The Meg," a Jason Statham vehicle that delivered in a very Mark Brunell-esque manner.) I watched this game at my dad's as a kid, and I will never forget it. This was New Orleans' first foray into the postseason after 20 years of winless football. You thought Browns fans have had it rough? The Saints went from 1967 to 1986 with nary a winning season, just two 8-8 campaigns to provide (false) hope during that time. Then, in 1987, they went 12-3 and got the city of New Orleans rockin'. The Superdome was a packed house, full of kinetic energy. And the Saints imploded in a 44-10 disaster. Jim Mora's outfit wasn't ready -- jittery on offense, outplayed on defense, devastated. Those Mora-led teams would never get a playoff win, and yet, for decades, they were the greatest this organization had to offer. Eventually, general manger Mickey Loomis, coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees came along to reshape the franchise forever, laying a foundation that isn't easily shaken in large moments or when facing the hottest team. All of which brings us back to the beginning of this blurb: Of Foles, they have no fear.
Previous rank:*No. 3*
The Rams learned on Sunday that they would be playing the Cowboys this Saturday. Although here's guessing that L.A. coach Sean McVay was already prepping for Dallas all week, given that Los Angeles had faced its other two potential Divisional Round opponents, the Seahawks and Bears, in the regular season, and should already have been familiar with their personnel. Worth noting is that the Cowboys are not exactly the NFL's version of the iPad Pro with a mounted virtual pencil. The way Dallas plays defense, runs the football and keeps the passing game mostly simple is more synonymous with the TI-99/4A home computer, which was from the era when "Family Ties" was crushing in the ratings and John Robinson's Rams pants were pulled up to the midriff. All of which is to say that L.A. will be prepared. Wade Phillips' Rams front seven had better be, with Ezekiel Elliott coming to town.
Historical note: Are you aware that the Cowboys and Rams haven't met in the postseason since the 1985 campaign? That was the time Eric Dickerson rumbled for 248 yards, even though his starting quarterback (Dieter Brock) couldn't hit the broad side of a stadium in Anaheim. (Dieter Brock made Nate Peterman look viable.) What's weirder? Dallas and L.A. met in the postseason eight times between 1973 and 1985, then never again ... until now.
Previous rank:*No. 4*
You are going to hear much chatter regarding the Chiefs' six straight home playoff losses, or their failures in previous years as a high seed, including two losses to the very organization that will be visiting Arrowhead Stadium on Saturday. Yes, the Colts dumped then-top-seeded Kansas City into its offseason program earlier than expected in 1995 and did the same to a second-seeded Chiefs squad in 2003. You know what's so cool about that? It has exactly nothing to do with today. Unless Steve Bono was throwing no-look passes to Lake Dawson 20 yards downfield and I somehow missed it, trying to stop Patrick Mahomes from scoring has proven far more difficult than thwarting previous Chiefs QBs like Bono, the underrated Trent Green or even Joe Montana, for that matter. So let's put away the trends and see if Andrew Luck*can stay with the potential MVP-to-be* before we start in on Fun Fact Porn.
Previous rank:*No. 5*
ThePatriotswill be ready. Start with that. A friend who works over at NFL Films, and who is a diehard Eagles fan, had this to say about New England on Sunday night: "It's amazing that people are saying the Patriots have had a down year ... the cracks are showing ... they went 11-5." New England will host the Chargers on Sunday, and L.A. is admittedly one of the better wild-card teams to come down the pike in a while, in terms of both record (12-4) and play. The Bolts' defenders will also discover right quick that, unlike when they bottled up Lamar Jackson and the Ravens, they aren't playing a rookie quarterback in a one-dimensional offense. The concern for Bill Belichick and New England DC Brian Flores will be the Chargers' RBs, who are a duo the likes of which the Pats' LBs haven't seen this year. This is especially true of Melvin Gordon. The top running back New England played all season was Kareem Hunt, then of the Chiefs. You know what Bill Belichick would have to say to all this rampant conjecture? On to Cincinnati. (Figuratively.)
Previous rank:*No. 7*
If anyone from any team deserved a game ball Sunday -- more than Philip Rivers, more than Nick Foles, more than Cody Parkey (who should actually get a hug, not a ball) -- it was Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley. Talk about a full-scale recovery. After getting handled by the Ravens*in a Week 16 loss,* Bradley readjusted his side of the ball, to the tune of, well, making Lamar Jackson look out of tune for three quarters on Sunday. (You know things are going all @#%@#^ when Ravens fans are begging for Joe Flacco.) Leading the charge for the Bolts was Melvin Ingram, who made plays all over the field ... but mostly in the backfield. That includes the most important fumble recovery in Chargers history -- or at least since the 2006 playoffs, when Patriots receiver Troy Brown made the scoop (after Marlon McCree intercepted Tom Brady, then fumbled the ball) that ruined Philip Rivers' best chance to date at a Super Bowl. Fans could forget the failed promise of that '06 Chargers team fast if Rivers and Co. roll in New England like they did in Baltimore.
Previous rank:*No. 8*
The little-engine-that-could Colts aren't messin' around. There wasn't anything even remotely fluky about the 21-7 win over the Texans, a game Indy controlled from stem to stern. The Colts' offensive balance was impeccable -- they finished with 222 passing yards and another two bills on the ground. And taking center stage was coordinator Matt Eberflus' defense. On a weekend when the big, bad Ravens' and high-scoring Bears' defenses were going, it was Indy's group that was most impressive. Thus, a public tip of the cap is in order to Denico Autry, Jabaal Sheard, Al-Quadin Muhammad, Margus Hunt, Anthony Walker, Darius Leonard, Zaire Franklin, Kenny Moore, Pierre Desir, Clayton Geathers and Malik Hooker. Those are Eberflus' starters, and as to whether or not you've ever heard of them, they couldn't give two squirrels' farts.
Previous rank:*No. 11*
Dallas isn't going away, and sure won't be a pushover in Los Angeles. The Cowboys' win over the Seahawks on Saturday night further underscored what they need to do -- and are doing -- to make it to their first Super Bowl in 23 years:
1) Run Dak more. While this space has been critical of Prescott in terms of his passing consistency (or lack thereof), my biggest complaint with Dallas' offense is that OC Scott Linehan doesn't appear to play to his QB's strengths often enough. Prescott gets his whole sideline fired up when he uses that running back body (and instinct) of his (SEE: the somersault play). It even seems to calm Prescott down. More designed runs. Seriously. Do it.
2) Use the linebackers like chess pieces.*Jaylon Smith* and Leighton Vander Esch can perform all LB functions, be it dropping, blitzing or Coca-Cola Classic (sideline to sideline all day). With Sean Lee now back in the mix, Dallas presents matchup problems defensively.
3) Run the ball, play defense, make your kicks. Be it 2018, 2008 or 1978, that formula still works in January.
Previous rank:*No. 12*
First-and-goal, down 15-10, under two minutes to play -- last-chance saloon for the Eagles to defend their Super Bowl title. They call Darren Sproles' number. Nothing doing. Bears coach Matt Nagy calls a timeout to leave time for Chicago's offense should Philly score. Second-and-goal. Sproles again. Stonewalled. Nagy calls another timeout. Third-and-goal. Doug Pederson calls a pass play, with Nick Foles looking to his biggest target in Alshon Jeffery. Incomplete. It's now fourth-and-goal. Fourth-and-2, to be exact, in a 15-10 game, with just over a minute remaining, in the postseason ... Wait, what the hell? That was the exact score and situation, with the roles reversed, in Philly's first playoff game last season. Falcons WR Julio Jones let the fourth-down pass squiggle through his hands. Golden Tate didn't. The Eagles rolled Foles out on the play, with Playoff Santa finding Tate for the go-ahead score. Unbelievable. Fate smiles on certain athletes, and Nick Foles seems to be one of those athletes. How else do you explain the manner in which the last two years have played out, er, the synchronicity that has led to Foles and Philly's success? It might not be luck. It might not NOT be divine intervention, either.
Side note: Tell you what ain't luck -- Foles' actual touchdown toss to Tate. Watch it again.*Leonard Floyd* gets his formidable wingspan in Foles' line of sight, causing the Eagles QB to drop to a three-quarters arm slot before flicking the ball to Tate in stride for the short score. So impressive. And so easy to miss while watching the play unfold in real time. Nothing is real anymore with Foles and this Philadelphia team.
Previous rank:*No. 2*
Cris Collinsworth is still waiting for Jordan Howard to make an impact against the Eagles ... For all the vitriol hurled at Cody Parkey, perhaps it should get kicked further down the locker room. (Especially now that we all know Parkey wasn't the only player who got a body part on that kick.) Play calling, and the lack of effectiveness on the ground, really did Chicago in Sunday evening. Even with all of the Bears' success this season, they could never support Mitch Trubisky with a consistent rushing attack. Given their superb defense, staying on the ground for longer spells during drives -- and using time of possession to your advantage -- was not such a bad way to go. Instead, Matt Nagy decided to (or was forced to) lean on his young quarterback, who played just well enough to move Chicago's offense before stalling on the other side of the 50. So, blame Parkey if you must, but try to remember that the nine points he did contribute weren't the product of brilliant red-zone offense. On a more positive note: How good was Allen Robinson? Philly's DBs couldn't stay with him.
Previous rank:*No. 10*
During a weekend in which offensive play calling was often offensive, the Seahawks certainly delivered their fair share of head-scratching strategy to fans and viewers. Pete Carroll and staff stuck with the run ... and stuck with the run ... and when they were finally satisfied with sticking to the run ... stuck to the run some more. Seattle ran the football 24 times, which might not seem to be a gargantuan figure. That is, until you realize that was through their first 40 plays, which effectively took the football out of Russell Wilson's hands -- while playing right into the Cowboys' hands. Coming into the game, the scariest assignment for the Dallas defense was trying to contain a wild card in Wilson who could mitigate the Cowboys' aggressive pass rush by moving around and creating plays downfield. OC Brian Schottenheimer shortchanged the opportunities for Wilson to do just that. The Seahawks were uber-successful running the rock this season, no question. Yet, in Big D, 3.0 yards per carry and limited overall possessions (with both offenses burning clock, staying on the ground) left Seattle's magician with too little time to pull another playoff W out of a hat.
Previous rank:*No. 6*
The boo birds were out in Ravensville on Sunday, with Lamar Jackson (finally) looking like a rookie. This just in: Jackson is a rookie. The armchair head coaches came out to drink, too. So when it was obvious that the Chargers had adjusted defensively from the last meeting between these two teams, while Jackson and the Baltimore offense weren't able to do the same, a loud pining for the Ravens' former QB1 came about. Both sides of the call-for-Joe Flacco debate are valid, at least on some level: Those who decried the pleas, pointing out that Ravens fans have been less than enthused about Flacco for years, had a point. Then again, who cares about loyalty to Jackson and the future? Baltimore was getting its ass kicked out on that field, with precisely zero signs from the offense that the outcome was going to be favorable. In a win-or-go-home scenario, why not give the team every chance to win? Flacco isn't exactly Kyle Boller. He's a former Super Bowl MVP with a bucket full of wins on his resume. Say this, though: Jackson sure made things interesting in the end.
Previous rank:*No. 9*
Even the most supportive of Texans fans probably saw the end coming. The Colts have been hot for weeks, while Houston struggled over the last month, losing two of four (including one to Indy) while sleepwalking through a win over the Jets. With Lamar Miller not being himself, D'Onta Foreman having barely played this season and no complement available to help ease the burden on banged-up receiver DeAndre Hopkins, the offense was in poor shape to match up with a feisty Colts defense. That left Deshaun Watson to his own devices, including celebrating simple first downs. I agree with my colleague Steve Smith, who thought Watson's mini-celebrations were a little much for someone whose team was down 21-zip. Harsh? Maybe. Simple fix: Hand the ball to the ref, get the offense lined up and go make the score 21-14, 21-21 and so on.